Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Latest Thing in Old Histories

Although I can imagine that the blogosphere as a whole will find little thrill in it, I am personally overjoyed to report to whoever might be interested on a very new publication of an old Tibetan history book. It is so new I could only discover very few mentions of it on the entire internet. You can see the details of the publication here. A transcribed version of the Tibetan text has been made available here.

This history was written in 1474 CE, in the same year the First Dalai Lama died and the Upper Tantra College was founded in Lhasa. The front title says "Precious Dharma Origins of India and Tibet" (
Rgya bod-kyi chos-'byung rin-po-che) but the title at the end, in the colophon, is much more colorful, "Biographies of Holy Personages: The Geese of Faith Frolicking in the Ocean of Learning" (Skyes-bu dam-pa'i rnam-thar thos-pa rgya-mtshor dad-pa'i ngang-mo rnam-par rtse-ba). The title is clarified in the closing verses: The biographies are the ocean on which we the readers are to swim about and derive blessings from them (the biographies), just as the geese (according to an old Indian poetic conceit adopted by Tibetan writers) can extract milk that has been mixed into the water, and thereby attain Buddhahood quickly. It was written by Geyé Tsültrim Senggé, a person about whom little is known. He wrote several other books that may be found listed here and there (the books themselves do not seem to be around any more). One is a life of the Buddha. Another is on poetics (kavya in Sanskrit, or nyängag [snyan-dngags] in Tibetan). And still another is on vocabulary of Indic inspiration favored in Tibetan literary works (abhidhana, or ngönjö [mngon-brjod]).

In its content it has a lot in common with Gö Lotsawa's history known as
The Blue Annals, which was written between the years 1476 and 1478, just a few years after Geyé's history. Both Gö's and Geyé's histories are even-handedly ecumenical. They encompass all the Tibetan Buddhist schools and spiritual lineages of note, although both might be faulted for neglecting the traditions based on Nyingma revelations called terma as well as Bon. Geyé differs from Gö in being much much briefer, and therefore rather thin on details. Still, there is much information that will be of interest to Tibet historians. I've noticed that some otherwise undatable persons are given birth and death dates here that appear to be perfectly correct as best I can see.

There is no Chapter One here. It should have been on the life of the Buddha, but perhaps his separate Buddha biography was supposed to serve as the first chapter. Chapter Two covers Buddhism in India. Chapter Three tells how Buddhism came to Tibet, covering the dynasty of the Tibetan emperors quite briefly. Chapter Four is on the spread of monasticism in what is known as the Later Spreading, starting in the late 10th century. Chapter Five is on the Bengali teacher Atisha and the founding of the Kadampa School by his Tibetan student Dromtönpa in the 11th century. Chapter Six is devoted to the Sakyapa school. Chapter Seven is on the Kagyüpa and its many lineages. Chapter Eight is on the Tibetan transmissions of the Kalachakra. Chapter Nine covers a variety of what were, in those days at least, less prominent or less well established spiritual lineages. This includes the Gendenpa (better known in later times as the Gelugpa), the Zhijépa lineages from Padampa Sanggyé, the Shangpa Kagyüpa from Kyungpo Neljor and his Indian teacher Niguma, the Bodongpa, and the Kharag Korsum.

Many thanks to Otani University for at last making available to the Tibetan-reading world this 500-year-old history that seems to exist today only in the form of a unique manuscript in their library. The publication details follow:

History of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism by dGe ye Tshul khrims seng ge: A Critical and Facsimile Edition of the Tibetan Text with Summary and Index, Otani University Shin Buddhist Comprehensive Research Institute, Tibetan Works Research Project (2007). The editors are Khetsün, Shin'ichiro Miyake, Maho Uichi, and Shoko Mekata. Congratulations on what appears to be a meticulous job in the editing, also. This will be a work of permanent reference value for all Tibeto-logical historians. Thank you thank you thank you and thank you!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Emergency Death Meditation Known as Changing Your Dwelling

