Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Conch Inscription, Then & Now


I suppose my big interest in conch inscriptions owes a lot to a letter of inquiry passed on to me back in 1984. It was from a person otherwise unknown to me named Carl Szego who at that time lived in Millburn, New Jersey.* These sorts of letters, dozens of them, ended up with me just because I was by then in my 11th year of Tibetan study and also did volunteer work for the Tibet Society. In an effort to embarrass myself and jeopardize what little reputation might remain after my major gaffe a few blogs back, I decided to do the little “comedy of errors” piece you see here. I imagined myself to be advanced in my Tibetan reading skills back in those days, so hold on to your seats and prepare yourselves for some contrary evidence. 

Here I will type in my handwritten response to Mr. Szego, the owner of the conch:


Dear Mr. Szego: 

Prof. B. handed your letter over to me. The reading is difficult but approximately as follows —

A  —  དུང་ནི་ཆོས་ཀྱི་སྒྲ་ཡིན་པས་སྒྲོགས་པའི་ཚལ།། ཡེ་ཤེས་ཆ་མཚོ་འདི་རུ་ངག་གྱུར་ཏེ། ཆོས་རྣམས་ལ་ནོད་དེས་ངོས་[དོས་དོས་?]སུ་སྟོན་པ།  བཀྲ་ཤིས་ངེས་ཀྱང་ཆོས་པ་ཡང་ཐོབ་པ་ཤོག 
B  —  ཅེས་པ་དེ་ནི་སྦྲོ་བོ་[?]དཔོན་སློབས་དགེ་[?]དགེ་སློང་ངག་དབང་སང་ན་ཛི་རོ་ནས་ལྔ་པ་ཚེ་དབང་འབུལ་བ་འཕེལ།།    
Assuming many misspelled and semi-legible words, I interpret as follows —
A  —  “The Conch is the sound of Dharma, so it has the special power of ‘broadcasting.’ The ocean of Total Knowledge is Transmuted into sounds (words) in this. While the good fortune [of meeting] a teacher for a little instruction in the Dharma is inevitable, may the Buddhist as well obtain good fortune.”

And then the final dedication: 
B  —  “This is an offering from Spre-bo Teacher Monk Ngag-dbang-sang-na-dzi-ro to Snga-pa (=Sngags-pa?) Tshe-dbang.”

Based on the names,* I am thinking it comes from the easternmost Tibetan areas. If not, I am completely at loss what origin it may have had. Please let me know if I may be of more assistance. And if you feel the information worthwhile, a donation (and membership!) to the Tibet Society would be greatly appreciated. 

Sincerely, D.


(*An added note from 2017 — I think I was thinking this:  Snga-pa or Lnga-pa is perhaps Nga-pa in northern Szechuan? Or is it supposed to be Sngags-pa, or Mantrin?)


Well, where shall we start? First and most importantly for the point I wish to make, Tibetan Studies has gone through a major revolution, along with many other fields of study, on account of the digitization of a huge body of Tibetan texts. We can do things we could hardly hope to do before. Unlike the mid-80’s of the last century, students today can simply feed in a correctly spelled phrase and in this way locate the entire passage, allowing them to fix with ease the odd readings in the text they have on hand. Texts inscribed on metal are especially liable to be riddled with these oddities, given that the artists are not necessarily even literate, and likely to copy more-or-less what they see before their eyes. So let’s try this 21st-century experiment, and see just how rapidly we can search the million-page dataset of the TBRC for the words “dung ni chos kyi sgra.” After a few milliseconds, the first thing to pop up among the 41 “hits” is a consecration text from the Sakya Kambum:

དུང་ནི་ཆོས་ཀྱི་སྒྲ ་རྣམས་སྒྲོགས་པའི་ཚུལ། །
ཡེ་ཤེས་རྒྱ་མཚོ་ཉིད་དུ་དག་གྱུར་ཏེ། །
ཆོས་རྣམས་མ་ནོར་ཡོངས་སུ་སྟོན་པ་ཡི། །
བཀྲ་ཤིས་དེས་ཀྱང་ཚིག་དབང་ཐོབ་པར་ཤོག


“The conch in its way of broadcasting the sounds of Dharma  
has purified into the very ocean of Full Knowledge. 
In its fully indicating with no mistakes the dharmas,  
through this auspiciousness may we obtain mastery of the word.”



Well, I thought that was a nice try, but having a look at Yael Bentor's book, I see on p. 345 what seems to be a better translation:  

“The conch which is the means for proclaiming the sound of the Dharma, purifies into the ocean of enlightened wisdom itself, and expounds the Dharma without mistake. May this auspicious substance also attain the power of speech (for us).”

