Sunday, December 06, 2009

Take the Cursive Test

To enlarge the picture, just click on it
What you see in our frontispiece this morning is a finely scribed sample of Tibetan book cursive. Not to dive head-first or too quickly into technicalities, Tibetans call this ‘headless’ or umé (dbu-med) script.* It’s a fragment taken out of its context. In fact, I am borrowing it — for educational and non-commercial purposes only, mind you — from eBay or another such place on the web where it was put up for sale.**

(*It may be more accurate to call this semi-cursive script, since true cursive would mean the 'fast letter' handwriting used in letters and in some official documents, which is something else altogether. **Now I don’t remember where it was. Anyway, not everyone feels completely fine with the fact that there is so much internet trade in Tibetan manuscripts these days. But I’m not going into controversies about cultural property rights today. Let’s save it for another time and place.)

It is just one end of one side of one long ‘leaf’ from a number of ‘leaves’ made from the bark of the Daphne shrub, stacked and wrapped together into what Tibetans call pecha (dpe-cha). The text, I can tell you, is both tantric and ritual. It might even be considered by some as secret, but as a ritual text it doesn’t really explain anything — it even gives the mantras in truncated form without spelling them out — so I’m not concerned about breaking any samaya. As a fragment, it is especially challenging to dissolve the abbreviated forms it contains, so the task is a hard one for me, not just for you. I’ll offer some initial help to unraveling what the text says later on, but I won’t do everything for you, and before you know it I’ll be asking you for your help with the parts that don’t yet make sense to me. If I gave all the answers up front it wouldn’t be a test then, would it?

If you have never started to study Tibetan language you may want to skip over today’s blog. You would be well advised. Unless you’re looking for insight into reasons Tibetan is just so hard you would never want to even contemplate learning it. That is, if you’re trying to rationalize your reluctance to take the dive. That’s why I wrote to someone named Gary [altering the name to protect his innocence] in one of those online discussion forums (that’s right, not fora, please!) almost exactly two years ago. Some irresponsible Tibetanist had warned him about abbreviated cursive manuscripts, and he found the whole idea discouraging in the extreme. What you see here below is basically the same two-year-old letter, although I’ve revised some of the information it contained, expanding the explanations a little this way and that here and there. I doubt if our friend Gary will mind.

§ § §

Dear Gary,

I don’t think it’s exactly proper to call what happens in Bon (and other) Tibetan manuscripts “shorthand,” and let me tell you why.

Generally, while shorthand just might incorporate some part of a relevant letter, it usually transforms common words or common clusters of letters (or their sounds) into a new symbol. In the Tibetan case you could say that all the letters that are visible are completely recognizable and in their ‘original’ forms (or at least leave vestiges as in case of the tsa, tsha & dza / ཙ་ཚ་ཛ་ letters where only the tiny flag [Tibetan texts call this the tsa-lag, or tsha-lag, or tsa-lhag; I'm not sure which is more correct] that all three have in common remains, and leaving aside a few other exceptions... there are not so many... we'll have a look at them later).

Therefore I think it is more correct to call what happens simply ‘abbreviation.’ You generally take a two-syllable term and condense it into one. But Tibetan has what may seem like a further complication, since they often take 4-syllable stock phrases and collapse them into two syllables (preserving the 1st and 3rd syllables only). So in effect what you can get sometimes is an abbreviation of an abbreviation. And it’s also true that longer strings of three, four or still more syllables can be collapsed into one.*

(*The work by Bacot gives some examples of long passages getting collapsing into a single syllable, but in my experience with manuscripts these are quite rare, and therefore not worth being overly concerned about except in theory.)

Shorthand is designed to make it possible to write as fast as people speak. Tibetan abbreviation practice is designed to save paper and ink. This is an essential difference.

To try to give an English example that might help to make clear how Tibetan abbreviations are working, “Braitt is 1 moiear.” You take the initial consonant[s] of the first syllable and jam them together with the final consonant[s] of the second syllable, and allow the vowel marks to pile up in the middle.*

(*The ‘i’s, ‘e’s, and ‘o’s above the consonant, or above the highest of several stacked consonants, with the ‘u’s hanging down below the lowest consonant.)

And it’s true that there are sometimes — thankfully fairly rare — characters that are idiosyncratic and therefore impossible to understand. I’ve been keeping a xerox of one of these characters for years now, and even though it’s been shown to some real experts, no one has figured it out yet.

