Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Naga Queen Cosmogenesis

A gracefully uplifting Nâga figure extracted from the famous tomb-chortens of Densatil
HAR 32071, from a private collection

out of the becoming that was not-at-all-becoming...

out of the duration that was in the nature of a void...

a void space came.

As even the tiniest part of the becoming that would emerge

had not yet become, there is no way to say

that anything existed or did not exist.

From the space of moist bliss

something like a rainbow came.

And that something like a rainbow,

in order to be pleasing to look at took on color.

Something that could not be an object of perception came.

But still, that something was as-if an external object.

Out of the shining colors, a vital essence came.

Out of the vital essence, something the size of a sesame came.

That sesame-sized something broke itself open

and from the vital essence it contained came

a pregnant woman with a full belly.

From the full belly of that pregnant woman

was born one with thick limbs.

One with a mouth uttering various sounds was born.

One whose body completely embraced miracles of Great Compassion,

whose mind embraced the universe comprised of a thousand universes each

comprised of a thousand universes was born.

To her a name was given,

in Zhangzhung language Sangkaraste Kutukhyab.

In Sumpa language, Molgazhi Kunkhyab.

In Tibetan, the Naga-queen-who-gave-order-to-becoming.

From the vapor issuing from the top of her head

the turquoise blue sky became.

From the vapor, becoming took shape.

But while it could be seen it was not an external object

and there was no thing whatsoever that was not covered by that sky.

In Zhangzhung language it was called Tongpa Kuntukheb, Void-covering-everything.

In Sumpa language, Khebdal.

In Tibetan and the language of Eternal Bon, Nam meaning ‘sky.’


It continues with sun and moon, planets and so on all emerging from parts of her body.

I've always loved cosmogonical accounts of every kind, and this appreciation in no way depends on believing them in theientirety or not. You can think about this what you want, I just point out that modern physics professors were not the first ones to think they might try to comprehend the time-space singularity that came before anything did. And this despite the impossibility. Notice, as well, that this Bon cosmogony recognizes the mind-boggling multiplicity of worlds. And do I even need to point out to a careful reader such as yourself that the primordial evolution of everything was entirely due to a female who gave of Herself to make our world what it is

This female Nâga cosmogenesis may be regarded as an example of a ‘dismemberment’ cosmogony, a typological category developed by moderns.* It may lend an impression of primitivity and sacrifice, but it also sets up a sophisticated set of macrocosm-microcosm correspondences such as might be found for example in the Body Mandala of Vajra Vehicle Buddhism, a model of consummate insight backed by considerable theoretical sophistication.

(*Other commonly mentioned types are the emergence, earth-diver, egg and ex nihilo cosmogonies. These were identified by comparative folklorists of the last century or two. They are not set in stone, and often elements of one are found in another.)

I thought I would type out the Tibetan text for those who might find use for it, but I couldn’t get very far into it before irritating malfunctions got in my way (these seem to be happening more and more as time goes by), so I guess I'll link you to a scanned version of it instead:

གཙང་མ་ཀླུ་འབུམ་ཆེན་མོ། ཀླུ་འབུམ་ཁྲ་བོ།







རླན་བདེ་བའི་ངང་ལས། འཇའ་ཚོན་འདྲ་བ་ཅིག་... ... ...

One curious thing, the Sumpa and Zhangzhung language terms are actually supplied here in Tibetan language forms. It’s as if they were translated for the benefit of Tibetan speakers, with the original foreign-language terms omitted. In Chinese, the Sumpa were called Supi (Supiya) and were regarded as Qiang people, a very vague and not very illuminating category. The nature of the Sumpa language in those days seems to be unknown even if most likely Tibeto-Burman. In fact Sumpa is mentioned a lot more than is normal in Bon texts, and one suspects therefore that the Klu-'bum, regarded as one of the earliest excavated treasure texts of Bon sometime around 900 CE, may have emerged in the northeastern part of the Plateau. But the tradition is that its treasure site was in Pu-hrang, which means western Tibet, a part of what was once Zhangzhung. You would need seven leagues boots to take such massively giant steps across the Himalayan ranges.

For the rest of the text, go to Gtsang ma klu 'bum chen mo, a Reproduction of a Manuscript Copy Based upon the Târanâtha Tradition of the Famed Bonpo Recitational Classic, Volume II: Klu 'bum khra bo, Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Centre (Dolanji 1977), at vol. 2, pp. 44 ff. It just keeps going and going, like the universe itself, and I can’t tell you where it ends. Nobody can. Any more than they can tell you how it was when it began.

... ... ...

A Short Reading List

Agata Bareja-Starzynska, “A Bonpo Text on the Propitiation of Serpent Deities (Klu ’bum dkar po) in Mongolian,” 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. 39-52. There were, about a hundred years ago, several studies on Klu-'bum by Lalou, Laufer, and Schiefner, but I won't list them all here.

