Monday, October 25, 2010


I want to dedicate this blog to several and various persons and purposes. The first and maybe the main purpose is to lend a positive boost to some ways of understanding one particular practice universal to Tibetan Buddhism (Bon included). Today students and followers of Tibetan Buddhism can be found all over the world, although I understand in some places like Amman and Lagos this is a very recent development. For them and for us there is something both richly impressive and for some at least discomforting or problematic about the practice of prostration. Even as other religions do practice it (or the ‘partial prostrations’ known as kneeling and bowing [and perhaps even salutes?]), I imagine most beings with minds today associate it not with Tibetan Buddhism, but with Islam. And perhaps with good reason. Still, I would venture to suggest that there are only two religions in the world that would be likely to produce tracts on the merits or benefits of prostration. In traditions besides these two, the practice is of more rare occurrence or for other reasons is not very prominent — there, certainly, just not emphasized.

Today I’m not feeling supremely confident of my understanding of how prostration fits in either religion.* And really, I do not want to seem to tell anyone what they ought to be doing. Surely despite other differences, even differences that can sometimes seem profound, they both employ prostrations for what must have a lot to do with overcoming pride and developing humility. Purification of sin, too, is something you hear given as a motive in both. Both believe that this practice has to do with expressing and/or producing a devotional attitude toward something that goes way beyond the believer’s current limitations in time and/or space. I think no one in either religion denies a resemblance to acts of obeisance to earthly rulers. So for today I think we may just as well be content to focus upon the similarities and commonalities.

(*Buddhism a religion? Once an undergrad religion major, if that counts for anything, I say yes. It acts like one, so it is one. Buddhism a philosophy? Well, yes..., that too. But honestly, a cerebral philosophy — one that thinks mainly about finding more ideas to think about this way or that — has no business doing full-body devotional workouts like this. The Arabic word for prostration is sujud [pl.] or sajda. For Hindus and Buddhists the Sanskrit word is vandana. For Tibetan Buddhists, it is phyag ’tshal-ba, pronounced something like chagtse[l]wa.)
Both Tibetan Buddhism and Islam find prostration useful as a significant part of a larger program of religious practice. And it may not go without saying or repeating, but prostrations, at various levels of fullness, take place in quite a few religions, not least in significance being the Israelite temple cult of Jerusalem, right up to the end of the second temple period. Full prostrations were a minimal requirement for anyone entering or leaving the temple courtyard. In our Tibetan realm, ‘full prostration’ is a way of translating brkyangs-phyag (kyangchag), although the words in a somewhat more literal sense mean stretched-out prostration (I would prefer flat-out prostration, but I may be alone in that). By these standards, Muslims do not perform full prostrations, not that it matters much, this mild distinction in practice. Tibetan authors, as is usual for them, emphasize intent, and recognize prostrations of mind and speech, and not just of the body. I know there definitely are some budding fundamentalist Buddhists these days who insist full prostrations are the only way to go, but I would say in this they are not necessarily being as traditional as they might think they are.

But I’m not climbing up on my blog bully-pulpit today to advocate prostration as a practice for you or anyone. I have trouble imagining anybody was ever attracted to a religion after seeing prostrations, thinking thoughts like, ‘What a cool practice, how can I join this awesome religion?’ 

Well, I do remember once observing a greying Newar man dressed all in white, a follower of Tibetan-style Buddhism, in an upper room at the wellknown Golden Temple of Patan who performed his prostrations with such slow dignity and utterly concentrated attention to each movement like there was nothing else in the world... I guess what I am trying to say is that the concentrated devotion that might go with prostration could be contagious. Be careful with it. Islam, too, has it.

In the early 1980’s a rather old-looking and certainly much-used manuscript came into my hands. The front page of it appears above. I am certain that it is of Nepalese provenance. The outer wrapper is actually a scrap of that wonderful paper that is only made in Nepal. The words "Swayambhu Shop, Swayambhunath / Bhai / 75-80 years old" are written on it. There are also a lot of Nepali numbers scribbled about, indicating that Bhai, the shopkeeper presumably (it’s a common moniker in the Valley), had been using this scrap as a scratch-pad to figure sums. The manuscript itself is rather unusual in being in booklet form. The pages are long Tibetan pecha-style pages. There are glints of silver arsenic detectable here and there. I believe Tibetans used this to prevent insect damage, although there is slight evidence that insects started doing their work anyway. The long narrow sheets were all folded in the middle, and tied up with a single knotted string at the fold.  The front cover alone is floating freely, so we may know that the original bound signature contained exactly 25 sheets. In my catalog of the contents that you will find down below, I call each page a ‘folio’ (front sides are in fact indicated with ‘snake heads’ just as we are used to seeing in the usual kind of loose-leafed pecha).

The cover title contains a name of a ‘qualified guru’ Tsogdrug Rangdrol. This is an initiation name, one that has been held by several prominent individuals in Tibetan history. Yet before reading very far into the first text, which is autobiographical, we find evidence to show without any doubt that these brief texts are by Zhabkar Tsogdrug Rangdrol. On folio 2r, we find the name Tashi Ngawang (Bkra-shis-ngag-dbang), known to be one of Zhabkar’s several names. He was born in the area of Rebkong (our text has the spelling Res-rkangs) in Amdo. Rebkong is located south of the Blue Lake of Amdo. His father’s identity was unknown to anyone, apparently. Escaping an unwanted marriage arranged by his mother, he ran away to Mongolia to find his most important teacher in the form of a Mongolian king. This king, his guru, bestowed upon him the initiation name that means Six Heaps Self-Released. Later he traveled about to holy places, especially those frequented by contemplatives, including Tsari, Mt. Tisé, the Nepal valley, Lapchi and so on. The name Zhabkar literally means White Foot, but this is because he first became wellknown to the public when he stayed in the Dzuntrul (Rdzu-’phrul) Cave near Mt. Kailash, a cave where Milarepa had meditated also. This cave was not very far from a place where one or more of the footprints of the Buddha’s could be seen. Evidently the footprints were white, because they were called Zhabjé Karpo, White Footprints.

