Thursday, October 13, 2011

No Jewel (as such) Fell in Tibet

Near Oberndorf in Tirol, August 2008

I just finished reading the very thing I recommended in the last blog, the article entitled, “The Wish-Granting Jewel: Exploring the Buddhist Origins of the Holy Grail.”

I must say, I still do much recommend it overall. That India’s story of the Wish-Granting Jewel is not only older than, but could well have informed, through intermediaries, the Western European Grail stories appears to be likely. Yet beyond that I’m not eager to accept guesswork scenarios that may be deemed to somehow plausibly account for the transmission, and I don’t think our author expects us to do anything more than entertain the possibilities. I would be very surprised if he did. However, in one key point it seems to me — from a Tibeto-logical perspective mind you — to fall flat. If you will bear with me for a few minutes you will see [1] that in earliest sources on the event of the items falling on the roof of Lha Totori’s palace (look here), there is not even a mention of the Wish-granting Jewel.  [2] In later sources, that *do* make use of the term Wish-granting Jewel, it is still the case that it was not a jewel, as such, that fell from the sky.

Verily I tell you, I am not the expert to be telling you about this, but in the Eschenbach (he's dated to decades surrounding 1200 CE) version of the Grail legend, what we today usually imagine as a chalice (perhaps one with a relic of the blood of Jesus crucified, or in any case an object with strong Eucharistic symbolism, not to mention its association with all those medieval tales of knightly chivalry and valor) was a jewel, not a cup. I’m only saying this as a favor to people who haven’t read the article yet... so they’ll have an idea about what I’m going on and on about.

I’m not going to put my dear friends and readers through a gruelingly obsessive survey of every single word in every single historical work. One reason is, well, I don’t have to.  Stein and Sørensen have already supplied very nearly all of the more important sources for all those willing to look into them. Since Stein, although less thorough than Sørensen in supplying references, draws upon the material in greater detail, I will refer you to those pages in his Tibetica Antiqua (bibliographical details below for all who demand them).

What we learn from Stein’s listing is that the earliest use of the Wish-granting Jewel word (here given as Sanskrit in Tibetan transcription, “Tshindhama-i”) is in the famous history of 1373 that is in fact the one translated by Sørensen.  This source doesn’t say exactly what it means by Cintāmai. But even here it most definitely isn’t a jewel per se, but a tsatsa mold. True, people often stumble badly over the odd word that is used here for ‘mold,’ which is [b]skol-phor. Stein in translation reads as bolus, but looking back at the original French version we read bol. Checking the closest handy dictionary, I see that the ‘English’ (here meaning Latin, of course, but ultimately Greek) translation of French bol as bolus might have fallen upon the wrong choice of meaning. The French can mean both a ball of nutritive substances (like a pill) similar to bolus, but it may also mean a bowl or basin. I believe Stein intended the latter, mainly because I think it is nearer to the truth. I myself feel quite certain about the meaning of the word, because I’ve encountered it once in the Zhijé Collection and several times in the works of the 12th-century Kagyü teacher Zhang Yudragpa, as for instance in the following sentence:
skor phor la ri mo myed na 'byi 'byi tsha tshar myi 'gyur.
I don’t know any other way to translate this than this: 
“If there is no design in the mold (skor-phor), the ball ('byi-'byi) will not turn into a tsatsa.”
— See Zhijé Collectionvol. 2, p. 270.

Perhaps better than any longwinded explanation, this picture ought to tell you what the mold would have likely looked like:

Two tsatsa molds, called tsapar in modern Tibetan

What fell from the sky was (apparently) a dhāraṇī in chapter 12 (or chapter 14, depending on the version; it is absent from the shortest version) of the Golden Light Scripture (Suvarṇaprabhāsa Sūtra). However, it is also possible that the mold was intended to make clay moldings of an image of the particular form of Avalokiteśvara called Cintāmai. It depends on which account you are reading. If I had time and energy to go into this in more depth, I would definitely want to study the chapters devoted to this form of Avalokiteśvara in the Mani Kambum (Ma-i Bka'-'bum) collection.

