Friday, February 19, 2021

Alchi Padampa's Meaning: A New Light to Shine on it

I remember being perplexed over and over again by this particular painting of Padampa, not only because of its unusual iconography but perhaps even more by its placement. Not that there is the least dishonor in being depicted anywhere at all on an image of the Bodhisattva of insightful wisdom, philosophical acumen and learning. But down there practically between the ankles? He has enough Padampa characteristics there can be not much doubt it’s him. Notice the earring-enlarged earlobes, the white blanket loosely enshrouding his basically unclothed body, the intensely staring eyes, the meditation strap holding up his knees and his legs crossed at the ankles. All that says Padampa. Everything checks out. But his hands might tell a different story. He is holding what has been described as a stick in his left hand* and what could be a stem of a plant in his right. We’ll focus on the stick.
(*Linrothe, p. 366: “a long white stick that may well be intended to indicate a shinbone horn.” Ham’s book, p. 53, calls it a flute.)

This painting is located in the temple of Alchi in Ladakh, in a justly famous three-storey temple there called the Sumtsek, or Triple Stack. It has three quite tall standing Bodhisattva images, and Padampa is located in the “populated robes” of one of them, Manjushri. See how Padampa floats there alone at a lower level than all the Great Siddhas that inhabit the cloth above him. He is even further marked out by being a larger size than any of them are.

Years in the business of Tibetan Studies should have made me immune — you do get used to having previous ideas turned on their heads and inside out — but I was sorely unprepared for the double-dose of shock I felt when an email popped up in my mailbox from a friend thousands of miles away. The email from author and translator Sarah Harding was about a visionary practice belonging to the Shangpa Kagyü school of Tibetan Buddhism, one that involves envisioning Padampa. The practice is detailed in a text that preserves some of the earliest Shangpa teachings, one attributed to Sukhāsiddhī, woman disciple of Virūpa. In a manner reminiscent of better-known guruyoga practices, the Great Siddha Virūpa is seen as identical to Hevajra. He sends down blessings in the form of a string of seed syllables and divine nectar that are then channeled by means of a cane flute held by Padampa directly into the opening called the Brahma aperture at the top of the head of the visualizer. 

(*Bear in mind that both Virūpa and Sukhāsiddhī were among the fifty-four Indian gurus of Padampa; ten of those Indian gurus were women. You heard me right.)

A few comments: Obviously the visionary practice text is a lot more involved than this, and in fact it is all about those confidential teachings the Vajra Vehicle is famous for, more particularly Completion Stage practices resembling the better known “Six Yogas of Naropa.” If you want to know more, turn to a qualified professional, because my point is not to go into any of that right now. The thing that turned my mind around was the cane flute (sba’i gling-bu) he holds in his left hand. Some people of past and present do mistake the cane for the reed, both being swamp plants, but reeds are flat, while cane has rounded stems that can get large enough to make easily hollowed out tubes suitable for making flutes. I myself, as a child, once tried following a book’s directions for making a flute from cane I picked myself, but making it make the right notes turned out to be a little more difficult than I had anticipated. This was not my first or last failure. Wait, let’s go back to the points I wanted to make.

The episode of imaginative visualization suddenly made me see something in the Alchi Padampa I’d never seen before, so let me see if you see it too. Padampa is depicted as a conduit for the blessings of the group of Great Siddhas, a role he accomplishes by making use of the cane flute as a kind of blowgun to inject blessings into the internal energy system of the practitioner. But the receiving person doesn't need to be visualized or depicted in Alchi. He or she is right there on the spot, seeking blessings just the way worshippers often do when, for instance, they place their heads below the extended right foot of Târâ or walk underneath the bookshelves that hold the scriptural Volumes. This would appear to be one of those instances in which a highly esoteric practice of the Highest Yoga Tantras is at the same time a popular devotional practice. There is nothing low or demeaning about being a conduit for the blessings of the Great Siddhas, is there?

And for anyone who might still harbor doubts about Padampa’s exaltation, I would ask you to have a look at the illustrated robes of another giant Bodhisattva in the Sumtsek, the Avalokiteshvara (Ham’s book, p. 164), find out what you find in the exact same position between the Bodhisattva’s shins, and tell me if you don’t see a painting of an enshrined standing Shakyamuni Buddha. I think we have to find better ways to think about worshippers’ interactions with icons and how such considerations might determine their placement.

•  •  •

Readings and Viewings:

Chiara Bellini, “Some Other Pieces of the Puzzle: The Restoration of the Alchi Sumtsek (A lci gSum btsegs) by Tashi Namgyal (bKra shis rNam rgyal) and Other Considerations on the Stratification and Reinterpretation of the Paintings of this Temple,” Inner and Central Asian Art and Archaeology, vol. 2 (special issue: Judith A. Lerner and Annette L. Juliano, eds., New Research on Central Asian, Buddhist and Far Eastern Art and Archaeology, Brepols 2019), pp. 247-266. Thanks to A.H. for bringing this to my attention. Now I will have to read it. I tried to list the newest publications, on the assumption that they will contain references to earlier publications so I don’t need to include them here.

Peter van Ham with Amy Heller and Likir Monastery, Alchi, Treasure of the Himalayas: Ladakh's Buddhist Masterpiece, Hirmer (Munich 2018), especially plates on pp. 53, 248-249, 384.