Zhabkar definitely left footprints behind in Nepal, where he worked to restore the Bodhnath Stupa somewhere around the years 1818-1821 (let me know if you know of a copy of the text recording his restoration efforts; it seems to be lost). His teachings are still very popular there today. He was not only a very charismatic public speaker who lent encouragement to popular Buddhist laypeople’s practices (more evidence for this lies ahead), he was and still is regarded as one of the leading teachers of Dzogchen in recent centuries. He is one of the finest among the finer Tibetan writers of fine literature. And he is somewhat peculiar in this sense: He was greatly inspired by Milarepa, which would seem to make him a Kagyupa. He was much inspired by the Mind Training teachings of the early Kadampas and the graded Path teachings of Tsongkhapa, which would seem to make him a Gelugpa. Yet his teachings were for the most part belonging to the Nyingmapas. I find this ability to cross sectarian boundaries with ease one of his most endearing traits. He was a strict vegetarian, completely opposed to smoking and drinking. And not just for himself. He advocated abstention for everyone. In this he is bound to be, and has in fact been, an inspiration for modern vegans and vegetarians.

If you need to know more about Zhabkar, there is only one place for most people to go, and that is the amazing book "The Life of Shabkar" (scroll down to the end to find the listing). Matthieu Ricard* is surely the main person responsible for this sterling translation (although other names are listed on the title page) and its associated research. He has also been very active tracking down the writings of Zhabkar. It was only in recent years that anything like a complete collection was put together in a modern publication. I don’t have these new publications available to me, which may be unfortunate, since I cannot tell you for sure if the texts in our manuscript have all been published or not. At least one of them can be found in the body of the autobiography. But I am not ready to go into an exhaustive bibliographical search at the moment. I would like to dedicate this blog to Matthieu, an amazing person in his own right.

(*Two years ago Matthieu Ricard received some very positive press describing him as "The happiest man in the world." I’m not saying this might not be true. He does seem happy. Still, I would like to inject the argument that just because a person wrote a book on a particular subject, doesn't mean they have mastered it. Neither are brain scans a useful gauge of happiness. Seriously! But now I’m afraid I’ll find myself described as the crabbiest person alive. Better if you stop reading what I’m writing and have a peek at his website, which you can read in either French or English, although I recommend the French. It isn’t just that he’s taken some great photographs, as you will see for yourself.)

There are only a very few and mostly quite brief Tibetan writings about prostration known to me. I will keep some of them secret for now. This will save me from the need to discuss them. Let’s go straight to the text and translate it as best we can.

. . .   . . .


I prostrate with faith and veneration.
May the sins and obscurations of all animate beings be cleansed.

The joining of the right and left palms —
May method and wisdom be paired.

Placing the joined palms on the top of the head —
May we attain the Buddhafields, None Higher and Kechari.

Touching the forehead with the joined palms —
May all bodily obscurations be purified.

Touching the neck with the joined palms —
May all verbal obscurations be purified.

Touching the heart area with the joined palms —
May all mental obscurations be purified.

The parting of the joined palms —
May I in the two form Bodies come to the aid of animate beings.

Placing the knees on the ground —
May rebirth in bad destinies be suppressed, reversed.

Placing the ten fingers on the ground —
May the ten Grounds and five Paths be gradually introduced.

Placing the forehead on the ground—
May I attain the eleventh Ground, Light Everywhere.

Stretching out and contracting the four limbs—
May I naturally achieve the four activities.

The stretching out and contracting of all the veins and sinews—
May all the knots in the veins untie themselves.

The straightening and bending of the central spinal column—
May all the channels be inducted into the central one.

After touching the ground, rising up again—
May I not remain in sangsara, but attain the noble Path.

Then bowing down once more—
May I not remain in [nirvana’s] peace, but serve as a guide for sentient beings.

Through the merit of these, my prostrations,
may the present life be long and full and free of sickness
and in future life may I be born from the opening lotuses in Dewacan,
quickly attaining the level of perfect Enlightened One.

—This was written by the renunciate Tsogdrug Rangdrol.

. . .   . . .

Imagine my surprise and dismay...  I was about to post this blog when I was out on the internet trying to find out what is out there about Tibetan prostration practices — and what should I find, but another translation of my text on prostration, only this time very clearly attributed to Sakya Pandita (1182‑1251). It's located in several spots.  Press here for the English (a document ought to download automatically). Those who prefer English should compare the two texts in translation. Those who are equipped to do so should compare the two Tibetan texts. Photos (gifs) of the part of the manuscript that contains Zhabkar's prostration text have been hung up here at Tibetological website.* 
(*For a Dropbox of the complete manuscript, try here. I intended to put up scans for the complete manuscript in 48 folios, but the uploading was taking a lot longer than I imagined it would; have patience, since anyway I want to blog about another text in it eventually... a Wylie transcription is down below, for those few who prefer it.)
It is a problem knowing who the real author might be, and I can think of no way of proving authorship one way or another. At the moment I am leaning toward Zhabkar's authorship, just because it is demonstrably the kind of topic he liked to speak and write about (I can point to a section on prostration in his title Golden Mountain; see the bibliography). That is not to say that Sakya Pandita could not have written on the subject. I can’t say that. A note to a French translation (sorry, link lost) says that the text is "generally attributed to" him, even while Khenpo Appey says it is not to be found in the collected works, so it is difficult to be sure. The title attached to the Sakya Pandita version is more apt for the content than the Zhabkar version's title is. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything for the authorship problem. 