I’d like to say I’ve solved the riddle of who offered this conch to whom, but I still can’t. The donor’s statement isn’t clear enough, and I don't find any parallels for it right away. Let me know if anything occurs to you.


“The white conch that coils to the right symbolizes the deep, far-reaching and melodious sound of the Dharma teachings that, being appropriate to different natures, predispositions and aspirations of disciples, awakens them from the deep slumber of ignorance and urges them to accomplish their own and others’ welfare.”


§   §   §   §   §


Sources for consultation and consolation:


Yael Bentor, Consecration of Images & Stûpas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, E.J. Brill (Leiden 1996).  
Have some fun and try putting those same words “dung ni chos kyi sgra rnams” into the Google search-box, and one single result appears:  The Italian translation of Dagyab Rinpoche's wellknown popular study on Tibetan artistic symbolism (he wrote a more technical one in German). Try looking here.
Taking this clue from the Italian, I pulled my English version down off the shelf — Buddhist Symbols in Tibetan Culture, Wisdom (Boston 1995), tr. from German by Maurice Walshe, p. 62:  
“...the ruler of the gods, Indra...a right-turning conch shell...   Just as the conch proclaims the sound of the Dharma, one will become pure in the wisdom ocean and proclaim the Dharma without error and completely. Through this good fortune, may eloquence also be obtained.”
Dagyab Rinpoche identifies the ultimate source of this as Ratnaśīla’s Rdo-rje-rnam-par-'joms-pa zhes bya-ba'i [Gzungs] Dkyil-'khor-gyi Lag-len Go-rims Ji-lta-ba.  In what could possibly be the original Sanskrit title, this is: Vajravidāraṇa nāma Dhāraṇī-maṇḍala-prakriyā-yathā-krama.

Here’s another conch inscription drawn from Tibet. Klöster öffnen ihre Schatzkammern, Kulturstiftung Ruhr Essen (Villa Hügel 2006), p. 533:  Inscription on the ‘sleeve’ of a rare right-turning (clockwise spiraling outward) conch shell trumpet.  Transcribed in note 54 on p. 617:



rnam par rgyal ba'i phan bde legs bshad gling pa'i chos dung phun tshogs g.yas 'khyil 'di'i gshog pa gsar bzo'i rgyu rgyal dbang mchog gi sku gzhogs nas phra'i g.yu sbyang gnyis / de las chung chung tsam gnyis / de 'og che chung 'dres ma bco brgyad / chung ba lnga brgya dang dgu bcu thams cad rnams bka' drin bskyangs / mchod dpon blo bzang mthu stobs dang dbu mdzad blo bzang yon tan gnyis kyis gser zho lnga brgya thams pa / grwa tshang spyi so nas dngul srang nyi shu phyed rtsa drug bton pa'i / do dam gnyer pa dge bshes blo bzang sbyin pa dang dge bshes ngag dbang 'phrin las / bzo bo bal po brdung pa dha lam / bkra shis mgon po / 'phul pa shi nyi / dza shing / .da ki .ta / phra pa la na mu ne rnams kyis bgyis te / phur bu zhes pa sa pho spre'u'i lo hor zla bcu gcig pa'i tshes dge bar legs par grub pa sarba mangga lam //.




The authors of this section, Andreas Kretschmar and Geshe Pema Tsering, guess the date of this conch to be ca. 18th century. Even though an Earth Monkey date for making the gold and turquoise sleeve of the conch is given, it is often difficult in such cases to decide which Earth Monkey year that would be.* 

(*Still, I’m thinking it could date even earlier, to the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama. Although it needs a little more study to be sure of it, two of the persons mentioned as donors on the conch sleeve [I’ve highlighted their names in yellow] are also mentioned here** as donors of a copper pot for the use of Namgyal Dratsang. Namgyal Dratsang's lengthier name is given at the beginning of the conch inscription as “rnam par rgyal ba'i phan bde legs bshad gling.”  If this works, then the date of the sleeve works out to 1668 CE.)
(**The link should lead you to a minor piece in the collected works of the Fifth Dalai Lama. When you get there, notice the two names Mchod-dpon Blo-bzang-mthu-stobs and Dbu-mdzad Blo-bzang-yon-tan. These names are key to the  revised dating.)

§   §   §


Postscript on Zhangzhung (ZZ) in a conch inscription:

Once I wrote up a bit on a conch inscription that contains surprising Zhangzhung-language elements in it. This inscription was published by Giuseppe Tucci after he found it in a Sakya Monastery. I put up something about it several years ago in a Bon Studies group on Ning, so I will have to see if I can go there and rediscover it. For me, conch inscriptions are just as interesting as those found on bells. Both bells and conches are clear symbols of the Word of the Buddha, which has always been an inspiration to me personally.


