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}


  1. Dear Dan,

    You picked a tough manuscript there. Ouch. But also, thanks. I've already learned something from your wide-ranging discussion. I'm just glad that before the 10th century scribes hadn't come up with these fiendish abbreviations. They did like the anusvara though, and it was more recognizably a simple circle.

    I agree with you on the origins of dbu-med. I just finished a study of this based on the imperial-period manuscripts, and some manuscripts show this very clearly, with a scribe beginning a letter in dbu-can which gradually morphs into dbu-med (or at least partial dbu-med) as s/he gets tired / impatient / thirsty.

    But I also think that dbu-med was taught as a specific writing style during the imperial period to clerks for taking dictation of official documents. There should be a paper with lots of illustrations on this coming out soon-ish ...

    Generally on this, as with his ideas on the origin of the Tibetan script, I agree with the great Gendun Chophel (or should that be Chomphel, or Choephel? There's another question: with modern Tibetan names, should we be using our own preferred phonetic system for transliteration, or the versions that have been published during these people's lifetime, and possibly with their approval?).


  2. Dear S.,

    Nice to hear from you again! On your last question, I have no rule to offer, except that if someone is living and likes to give their name in a certain form, we ought to try to respect it. But when we're talking about Tibetan writings, the author's name ought to be in its Tibetan form. And when it's in phonetics, regardless of who does the phoneticization, we ought to also give it in some kind of letter-for-letter spelling somewhere, just to help keep authorial identities as clear as possible (another good idea is to add birth and death dates whenever possible). There are so many sources of non-clarity in this area, why add to them? I think during Gendun Chömpel's own lifetime his name was published in English in many different forms. Didn't someone point this out somewhere? I'm not sure this was his fault, or if it mattered to him much.

    It sounds like you are very much supporting the time-saving idea of the development of cursive. (I'm really not sure what the opposing position would be, are you?) But do you think cursive abbreviations were created for purposes of time-saving or space-saving? I'm voting for the latter. Anyway, I am often coming out in favor of space, now that there are more than twice the number of people in the world than there were when I was born. Hear that Copenhagen?

    Thanks for writing and Cheers!


  3. Just a great, great blog - one of the very best I've seen. I've added you to my blogroll, and I'll be back when I can for a much longer look. Great stuff!

  4. For anyone interested, on my site I've posted a pdf copy of a short primer the young novice monks at the Nyingma monastery in Byallakuppe use when learning to read skung yig - the rnam ling sngon 'gro'i slob grar skung yig phyogs sbdus 'grol bshad.


    - Chris

  5. Dear Chris,

    Thank you for coming by and bringing such a nice gift. I think it can be useful for a lot of people, since it gives a couple of abbreviations and then immediately disentangles them for you. Some of them are tough ones, too. It would be important for students to try to dissolve them first before peeking ahead which to be very honest would be cheating.

    I'm not sure your link is working (it didn't work for me), so I'll put here my own tinyurl with the idea that it might work for other people:


  6. Dear Dan,

    Coming back rather belately to your question about whether abbreviations are time-saving or space-saving. I think you're probably right that it's the latter. Unless of course there are examples of note-taking where these are extensively used. Going back to the early stuff again, the use of basic abbreviations like the anusvara, and perhaps the subscribed NGA in DANG (not really an abbreviation as such, I know), are found in stone inscriptions, where they seem to be used to help fit the letters into narrow or odd-shaped spaces.


  7. Dear Master of the Scriptorium,

    I have always enjoyed you, blog after blog, and so cursively in this manner I liked you in this one too. The best bit is of course the link to the video footage of Charles' adventures, enjoyed it very much, thanks!

    Towards the end of your ramblings you mentioned the Tibetan reversed "na" for the retroflex Sanskrit "ṇa" being used in manuscripts to substitute "med". Perhaps there is a (albeit very remote) possibility that this relates to Monier-Williams gloss of "the sound of negation" for "ṇa"? It is of course somewhat unlikely that this meaning was widely known amongst Tibetan scribes. But you haven't told us how many occurrences you "occasionally" witnessed in the past 35 years. Presumably this is more than one.

    Your explanation of "nya" for "bdag" on the basis of a particular mantra is nice. Fish and 'ham' is a weird combination though. In Tibetan this equivalent of the avagraha is known as the "character of the great river" since it meanders like a river, is that right? That's what I deduce from here (also a better image of the character there).