Bernard F. Batto, In the Beginning: Essays on Creation Motifs in the Ancient Near East and the Bible, Eisenbrauns (Winona Lake 2013). The most interesting is the first chapter that surveys various ideas about the beginnings of things in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Canaan and so on. The Egyptians had a number of world-initiating scenarios, including most remarkably and uniquely, the idea that the creator impregnated himself by an act of onanism (p. 13) that started the gestation of the world. As with a number of known Tibetan cosmogonies, very often the first beginnings of things require one major further step, putting things into a kind of 'primitive' order, assigning things to their place. In Egypt this role is likely to be assigned to the goddess Maat.

Lawrence Parmly Brown, “The Cosmic Man and Homo Signorum,” Open Court, issue 1, article 2 of 1921. Find a PDF here. Since the same author wrote a book called The Cosmic Teeth, we may safely assume that he belonged to a prominent family of New England dentists. Which reminds me, I'm very late for my cleaning. For more on those teeth, keep reading.

Helmut Hoffmann, Tibet, a Handbook, Indiana University Publications (Bloomington 1973), p. 108:

“...another ancient tradition of the origin of the world should be adduced, according to which the world originates from the death or division of a primordial being. This myth was held by several of the peoples of antiquity, for example, the Iranian myth of the Primordial Man, Gayômard. One Bon-po scripture, The Hundred Thousand Water Spirits, states that the world originated from a primordial female water spirit, a kLu-mo, who is given the indicative name of ‘The kLu Queen who put the World into Order.’ From the upper part of her head sprang the sky; from her right eye, the moon; from her left, the sun; and from her upper four front teeth, the four planets. When she opened her eyes day appeared; when she closed them, night came on. From her twelve upper and lower teeth emerged the lunar mansions of the zodiac. Her voice became thunder; her tongue, lightning; her breath, clouds; and her tears, rain. Her nostrils produced wind, her blood became the five oceans of Bon-po cosmography, her veins became rivers. Her flesh was converted into earth, her bones into mountains.”

Per Kvaerne, “Tibet, la mythologie, introduction au problèm,” Dictionnaire des mythologies (Flammarion). An English translation is also available in Yves Bonnefoy, Asian Mythologies, University of Chicago Press (Chicago 1993), pp. 301-303, including a detailed bibliography. Other entries in the same publications by the same author are relevant, in particular “The Importance of Origins in Tibetan Mythology,” contained in: Yves Bonnefoy, ed., Mythologies (Chicago 1993), vol. 2, pp. 1077-1079, and especially, in the same volume, pp. 1079-1082: “Cosmogonic Myths of Tibet.”

Bruce Lincoln, “The Indo-European Myth of Creation,” chapter 15, contained in: Idem., Religion, Culture and Politics in Pre-Islamic Iran, Collected Essays, Brill (Leiden 2021), pp. 239-264.

Claudia Seele, Traditionen kosmogonischer Mythen in den Urzeitlegenden der Bönpos, M.A. thesis (Magisterarbeit), Rheinischen Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität (Bonn 1995), in 178 pages. ‘Traditional cosmogonic myths in the primordial legends of the Bonpos.’ This thesis is unfortunately not made available in published form, although it ought to be.

Postscript (October 14, 2021)

With thanks to J.B. for pointing it out via email, the myth of the Naga Queen has been well studied, as part of a more general discussion of Bon Cosmogonies, in John Vincent Bellezza's book Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet, A Historical and Ethnoarchaeological Study of the Monuments, Rock Art, Texts, and Oral Tradition of the Ancient Tibetan Upland, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 2008), pp. 342-356, and more particularly pp. 343-349. This supplies a much more extensive translation than the brief sample given above, and I much recommend it.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

A Word for the Gaze


His divine fish-soul hung there, poised in its alien element, gazing, gazing through huge eyes that perceived everything, understood everything, but having no part in what it saw.  
—Aldous Huxley, Eyeless in Gaza.

I’ve long been on the lookout for any sign of Padampa’s South India heritage, and one thing I was always hoping to find was a trace of a Dravidic language in records of his speech. It wouldn’t matter if it were Tamil, Telugu or Malayalam. In fact I’m still looking, since I’ve found not one clear example.* There are a few, very few, occasions when Padampa while speaking, as he did, in Tibetan, drops an Indic word into the sentence. Each incident of ‘code switching’ as our modern linguists would like to call it, needs to be thought about separately, since there may be more than one reason to try and get by with a word most likely unintelligible to your audience. Why risk getting a blank face in return? One very possible reason is the frustration of trying to put a complexly embedded cultural term into another language, just because the target language has no word for exactly what it is you want to say. For English speakers, examples like Gestalt and simpatico are first to come to mind, although the fact is English vocabulary has absorbed and naturalized so many of these kinds of foreign words that we would hardly ever recognize them as being foreign as such, such as ketchup or pyjamas or the drink called punch. We know just what is meant when we hear these words, origins be damned.
(*Although not a vocabulary example, one thing I have noticed is the unusual number of sea turtle metaphors Padampa used. When we compare the most common metaphors used in Indian epic literature with those of Padampa this is one of the most striking differences. I believe it must be due to Padampa's close proximity to their coastal nesting areas during his childhood, before age 15 when he was sent to study in a monastery in the Gangetic plain of north India. We also know that his father was a sea captain, so a home close to the sea is in any case very likely.)

