Monday, December 07, 2015

An Archaic Book of the Dead

Have a closer look at this manuscript page before reading the following sentence. Click on the picture and see if you can enlarge it. What are you seeing there? What does it mean? The manuscript had been in the possession of a collector in New York City for decades before being released to the public just a few years ago. The miniatures are in an unfamiliar yet undeniably Tibetan artistic style, and the language inscribed beneath each miniature, while indubitably Tibetan, is quite odd from anybody’s perspective. With a lot of contemplation and some false starts you can begin to get an idea what's going on. You more or less have to attempt reading the illustrations and their text simultaneously to make both yield sense. The above example mentions three animals that [emerge] out of the precious jewel-like deer zone: first the stag with its antlers [the one on your right] with thorn-like horns (?), then the doe [on your left] with its eyelashes sticking up (?? perhaps a statement about its ability to escape like the wind?), and thirdly  the young of the species (the fawn depicted in the middle) with its vivid markings. It says if you load [the stag] it is quite strong, and if you milk [the doe] it is .... (?).  And it ends by saying, “I offer them as the best of wealthy possessions.”*
(*The construction with the word dam-pa occurring after a substantive that is in the genitive case is actually rather common and quite frequent, even, in canonical translations of scriptures. To give other examples, yon-gyi dam-pa means ‘the best of gifts’; sman-gyi dam-pa, ‘the best of medicines’. At Bibliotheca Polyglotta, I located three examples in which this construction X-gyi dam-pa occurs, and in all three cases it is used to translate a phrase that includes parama, one of several Sanskrit words that were translated into Tibetan with the word dam-pa. So, perhaps this means something, I just can’t tell you what right now.)
In very general terms, it is possible to surmise that the deceased beings must pass through at least two major zones (slungs) in the spirit world, and that these zones are very likely to impede their progress. But, by employing the ritual methods, they can be made to come to the assistance of the dead person who in this case is a woman (sman), perhaps even serve as guides. The two realms are the deer zone*  and the bird zone. And where does the afterlife adventure lead to?
(*mostly deer and antelopes, this zone includes goats, even badgers and marmots)  
If I’ve peaked your interest in this remarkable 1,000-year-old document, I can call it a day and spend my evening savouring the sweet sense of success. As your next step, I say locate John Bellezza’s book in a local academic library. Do it tomorrow morning. I would hate to think that anyone would need to go without supper more than once just because they couldn’t afford the high sticker price.* 
(*figuring in the international mailing cost, since your local bookstore will hardly be offering it, unless you  happen to live in Vienna. It looks like upward spiraling postage costs are going to kill book ordering, which is a big pity. Par for the course of the giant internet moghuls who rule over this kingdom of tiny blogs, I guess, if we're forced to do all our reading from screens.) 

John Vincent Bellezza, Death and Beyond in Ancient Tibet:  Archaic Concepts and Practices in a Thousand-Year-Old Illuminated Funerary Manuscript and Old Tibetan Funerary Documents of Gathang Bumpa and Dunhuang, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 2013), in 293 pages. I was sort of joking about the high price (seriously, these days it could be considered reasonably priced for a large-format paperback with a number of color illustrations). If you aren’t yet familiar with John B.’s blog, and his many publications, it’s about time you got acquainted by taking a look here. There is a fresh new story about him here that also offers an introduction to the subjects of his research.

Here is a rather useful table of contents of J.B.’s book.

Per Kvaerne’s review can be read here. There is another brief review by Alex McKay in Tibet Journal issue of 2013, that I haven’t managed to see yet.

It doesn’t make very much sense to get ourselves caught up in nugatory arguments about the correctness of my readings over anyone else’s when it is a text of this level of difficulty. Still, some others may derive entertainment from comparing J.B.’s translation on p. 58 of his book (hint: there are no earthshaking differences). He makes what I believe is a very likely valid identification of the specific type of deer depicted here when he says it appears to be the white-lipped deer, found particularly in eastern Tibet and neighboring parts of China. Also known as Thorold Deer, the male of the species looks like the drawing below, and its fawns are mottled or ‘spotted.’ I know the Tibetan artist didn’t bother to put any white around the lips, but this is one of those times I think it may be wise not to insist too much.

