Thursday, March 05, 2009

Do Dampa's Droids Dare Dream of Desire?

Since phenomena are ultimately without essence, distinctions are only conventional and hence contingent. — Georges Dreyfus

In view of Small Person's queries, which I'm afraid I haven't been entirely able to answer to either of our satisfactions, about Padampa's degree of "ruthlessness," I'd like to devote today's longish blog to two particular images used by Padampa. Both images seem on the surface quite cold and unfeeling, even immoral, perhaps. His 'man of wood' and 'man of stone' metaphors initially struck me as both inapt and inept. Perhaps I got this impression because I hadn't given the matter enough thought (not the first time this has happened). Today I will present some of the sources that have been making me change my mind, slowly, in directions I hadn't suspected. This draws me off into some inchoate thoughts about the history of technology in Tibet and elsewhere, and a little musing on the changing significance of mechanisms in the lives of we living, loving and emotional human beings. I hope you will be patient with me. Perhaps you could also help me think through these problems some more. I'd be especially delighted to hear the cyborg point of view if any of you are out there.

I'll limit myself to the 'man of wood' (shing-gi mi), and leave the 'man of stone' (rdo-yi mi) alone for now.

I suppose it's possible, assuming you are a regular reader of Tibeto-logic (I know there are two or three of you), you might recall a particular passage in the root text that formed the basis for our set of Padampa's animal metaphors. "Ruthless" is an adjective I might have used, "cold" certainly, years ago when I first encountered it:

91. The wooden man cut off the elephant's head (variant: cut off the elephant's life). In what will the sin of it ripen?

The commentary would seem, whether accidentally or by design, to throw us off track... Or does it?

91. The wooden man kills an elephant. Similarly the full knowledge (jñāna) that comes from realization kills ignorance. (Zhijé Collection I 452)

We can consult a few other instances of the 'man of wood' or the 'person of wood' in other parts of the Zhijé Collection. In some of these we find a significant association with a yantra, in Tibetan trungkhor ('khrul-'khor), but before discussing that let's see the examples:

  Explaining the phrase 'If you don't focus on the result you obtain it' —

One's own benefit (as distinguished from benefit for others) is something the person of wood performed without having the idea [to obtain it]. 
In it [the person of wood] there is no idea it did something, or that there is something to do. 
It has no need to distinguish between what is and is not Dharma, or what practices to take up and [which others] to renounce. 
One who recognizes this is living the intentions of the Buddha.

  To explain this [verse Tenné says]:
For example, even though that man of wood may have performed actions by means of its yantra, actions like getting fruit (or, achieving results),* however much its actions have taken hold (?), it doesn't have the least idea that this thing or the other is what needs to be done. Taking up good Dharma practices and giving up what isn't Dharma... Overcoming this dualistic vision and becoming free of prapañcas, the individual suited for the Path is liberated from dualistic perceptions, and [it is] in knowing this that they are living in the intentions of the Buddha. That is what the words [of the verse] are ultimately aiming at.

*The Tibetan at this point reads: dper na shing gi myi de 'khrul 'khor gyis 'bras sgrub la stsogs pa'i bya ba byas kyang... 

This last bit (at Zhijé Collection IV 173) is part of a commentarial work by Tenné, which means it dates about a century later than the words of Padampa. The same goes for the following, from yet another of his commentaries (at Zhijé Collection V 414). This section of the commentary comes right after a section that argues there is no possibility for illustrating or making comparisons with the intentions of the Buddha. But then Tenné goes ahead and does just that.

"But in order to make this easy to comprehend, there is this analogy: A person of wood is devoid of I-&-mine in its actions, they say. You might then say, Well, how can it be, then, that there is no object of comparison for the Buddha's intentions? Wouldn't this analogy with the person of wood, for being without I-&-mine, contradict it? No, there is no contradiction. These two are in different realms. It's being beyond comparables is like this: On the one hand you have the intentions of the Buddha, [and on the other] you take this person of wood as an analogy, showing the manner in which Buddha activity is performed. 

"The person of wood, using the power that comes from its yantra, performs such appearances of activities like those of humans: threshing grain, pressing sesame (for oil) and chopping grass. It's not something it thinks about in terms of "Well, I've done such a thing." There is no I and mine. Similarly, like the wooden yantra, it may be that the intentions of Buddha are devoid of thought, yet its deeds that originate from the yantra are unimpeded, and here (in this life) the force of prior aspirations appears in the forms of all kinds of activities. Like the deeds done by a man of wood, the two Form Bodies are performing deeds that benefit sentient beings, but you wouldn't think, 'It's the wood that thrashes the grain.' Similarly you wouldn't say that it is the Form Bodies that perform the deeds that benefit sentient beings." 

The two Form Bodies are the Nirmanakaya (Tulpai Ku) and Sambhogakaya (Longchö Dzogpai Ku). The non-form Dharmakaya (Chökyi Ku) is their source, in the sense that the Form Bodies appear because of the compassion and the prior aspirations of the Enlightened One. The Sambhogakaya is compared to the yantra, the Nirmanakaya to the man of wood.

By now I think the passages, despite some obscurities that admittedly remain, have at the very least made it clear how we have to understand the 'man of wood' and the 'yantra.' Indeed, I recommend that you right away go back and reread the passages. Wherever you see the 'person of wood' or 'man of wood' (I don't distinguish between these two expressions... Should I?), replace it with the word 'puppet.' And wherever you see the Sanskrit word 'yantra,' replace it with the word 'contraption,' or better, 'device' or (I guess) 'mechanism.'

But we have still more sources, sources which ought to predate Padampa. Let's look at them and see if they support our interpretations. My first example comes from verse anthologies that either predate Padampa, and were brought with him — either on paper or in memory — from India, or represent texts delivered to him by visionary means.