As a long-time adult learner of modern Hebrew, I’ve found some excellent examples of code switching there: Two words that English-language speakers in Israel cannot avoid using are davka and stam, and they are placed in English sentences in much the same way they are found in Hebrew.

Davka (Hebrew)

Emphasis on first vowel (first syllable stress is davka unusual).

A word with several meanings:

1. Done on purpose/done in spite.

Example: “Jon pushed that kid davka.” (This means he pushed him on purpose, not by mistake)

2. On the contrary/actually.

Example:“I thought you didn’t like basketball.”“What do you mean? I davka ADORE basketball.”

Stam (Hebrew)

“With no purpose, value or significance.” "Just because!"

Example: “What is that?”  “Oh, that’s stam an old bucket.”


“Why did you step on the ant?”      “Stam!”
But it is not the case that entire sentences using these words are untranslatable. It’s just that single word that immediately makes translation appear to be impossible. And if you have these alien words in mind when you are mentally translating from Hebrew, you simply cannot give them up for some English word that doesn’t quite fit. They are too useful. So you keep them. Even at the risk of not being understood at all, there is no way you can settle for some fuzzy approximation that stam doesn’t have the same punch to it.

Some other examples go in an opposite direction supplying us with more germane analogies, English words that routinely pop up in everyday Hebrew sentences, words like fair and chance. This is a problem of matching, since Hebrew davka does have abundant terms for concepts of justice, rightness and opportunity. Words are not the problem.

I imagine a similar phenomenon taking place when Padampa ‘saved’ the word karaa for the yogic gaze. Part of his problem is that the term has a very rich range of usages and meanings in Sanskrit, and he couldn’t come up with a Tibetan word that would share the same semantic range.

Karaṇa in truth is one of those simple Sanskrit words... Well, simple in the sense that it easily and obviously derives from a very common and basic root √kṛ, the ordinary verb meaning to do. It shares the same root with that by-now English word karma. But such simplicity can conceal considerable complexity when we consider usage.

करण  —  expressive move, operation (?).

The Sage Bharata's Dance Manual is one of the earliest works of identified authorship in India, although there is wide disagreement just how early it was, or how late were its final redactions. It was written in a time when there was no distinction made between dance and drama, just as there was no difference between song and poetry. In this work the word karaa has a technical meaning for a selected list of standard stances or postures to be performed on stage.  Although technically beyond numbering, discussion is limited to 108 of them.* Each posture is defined as a combination of two things: [1] particular positions taken by the feet, and [2] the same for the hands. The text goes on in great detail to speak about positionings of other parts of the body as well, and not just postures but types of transitions from one posture to another. Well, acting in itself could be nothing but posing, I suppose, but we usually associate it with movement.
(*They are illustrated in 13th-century South Indian friezes on the outer walls of Cidambara Temple. It was raised up by the Cola King Kotottunga III, who reigned from 1178 to 1216 CE.  Photos of some of the karaas are displayed here.)
Finally, to wind this down, I have to admit that I haven’t really solved the problem. Nested inside the mystery are more mysteries. It may be entirely understandable to use a term of dramatic arts for the yogic gazes, but I still don’t see any positive evidence that would link the two together in Indian sources. The ironic thing is that something we inevitably think of as an unblinking gaze, a steady stare of total concentration, would go by the name of an expressive dramatic pose or movement of the arms and legs. I think I’d like to return to this subject when I know more about it, when I get a better sense of where things are going.


Stuff on code switching, gazing, staring and so on 

A.E., The Candle of Vision. See the PDF archived here. Both this fairly famous literary figure and his admirer Aldous Huxley, recommended staring intently at a candle, something yoga practitioners, at least nowadays, would call trāṭaka | tratakam. Try looking for it.  

Aldous Huxley, By the Fire.

Aldous Huxley, Scenes of the Mind. 


The normal Tibetan word for these gazes would be lta-stangs, or gzigs-stangs, a term much used in Dzogchen. And sure enough, there is one place in the Zhijé Collection where ka-ra-na is directly defined by the word lta-stangs. It’s in volume 2, p. 12, line 5: ka ra na ni rgya skad de / don la blta bstangs bya ba yin teThat means, “Ka-ra-na is Indian language, it signifies what is known [here in Tibet] as blta-bstangs.”


Padampa uses the term in particular contexts implying that by keeping the gaze steady, distractions coming your way from the world of objects cease, the disturbing thoughts go into stop motion, and sinking and scattering don’t stand a chance.
Oh, and there are quite a lot of names for special eye postures, most of them named after animals, after all. Certain animals both domestic and wild are proven masters of the art of the stare. I would love to talk about these another time. 
Bharata, The Nāṭyaśāstra (A Treatise on Indian Dramaturgy and Histrionics) Ascribed to Bharata‑Muni, vol. I (Ch. I‑XXVII), tr. by Manomohan Ghosh (Calcutta 1967). Republished in the Chowkhamba Sanskrit Studies series no. 118 (Varanasi 2003), in 4 volumes.

See chapter 4, verse 29 ff., where 108 karaṇas are enumerated.  These 108 'dance phrases' may be found demonstrated on the internet if you search for them, but since these URLs tend to be highly unstable I hesitate to put any up for you.