In case anyone needs it, here is a transcription of the text you see above (this will make it findable by both machines and living beings endowed with machines):

རིན་ཅེན་ཤ་སླུངས་ནེས་། ཤ་ཡུར་པོ་རུ་ཟེད་དང་། ཡུ་མོ་རྫི་བཤོར་མ། ཤེའུ་ཅུང་རིས་བཀྲ་བྱུང་། བཀལ་ན་ཚན་སྟོབས་ཆེ། བཞོའ་ན་བཅབས་པར་གཡེས་སོ་། དཀོར་ཡི་དམ་པར་འབུལ་ལོ་།།  །།

I’ve been working up some speculative ideas about the ideas of intermediating zones in the afterlife, but I guess I’ll go into that another time, specially since I’m not sure where they are taking me. In the meantime, have a pleasantly warm and safe, at the very least, or even better a happy time this holiday season!

PS:  Why the word archaic in the title? Well, in the first place no Buddha-like Teacher, whether of Chos or Bon, is even alluded to in this text. Certain elements can also be found in a few quite early Dunhuang texts as well as in funerary ('dur) literature of Bon, which helps to validate the age. The physical manuscript itself has been dated by carbon analysis to about one millennium ago, but may record traditional ideas about death and funerary rituals that are much, much older. It is difficult to be sure exactly how much older, it’s true, but we don’t have a lot  else to go by, apart from excavated burial goods like the gold masks that have been found recently, to find out what the earliest Tibetan funerary rituals were like. So let’s have a look at one of those gold masks.
A gilded golden mask from western Tibet (Sutlej River valley): notice the animal (with backward curling horns) and the birds seated on somewhat chorten-like structures.  Called the Chuthak (Chu-thags) mask, excavated in 2011, it has been estimated to be 2,000 years old
I first saw this mask in a conference in London a few years ago.* To point out what now to me seems quite obvious — just as in the illustrated funerary text we’ve been talking about, the band above the face of the mask depicts a deer zone with a bird zone above it... and very possibly a funerary structure of some kind. For more on this and other gold masks from Tibet and surrounding cultures, see especially the November 2013 issue of John Bellezza's Flight of the Khyung, with more photos, and the long footnote in his Death and Beyond, p. 157.  It might be the very thing mentioned in some Tibetan ritual texts** as gser-zhal (literally gold visage). None of the connections just made are my own; see J.B.'s relatively new book Dawn of Tibet, p. 158, for a very succinct statement (and here he seems to date this along with other known Eurasian examples of such masks to 500 BCE through 500 CE... This is more than archaic enough to satisfy the likes of me).
There is quite a lot, not just the goldenness but including, too, the high-placed closed ‘almond’ (coffee-bean?) eyes*** and resultant stretched out bridge of the nose, that resembles the well-known so-called Mask of Agememnon that dates to around 1500 BCE remarkably well.
(*In the slideshow that accompanied this paper by Mark Aldenderfer.) (**In the Mu-cho Khrom-'dur texts of Bon that could date from around a millennium ago, or even be as recent as the 19th century, there is a great deal of uncertainty here. In the context, the golden visage is said to be a 'support' (rten) for one of the consciousness principles of the deceased person, something called the thugs. On the meaning of thugs in early funerary contexts there has been a lot of discussion...  In modern Tibetan, it’s the respectful word for mind.)  (***In the case of the Greek mask, at least, it would appear to reflect an extremely ancient burial practice of replacing the eyes with seashells, particularly cowrie shells. This is known from truly ancient Natufian graves excavated in Jericho, ‘the world's oldest city,’ and otherwise the practice was surprisingly widespread. Something like this may explain the unusual shape of the eyes in the Tibetan face cover.)