From the text entitled Song of Glorious Vajraḍākinī (Dpal rdo rje mkha' 'gro ma'i mgur; Dergé Tanjur no. 2441, folio 63):

hūṃ skyi ser rlung gi pha yul gad ||
lag bskor mig gis ma lus bcom ||
bu chung 'di yi gces 'dzin bor ||
shing gi skyes bus dal [~ngal] dub spangs ||...

Hūṃ. The zephyr has the crack [in the wall] as its homeland.
The eye of the hand-wheel [mill] overcomes all.
Abandon attachment to this young child [you were?].
The man of wood has been freed from painful tasks...

It's interesting that the hand-wheel is mentioned here. It might possibly refer to the hand-held prayer wheel — about that more in a moment — but here I believe it means the hand-operated mill used for food processing. 

The following is from Symbol Song of Vajraḍākinī (Rdo rje mkha' 'gro ma'i brda'i mgur; Dergé Tanjur no. 2442, folio 66):

khyi phag gnyis kyis bram ze'i gsang tshig rlung la bskur ||
mi mgo skam po la ni shing gi skyes bu dga' ||
gyi ling sgrog dang bral na kun du rgyug par rigs ||
kha ba'i nus pa mtsho la gnas par mi 'gyur ro ||

Both the dog and the pig load the secret words of the brahmin on the wind.
[Even] a dried up human head [would be] a wooden man's delight.
Remove the gyiling horse's hobbles and it runs all over the place.
The power of the snow, when it gets to the lake, does not remain.

From Vajra Songs: The Vision of Suchness of All Yogis (Rnal 'byor pa thams cad kyi de kho na nyid snang ba zhes bya ba rnams kyi rdo rje'i mgur; Derge Tanjur no. 2453, fol. 96v):

sgyu lus kyi rnal 'byor ma kun dha li'i zhal snga nas |
'khrul 'khor las dang shing gi mi ||
bya ba rnams la 'dod pa med ||
de bzhin 'dod pa'i blo bral ba ||
'dzin med skyes pa 'phags pa'i lam ||

From the mouth of the Illusory Body Yoginī Kundhali, 
"The work done by a mechanism and the man of wood,
in their actions there is no desire.
Similarly, being without thoughts of desires,
a person without grasping [is on] the Path of Saints."

We know from this that the wooden man is an action figure. We also see, once again, an association between it and a yantra, or 'mechanism.' The Path of Saints means the Path of actual (not just potential) Bodhisattvas, Bodhisattvas who have experienced the direct vision of Truth (which requires further cultivation in order to approach Complete Enlightenment).

What's the source of the 'wooden man' in Padampa? The Adventures of Vikram is one possibility. Padampa surely knew of it. It has a frame story in which 32 wooden human (female) figures upholding a throne tell stories each in turn. (Not only that, but in recent times in Rajasthan, these stories have been performed in puppet theater; see Plowright.) Then again, perhaps a more Buddhist source was his inspiration, Śāntideva (chapter 5, verse 61). The context is a practice, universal to Buddhism, known as 'mindfulness of the body':

rmongs pa'i yid khyod ci yi phyir | | 
shing gzugs gtsang ma gzung mi byed | | 
mi gtsang tshogs kyi 'khrul 'khor 'di | | 
rul ba bsrungs te ci zhig rung | |

The Sanskrit text from this source:
na svīkaroṣi he mūḍha kāṣṭhaputtalakaṁ śucim|
amedhyaghaṭitaṁ yantraṁ kasmādrakṣasi pūtikam||61||

You foolish mind! Why wouldn't you rather
possess a pure wooden form?
Instead you protect this rotten thing,
this contraption of hosts of impurities. How is that right?

Dating several centuries before Padampa, this verse is remarkable for combining the interesting term 'wooden form' (actually, the Sanskrit word puttalaka seems to be the more usual word for both 'doll' and 'puppet') with the word yantra. This can hardly be a coincidence. Surely 'wooden form' means puppet here, and at least one modern commentator takes it so. Since I know some of my readers are native speakers of German, here is Ernst Steinkellner's translation. Perhaps one of you could tell me if Holzpuppe necessarily means 'puppet' or perhaps just 'wooden doll'?

"Ach du Narr! Eine saubere Holzpuppe hältst du nicht für dich; warum hütest du diese aus Unrat geschaffene, stinkende Maschine?" (chapter 5, verse 61)

We can be sure that Padampa knew Shantideva's famous Entry into the Awakened Life. Every inhabitant of the major North Indian monasteries studied it in those days. If anybody requires further indications, something more specific, Padampa was ordained as a novice monk by a teacher who is otherwise known to posterity only as author of a still-existing commentary on Shantideva's work. His name was Kshemadeva.

There are several historico-cultural-lexical barriers to explaining in a simple way why the connection between wooden forms and yantras ought to add up to puppets (or more accurately, marionettes, the ones with strings). Well, not quite necessarily. It could mean wooden figures made to move through still other devices, couldn't it? OK, you have me cornered, so I'll have to admit it. But let's look at the wording problem. The Tibetan for yantra is not a calque translation of the Sanskrit, and neither does it represent an attempt to etymologize the word, as often happens. It is what we would have to call a 'meaningful' translation, which means there was a pre-existing word considered sufficiently close to the Sanskrit that it was made to fill its place. The Sanskrit derives from the verbal root √yam, which means (following Monier-Williams) to sustain, hold, hold up, support, wield [a weapon], restrain, curb, govern, control. Yantra is defined as "any instrument for holding or restraining or fastening, a prop, support, barrier."  Or, "any instrument or apparatus, mechanical contrivance, engine, machine, implement, appliance (as a bolt or lock on a door, oars or sails in a boat, etc.)." And finally, "a mystical diagram supposed to possess occult powers." 

