Sunday, February 19, 2012

Three Traditions of Ten Powers: In Buddhism, Judaism, Islam

From one of several old Kabbalistic ‘Tree’
parchments in the outstanding collection of
William Gross of Tel Aviv

This mystical monogram, looking a little like a labyrinth, is made up of the first letters of the names of the ten Sephirot of Kabbala or Kabbalah. If you read Hebrew letters some, you will see the 'm' of Malkut [‘Kingship’] at the center, with the 'k' of Keter [‘Crown’] circling  — and significantly, extending out beyond — the other nine.

I had a kind of transcendental uplift (well, at the very least it made me rise above some common assumptions) when I was looking at it, although it wasn’t the first time I’d seen something very similar as an illustration in a book somewhere. Maybe the difference was this time I was seeing it in a very old parchment page, an actual touchable one and not a virtual one, at the head of a long scroll of one of those amazingly opaque, complicated albeit overwhelmingly intriguing (which is to say, if I may, “mystical”) Kabbalistic diagrams called simply Ilanot, which is as much as to say, Trees.

Now if I say that material objects can bear psychic imprints from their past owners, you'll accuse me of the rankest occultism (well, I’d think it would have more to do with contact relics of saints, really), but if I tell you that this monogram turned into another one in my mind, you’ll probably start questioning my mental lucidity. I can hear you now. ‘Aren’t you letting this letter permutation stuff get to you? Maybe you should take a break, brave the record low winter temperatures outside instead of sitting all day in that stuffy apartment breathing book dust. A little fresh cold air may do wonders for a person in your condition.’

Well, to summarize a long story into a single tableau, here is what I saw it turning into:

OK, I agree that the visual similarity doesn’t necessarily overwhelm you in one fell swoop. But try to look beyond the surfaces. Each is a 'monogram' that combines ten letters identified with ten elements, closely bound up with each other, that somehow encapsulate whole realms of the universe, bringing macrocosm and microcosm together in one complex but integrated and encyclopedic system of science. Each of the ten letters stands for a cosmic element or principle that extends through different levels or orders of being.

The origin of the name rnam bcu dbang ldan (namchu wangden) — this being the Tibetan name of what you see just above — is locatable in the Reciting the Names of Mañjuśrī, a passage that has been translated (by Gavin Kilty) like this,

“Ten powers of ten meanings, the mighty one of ten powers,
  the all-pervading master, accomplishing the wishes of all,
  the great and powerful in ten aspects.”

The Great Commentary, in its comments on Chapter 1, verse 5, says (also in Gavin's translation):

Haṃ kṣa ma la wa ra ya is the assembly of the worlds and the vajra body. In space the letter ya, the mandala of air. On top of that the ra fire mandala. On top of that the wa water mandala. On top of that the la earth mandala. On top of that the ma Meru. That is the fifth. Above that the kṣa lotus of animate beings. On top of that the formless worlds ha. From the ha the visarga is the sun, the drop is the moon, and the nāda is the sign of the one-pointed vajra.”

For more on the colors and letters of this monogram, look here.  And here.