There are a number of albums about Alchi published so far, and more are on the way. This one is more recent and available, and probably less pricey than the others. They all have magnificent photographs of the art. On p. 375 is a damaged but especially intriguing 2nd Alchi painting of Padampa, this one from the interior of a Chorten as part of an exclusive grouping of four icons. Two of them are unidentified Vajra Masters, the other local tradition identifies as Rinchen Zangpo and Naropa, and although the one is likely to be Jigten Gonpo, the other is most definitely Padampa. This Padampa is of interest because despite the damage it appears to depict the cane flute, and it also has in the right hand a very clear sprig of some herb, something not so visible in the Sumtsek portrait. I wish I had something to say about the botanical question and I haven't come to any conclusions of my own about the dates of the Alchi Padampa, but let’s say either late 12th or late 16th centuries. Ham's book suggests, as part of its discussion on p. 53, that the Padampa may have been added to a previously blank part of the painting during the 16th century renovation of the Sumtsek Temple.

Sarah Harding, Niguma, Lady of Illusion, Snow Lion (Ithaca 2010). 

If you want to know about the Shangpa Kagyü and its teachings, I send you to this. Niguma and Sukhāsiddhī were two outstanding women leaders at the very origins of the Shangpa lineage.

Amy Heller & Shawo Khacham, “Tibetan Inscriptions at Alchi, Part I: Towards a Reassessment of the Chronology,” contained in: G. Hazod & W. Shen, eds., Tibetan Genealogies: Studies in Memoriam of Guge Tsering Gyalpo (1961-2015), China Tibetology Publishing (Beijing 2018), pp. 535-552.

Rob Linrothe, “Group Portrait: Mahâsiddhas in the Alchi Sumtsek,” contained in: R. Linrothe & H. Sørensen, eds., Embodying Wisdom, Seminar for Buddhist Studies (Copenhagen 2001), pp. 191-206.

Although this article is all about the dhoti of Mañjushri, the very subject of this blog, there is no suggestion on the role Padampa might play in it. Its main value to my mind are in its well grounded and persuasive reflections on the needs of patrons, artists and the viewing Buddhist public, that would explain why the Great Siddhas are being portrayed as a whole group, why it is that so few of the Great Siddhas can be identified by their individual characteristics (maybe eight of them have identifiable iconographic features, and although cartouches were included so that names could be supplied, there is no trace of them ever being written). This author takes the people standing on the ground into account as few others have done, and my own thinking builds on it.

Rob Linrothe, “Padampa Sangye,” contained in: Rob Linrothe, ed., Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas, Rubin Museum of Art (New York 2006), pp. 364-367. 

On p. 364 is a superior print of the Alchi Sumtsek’s Padampa. Figure no. 10.9 in this volume is of special interest as it depicts what might well be a cane flute rather than a shinbone-flute (rkang-gling) as would be the common assumption based on Chö ideas about his iconography (for a closer view, see the enlarged detail of that painting on p. 108). 

Christian Luczanitz, “New Research on Alchi Monastery, Ladakh.” Posted on the YouTube channel of The Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford on February 8, 2021. 

I also recommend a visit to C.L.'s website. Go here and scroll down a bit before losing an afternoon or two just looking at the photographs of the most impressive works of art. There are pages devoted entirely to Alchi, but I have faith you will find them yourself if you really want to. Tibetanists will want to take special notice of the entire fragmentary text of the long patron's inscription in the Great Stupa.

Dan Martin, “Padampa Sangye: A History of Representation of a South Indian Siddha in Tibet,” contained in: Rob Linrothe, ed., Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas, Rubin Museum of Art (New York 2006), pp. 108-123. This has not a word about the flute.

Su-kha-siddhi’i Lo-rgyus / Rgya Gzhung / Gsang-sgrub Lte-ba Sprul ’Khor / Dbang-chog-rnams, contained in: Gdams-ngag Mdzod, vol. 12, pp. 279–96. Plus another brief text in the same volume: Sukha-siddhi’i Zhal-gdams-kyi Skor dang / Gzer Gsum Gdams-pa-rnams [Bde Gsal ’Od-’bar]. 

For the English we look forward to Sarah Harding’s translation. Here is the most relevant passage with its reference to the cane flute, clipped from the digital etext supplied by TBRC:

For some earlier Tibeto-logic blog entries about Padampa's iconography see these:

§  §  §

There have been very many new and enlightening publications related to Padampa and Zhijé tradition in recent months, so many I was contemplating a blog just on that subject, but right now I am pleased to inform you, assuming you haven’t heard, about a complete, first-ever translation of the volume on Zhijé from the Treasury of Precepts, or Gdams-ngag Mdzod done by Sarah Harding — 

Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Taye, compiler, Zhije, the Pacification of Suffering, from The Treasury of Precious Instructions: Essential Teachings of the Eight Practice Lineages of Tibet Volume 15, Snow Lion (Boulder 2019), a hardback book in 668 numbered pages. Sarah Harding is translating a volume of Shangpa Kagyü texts from the same collection.

Addition (March 6, 2021)

I inexplicably neglected to list an article that is precisely on the subject of this blog. I mean Rob Linrothe's “Strengthening the Roots: An Indian Yogi in Early Drigung Paintings of Ladakh and Zangskar,” Orientations (May 2007), pp. 65-71. Now I have to go find it and remind myself about what it says. Sorry about this. It does depict several other early Ladakhi representations I didn’t mention, and emphasizes that these largely correspond to the earlier Zhijé types of representations, and not the later Cutting type with damaru and thighbone.