The Tibetan word trungkhor ('phrul-'khor) means 'wonder wheel' in its modern spelling, and 'bewilderment/error wheel' in the classical spelling ('khrul-'khor, spelled differently but pronounced precisely the same). Trungkhor is at the same time the only commonly used word for what we moderns are most likely to call 'yoga'. While Hatha Yoga (in its correct sense as 'forceful' yoga) is known to Tibetans as 'forceful methods' (tsentab, btsan-thabs), the bodily postures are called trungkhor. Tibetans have traditionally kept these trungkhors quite secret, although some have been published in recent times. I've even seen some very recently made videos, and an older work by Namkhai Norbu on "Yantra Yoga" has just been published in a more popular edition. 

Then, particularly in the Kālacakra Tantra we find descriptions of yantras that clearly mean 'war machines,' siege warfare instruments of various kinds, but primarily the catapult (Newman's dissertation). Yet even here we also find, within the same category, an amusement ride and an irrigation device.

With the pretty obvious exception of the yoga postures, all these things might be called mechanisms, but I suggest that the meaning of the word 'mechanism' has come to mean something quite different (which is to say that it evokes a very different image in our minds when we hear it) than it did in the old Greek days when it meant a kind of device: 

"For this, we cannot rely on modern ideas of what counts as 'mechanical.' The Greek equivalents – ta mêchanika or hê mêchanikê technê, 'the mechanical art' — are derived from a word for 'devices.' They are used of a body of work describing construction technology and the theoretical attempts to understand the powers of devices such as levers and pulleys, ballistic and hydraulic gadgets..." (Berryman, p. 347)

I'd like to refer to yantras simply as 'devices,' because I think this works quite well. I think its use helps to avoid some of the anachronisms that may be brought into play with the word 'mechanism.' We have to think in very broad terms of any object that appears to move or talk but is made of non-vital materials that normally do not permit this. Whether we understand what makes it happen or not, we will just call it a 'device,' perhaps leaving it at that. We will go on calling it by this same name even if we might find out that human or animal locomotion is in some way involved (Bhoja divides yantras into two categories to account for this possibility; Raghavan, p. 20). Most of the pre-15th-century history of technology in Eurasia, as I understand it, can be reduced to two basic motives. One was to create simulacra of humans and animals that are made, in various ways (and within limits, of course), to behave like them. The other was to create likenesses or models of celestial motion (globes, planetariums, clocks). To this we might add irrigation and milling technology (sugar mills, cotton gins, etc.) as a significant third, largely agricultural motive. (This is in large part taken from Price's essay). Of course even electric-era history is interested in such things as robots, atomic clocks, hydraulic works, combine harvesters &tc., so these motives surely do enjoy a continuing influence in our day.)

I imagined I heard somebody snickering in the background, so I ought to make one thing perfectly clear. Save the mirth.  Toys belong to the history of technology every bit as much as 'serious' machinery. Like Price (p. 15) says: 

"Amongst historians of technology there seems always to have been private, somewhat peevish discontent because the most ingenious mechanical devices of antiquity were not useful machines but trivial toys."

The merry-go-round described in the Kālacakra Tantra, and also by Bhoja (Raghavan, pp. 27-8), being useful for fun purposes, must count as a benchmark in the history of technology, every bit as much as the catapults useful in war. And if you are thinking puppets are trivial to technological history, just try dreaming up robotic machinery and prosthetics without them.

And that goes as well for the use of the Tibetan 'hand-wheel' as a tool for mantra recitation. Most of the history of technology that has involved Tibet up until now has revolved around this particular instrument, which people around the world have found intriguing just because it is a mechanism placed in the service of an internal (devotional and/or meditational) practice that may look like prayer — explaining the widely used misnomer 'prayer wheels.' Motives of play and worship can (and I think must) be accepted into the history of technology. 
(So, too, must magic, but I have enough on my plate as it is without even going there. That magic is a problem for many historians of science is proven by the cold responses and denials that greeted publication of the works of Frances Amelia Yates [1899-1981] of the Warburg Institute, London, so justly famous for her The Art of Memory.  This and her other books, among other things, make the case that the histories of today's sciences run through magical lineages extremely well.)

Another problem to get out of the way: Evolution doesn't matter. You heard me right. Technological changes in the past were not made in order to lead to the technology we know today (the 'teleological problem' in which all things lead up to what we think today is all about, is widespread, but deeply wrongheaded). It doesn't become a 'western' or European phenomenon because we choose to draw the historical lines that way. 

(Ignoring that Heron, being very probably a Graeco-Egyptian, or an Egyptian well educated in Greek, was anyway an African... ignoring that most of Greek technology, itself in some areas strongly influenced by Babylon and Egypt, was revived thanks to preservation and innovation in the Muslim world... ignoring inventions of China [movable type, gunpowder, the belted fly-wheel] and India [the worm screw, scissors]... And if we accept Lynn White's ideas about Tibetan 'prayer wheel' technology bringing the ball-&-chain governor to Italian machine design, we surely must bring Tibet in here, too... See Aris...) 

Wherever technological changes are introduced, it counts. That goes in particular for the Eskimo use of the screw, and I very heartily recommend Laufer's article on the subject. We really must not ignore Inuit ingenuity when we get the chance to learn about it, just because it doesn't fit into a lineage of knowledge we have drawn for ourselves as a way of serving our supposed needs.

And just one last pet peeve, although it may be news to some people who don't know me so well: Technological innovations are not the only true changes, with all other human developments tagged on as mere secondary results (human culture is not an 'epiphenomenon' of technology, to use the 10-dollar word for it). Other things in human history matter, too — both things that change and things that don't change — and may have priority over technological changes. Other things not only matter, on occasion they may even form bases for technological innovation: human thought and imagination to give obvious examples that ought not be overlooked.  Were you overlooking them?

