Monday, October 20, 2008

Padampa's Animal Kingdom — Part Two

As promised in the previous blog, here at last I present to you the only source known to me that goes anywhere near to explaining Padampa's animal metaphors.  

It may be the case that Buddhism has a lot to say or suggest about animal rights or human ecological responsibilities. Certainly all Buddhists agree that animals are 'sentient,' capable of thought, aware of their surroundings, and that their pain must make a difference to us as sentient beings.  Animals fall under the umbrella of the compassion Buddhists seek to cultivate.  But I'm not sure why Padampa's metaphors would be all that interesting from a modern ecological thinker's point of view.  Do you have any idea?  I won't even go in this direction.  Not today.

Taken in its entirety, "Padampa's Animal Kingdom" does appear to much resemble the medieval bestiary. (I admit that this was in some part my own doing, since I selected out the animal metaphors and arranged them in this way.)   The accounts of animals in medieval bestiaries, too, may tell real or unreal stories involving animals and their observed or even unobservable behavior, but they are hardly ever in fact about the animals themselves. They were intended to tell us something about humans and the moral life of humanity.  

Chances are you've heard this bit of Solomonic wisdom, "Look to the ant thou sluggard, consider his ways and be wise!" Solomon tells us to work hard.  IF he's also telling us that ants work hard, it isn't actually anything that requires discussion in the way our laziness does.  I hope this point will be well taken, and that readers will not spend too much of their time finding meanings that Padampa never intended to be found.  

(Still, I have to confess that I personally am *very* curious to know more about actual animal behavior.  Do newly hatched sea turtles really find their way to the sea during the full moon?  Some recent research suggests this old folks' tale has real truth to it; see the Salmon article listed below.)

The metaphors from Padampa's Root Text, Great Sealing Symbol Song, are interpreted in a work by an anonymous Tibetan author some time during the 12th century.  This text, entitled Unravelling Symbolic Expressions of the Supreme Lineage,* does not give glosses for every single one of the animal metaphors, but I carefully traced and did my best to translate all the ones that are there.  I have no proof to offer right now, but I believe the most likely author of this text is Patsab (Pa-tshab), one of the main figures in the transmission of the Zhijé teachings.  His dates were 1077-1158 CE. I do not propose to justify this hunch or hypothesis at the moment, although in some other place I may investigate what is known of his life and try to make the case for or against Patsab's authorship.  

If you are like me, you will not always be satisfied with the commentator's comments. It may be well to consider that the author was a Tibetan, and as such shouldn't be expected to have complete knowledge of Indian animals and their metaphors that form part of Indian culture.  (And of course he was writing for an audience that could not always be expected to have such knowledge.)  I think, too, that the commentator didn't always want to give flatly prosaic explanations. He felt that 'A word to the wise should be sufficient.' Sometimes he might have been unable to resist sending our minds reeling in hope of explanations just one more time.  Sometimes we just get a hint.  Nothing is offered up on a silver platter.  Much is left to the imagination, assuming we have one.  Well, I for one assume we do.

*Mchog brgyud kyi brda' 'grol, This front title is not to be seen in the published version of the text, only in the microfilm of the original manuscript done by the Nepalese-German Manuscript Preservation Project. It also has a very brief title in the colophon, Brda' lan, "Symbolic Answers," or "Responses to the Symbols."
This title is totally unique to the Peacemaking Collection.  No other version of it is known to exist. It uses outdated vocabulary and highly irregular spellings (just like the manuscript as a whole). In cases where it could not be translated with a reasonable degree of confidence, a hack translation has sometimes been pushed forward, but in this case it ought to be enclosed in curly brackets { }. Occasionally my own comments or additions are enclosed in square brackets [ ].

The particular metaphorical usages are not restricted to these two texts, but are found scattered throughout the five (reprint) or four (original manuscript) volumes of the collection. Perhaps for some people of more significance is the fact many of them are found with close or identical meaning in the anthologies of single verses by Phadampa's 54 Indian teachers. Sometimes they make more sense in these other contexts, and I have made an attempt to search out these parallel materials in a less than systematic way. It's simply too much work. Those that I have so far managed to locate are translated in the footnotes.