H. Brunner, G. Oberhammer & A. Padoux, Tāntrikābhidhānakośa, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 2004). In vol. 2, pp. 50-52 is quite an interesting discussion of various Hindu tantric usages of the word karaṇa. The only part of it that directly references gazes is as part of a larger set of yogic prakaraṇas that largely correspond to something well known to Tibetan Buddhists as the Seven-Point Posture of Vairocana (རྣམ་སྣང་ཆོས་བདུན་), seven bodily positionings that ought to be assumed in preparation for meditation.

Kalsang Yeshe སྐལ་བཟང་ཡེ་ཤེས་༽, “A Preliminary Note on Chinese Codeswitching in Modern Lhasa Tibetan,” contained in: R. Barnett and R. Schwartz, eds., Tibetan Modernities, Brill (Leiden 2008), pp. 213-248.

Nicholas Tournadre, “The Dynamics of Tibetan-Chinese Bilingualism: The Current Situation and Future Prospects,” China Perspectives, vol. 45 (2003), pp. 1-9.
Look here:

Although I wouldn’t call it code switching necessarily, it does happen that in early Tibetan-language narratives about sojourns in India one finds words and phrases in something like colloquial Hindustani.  For examples, see Ulrike Roesler, Rgya gar skad du — ‘in Sanskrit’?  Indian Languages as Reflected in Tibetan Travel Accounts, contained in: Oliver von Criegern, et al., eds., Saddharmāmtam. Festschrift für Jens-Uwe Hartmann zum 65. Geburtstag, Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien Universität Wien (Vienna 2018), pp. 351-368.

A note on the frontispiece: What you see here is a detail from an old thangka painting of the Zhijé Lineage illustrated in an earlier Tibet-logic blog. Look very closely and intently at Padampa's eyes. Tell me if they don’t resemble the eyes of the peacock. And aren’t peacock feathers the very thing Indian hypnotists waved in place of the swinging pocket watches of western hypnotists? 
This brief video needs no translation.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Śākyaśrī's Chronology of 1207 CE

Everything you need to know about Śākyaśrībhadra you will find in this biographical sketch by Alexander Gardner. Otherwise I would have to teach you Tibetan, and then your work will be cut out for you. But rest assured you'll lead a full life with hardly ever a dull moment worth mentioning.

During his stay in Tibet, the Kashmiri monk and master, arriving in Tibet after a long stay in Bihar and Bengal, made date calculations three times, the first time at Khro-phu in 1204, the second time in 1207 at Sol-nag Thang-po-che Monastery and yet a third time in 1210. However, it was the second of the three, the one done in 1207, that is remembered in the Tibetan sources. And it is the one that concerns us right now.  

The core chronological passage, in verse, could be translated like this:

In the middle of the night on the eighth day

of the white part of the month with moon in the Pleiades,

at the same time the moon was setting on the mountain,

the Munīndra completely passed beyond suffering.

Counting from that time, 1,750 years plus two and one-half


and indeed five days have well passed by.

The time left for the Teachings in the future

is 3,249 years,

nine months, and ten days.

It was the svabhava year, or in other words the Fire Female Hare

(1207 CE),

the middle month of summer, the daylight of the fifth date

in the white half of the middle month of summer, known as the

Rooster month,

in the place called “Thang-chen,” that this was calculated by the

Dharma Lord.

If you wouldn't mind reading Tibetan in transcription, you will find the relevant materials typed at the end of this blog. If you are restricted to English, I'd recommend looking at A.I. Vostrikov, Tibetan Historical Literature, tr. by Harish Chandra Gupta, Indian Studies Past & Present, Soviet Indology Series no. 4 (Calcutta 1970), pp. 111-112, but note that the earliest citation of the passage, in the works of 'Bri-gung 'Jig-rten-mgon-po (1143-1217), was not available to Vostrikov in the time he was writing, or even at the time the English translation of his book was published, an event long post-dating his execution.

One point that could be made about all this is that of the dozen or so chronological discussions well known to Tibetans, they almost all give the historical Buddha death dates between 800 and 2100 years BCE. It's this chronology by Śākyaśrībhadra that comes closest to more common ideas current in our times about His dates since he places the Buddha's death at somewhere right about 544 BCE.*

(*I can predict your next question, but no, I can't tell you for sure what the actual date of the Parinirvana was. If you're curious, read this 525-page book: Heinz Bechert, ed., The Dating of the Historical Buddha. Die Datierung des Historischen Buddha, Part 1, Symposien Zur Buddhismus Forschung, IV, Vandenhoek & Ruprecht (Gottingen 1991).)

Oh, another interesting thing. It looks as if Buddha Dharma is going to last until the year 3792 CE. I suppose that means our world, too, will remain for at least that long. So a solution to global warming is going to be found after all.

§   §   §


For a newly released chronology of Tibetan history by Katia Buffetrille, see "Chronology of the History of Tibet: 7th to 21st Centuries."