And while you've got me going, one more thing: The past isn't there for us to tear it apart. It isn't a 'man of straw' for us to demolish in order to make us feel superior, smug in our modernity. It's there for us to widen our minds by imaginatively entering into it. The past is another culture. Get used to it. Exercise understanding. Learn the language. Think outside those boxes instead of just thinking how it might be a good idea.

We've just mentioned Laufer, which is nice, since he's one of the few Tibetologists (of course he was much more than that, and Sinologists among others will claim him as part of their history, too) who paid technology very much mind. Given how little there is, his work on milling devices is a very significant one. This, along with small writings on prayer wheels, and some writings about the tempered steel chain-suspension bridge builder Tangtong Gyalpo (best see the great book by Cyrus Stearns, or the online book by Manfred Gerner), are about all we can readily point to in the history of technology in the Snow Land. Part of the reason more hasn't been written is because most of us are either philosophers or scriptural Buddhologists, trained in those areas and plodding along in the same old ox-cart grooves, following the same methods — and consulting the same sources — that earned us our academic degrees. That goes toward explaining why we just don't recognize technology when we see it in our texts. We don't know how it was talked about. We don't see enough of it to know it's there, let alone place it in a larger picture. I also suspect that we don't expect to find any. Perhaps unknowingly we still labor under the illusions of those old writers who made fun of Tibet for knowing about the wheel for prayer, but not about its use for practical purposes like transportation. 

(Nah! Early Tibetans knew about wheeled transportation, sure enough. They just didn't find it practical. Just imagine trying to get those things to go on footpaths over high mountain passes.)

Has anyone even asked the question, Were there automata in Tibet like in the rest of Eurasia? Just asking it might lead to serious considerations about whether Tibet was or was not a part of the continent, over which it towers for other reasons, in terms of mechanical developments.

This story told in the 14th-century history, the Clear Mirror of the Royal Dynasty: Late in the reign of Tibetan Emperor Trisong Detsen in the last decades of the 8th century, several temples were built outside the outer walls of the new temple of Samyé, where the first Tibetan-born monks were ordained. One of these temples was the Butsel, built by a Queen named Poyongza. The Queen displayed her generosity by serving the workers elaborate meals with thirteen courses. In gratitude they added thirteen unexpectedly wonderful and clever additions to the temple. Number 12 was this one, as translated by Taylor & Yuthok:

"A golden coral emitted a sound when the gate was opened."

This may be the first coral made of gold in all of natural history, or it may be the first coral that ever emitted a sound. Well, matters are greatly clarified in the meticulous [rich with square brackets and footnotes] translation by Per Sørensen:

"For the openings and closing of the entrance [to the chapel] a golden bird [flew up and] gave signal."

I don't have the original passage behind these two translations immediately in hand, but I will hunt it down and add it here when I do locate it. Anyway, I could find more quickly the passage in the Feast for Scholars (p. 351). It tells of a pleasant water fountain not mentioned in the Clear Mirror. This fountain demonstrates some knowledge of hydraulics, no doubt, but it could also conceivably form part of the device that made the bird sing:

chu thams cad 'dril nas seng ge'i kha nas rus sbal gyi rgyab tu 'bab pa | goshir sha sgo yod pa | sgo 'byed gcod la gser gyi bye chung 'phar zhing skad 'don pa |

"All the water was collected and from a lion's mouth it fell on the back of a turtle. There was a door of white sandalwood. When this door was opened and closed a little bird of gold jumped up and sang."

I think it is clear enough that a bird sang, and moved some, whenever anyone entered the temple. I can't be sure this rings a bell for you like it does for me. I could be wrong, but I imagine it looked a little like this drawing, which was made to illustrate a translation of a work of Heron of Alexandria (1st century CE) done by Giovanni Batista Aleotti d'Argenta (b. 1546). It illustrates a hydraulic device for making birds sing when doors are opened.* 

*Heron Mechanicus, to use the Graeco-Latin name, also knew of hydraulic methods for making doors open automatically, which could be happening here, I'm not sure of it. For more on early automatic doors, see Needham, p. 162.  Notice that water is pouring from the mouths of lions in the drawing.

I'm not ready to claim that the singing bird was a hydraulic device invented independently by Tibetans, but neither can I demonstrate borrowing (although some Greek/Hellenistic rhytons, ewers and other metalworks have been found in Tibet*). Singing bird devices were known in the 10th century in the Magnaura Palace in Constantinople, and even earlier in Baghdad. Although the source is unclear, it is said that Caliph al-Ma'mun,** early in the 9th century, had a gold and silver tree with singing birds sitting in it (Brett, pp. 480-482, & illustrations). Considering this limited body of evidence, it would seem that Tibet was keeping up with technological developments, and perhaps even ahead of other parts of Eurasia.***

* There are articles on these 'out of place' artifacts (some of the most interesting ones now kept in Cleveland, Ohio) by Czuma, Denwood, Heller & Shepherd, but my bibliography is already too heavy to hold them. **Al-Ma'mun's reign was very important for the translation of Greek systems of science, especially astronomy and medicine, into Arabic (Syriac was also involved here). *** I hesitate to mention all those fantastic wonder stories scattered about the internet about "advanced ancient technology" in Tibet. If you want you can schmoogle the words and find them for yourself.

It's time to get back to the subject of puppets, I'd say. My argument is this: Puppets are a type of simulacrum as well as a type of automaton. The device that permits their movement is hidden from the viewer. But even puppets that are controlled by the presence of a living organism inside them ought to be included in the same category, like the 'lion suit' that Padampa mentions so often. 

(Bhoja, like Heron, recommends that the mechanism be concealed in order to increase wonder in the viewer.)