My point here is that it wasn’t until a century and a half after Eschenbach* that an account of something that has to do (somehow) with the Wish-granting Jewel was said to have fallen from the sky in Tibet. Therefore it will be very hard for us to hold on to the idea that Eschenbach's account would have been inspired by the Tibetan story. Argument over.
(*This statement has to be modified since it proves incorrect; see the comment section below.  October 20, 2011.)

But just to tidy up and tie one loose end, I should say that I’m not 100% sure that there is absolutely *no* Tibetan account that could be correctly translated as saying that a Cintāmai, among other things, descended on the Yambu Lakhang in the Yarlung Valley in very early times. However, van der Sluijs gives (on his p. 6, note 35) only one source supporting this, and I know of none.  I think I can demonstrate that this is not an especially good source for founding any arguments. It appears to be based primarily* on the English translation of Emil Schlagintweit’s book Buddhism in Tibet... (1863, p. 64, where we find the word “gem”), in its turn based on Isaac J. Schmidt’s translation (1829) of the Mongolian-language history by “Ssanang Ssetsen” (for the bibliography, look here). At the moment, I don’t see the profit in pursuing this particular paper trail further, especially if you consider what can happen to translations that go from Tibetan to Mongolian to German to English.
(*Well, he also gives as a source the better-known English translation of the Kun-bzang Bla-ma'i Zhal-lung, which says, at p. 341, that the object in question was " image called the Cintamani, representing the body of the Buddhas..."  If you do go to the book [or Googlebook], have a peek at the footnote, which has something amusing and informative to say about how Tibetan scholars differ on what this object really was...)

To wind this down to a close, since I’m nearly out of typing energy, not to mention the mental focus, I’ll just say that our quest for the Grail in Tibet leads to this dead end, or perhaps into thin air.  No jewel fell from the sky onto a Tibetan palace. Even if it had, it wouldn’t have done so soon enough to inspire Eschenbach. Lha Totori is not Titurel. If you believe this conclusion is grievously unacceptable, I hereby challenge you to prove me wrong by coming up with a datable Tibetan source that would demonstrate otherwise. You’ll find me mounted on my trusty steed by the banks of the Tsangpo, lance drawn and ready, not to mention my lustrous shield.

§   §   §

Written resources:

Hugh Richardson, "The Dharma that Came Down from Heaven" — A Tun-huang Fragment, contained as chapter 10 in: High Peaks, Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture, ed. by Michael Aris, Serindia (London 1998), pp. 74-81. Translation of a Dunhuang text entitled "Gnam babs kyi dar ma."

Per K. Sørensen, Tibetan Buddhist Historiography, The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies: An Annotated Translation of the XIVth Century Tibetan Chronicle rGyal-rabs gsal-ba'i me-long, Harrassowitz Verlag (Wiesbaden 1994), pp. 137-8 (note 356), 150, 534-5.

Rolf A. Stein, Tibetica Antiqua IV: The Tradition Relative to the Debut of Buddhism in Tibet, contained in:  Rolf Stein's Tibetica Antiqua: With Additional Materials, tr. by Arthur McKeown, Brill (Leiden 2010), pp. 191-230, with the main listing, the one made use of in this blog, found on pp. 220-224. This was originally published in French, under the title "Tibetica Antiqua IV. La tradition relative au début du Bouddhisme au Tibet," Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême Orient, vol. 75 (1986), pp. 169-196. You may be able to access the French version at Persée website (try pressing here).

An example of a clay tsatsa (tsha-tsha)

P.S. The story of the books (etc.) falling on the roof of Lha Totori’s palace was prefigured by the falling of books (the Mahåyoga tantras), in India, on the roof of King IndrabhËti (in Tibetan sources often called “King Dza”).