It might be best to forget that it is a problem and try to find out more about Tibetan literary aims, ideas about what authorship means, the ways texts were circulated, and publishing practices and so on that would allow things like this to happen in the first place. That way instead of indulging once more the quotidian corporate practice of assessing blame (in this case, who took what from whom?) we might eventually come to interesting insights into worlds not, or no longer, our own. That would be the better outcome to my way of thinking.

. . .   . . .

This blog is also dedicated to Krisadawan Hongladarom.

Here is a transcription of the entire Tibetan text of the work on prostration as found in the Zhabkar Manuscript (basically given in texto form, except for the few abbreviations that are tacitly resolved):

phyag ’tshal phan yon bzhugs so /

bdag ni dad cing gus pa’i phyag ’tshal lo /
’gro ba kun gyi sdig sgrib dag par shog /

lags pa g.yas g.yon thal mo sbyar ba ni / [9v]
thabs dang shes rab bzung du ’jug par shog /

thal mo sbyar ba’i spyi bor skod pa ni /
’od min mkha’ spyod zhing khams sgrub par shog /

thal mo sbyar ba dpral bar btug pa ni /
lus kyi sgrib pa thams cad byang bar shog /

thal mo sbyar ba mgrin par btug pa ni /
ngag gis sgrib pa thams cad byang bar shog /

thal mo sbyar ba snying dkar btug pa ni /
yid kyi sgrib pa thams cad byang bar shog / [10r]

thal mo sbyar ba so sor ’gyes pa ni /
gzugs sku rnam nyid ’gro don byed par shog /

rkang pa’i spu mo sa la gtsugs ba ni /
’khor ba ngan song sdog par mnon par shog /

lags pa’i sor bcu sa la btsugs pa ni /
sa bcu lam lnga rims gyi sprod par shog /

mgo ba’i dpral ba sa la btsugs pa ni / [10v]
bcu cig kun tu ’od kyi sa thob shog /

yan lags bzhi po kyang skum byas pa ni /
’phrin las rnam bzhi lhun gyi ’grub par shog /

rtsa sgyu thams cad ’gyes sgul byas pa ni /
rtsa bdud thams cad shugs kyi grol bar shog /

rgal tshig dbu ma ’gyes sgul byas pa ni /
rtsa rnams thams cad dbu mar tshud par shog /

sa la btug te yar la langs pa ni / [11r]
’khor bar mi gnas ’phags lam thob par shog /

de nas mar la bsgur ba byas pa ni /
zhi bar mi gnas sems can ’dren par shog /

bdag gi phyag ’tshal bgyis pa’i bsod nams kyi /
tshe ’di tshe ring nad med phun sum tshogs /
phyi ma bde ba can du padma rdzas las skyes / [11v]
rdzogs pa’i sangs rgyas go ’phang myur thob shog //

ces bya btang tshogs drug rang grol gyi mdzad pa’o // mangga lam //

§  §  §

Catalog of the Zhabkar Manuscript

(rough and ready English translations are supplied for the titles, with some indication of the content of the colophons).  The first few folios have been uploaded already to Tibetological website:

Cover title [1r]: Mtshan ldan bla ma tshogs drug rang grol gyi ’khrungs tshul gyi gsungs sgur [~mgur]* zhal gdams. The Way the Qualified Guru Tsogdrug Rangdrol was Born, together with Songs and Advice.
(*Note: I know some will carp shrilly about the ‘bad spellings’ in this manuscript but to tell you the truth I don't care much for their attitude. To them I say just get used to it and find more interesting things to carp about.)

Text 1—
Incipit [1v]: na mo gu ru pha yul mdo khams smad gnas yin... [An autographical poem.]
Colophon [4r]: ces pa ’di yang skal ldan snying gi blos bu [~slob bu] sbyin pa nor bu’i rnam thar bsdus pa zhig gos [~dgos] zer ba’i len [~lan] du bris pa’o // bkra shis.
Note: I take the genitive at the end of his disciple Jinpa Norbu’s name to be an accident for an instrumental. Otherwise we have to take this text as his (J.N.’s) own biography, which is clearly not the case. On fol. 2r there is the beginning of a drawing of the Buddha by a budding artist as well as a child-like scrawl at the bottom meaning ‘[My mother] is a highland girl.’ (This scrawl is just a bit of writing practice, imitating the first line of the text proper.)

Text 2—
Title [4v]: Rang rkyon ’dod pa’i man ngag rgya khab rno po. — Sharp Chinese Needle: Precepts on Desire [based on] My Own Faults.
Colophon [9r]: ces rang rkyon man ngag ’di dri can bla ma dam pa tshogs drug rang grol mdzad pa’o.
Note: As might be gathered from the title, this is a confessional text. If the sharp Chinese needle of the title makes you think of acupuncture, I think you are on the right track. It has been translated in The Life of Shabkar, pp. 383-385. A few samples from the book (these words are addressed to himself, nota bene):

This is what you are:
A sack stuffed with religious wealth
and food given by the faithful,
A bull sleeping like a corpse,
A snake filled with hatred,
A bird filled with desire,
A pig filled with stupidity,
A lion filled with pride...

If you have any self-respect,
A heart in your chest,
Brains in your head, and
Some sympathy for yourself,
Regret your past actions and
Improve your whole behavior.
It's time! It’s very late!