I would particularly value reader interactions. Please be so kind as to place your commentary in the comments box and share your thoughts with everyone. I’m sometimes wrong and need to be told so, as we know.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Tibetan Histories: Newly Expanded


I’m sure some of you reading this already know about it. But in case you don’t I’m happy to report that those months of struggle at my keyboard during the 2nd shutdown last year have paid off. I managed to put together the new 2nd edition of the Tibetan Histories bibliography. BDRC (often called TBRC) has put it up on their site. This already happened before Christmas. Some friends have linked it on social media. The Word and PDF versions can be downloaded to your personal computer right now. It’s just the interactive ebook version that still needs some work before it can be made available. It cost me a lot to make it, but it won’t cost you one Pfennig.

I count myself fortunate to have so many good friends in the Tibeto-logical realm scattered around the world, the kind of friends always ready and eager to help a friend in need, responding to my emailed pleas. Over the years this bibliography has become a group effort, a collective project. And if it is to continue into the future as a viable and usable digital entity, it will require more help in coming years, so I thank you in advance.

If you want to read more about the history of the project, stretching way back into the 1980’s, try these earlier blogs about it:

If you are tired of waiting and would rather proceed directly to the book itself, download it at BDRC's website here:

I recommend to download both versions. The Word file you can use to add in your own notes (use a colored font!), while the PDF will serve as a record of what was in the original, so you can make reference to it. But if you do you may need to make note of the release date, since corrections and additions will keep on coming. Oh please, don’t give me that look. No cause for dismay. We all have faults that could use a little work.

I’ve done some house cleaning around the various websites I’ve set up over the years and eliminated practically all of the earlier versions of Tibetan Histories. They are as of now entirely replaced by this 2nd edition so no reason for them to be out there creating confusion.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Free Younghusband Secrets


In celebration of this season of holidays Tibeto-logic is passing on a gift, or spilling the beans, one or the other. We just want to tell you that if the Younghusband Expedition of 1904 is as interesting to you as it is to most Tibetanists, you are in luck. For a limited time only, for as long as the Kew offices are closed to the public in honor of the pandemic, you can get all of the already-digitized objects of the United Kingdom's Foreign Office archives in downloadable PDF format with a billing amount of £0.00.

All you have to do is register an email and password with their site, add the items you would like to your “basket,” and they will send the links to your email address so you can then save them one at a time on your own computer. If that sounds doable to you, go to this link to get started:

or better

The 12 most interesting files are all called “Affairs of Tibet,” so I’d recommend that as the first item to type into their search box.

But if you are going to do it, do it now. I understand from what I see on their site that they will end this free service when the reading rooms reopen, which could be any time soon. Then their usual fees will go back into effect.

Many human cultures celebrate festivals of light in around this time of year. Light is a metaphor for knowledge, whatever dissipates the shadows of ignorance and confusion. Here's wishing for more transparency and truth in government and media in the coming year 2021. No doubt it will be better than 2020, so let’s invite it in with heart-felt elbow bumps and socially distanced air kisses all around.

Reference, in case you were looking for some other kinds of secrets:

Dorji Wangchuk, “Secrecy in Buddhism,” contained in: Orna Almogi, ed., Birds as Ornithologists: Scholarship Between Faith and Reason, Intra- and Inter-disciplinary Perspectives, Indian and Tibetan Studies series no. 8, Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies, Universität Hamburg (Hamburg 2020), pp. 7-177. 

PS: Oh my goodness, with the new strain of the virus popping up in England and now all over the place, I guess those reading rooms won't be opening anytime soon, so this gains us some time. They allow you a month to download the items you ordered, so if you get your order in and get your inoculations you should be okay.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Who is that Drunken Man?


If you haven’t seen any “Curators’ Corner” videos yet, some of them are both amusing and informative, so I warmly recommend watching. One in particular made me think in a new way about a Tibetan article kept in the Jokhang that may illuminate its artistic background. I’m referring to a short presentation by the Western Curator of Roman Britain for the British Museum, specifically his video on the Tantalus Cup. The Tantalus Cup is an oddly made drinking vessel that, after being filled up to a certain point, suddenly and unexpectedly reverses course and drains all of its wine out on your lap. I do think you need to start at the beginning, but if you are in a hurry you can see the object that most interests us right now by moving about eight minutes into it. The even more interesting thing is the Mildenhall Bacchic Platter. It’s not the main point of the video, just a tangent taken when explaining the Tantalus Cup. This byway is our highway.

The drunken man in the Jokhang Jug, attributed to the early
7th-century era of Emperor Songtsen the Wise

If you are inclined, you might see as I did a strong typological similarity, regardless of other differences, with Emperor Songtsen the Wise’s beer jug, something we’ve talked about six years back. Have a look here. This wine jug, a kind of decanter with a bulbous bottom and a tall narrow top ending in a camel’s head, most people think to be in some way Sogdian. There’s a musician-dancer doing something like what is known as the Sogdian Whirl, no longer taught in dance classes anywhere, although you can see paintings of it in Dunhuang. There is something about the style of the artwork that says somewhere outside Tibet in Central Asia, at least, and likely Sogdian inspiration.  