Gold burial mask found by Heinrich Schliemann in Mycenae in 1876

How old is the Mu-cho Khrom-’dur ritual cycle?  Khrom-’dur is now usually translated something like Public Funerary Rites, and Mu-cho (Mu-cho-ldem-drug in full) is the name of the ancient sage associated with it.  He was a direct disciple of Lord Shenrab, which places him in hoary antiquity. But as Samten Karmay says in his most recent book,* this is a cycle rediscovered by Se-gnyan Zhig-po in far eastern part of Tibet known as Gyalrong. In this book Karmay doesn't seem to suggest any date for the tertön Se-gnyan. And I am able to do no better. Still, it is curious why his name doesn’t appear in any of the Bon histories before the 20th century to the best of my knowledge. His name doesn’t even appear in what might otherwise seem to be a very extensive listing of Bon texts done in the late 19th century (see YTKC), although we do find a listing of titles in a cycle there called Mu-cho Khrom-'dur Chen-po, found in a treasure site called Thog-thog Lhung-lhung Lha (ཐོག་ཐོག་ལྷུང་ལྷུང་ལྷ་) by someone called Sumpa Shen (སུམ་པ་གཤེན་).** There are clearly unsolved mysteries in all of this. Outside of the book by J.B., the most valuable discussion of the Public Funerary Rites is one by Namgyal Nyima found in section 82 of A Catalogue of the Bon Kanjur, which I warmly recommend to Tibeto-logicians everywhere. The colophon that was reproduced there is worth studying closely.***

(*Samten G. Karmay, A Bonpo Painting of Protector Deities, Vajra Books (Kathmandu 2015).  (**What it literally says is that Sumpa received it in the form of an object of paranormal power, a siddhi, if we may use the Indic term. Right now I know of no way of identifying this Sumpa Shen.) (***rgod bon thang yag sprul ba du mar 'gyed pa / dri 'dul gyi dbal bon ra ljags skye rgyal du sprul la / dri 'dur thams cad de la thug / ra ljags sprul ba grangs med kyi nang nas bon gyi bon po khyung pho dri byi'u'i skur sprul nas kong po rong stod du / gri gum gyi khroms 'dur 'tshogs dus byon nas / mu cho'i 'dur sgo ra ljags kyi 'dur sgo rnams ni / khyung pho dri byi'u 'am rgod sras phyad bu'i lung phog / thog thog lhung lha'i gter sgo phyes / dngos grub sum pa'i gshen gyis rnyed. Yet another very important source to consider is in a record of teachings received, with its 1929 account of the lineage of a Bon Dzogchen teaching: rdzogs chen mu med bdal pa'i rgyud chen mo'i le'u rtsis ni / mu med bdal pa'i gsal sgron le'u nyer gsum pa / mu [358] med bdal pa'i gzhung / sa bcad mu med bdal pa'i don gyi 'grel pa / man ngag gi rtsa ba / de'i 'grel pa / bar do 'pho ba'i gsol 'debs / sngon 'gro'i tshig / gsol 'debs / byung khungs de rnams kyi brgyud rim ni / ye nyid kun tu bzang pos rdzogs sku gshen lha 'od dkar la / des 'phrul gshen snang ldan / bzang za ring btsun / des 'chi med gtsug phud / des gsang ba 'dus pa / des stag la me 'bar / des yongs su dag pa / des rmang po dar phyang / des mi lus bsam legs / des ye shes snying po / des snang ba mdog can / des rgyal po mu khri btsad po / des ha ra ci par / des stag wer li wer / des a nu phrag thag / des sad ne ga'u / des tha mi thad ke / des zing pa mthu chen / des shad bu ra khug / [359] des sum pa dbu dkar / des glang chen mu wer / des spe bon thog 'phrul / des spe bon tog rtse / des stong rgyung mthu chen dang bla chen dran pa gnyis la bstan / de gnyis kyi / sha ri dbu chen lce tsha mkhar bu gyim tsha chung dang gsum la bstan / mkhas pa de gsum gyis bstan pa 'phel 'grib dus su rgya rong dbyug lha gyen la gter du sbas te / 'gro ba'i don du dar zhing rgyas pa'i smon lam btab pas / phyis dus la bab tshe se gnyan zhig pos spyan drangs nas g.yung drung rgyal mtshan la brgyud / bar du brgyud pa zab mo sbas pa'i tshul du song na'ang / slar yang mkhas pa legs tang gi rnam rol pa bstan gnyis gsang sngags gling pas spel nas g.yung drung tshul khrims dbang rgyal la brgyud /)
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And while we're on the subject of grave goods, have a look at this recent archaeological dig report from western Tibet:  New Discoveries at Gurugyam Cemetery and Chu vthag Cemetery in Ngari, Tibet.   
On bird-hybrid priest/psychopomp depictions surrounding tomb doors in China associated with Central Asians under influence of Zoroastrianism: Penelope Riboud, “Bird-Priests in Central Asian Tombs of 6th-Century China and Their Significance in the Funerary Realm,” Bulletin of the Asian Institute, vol. 21 (2007), pp. 1-24, plus plates at the end. 
And on the excavations of tombs in Dulan in the northeast, see for example this article by Amy Heller. Or, if those were not enough to keep you busy on a winter evening, look up these two recent articles, also by Amy:
Preliminary Remarks on Painted Coffin Panels from Tibetan Tombs. Contained in: Dotson, Iwao & Van Schaik, eds., Scribes, Texts & Rituals in Early Tibet & Dunhuang, Reichert (Wiesbaden 2013), pp. 11-24. 