Daoist internal alchemists from the Tang Dynasty up until the 15th century or so were, under some circumstances, recommended to practice something called Changing Your Dwelling (yishe). This practice is remarkably close to the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Drongjug, and of course also Rampa's Transmigration. I learned about this from reading a new article in the journal T'oung Pao (vol. 92 [2006], pp. 373-409) entitled "Emergency Death Meditations for Internal Alchemists," by Stephen Eskildsen of the University of Tennessee (if you are linked through a subscribing institution I could recommend downloading this article via

It is quite clear that these Daoists were in some degree in debt to Buddhist sources that had been translated into Chinese in previous centuries (and no doubt in debt to ideas that were "in the air" thanks to Chinese Buddhists), particularly to Vajra Vehicle ideas that were introduced during the Tang. It is true that as far as the earlier Buddhist sources on the Intermediate State (Bardo or Barmado) are concerned, one might benefit from a knowledge of karmic causation in the sense that one could do well to perform actions during the present life that would result in an upgraded experience in the post mortem state. But the Taoist and Vajra Vehicle sources agree that different strategies could be used at the point of death or even in the post mortem state itself to control, transform or otherwise manipulate the karmic forces. Karma isn't denied. It's recognized and, in some manner and degree, evaded.

There are differences, naturally. Buddhism knows nothing of the incubation of the Spirit in the shape of a developing embryo, located first in the stomach and later on in the head. Neither does it know of the Three Corpses, Nine Worms and Seven Po Souls, all negative forces that reside in the three elixir fields of the head, chest and lower abdomen. Most Buddhists would find fault, too, with the goal of some Chinese alchemists to eternalize the physical body.

From a Tibeto-logical point of view, I see only two small faults in Prof. Eskildsen's paper. I think he doesn't entirely comprehend the significance of the Daoist passage on how to enter a womb that he translates: "What is [the method for] entering a womb? Its essence lies merely in recognizing one's external surroundings. If you see large houses and high buildings, these are dragons. Thatched shacks are camels and mules. Wool-covered carts are hard- and soft-shelled turtles. Boats and carts are bugs and snakes..."

Nanda Entering the Womb Sutra, which Eskildsen himself notes was first translated into Chinese during the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316 CE), and in other sources at least comparable in age, karma induces visual clues to the nature of the womb (and hence the body) one will enter: "When the consciousness without good merit enters the womb, it feels fear and has the idea it is running to hide in a grass house, a leaf house, a walled place, a thick mountain forest, a cave etc. If it has great merit, it has the idea it is climbing on top of a tower or high roof, or is entering a palace to sit on a throne." (Norbu article, p. 58). Of course the Daoist account is more detailed and varied. But in general, as in the Buddhist Sutra, the womb itself is conceptualized as a dwelling, a house, a walled place, or a conveyance of some kind (in the Daoist passage we even find clothing and armor, which does make sense). The Buddhist sources sometimes suggest that the Bardo entity is driven to take refuge in these "houses" by loud and alarming sounds or other environmental annoyances.

Here is a long passage from the
Nanda Entering the Womb Sutra (Derge Kanjur, vol. 41, leaf no. 312): "Previously accummulated karma induces mistaken conceptualizations. There are the conceptions of cold, a strong wind, a great rainshower, an overcast landscape, the cacophony of a great crowd of people. Then there are ten imperfect conceptualizations that depend on the highness or lowness of karmic causes. These are: 1. I am now entering inside a house. 2. I am now climbing on top of a multistoried building. 3. I am entering a temple. 4. I am climbing on a throne. 5. I am entering a grass hut. 6. I am entering a house made of leaves. 7. I am entering a dense thicket. 8. I am entering a forest. 9. I am burrowing into a hole in a wall. 10. I am entering a crack in a woven bamboo mat. Depending on these thoughts, Nanda, at that time the intermediate entity, even while thinking such thoughts, enters into the womb of its mother."