Well, since I managed to locate it I thought I may as well post it here. The Ning posting follows (note that here "ZZ" stands for Zhang-zhung).

Source:  Giuseppe Tucci, Tibetan Painted Scrolls.

On pp. 677, 763, is an inscription, quite a difficult one (as anyway inscriptions tend to be), on a conch shell which begins:  un hing 'dza leng.  These are quite apparently ZZ words, including the ZZ word for conch, which is un.  

This conch shell was kept at Spos-khang, although it doesn't look like Tucci ever made it explicit that this is the same Spos-khang silver conch casing he illustrates in his fig. 82 (see ibid., pp. 202-3).  It's really a magnificent work of metal casting, masterfully done, with dragon, horse, lion & deities included, although I don't see a place for an inscription (perhaps on the back of the sleeve, or 'inside' where the conch itself ought to be, but isn't).

Here's a Romanization of the Tibetan script inscription  (I must emphasize that the script is not Zhangzhung, since people do get confused on this point) as given by Tucci:

un hing 'dza leng rin chen kun krag 'di chu' cin kyi thog la pun mo tsha lha 'gar rgyal mtshan 'i lag rjes na bkris.



No wonder Tucci couldn't make much of what it says, although in his footnote he at least rightly identifies the lha-'gar as an alternative spelling for lha-mgar, or divine smith.  Of course Gyaltsen (Rgyal-mtshan) is the name of this divine smith (or rather, smith who makes divine images) who is further described as a nephew (or grandson) of some "pun-mo," whatever that means (Tucci wants to correct pun mo tsha to read dpon-mo-che, or great chieftainess).

The first four syllables are most definitely Zhangzhung.  I'm also sure of one thing, that the syllable un means conch (not that it's all that simple, since it may also mean dragon or the dragon's sound, which is thunder... just see Haarh's Zhangzhung dictionary).  There are plenty of examples of this. 

It's possible that un hing would be the same as un ting (there is a graphic similarity, especially in cursive script).  Hummel (on what basis I don't know) has defined Zhangzhung un ting as equivalent to Tibetan sgra-dbyangs, or melody.  However, analyzing the two syllables it's likely to mean conch and water, which could mean water-conch I suppose.  "Water-dragon" wouldn't be impossible, I also wonder...

The syllable leng does exist in ZZ, corresponding to Tibetan gling, or island, so perhaps the 'dza is after all just a Zhangzhung-like form for Tibetan 'dzam, and the two syllables together mean Jambu Island?  That means the whole world, or at least the Indian subcontinent.  That's my best guess at the moment.

I'm also thinking that the first four syllables are in Zhangzhung simply because this is the 'personal' name of the conch itself.   Particularly remarkable implements like this one have often gotten personal names (recall King Arthur's sword Excalibur).  This conch already had a name before the artist inscribed it on this conch cover (or conch holder/handle as you prefer).  And that name is a Zhangzhung name.

The next four syllables just mean with all kinds of variegated jewels (you can see the settings for precious stones in the photograph)...

(November 13, 2009 communication with Zhangzhung Studies Forum, by now perhaps no longer in existence, belonging to the Ning Network.)

§ § §

Note: I wish I did, but I don't possess any material copy of Patricia Berger's Empire of Emptiness, pp. 185-186, but I did locate fascinating paragraphs on the Panchen Lama's conch shell there, together with a photo:





Okay, just one more comment and I’ll be quiet. When I visited Sakya Monastery several years ago, I was impressed by a practice of having a monk sound a conch shell in memory of a deceased relative, so I made a small offering and pronounced the name of my grandfather who had died not long before. Mention of this conch is found in Sarat Chandra Das, Journey to Lhasa & Central Tibet, p. 242. I can’t really be sure, since it hardly seems believable, but they said that the conch being used was the same one given in offering to Phagspa Lama by Kublai Khan back in the 13th century. The only published depiction of that famous conch that I know about is in Precious Deposits, vol. 3, p, 11. Das said the minimum donation for having it played was seven ounces of silver. My offering was much less, and while there is no way to be sure the sound of it reached my grandfather in the bardo, I know it did have a strong effect on my heart.



1 comment:

  1. I've always had the idea to look further into that famous conch shell in Sakya Monastery. The fullest account of it I know about is one in a 1629 Sakya History: ’Jam-mgon A-myes-zhabs Ngag-dbang-kun-dga’-bsod-nams (1597-1662), Sa-skya Gdung-rabs Chen-mo, published by Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang (Beijing 1986), pp. 155-158, in case some aspiring Tibeto-logician might feel inspired to work on it.

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