These devices belong to the field of drama, it's true, but then there are a number of signs that Padampa was familiar with Indian dramatic theory. One rather mysterious sign of this might be found in his use of the word karaṇa, a technical term probably drawn from Indian dramatic theory (nāṭya śāstra — a mystery I may go into another time, since I'm still pondering; it's a technical term in grammar, also). Another is the lion suit, and of course the 'Chinese mask' in the last blog. Some believe that the original drama in India was puppet drama, pointing to the word used in theater for the director or narrator, sūtradhāra. It very literally means 'holder of the string[s].' This same word, in context of architecture, means the architect (or chief artisan, or carpenter).*

* Chalk lines are laid down using strings, and not only in drawing out building plans on the ground, but in other artisanal contexts as well, including carpentry. Some people might need reminding that the mandala is also an architectural structure, even if in art it is most often seen in two dimensions (three-dimensional blowups, called lolang [blos-bslangs] do exist). The first stage in the construction of a mandala is laying out the chalk lines, and these are the strings the string holder holds.

When Padampa talks about a wooden man cutting off the head of (or slaying, as the text variant says) an elephant, I assume it's [1] a puppet play context, in which both the man and the elephant are puppets playing their parts, or [2] an automata display that involves some kind of at least minimal movement and interaction between the wooden man and the wooden elephant that results in the death of the elephant. Here there is an immoral moral that could be understood, this being that the world is an illusion so it doesn't matter what evil we do. And desireless robots have zero moral liability. I thought so, too, at first, laboring under my modern negative understanding of androids (it hadn't occurred to me yet that 'man of wood' might mean 'puppet'), without any will or motivation of their own, and hence not constituting moral agents. But if we accept the Tibetan commentator, the slaying of ignorance is done 'on its own ground' simply through the light of spiritual realization falling on it. No slaying at all takes place, just equally illusory characters in a play that forms its own resolution. Well, when the play is over, we remember the 'devices' that made the show possible and go home reflecting on the action, but conscious that it was, finally, just a show. What we were thinking was happening there didn't matter in the way we were thinking it did. Focus on the device and you just might lose interest in the show.

Where for moderns the droid is an irredeemably negative and threatening image, the puppet in Padampa's time was nothing so ominous, since anyway, the mechanistic worldview hadn't much developed yet (the big idea that everything non-mechanical can be understood better by pretending as if it were; see Berryman's article). It was something more sympathetic. It was a device, an instrument, for entertainment, drama. In Padampa's eremetic world, it is a positive symbol for the  wholly realized individual, meaning the actualized Bodhisattva and completely Enlightened Buddha. And in the quotes from Tenné, in his self-consciously inadequate analogy, the puppet and its 'control' device become symbols for the two Form Bodies that manifest after Complete Buddhahood due to the force of altruistic Bodhisattva aspirations, aspirations that 'automatically' continue to act on the stage of the world in order to resolve the confusion and miseries of us animated beings.

One of the most common puppet figures in India is Ganesha. Puppet plays commonly start (as do many other undertakings in India) with an appearance by Ganesha and offerings made to him as overcomer of obstacles. The most famous elephant decapitation in all of history is surely the one that resulted in Ganesha

(The good that can be derived from drastic situations?) 

Could the man of wood be Shiva in his puppet form? Are we starting to get some sense of what's going on behind Padampa's cryptic words? I'm asking.

There are those who think histories ought to end with the kind of conclusion that brings us, finally, to a state of comforting wistful irony. I don't belong to their school. In fact, I don't think I believe in putting ends on things at all.  Let's stick with beginnings.

Too Much Stuff to Read about Automata & Puppets 
(& OK Humans) —

Michael Aris, Tibetan Technology and the West. Look here.

Christopher I. Beckwith, Tibetan Science at the Court of the Great Khans, The Journal of the Tibet Society, vol. 7 (1987), pp. 5-11. Available online.

Sylvia Berryman, Ancient Automata and Mechanical Explanation, Phronesis, vol. 48, no. 4 (2003), pp. 344-69. Try JSTOR if you can.

Gerard Brett, The Automata in the Byzantine "Throne of Solomon," Speculum, vol. 29, no. 3 (July 1954), pp. 477-87. On Heron of Byzantium (called so so as not to confuse him with the much earlier Heron of Alexandria), whose book is dated 938 CE. The Throne of Solomon was a popular theme all over Europe and the Middle East, including such places as the Alhambra, the Ste. Chapelle in Paris etc. The Biblical description has sculptured lions on each step leading up to the throne, and in the Byzantine version of it, at least, there not only were lions, they were lions that roared.

William Dolby, The Origins of Chinese Puppetry, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 41 (1978), pp. 97-120. Our 'puppet' translation for 'man of wood' might, I suppose, be ratified with reference to a Chinese word for 'puppet' we find here which means very literally 'wooden doll.' I don't believe it's necessary to appeal to evidence from China, even if Padampa had recently spent twelve years there. He must have known about Indian puppetry, also.

Georges B. Dreyfus, What is Debate for? The Rationality of Tibetan Debates and the Role of Humor, Argumentation, vol. 22 (2008), pp. 43-58, the quote at p. 57.

Andrew Glass, Early Adopters: Debunking Stereotypes of Buddhist Attitudes toward Technology, IIAS Newsletter, no. 49 (Autumn 2008), pp. 20-21. Technology in this brief paper means primarily techniques of literary reproduction, such as paper and printing technologies, although there is a bit on structural mechanics in Buddhist architecture.

Irfan Habib, Pursuing the History of Indian Technology: Pre-Modern Modes of Transmission of Power, Social Scientist, vol. 20, nos. 3-4 (March 1992), pp. 1-22.