But I believe the inspiration may go deeper than that. It had occurred, as I’m sure it did to everyone, that the depictions on the jug are somehow Dionysian in nature, about partying with wild abandon, but also about paying the price of excess imbibing. What hadn’t occurred to me is that the motif could have roots beyond Sogdia, even in the classical world of Greece and Rome. And we do find Dionysian scenes and depictions of Hercules in Gandharan Buddhist art.

Dionysian scene from Gandhara, in Tokyo National Museum

But just to let some of the enthusiasm for Greek origins die down a bit, I ought to say that if Hercules were intended, we ought to see his trademark club and lion-skin cloak either on his body or close by. And we don’t. And it could just as well, or even preferably — I am not the one to judge — be Silenus, seeing he is a plump and balding old man, without the physique we normally associate with Hercules. So at best we can justifiably imagine that prior artistic conceptions of Hercules losing the drinking contest (or Silenus ready to be loaded on his ass) could have influenced our Jokhang jug. Surely no Tibetan of centuries past would have thought to see Hercules in it, although they must have recognized the scene as one of drunkenness, it's a beer jug after all. Well, it is now used to dispensed blessed beer, the spigot being a late addition I suspect,  but it was probably originally used for wine.

For extra credit points, or just because you find it interesting, there are some places around the web you can visit, with pictures worth book-loads of words.

There is a well-known Paul Rubens painting called The Drunken Hercules, that you can see in several websites, including this one. It depicts him with two women on one side, his drinking buddy Silenus on the other, and a wine pitcher dangling empty from his left hand.

Compare this early 16th-century artwork by Raimondi. Here two young men are supporting the drunken man, identified in this case as Silenus, a Dionysian figure if there ever was one.

Sometimes he's shown taking a whiz, as drunken men often do, even in the most public of places.

Go have a look at this Gandharan example of a drunken Herakles supported by two people, in this case women.

The Mildenhall Bacchic Platter in the British Museum is what got this train of thought going.

Given the Jokhang jug has a camel head spout, I was wondering if camels might not have some Dionysian associations. Have a look here. And tell me if you don’t see what I’m seeing.

I asked Amy Heller what she thought about this blog several days before putting it up, and she said something she had seen before came to mind, an object that forms a subject for a paper I haven’t yet seen — Suzanne G. Valenstein with Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, “Hellenism in Sui-Tang Chang’an: Dionysiac Imagery on Mortuary Camels.”  You can see the object itself at the Met website: 

Go there to see the description and to supersize the photo 
as you must

So let’s see, as a conclusion... Are we right to see Hercules — the James Bond of his day, a man’s man who succeeded in every difficult or impossible task he ever undertook, the single exception being this one drinking contest — there on that Jokhang jug or not? The conclusion is nowhere better made than in your own mind. I suppose you’ve guessed that I, for one, think it is a possibility worth considering further.

§§§   §§§   §§§

There is more literature about Buddhist uses of Herakles and Asian adaptations of Bacchic/Dionysian art than you may think. To get started, have a look at one or another of these sterling essays:

Piu Brancaccio and Xinru Liu, “Dionysus and Drama in the Buddhist Art of Gandhara,” Journal of Global History, vol. 4 (2009), pp. 219-244. 

Martha L. Carter, “Dionysiac Aspects of Kushan Art,” Ars Orientalis, vol. 7 (1968), pp. 121-146. 

Martha L. Carter, “Dionysiac Festivals and Gandhâran Imagery,” contained in: Banquets d'Orient (=Res Orientales, vol. 4 [1992]), pp. 51-60.  

Martha L. Carter, “The Bacchants of Mathura: New Evidence of Dionysiac Yaksha Imagery from Kushan Mathura,” Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol. 69, no. 8 (1982), pp. 247-57.

F.B. Flood, “Herakles and the ‘Perpetual Acolyte’ of the Buddha: Some Observations on the Iconography of Vajrapani in Gandharan Art,” South Asian Studies, vol. 5 (1989), pp. 17-27.

Jonathan Homrighausen, “When Herakles Followed the Buddha: Power, Protection, and Patronage in Gandharan Art,’ The Silk Road, vol. 13 (2015), pp. 26-35. 

I-Tien Hsing, “Heracles in the East: The Diffusion and Transformation of His Image in the Arts of Central Asia, India, and Medieval China,” translated by William G. Crowell, Asia Major, 3rd series vol. 18, no. 2 (2005), pp. 1-52.

Richard Stoneman, The Greek Experience of India: From Alexander to the Indo-Greeks, Princeton University Press (Princeton 2019), chapter 3: “Herakles and Dionysus.” It has to seem to us a bit odd to see that the two Greek gods Alexander of Macedonia (356-323 BCE) is said to have noticed among the Indian gods were exactly these two. Many have tried to decide which Indian gods would have reminded him of them, but it’s just too difficult to be sure.


• With this blog I celebrate the electoral defeat of reality television celebrity Donald Trump and the intellectual dullness, parochial narrowness and the pretend/hypocritical religiosity he brought with him. I say this because I can say whatever I want to say here. It’s a free medium in a free zone, and it’s way past time for a party. Cheers to the failure of the teetotaler!

• • • During the U.S. election days when the votes were being counted, the only people who visited Tibeto-logic were spammers or wannabe spammers. I decided to be more diligent about weeding them out, but even so will try to avoid turning on those pesky spam-guards that so many detest so much with good reason. If you get an idea, please share it in the comments, the sooner the better. Comments and contributions are particularly welcomed if you are an actual person, with or without a clear identity.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

That’s Not the Shape of my Ark

Quite frankly I resent
people who give vent 
to their loquacity by extraneous bombastic circumlocution.