It should at least be clear that these are not just 'visions' but rather deluded conceptualizations with a basis in 'fact' at least to the degree that they indicate more and less fortunate rebirths.

The other fault is just a fault of omission. Eskildsen does indeed look into and recognize a number of parallels with Tibetan Buddhist completion stage processes (in particular those associated with the Bardo), but he never once mentions the existence of Drongjug practice in Tibetan (or Indian) Vajra Vehicle Buddhism. An opportunity is missed.

As far as India is concerned, it may be that the idea was a bit more widespread than has been generally recognized. There is of course the well-known story of Shankara's entry into a dead woman's body to learn, in an eminently practical way, the arts of love in order to win a debate (Antarkar's article...obviously as a monk Shankara was not prepared to debate on the subject, and as a man, certainly not from a woman's perspective). There are other indications in Indian sources that certain non-Buddhist esoteric groups knew of it. For hints to possible reasons why Drongjug might be called such, see what Hartzell says in his dissertation, p. 717: "[The Trika system.] This is a further step in the type-identity hierarchy whereby the group of cosmic principles or planes intersecting with the individual bio-psyche (tattvas) is called a grāma or village— since the tattvas refer to both the constituent elements of the individual and those of the cosmos." White's book, p. 378, n. 73, mentions an Ayurvedic rejuvenation technique called kuṭī-praveśa, 'entering the hut,' and notes that there is a close Daoist parallel. We know that sometimes Sanskrit grāma was translated into Tibetan with the drong (grong) of Drongjug, so it is very possible that the Buddhist Vajra Vehicle texts written by Indians could have used the term Grāma-praveśa, since this would explain the Tibetan translation much better than other possibilities, like Parakāyāpraveśa ("Entering Another's Body"). The Drong might be a shortened version of drongkyer (grong-khyer), which means 'village.' Our problem is that the main Indian Buddhist texts that describe the practice are preserved in Tibetan translations, and no Sanskrit originals are now available (I surely could be proven wrong on this point).

Then there is evidence in an Indian play by Bodhāyana entitled Bhagavadajjuka (see Clasquin's article). Since this drama is mentioned in a 7th-century inscription, it must be at least that old. Here there is a story involving just what Tibetans call Drongjug. A holy man takes over the dead body of a prostitute. When the death lords want to return the prostitute's soul to her body they find it already occupied, so they place the soul in the holy man's body instead. This story seems of interest for two main reasons apart from its relative antiquity. First of all, it supplies a remarkable account of a mutual or 'double' Transmigration. The two consciousnesses end up completely exchanging bodies. This is unusual. The second reason: Here we might be able to see with some clarity one of the more troubling ethical issues associated with the practice, which is that the deceased consciousness might return to her or his body after death (in Tibetan they call such persons 'das-log, 'returnees from the beyond'). If a stranger's consciousness were to step in at that moment and take over the body, it would prevent the consciousness of the deceased from returning. It might look like stealing (disregarding the "finders keepers" excuse which doesn't hold much water here), in the sense of taking over a body without the agreement of its former inhabitant. But more important, it could look something like murder, in the sense that someone who otherwise might have returned to live on still longer is prevented from doing so.

One Daoist text (Eskildsen, p. 395) recommends the body of a young man who "had not been ill from wind and coldness, and whose essence was firm and full." The health of the corpse, while an important issue for the "walk-in," is of little ethical consequence. The Daoist author further suggests that it should be the corpse of an acquaintance, perhaps implying a bit of prior consent from the deceased or the deceased one's family. The Daoist texts very rarely broach the possibility of entering another person's body before that person has died, and even then only to express abhorrence at the very idea. Eskildsen suggests that Changing Your Dwelling was phased out of Daoist practice precisely because of the potential for ethical ambiguities and abuses. The same may be true of the phasing out of the practice in Tibetan Buddhist esoteric traditions. I doubt if any time soon we will hear of people carrying in their wallets "walk-in consent cards" in addition to their organ donation cards. First we would need to have more adepts capable of making use of the opportunities so generously provided. These cards could clear away some of the ethical qualms. As the western alchemists used to say, "Life is short and the Art is long."