Berthold Laufer (1874-1934 CE), The Eskimo Screw as a Culture-Historical Problem, American Anthropologist, new series vol. 17, no. 2 (April 1915), pp. 396-406. Of course nobody in Laufer's day thought the ethnonym 'eskimo' problematic, as some do today. Notice the words on p. 401: "A history of the screw has not yet been written." This can no longer be said, thanks to Rybczynski (just below). Have a look here. Or here.

Berthold Laufer, The Noria or Persian Wheel, Oriental Studies in Honour of Dasturji Saheb Cursetji Erachji Pavry, Oxford University Press (Oxford 1933), pp. 238-50.

Joseph Needham, Mechanical Toys, contained in: Joseph Needham with Wang Ling, Science And Civilisation in China, Volume 4: Physics and Physical Technology, Part II: Mechanical Engineering, University Press (Cambridge 1965), pp. 156-65.

John R. Newman, The Outer Wheel of Time: Vajrayāna Buddhist Cosmology in the Kālacakra Tantra, PhD dissertation, University of Wisconsin at Madison (Madison 1987).  On pp. 543-77, are the tantra's instructions for the construction of siege weapons, chariots, merry-go-rounds, and hydraulic systems for irrigation. A separate title on these devices by Gö Lotsawa (1392 1481), the author of the Blue Annals, has survived in a collection in Lhasa, but has not been made available to the world at large as yet. It is quite short, in only two folios.

Jamyang Norbu, Newspeak & New Tibet, Part I: The Myth of China's Modernization of Tibet and the Tibetan Language. A nice sketch of early Tibetan technology, among other matters, is to be found in this article from the inimitable J.N.'s famously formidable pen. Available here, at

Poh Sim Plowright, The Desacralization of Puppetry: A Case History from Rajasthan, New Theater Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 3 (August 2005), pp. 273-98.

Derek J. de Solla Price, Automata and the Origins of Mechanism and Mechanistic Philosophy, Technology & Culture, vol. 5, no. 1 (Winter 1964), pp. 9-23.

Venkatarama Raghavan, Yantras or Mechanical Contrivances in Ancient India, Transaction no. 10, The Indian Institute of Culture, Basavangudi, Bangalore (1952), a booklet in 31 pages.  I'm unbelievably fortunate to have a copy of this rare publication (for two microfilmed versions in U.S. libraries, look here).  I got it from the duplicates box in the Kern Institute in Leiden a few years ago (they still have at least two copies; look here).

Keith Rawlings, Deeper Investigations into Shadow Theatre and Puppetry (April 2003). Available here.

Keith Rawlings, Observations on the Historical Development of Puppetry. Dated November 1999, but updated April 2003. Available here.

Witold Rybczynski, One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw, Scribner (New York 2001), in 176 pages. I haven't read this, but I imagine you, like me, might want to.

Śāntideva, Eintritt in das Leben zur Erleuchtung (Bodhicaryāvatāra), translated from the Sanskrit by Ernst Steinkellner, Eugen Diederichs Verlag (3rd reprint, Munich 1997). Daniel Stender's website has a great collection of related online links

Michael Schuster, Visible Puppets and Hidden Puppeteers: Indian Gombeyata Puppetry, Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 18, no. 1 (Spring 2001), pp. 59-68. The author, himself a puppeteer and founder of the Bell Theater in Jerusalem, supplies us with the amazing information that South Indian puppets sometimes have paper yantras (in this case ritual diagrams that resemble mandalas) inserted inside their heads and arms. Puppets might even undergo a type of consecration ritual similar to those for divine images performed in the temples. Color plate 3 shows the elephant-headed Ganesha puppet with a motor in the back of its head to make its halo revolve.

Per K. Sørensen, Tibetan Buddhist Historiography: The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies, an Annotated Translation of the XIVth Century Tibetan Chronicle rGyal-rabs gsal-ba'i me-long, Harrassowitz (Wiesbaden 1994), the cited passage on p. 389.

McComas Taylor & Lama Choedak Yuthok, trs., Sakyapa Sönam Gyaltsen, The Clear Mirror: A Traditional Account of Tibet's Golden Age, Snow Lion (Ithaca 1996), p. 242, was quoted above.

Stephanie West, Cultural Interchange over a Water-Clock, The Classical Quarterly, new series vol. 23, no. 1 (May 1973), pp. 61-64.

Marianne Winder, Aspects of the History of the Prayer Wheel, Bulletin of Tibetology, new series vol. 1 (1992), pp. 25-33.  PDF here.

"[T]he shadow-casting images used in the cave [in Plato's famous cave analogy in The Republic] are referred to as thaumata, here meaning puppets or fabrications, made by thaumatapoioi, here meaning puppet-makers or tricksters." (Danzig, p. 189) 

In The Republic, this allegory is, in the cynical interpretation of it, mainly about the possibility of molding public perceptions for reasons of statecraft. Thaumata means 'wonder,' but then it has been said, 

"Ancient sources claim that it is only the inexperienced — those who do not perceive the cause — who feel the wonder." 
— Berryman, p. 347

No history of early Eurasian technology could be complete without including more on al-Jazarī, Ma Chün, Mo Ti,* Vitruvius, Leonardo and Bhoja, but I've tried to keep from writing too much about things I don't know very much about.  I've done enough of that today. The next time you're in Dhubai, visit the Ibn Battuta Shopping Mall in order to see the nine-meter-high Elephant Clock, built according to al-Jazarī's specifications. Or if the economic situation discourages your patronage of shopping malls, have a look here, here and here and be amazed.