I personally find it most remarkable that some of the most interesting parallels occur in the central portions of a set of meditation precepts, the Zheldam (zhal-gdams) of Zurchungpa (1014-1074 CE), a very significant figure in the transmission of certain Nyingmapa teachings at the time.  At the moment I am inclined to see the explanation for this common language lying in an Indian context rather than inside Tibet.  These parallels have also been mentioned in the footnotes.

As I think I said before, I am unable to offer a total explanation of Padampa's words. Making use of this Tibetan commentary by a member of his lineage will help illuminate them in part.  In an upcoming installment, I will pass on a somewhat technical, but I hope still readable, paper that goes into somewhat greater depth on the questions evoked by Padampa's animal metaphors, both singly and as a group. Perhaps I will go on to present the entire text in translation when I feel more confident that it is ready.**
**While working together with Dr. Penpa Dorjee of the CIHTS in Sarnath on a fresh translation of the Tingri Hundreds, I also consulted with him about some of the more difficult parts of the Root Text and its commentary, and we read through some of it together.  In the process the translations of these parts were thoroughly revised.  So he most certainly deserves a share of the merits from whatever is good about these efforts of ours.
If you printed out the Root Text (=Part 1) a few weeks ago, try to rediscover it in the pile of papers on your desk so you can glance back and forth between it and the commentary.

Fine links, good reading, worthwhile hearing & significant seeing:

David Holler, The Ritual of Freeing Lives, contained in: Henk Blezer & Abel Zadoks, eds., Religion and Secular Culture in Tibet: Tibetan Studies II, Brill (Leiden 2002), pp. 207-226.  The meritorious act of freeing animals that would otherwise be doomed to die is one of those practices found all over Buddhist Asia, and not just in Tibet. David Holler completed a master's thesis on this subject at the Humboldt University in Berlin several years ago.

Khenpo Karthar, Padampa Sangye's 80 Verses of Advice.  I would not under ordinary circumstances be making commercial links (and that includes advertising of any kind, whether for books or any other salable object) on Tibeto-logic blog.  And I'm dreading the day when Google will catch up with me and put advertising up on Tibetological website,  as is their right, apparently.  But this particular product, which I haven't yet seen, is certain to be interesting.  The advertising blurb for this DVD/CD/MP3 unfortunately contains a regrettable historical mistake.  Padampa did not, I repeat not, return to India after giving these words of advice.  After all, the title usually contains the word Zhalchem (zhal chems), meaning 'Last will and testament' and we know from all early sources that he died at Tingri in Tibet, until then remaining there for about 20 years straight without ever physically returning to India.  The teachings recorded here were given in Connecticut in August 2008.

Michael Salmon & Blair E. Witherington, Artificial Lighting and Seafinding by Loggerhead Hatchlings: Evidence for Lunar Modulation, Copeia: A Publication of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, no. 4 (December 21, 1995), pp. 931-938.  Try finding it at JSTOR if you are lucky enough to have access.  Or just schmoogle for sea turtle hatchlings and see what you come up with.

Lambert Schmithausen, Buddhism and Nature: The Lecture Delivered on the Occasion of the Expo 1990, an Enlarged Version with Notes, Studia Philological Buddhica, Occasional Paper Series, vol. VII, The International Institute for Buddhist Studies (Tokyo 1991).

Lambert Schmithausen, Buddhism and the Ethics of Nature, Some Remarks, The Eastern Buddhist, n.s. vol. 32, no. 2 (2000), pp. 26-78.  I warmly recommend these two articles by Dr. Schmithausen, Professor Emeritus of Uni Hamburg, especially if you spend a lot of time thinking about ecological ethics, sentience of plants, and animal rights.

Francis Story, The Place of Animals in Buddhism.  Available here.

Ivette Vargas, Snake-Kings, Boars' Heads, Deer Parks, and Monkey Talk: Animals as Transmitters and Transformers in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist Narratives, contained in: Paul Waldau & Kimberley Patton, eds., A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics, Columbia University Press (NYC 2006).  I haven't seen this book, but it sure looks interesting.  Here is a brief review.