  8. Arno,

    Welcome back! I do hope you're keeping warm and finding a way to keep bread on the table. Times are hard these days, and not only for Tibetologists. It's true what you say that the retroflex Sanskrit "ṇa" is there in Monier-Williams with that meaning. But let's list all the meanings just for fun: [1] knowledge. [2] certainty. [3] ornament. [4] a water-house. [5] nirvritti (invented for the etymology of krishna). [6] a bad man. [7] N. of Shiva or of a Buddhist deity. [7] the sound of negation. [8] gift. M-W gives all these meanings as being derived from what he calls "L." That means a group of traditional lexicons that include the Amarakoṣa, and that might just be the link that would connect the Indian with the Tibetan usage... But then again, I don't claim to know Paninian grammar or any other system of classical grammar for classical Sanskrit, but I do know that Panini (no, not the bread) favored odd looking code letters for all kinds of things (I'm told that after you've already learned Sanskrit well, it's possible to master one of the Sanskrit grammatical systems in as little as seven more years. Not that I would know anything about that.)

    I do not like green fish and 'ham.
    I do not like them Sam I am.

    Where did that "chuchenyige" of the unicoders come from? I'd love to know.


  9. Arno,

    Maybe you can help me with the next to last line, especially the part I've marked with the 'X's —

    'di / xxx xxx xxx xxx la zhabs bsil mdzod /

    And in the last line, do you read —

    bdag la rtsal du gsol /


    Like I said, some of it is a test for me, also!


  10. Dear Dan,

    Why me? sang Kris Kristofferson on "Jesus was a Capricorn". (No blasphemy intended on my part.)
    If you insist I'll describe what I see, which is not much.
    Last line: there does not seem to be any other sensible way to conclude the phrase "bdag la rtsal du" in something ending in -l with "o" vocalisation. So yes, "gsol". But is it really "rtsal"? The first vertical stroke (i.e. the ra btags) appears too long. The second stroke should start off almost vertically, shouldn't it? (the upper end representing the tsa lhag). Here we see a 45 degree angle. But I agree with you, it could well be a "rtsa". Otherwise I have absolutely no idea what else it might be.

    The preceding line is much more complicated. There is no doubt that you are right with the last four syllables. See also Shes rab's really useful book entitled Skyung yig gsal byed nor bu'i me long (Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2003): "zhabs bsil" on p. 543 and "mdzod" on p. 536.
    As for the first character, it looks like a "ka", but one wonders why the lower end of the first stroke (pointing towards 8 o'clock, are you with me?) is so long, too long in fact. It is too bad that there is no other "ka" to compare with, perhaps he always wrote it like that. In any case, might it be possible (in view of the two vowels we see on top) that here this eight o'clock tail is supposed to substitute a prefixed "d-"? This is a weak suggestion, I know, but then perhaps we might have "dkon mchog dang" to start with. But it doesn't look like that. What about "kong dong"? No good. After that we might have "'[kh]or", but what to make of "-ngs". Not too many options. Or is the vocalization part of "ngs", in which case it might be "dngos"?

    This text is too difficult for me, I give up. Might it be a forgery written by a Jewish merchant in the outskirts of Lhasa in 1765? This could explain the scribal peculiarities.

    Yours ever,


  11. Dear Arno,

    If there is a person of intelligence and experience around to ask, only a fool would not want to pick on him, I'm thinking.

    As Sakya Pandita, who was no fool, said:

    Fools hold the monkey handler
    in higher regard than the scholar.
    The monkey trainer is showered with food and money;
    the scholar goes on his way empty-handed.

    I was thinking that line five reads something like this (with xx's standing for the two or three or four syllables I can't recognize):

    'di / kong tse xx xx la zhabs bsil mdzod /

    Is there any conceivable reason why anyone would want to offer a foot-washing for Kong-tse? I have my doubts.

    Can you read line three?

    I'm not sure the scribal peculiarities are all that peculiar that we would be forced to bring in foreigners of any kind to rationalize them... I have in the past had experience of people who caught me at the xerox machine asking me if it's Hebrew, when it's so clear that it's just ordinary headed (dbu-can) Tibetan.

    Gotta run! Write back soon.

    Oh, but I should say, that verse from Sapan I paraphrased slightly from Gavin Kilty's translation in "Mirror of Beryl" (p. 484). Try repeating Mirror of Beryl twenty times very rapidly.


  12. Hello Squire,

    In fond appreciation and admiration of Prof. Paul Harrison's work I'd like to pose the following question to you: "Deciphering eBay Tibetan cursive manuscripts: meritorious activity or waste of time?
    O.K., know your answer anyway.

    Line three:

    XX mchod gtor spyan gzigs rnams XXX shing thog pa
    XX: is this really "dam po"?
    XXX: DNGS = dang bcas [pa]? No idea. "dang bcas" is normally (what is normal anyway?) abbreviated differently ("nga" with subscribed "ca")
    "gtor": just a guess, because his way of writing looks a bit off the norm, doesn't it?