P.S.S.  One significant point I thought I could make in the blog, basing myself on Stein's essay, got overturned in the comments section, so you had better go ahead and read the comments this time, by which I mean particularly the one from our old and true friend Sam from Early Tibet blog. I’m still a little sore from the well-landed lance blow to my left shoulder, but I think I’ll recover in time for the next jousting season. The main thesis, that no jewel as such fell in Tibet, remains unaffected, as stable as Mount Meru.


  1. Dear D,

    Thanks for another post with a mind-expanding global reach. Now, I hate to say that Stein was wrong, but there is an earlier instance of the Cintāmaṇi falling on the palace roof, and it is in the Royal Chronicle of Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen. (You can find this in the Sa skya bka' bum, vol.4, text no.128: Bod kyi rgyal rabs, f.5a, l.6). You can also find it on TBRC W00EGS1017151 (vol.9).

    The items that Drakpa Gyaltsen lists are: (i) that pang kong phyag rgya pa prayer, (ii) a golden stupa, and a kol phur of the six syllables and "cintāmaṇi". The grammar suggests that the kol phur was inscribed with the six syllable mantra and the cintāmaṇi dhāraṇi of Chenrezi (as it makes little sense for there to be a mold for two forms of the deity). On the other hand, the six syllables could be an independent item, as they seem to be in the version of this episode in the Dba' bzhed.

    Anyway, here's the passage: /des dam chos kyi dbu brnyes te pang kong phyag rgya pa dang/ gser gyi mchod rten khru gang pa dang/ yi ge drug pa dang/ tsi ntā ma ṇi'i kol phur nam mkha' la byon/

    Drakpa Gyaltsen (1147-1214) was, of course, a near-contemporary of Eschenbach. This doesn't change your conclusions, but it's a nice thought.


  2. Dear S.,

    Thanks for that crucial bit of information, one that certainly alters the picture. I think we'd be right to give the late Rolf Stein a small amount of blame, but I deserve a certain measure, too, for relying so much on his list. The truth is that he had listed Grags-pa-rgyal-mtshan's work, as no. 9 in the listing earlier in the chapter, but in this more relevant list it got dropped, and the Mani Kambum, which ought to be no. 10, is labeled as no. 9 (well, it's clear that something got dropped somewhere along the way... I checked the French, and you find the same problem there, so please don't blame the translator... he ought to have included the testimony of Grags-pa-rgyal-mtshan's text on the sky-fallen items, but didn't). I see from my own digital version of the text that you've supplied the quote quite exactly.

    It's interesting to see the spelling kol-phor for that unusual word, but here, too, it is a mold for making an impression of some "cintāmaṇi" (whether that be the image or the dhāraṇi, since it isn't spelled out here) that came down from (not 'to' even if that's what the text says) the sky.

    I'm still a little puzzled about the etymology of the word, particularly the first syllable which is spelled different ways. Skol-phor I believe to be the more 'official' spelling, since it does occur at least 9 times in Vienna digital version of the canon, while the other forms are not found there at all. Nowadays this object would be called a tsha-par, or 'tsatsa printer.'

    Enough for tonight. Thanks for writing and fixing things up. I'm hoping to get to the video store and find that Frank Coppola film "Youth without Youth" that Dotson says has Tucci in a starring role... How many Tibetologists have made it into feature films?


  3. The frontispiece for this blog was photographed by myself. I had walked up the mountain side a little above the valley, with the town of Oberndorf (near the better-known ski resort of Kitzbühel) in the distance. My Sony digital still camera was switched on. I thought I heard something hit the ground in the distance and took the picture. I can't explain it, but can only try to rationalize it as a prismatic refraction of the very strong rays of sunlight, which you can also see. Let's just say it's an unidentified landing object. (I re-centered it to make it look nicer, but the photo is otherwise unchanged since the time I snapped it.)

  4. Hi Dan,

    For the sake of completeness one might also add that Hiltrud Linnenborn in her Die frühen Könige von Tibet und ihre Konstruktion in den religiösen Überlieferungen (2004) listed various sources dealing with what fell from the sky back then. It's in section 5.1.2 of the book, startig on p. 351.