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Comments on Padampa's iconography, his name, its spelling, and the Tibetan words for animal:

For one of the most wonderfully evocative portraits of Padampa (his legs crouched up in his Zhijé form, not his Chö form with bone trumpet), kept at the LACMA, go to Himalayan Art website. (The quality of the scan is not so wonderful, which is really unfortunate.  So better if you go here and use the zoom.  Still, there is a mistake in the LACMA's description. "Nagpopa" is not among the names of Padampa.  There were several historic Indian Buddhists with the Tibetan name Nag-po-pa, which corresponds to Indic Kṛṣṇa[pāda], quite a common Indian name today.  For more on the most famous Mahāsiddha with this name, see Tāranātha's Life of Kṛṣṇācārya/ Kāṇha, tr. by David Templeman, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives [Dharamsala 1989]).

For Padampa's iconography, see the essay in Rob Linrothe, ed., Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas, Rubin Museum of Art (New York 2006), pp. 108-123. And if you still feel inclined to know more, read about and admire some Ladakhi portraits of Padampa in Rob Linrothe's  article Strengthening the Roots: An Indian Yogi in Early Drigung Paintings of Ladakh and Zangskar, Orientations (May 2007), pp. 65-71.

A note on pronunciation & spelling & internet searches:  I spell the complete Tibetan title or name in phonetic form as Padampa Sanggyé.  The correctly transliterated Tibetan is Pha Dam-pa Sangs-rgyas. I phoneticize as "Pa" rather than "Pha" in order to prevent the pronunciation "Fa" (and there is no reason to use the 'h' to represent the aspiration, since most people who are not from Tibet or India will aspirate initial 'p' automatically).  If you want to do an internet search, you will have to try both Padampa and Phadampa.  Try also "pha dam pa," "pha dampa," etc. etc.  Your efforts to locate Padampa ought to be met with success one way or another.

There are at least four Tibetan words that correspond to the concept of 'animal' in the broader senses, but they are not equal in their semantic coverage.

[1] The word drowa ('gro-ba — 'goer,' or perhaps 'transmigrator,' in Sanskrit gamana) we might translate as 'creature' (ignoring the 'creation' etymology of the word, which isn't relevant here). There are 5 or 6 kinds in traditional Buddhist cosmology: the lower rebirths are the animals, hungry ghosts (pretas), and hell beings; the higher rebirths — humans, titans (asuras) and gods (devas).

[2] The word semchan (sems-can) that you can see in Tibetan script floating in the middle of Part One, includes all animals including humans in the Buddhist texts (in Sanskrit, sattva). In translations of Buddhist texts it is rather routinely translated as 'sentient being.' It might be used to cover all beings that undergo mental events, that are able to suffer. The beings in hells, for example. This is true of the Buddhist texts, so it is seeming odd that nowadays it's commonly used in Tibetan to cover livestock in general. If you want to ask a nomad how many are in her or his herd, you ask 'em, How many semchan?

[3] The other word for 'animal' is rather peculiar because, although it can be used to include all animals, it does not seem to include human beings, at least not normally. This word, sogchag (srog-chags), meaning 'life[-force] loving,' was used to translate Sanskrit prāṇaka. This prāṇaka has a slight difference in meaning, something like '[those who] possess life-force,' but like the Tibetan word, it sometimes is intended in an even narrower sense to mean 'insects' (the whole range of bugs and worm-like creatures) instead of the broader class of animals.

[4] The word düdro (dud-'gro) is understood primarily as describing a mode of locomotion in a 'bent over' or prone position. Those who walk in this way are distinguished from the 'two legged' ones.  Two-legged primarily means humans and I suppose also chickens. Like all but one of the other words that we might translate as 'animal,' this one is a clear translation from a Sanskrit word, in this case tiryañc, which has the same meaning. The only word for animal where the Tibetan doesn't correspond quite closely to the [Buddhist] Sanskrit is semchan. It is not a literal translation of sattva, a Sanskrit word derived from the verb of being that means 'being.'

My only point in bringing all this up is just to stress that categorical concepts like 'animal' or 'feelings' or 'emotions' or 'blue' don't always translate well or simply, but it is also quite important to understand how they are routinely used in differing contexts with different meanings, even within the same language.  What DO we mean by 'animal'?