    You are right with "kong tse" inasmuch as the second vowel is an e, not an o. But it is extremely difficult to think of any sensible two syllable compound with kong [...]e[...]. So maybe we need a third syllable here?

    I think someone should set up an online dbu med helpdesk, perhaps the good people in Virginia. You submit your jpg and within 24 hours someone sends you the solution.
    I have oftened wondered how several scholars (professors!) are able to make use of such an enormous amount of dbu med material. Then I understood that the transliteration of dbu med texts for Tibetologists is a kind of cottage industry in Kathmandu and other places.
    That's where people with my dbu med skills should also go!

    But amongst the thousands of followers this blog has there must be some learned Tibetan who can instantly pass the correct readings down to us. Please step forward. The blog owner will certainly be prepared to offer a bottle of Gewürztraminer (ɡəˈvʏɐtstʁaˈmi:nɐ) in exchange. No?



  13. Oh, I just looked at the image again more closely and realized that the second letter is obviously not a "pa" but a "sa". So the line starts with "dam chos", right?


  14. Dear Arno,

    You've made some fine work of it here, so if anyone deserves a Gewürtzraminer, it would have to be you. Now if they were only available where I am now.

    I hope you won't kick yourself when I say it, but that XX line three starts with dam rdzas.

    And you're right about the tyor standing for gtor. That's a regular feature of some cursive manuscripts to use the 'y' subscript to stand in for the 'g' prescript. Do you even know what spyan-gzigs means here? I think most people either don't, or think it has something to do with zoo animals. No, no need to say anything. It will be our secret.

    I was thinking that that XXX syllable that you want to read as dang bcas, was just a slightly defective spelling for drangs. But then I imagine you were reading the next part as shing-thog, meaning 'tree fruit' as is only natural, I suppose. Sometimes you really need to see the whole sentence before these things will dissolve for you. I'm not sure if we'll get any merit for this, let alone a ticket to one of your higher heavens, but I sure don't think it's wasting time to try and understand things both great and small, do you? We ought to try our best to overcome all those shes-bya'i sgrib-pa, something I'm tempted to translate strangely as News Pollution (well, there IS a lot of that out there).


  15. Dear Dan,

    I did not only kick myself but also the aformentioned book by Shes rab (Bejing 2003) into the corner. Your "dam rdzas" is actually there (p. 424), but it doesn't look at all like what we see in your photograph. But I am prepared to accept that the line on top (which I took to be a "na ro") actually represents the "rdza", and "sacred items" fits the context well.

    I marvel at your skills! In connection to reading dbu med texts I have always thought that it is quite simple really if one knows what the words are supposed to say anyway.
    I think it was Mrs. Conze (I must check Edward Conze's samizdat biography again) who said: "But why don't they call it a dog if they know it is a dog?"

    So, if you please, could you post the entire text in transliteration? I am curious to see it all.



  16. Dear Arno,

    I feel convinced of reading most of it correctly, although there are a couple of places where I'm not entirely sure, and another couple of places (actually, 2) where I don't even have a viable hypothesis. I thought the two of us should give up and let someone else have a shot at it. Failures and mistakes, and ceding victory to others, are the best way to grow. Why not give this chance of growth to others instead of hogging it all for ourselves? That victory on top of victory crap is as unreal as a pixelated movie, and when you slap the DVD into the slot on your flat screen falls every bit as flat.

    I think you must be right that it would have been Conze's wife. Edward would have known to say it is precisely because there is no dog that we give it the name dog.

    If it walks like a dog, quacks like a dog... What then?


  17. Dear Dan,

    I just want to add a reference to another work that may turn out useful for all those eager to familiarize themselves with abbreviations. This is Dpa' ris sangs rgyas' Bod yig 'bri tshul mthong ba kun smon (Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1997). Section 15 ("Yi ge skung tshul", pp. 109-133) contains around a thousand compounds handwritten in the truest fashion of a connected cursive.

    In general I think that while it's good to be aware of these lists, when reading a cursive text one will always find scribal peculiarities unique to a single person--peculiarities that one will not find reflected in any published list. Once you get used to those you are a lucky bunny. But then comes the next text, and you may have to start from scratch again.