There is at least one aspect of Tibetan abbreviation practice that does resemble true shorthand. It’s when numerals (especially 4, but also 9 and even 10) are used not only to replace the written-out words for the numbers (which is perfectly sensible, especially since we do it in English, too), but are used to replace the same cluster of letters when used in an otherwise totally unrelated word. For the most common example, the number 4 is written out in Tibetan as bzhi, so you can write “4n” instead of the word bzhin, which means ‘like, as.’

Another shorthand aspect is when prescript or postscript letters of the Tibetan writing system are replaced by subscript letters. This one is a little harder to make intelligible to those who haven’t already mastered that system. One of the most radical examples of it you can see in the abbreviated phrase “sku sya thya,” which is shorthand for sku gsung thugs (Body, Speech and Mind [of Buddha]). Here the subscript ‘y’ is standing for the otherwise absent ‘g’, in the first case a prescript ‘g’, and in the second a postscript. To give another less common example, mgo (‘head’) can be written as gho, replacing the ‘m’ prescript letter with the ‘h’ subscript letter (but manuscripts using this convention are rare and these are largely Bon manuscripts). Performing these kinds of substitutions economizes on horizontal space, allowing the scribe to cram more into the page. (The lines that they must follow are usually scored for them in red ahead of time.)

Another common practice is to take the postscript cluster -gs, as for example in the word thugs, and spelling it in the cursive form of the reversed Tibetan ‘t’ or

that is also used to represent the Sanskrit - Devanagari letter ‘ṭ’ or
This one is even used in headed script on occasion, especially when space is running out at the end of a line.

I hope that fear of Tibetan abbreviation doesn’t prevent you from pursuing your dream of learning Tibetan. Be warned that you may even need to increase your daily caffeine dosage (I recommend espressos and cappuccinos, or Tibetan tea if you prefer, but you know, you have to drink a lot more of that last one). Still, it’s entirely doable. Oh yes, right, I ought to tell you, what I said before, “Braitt is 1 moiear,” abbreviates ‘Brad Pitt is a movie star.’

For endless opportunities for entertainment in the meantime, take a long glance back at Bacot’s ancient French article in Journal Asiatique. Anyone anywhere could be amazed at the lengths to which Tibetan scribes occasionally went. They are rare (and generally they are just standing in for long prayers or other passages that the reader was expected to hold in memory anyway), but there are some manuscripts for example that stack up vowel signs like the ‘o’s and ‘i’s a half mile high. Those are truly awesome, and apparently defy human comprehension. But like I said, they are as rare as blue yaks in the Changtang, and perhaps even less likely to be encountered.

See this link:
this being the June 29, 2006 blog entry of P. Sz's Thor-bu, and follow its link to the Bacot article, which is on a slow server, so do be patient with it. If that link isn't working for you, try this.

I’d say that Bon cursive manuscripts are typically written quite beautifully, and when and if the words are not entirely spelled out, what you find is 95-percent abbreviation and only 5-percent shorthand. Be assured that many non-Tibetan-speakers do learn to read Tibetan very well without ever giving a cursive, let alone abbreviated, manuscript anything more than a moment’s glance. But really, if you first learn to read Tibetan well, it’s not all that difficult to make the move into cursive. And if you don’t learn it, there will be so much that you will never be able to read.


§ § §

Well, are you ready to take the test? I’ll limit my example to the first line and let you try your luck with the rest.

Since this is the front side of the folio (did you notice the page number out there by itself on your left?), we naturally start with a ‘head letter’ symbol. It’s usually called the ‘head[ing] letter’ or yiggo (yig mgo), although I’ve seen it called in Bon sources dangtog (dang-thog I take to be a shortened form combining the two Tibetan words dang-po and thog-ma, which both mean ‘first’). It usually looks like this:
Now there is a widely-spaced double shad punctuation followed by the words gzung[s] dang, which present no special problems. But I could imagine some people who already know the letters in their cursive forms stumbling over the next bit. The first thing you see there is the numeral ‘2’. Move on to the next thing you see to the right of the ‘2’, which is, starting from the top and moving to the bottom, made up of [1] the vowel ‘e’, [2] the consonant ‘s’, and [3] the vowel ‘u’.