Text 3—
Title [9r]: Phyag ’tshal phan yon. — Benefits of Prostration.
Colophon [11v]: ces bya btang tshogs drug rang grol gyi mdzad pa’o.
Note: This is the one I’ve translated above.

Text 4—
Title [11v]: Sems don brgyad pa. — Eight Statements on the Subject of Mind.
Colophon [12v-13r]: ces pa ’di yang slob bu skal bzang shes rab la gdams pa’o.
Note: This records precepts given to his student Kalzang Sherab.

Text 5—
Title [13r]: Bsgoms kyis skyong lug [~lugs] ’di ltar lags so. — Keeping a Meditation Session: Here’s How.
Colophon [16r]: bkra shis sarba mangga lam.

Text 6—
Title [16r]: Slob bu rnams la phan pa’i zhal gdams. — Advice to Help Students.
Colophon [20v-21r]: ces pa ’di yang skal ldan snying gi slob bu yongs la ’gro khar smras pa’o / sarba mangga lam.
Note: Advice given to a group of his students when he was ready to depart. It is spoken in couplets that probably consciously echo the Tingri Hundred couplets of Padampa. I may have more to say about this text another time.

Text 7—
Title [21r]: Zhal gdams bdud rtsi’i thigs pa. — Advice: Drops of Nectar.
Colophon [24v]: ces pa ’di yang slob bu yon bdag yongs la phan phyir / bya btang tshogs drug rang grol gyi gnas chen la phyi nas smras pa’o // sarba mang ga lam // bkra shis shog.
Note: These words of advice spoken at the holy place of Lapchi were meant for both students and patrons.

Text 8—
Title [25r]: Yon bdag rnams la phan pa’i zhal gdams. — Advice to Help Patrons.
Colophon [29r-30v]: ces pa ’di yang dad can yon bdag pho mo yongs la ’gro khar smras pa’o // bkra shis manga lam.
Note: Words of advice for the patrons, both men and women, as he was about to depart.

Text 9—
Title [30r]: Dad can pho mo rnams la phan pa’i zhal gdams. — Advice to Help Faithful Men and Women.
Colophon [32v]: ces pa ’di yang bya btang tshogs drug rang grol gyis yon bdag pho mo rnams la gdams pa’o // bkra shis mangga lam.

Text 10—
Incipit [33r]: gnas snying ga chos kyi ’khor lo nas...
Colophon [36v]: ces pa ’di yang bya btang tshogs drug rang grol gyis smras pa’o // bkra shis // dge’o.
Note: Words of advice for a circle of lay patrons concerning impermanence and so forth. The author notes that he had lived for 70 years and would not live through another. As it turns out this was a very accurate prediction.

Text 11—
Title [37r]: Bla ma’i gsol ’debs. — Guru Prayer.
Colophon [40v-41r]: ces pa ’di yang dad gtong shes rab snying rje dang ldan pa’i slob bu mtho lding dge slong ngag dbang ye shes kyi bskul ngor // bya btang tshogs drug rang grol gyis gnas chen gangs ri nas sbyar pa’o.
Note: Written at Mt. Tisé for his student, a fully ordained monk of Tholing by the name of Ngawang Yeshé.

Text 12—
Title [41r]: Myur lam bla ma’i rnal ’byor. — The Quick Path of Guruyoga.
Colophon [47v-48r]: ces myur lam bla ma’i rnal ’byor zhes bya ba ’di ni / dad gtong shes rab snying rje dang ldan pa’i slob bu ’jigs med rgyal mtshan sogs dad can gyi slob ma mang po’i bskul ngor / bya btang tshogs drug rang grol gyi dpa’ bo mkha’ ’gro sprin bzhin ’dus pa’i gnas chen gangs ri’i rdzu ’phrul phug gis dben gnas nyams dga’ nas sbyar ba’o // // bkra shis shog.
Note: Written at the behest of his students, among them Jigme Gyaltsen, at a mountain cave Dzuntrul Pug located at Mt. Tisé (for its exact location, see the map in The Life of Shabkar, p. 624, top middle of the map; on the student Jigmé Gyaltsen, see pp. 291, 313 of that book).

Text 13—
Title [48r]: Bla ma dam pa tshogs drug rang grol gyi mdzad spyod gsol ’debs. — A Prayer-Biography of the Holy Lama Tsogdrug Rangdrol.
Ending: Missing. The end of the text would have likely occurred on a final folio no. 50, now missing. The final words found in the manuscript are: lha sa’i yul gnas ’bul ba thogs.

§  §  §

The text attributed to Sakya Pandita.

This was located in the Sa skya kha skong, a three-volume collection that was created in traditional pecha format based on computer printouts. Scarcely any physical copies were made available, but the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center did put it on a CD entitled "TBRC Sampler" several years ago. I transcribe here what is found in vol. 3, pp. 19-21. Unlike the Zhabkar text, it starts with a mantra that multiplies the merits of prostrations one thousand fold. Other differences might be noted. [Note, May 2023: Now you may link to a PDF at BUDA.]


phyag ’tshal smon tshig bzhugs so / /


phyag stong ’gyur gyi sngags ni /

oṃ na mo manydzu shrī ye / na maḥ su shrī ye / na maḥ utta ma shrī ye swā hā / na moḥ gu ru bhyaḥ na moḥ dharmā ya / na moḥ saṃ ghā ya /

bdag gis mchog gsum dam par phyag ’tshal bas //
bdag sogs ’gro kun sdig sgrib dag par shog //

lag pa gnyis mnyam par thal mo sbyar ba yis //
thabs dang shes rab zung ’jug thob par shog //

thal mo spyi bo’i gtsug tu sbyar ba yis //
zhing mchog bde ba can du skye bar shog //

thal mo smin mtshams dpral bar sbyar ba yis //
lus kyi sdig sgrib thams cad dag par shog //

thal mo mgrin pa’i thad du sbyar ba yis //
ngag gi sdig sgrib thams cad dag par shog //

thal mo snying ga’i thad du sbyar ba yis //
yid kyi sdig sgrib thams cad dag par shog //

thal mo sbyar ba so sor phye ba yis //
gzugs sku gnyis kyis ’gro don byed par shog //

rkang gnyis pus mo sa la btsugs pa yis //*
sa bcu lam lnga rim gyis bgrod par shog //

