Friday, July 25, 2014

In Praise of Beer

We’ve mentioned Lama Pagpa (འཕགས་པ་) at least once in an earlier blog, on account of his successful lobbying effort with Qubilai Khan to end the culling (“weeding”) of the Chinese peasantry. Unwanted Chinese populations were gotten out of the way by hurling them into the river. Not once in all her long history has China ever deigned to say one simple Thank you for Pagpa’s compassionate intervention. Quite the contrary, since the Yüan dynasty they’ve been concocting and repeating the most derogatory stereotypes of the evil Tibetan monk.

In today’s blog, in an effort to lighten things up (or to reach a particular low point, depending on perspective), we translate — for what I believe is the very first time ever — Pagpa’s remarkable verses on the virtues of a good beer. I wonder about the circumstances of its writing, but to tell you the truth I have no idea. The Mongols originally drank a lot of kumis made by milking mares and fermenting their milk, but after going out into the wider world where still other alcoholic beverages were available, they found all of them to their liking.  One sign of their belief in variety was the famous drink fountain they had made for their drinking parties at the capital in the Mongol heartland along the Orkhon River, the city of Karakoram.  As you can see in the artist’s rendition, it had a trumpet-blowing angel at the top and four spouts for four different kinds of intoxicating brews. Some of the Mongol rulers probably drank themselves to death, and it may not be an exaggeration to say that if it weren’t for drink addiction they may have gone on to rule Eurasia far into the future. Again, depending on perspective, moderation may not always be all that much of a good thing.

However much our modern Mongolists may like to play down this aspect (sometimes you guys can be overprotective, admit it!), the Mongols in those days were famous for wiping out whole cities. Just look at what they did to Aleppo and Baghdad. Yet rather than slaughtering useful people, like goldsmiths in particular, they took them along with them and rewarded them handsomely for their impressive skills. One of these fortunate fellows was a Frenchman they picked up in Hungary by the name of Guillaume Boucher. I much admire and recommend a charming little book about him by Leonardo Olschki. I doubt anyone has bothered to put it up on the internet, so may I suggest you find a nice library in your neighborhood and sit down to read it? Well, at least consider it. They don’t write ’em like this anymore.

Some may doubt that a holy person like Pagpa ever advocated beer drinking. But I think the fact it is included in his collected works, his kambum (བཀའ་འབུམ་), is enough to recommend its authenticity, not quite enough to guarantee it (are there any absolute guarantees in this life?  I mean, besides death and taxes...).

I confess I tried to do something in the way of making Pagpa’s verses in English approach the poetic level of the original, allowing myself to soar ever so slightly above the deadly thud of literality, but no promises of success there. If you don’t like my rendering, feel free to give it a hand, but you’ll need to keep another hand free to pour the next round. I think you can handle it.

Flask of Ambrosia:  Verses in Praise of Beer

By 'Phags-pa (1235–1280 CE)

Homage to the Wrath King Swirling Nectar, Amtakuṇḍalin!

The essence of earth that sustains the lives of beings,
likewise the collections of flowers and fruits,
with the yeast starter prepared with varied tinctures and herbs
and the very stuff that serves as cleanser of beings, the pure water,

the vessels, required conditions, and varied recipes work together to
bring it to complete maturity over a good length of time
bringing out the pure essence of the pure essence.
These are its perfect causes and conditions.

It seems as if ornamented by strings of pearls,
but these strings are of bubbles shining like the sheerest crystal.
Seeing it is a glory for the eyes, 
hearing its bubbly chil-chil sound

a glory for the ears, with its fragrance
satisfying the organ that has the sense of smell,
its every taste both glory and pleasure for the tongue.
Depending if the weather is cold or hot, it brings on warmth

or coolness to our sense of touch, so we feel comfortable.
It is a sun for exorcising the dark tinges of suffering,
a moon that generates the coolness of happiness and contentment.
It is a wind that fans the flames of insight,

is the most glorious prod to eloquence for would-be speakers.
It generates vowed behavior in those entering into battle,
and increases the pleasure of those possessed by desire.
Yet this same drink, for minds desirous of peace,
endows its drinkers with holy meditative absorptions.

For these reasons this is offered as a drink.
It forms the very heart of wealth and leisure.
So it is a thing worthy to be offered,
and ought to be given to those worthy of the gift.

— Verses of praise to beer, Flask of Ambrosia.