Read more:

W.R. Antarkar, The Incident of Parakāyāpraveśa in the Life of Ādiśaṅkarācārya, Bhāratīya Vidyā, vol. 58 (1998), pp. 1-20. Antarkar argues that the episode of Shankara's Parakāyāpraveśa, since it is found in most biographies, is an essential and not an apocryphal one.

Michel Clasquin, Real Buddhas Don't Laugh: Attitudes towards Humour and Laughter in Ancient India & China, Social Identities, vol. 7, no. 1 (2001), pp. 97-116.

James F. Hartzell, Tantric Yoga: A Study of the Vedic Precursors, Historical Evolution, Literatures, Cultures, Doctrines, and Practices of the 11th Century Kasmiri Saivite and Buddhist Unexcelled Tantric Yogas, PhD dissertation, Columbia University (1996).

Thubten Jigme Norbu, The Development of the Human Embryo According to Tibetan Medicine: The Treatise Written for Alexander Csoma de Körös by Sangs-rgyas Phun-tshogs, contained in: Christopher I. Beckwith, ed., Silver on Lapis: Tibetan Literary Culture and History, The Tibet Society (Bloomington 1987), pp. 57-62. Freely available in PDF format at THDL website.

David Gordon White, The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, University of Chicago Press (Chicago 1996).

Friday, April 06, 2007

Armenian Bell Update

So far all my small efforts to obtain a photograph of the Tibetan inscription on that Bell in Etchmiadzin have failed to bear fruit. I'll keep you updated whenever some new information comes up, just as I am doing right now.

In 1876,
James B. Bryce, a Viscount and influential politician in England, took a trip to Armenia with the goal being to climb Mt. Ararat. He found a piece of wood at 13,000 feet, which excited some speculation that it just might be a bit from Noah's ark. I'm not sure he could verify that it was truly gopher wood or not, and in any case if we start looking for the ark, it will take us too far away from our present quest. His travel account is not available to me at the moment, but here are the details: James Bryce, "Transcaucasia and Ararat, Being Notes of a Vacation Tour in the Autumn of 1876," Macmillan (London 1896), with earlier and later editions.

While using the search facility at Oxford journals archive, with 'Tibet' in the search-box, I stumbled upon a reference to Bryce's book which answers one important question about that Tibetan bell in Armenia. It tells us what Tibetan words were inscribed on it. Let me quote it in full (or try this
link, which may not work if you don't have an institutional subscription). It's in the periodical entitled "Notes and Queries," 5th series, no. 10 (September 7, 1878), p. 188:

"Ôm Ôm Hrum." — Prof. Bryce, in his Transcaucasia, p. 309, tells us that in the great Armenian convent at Etchmiadzin there is a bell bearing in Tibetan the Buddhist formula, "ôm ôm hrum." What is the meaning of the inscription, and who brought the bell from Tibet to Armenia? — A.L. Mayhew, Oxford."

Anthony Lawson Mayhew (b. 1842) was indeed an Oxford Don best known for his Concise Dictionary of Middle English. He knew just what questions to ask. Unfortunately, as far as the search engine is concerned, nobody seems to have responded to his question in subsequent issues of the journal.

Beyond just saying that "Om" is the Om you know, while "Hrum" is a syllable that does occur sometimes in mantras both Hindu and Buddhist, I don't know what would explain the motive for putting this particular mantra on this particular bell. But of course a misreading is entirely possible, so please, if you are planning a summer trip to Armenia (and of course if you are already there), try to photo the Tibetan bell with its complete inscription and email the digital image to me right away. Meanwhile, have a look at the comments. And add your own!

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