(*Here there is an obvious gap in the text that we have, since the first line doesn’t fit with the 2nd. See the Zhabkar version of the text, or the online English translation of the Sakya Pandita version, for the two missing lines.)

mgo bo dpral ba sa la btsugs pa yis //
bcu gcig kun tu ’od kyi sa thob shog //

yan lag bzhi po brkyangs bskums byas pa yis //
phrin las rnam bzhi lhun gyis ’grub par shog //

rtsa rgyud thams cad brkyangs bskums byas pa yis //
rtsa mdud thams cad ma lus grol bar shog // [21]

sgal tshigs dbu ma dgye bkug byas pa yis //
rlung rnams ma lus dbu mar tshud par shog //

sa la thug nas yar la ldang ba yis //
’khor bar mi gnas thar lam thob par shog //

de nas lan mang du mar phyag ’tshal bas //
zhi bar mi gnas sems can ’dren par shog //

bdag gis brkyangs phyag phul ba’i dge ba’i mthus //
gnas skabs tshe ring nad med phun tshogs shog //

’chi tshe bde ba can du skyes nas kyang //
rdzogs pa’i sangs rgyas go ’phang myur thob shog //

sems can thams cad bde dang ldan gyur cing //
ngan ’gro thams cad rtag tu stong pa dang //
byang chub sems pa gang na su bzhugs pa //
de dag kun gyi smon lam ’grub gyur cig //

sarba mangga laṃ /
sa skya paṇḍi ta kun dga’ rgyal mtshan gyis mdzad pa’o.

§  §  §

Bibliographical advice 
(only for those who might have been asking for it):

Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol (1781‑1851), The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, SUNY (Albany 1994), translated by M. Ricard, et al., ed. by Constance Wilkinson, and Michael Abrams. Reprinted by Snow Lion (Ithaca 2001). There is a brief biography of Zhabkar here at the Rigpawiki; or better, this bio. at "Tibetan Lineages" website. If your library has it, there is a manageably lengthed and informative biography contained in Nyoshul Khenpo, A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage, translated by Richard Barron, Padma Publishing (Junction City 2005), pp. 339-43. That’s Milarepa you see in the photo, but Zhabkar looked just like him anyway.
Matthew Kapstein, The Sermon of an Ignorant Saint, contained in: Donald S. Lopez, Jr., ed., Religions of Tibet in Practice, Princeton University Press (Princeton 1997), pp. 355-68. 
There have been at least two English translations, and a German one, too, of The Flight of the Garuda, making it one of his best known compositions, I reckon.
Food of Heroes, Padmakara Translation Group, Shambhala Publications (Boston 2006).  I can’t tell you for sure, but I believe this contains extracts from The Life of Shabkar that are relevant to vegetarianism. Look here for a vegetarian/vegan website named after Zhabkar.
The Collected Writings of Shabkar, An Analytical Catalogue [in Tibetan], Shechen Publications (New Delhi 2005).  I can't say I have seen this either, but it is good to know that a book listing Zhabkar's works is out there. There are serious studies on Zhabkar bibliography contained in The Life of Shabkar, pp. 577-88. A more recent update is most warmly recommended to Tibetologists:  Matthieu Ricard, “The Writings of Zhabs dkar Tshogs drug rang griol (1781-1851): A Descriptive Catalogue,” contained in: Ramon Prats, ed., The Pandita and the Siddha: Tibetan Studies in Honour of E. Gene Smith, Amnye Machen Institute (Dharamshala 2007), pp. 234-253. Looking through these works, I couldn't locate anything that resembles our manuscript or the texts it contains. Still, I feel confident that somewhere in the newly published collected works, probably buried inside still other titles, it will be possible to locate parallel texts. Help me if you can.
There are a couple of old academic articles about Zhabkar that I won’t mention here, partly because they have some embarrassing gaffes, such as placing his life one or two 60-year cycles sooner or later than it actually was, and confusing him with someone else.
Zhabkar's Golden Mountain is the 2nd of two titles contained in the publication entitled Mi shes mun pa mthung po sel ba’i lam rim gsal ba’i sgron me AND Rang gzhan thams cad ’tshengs pa’i gdams ngag gser gyi ri bo, "Two works on various aspects of Buddhist practice and realization by Zhabs-dkar Tshogs-drug-rang-grol, reproduced from Bkra-shis-’khyil blocks," Konchhog Lhadrepa (Darjeeling 1985).  It has also been reproduced in the "TBRC Sampler" CD mentioned earlier. Look at pp. 188-190 (folios 33v-34v if you happen to have the woodblock print) for the interesting section on the benefits of prostration, where there are some very interesting scriptural and commentarial citations that deserve closer study.  Did I mention the text by Karma-chags-med?  Maybe next time, you think?
You can make a search for works by Zhabkar by typing the name "Zhabs dkar" in the search box at TBRC.  There are at least two very lengthy publications of his works in recent years that I hope to see someday.