    Dpa' ris sangs rgyas' book is also noteworthy because on p. 6 it contains a useful diagram ("Yig gzugs nang gses kyi dbye ba dang bsdu ba'i re'u mig") classifying the different scripts. I am reproducing it here in slightly simplified form:


    I. gzab ma
    1. gzab chen - dbu can - yig dkar
    2. gzab chung - dbu med - dpe tshugs

    II. 'bru ma
    1. 'bru chen - sug ring - a. zlum bris / b. dpe bris / c. dkyus ma
    2. 'bru chung - a. sug thung / b. 'bru tsha

    III. gshar ma
    1. bar bris
    2. dkyus yig - a. rgyugs bris / b. 'khyugs bris
    (dkyus yig = 'phrin yig)

    Everything down from "gzab chung" (I.2) is classified as "yig nag" to contrast it from dbu can (= yig dkar).

    A set of two books I find particularly useful for all those wanting to learn dbu med is:
    Yig rmongs sel ba'i slob deb calligraphed by Lhag pa tshe ring and published in Lhasa by the Bod ljongs mi dmangs spe skrun khang in several editions with now propably exceeding more than 100,000 copies.

    Right, need to go now and take this thing, what's it called?, ah yes, dog, out.

    Bkris shog


  18. sku zhabs rten ne lags,

    nice test!
    putting the above comments together, I think, the
    text reads like this:

    gzung dang gnyis su med par bsam/blta(?)
    khang phun sum tshogs par bhruM las rin po che'i snod yang ...
    dam rdzas mchod gtor spyan gzigs rnams dangs shing thog[s] pa [med?]
    hUM nas XXb / bar dang / oM sarba bid ...
    'di / skor steng 'od zer dvangs la zhabs bsil mdzod /
    bdag la rtsal du gsol / hUM nag ...

    but still, the double rr in the first line is strange, or?
    for: "gnyis su med par" one r would be enough??
    line 2: the "khang" refers, of course, to the "gzhal med khang phun sum tshogs pa"
    line 4: shtb ??? bab tu?? (unlikely)
    line 5: puh! "skor steng" is a wild guess! dkon rtsegs??
    also: 'od zer dvangs is a wild guess.

    Well, I am late in joining the discussion, because I saw the test just now. If I get some more ideas about the 5th line, I let you know.


  19. Dear S,

    Great job! I think I agree with everything. I do have doubt about "skor steng." What does that mean? And according to the usual rules, the 's' superscript should not be left off of an abbreviation (unless it were in the 2nd-syllable position getting lost along with its ming-gzhi or 'root consonant'). My tendency is to read this as Kong-tse or Keng-tse (Btsan-lha dictionary says the 2nd is a kind of Bonpo that practices divination, and the 1st is of course a name for Confucius). But then Kong-tse would usually have 'phrul-rgyal ('phrul-gyi rgyal-po) after his name, not this thing we have here. Your 'od-zer dwangs looks very good. But then how would this sentence fit together? Is a footbath being offered to a very glowing light-ray Confucius? Any idea? I think you ought to have a Gewürtzraminer in any case. You have one coming to you, I just don't know who will be bringing it. Have they got 'em in Bhairawa?

  20. PS: On 2nd thought, I think those two syllables can only be read as kong-[r]tse, not keng-[r]tse.

    Have a look at the three marks floating up above the k-ng syllable. Start at the top one to your left. That would be the 'e'. Then the one beneath it would be the 'o'. What you see going off toward your right is the marker for the 'ts' series of consonants (it could be 'tsh' or 'dz', also). There wasn't room to give it a nice flourish like in earlier occurrences on lines 2 & 3 — it gets some slight interference from the 'o' that belongs to the next thing. Anyway, that's how I see it.

  21. Dear Dan-lags,

    I agree with the three strokes as 'e', 'o' and the ts/tsh/dz marker. This is all well known.
    Therefore, I suggested also 'dkon rtsegs', but again, there is a 'ng' in that cluster.
    Anyway, that is not the last word about this short line of letters.
    What is about the word exactly above the three floating markers e o and ts/tsh/dz?

    Well, later more.

  22. That word exactly above them has to be Sanskritic, since it's all about mantras here. It certainly looks like three consonants that maybe read "shtab." I don't think it can be an abbreviated form, since as far as I know it isn't permissible to do this kind of thing to actual Sanskrit. Is it? Totally new abbreviation rules would need to come into play.

  23. Hi Dan,

    my Guru Tsering Lama reads the story like this:

    1: gzung dang gnyis su med par sngags bzhi
    4: hUM nas shabda bar dang oM sarba bid zhes
    5: 'di / kong rje 'khor dang bcas la zhabs bsil mdzod

    "kong rje/tse" can be verified, if we know more of the context.

    Greetings S.

  24. Dear S.,

    Thanks to you and your Guru for this. It's possible that all or at least almost all the problems are ironed out now.