Preliminary Remarks on the Archaeological Investigations of Dulan: 8th-9th Century Tibetan Tombs? Contained in: Xie Jisheng, Shen Weirong & Liao Yang, eds., Studies in Sino-Tibetan Buddhist Art: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Tibetan Archaeology and Art, Beijing, September 3-6, 2004, China Tibetology Publishing House (Beijing 2007?), pp. 57-76.

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Update (August 4, 2016): Toni Huber of Berlin, a Tibetologist and anthropologist working in the areas of Eastern Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh for years now, has found a new understanding of the manuscript that he presented in the Bergen seminar of the IATS not long ago. The title was “Slungs, Slungs-ma, Sha-slungs: Notes on the Cultural History of an Obscure Ritual Structure.” According to him, the rectos of the manuscript contains text of a sha-slungs ritual, intended for the safekeeping of new lives within the terrestrial wilderness, while the flipsides, the versos, have text on ste'u ritual, devoted to bringing new lives down to earth. For the syllable slungs (I not-very-confidently translated it as zone), he prefers to translate stronghold, or way-station. In his new reading, neither ritual text is exactly of a funerary nature, but might be described nevertheless as concerned with post-mortem rituals, rituals more about enhancing life and prosperity than about death. We eagerly await Toni’s upcoming articles and books and the discussion that is bound to ensue.


  1. Hoping that the Ole Fella pulled out a goodie good for you from the "interdependence bag," and that, on balance, all is well, The Short Person wishes you a joyous holiday and a Happy New Year.

  2. Thanks, Short. Human happiness isn't just infectious, it's interdependent, in my view. True to your hopes, I did get a few nice shirts. They didn't fall down from the sky, or get picked off a tree, but they are still really nice. Yours D

  3. A new blog from Flight of the Garuda appears on the January 1, 2016, and it's all about burial goods in Spiti. Have a look:

  4. I knew the Hermitage Museum had a famous ewer with a depiction on its side of a camel with wings, but I hadn't heard that camels once had antlers until I read Daniel Berounsky's article "A Dialogue between the Priest and the Deer," contained in: Charles Ramble & Hanna Havnevik, eds., From Bhakti to Bon: Festschrift for Per Kvaerne, The Institute for Comparative Human Culture, Novus Forlag (Oslo 2015), pp. 97-112. D.B. cites some other literature that has to do with the psychopomp deer, in case anyone is interested.


  6. Dear RR, Thanks for informing me. I think the problem is fixed now. Let me know if my effort was unsuccessful. Yours, D


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