Move on to the next place to your right: This is a letter ‘d’ with an odd hook shape above it. The odd hook-like thing is the anusvāra,* which Tibetans call the lekor (klad-skor — it seems this last means ‘brain circle’ for some reason not apparent to my brain at the moment). You often see it in its non-cursive form, which differs in the cursive, looking more like a circle (a dot in Devanagari), in transcriptions of Sanskrit in Tibetan letters. However, in cursive it looks like the tiny circle was made in two parts that at some point stopped meeting each other and became ‘disjointed’ (the later example on line 2 better illustrates this, since it hasn’t run together into one fluid line like we see here). In Tibetan cursive the anusvāra is used in ways Indians never dreamed about. Tibetans use it as much as possible in cursive abbreviations, almost every time a letter ‘m’ is in postscript position in the syllable. But not only that, some scribes like to use it when the ‘m’ is in prescript position.

(*In Sanskrit, the anusvāra lends a nasal twang to the vowel that comes before it, although it is likely [especially in final position] to sound like ‘ng,’ which is anyway the sound Tibetans tend to give to it when it occurs in Sanskrit mantras... )

Still with me? Next you see a mistake. Oh, well. They happen. No reason to be too concerned about it. No need to dial 911. But where a single letter would have done the trick, here we see two. Both letters look like the cursive form of ‘r’. Let’s try to transcribe the letters that are actually there so far (I put dots here, for a change, to represent the syllable-dividing punctuation called the tsheg — the tsheg looks like a dot in headed script, a short slightly curved line in the headless):


Make any sense yet?

{I may have cheated slightly in my ordering of vowels, out of my wish to help you just a little.}

Now for the final remaining syllable of line 1, which would be easier if a small part of the anusvāra hadn’t gotten covered up by the pages stacked over it in the photo. It just says bsaṃ, ‘think, imagine,’ and is followed by the shad punctuation.

So, here’s my way of understanding the first line, correcting what I believe needs correcting:

gzungs dang gnyis-su med-par bsam.

I interpret it, assuming it is part of a visualization practice (there is more evidence that this is the case in the other lines):

‘Imagine [the deity] as non-dual with [his] dhāraṇī.’

The rest is up to you. Please do let me and Tibeto-logic’s other remaining reader[s] know, using the comments, how well you are getting on with it. But please! If you are already a master of the game, don’t answer too fast and spoil the fun for the rest of us.

§ § §

Eager to hone your cursive skills?

For those tyros — don’t you love that nobbish English word? — who just today for the first time resolved to familiarize themselves with Tibetan cursive script, I’d most recommend the 2nd volume of David L. Snellgrove’s 1967 book, Four Lamas of Dolpo, though it may be difficult to find. I should warn you that the 2nd volume is not part of the recent paperback reprint by Himalayan Bookseller in Kathmandu.

If you have a big university research library within driving distance, it’s likely you will be able to locate and photocopy (for your own personal use only) this brief & useful article: Ramon Prats, On “Contracted Words” and a List of Them Collected from a Bon-po Work, East and West [Rome], vol. 41 (1991), pp. 231-238.

Advanced students who have been reading Tibetan with a decent degree of fluency for several years now will greatly benefit from Nor-brang O-rgyan, “Bod-kyi skung-yig-gi rnam-gzhag chung-ngu,” contained in: Bod rig-pa’i ched-rtsom gces-bsdus, ed. by Ngag-dbang, Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang (Lhasa 1987), pp. 413-483,* where the rules and rationales behind manuscript abbreviations are explained quite well. The truth is, you don’t really need to learn the rules ahead of time. Equipped with a few basic principles you can simply plunge into the texts. Another good method is to find a cursive manuscript of a work that also exists in a clear woodblock print, using the latter to check your reading of the former. Employing these tried-&-true sink-or-swim methods, it is guaranteed that before you know it abbreviations will start dissolving by themselves with neither apparent method nor special effort.

(*If you have too much trouble finding this volume, I once made a note to myself indicating that this same article is also located in Bod-ljongs Zhib-'jug, the first issue for the year 1987.)

I'd love to see this one. From the title it's supposed to be specifically about abbreviations used in Bon manuscripts. I located it in the Bya-ra database. Bstan-'dzin-rnam-rgyal, Bon-gyi Dpe-rnying-las Bsdus-pa'i Skung-yig Grub-cha'i Skor-la Dpyad-pa, Bod-ljongs Sgyu-rtsal Zhib-'jug. issue no. 1 for the year 1996, pp. 118-128. It's item no. 127 in the Bon bibliography of the last Tibeto-logic blog.