    As for the etymology of (b)skol/kol phor, might it not be the case that before dedicated tsatsa molds existed they simply used what was readily available? Sørensen speaks of "drinking vessel" and it is easy (?) to construct a connection to something holding food/soup (like kol ma). kol ma'i phor shortened to kol phor?

    Dotson is certainly right about Tucci's appearance in "Youth without Youth". I recommend that you watch the available Sanskrit version (there are not many Holywood productions available in Sanskrit, but this one is).



    P.S. I noticed that on the right margin of Tibetologic categorized under "Some remarkable sites" you have decided to mark the "Digital Tibetan Buddhist Altar" blog with a preceding †. Is this an expression of some kind of pity on your part that the blog owner, William L. Cassidy (who likes to refer to himself as "Tenpa Rinpoche"), has abstained from posting since February 2011? There is a wealth of information on this man and his criminal career available to anyone who looks for it, and even the New York Times has recently (August 26, 2011) reported on the reason of his latest imprisonment.

  5. Dear Arno,

    Thank you for the reference to that book, which fortunately is available at Googlebooks, otherwise we would have to order it from the publisher, which seems rather extreme.

    I put the dagger next to the DTBA site just because it had fallen silent, and after several months appeared to be remaining so. It was more like a question mark than a statement. I also only heard recently about Tenpa Rinpoche's imprisonment. I would prefer to think of him as an interesting character, since anyway I'm sure that 'criminal' comes nowhere close to telling us much of what there is to know about a very colorful career (and the Times story makes a list of his 'bad' actions without giving us any context, which is hardly fair to him, and anyway criminality surely doesn't characterize his career, as you seem to do by saying "his criminal career").

    I'm not here to judge, not about this. He has always been the perfect gentleman when visiting the comments section here — which by the way is open to people suffering incarcerations of all sorts everywhere, regardless of their pasts and reputations — and I hope he'll come back. I see that his supposed crime hasn't even been found to be one (a crime) yet. The crime of overtwittering? It almost looks as if the excessive twittering might have been the real reason the blog went silent. Any guesses there? Not that it is much if any of our problem, since now it's in the hand of his lawyer (which could be himself, since he's been one before, I believe). If they make over-blogging a crime, I'll never be guilty of it. Or is once or twice a month really too much?

    Oh, and for the etymology of that word I'll have to think more about it and get back to you.

    Thanks for writing.


  6. Hi Dan,

    I feel that with your previous comment you are mocking the victim of a crime. This is somewhat disturbing. I wouldn't feel very comfortable if someone sent me messages like those William L. Cassidy composed:
    Do the world a favor and go kill yourself. P.S. Have a nice day.
    Ya like haiku? Here’s one for ya. Long limb, sharp saw, hard drop.

    This from the pen of someone with previous convictions of assault, arson and domestic violence.

    And you write "I hope he'll come back." Well, I certainly won't.

    All the best,


  7. Dear Arno,

    The press, including Time, is telling the story entirely from the side of the prosecution (in effect, doing their job for them), and like I said, the supposed crime hasn't even been found to be a crime yet. Yet somehow he is being held in prison for something of which he has not yet been found guilty... I smell fish.

    I'll be very sorry if you don't write back. I always value your comments, as I'm sure everyone else does, and to tell the truth, I haven't the least idea whether or not you have ever committed a crime. Have you? If you had been charged with one I would think you would understand that it would be important to hold judgment until the facts are in and all the sides have been heard.

    And to tell another truth, I hesitated very much to post your original comment just because I do have a policy not to hang up comments that might be aimed at hurting someone else's (besides my own, which is fair game) reputation. (See the very bottom of the side bar.) I've generally followed this, failing to post comments that accuse religious sects of committing human sacrifices and the like, or that claim a prominent Tibetologist dressed up like a chicken (yes, I've gotten them, but I do screen them out).

