Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Death, Rebirth and Being Human in Tibetan Buddhism

Our in-built bodily reproductive functions along with our tendency to waste away and die are two of the topics that interest us the most, or bother us the most, as you will. The concern with eros and thanatos is one academics share with everybody else, and not only the ones who work in Italy. I tried, but failed, to think of anyone I know who isn't the least bit concerned about reproduction and death. The first is part of sex, after all, and the second, well, part of life. In her lecture, Frances Garrett, Prof. at the University of Toronto and a well-known Tibetanist, emphasizes certain broad themes: for example, how the area of human health concerns gets divvied up — in culturally distinct ways — between the realms of [medical] science and religion. 

Although I assure you she does speak in an accessible manner, non-native or basic English speakers will be heartened to discover that a transcript is available, because like so many North Americans, she speaks a little too quickly. 

The video lasts 38 minutes, and your computer needs to be equipped to view "RealPlayer" videos. Bear in mind this is a streaming video. That means it can't normally be downloaded for later viewing or linked directly to — or embedded in — a blog. 

I recommend that when you have gone to this link, you immediately tap on the words below the video window: "Launch in a new window." That way you can control the size of the screen, which is otherwise quite small.

The Tibetan word korwa ('khor-ba) means 'circling' or 'cycling' (Jeffery Hopkins' frequently emulated translation is 'cyclic existence'), used to translate Sanskrit sasāra or संसार (often spelled sangsara, which is its normal pronunciation, too). The Sanskrit means a course or coursing (as of a river or of life), a 'flowing along.' Above all, it means the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. This is the subject of the painting shown above, the Wheel of Life (you will see more of it in the video, which is very nicely illustrated with Tibetan artworks).

Prof. G. tells part of the story of one Dawa Drölma (Zla-ba-sgrol-ma), a 'returner from the realm of the dead' Tibetans call a delog ('das-log).  I believe she must intend by that name the mother of Chagdud Rinpoche. This account by the late Rinpoche's mother is one of the few available in English translation, and is very highly recommended for all kinds of reasons.

Between the years 2007 and 2008 Frances Garrett served out the term of her David B. Larson Fellowship at the John W. Kluge Center, neighboring the U.S. Library of Congress in the U.S. capitol.  This video was made on August 12, 2008, during her tenure at the Kluge. I look forward to reading her recent and upcoming books on embryology.

ˇ ˇ ˇ ˇ ˇ

A book we mentioned:  

Delog Dawa Drolma (1905-1941), Delog: Journey to Realms Beyond Death, "translated from the Tibetan by Richard Barron under the direction of His Eminence Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche," Padma Publishing (Junction City 1995). 

Another recent and perhaps more easily gotten book on the subject is the one by Bryan Cuevas.

The paintings:

The Tibetan painting that forms our frontispiece is from the collection of the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. For more information on that painting, look here.  

Just above, you see the main thangka that illustrates the Blue Beryl ideas about conception, fetal development and childbirth. (I'm hoping it will appear much larger in a new window if you double-click on it, so give it a try!)  Some of this thangka will be seen in the video. It is very important to know right at the outset that some of these painted images were intended to be 'emblematic' (or mnemonic) for a topic in the outline. These were not meant to 'illustrate' in the modern photographic sense of the term. Equipped with that wrong assumption, many misunderstandings have occurred. The turtle stage, for example, doesn't have anything especially to do with turtles.  It just tells us that this is the point at which the major bodily limbs become evident, but before they reach their full extent. It may appear that the stages of fish > turtle > pig are the kind of recapitulation of evolution about which many modern embryologists have spoken, but really, these are (also?) three successive incarnations of Vishnu in Indian Puranic mythology.

The Tibetan medical chart you see just below is from the Rubin museum's collection. It also was painted as part of the set intended to illustrate the Blue Beryl medical work composed by Regent Sanggyé Gyatso. Look here to learn more.

To see a set of 77 medical paintings all in one place, look here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

An Inaugural Lecture on Tibet's (Creative) Dark Age

Rethinking Tibet’s Dark Age: Demons, Tantras, and the Formation of Tibetan Buddhism

October 21, 2008 
in Heyns Room 
Faculty Club 

Speaker:Jacob Dalton
Go to this link — as soon as you have an hour to spare — to hear and see Jacob Dalton talk about Vajrayana manuscripts found in Dunhuang. I was intrigued to learn that there are Earth Rites (Sa Chog) to be found in them. The speaker is introduced by Robert Sharf.  This event was sponsored by Institute of East Asian Studies, UC Berkeley.
If you want to brush up on Earth Rites to prepare yourself, try this most recent article on the subject by Alexander Gardner.
Hmmm...  I seem to be having trouble making the link to Alex Gardner's paper work for me. If it isn't working for you, try schmoogling this title: "The Sa Chog: Violence and Veneration in a Tibetan Soil Ritual."

