Sunday, July 10, 2011

End of Tibetology in Sight

Photo by F.S. Chapman, Lhasa 1936

At the risk of instigating largely gratuitous Schadenfreude on the part of a whole slew of opponents of our reputedly hallowed discipline, a recent development causes me to call the very idea of continuation into question. What use are we Tibetologists if all the words of Tibetan literature have become instantly Googleable?

I’ll admit, I myself may be (in my own small way) part of the problem, and I don’t have any idea about a solution short of shutting down the worldwide web. Still, I’ll ramble on a bit about this thing tugging away at the back of my mind.

I know some of you are thinking, well...errrh, ‘I never even once had occasion to call upon the services of a Tibetologist anyway, so what’s the use of them? Why be concerned if they no longer find things to keep them busy?’ True enough, it’s not as if by extracting their noses from their books there is imminent danger of them rushing out and making a nuisance of themselves with normal citizens out in the streets. So what is the problem? ‘Put them in wireless-free retirement homes ASAP! They won’t be missed.’

I hear you. Still, I’m thinking, What is a researcher to do now that practically everything is done for her or him? No need to search the day away, scanning frantically with our g-d-given eyeballs, page after page for a single citation. Even first-year Tibetan language students will be able to find out in an instant how many times a word or phrase is used in the entire 108-volume (or so) collection of Buddhist scriptures in Tibetan translations that we know as the Kanjur or Bka'-'gyur (‘translations of the Word of Buddha’)...  and not only that, but also in the more-than 200-volume [or so] set of Tibetan translations of the mainly India-composed works that further illuminate the Kanjur texts known as the Tenjur or Bstan-'gyur (‘translations of the treatises’).

Now those 1st-year students will be instantly producing cutting edge research in this no-longer existent field — no sooner done than published in free but refereed internet journals of repute — that would have taken their fathers (and of course their grandfathers and mothers) years of painstaking eyesight-destroying research, even assuming they could get so far before entering the intermediate states of the bardos.

With all this talk I’ve just been stalling for time, hesitating to let anyone know that there is such a resource out there ready for their use, one that I had nothing to do with creating, and one with which I have no financial ties whatsoever. In fact, I wonder why I would send anyone there at all, since it would appear that it’s putting not only me, but all of us, out of a work...  Unless by work you mean being a google-box click fool permanently wired to the internet, one who will perhaps forget what it once felt like to unwrap a dpe-cha and flip through its long paper pages, contemplating meanings.

Go HERE and then I’ll be quiet.

My, that quiet sounds nice, now, doesn’t it!

Three Jewels on Fire

For those who may need fuller instructions, I should say to go to this URL based in Vienna, Austria:

(I’ve also put this link in the “Tibetological Toolbox” in the sidebar, over to your right, for your future reference.)

Then tap on the words “Full eTexts Kanjur” that you will find there.

Then type the word or phrase you want to find (in Wylie transcription exactly as you wish to find it... no need to add boolean operators or quote marks) in the box provided.

And if you find it useful, as most of you no doubt will, thank profusely the people who came together to make it happen, including the many hands that produced the ocean of eTexts it sails over.

If you have experience or knowledge of this site, or know about similar projects in the works, please send us your comments, since we’d love to learn more.

A demonstration, if one be needed:

I was especially interested in a verb bdungs-pa, which means, according to the Btsan-lha dictionary, bsad-pa (‘killed’). But as I’ve found it in the Mkhas-pa Lde'u history (pp. 52, 236), it can’t possibly have this meaning, but rather has something to do with stringing a bow, as in gzhu rang bdungs, which must mean: the bow [that] strung itself.  (One of a set of weapons with amazing powers, something we’ll talk about another time.)  Some glossaries seem to think it means nocking or loading the bow with the notch of an arrow. However, in certain sources it is clear that it means stringing the bow, and not loading it with an arrow, since it takes place a good while before the actual archery competition (in the life of the Buddha as told in the famous Lalitavistara).  rgyal bus gzhu blangs te bdungs nas gzhu rgyud sbrengs pa'i sgra 'brug skad ltar zer te. (But note the verb sbrengs-pa here also means stringing of the bow.)  I noticed this phrase on p. 98 of the modern book reprint of the Sutra of the Wise and the Fool (Mdzangs-blun) I picked up earlier this year in Nepal.

So my idea is that it ought to mean the stringing of the bow, but that some authors might have thought it meant loading the arrow on to the bow.  If only the lexicons are to blame, it’s one thing, but what about real Tibetan translators and authors?  Did they ever understand it that way?

Let’s see what happens when we make use of this new search tool for the Kanjur and Tanjur!  (I’ll come back here when I find something out.)

Oh, my.  It may be an unusual word, but not quite as rare as I had imagined.  We get three occurrences in the Vinayavastu, and two in the Vinayavibhaṅga.

It occurs once in the Udayanavatsa Rāja Paripṛcchā.  It occurs in five other sûtras, sometimes multiple (2, 3 or even 5) times each.

It appears in five different tantra scriptures.

Here's a short example of a context from one of the sûtras. It’s the Drin-lan bsab-pa'i mdo, ‘Repaying the Kindness [of Buddha] Sûtra,’ which I believe is one of those relatively rare canonical translations done from Chinese):

de nas rngon pa des gzhu bdungs/ mda' ltong du bcug...

“Then that hunter strung the bow and loaded [the string with] the arrow notch.”

This certainly supports the idea that it means ‘to string’ and not ‘to nock.’  I’d have to study all the other examples to know if other texts might argue for the other interpretation (I didn’t notice one right off). My point here is that you can take an unusual word of problematic meaning and see how it functions in every possible context in the Kanjur and Tanjur.* It’s likely that with some effort you will be enabled to come to a conclusion of proven reliability. Getting through those occasional tough spots can make all the difference for the accuracy of a translation. And no, dictionaries don’t have all the meanings you need. And sometimes, as in this example, they have meanings nobody needs.

(*Well, I can’t answer the question of whether full coverage is provided or not, and even if it is [as it seems], there is still the problem of miss-readings and typos that certainly can get in the way of our certainty about the results when using databases of any sort.)

Roof-top tomb mosaic,

Galla Placidia Mausoleum


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