Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Letter Writing Manuals

བོད་གཞུང་སྦྲཊ་གླ་- "Tibetan Government Postal Fee" -
green 4-tamka.stamp (1930's)

C learly today in the internet world where we find ourselves the last thing we imagine we need is a letter writing manual. Letter writing itself has suffered a serious setback (so often dismissed as ‘snail mail’), and the internet communications that take its place are so deficient in tact and taste, they most often do without even the minimal greeting line, without the least “How do you do?” Not even a “How yuh doin’?” Not even a “Howdeedo?” Lucky to find a “Hi!” let alone, “I do trust this letter will find you and yours in fine health and soaring spirits, enjoying the fresh cool December weather.” Instead we get fyi, fyeo, lol and lmao, for which we need a different kind of manual, a code manual.

In earlier days people took letter communication very seriously, treated it as an art with specific rules and standards that were supposed to be well understood by both sender and recipient. Letters could and often did bear a legal significance. It was important to do it right or not at all. That is why letter writing manuals were needed, and they were particularly needed when writing to an official (and perhaps needed even more when officials wrote to other officials). A pleasing calligraphic hand was a separate, related desideratum.

The list below is one of letter writing manuals. It includes neither individual letters nor collections of the same, although collections intended to serve as ‘exemplars’ are supposed to be included. I head the list with an anonymous medieval Gujarati example just for fun, so you’ll wonder why it’s there. I am aware of two Persian writings of this genre from the period of Mongolian dominance: The first is An Exploration of the Approaches to Letter-Writing by Bahā' al-Dīn Muḥammad Mu'ayyadal-Baghdādī, a work dated to around 1182 to 1184. The second was by the Ilkhan ruler Hulegu’s close adviser the famous astronomer Naṣīr al-Dīn Tūsī (1200-1273). By contrast, all Tibetan manuals known to me date from the last three hundred years, if they are datable at all.*
(*For more on the Persian manuals, and on letter writing conventions in general, look here.)

That information you just read about was included in a recent article about a Drigung Kagyu abbot’s letters to his political superiors, including the Mongol Khans Hulegu and Khubilai. Also found there is a listing of studies and translations of Tibetan letters.*
(*For that listing, see pp. 323-326 in J. Samten & D. Martin “Letters to the Khans: Six Tibetan Epistles of Togdugpa Addressed to the Mongol Rulers Hulegu and Khubilai, as well as to the Tibetan Lama Pagpa," contained in: Roberto Vitali, et al., eds., Trails of the Tibetan Tradition: Papers for Elliot Sperling, Amnye Machen Institute [Dharamshala 2014], pp. 297-332. To this list we must add an important publication that was neglected without any reason besides neglect, the work of Franz-Karl Ehrhard, A Buddhist Correspondence: The Letters of Lo-chen Bsod-nams rgya-mtsho (1424-1482), Lumbini International Research Institute [Lumbini 2002].)

This list was originally compiled without paying any attention to Hanna Schneider’s article "The Formation of the Tibetan Official Style of Administrative Correspondence (17th-19th Centuries).” Still, I recommend consulting Schneider’s work for more information about Tibetan letter writing, and especially the most relevant part for us today on p. 119, listing some authors of manuals who are not yet included in our list. These other authors are:

Sum-pa Mkhan-po Ye-shes-dpal-’byor (1704-1788), ’Jigs-med-gling-pa Rang-byung-rdo-rje (1729/30-1798), Dngul-chu Dharmabhadra (1772-1851?), and Mi-pham-rgya-mtsho (1846-1912).

I should go look through their collected works and give details for these manuals, also. Adding them all together, at this moment we know about 15 examples of Tibetan letter writing manuals. Oh, well, a Tibeto-logician’s work is never done. Why even pretend it is? Even so, know that you would not be remiss in letting us know if you know about something mistaken or missing. Meanwhile, fond wishes for a gloriously euphoric holy day season, with hopes to meet again in the coming year.

Truly yours,

     Ingo Strauch, Die Lekhapaddhati‑Lekhapañcasika: Briefe und Urkunden im mittelalterlichen Gujarat. Text, Übersetzung, Kommentair. Glossar (Sanskrit‑Deutsch‑Englisch), Dietrich Reimer Verlag (Berlin 2002).
    Pushpa Prasad, Lekhapaddhati: Documents of State and Everyday Life from Ancient and Medieval Gujarat, Oxford University Press (Oxford 2008).

     Zhu ’phrin yig sgrom rnam gzhag gser gyi rna rgyan. Contained in: Bzo rig kha shas kyi patra lag len ma and other Texts on the Minor Sciences of the Tibetan Scholastic Tradition, reproduced from works in Library of Burmiok Athing (Densapa), LTWA (Dharamsala 1981), pp. 181‑245. Author unidentified, but apparently a Tibetan writing under a Tibskrit version of his name. If the rectified Sanskrit is *Vajrālpa, then the Tibetan form of that could be *Rdo-rje-chung-ngu.