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Men of Stone

I keep finding more to say and more and more sources about the Man of Wood.  That's why today I decided to blog about the Man of Stone (rdo'i mi) instead.  I'll begin by just giving the sources, since I'm not sure if I'll write any conclusion at all today.  To do that I would first have to get into some new... to me... and interesting... well, to myself at least... insights that cover both the Man of Wood and the Man of Stone as a 'natural' pair. And to do that I'd have to go into some new thinking on the Man of Wood, which I'll just have to save for another time, since the sources seem to keep rolling in. I'd hate to jinx this by writing about it too soon. 

Just a hint for those few who might be able to accept it with supernatural ease: wood and stone are images that Buddhists could and did use to talk about issues of insentience, which is the alternative to sentience (as in 'sentient beings' which we could just as well call 'sapient beings'). They are images that (in one area or another... this being an important point... as in illness, fear, anxiety, counterproductive thinking... Well, you get the idea), encourage imperviousness, immovability. Even non-thought or 'mindlessness' in a certain sense, at least, if you don't mind me using that scary term (and if you do, you just never mind for now). Without wasting any more of our precious time (only joking, actually I could just care less about our precious time and plan to use up a whole lot of it, Huh huh haw!), I'd like to give just about all the examples I could find in the Zhijé Collection.  The first ones I have translated in complete verses. The single lines work fine individually, but there is also a strong possibility that there may be, at times, an elusive conceptual continuity...

The first source, unlike the others, is found both in the Dergé Tanjur (no. 2440) and in the Zhijé Collection (vol. 1, pp. 383-404, at p. 387). It's called Secret Vajra Song: Great Sealing Precepts (Phyag-rgya-chen-po'i Man-ngag Rdo-rje Gsang-ba'i Glu). This is a Mahâmudrâ teaching from the Great Siddha by the name of Saraha, who ought to be the author, therefore. But I wonder if it resulted from a vision Padampa had of Saraha, which would mean we could with some reason call Padampa the author, too? (Just a question. Not like I have an answer or anything.)  

dud pas mi 'jigs rtsi med sbrang ma'i tshang ||
'chi bdag kha ru ma tshud skye 'gro gad ||
lus la 'byung ba ma 'khrugs rdo yi mi ||
ming nas bos pas shi ba ldog gam ci ||

gad > ZC gang. rdo yi mi > ZC rdo'i myi.

It won't be destroyed by smoke, the beehive with no honey.
The creature not thrown into the mouth of the death lord, [show me] one.
In his body are no disturbances of the elements,* the man of stone.
Its name called out, does the dead man turn around to see?
*Disturbance of the elements very simply means physical sickness.

... ... ...

ZC vol.1, p. 396
kye ho sgyu ma'i skyes bu'i 'du shes stor ||
don byed mi nus rmi lam nor gyi gzeb ||
rdo yi mi yi rig byed gang du song ||
glang po'i mgo la rwa med chag dogs bral ||
gzeb > ZC gseb. rdo yi mi yi > ZC rdo'i myi'i. rig > ZC rigs. chag > ZC chags.

chu shing snying po phyi nang gnyis kar med ||
dug sbrul ma bltas sgo nga blang mi rung ||
drang srong nad kyi grogs dang gnyen po soms ||
ded dpon bu ni yab la gling rgyus 'dri ||
sgo nga > ZC sgong nga.

Oh my! The person of illusion has lost his ideas about things.
No profit will come of it, a basket full of wealth in a dream.
The intelligence (Vedas?) of the man of stone, Where did it go?
The elephant with no tusks on its head has nothing to fear.

The banana tree has no essence, neither within nor without.
Taking the egg but not checking for the viper is not to be done.
Do the rishis* [need] nurses and antidotes, you think?
The ship captain's son, for familiarity with the islands, questions his father.

*The ancient sages (seven or eight rishis) of Indian lore are the real founders of medicine among humans. They are believed to live forever... well, very nearly so.

... ... ...

ZC vol. 1, p.  401
sgra nyan pa yi phag rgod gdams pa ston ||
ngan smras bstod tshig khyad med rdo yi mi ||
smig rgyu'i klung na chu thigs yod ma yin ||
skye dang 'chi ba mo gsham bus ma byas ||

sgra nyan pa yi > ZC sgra la nyan pa'i. rdo yi mi > ZC rdo'i myi. smig rgyu'i klung > ZC dmyig sgyu'i rlung. yod ma > ZC yod pa.

The wild pig* that listens to the sound is teaching the precepts.
Speaking ill or hymns of praise make no difference to the man of stone.
In a mirage river there are no water drops.
Being born and dying are things the barren woman's child doesn't do.
*For the wild pig, see no. 57 here.

ZC vol. 1, p. 417
rdo'i myi zhes pa ni / rdo'i myi srin mo'i gling du skyal kyang myi 'jigs pa bzhin du / sems nyid kyi rtsa ba chod pas phyi nang gi 'jigs pa gang la yang spang blang myed pa gcig dgos / de byung na gnyen po phyir 'phel [~phul] ces pa ste / khams na sgun [~rgun] 'brum skems pa la kra ka srung dgos pas / de la dang po kra ka gcig bsad de gsob phyar bas des thub skad // de dang 'dra bar dben pa'i gnas su dge' sbyor nyams su len rtsam na / bar chad 'jigs skam [skyems? rgam?] pa la sogs pa myi mthun phyogs kyi rdog [~rtog, ~dogs] pa byung na / de sems nyid kyi nang du ngo sprad de / rtog pa dbyings su gsad / phyis skyes kyi rtog pa de kun bsrings pas / go cha bzang ste gnyen po phyir 'phel ba'o.