༄༅།  །ཆང་ལ་བསྔགས་པ་བདུད་རྩིའི་བུམ་པ་བཞུགས།  །

༄༅།  །ཨོཾ་སྭསྟི་སིདྡྷཾ།









ཆང་ལ་བསྔགས་པའི་རབ་ཏུ་བྱེད་པ་བདུད་རྩིའི་བུམ་པ་ཞེས་བྱ་བ་ཨི་ཐི།།  །།

±    ±    ±

Reading matter for the beer-emboldened

For the basis of the text you see above, you can look here.  For a biography of the author, go to The Treasury of Lives, and to this particular page of it. I also recommend this PDF.

Leonard Olschki, Guillaume Boucher, a French Artist at the Court of the Khans, John Hopkins Press (Baltimore 1946). Much to be recommended, as is another book by the same author on a different subject called The Myth of Felt.  

Olschki's note on his Illustration 3:

“This picture shows the reconstruction of Mangu Khan's magic fountain as described by Friar William of Rubruck and engraved by an anonymous chalcographer for Pierre Bergeron's Voyages faits principalement en Asie, published at The Hague in 1735. The lively illustration faithfully reproduces all the details enumerated by the missionary and shows in its background a fantastic image of Mangu Khan sitting on his throne like a Buddha, but stretching out his right hand to the butler who carries the cup to him while another butler goes down the steps on the opposite side.”
Oh, and check out those humongous basins!

Sarolta Tatár, “The Iconography of the Karakoram Fountain,” available at, here. Boucher's silver tree if not fully automated was still a rather complicated contraption, its working involving some human participation. In classical Indic terms, that makes it a perfectly fine example of a yantra. (No matter how much head-scratching it may bring to machine historians.)

Bod-grong-pa, The Dispute between Tea and Chang (Ja-chang lha-mo'i bstan-bcos), translated by Alexander Fedotov & Sangye T. Naga, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (Dharamsala 1993). Translation of Ja'i lha mo shes rab sgrol ma dang chang gi lha mo bde ldan bdud rtsi gnyis kyi dbar kha shags 'thab pa'i bstan bcos — ཇའི་ལྷ་མོ་ཤེས་རབ་སྒྲོལ་མ་དང་ཆང་གི་ལྷ་མོ་བདེ་ལྡན་བདུད་རྩི་གཉིས་ཀྱི་དབར་ཁ་ཤགས་འཐབ་པའི་བསྟན་བཅོས.

John Ardussi, “Brewing and Drinking the Beer of Enlightenment,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 97, no. 2 (April - June 1977), pp. 115-124.

Ezra Dyer, “In Praise of Beer: A Heartfelt Paean to Humanity’s Greatest Achievement.”  Oh, my!  This popped up with a Schmoogle-search.    In prose, but not all that unpoetical.

Shen Weirong, “Magic Power, Sorcery and Evil Spirit: The Image of Tibetan Monks in Chinese Literature during the Yuan Dynasty,” contained in: Christoph Cüppers, ed., The Relation between Religion and State (chos srid zung 'brel) in Traditional Tibet, Lumbini International Research Institute (Lumbini 2004), pp. 189-227. If you read French, you might also try Isabella Charleux, “Les 'lamas' vus de Chine: fascination et répulsion,” Extrême-Orient Extrême-occident, vol. 24 (2002), pp. 133-151.

There are a number of Tibetan works on the evils of beer, including one attributed to Padampa Sangyé I thought I would write about sometime if I get the chance.

I noticed a title of something that is obviously a praise of a tasty beer in the catalogue of the Bodleian collection:  Zhim dngar chang gi yon tan phun sum tshogs  ཞིམ་དངར་ཆང་གི་ཡོན་ཏན་ཕུན་སུམ་ཚོགས་ —  Bodleian Catalogue, p. 85. That isn't a title, just words of the refrain of a short set of verses with 9 syllables to the line, like ours. I leave that for the writer of Bod Blog to blog on about. Cheers, Charles!

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An important postscript!  
— September 5, 2014

I can hardly believe my negligence in posting this blog without making any reference to Kurtis Schaeffer’s magnificent translation of verses in praise of beer by the great Dzogchen master Longchenpa (1308-1363). Go have a look at it ASAP, if you possibly can. Here are the details:  “A Drinking Song,” contained in:  Kurtis R. Schaeffer, et al., eds., Sources of Tibetan Tradition, Columbia University Press (NY 2013), pp. 474-478. From reading it in translation, I think I can say that Longchenpa must have read Pagpa’s. At the very least it’s true there are specific themes in common.