    Because it was you I decided to put it up, believing you to be a person of good intentions. (And I'm sure you won't be so sensitive as to imagine that I could have meant that remark about your own criminal past as anything beyond the purely hypothetical! It's always a good idea to put yourself in other peoples' shoes for awhile, even when you might have developed negative views about that person... and even especially when you believe they are justified.)

    And finally, Yes, I most certainly do invite comments from people behind bars of every kind regardless of their crimes. Victims of all kinds, too, are more than welcome. I am not a court of law. Buddha accepted persons guilty of any and every crime as having positive potential. Just think of Angulimala. Or in Tibetan history people like Milarepa.

    Now how did we get so far off topic? I'm sorry if anything I said has offended you. Let's go back to being friends, or at least consider the possibility, if you'll at least accept the idea on principle. I didn't start up Tibeto-logic to be controversial, or to fight academic turf battles (easy since I don't have any to fight over), or to cause anybody pain of any kind. At the moment I just feel like stopping. If you are going to disappear feeling hurt, I think I will stop.


  8. Before I give up blogging forever, just let me say that I saw in the Linnenborn book (thanks to Googlebooks) that the Mani Kambum explicitly states that the book that fell on Lha Totori's palace roof was written in "Tibetan script" (Bod-yig). This is great news for those who believe in the Bon idea that Zhangzhung script was earlier than (and the source for) Tibetan script, I suppose. The general consensus of the non-Bon Buddhists is that Thonmi Sambhota invented Tibetan script. And he lived let's say 300 years later than Lha Totori. Am I the only one who sees a problem in this?

  9. I don't want to waste even another minute talking about the Zeoli vs. Cassidy case that Arno brought up. I just thought some may be curious to see the legal papers that have been posted here:

    This "electronic Frontier Foundation: website was quoted as saying something to the effect that this kind of thing would have a "chilling" effect on online freedom of speech. Now I'm on to more interesting things that Tibeto-logic *ought* to be about.

  10. Dear Arno,

    I recognize that you may prove true to your word and never come back to Tibeto-logic ever again (I myself got so fed up with one other blog, one that I won't name, because of the imperiousness of the blog owner, that I vowed never to go back... and so far I have been true to my vow... So anyway, Arno, rest assured I'll miss you but I won't blame you).

    But someone else might have a mild interest in discussing the issue Arno brought up, which is the etymological analysis of the word used for the tsatsa mold. As Arno put it,

    "As for the etymology of (b)skol/kol phor, might it not be the case that before dedicated tsatsa molds existed they simply used what was readily available? Sørensen speaks of "drinking vessel" and it is easy (?) to construct a connection to something holding food/soup (like kol ma). kol ma'i phor shortened to kol phor?"

    Now Drakpa Gyaltsen is the only one I know who uses a spelling kol phur (phur, 'dagger,' and phor, 'bowl' are often confounded, aren't they?). By far the most common is [b]skol phor. I'm trying, but off hand I don't know how to understand this verb skol-ba in any way apart from being the active transitive verb meaning 'to make boil' (or, as we would say in English, 'to boil,' regardless of whether we're talking about the boiler or the boiled).

    The big Zhang Yisun dictionary gives the form brkos phor. This has the wonderfully appropriate meaning of 'carved' or 'engraved' bowl. Just for this reason I tend to reject it. This spelling, not encountered elsewhere as far as I know, makes sense of something that didn't make sense by giving it a more meaningful spelling. Such things are often done.

    I now traced four instances in the collected works of Zhang Yudragpa (d. 1193), where it is three times spelled skor phor, and once spelled skol phor. I'm thinking that one or the other of these spellings ought to be the correct one, but I'm still not sure. Skor-ba would just mean circling [something] or encircling, and skol-ba, boiling [something]. But there is some chance the 2nd one might have an unusual old meaning, if we are to believe one of the Tibetan glossaries (the one I call Utpal), has a meaning something like 'to make someone do a deed without them having any say in the matter' (•SKOL BA BYED las la dbang med du skol ba byed pa. Utpal 27.1.)