—Monty Python

I’m not suggesting there was a lot of talking around the point, let alone expressions of the egregiously self-aggrandizing types that would deserve the label of bombast, but not so many months ago I returned home thoroughly hungover after a stiff weeklong dose of academic papers, and thought to myself, ‘Never again.’ True, there were a few more bows to French brainiacs Foucault & Co. than has been usual in these gatherings in the past, but many of us were young and in Paris after all, so it ought to be excused just this once. It’s only that it was all so overwhelming for my more easily tired mind and body now that I’m supposed to be retired. A week was far too short to fit in so many papers of such sterling qualities. One mind is not enough to take it all in, and really, just one of those 600 papers was enough to touch off this foray into the realm of possible knowables.

Letter mysticism arises out of the needs of people who have life-long concentrated devotion to the written scriptures of their religion. It gets further compounded with the needs of exegetes, who after much labor and disputation find meaning in every jot and tittle. Their deep, wide-ranging and hyper-vigilant scriptural interpretation in itself becomes high art and extreme sport rolled into one. Sometimes we have to stand back and look on in awe.

So let’s eschew circumlocutions as well as bombast and other obscure words and get straight to the point I want to make, which is: The first letter of every Buddhist scripture is the e in the Sanskrit word evaThat means thus or just so. This connects in a remarkably direct and unexpected way with the letter e used in some ancient Mesopotamian sources. Read and observe and then if you feel so inclined, reflect.

‘Albatross!’ you might be thinking... Well, if so, fine with me. I’ll volunteer to wear it around my neck for the duration of this brief blogging voyage until I can bring you around. Well no, it’s no violation of my vow. That was not an obscure, let alone pedantic word to the Pythonists out there. I know who you are, and I know you know your way around an allusion.

It may not be sufficiently recognized by the world at large that Buddhism is a religion of the book every bit as as much as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One relatively minor difference is that Buddhists have a lot more books of the scriptural types that they can aim their devotion towards. If I could be so bold I would like to put forward my presuppositions, as a person who has spent his whole life thinking and acting in and among several religions (and not just studying them in school, although I did that, too). I assume that every religion with an esoteric dimension achieved it through deepened devotional practices and prayer. That goes especially for Islam and its Sufi schools, for Judaism and its Kabbalah, and for Mahâyâna Buddhism and its Vajrayâna.* Evolution out of Buddhism’s own inner fabrics explains much more about Vajrayâna than anything outside. For now let’s narrow down to something more manageable and agree to stay, more or less, within the bounds of two religions: Judaism and Buddhism.
(*I know I left off Christianity, Hinduism and Daoism, among other classical religions, but identifying a single discrete esoteric trend for each of these or for each of their sub-groupings is a little more problematic. I'd say for Hinduism, it would be some combination of yoga and Vedanta metaphysics [or tantra, if I can invoke that problem word], while for Christianity I'll go with the kind of spiritual alchemy often known as hermeticism and/or masonic temple mysticism and/or perhaps the grail traditions and related eucharistic mysteries. The unusual thing about Kabbalah and Vajrayâna is that they have, in some major sections of their religions, approached or achieved mainstream status. We could say that at least one of its aspects is flowing in every vein. Esoteric trends in other religions are more likely to be pushed and kept off center, in a side-stream at best. It might be argued we ought to talk about and include Christianity because it shares some of the same scriptures with Judaism. But I’m a little concerned about so-called “Christian kabbalah” that has for centuries used letter mysticism as a covert tool to undermine Judaism by, for instance, locating an encoded Jesus in the first words of the Tanakh, the very part that concern us here. A look at the internet in search of interpretations of the first words of Bereshit finds that English-language sites are almost entirely dominated by the idea that the first letters of Genesis somehow, through some form of gematria, justify Jesus as the Messiah. And these are not New Age or occultist sites, but oddly enough largely Evangelical Christian. By their own lights, they are the last people who ought to be dabbling in such mystic arts. It seems they believe that people must by all means be converted from their errors, even if it means making use of those errors... A kind of skilful means, if we are allowed to put a kinder spin on it.)

Read closely and with care this passage from the late 13th-century Long Deyu history:

The substance of Dharma in the sense of scriptural authority is like this. The natures of method and insight are symbolized by the two letters.[1] The word scriptural authority used here forms a member of the triad of scriptural authority, reasoning, and practical guidance. One scriptural authority, the Questions of Devendra Sūtra, says,  
The Dharma aggregates adding up
to eighty-four thousand correctly teach
that the universal basis, the parents,
cause, and substance as well,
are identical to the two letters, 
meaning the E and the Vaṃ.
The letter E serves as the mother,
while the Vaṃ serves as the father.
The bindu dot is known to mean the union of the two.
This union is such an amazing thing...[2]  
The E and the Vaṃ, the two together, are posited as the cause of the Dharma or, alternatively, its substance. In terms of reasoning, all visuals and audials have arisen through the paired nature of method and insight. Here, too, the vowels and consonants are the source of the 84,000 Dharma aggregates and so on, so it is reasonable that the substance of vowels and consonants would be identical to the Evaṃ. In terms of practical directions, there are two types of Evaṃ, the Evaṃ of sound being the one that is simply pronounced and the Evaṃ of form being the one that is written. The spoken sound is in Indian language evaṃ maya.[3] When translated into Tibetan it turns into ’di skad bdag gis. This comes at the head of all sūtras and tantras, and from it emerged their actual texts. 
In its written shape, the E is a triangle that stands for insight and void. It symbolizes the womb, the bhaga, of the mother. The Vaṃ is round. It corresponds to method and compassion, so it symbolizes the bulge of the vajra of the father. Just as seed or offspring emerge from the union of these two, all Dharma emerges from the union of method and insight. “The substance of Dharma is condensed in the two different letters.”[4] 
Now that we've heard this testimony on the scriptural grounding for Tibetan Buddhist letter mysticism, let’s agree to shift to another part of the world, and an age a few centuries short of 4,000 years ago. Written in the Semitic tongue of southern Iraq we know as Akkadian, is a small palm-sized tablet of clay with many lines of writing made up of wedge-shaped lines. It isn’t our only cuneiform source for the story of the world Flood best known to the world in the book of Genesis, the story of Noah. In the Ark Tablet, it isn’t Noah, but Atra-hasis in the role of main hero. And this, very likely our oldest source of the story, much older than Genesis, surprises us with new and unexpected information that the Ark was, by divine fiat, made on a round plan, a kind of very large coracle boat,* such as have been used in Iraq until modern times, made with woven reeds and pitch. That at least partially rectangular plan of the gopher-wood ark seen in millennia of European art has been so thoroughly engrained, we are practically unable to imagine it otherwise.

(*Tibet, too, used what we call coracle boats (in Tibetan, ko-gru), but with rounded rectangular shape and made with skin stretched over frames. So we see how that single English word can be used for very different kinds of boats. Finkel made a great video about a project carried out in India, in which a round ark was actually constructed to demonstrate its possibility. I’ll give you the link to it if I don't forget.)

Let’s get to the point I want to make. When the Mesopotamian pre-Noah was commanded by his god: “Destroy your house, build a boat!”* the word here used for house in Sumerian is “É,” while its equivalent word in Akkadian, showing its Semitic family connections, is bītam (Hebrew bayit, Arabic beit).

(*See Finkel's book, p. 107, for the context.)


So let me summarize this strange but true fact, a connection that, even if it may prove inexplicable, is yet undeniably there to be explained one way or another. A very ancient Mesopotamian word for house is e. The Hebrew Bible's creation account begins with ‘B’, the letter known by the name beth, which after all means ‘in’ and is interpreted by kabbalists as meaning bayit, or house. One may well wonder, and indeed there are many marvelous discussions, why the first letter of scripture and its creation account has to be the 2nd letter of the alphabet, rather than aleph, the first.

Hold that information in your mind as we leave the early Middle East (and North Africa and Andalusia) behind and head off to India. Here we see that the first syllable of practically all Buddhist scriptures is the letter e in evaThis letter comes to mean the place where an enlightened Teacher teaches Dharma, or to put it a different way it's the complete array of dharmas, all possible knowables, that gives the Enlightened One a suitably enlightened context. The and the va, the Place and the Teacher, is central to a lot of Vajrayâna meditation practices, and related physical-metaphysical speculations. (Place after all represents both environment and space, while Time is yet another of the five Perfect Unities — ཕུན་སུམ་ཚོགས་པ་ལྔ་)

It may not be surprising to find general resemblances between the so-designated ‘religions of the book,’ the Abrahamic religions, in their letter mysticisms. After all, they do grow out of the scriptural resources in part held in common. But to find such close correspondences between Genesis and Tibetan Buddhist exegesis around the meanings of the initial letter of their respective scriptures representing a dwelling place is something that is bound to continue to astound anyone paying attention. It’s there, deal with it. Go find you own ways to account for it. Something that makes sense to you. No reason to passively hope for somebody else’s ready-made answer, is there?

But allow me to throw some of my own thoughts out there in one final paragraph: The geometry of it — whether it’s a circle, or a triangle, or interlocking triangles — and the particular type of architecture — whether it's a boat, a house, a temple, or a divine palace mandala — isn’t really what matters.* The cultural uses of the ‘E’ and ‘B’ syllables have in common their references to the Place where both family resemblances and distinctive qualities emerge. It’s about the classifications we make and transmit in our cultural institutions and enshrine in our languages, the building blocks of what we think we know when we make use of our sensory abilities, abilities made or developed to suit our human needs and desires. If anything, it is logical-constructionist rationality that is the epiphenomenon here. I’m not just playing a game or performing an academic exercise based in current theoretical trends. The academy is full of dreadful social pressures, it’s true, but I have nothing to gain or lose, and say what I really think in the best way I know how. I say throw out the borrowed thoughts, or as the Sufi saying goes, Throw away all the books! That’s why I no longer regard myself as an academic. I hardly ever identified as one. I probably never was a traditionalist of the kind that seeks ready-made eternal truths, I was always too skeptical for that. I don’t know what I am anymore. Still, I might be a perennial-ist in one way or another. I’ll get back with you when I get a better sense of it, maybe after the shrill polemics have died down sometime in 2021. I might also be a snowflake or a social justice advocate. So what’s it to you if I am? Categories, categories... those constantly clashing and reactive categories!
(*It may be significant that some kind of structure capable of weathering the elements be put in place, so I wouldn’t say that the art of architecture isn’t implicated in all of this...)