If you were to take a man of stone to a rakshasi island it would have no fear. Even so, when you have gotten to the root of Mind Proper, what is required is an absence of acceptance/rejections toward any fearful thing, whether inner or outer. When that happens, send the antidotes back where they came from.

In Kham, they say, when drying grapes they have to guard them from the crows. So first they kill one crow and fly it as a scarecrow and that suffices. Similarly, when you start practicing the virtuous applications in an isolated place, you may become fearful of inimical forces, like fear of obstacles. In that case recognize it as belonging to Mind Proper and slay the mental reservations [troubling thoughts] in the Realm. That will completely close off access for all the mental reservations that would have arisen later on. Put on this excellent armor [of renunciation] and send the antidotes away.

ZC vol. 1, p. 439
If an attractive young woman were to have her head catch on fire she would put everything else aside and kill the fire. Likewise, perseverance in all the Dharma practices is essential. For example, if you were to strike a man of stone with whip or club, it would not produce in him the least displeasure. Similarly you ought to weather the inimical winds of bodily injuries and mental injuries.

ZC vol. 1, p. 446
For example, it is said that in India, a homeless person with no possessions might go to a cremation ground and eat the food offerings left there for the dead, and dress himself in shrouds. But even he has fear of wild carnivores. A stone man is free from fear and ruin. Emulate him when you do the spiritual practices (sâdhana). Give up attachment to life and limb.

ZC vol. 2, p. 167
As a symbolic way of saying that this understanding is a conceptual one, that there is nothing that could make one understand the real meaning, no master who could make one understand
— “There was this yogi who was explaining Dharma to men of stone.”

As a symbolic way of saying that the explainer of the secret precepts is like an echo, and that they haven't yet made the ear that could make it understandable to the hearer
— “It was heard with turtle ears.”

ZC vol. 2, p. 205
When a yogi taught dharma to a man made of stone, it was heard in the turtle's ear.*

*For a weird exchange about turtle ears, see this Early Tibet blog. The idea here is that the turtle doesn't have any ear (actually, it has two so-called tympana, but anyway), and therefore nothing to hear with, but nevertheless hears. This is one of the 'wonders of the world' that Padampa tells his Tingrian students he has seen. He's having fun with them. In a way.
... ... ...

This next one is a citation from a still unidentified work called Ornament of Shining Precious Substances (Rin-po-che Snang-ba'i Rgyan). From citations elsewhere in the Zhijé Collection, we know that this is a Vajra Song (ZC vol. 5, p. 386):

rdo'i myi yis rma bya'i mdongs ||
kha dog ci 'dra shes myi 'gyur ||
sems la ma brten yul myi snang ||
phyi rol don du bden gyurd na ||
ngo bo chu'i dngos po la ||
lha dang yi dags nya sbal gyis ||
bdud rtsi rnag khrag yul khyim du ||
mthong bar rigs pa ma yin no zhes pa'o ||

The man of stone is not going to recognize
what colors the feathers of the peacock might be.
Without being based in mind, no external realms appear.
If external objects were true in any essential way,
in consequence the thing made of the substance water,
you will have to agree,
would not be seen by gods, pretas* and fish or tadpoles
as nectar, bloody pus and homeland.
*See Fenner's article (p. 260), where he translates this verse from the Mahayana philosopher Candrakirti:  
"6.71 Like (a person who) has a diseased (sense) faculty, a spirit (yi-dwags, preta) at a flowing river also experiences pus. In summary, as there are no objects of knowledge so also there is no mind. Understand this meaning thus."
I much prefer Huntington's (p 165) translation:
"[The mechanism involved when] hungry ghosts experience cognition of a river flowing with pus is identical to that of the visual organ afflicted with ophthalmia.  Our meaning here must be understood as follows: Just as there is no object of knowledge, so there is no cognition."
... ... ...

ZC vol. 5, p. 478
rnal 'byord pa cig rdo'i myi la chos bshad pas ru[s] sbal gyi rna bar thos |

A yogi taught Dharma to a man of stone and it was heard in the ear of the turtle.* 
*This is also one of those 'wonders of the world' passages. It is repeated more than once or twice in the collection.
... ... ...
PS:  I really want to write something about the monkey paw that gets washed in the 'borax' (?) water, but so much to write and so little time. We'll see. Did anybody see those puppets? They were here a few minutes ago. Where did I leave them? Never mind.

Reading on:

Todd Fenner, Candrakîrti's Refutation of Buddhist Idealism, Philosophy East & West, vol. 33, no. 3 (July 1983), pp. 251-61. Full text available here.

C.W. Huntington Jr., with Geshe Namgyal Wangchen, The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamika, Motilal Banarsidass (Delhi 1989).

Kurtis R. Schaeffer, Dreaming the Great Brahmin: Tibetan Traditions of the Buddhist Poet-Saint Saraha, Oxford University Press (Oxford 2005).

Follow me on Academia.edu