Another important postscript.
— October 22, 2014

Oh, well... things could be worse. Not only that, but I was laboring under the delusion that I was the first one to translate Lama Pagpa's Verses in Praise of Beer into English. That is, until another one arrived in the mail today. See “Vase of Ambrosia: An Exaltation of Beer,” contained in: Chogyal Phagpa, The Emperor’s Guru, tr. by Christopher Wilkinson, Sakya Kongma Series no. 5, Suvarna Bhasa (Concord 2014), pp. 19-20.  The series of translations from the early Sakya Masters' works is worth checking out (search for "Sakya Kongma Series" on the internet). I’ll let you be the judge, but I think the two translations are very different but very similar.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Couples Constantly Facing Off

Light side and Dark side of the mountain

modern གཏན་ཞལ་ > སྟངས་ཞལ་ > ancient སྟངས་དབྱལ་?

This བློག་ is for Dorji over at Philologia Tibetica. We share an incurable disorder known as Logophilia, among its symptoms an immediate and spontaneous impulse to do funny things with words.  For us, logos and Legos are cultural equivalents. Our best excuse for having this fun is, anyway, that words have always been doing funny things with themselves. Sometimes we can catch them in the act. Today I produce one of the smoking guns.

To start with, Tibetan language has a strong tendency to make pair compounds, in which two substantives are simply crammed together to make a new word (often dropping 2nd syllables altogether in the process). Sometimes this is just an “and” type of compound, sometimes a way of making abstract nouns. These are often contrasting pairs, forming what we might call antonym compounds. For example, the term hope-fear, or re-dogs (རེ་དོགས་) just comes out meaning everything on a scale ranging from the highest hopes to the darkest fears. We can fairly well translate a pair compound such as this with English anxiety, perhaps more accurately meaning levels of anxiety about what good or bad thing might happen in the future. But we could, and this is my point, simply translate it as hope[s] and fear[s]. Take your pick.

Something occurred to me while I was getting some expert help from PD ironing out problems in a very long translation I’ve been working on for what seems like forever now. This minor revelation was: That the modern Tibetan tongue has a word that has evolved in its spelling at certain stages in its history until we get the modern word gtan-zhal (གཏན་ཞལ་). Gtan-zhal is a word of very doubtful etymology even if the individual syllables may mean constant and face. It is nowadays a word for couple, used in relatively formal contexts in the meaning husband and wife. I suppose constant face makes some kind of sense, or could be made to make sense, in the sense that your partner could be a person who is constantly in your face about this or that, or something similar, which may ring true, even if that doesn’t necessarily make it the truth.

The real story is that the form gtan-zhal is preceded, in early times, by the spelling stangs-zhal (སྟངས་ཞལ་),* with this spelling found a number of times in the Pillar Testament, a history of imperial Tibet of the 7th century that seems to date from the 11th century more or less. Tradition tells that it was extracted from a pillar in the Jokhang in the mid-11th century.
(*I'm ignoring an entry for btang-dpyal [བཏང་དཔྱལ་] in Btsan-lha's dictionary, a word he finds in the biography of Pho-lha-nas, dated 1733, where it could be a conscious archaism.  We really must ignore it since it threatens the smooth flow of historic change we want to chart out here.)

The form stangs-zhal demonstrates continuity, it's our  “missing link.” Preceding it by centuries is the form stangs-dbyal, found in the most famous historical source of all the Old Tibetan documents in Dunhuang, the Old Tibetan Annals, in its entry for the year 710 CE, as well as in the inscription on the old bell at the temple of Samyé. Not only that, but perhaps this is the point I most want to stress: the literature of the Bon religion continued to use this term without a break for the last thousand years at the very least. (I could give some more examples of such words, but perhaps we'll leave it for now.)

We find ourselves in a peculiar situation here, since the word itself in a certain sense remained constant through time. Its pronunciation changed somewhat, probably due to dialect influences, and the pronunciation change had its effect on the spelling... Until it became virtually unrecognizable, both syllables re-spelled as if to thwart meaningful etymologies.

Old Tibetan has another very interesting pair compound, gdags-sribs (གདགས་སྲིབས་), which means the lighted and the shadowed sides of the mountain, very much like the ancient idea behind yin-yang in Chinese culture. The syllable srib[s] is related to a number of other Tibetan words with related meanings like sgrib-pa. Here it means shadowy (night) side of the mountain. The explanation of the syllable gdags is a little more obscure, since it usually means designation or labeling. I think it’s related to an Old Tibetan word for the sun, gdugs, preserved in the modern word for parasol.