The classic work on cursive script and abbreviations is the one by Jacques Bacot mentioned before: L’écriture cursive tibétaine, Journal Asiatique (January-February 1912), pp. 5-78. You do not necessarily need to first study French to make use of it. Here’s a sample of one of the ‘extreme’ abbreviations, the very last in Bacot’s list (you will notice it is not done in cursive, but in the so-o-o much better-known ‘headed’ [dbu-can] script).

Last question: Some people know Tibetan abbreviations by the name bsdus-yig, which means ‘compounded [gathered together or combined] letters,’ while others know them as skung-yig, or ‘concealed / invisible letters.’* Some people call them by the letters that are visible in them, while others call them by the letters that have disappeared from view inside them. Either way, they’re talking about the same phenomenon. Is there a mystery concealed here that we’re not quite glimpsing yet? I’m curious. Just asking. Please tell us if you see it.

(*I believe the most correct spelling is bskungs-yig, since the first syllable ought to be in the past form, although hardly anyone seems to pay much attention to this fine point. Nor-brang’s article says that some people also call them sbas-yig, which also means 'concealed letters,' but he insists that these names, along with bsdus-yig all mean exactly the same thing.)

§ § §

How and why did headless writing develop? Probably because scribes were in a big hurry and wanted to get their work out of the way before supper so they could have more time to drink chang with their pals. That’s more-or-less what you find in the famous theory of Gendun Chömpel. You can find a source for it, in the late K. Dhondup’s translation, in this brief article: Amdo Gendun Chophel, The Evolution of U’med from U’chen Script, Tibet Journal, vol. 8, no. 1 (Spring 1983), pp. 56-57.

§ § §

And in closing — honestly, this is the last thing — here are two of the more mysterious and obscure ligatures in use:

ṆAThis backward version of the Tibetan letter ‘na’ occasionally occurs in manuscripts as a way of abbreviating the syllable med, meaning ‘is no’... ‘is not’... ‘doesn’t have.’ I have no reasonable explanation for this, do you? Of course, the ordinary unreversed (or undotted) Sanskrit syllable na is one of the standard ways to express negation in Sanskrit (it became in Hindi naheen).

NYAOf course this Tibetan word does mean ‘fish,’ but in cursive texts, a syllable very much resembling the nya stands as a shorthand way of writing bdag, a way of referring to one’s humble ‘self.’ This is certainly to be explained (I alone make this argument as far as I know, which would make me eccentric) by a famous mantra used in very many sādhana texts, which has the Sanskrit word aham (meaning ‘I’ as the first-person singular pronoun in nominative case) spelled with the avagraha as ’ham.

I'm not sure why, but the unicode developers decided to call the Tibetan version of this sign the paluta. It ought to look like this: ྅. But in practice, in cursive, it usually looks just like the letter nya.

These two mystery syllables, when used together, nicely add up to the Buddha’s idea of non-self or, to give the proper Sanskrit, anātman. We could write it like this in headed letters (it would look a little different if it were headless):


I’ve actually seen it done. I consider it one of the Seven Wonders of the Tibetan manuscript world.


A fascinating book I've started reading:
Trent Pomplun's Jesuit on the Roof of the World: Ippolito Desideri's Mission to Tibet.
Googlebooks tells more about it, but tell me, how can I be reading a book published in 2010 in 2009?  A faster reader than I am, by the name of Jeff Mirus, has already read and reviewed it 3 days ago at Catholic Culture — here.  Desideri's birthday is coming up in just 3 more days, on December 20 in 1684, in Pistoia. Another sign that the fullness of time for Desideriology has officially arrived, we find a set of several papers on Desideri in the journal called Buddhist-Christian Studies, the issue for 2009 
(but check out earlier issues for still more).


Another book I'm hoping to read soon:
Kurtis R. Schaeffer's The Culture of the Book in Tibet.
Indologica blog tells more about it.


On my night stand:
In the Forest of Faded Wisdom: 
104 Poems by Gendun Chopel, a Bilingual Edition
edited and translated by Donald S. Lopez Jr.
See the cover at Googlebooks.


A Paean of Pride or Encomium (take your pick) to Chas

{double-click on the doggerel to try and locate the video evidence}
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