Bis-pa Ngag-dbang-mi-pham-zla-ba (1767‑1807)
—  Recognized as rebirth of Bis-pa Dge-bshes Shes-rab-bstan-’dzin. Dungkar Rinpoche’s dictionary, p. 1393.
   ’Phrin yig gi rnam gzhag dper brjod dang bcas pa padma dkar po’i ’phreng mdzes. Listed in Btsan-lha’s dictionary, p. 1055.

Dbal-mang II Dkon-mchog-rgyal-mtshan (1764‑1853)
—     Aka Dbal-mang Paṇḍi-ta.  For a brief biographical sketch, look here, at “Treasury of Lives” website. His collected works in 11 volumes were published in 1974.
     Yig bskur rnam bzhag nyung ngu rnam gsal.
—     For a copy, see TBRC.

’Jam-dbyangs-bzhad-pa I Ngag-dbang-brtson-’grus (1648‑1721/2)
     ’Phrin yig gi rnam par bzhag pa blo gsal rna rgyan sindhu wā ra’i ’phreng mdzes. A copy can be found at TBRC.

’Jam-dbyangs-mkhyen-brtse’i-dbang-po (1819/20‑1892)
     ’Phrin yig dper brjod utpal gzhon nu’i do shal, Kan su’u mi rigs dpe skrun khang (Xining 2003). Samples of letters.

     Yig bskur rnam gzhag me tog phreng ba (Chengdu 2006), in 354 pages.

Khe-smad Bsod-nams-dbang-’dus (b. 1901)
   Gnas dus dang mthun pa’i gzhung sger zhu ’phrin dang, skyabs tho, bsngo yig, mdza brtse’i sgor gsar bsnon bcas, Thopkung (Dharamsala 1967).

Kong-sprul Blo-gros-mtha’-yas (1813-1899)
     Yig bskur rnam bzhag nye mkhor brjod pa dbyangs can rgyud mangs.
—     A copy is included in his Collected Works published under the title Rgya chen bka’ mdzod, vol. 9, pp. 181-235. TBRC code W23723.
—     Raghu Vira catalog, "Tib.820," describes a complete 29-folio woodblock. Here the title is supplied in the form Yig bskur rnam bzhag nyi mkhor brjod pa dbyangs can rgyud mangs. But those two syllables are correctly spelled nyer mkhor. That’s the two-syllable form of the quadrisyllabic nye bar mkho ba, with ending -r at the end.

Nor-rgyas Nang-pa Dbang-’dus-tshe-ring
—     Shortened form: Nor-nang Dbang-’dus-tshe-ring. Our contemporary Dge-bshes Nor-nang is his grandson. See Geshe Nornang, “Kadrung Nornang’s Rules for Formal Tibetan Correspondence,” flyer for a talk, online at (December 12, 2009).
   Deb ther long ba’i dmigs bu. A manual for Lhasa officials.
   Yig bskur rnam gzhag nyer mkho smyug ’dzin dbang po’i yid gsos dpyid kyi pho nya’i glu dbyangs (1888). On official letter writing, with a collection of examples. For copies, see TBRC.

Smin-gling Lo-chen Dharma-shrī (1654‑1717/8)
   Yig bskur gyi rnam grangs. This has been published in a volume entitled ’Byung rtsis dang sdeb sbyor ’grel ba snyan ngag gi ’grel ba’i skor bcas, Bod ljongs bod yig dpe rnying dpe skrun khang (Lhasa 2013). It should also be possible to locate it in his collected works.

Tshe-ring-bsam-’grub (20th century)
   Gdan rabs lo rgyus (=Dpal ldan bde chen chos ’khor gling gi gdan rabs dang yig bskur gyi rnam gzhag). TBRC code W1KG16719.

§   §   §

PS:  I'll read the following book as soon as I possibly can: Carol Poster & Linda C. Mitchell, eds., Letter-Writing Manuals and Instruction from Antiquity to the Present, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia 2007). Meanwhile, I'll be sure to add to my Latin vocabulary the term Ars dictaminis.  Oh, and something I came to know of just now, thanks to a Schmoogle search, is this essay by Christina A. Kilby, entitled “The Past Lives of Tibetan Letters.”

PPS (Christmas 2016):  And another addition to the bibliography on Tibetan letter studies, one especially relevant to Tibet's claims for independence:  Ryosuke Kobayashi, The Lungshar Delegation and Britain in 1913: Focusing on the Letters of the 13th Dalai Lama, Inner Asia, vol. 18 (2016), pp. 288-308.

Horses of His Holiness (from the Dolan movie)


  1. Thanks for taking a moment to stand up for old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy style correspondence.

  2. The Short Person :)Tuesday, December 27, 2016

    To the Eminent Scholar and Administrator of this most unique, informative, and fascinating blog on the subject of things Tibetan, greetings.

    A time of gift-giving has come and gone; and now a time for new beginnings is almost here. Please accept this token of gratitude for all your efforts in the past and for your efforts I (and, surerly, others) eagerly await for the future. In truth, we, much less I alone, can never repay.

    Trusting that Ye Ole Man has already stuffed a goodie-good from his "interdependence bag" into your "interdependence stocking," I hope you and yours find much joy in the coming year.

    Best regards ..., always and sincerely,

    The Short Person :)


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