Following Emel Esin, I would ask, If Bonpos are preserving this ancient proto-Tibeto-Sino-Turkic idea that seems to go back before the days of Buddhism in any of those countries, what other such truly pre-Buddhist archaic cultural features might they be preserving? A question for another day...

§   §   §

For the early Turkic concept of kararig and yaruk, see Emel Esin's book, A History of Pre-Islamic and Early-Islamic Turkish Culture, Ünal Matbaasi (Istanbul 1980), p. 97. Esin’s idea that this cosmological pair concept may go far back in history as a kind of areal phenomenon is believable, but of course questionable. It could belong to more recent times, the Turkic and Tibetan ideas reflecting one-way influence from the Sinosphere. This needs a lot of thought, especially since Stein has pointed out textual translations from Chinese where the Tibetan terms are used to translate the Chinese concept... meaning what? That the Tibetan term had no existence prior to the translation event? How can we know one way or the other?

For the discussions of these terms by Rolf Stein, see his Rolf Stein's Tibetica Antiqua with Additional Materials, tr. Arthur P. McKeown, Brill (Leiden 2010), pp. 21, 61, 63. Today I learned the words adret and ubac. For enlightenment, look here. Stein pointed out the two-time occurrence of the stangs-dbyal in a Nyingma scripture, the famous Guhyagarbha Tantra. Going over to RK&TS, I couldn't locate a single further scriptural occurrence in the entire Kanjur and Tanjur. If I had searched through the Bon scriptures (as if that were even possible) I could have come up with hundreds, even thousands.

I haven't discussed medical usages of the pair gdags-srib. To follow the dictionaries, in the examination room the physician is regarded as gdags, while the patient is srib; in pulse examinations, the upper part of the pulse-taking fingers used to diagnose problems in the five solid organs is gdags, while the lower side of the same fingers used to diagnose the six container organs is srib; in respiration the outward flowing breath is gdags while the inhalation is srib.

For the word stangs-dbyal in the inscription of the bell at Samyé, there is a remarkable discussion in Hugh E. Richardson, A Corpus of Early Tibetan Inscriptions, Royal Asiatic Society (London 1985), p. 35, and this the curious are encouraged to look up. Here Richardson even connects it to the modern term gtan-zhal. This virtually means I discovered nothing at all, and this entire blog has been a completely unnecessary sacrifice of digital ink. No, please, not again!?

§  §  §

Another thing (August 16, 2015)

It occurred to me today that Hebrew zug, meaning couple, and Tibetan zung, meaning pair, couple, are related. No scoffing just yet! The Sanskrit version of zung-'jug features in a remarkable early work by Herbert Guenther, called Yuganaddha: The Tantric Way of Life, first published in 1952. One Proto-Indo-European root is behind all these yug/zug words, and still others like yoga as well. This root is supposed to look something like *yeug. The Greek words zygon and zeugma belong to this group, and no doubt the Greek is the source of the Hebrew word zug (Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic have this borrowing as well). I know that in a Tibetanist conference back in 1995 there was a presentation by Michael L. Walter done in cooperation with Christopher I. Beckwith that provoked a lot of interest, from what I heard (I must’ve been in one of the parallel sessions at the time), entitled “Indo-European Elements in Tibetan Mythology.” Eventually, the two of them published “Some European Elements in Early Tibetan Literature,” contained in: Helmut Krasser, et al., eds., Tibetan Studies, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 1997), vol. 2, pp. 1037-1054. I just looked through this article again, and didn’t notice any mention of zung there. So I suppose it ought to be added to their list. Remember this the next time you need to con-jug-ate a verb while practicing your headstands.

— — —

For web resources on this, look here and here. This site says with evident innocence that there is “no evidence of borrowing from a non-Semitic source, although the term is post-Biblical.”

The famous etymological dictionary of Eric Partridge has an entry for “join” if you can get there. I'd be interested to find out how the forms in both Latin and Tibetan could have gained the nasal infix the way they did. Lithuanian seems to have gotten it, too.

Speaking of the Tibetan word for 'coupling,' zung-'jug, I'm extremely intrigued by an alternative Tibetan way of saying the same thing:  yel-'phyos (Jim Valby gives an alternative spelling yel-'chos). Any ideas? It makes me think it must be foreign. Turkic perhaps? Hmm.

Using TBRC's miraculous search function, I could come up with a couple of instances of actual usage (ignoring the lexicons for the time being), all of them in Nyingma tantras, and spelled without the final 's' — yel-'phyo. That alternative spelling yel-'cho[s] I didn't find there at all.
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