Here is the entire text containing the words of Śākyaśrī with the commentary surrounding it added by 'Jig-rten-mgon-po. It is found in the following:

The Collected Works (Bka’-’bum) of Khams-gsum Chos-kyi-rgyal-po Thub-dbang Ratna-srī (Skyob-pa ’Jig-rten-gsum-mgon); Tibetan title page: Khams gsum chos kyi rgyal po thub dbang ratna shrī’i phyi yi bka’ ’bum nor bu’i bang mdzod, H. H. Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Konchog Tenzin Kunzang Thinley Lhundup, Drikung Kagyu Institute (Dehradun 2001), in 12 vols., at vol. 3, pp. 548-550. It has a descriptive title added by the modern editors.*

(*In the older publication of his works in 5 volumes, at vol. 3, p. 61.4, is another mention. We also found the Śākyaśrī chronology in the Klong-chen-pa history (1991 ed.) that isn't actually by the famous Klong-chen-pa, p. 456, where it has no textual differences that effect the meaning.)  

310. Sangs rgyas kyi 'das lo dang bstan pa'i gnas tshad pan chen shākya shrī'i gsung du nges pa. [p. 548]

om swa sti /

dus gsum bla ma yi dam dang ||

ma lus bla med dkon mchog gsum ||

bstan pa'i mnga' bdag dge ba'i bshes ||

kun kyi zhabs la gus phyag 'tshal ||

'dzam gling rgyan gyur dge ba'i bshes ||

lnga rig mkhas pa shākya shrī ||

rdo rje gdan sogs yul dbus kyi ||

bstan pa'i mnga' bdag gnas brtan mchog ||

rgyal po sing ga la rigs kyis ||

gces par 'dzin pas bstan pa 'di ||

ji tsam gnas pa rtsis pa yi ||

lugs su mkhas pa chen pos gsungs ||

[Note that the following section is repeated, with no significant differences, by Mkhas-pa Lde'u and in the Klong-chen-pa history.]

smin drug zla ba'i dkar phyogs kyi ||

tshes brgyad nam gung mnyam pa la ||

zla ba ri bo la nub tshe ||

thub dbang yongs su mya ngan 'das ||

de rjes lo ni stong phrag cig ||

bdun brgya dang ni lnga bcu dang ||

zla ba gnyis dang zla ba phyed ||

de bzhin nyin mo lnga rab 'das ||

lo ni stong phrag gsum dag dang ||

nyis brgya dang ni bzhi bcu dgu ||

zla dgu dang ni nyin mo bcu ||

ma 'ongs bstan pa'i lhag mar gnas ||

zhes pa me mo yos kyi lo {1207}

dpyid zla 'bring po'i gral tshes lnga'i nyin mo / yar lung sol nag thang (thang po che zhes kyang zer) gyi gtsug lag khang chen por / chos kyi rje pandi ta chen po kha che [550] shākya shrīs rtsis pa lags so //

[Here begins 'Jig-rten-mgon-po's commentary:]

bdag gi rnam par rtog pa la ||

ston pa mya ngan 'das 'og tu ||

slob dpon chen po 'phags pa byung ||

dgung lo drug brgya'i bar du bzhugs ||

'phags pa'i slob ma zla ba grags ||

de sras rig pa'i khu byug gis ||

a ti sha la dbu ma bshad ||

ston pa mya ngan 'das 'og tu ||

lo ni dgu brgya lhag tsam na ||

slob dpon chen po thogs med byung ||

lo ni brgya dang lnga bcur 'tsho ||

thogs med slob ma dbyig gi gnyen ||

de sras 'phags pa rnam grol sde ||

de bzhin so skye rnam grol sde ||

rab mchog sde dang dul ba'i sde ||

bai ro tsa na'i sde yis ni ||

seng ge bzang po nyid la bshad ||

de yis ratna pha la la ||

des kyang ghu na mai tri la ||

de yis gser gling pa la bshad ||

des kyang a ti sha la gsungs ||

brgyud pa mang dang nyung na yang ||

don gyis legs par dpyad pa las ||

chos rje pan chen gsung du nges [551] ||

'di la dga' ba chen po skyes ||

bstan pa yun ring gnas pa dang ||

bdag cag bsgrub pa byed pa rnams ||

'bras bu rgya chen thob pa la ||

mkhas pa dga' ba cis mi skye ||

slob dpon chen po 'bum .tig mkhan pos* / de bzhin gshegs pa mya ngan las 'das pa'i 'og tu / lo lnga stong gi bar du dam pa'i chos gnas par 'gyur te / de la lo lnga brgya phrag bcu yod de lnga brgya phrag dang po la dam pa'i chos spyod pa rnams phal cher dgra bcom pa'i 'bras bu thob par gyur la / gnyis pa la phyir mi 'ong ba'i 'bras bu thob par gyur la / gsum pa la lan cig phyir 'ong ba dang / rgyun tu zhugs pa'i 'bras bu thob par gyur ba mang ba ste / lnga brgya phrag gsum po de dag gi tshe ni chos rtogs shing 'bras bu thob pa mang ba'i tshigs zhes bya'o //

(*This probably means Daṃṣṭrasena / མཆེ་བའི་སྡེ་, often identified as the author of the Hundred Thousand / འབུམ་ commentary.)