Perhaps the most interesting and accessible passage about prostration to be found in English is this one.  Patrul Rinpoche, Kunzang Lama'i Shelung: The Words of My Perfect Teacher, tr. by the Padmakara Translation Group, HarperCollins (San Francisco 1994), pp. 317-321 ("2.1 Prostration, the Antidote to Pride").  If unlike me you have the other translation of this work by the late Sonam T. Kazi, which I understand (thanks to C.S.) has a drawing illustrating how a lazy person might try to cheat by prostrating up against a rock (kind of like 'cheater pushups'), you ought to be able to find the corresponding section in it without much trouble.

Here are a few more technical writings on the general subject (with focus on Europe and China) that may be of interest.  Try JSTOR if you have access:

James L. Hevia, “The Ultimate Gesture of Deference and Debasement: Kowtowing in China,” Past and Present (2009), supplement 4, pp. 212-234.
Eric Reinders, “The Iconoclasm of Obeisance: Protestant Images of Chinese Religion and the Catholic Church,” Numen, vol. 44 (1997), pp. 296-322.

The video evidence:

Here is an instructive animation showing how to do Tibetan style prostrations.  Recommended for those who have never seen them done, or who are thinking about doing them.

Ven. Thubten Chodron explains some of one of the more general practices that include prostrations.  If you have read this blog so far, you will already know some (not all) of what the Ven has to say about them. There are more prostration videos, but those other ones don’t seem to explain much. Don’t miss the sequel, where you will see a demonstration.

The 'vase' and the eyed harmika, with part of the spire, 
of the Bodhnath Stupa in the Nepal Valley, 
a purely magical Place
(taken by myself; help yourself)

Here is an Islamic site with an explanation of prostration practice. It seems to have been copied over again and again all over the internet (try schmoogling "Islamic prostrations" or the like). Can anyone tell me who the author of it is?  Is it by al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE)? I believe the Arabic word for mosque, masjid, shares the same three-consonant root s-j-d with the word for prostration, sajda. Oh, and this Shi'a oriented tract, entitled Prostration (Sajda) on Dust (in PDF format), is definitely worthy of attention.

There is a Buddhist teaching on prostration by Lama Zopa, given in 1986, here.

At the top of my reading list?  A new book by Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia 2010). It just arrived today.

§  §  §

Mysterious, incomprehensible,
I realize, is my mind—
the root of prison and freedom,
ungraspable, without substance. 

                -From a song by Zhabkar in 
                Thupten Jinpa & Jás Elsner, trs., 
                Songs of Spiritual Experience
                Shambhala (Boston 2000), pp. 66-67.

It isn't a question about whether a key is for locking or unlocking.
The question is why we think there has to be a lock there to begin with.

Open-house at the Armenian Church,
German Colony, Jerusalem 



  1. A reminder: To find a way to download the original manuscript, go to the following link as soon as possible (Megaupload generally only keeps things up for a month if there aren't a lot of downloads going on) ——

    The same in tinyurl:

    Please do let me know if there are any problems you can't overcome through your own ingenuity so I can try and fix things for you.

    The first 19 folios should appear to your eyes quickly if you go to the just-given link. (Google's machine informed me I had maxed out my upload allotment.) However, if you scroll down further you will see the individual links to the gif files at Megaupload. With patience you should be able to get it all.

  2. Dear Prof. rTen,

    What is the relationship of Shabkar's practice of prostration to Islam's? I'm thinking of influnce that may have come from Mongolia.

  3. Dear Person,

    I'm thinking that prostration was nigh universal in ancient Middle Eastern religions — [genuflections, at the very least, are still done by every kind of Christian from Baptist to Orthodox, and apparently always were done] — and that prostrations (of full or nearly full form) were practiced by Indian Buddhists in Andhra already in the centuries BCE (I can still see in my mind's eye a rock frieze of women prostrating to the empty seat where the Buddha was enlightened, although I wish I could remember where I saw it last... I think this one, or one very like it, I once saw in a museum in Washington D.C., the Sackler Gallery, I guess...).

    But at the same time I feel sure that, over time, with sustained contact, much passes through osmosis from one faith to another. And when two religions see they share something they will be much more likely to share still more... So your question perplexes me with its possible complexities. Perhaps I'll get some new ideas after reading the Elverskog book, which is anyway about the high and low points of Islamic-Buddhist contact in the landlocked lands at the center of the Asian side of Eurasia.

    Have to think about it some more, and look into more of the particular aspects of the practices, which can include various sectarian and regional variations on both sides...

    One of the things that separate the two practices is that on the Tibetan side the eternally Indian anjali greeting is incorporated (palms facing each other). In Islamic practice you don't see it. Muslims place their hands on their knees with the body bent in an L shape. In Tibetan Buddhist practice you don't see anyone doing that... Tibetans start with the anjali above head level and, when flat out on the pavement, do another raising of the hands above head level. In Islamic practice the hands stay with the thumbs at the same level as the ears (in both standing and prostrated position)... Actually, if you are enumerating things like this, you start seeing nothing but the differences.

    Thanks as always for writing.


  4. I just had to share this. Here is a clarification about the relative heights of happiness attained, by none other than "the happiest person in the world," Matthieu Ricard! You can also see it at his blog. -D.

    Are you the happiest person in the world?

    This is really a joke. Of course, it is better than being called the unhappiest person in the world, but this assertion is absolutely not based in scientific findings. Some years ago, the Australian television network ABC made a documentary on happiness, to which I participated. At some point, the commentator said: « here is perhaps the happiest person in the world.”