*Mo Ti was an inventor [?] of automobiles in 4th century China; see Needham, p. 159.
I didn't really get a chance to say much about the history of clock-making technology that can be known from Tibetan-language texts, mainly in Vinaya scriptural translations.  Gregory Schopen has written about the subject recently, in his article "Marking Time in Buddhist Monasteries" that also forms a chapter in his book Buddhist Monks and Business Matters.  You can get some idea about Indian water clocks and sundials in this downloadable PDF, and a book by the same author published in India last year that I'm eager to read at my first opportunity: Sreeramula Rajeswara Sarma, The Archaic and the Exotic: Studies in the History of Indian Astronomical Instruments.

There is a reason the modern Tibetan word for 'clock' and 'hour' is chutsö (chu-tshod). It might be etymologized as meaning something like 'water reckoning.'  Chutsö is in fact registered in the main Sanskrit-Tibetan vocabulary of the early 9th century, the Mahāvyutpatti, as equivalent to Sanskrit ghaṭikā, the device described by Schopen, which in its turn is quite comparable to the Greek clepsydra (κλεψυδρα).  The Greeks very likely got this time keeping technology, in turn, from the Egyptians (see the article by West).

If you haven't heard the story of how Ganapati (Ganesh) got his elephant head before, or if you need to jog your memory, there is a nice animation of the myth at YouTube, but beware the graphic violence. 

A mechanical singing bird by Bontems of Paris dating from 1870.

NOTE:  A puppet appendix or addenda should be going up soon, which might change our minds some more.  I hope so.  There are also some fairly early Mahabharata / Bhagavad Gita puppet metaphors.  Perhaps more important is a metaphor from the Prajnaparamita pointed out to me by Henk Blezer of Leiden, The Netherlands.  Thank you Henricius!


  1. When Padampa used the "man of wood" image, who did he assume the puppeteer to be and where was the puppeteer located? After all ... it's not the wood that has the intention, or even the control. It's the puppeteer ....

  2. Hi Dan, Great post, as always. I happen to have the rgyal rabs gsal ba'i me long right here beside me. The line in question reads: sgo 'byed gcod la gser gyi bye rus skad 'don pa (mi rigs dpe skrun khang edition, p. 213)

  3. Dear Person (and then Adam),

    To answer the question about the puppeteer... I don't know. Padampa doesn't bring the puppeteer into play in his analogy, which anyway is an analogy, and we know they hardly every work completely, or survive the stress of interrogation. Even when the 'object to be compared' is something less totally incomparable. In Tenné's analogy the puppeteer has to be the Dharmakaya, identical with Complete Enlightenment. But then (somehow) the Dharmakaya Buddha has intentionality that is somehow thought-free? Interesting. I imagine Tenné himself was seeing his already extended analogy crumbling around the edges under the strain. (I think that is why he invokes the 'it's only an analogy after all' argument ahead of time, predicting objections he can see coming. We all tend to do that when we use analogies. It's like the guy who is out on the ice and starts to hear the ice cracking around him. He grabs his walking stick, lays himself down on the ice on top of the walking stick which he places at right angles to his body making a big plus mark to spread out his body weight. And then falls through the ice anyway.) It's entirely possible Tenné is somehow continuing Padampa's puppet metaphor, just as he continued his lineage. I'll have to think about it again, and again.

    And Adam, thanks for the text. The bye-ru (with added 's' case ending) explains why Yuthok & Taylor translated 'coral' (byi-ru). Bye-ru is a possible 'obsolete' spelling for byu-ru (Tshanlha dictionary). It's hard to avoid the 'sand' meaning of bye[-ma], however, but it is possible to interpret differently if it's a truncated version of bye'u, the diminutive for bya, 'bird.' (Leonard vdK has a testimony for the spelling bye'e, which is strange, but he got it from a strange text.)

    But why would they feel compelled to read bye-ru as byi-ru rather than bya-ru (birdhorns, well known to Bon sources, but also early Chos sources from Padampa's time)?

    And do you think 'bone divide' or 'sand horn' are possible ways to deal with it?

    Oddly enough the Scholars' Feast has in place of bye-rus, bye chung. So it 'preserves' that odd bye spelling. But it's chung, 'small' obviates the need for a diminutive form of 'bird', doesn't it?

    See what rnam-rtogs and prapañcas Tibetan studies gets us into? Such fun. Who ties these strings onto us? I feel my nose growing longer by the minute, but I know I have a heart somewhere. It was just here a minute ago. Better do some shopping. A puppet has got to eat.

    Thanks for writing.


  4. Dear SF,

    I'm not sure why Svātmārāma's Haṭhayogapradīpikā is supposed to be especially relevant. Doesn't it date from around 14th-15th centuries, about 3 or 4 centuries after Padampa? I'd say that Padampa was much influenced by yoga currents, including Hatha Yoga currents, that were flowing in (especially) Nath Yogi circles during his time. He was not alone in that.

    For Hatha yoga works more likely to link in one way or another to Padampa, I'd recommend this book: Shyam Ghosh, The Original Yoga, Munshiram Manoharlal (New Delhi 1999). This contains the text and translation of the Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā, as well as Śiva Saṃhitā and Pātañjali's Yogasūtra.

    Thanks for taking the time to write.


  5. Dear SF,

    Oh, sorry. My mistake. I see there are translations of those works at your link, also. Should look before automatically opening my mouth.


  6. For my part, it's all still dim. So I think I'll wait for the write-up on the Man of Stone and any new translations or studies that pop up.

    By the way, have there been any new studies or write-ups on Padampa that anyone knows of? Anything in the pipeline?

  7. Dear Sp,

    Stuff in the pipelines? Nothing I know of. Well, let's see. Although David Molk, in the book Lion of Siddhas, mentions a lot of translations he has done besides the ones that were included. I've got an article on a minor ritual object of Tibetan origin, one that Padampa made use of in a very Tibetan ritual. I make a big deal out of this small thing. The title is "Ritual Indigenization as a Debated Issue in Tibetan Buddhism (11th to Early 13th Centuries), but I'm afraid it will take awhile before it sees light.