lnga brgya bzhi pa la ni lhag mthong gi shas che zhing shes rab rno ba mang ngo //  lnga pa la ni zhi gnas shas che [552] ste / ting nge 'dzin bsgom pa mang ngo //

drug pa la ni tshul khrims dang ldan pa mang ste / lnga brgya phrag gsum po de dag gi tshe ni / zhi gnas dang lhag mthong bsgom zhing tshul khrims dang ldan pa mang bas bsgrub pa dang ldan pa'i tshigs zhes bya'o //

lnga brgya phrag bdun pa la mngon par dar bar 'gyur / brgyad pa la mdo sde dar bar 'gyur / dgu pa la 'dul ba dar bar 'gyur te / lnga brgya phrag gsum po de dag la bcom ldan 'das kyi zhal snga nas gsungs pa'i sde snod gsum pa la brten cing lung la spyod pa mang bas lung gi tshigs zhes bya'o //

lnga brgya phrag bcu pa la sde snod gsum la yang brtson par mi byed / chos bshad pa rnams kyang gzhung las bshad pa bzhin du legs par nyams 'og tu mi chud /  mtshan ma tsam zhig spyod pa mang bas mtshan ma tsam gyi tshigs zhes bya ste / de ltar lnga brgya phrag bcu'i mtha' ma 'di la phyi ma'i dus lnga brgya mtha' ma zhes bya'o //  [553]

de'i dus su yang shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa 'dis sangs rgyas kyi bya ba byed par 'gyur ro zhes gsungs pas / 'bras bu thob par 'gyur ba mang nyung tsam du gsungs pa las / 'bras bu mi thob pa ni ma gsungs te /


bstan pa nub pa'i dus su yang dgra bcom pa des pa 'byung ba dang / sangs rgyas mya ngan yong mi 'da' // chos kyang nub par yong mi 'gyur // gsungs pa lags na /

gdul bya smin pa dang grol ba rgyun chad par ga la 'gyur te / tshe lo bcu pa'i dus su yang rgyal po rdo rta can dang / bcom ldan 'das mgon pos tshe lo brgyad khri'i bar du 'khrid ces grags pa dang / 'khor ba ma stong gi bar du 'phags pa rgyun mi 'chad pa las shes par bya'o //  //


For the quotation in Bu-ston's history, see Obermiller's English translation (corrected in Vostrikov's book), vol. 2, p. 107, or this passage in the digital version of the Tibetan text:

kha che shâkya shrîs | shing pho byi lo la khro phur brtsis pa dang | me yos la sol nag thang chen du brtsis par | 

smin drug zla ba'i dkar phyogs kyi | 

tshes brgyad nam gung mnyam pa la | 

zla ba ri bo la nub tshe | |

thub dbang yongs su mya ngan 'das | |

de rjes lo ni stong phrag cig | 

bdun brgya dang ni lnga bcu dang | |

zla ba gnyis dang zla ba phyed | |

de bzhin nyi ma lnga rab 'das | |

lo ni stong phrag gsum dang ni | |

nyis brgya dang ni bzhi bcu dgu | |

zla ba dgu dang nyi ma bcu | |

ma 'ongs bstan pa'i lhag mar gnas zhes | 

Sunday, August 29, 2021


Scapegoat - Photo by Natesh Ramasamy

TODAY’S BLOG is about how I found, to my amazement, a very clear and specific ritual practice shared by ancient Mesopotamia and Tibet until modern times. Looking back on it, I shouldn’t have been so surprised since it fits into a tight semantic circle of Tibeto-Mesopotamian word-connections earlier defined as “Bricks, Brilliance and Baking.” But I’m convinced there is one thing that makes this new revelation special: It not only connects a discrete ritual practice in both localities done with closely identical motives, it also goes along with a striking word borrowing. This co-incidence goes far toward confirming a transmission from Iraq to Tibet that may otherwise seem too far fetched to consider.

One Losar (“New Year”) I was celebrating at the home of a Tibetan friend, a layman who was not all that religious, perhaps even borderline agnostic. Still, he served us the Guthuk Soup and “most importantly” (his words) he took our sins outside. ‘How did he do that?’ you may well be thinking. He gave us each a small ball of dough which we rubbed on our necks to pick up some of the filth that does tend to accumulate there and then we handed them back to him. He took them with a small tray holding a rudely fashioned dough figure outside, and even if I didn’t see it done this time, he should have taken the whole lot to a crossroad and set it on fire. I hoped he wouldn’t get caught doing it. It wasn’t exactly a Tibetan cultural crossroad we were living in, after all. People would have looked askance, to say the least, at any bonfires blazing up at a busy traffic interchange.

The scapegoat complex came up in a recent blog, in the comments section, and I may not even need to point out that placing your sins (ethical impurities, pollutions, ills) onto something else that will take it away from you is very much along the lines of what we mean by a scapegoat ritual. The original (?) scapegoat ritual may have involved an actual goat for all we know, but we do use the term for a wider range of ritual actions that work analogously, with or without the goat. Indeed, in the contemporary language of corporate blame assessment, the word scapegoat is used quite a lot... Really, far too much.