    I don't know of any discussion of the Sanskrit, but it seems the only Sanskrit word behind it would be mudrâ, a word with a wondrous range of meanings (as tends to happen in a language with thousands of years of history), although I believe the primary meaning is 'an instrument used to make sealings or impressions'.

    So to make this long (but not long enough) discussion short, I just can't tell you if this "drinking vessel" explanation holds any water. My main reason for doubting it is just that there would be no reason to make tsatsas, as my quote from the Zhijé Collection says, with any kind of vessel that didn't have some kind of design in it that could be impressed on the clay (viz., No mudrâ, no tsatsa).

    My handy (Dehradun 1984) version of the Rgyal-rabs Gsal-ba'i Me-long (p. 59) reads:

    tshindha ma ni sâtstsha bskol phor.

    I'm not at all ready to believe that the word in question was ever used for a secular object employed in everyday drinking or dining (it's too close to the word tsatsa), and I think to translate it as such is a move in the wrong direction.

    Enough already. I have other things to do.


  11. Even if it may seem that I'm talking to myself (which I may very well be at the moment, having lost my one and only loyal reader... well, maybe not quite the only, since it would seem that you, my friend, are reading this), I wanted to note another usage of our word.

    It appears in the recently published pecha edition of the collected works of Drikung Chöjé Jigten Gönpo, vol. 6 (cha), p. 14, which I found thanks to notes taken several years ago:

    dpal phag mo gru pa'i zhal nas / bskos phor la ri mo med na / 'bi 'bi la ri mo mi yong gsung ba[s]...

    He's quoting Pagmodrupa, his teacher, as saying, "If there is no design in the mold (bskos-phor), no design will come to the bimbi ('bi-'bi)."

    This looks remarkably like the quote I gave above from the Zhijé Collection, which may not be all that remarkable since Pagmodrupa (1110-1170 CE) was a great admirer of Padampa and his teachings, even if he met him only in his dream visions.

    The spelling here is bskos-phor, as you can see, but I also located the spelling bskol-phor in vol. 4, p. 320, where he mentions, as one item in a list of items, the mold that had belonged to Khampa Lungpa (Khams-pa-lung-pa, b. 1085?).

    I thought I would just add that in here as a little bit more pre-Mongol evidence for the word that is causing us trouble.

  12. In one of the dGongs-gcig commentaries, the Rin-byang-ma (on. 4.21), in the context of discussing the arising of vast merit for someone who makes a gift to a person with great merit, this is likened to

    brkos phor dang 'bi 'bi ltar mi bslu ba'i rten 'brel yin

    i.e. it is "an infallible dependent origination like (a) and (b)"


  13. Me again. And in the rDo-sher-ma commentary of the dGongs-gcig Phag-mo-gru-pa is quoted (sku spar la ri mo med pa na bimba la ri mo mi 'ong, variants: skol phor and 'byi 'byi) in the context of teaching that no qualities can be produced in the disciple by a teacher who doesn't possess the characteristics (6.5).


  14. Dear J-U,

    Are you trying to make an impression? Perhaps you are the skol-phor?

    Yes, that's interesting that it quotes the same kind of expression as you find above attributed to Phag-mo-gru-pa in the comment dated Oct. 29, 2011.

    The sku-spar spelling is a very interesting one. It looks like a printing device for images when spelled that way. But actually, I'd go with the spelling skol-phor here.

    Hope all is well with you and your house. Thanks for writing.


  15. Dr. D -- I just read the above. You can delete DTBA. I don't have very much going on over there anymore; nothing of substance, really. As to the matter 'twas at hand, I always do what seems useful; albeit from a rather idiosyncratic perspective, and I do not much care if it is mischaracterized or misunderstood. When I take a long view at some things I have done, I find them beneficial to others. In other cases, I have tried and failed miserably. I live in the desert with rabbits.


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