    Things remained quiet for a while, but a few years later the English newspaper the Independent, published a cover story entitled “The happiest person in the world.” From then on, things went out of control. The journalist had based his story on the fact that I participated for several years to some research in neuroscience labs in the USA, in particular at the lab of Richard Davidson, at the University of Madison, Wisconsin. It was found that when long-term meditators did engage in meditation on compassion, the activity of some areas of the brain was augmented to a magnitude that had never been described earlier in neurosciences. It also happened, that some of the brain areas thus activated, were known to be related to positive emotions. More than 15 experienced meditators showed similar results, but I happened to be one of the first ones in time. That's all.

    When the story came out in various newspapers, I tried to make a disclaimer, but quite in vain. I did apologize to my scientist friends, and now I try to take this with philosophy and amusement. When asked about this, I usually reply that anyone can be the happiest man or woman in the world, provided he or she looks for happiness in the right place.

    Authentic happiness can only come from the long-term cultivation of wisdom, altruism, and compassion, and from the complete eradication of mental toxins, such as hatred, grasping and ignorance.

  5. Wow, I drop by to see if there is any informtion on romance of Phadampa and Machig Labdron (as I guess was assured during my last visit), but to end up with the merits of prostration. It is interesting no doubt, and at the same time it reminded me of a man whom saw long ago in Rewalsar (India). He was called Chaktsal Lama. He enjoyed the reputation of having prostrated all the way from Kumbum to Lhasa and from there to Bodhgaya. When I saw him, he was said that he was 80 years old. He was bulding a small temple singled handedly by collecting broken bricks from here and there. When he was at work, he was very much like a young man of 20s, strong, energetic and pliable. He had an extra piece of flesh (of a size and shape of a table tennis ball) on his forehead, which he said was a "chakbur" (the tumour caused by doing excessive prostrations, for each time he did the prostration, he had to bang his forehead on the earth. His good health beyond doubt was the merit of his having done so many prostrations.

    However, the style of Tibetan Chak does not fit well with that of Indian, because Indian's never fall flat on earth with all the limbs stretched as Tibetans do. May be, it was invented by Tibetan themselves as a symbol of total physical loyalty to their lamas.

  6. Dear Anon,

    So, I take it you're that same identical Anon we heard from last time? I'd like to draw your attention to a passage in a footnote that nearly everyone in Tibetan studies as far as I know has so far overlooked. There is no text I've been able to see before a particular Gelugpa writer of the 18th century by the name of Longdol Lama (1719-1794 CE) that has anything at all to hint or say about this reputed great romantic love affair (or tantric consort practice; however you prefer to put it) going on between Padampa and Machig Labdrön.

    Have a look here: Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz, Ma gcig Lab sgron ma: The Life of a Tibetan Woman Mystic between Adaptation & Rebellion, The Tibet Journal [Dharamsala], vol. 23, no. 2 (1998), pp. 11-32, in footnote no. 53 on p. 31. There you can read:

    "... Klong rdol bla ma tells us that Ma gcig acted as tantric consort to Pha dam pa ... This to my knowledge is the only historiographical text which considers Ma gcig being the tantric consort of her teacher, although this is often asserted in Western works."

    As you may well know, back in the early '70s when it was published, most of the foreign academic Tibetanists had very little to read in Tibetan apart from Longdol Lama's collected works, which made his writings unusually influential.

    [to be continued...]

  7. [continued from last comment...]

    Actually, my text of Longdol Lama's work is a little different from K-P's, since her yab yum is only yum in mine (not that I think it changes the meaning at all, just that somebody somewhere might think it does...).

    And it may not be an accident that the first Tibetanists to indulge in feverish visualizations of what went on between the two were Italians. Specifically Tucci and Ferrari as far back as 1949 and 1958. Ciao bella!

    I, too, have searched in vain for any sign of this much-touted (even if just for that reason destined to be doubted) affair in my earliest texts.

    The Zhijé Collection knows nothing of it. It may be that Machig visited Tingri when Padampa was staying there, and there is a bit of discussion about it, dependent on whether or not she can be identified with a "Small Hat Woman" (Zhwa-chung-ma) who is mentioned a couple of times.

    (But get ready for splitting migraines, since the Blue Annals is not being its usual reliable self here, confusing as it does Zhwa-chung-ma with Zha-ma with Labdron... Erberto Lo Bue did a paper about this confusion, if you're interested in pursuing it.)

    I have to tell you — What you have going on in that filthy anonymous mind of yours are nothing but pure unadulterated modern-day lustful fantasies. Man, try and shake yourself out of it, will you? They're probably not getting you one bit closer to any kind of enlightenment to speak of. You think?

    But thanks so much for those words on Indian prostration. I don't know much about it, but apparently among recent Hindus they are always described by the number of bodily appendages or joints that are getting in direct contact with the ground. Obviously for full prostrations this kind of counting is quite unnecessary. I have no idea at all about Indian Buddhist prostrations in the past, but most of what I've seen in early art looks more like bowing down with the hands on the ground from a (sitting, or very nearly sitting, on the heels) kneeling position. Anyone have more to say about this? I imagine some art historians must've studied this somewhere or another.

    I have a reference to a fairly long entry on prostration by Hubert Durt that I don't have at hand: Chorai [prostration]. Hôbôgirin, vol. 4, pp. 371-380. Perhaps he says something there. Where is that wonderful library I used to know and love?

    And thanks for the Phyag-'bur word, which I don't think I've ever encountered before (I just now schmoogled for it in vain). This is one physical manifestation some Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists do share.

    Thanks for writing. Did you know that some of my best friends are anonymous?


  8. Oops! I found at UrbanDharma a long essay by Rev. Heng Sure entitled "Cleansing the Heart: Buddhist Bowing As Contemplation."

    There at footnote 37, you find testimony that full prostrations could be performed in India.

    Tinyurl for the same:

    "Bows" as I've noticed some Buddhists like to say when they close their emails or comments or whatever.