Of course, the very term scapegoat puts us to thinking about the Middle East where such complexes are still common enough, and where we popularly imagine it all originated. So I shouldn’t have been too surprised to come across doughballs there. Here is how it happened.

I was reading a chapter from the Cambridge Histories Online, in a volume entitled The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West from Antiquity to the Present, the first chapter entitled “The Ancient Near East” composed by Daniel Schwemer. Schwemer distinguishes two types of rituals, the first one, ‘witch purifications’ that involves incinerating an effigy of the witch made of clay and wax. This kind of ritual is called maqlû. But the one that concerns us more at this moment is the other, different but related, type of ritual called šurpu. Let me quote p. 35, in the general context of undoing curses by ritual means: 
“Whereas the burning of the witches’ figurines dominates the proceedings of maqlû, the ritual šurpu aims at removing the patient’s impurity that has been caused by his or her own transgressions. It is not figurines representing the patient’s enemies, but the consequences of his or her own actions that have to be eliminated and are destroyed by fire. Thus, the performance of šurpu includes the burning of dough that is applied to and wiped off of the patient’s body. The patient throws various items representing his or her crimes into the fire, among them garlic peels.” [The added emphasis is my own.]
As if the identity of ritual actions, objects and objectives weren’t enough, Tibetan has borrowed this very word šurpu from Akkadian, and it fits into another (similar yet not identical) ritual context done with a different motive — food offerings to hungry ghosts and the spirits of the departed — in which barley flour (perhaps mixed with butter and/or other food substances to make a dough) is singed rather than incinerated.

The Tibetan word (or words) that means to singe or scorch in that ritual by the same name is bshur-ba, with imperative form shur-cig! And it obviously belongs to the same verb group as another verb with similar meaning gsur-ba. I won't bother you with the lexicons and what they say, but save the philological exercises for another time. The gsur ritual itself involves burning grain, but the motive is feeding hungry spirits. It was long ago described by Panglung Rinpoche in a short essay on the subject.

So to sum up, here is why I think here we have an excellent case for Mesopotamia-Tibet transmission. First, an identical object, the doughball, is made use of in closely identical ritual actions, the rubbing and the burning. Secondly, both rites are done out of the same motives, to purify the person of sin and similar blights. Third, we see that a different Tibetan grain burning rite, one with a different aim, bears the name of the very Mesopotamian rite that involves the rubbing and burning of the doughball. And the final blow to skepticism, I think, is the fact that this word that means ‘burning’ in Akkadian and ‘scorching, singeing’ in Tibetan fits seamlessly inside of an already-identified semantic circle of apparent borrowings that include words for blazing (bar|’bar) and brilliance (zil|zil).

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Further ruminations, a little bibliography, and a few significant links

Sometimes, in order to switch gears and get a fresh start, we need to clean up some of the messes from the past. Rituals — as well as confession, restitution and reconciliation not accompanied by rituals — can certainly help. Notice how Leviticus 5 is immediately followed by a chapter on actual (not just ritual) restitution.* Apologies done, regrets expressed, while giving people back what is rightfully theirs usually must precede other efforts to smoothe things over between us.
(*The actual annual scapegoat ritual that used a real goat, intended for collective iniquity, is not all that relevant for us right now. For it, see Leviticus 16.)

To see how the very important Bon monastery known as Menri (སྨན་རི་) celebrates New Year, look here. Here they use strings instead of doughballs, but I do remember participating in a community ritual at Dolanji many years ago (not at New Year, n.b.) in which both strings and doughballs were used (everyone holds the same string, which is then cut so that each person is left holding a piece of it).

You can find other elaborate accounts of New Year rituals, including more than one way of using the doughballs, here.

With Rosh Ha-Shana upon us, to some of us it will be of special interest that the traditions of making challah bread for ritual purposes include a step in which a small doughball is taken from the large one and purposely burned. It’s this small doughball that the word challah properly refers to. This post-temple practice is consciously connected with a temple practice of daily incinerating doughballs on the fire altar.

As part of the sin purifying atonement practices leading up to Rosh Ha-Shana, many have the practice of throwing small crumbs of bread into a stream of flowing water while reciting confessional prayers. For more, try Schmoogling for "Tashlich" (send off, dispatch) or have a quick look at this news story. And if you have a little more time a particularly well done essay is this one. It’s a popular practice, and as such it doesn’t receive blanket approval from all religious authorities. It’s interesting how it uses the element of water, not fire, and crumbs instead of dough or grain, but anyway, I think you can sense a connection.

Tibetan names for dough are zan and spag. Uses include as a kind of cotton ball for spreading oil on babies, or animals, especially horses to make their fur coats shine. Also, for divination (or drawing of names from a hat). “Aleuromancy” is a word I wanted to slip into the discussion somewhere, so this is as good a chance as any. It’s supposed to be a type of divination done by slipping inscribed slips of paper into doughballs, kind of like the fortune cookies distributed after meals at Chinese restaurants in the U.S. The Guthuk dumplings of Tibetan New Year have objects, not inscriptions, placed in them.