    The shabda in line 4 is an elegant solution, even if it does involve shifting the subscript 'd' to fall under the letter 'b' instead of the 'sh' where you find it here. Shabda - 'sound' - is something that could surely occur in a mantra.

    And the 'khor dang bcas la in line 5 I'm convinced is right. It does involve breaking a rule (the root letter of the first syllable must never be dropped), but it's possible that the rule, in the minds of some, could have a sub-rule that would entail breaking this rule in particular cases. I can't recall where, but I do believe I've seen similar instances before.

    I do think kong-rtse is more likely than kong-rje, just because of that extra sign going off to the right that I see as the 'flag' of the ts-, tsh-, dz- series. Kong-rje (for those who don't have a clue, of course, and not for you or your Guru) might be the name of a spirit or one of a set of spirits (like Kong-rje Dkar-po) that underwent conversion to Buddhism and civility. I suppose I'll have to go out searching for that Gewürtzraminer after all. Congratulations!


  25. Right, this was probably the end of my bottle I suppose, but never mind, it is hard to survive in Bhairawa without access to high-quality Alsatian wines.

    By the way, it might be worth adding a link to D. Schuh's recent Tibet Encyclopedia on the right. You list a great number of Tibetologists there, why not add him? Many of the articles one finds on his site are really very good.



  26. When do those Alsatian wines come into season, anyway? I'll have to see what I can do, although those increasingly strict airline regs do get in the way sometimes.

    I'll take your hint on the Tibet Encyclopedia and put up a link right away. I'll have a better look at it later on.

  27. Dear Dr. Martin. Thank you for another interesting and useful blog! I decided to ask you a question related not to Tibetan cursive, but to the book by This is Dpa' ris sangs rgyas' book you cite in this blog.

    In the chapter nine of his book, dbu can spyi'i 'bri tshul, Dpa' ris sangs rgyas cites passages from 'Jam mgon kong sprul blo gros mtha' yas' "Shes bya kun khyab" (not too accurately) and Khyung po g.yu khri' "Yi ge'i bstan bcos 'phrul gyi sgron me" on Tibetan theory of dbu can calligraphy, but gives little expalnations on rather terse and difficult passages - for example, on "gces brgyad 'don bcu ma chos nyer gcig dang /_/bu chos bcu drug spyi chos gsum" from "Shes bya kun khyab".

    What do you think? If one would like to try to decipher this graphologic code, where one can turn for the clues?

    Yours sincerely,

    Pavel Grokhovski,
    Associate Professor, PhD,
    Chair of Mongolian and Tibetan Studies,
    Saint-Petersburg University, Russia

  28. Dear Pavel,

    I don't know how to help you with all this obscurity, except to say that you can see the complete passage from the Shes-bya Kun-khyab of Kong-sprul here:

    I think you will have to turn to still other places for those clues.

    I'm clueless.


  29. I found something interesting about Latin scribal abbreviations, including some that look a lot like typical Tibetan ones, in the sense that they keep the beginning and ending letters, but omit what comes in between.

  30. Dear Dr Martin
    I'm reading (slowly) 'The Song of the Road' - Tsarchen Losal Gyatso, tr. Cyrus Stearns.
    In the first line the Tibetan 'bned' is translated as 'monk'. I assume this is an abbreviation, but it doesn't appear to be listed in the Bacot link you provided.
    Please can you shed any light on this.

    Steve Jones

  31. Dear Dr. Jones,
    Thanks for your comment. I love Cy's translations. But 'monk' is not a complete translation of the word བནྡེ་/ bande. It can have a meaning of a wandering monastic (and the wandering may not be such a good thing), although the Indic term[s] behind it, vandya or bhadanta, is respectful enough. Think something along the lines of bonze, the Japan-derived term that has a similar ambivalence and probably shares its origins with Tibetan bande. When Tsarchen is using it here he is being a little bit self-deprecating if you ask me. Thanks for writing. Yours, D

  32. Hello Dan,
    thank you for this 2009 article which I just discovered in 2017 from your FB note!!! Good that you keep all these! Just to add a source for (b)skung yig is this publication edited by a certain Shes rab titled: skung yig gsal byed nor bu'i me long published by Mi rigs dpe skrun khang in Beijing in 2003. ISBN 7-105-05381-X/H. 452. It has 698 pages of sentences made of abbreviated words in dbu med with the dbu can right under it. Very handy for those with deprived or at their wits end. Thank you for your fascinating blog!

  33. Thanks for that reference, Marc!

  34. seems your tiny url link to Chris's page is also now defunct... any suggestions anyone?


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