    There's Kurtis Schaeffer's paper, which includes some sample translations from mainly the Padampa texts that are in the Tanjur. It's listed here:

    The Molk book was listed here:

    Anybody else know of anything?


  8. Hi Dan:

    Well, its probably not very helpful, but the modern materia medica, 'khrungs dpe dri med shel gyi me long considers bye ru to be equivalent with byu ru or coral, pg. 417


  9. Dear Malcolm,

    Thanks for that. I don't know what to do with that, or with this: Pasang Yonten Arya's Dictionary of Tibetan Materia Medica, p. 162, has an entry for BYE RU'I DOM 'BE.

    It's defined as one of the names for the fruits of Berberis jamesiana Forrest et W.W. Sm. / Berberis tsarica Ahrend, or skyer pa'i 'bras bu. Called mdzo mo nu nu in the common language.

    I guess this means that it's the fruit of some kind of barberry bush. But the literal meaning of the name escapes me.

    The correct spelling of the diminutive of bya, 'bird,' ought to be byi'u, not bye'u. Isn't that right?

    So anyway, I get the sense there is some vowel shifting going on. An influence of dialects?

    Thanks for taking the time to write.


  10. Dear Adam & Malcolm,

    I believe I've found an example for the bye syllable meaning [small] bird that helps substantiate my own reading. It's in the Zhijé Collection, vol. 1, p. 440: dper na sgo nga'i nang na yod pa'i bye phrug de dang po nas nam mkha' la lta ba yin skad. For example, the baby bird (bye phrug) that is inside the egg from the very first looks toward the sky, it is said.

    Is this another 'error' or is it yet another example of actual usage? My question.

    Well, what about vol. 5, p. 363: bye phrug khras khyer ba lta bu. Like a baby bird snatched away by a hawk.


  11. Uh oh! After posting that last comment I noticed that the one example was just a variant on one we already encountered in the set of Padampa's animal metaphors:

    sgo nga'i nang nas byung ba'i bye phrug mkha' la lta ba de ci sems //
    34. The chick that [just] emerged from inside the egg, looking to the sky, what is it thinking?

    The looking, I'm thinking, could only be taking place after emerging from the egg, although I could be wrong.

    I notice James Valby's dictionary also registers the spelling bye-phrug as meaning "young bird." Phrug is used for the 'kids' or 'whelps' of quite a lot of different animals, including human 'kids' (although they're more often called 'puppies' or khye'u, not that you ought to be thinking of puppies when you encounter this word for child, which modern Lhasa has replaced by pugu, which is in fact derived from phrug, but with a diminutive ending, phru[g]-gu). Nothing's any cuter than diminutive critters, I'd say.


  12. I've got so much to write, and so little time to do it. I followed the rich list of references in Per Sørensen's translation of the passage on what looks like a 'bird automata,' and found the corresponding passage in the English translation of the life of Padmasambhava (an excavated terma work found in 1352 CE). I know, I ought to look up the original Tibetan, but that takes a little digging among my IASWR microfiche. Meanwhile, here's the passage as translated (partially via French) in Yeshe Tsogyal (= Ye-shes-mtsho-rgyal), The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, tr. by K. Douglas and G.Bays, Dharma Publishing (Berkeley 1978), vol. 2, p. 528:

    "Thirteen foods were served to the artists,
    and thirteen of their works are reputed to be masterpieces —
    seven, people say, outrank the others.
    The temple is constucted without external masonry or interior pillars;
    the Chinese-style is blue...
    All sorts of birds from China make beautiful ornaments —
    at the eagle door, small golden birds
    sound their soft songs which delight the heart...
    a perfumed water which a makara vomits out
    serves for ablutions, and falls upon a turtle...
    A divine son born from a garuda egg asks the Tathâgatas for the lustral ablution..."

    Seeing this translation makes me want to see the original wording all the more, since it isn't clear enough whether the bird or birds are actually supposed to be automata, although it is abundantly clear that they sing.

  13. Dear readers,

    Like I just did, you might want to read the latest by Tom Tillemans in Argumentation (vol. 22, 2008, pp. 149-163) entitled "Reason, Irrationality and Akrasia (Weakness of the Will) in Buddhism: Reflections upon Śāntideva's Arguments with Himself." It's very well written, thought provoking, very well thought out and, well, (if I may use the word) rational in the sense that it's hard to see any logical inconsistency in it. Tillemans makes the verse 5.61 the centerpiece of his argument that the author is admitting to a failure to live up to his (overall) rationality. I'll leave the verdict up to him and to you, but I do disagree with the Crosby and Skilton translation "wooden doll." (p. 154) As I think I said before, since the verse combines the idea of "wooden form" with 'contraption' (yantra) it must mean more than just a doll — either a puppet of a humanoid automata. Given the lack of will and motivation that generally characterizes literary images of the puppet, it does seem strangely ironic that it would come to be employed in an argument about failure of the will. But I'll leave that to your judgment if you care to take up the question. For now I'll simply rationalize my laziness by talking about my need to do other things.


  14. Has there been any further thoughts that have swarmed around you for a while about dolls, puppets, toys, and technology -- that is, about the way spirit takes form reflexively?

  15. Well, yes. Those thoughts keep swarming around & sticking in my head like godawful Prapañcas or something. What can I do? How much better to be a wooden figure. I'm hoping I'll get around to more on this subject, but other ideas keep intervening. Us puppets are always in the control of other stuff, inside & outside both. When will we ever find freedom?

  16. See now this online (free) essay: You Zhao, “Oneself as Another: Yantraputraka Metaphors in Buddhist Literature,” Religions, vol. 14, no. 503 (2023).


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