John V. Bellezza, “Zenpar: Tibetan Wooden Moulds for the Creation of Dough Figures in Esoteric Rituals,” Collector's World. Color illustrations of zan-par. I believe this was also published in Arts of Asia, vol. 47, no. 5 (September 2017), p. 132. There is a bibliography on the subject here:

Isabel Cranz, Atonement and Purification: Priestly and Assyro-Babylonian Perspectives on Sin and Its Consequences, Mohr Siebeck (Tübingen 2017). I’d like to say I’ve read this book, since it is precisely on topic, but anyway I hope I can read it soon and get back with you.

Zara Fleming, “An Introduction to Zan par (Tibetan wooden moulds),” Tibet Journal, vol. 27, nos. 1-2 (Spring 2002), pp. 197-216.

Zara Fleming, “The Ritual Significance of Zan-par,” contained i: Erberto F. Lo Bue, ed., Art in Tibet: Issues in Traditional Tibetan Art from the Seventh to the Twentieth Century, Brill (Leiden 2011), pp. 161-170. I’m not sure how these stamped dough figures figure into our discussion, but I imagine they ought to, somehow, if not now, some other time.

Jampa L. Panglung, “On the Origin of the Tsha-gsur Ceremony,” contained in: Barbara N. Aziz and Matthew Kapstein, eds., Soundings in Tibetan Civilization, Manohar (Delhi 1985), pp. 268-271. There is a Tibetan controversy within the Gelugpa school about whether “Hot Sur” (or as Panglung suggests, perhaps “Burnt Food”) ritual offering is Buddhist in its origins or not, with the Fifth Dalai Lama saying it’s not justifiable in Buddhist scripture, while the later Bstan-dar Lha-rams-pa argues it is. The brief essay ends with notice of a Dunhuang text nicely demonstrating that the word and its associated context goes back at least to the Tibetan imperial era.

Francis James Michael Simons, Burn Your Way to Success; Studies in the Mesopotamian Ritual and Incantation Series Śurpu, doctoral dissertation, University of Birmingham (2017). I list this because of its useful survey of the literature. It doesn’t seem to have anything else specifically relevant for us at the moment. Tibetanists will find instruction in Mesopotamian use of juniper as an incense or fumigant for purifying large areas, just as Tibetans do in bsangs burning rites. The Mesopotamians even had a way of blessing the juniper for use in ritual. This study emphasizes juniper and cedar use for controlling and repelling insects, although this has never, as far as I know, featured in discussions about the Tibetan practice.

Wikipedia has a worthy entry on the Mesopotamian rite that you can see here.

Alexandra Witze, “Barley Fueled Farmers’ Spread onto Tibetan Plateau: Cold-Tolerant Crop enabled High-Altitude Agriculture some 3,600 Years ago,” Nature News, an internet journal. Try this link. Well, I for one regard the knowledge of just when barley cultivation started in Tibet as key to the issue of when grain baking, toasting, barley beer making and the like could have also had their start. I doubt this article has the last word on the subject, but it does give us food to think about.

The Tibetan conversant can benefit from this video that depicts and interviews people about several of the dough-related parts of Tibetan New Year rituals. Go ahead and click on it:


This video of Gutor (Torma Rite of the Twenty-Ninth Day, just before New Year) shows outstandingly astounding cham dances, but you have to wait to the very last minute to see the torma burning.

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Particularly for people who are not confirmed Bible-lovers I recommend, as a friend already recommended to me, to go read Leviticus chapter 5 carefully. There you will see that its sin-dispelling practice had both a bloody meat aspect and a bread-dough/grain aspect. This dyad of red and white elements, the blood and the grain, the wine and the bread, can be traced back to the original sacrifices of Cain and Abel in Bereshit, with Cain representing the preoccupation with field agriculture, and Abel the animal husbandry. There is a lot to puzzle over regardless of your beliefs, but I suggest putting on alien binoculars for a change before switching back to normal setting.

And finally, especially for the Tibeto-theoreticians, I’d like them to observe something. We’ve probably become too comfortable in our view that the ancient blood sacrifices were (entirely or largely) ‘replaced’ by grain and dough sacrifices as time went on, particularly the dough figures of animals and so on that we often see in Tibetan rituals. Even if there may be grains of truth in this common idea, we should permit ourselves to be bewildered by the simultaneous presence of dough and blood sacrifice that we see in Leviticus 5. I mean, the doughballs and dough figures could have been there all along, am I right? One didn’t have to replace or substitute for the other.

PS: These days I have so much tedious work to do I don’t have time to read books much, but before I go to sleep at night I read some pages of two very different books about Genesis: Gary A. Anderson’s The Genesis of Perfection and Catherine L. McDowell’s The Image of God in the Garden of Eden. I’ve already found dozens of subjects for a Tibeto-logician to blog about, but if I don’t promise to write them, I won’t commit any sin if I don’t, will I? Each of the two books is mind-altering in its own way. I’ve always been intrigued by the creation account, so much that I have trouble reaching other parts of the Hebrew scriptures. It doesn’t matter if you think it presents a true history of things, to me it’s more about how it provokes a lot of questions and presents a number of puzzles. Even if you were to read it as the opening of a best-selling novel.

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