[1] As we find clarified somewhat in the quote that follows, the two letters here are the syllables E and Vaṃ of the word Evaṃ that opens practically every Buddhist scriptural text. Some see them as not in themselves Buddha Word, but the words of the scripture reciters, the Dharmabhāṇaka, or Chos Smra-ba-po, who thereby guarantee the ultimate source of the words they had memorized. These opening syllables have been the subject of a very rich traditional vein of symbolic commentary, in part likely based on the shapes of the letters in an Indic script from older times when they actually appeared rather like two triangles, one pointing downward and the other upward (see Kölver). Placed one on top of the other they would then form what is commonly known as a Seal of Solomon, in Buddhist contexts known as the Dharma Origin. The two syllables are said to give birth to the Dharma and dharmas.

[2] Not to insist on this subtle point too strongly, but here we have the two polarities joining into a couple and not necessarily or explicitly becoming an androgyne in line with Platonic or Eliadeian conceptions. This Questions of Devendra (Devendraparipṛcchā Sūtra) is actually a tantra, as we ought to know from the content of the quotation itself. Although a larger passage that includes our quotation existed in Sanskrit, nothing seems to be known about the Sūtra’s current existence in that language, and it appears it was never translated into Tibetan. For a discussion on this point, see Wayman, Yoga of the Guhyasamāja, pp. 181-182, where the entire surviving passage from the scripture is supplied in Sanskrit and translated into English. Part of our quote has been translated, together with parallel ideas found in yet other tantras, in Dasgupta, Introduction to Tantric Buddhism, p. 110.

[3] Our text supplies no length marks here, but the correct reading ought to be mayā, meaning by me, although in some etymological speculations it is interpreted to mean māyā, or illusion.

[4] I believe this is a line from The Text, the lines of poetry to which the Deyu is a commentary. Its reading in the small Lde’u, p. 53, looks like this: ngo bo bsdud pas yi ge rnam pa gnyis.


• I must apologize for an anachronism here and there. Bear in mind that this blog was incubating in the drafts folder for over a year. Go ahead, if you can, and imagine anyone in the world going to a conference not skyped or zoomed here in the year 2020! I have to say, I had bigger hopes for this blog than what you see here. I have long loved and cherished the relative freedom of expression afforded by the blog genre. Blogs were originally meant to be personal weblogs, a kind of diary written up for friends and family. Be that as it may... everyone, myself included, curates their own truth by deciding what goes on display. And they do it on the basis of what they think other people, their potential readers, would like to see. Unfiltered honesty is a genuine challenge. Try it and you will know that it is true.


I’m not sure if this particular blog entry fulfills its promise, it doesn’t go far enough to communicate what I was aiming for, it doesn’t quite put the pieces together into a coherent picture, so it doesn’t show me in my best light. I put it out there anyway — nothing ventured nothing gained — thinking it could provoke one or two of my friends to reflect further and come up with more interesting and intellectually satisfying ideas. If that works, it’s enough, I suppose. And it’s alright if it’s not all right.


The frontispiece is a detail from an early 13th-century wall mosaic of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice. For more context, try this link

Simchat Torah and the Tibetan holiday of  Ongkor (འོང་སྐོར་) have more striking structural parallels that I may go into another time. They do similar things with scriptures at similarly harvest-related events in the autumn.

For the Bibliophage — Readings on Creation and Species Propagation in Religion, with Side Issues that May be Intertangled if Not Integral

Olaf Breidbach and Michael T. Ghiselin, “Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) on Noah's Ark: Baroque ’Intelligent Design’ Theory,” Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, 4th series vol. 57, no. 36 (2006), pp. 991-2001. You may be able to download a PDF at this URL.

Roelof van den Broek, “Sexuality and Sexual Symbolism in Hermetic and Gnostic Thought and Practice (Second-Fourth Centuries),” contained in: Wouter Hanegraaff & Jeffrey Kripal, eds., Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism, Brill (Leiden 2008), pp. 1-21.

Juan R.I. Cole, “The World as Text: Cosmologies of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i,” Studia Islamica, vol. 80 (1994), pp. 145-163.

Irving Finkel, The Ark before Noah: Decoding The Story of the Flood, Doubleday (New York 2014).

If you are short on reading time or can’t remember where you last saw your reading glasses, you can watch a big-screen video of Finkel's lecture on the same subject here that I can warmly recommend. His lectures are even ever so slightly more amusing and informative than his books.

Christian Frevel, “Semper aliquid haeret! The Accusation of Fornication and of Sexualized Cults as a Means of Demarcation in the Hebrew Bible,” contained in: Alexandra Cuffel, Ana Echevaria & Georgios T. Halkias, Religious Boundaries for Sex, Gender, and Corporeality, Routledge (London 2019), pp. 11-32.  Our opponents, or let’s just say our competitors, are people who engage in the most hideous perversions, or so we say... or so we want to imagine.

Minoru Hara, “Divine Procreation,” Indo-Iranian Journal, vol. 52 (2009), pp. 217-249. Some gods do no more than share a glance and are finished. Others might go so far as to hold hands...

Nathan Katz, “Buddhist-Jewish Relations throughout the Ages and in the Future,” Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies, no. 10 (Summer 2009), pp. 7-23.

Bernhard Kölver, “Das Symbol evam,” Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik, vols. 16-17 (1992), pp. 101-108. We may need to have it pointed out to us that the shapes of the letters ‘e’ and ‘va’ in Indic scripts have changed over time.