If you only had the time to spare you could spend many fascinating hours (with considerable edification and profit) at this marvelous site:  The Medieval Bestiary.


  1. Well, I may have swallowed the same species of wild bee that EarlyTibet talked about earlier. Although many of these sayings are understandable, I am still amply bamboozled.

    In the "Insects, Worsm, Spiders" Section:

    Saying #1: Sorry, I still don't get it (even with your notes). How does this pun(?) work again?

    #2: Do I read the commentator aright that this leech's behavior is helpful? I thought the saying was warning about the danger of obsession.

    #3: A nice one.

    #4: Love this one.

    #5: Speaking of the bee, whaaaaaat? Virtuous discplines results in suffering, eh. Okay, now what was Padampa really getting at?

  2. Dear Person,

    I put up a response and then took it down again, thinking I would try to respond to at least some of your questions in the next blog entry. I don't know how long that will be.

    Yes. Virtuous disciplines result in suffering. It's the rule. I can see how that could be hard to accept, though.

    Thanks for writing, and thank you in advance for your patience.

    Yours, Dan

  3. Dear Dan,

    Thank you for the translation of the commentary. It helps, though I wonder how much faith we ought to have in the author of the commentary? And how much you have?

    Back to the leech. I find I can only approach these materials one animal at a time. Perhaps I will never get past the leech. In the light of the commentary, it seems that we could, and probably should, translate the root verses with 'the blood-sated leech' rather than 'blood-sucking'.

    I also think that 'meat' or 'flesh' (sha) could well mean living flesh, as in our phrase 'flesh and bone'. I'm still attracted to the 'water illness' translation but I'm not sure how to defend it.

    Here's an interesting thing though: leeches are studied by modern scientists precisely because they produce diuretic and anti-diuretic chemicals. That is, they are experts in 'hydric balance' and should never themselves suffer from fluid retention.

    For some abstracts see here and here. (I'm not pretending to any actual understanding of these abstracts!)

    Now, were leeches used in Tibet, or India, for the cure of fluid retention? If so, the (surface) meaning of the text could be that there's no point trying to use a leech who's sated with blood to cure water retention because he/she simply won't be interested in the piece of (living) flesh you're trying to stick him/her on to.

    And this might help us understand the hidden or spiritual meaning, but I won't attempt that. I'm exhausted with all this thinking and my mental juices are leeching away.


  4. Oops. I guess those links I put in that last comment were to temporary URLs. Anyway, if you're so inclined, google "leech" alongside "diuretic" and you get a whole host of scientific articles. Wow - I think perhaps there really are Two Cultures.

  5. Dear Early, I sincerely hope that someday and somewhere, with the right professional help, you might finally be able to move your mind past the leech. It just won't do to get your mind stuck with creatures of the lowest phylum. I'm afraid I am unable to offer you all the equipment and prescriptions that may be required. That is, unless you can first explain to me and to the viewing audience at home in very simple but precise English what the real meaning of prapañca (Tibetan spros-pa) might be. Then and perhaps only then we might be able to take you to the physical therapists for a recovery program so you'll stop all that squirming and get your legs working again (really, I don't think you are getting out enough). But no, I really mean the part about not getting stuck on something when it doesn't entirely make sense. If I had followed that method I would have never made sense of or learned anything. Yours, Dan

  6. Dear Early,

    Also wanted to say something in response to your suggestion 'blood-sated leech' for the words in the Root Text, padmas khrag ngoms...

    You suggest we should translate "'the blood-sated leech' rather than 'blood-sucking'."

    I don't translate it either way. But I think you're right, anyway.

    Rngub would be your verb for sucking (with most general meaning of inhaling).

    There may be a quibble about the grammar of it (perhaps we would want to emend the text to read pad-pa khrag-gis ngoms, or something like that, taking the instrumental ending off of one noun and attaching it to the other), but I would still just translate, "The leech, sated with blood, doesn't go after meat that is in the water."

    But we have to visualize leeches as ordinarily (in their unsated state) doing what prapañcas do...

    Thanks for writing, and thank you for your help.



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