  9. Thank you very much for the response. Thank you indeed! Well, I want to remain annonymous, as it is allowed in this blog (in fact, I am a stranger to you, but I visit this blog often and I like it very much).

    Actually, I am not interested in Tantric sex, and I am afraid I do not believe much in the so called tantric bliss or Tantrism as a whole. I happened to read about Machig and Phadampa in Snellgrove 1987 and I had a funny (not very pleasant) feeling. When I saw Phadampa's name on your blog, Machig came spontaneously in my mind for no reason.

    Thank you for sharing the information about all those references.

  10. John Sanidopoulos last March in his Mystagogy blogsite did a worthy piece on prostration, "And Why Do We Make Prostrations?"

    I liked this quote from Bishop Theoliptos of Philadelphia (d.1322):

    “Do not neglect prostration,” he admonishes his spiritual children. “It provides an image of man’s fall into sin and expresses the confession of our sinfulness. Getting up, on the other hand, signifies repentance and the promise to lead a life of virtue. Let each prostration be accompanied by a noetic invocation of Christ, so that by falling before the Lord in soul and body you may gain the grace of the God of souls and bodies.”

    Interesting that the more individual bodily actions of prostration (well, even if only the rising up and falling down) here, too, are given symbolic value, but not only symbolic... There is an inward dimension. It's part of prayer.

    - - - - -
    Oh, and I'd like to add that in a private email M. Ricard has intimated that a few (maybe 4) of the texts might possibly (I emphasize the word possibly) be unique to our manuscript.

    He located our text no. 12 in the collected works, vol. 14 (Pha), pp. 101-107.

    The opening text in our manuscript (no. 1) is actually located in the Autobiography, Chapter 11 [the Kailash chapter]. It's in the English translation The Life of Shabkar, at p. 283. The two texts are 'the same' alright, but one of them doesn't have the line, "My mother is a highland girl." There seem to be other minor differences.

    No word yet about the existence of Zhabkar's (or Sapan's!) prostration text in the published works. I'll keep you posted.

  11. Dear Anon,

    I know just the passage you mean, in Snellgrove's Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, pp. 468-469. In the 2004 revised edition there is an added footnote making reference to Lo Bue's study, but the main part doesn't seem to have been changed. It should have been, since it's clear that Snellgrove's source, the Blue Annals, has confused Labdron with Zhama here, making a mess of things (Cyrus Stearns has discussed this issue more recently, if I could remember the place). Women's biographies/identities from those earlier times are often confounded with each other in interesting ways.

    And I'm glad to hear that your mind is pure. I'm feeling reassured. But hell, it probably always has been. Huh... Pristine. Pure as the driven snow. From the word go.


  12. Here are my 2 copper coins that add up to a penny. I much appreciate reading historical events from the perspective of the every-day. I know from past experience that a lot of the "big picture" becomes far more understandable when observing intently the outward signs of inward intentions.

    Did Zhije practice include prostration? Did someone within the Zhije tradition take the time (as Shabkar did for his own audience) to express what prostration should mean for Zhije practitioners?

    Signed respectfully,

    Short (not Sbort) Person

  13. Dear Person,

    Well, yes, now that you mention it. There are a lot of references to prostrations happening in the Zhijé Collection. I couldn't remember any discussion about it, but then I found a reference in my notes. I'll have to look it up and check into it, but here is the note. Oh, the fifth volume is taken up by a very large commentary by Tenné, who lived a very long life into the first 2 decades of the 13th century.

    - - -
    Zhijé Collection, vol. 5, p. 194:

    Insincere prostrations (phyag-'tshal-ba) and circumambulations (bskor-ba byed-pa) which are just for appearances or as a formality? They are like the clay that doesn't take the glaze (dper na rdza drang la la ca mi 'byar ba bzhin no).
    - - -

    Intentionality (sincerity, meaning what you do) is supposed to be there. Outward signs aren't supposed to be mere outward signs. You've got to be fired up.


  14. A few words on chaktsal (especially the Indian style). The chaktsal in question this blog is presently dealing with is that of Tibetan style, and this style is exclusively reserved (by Tibetans) for religous purpose. Only the lamas and monks (nuns, ngangpas and ngagmas included) enjoy the privilege to be the object of chaktsal (although Ladakhis greet one another saying "chaktsal", but never fall flat on the earth infront of one other and bang their heads). Tibetans had a unique way of greeting one another: exposing one's tongue and at the same time scraching one's head from the back of it. This may be the indigineous and the ancient style. All the respected people (both monk and lay) enjoyed the priviledge of being greeted in this style, but not any more; it has been long since this practice has become extict.

    What I want to say here is: perhaps Indians in the past did not have such distinctions in terms of doing namaskar. It was always namaskar, no matter the person in the front was a guru or a raja. The one that expressed the deepest respect was to kneel down on one's righ knee and touch the feet of the concerned person with one's own hands. The Indian Buddhists most probably had no separate style of their own, for the Pali suttas seemed to support this: "...then he went to where the Buddha was, knelt down on his right knee and exchanged the words of greetings...."

  15. Dear Anon,

    All true what you say as far as I know. Interesting that Tibetans preserve the right-knee kneeling posture you mention for ritual, when taking bodhisattva vows. (Ideally always taken in the presence of a Buddha.)

    Thanks for writing.


  16. Oh, for the Sanskritically challenged, I should add that what Anon calls namaskar, I call the añjali gesture. Same thing in effect, although Tibetans think it is important to leave open space between the palms, and do not flatten the palms together as you see Indians do today.

  17. You leave an open space between the palms to hold the jewel.

    Thank you for writing this jewel.

  18. Update: The complete manuscript has been made available via Dropbox:


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