Anatoly Liberman, From Ship to Boat. Posted on October 5, 2011. Have you ever let your mind wander and wondered how English boat and Semitic words for house might both have to do with the Sanskrit root √bhed, to split or cleave in two? If that's too crazy for you to think about, just forget about it and find another spot to dock your houseboat.

Shaul Magid, “Conjugal Union, Mourning and Talmud Torah in R. Isaac Luria's Tikkun Hazot,” Daat: Journal of Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah, no. 36 (1996), pp. xvii-xlv.

Charles Mopsik, “Union and Unity in the Kabbala,” tr. from French by Sunthar Visuvalingam, contained in: Hananya Goodman, ed., Between Jerusalem and Benares, SUNY Press (Albany 1994), pp. 223-242.

Sergio La Porta and David Shulman, eds., The Poetics of Grammar and the Metaphysics of Sound and Sign, Brill (Leiden 2007).

Vanessa R. Sasson, Review of Emily Sigalow, American JewBu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change, Journal of Global Buddhism, vol. 21 (2020), pp. 93-95. I haven't read the book, but this brief review raises some interesting points. It considers not only why American liberal Judaism feels drawn toward Buddhism, but why Buddhism doesn’t evince much interest in Judaism. We might add that, odd as this may seem to some, there has been a clearly observable trend in the last decade to translate Chinese philo-Semitic literature into Tibetan, with several such books surfacing (I've collected a few of them, and can supply references if required), but it is important to note that the supposed ‘love’ is largely based on anti-Semitic stereotypes of the wealthy Jew. This racialist image is held up as model for financial success to be emulated. Even religious Judaism is only considered of interest as a site to uncover hidden secrets for obtaining wealth. That, unfortunately, is just about all Judaism is good for in the PRC these days. Well, that’s definitely the overrriding impression to be gained from those just-mentioned Tibetan translations of Chinese books.

Daniel Sperber, “On the AUM and the Tetragrammaton,” contained in: Ithamar Theodor & Yudit Kornberg Greenberg, eds., Dharma and Halacha: Comparative Studies in Hindu-Jewish Philosophy and Religion, Lexington Books (Lanham 2018), pp. 203-209. An interestingly different way of approaching comparative letter/phoneme mysticism.

Vesna A. Wallace, “Authenticating the Tradition through Linguistic Arguments,” contained in: Manel Herat, ed., Buddhism and Linguistics: Theory and Philosophy, Palgrave MacMillan (NY 2018), pp. 101-122, at p. 107, a passage in the original commentary on the Kâlacakra that I’ve summarized in these two equations:
E = mystery, lotus, source of phenomena, space element, the abode of sublime bliss, lion's throne, vulva, and secret.

VAM = sublime bliss, sublime attachment, the innate, the supreme imperishable, drop, reality, gnosis, and purified mind. 

F.A. Wilford, “Embryological Analogies in Empedocles' Cosmogony,” Phronesis, vol. 13, no. 2 (1968), pp. 108-118. Since Empedocles there have been no significant improvements in humanities theory. I said it and meant it.

Oded Yisraeli, “Honoring Father and Mother in Early Kabbalah: From Ethos to Mythos,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 99, no. 3 (Summer 2009), pp. 396-415.

Shlomo Zarchi, “Why the Torah Begins with a Bet instead of Aleph, and the One Time It Didn’t.” There are perfect passages in the Zohar that could help us here, but I don't have any easy reference to them, and they were left out of the Littmann Library version translated by David Goldstein, which is an anthology after all, and the only one in my library. The 12-volume Pritzker is the first ever complete translation.

Web sightings

At Ørigin of Alphabet (, you can find fascinating pages on how the triangle served in cuneiform as a written character meaning female. For our purposes I highly recommend this page, and this one. I guarantee you that 'v's and 'b's and triangles will take on new yet oddly familiar meanings. According to Jennifer, 
Female mammals are the basis of written language.”

Also, have a look at Beyond Babylonia ( and particularly at this page. It clarifies in delightful graphics how 'b' is the enclosed domestic space / house, while 'a' is the domesticated animal (the farmyard outside the house). The original shape of the 'a' was an ox with two horns, as you probably know.

Postscript (Oct. 14, 2020):

Although I knew of his 1989 article on the subject, just today I learned that Jonathan Silk is writing an entire book on the first words that appear in almost every Buddhist scripture. See his newly available article, “A Trust Rooted in Ignorance: Why Ānanda's Lack of Understanding Makes Him a Reliable Witness to the Buddha's Teachings,” contained in: At the Shores of the Sky: Asian Studies for Albert Hoffstädt, Brill (Leiden 2020). The entire volume is made available for open access at this link.

§  §  §

The Babylonian predecessor of Noah, as he is readying himself to be sealed inside the boat he made, speaks,
“As for me there was no word in my heart, and / xxx my heart / xxx my xxx / xxx of my xxx / xxx of my lips / xxx I slept with difficulty.”
—Irving Finkel, The Ark before Noah, p. 110.

§  §  §

When you speak every
vowel is an opening,
every consonant a closure,
my heart keeps a count
of each syllable as it beats,
my mind lets the sweet sound
fade into its own background,
and left open is only the
sky above us
in this house with no real doors.
There is nothing between us.

Life itself has a sound. 


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