I’ve left this blog entry adrift in draft limbo for months now, half expecting some sudden revelation that would tie everything together for myself in a way that would be convincing to some other people. I think I’ll give up on that for the moment and just suggest that there may well be a way of establishing historical linkages between these things sometime in the future. My general hunch is that the ten categories, an Aristotelian idea to be briefly exposed here in just a minute was pre-ordained by the importance the number ten held for the Pythagoreans before him. This idea was then later taken up and transformed by the neo-Platonic teacher-student series of Plotinus > Porphyry >  Iamblichus. The ideas of all these just-mentioned people were especially influential in the Middle East and subsequently entered in various mixes into the Ikhwan al-Safa' in Iraq,* into Kabalah as it was emerging in Spain, into some streams of Sufism, as well as into the Kālacakra Tantra.** Well, I only ask you to accept the possibility that a chain of influences somewhat like this could have taken place, and that it could eventually be proven one way or another. I leave myself open to criticism from every quarter. I expect it.
(*I meant to say more about the ten categories in Islam, but for now I would just like to point out that the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity has an 11th chapter in the section on mathematical-philosophical subjects entirely devoted to them. The Brethren believed the ten powers covered all of existence. I think a translation of this section may have been published already, but I can't find a reference to it. But wait, I think I found it. Look here. Some may fault me for not getting into a comparison of the contents of the ten, but I will save this for later. At the moment I'm intent only on looking at the container, not the contents.)
(**All these things were occurring within the same basic time-frame, the 10th to 11th centuries more or less, long before the Mongol Conquest, in a time when the main avenues of knowledge transfer between India and Spain were in Islamic hands. It is now well known that some of the early Spanish Kabbalists were deeply influenced by the Ikhwan (their Epistles dating to around 980). One conduit for this Islam-to-Kabbalah influence, including the ten categories, would have been Ibn al-Sid al-Batalyawsi [1052-1126], who wrote in Arabic although some of his works were translated into Hebrew. His Book of Imaginary Circles was translated into Hebrew no fewer than three times! See  under the name Eliyahu in the readings list below.)  (I make a note to myself with a resolve to someday look into the book called Microcosmus by Joseph ibn Saddiq, aka Tsaddik aka Zaddiq aka Zaddik, dates 1075-1149.)  

A Window in Tsfat

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I will try to keep this short and to the point, since it is a topic that has occasioned much ink spillage over many centuries, and I by no means regard myself as the one to give it full or adequate treatment.* Aristotle elaborated his “ten categories” in his book called, well, Categories.  They are more precisely to be understood as genera, or the most general of possible categories.  Initially it may strike one as amusing that some medieval thinkers call them “predicaments” ...  but this is because they have to do with predicates...   Predicates, as in the things predicated to nouns to make sentences, are really the very thing Aristotle was talking about. To get into a predicament means to be at the receiving end of the verbal sticks of the sentence.  Aristotle was answering the question, What would be a minimal yet general set that would cover the types of things one might meaningfully say about something or another?
(*To get a sense of the widely divergent ways of understanding them by the our contemporary scholastics, have a look at footnote five in this book.)

To follow one version of the Greek in its English translation (Gren-Eklund), we have these:  1. being or existence, 2. how much, 3. what kind, 4. related to what, 5. where, 6. when, 7. to lie, 8. to have or to be in a state, 9. to do, and 10. be affected.  

These largely verbal and interrogative expressions (which is more as it should be, I'd venture to suggest) were nominalized in the Latin translation to mean 1. substance, 2. quantity, 3. quality, 4. relation, 5. place, 6. time, 7. position, 8. condition, 9. active form of action, 10. passive form of action.

Apparently, Aristotle’s “ten categories” are directly applied (by him) to the actual rather than the potential (two hugely distinct concepts in his way of thinking).

However, later interpreters at least, took them to apply to the potential as well.  I’m thinking this may be how the categories became powers. But then, I think by “powers” we must understand potency or potential for movement, activity and change. To reason from the contrary, if a noun has nothing predicated of it, like when we encounter the bare word, like “grape” or “sobriety,” it’s doing nothing at all, is serving no purpose, goes nowhere. We haven’t produced a meaningful statement. At best we could blurt these out as one-word answers to simple questions.* 
(*In this case, perhaps, “What is your favorite soda flavor?” and “What do you hope to gain from going to AA meetings?”)

In any case, the “ten genera” idea itself did not remain static, but was transformed in particular by two Platonists of high historic significance: Plotinus (ca. 204-270 CE) and more importantly his most prominent disciple Porphyry (b. ca. 233 CE) who wrote what was often regarded as an introduction to Aristotle's CategoriesThis became perhaps the most influential text for instruction in logic in both the Islamic and European medieval worlds.

As I said, and I repeat: It isn’t in my present plan to go as far as to conclude anything, just to make some suggestive juxtapositions. I think that is enough of an assignment for me at the moment. Or were you expecting me to do more for you? You know I would try and help you more if I could. I hope I could at least get you thinking along these lines. Is it too difficult to imagine that the histories of logic (together with grammar) and esoteric spirituality could have been intertangled in ways we have previously overlooked?

§  §  §

It's possible to get along just fine, people.
Really it is.  Encountering people where
they are.  Encounter, not confrontation.

Far too much to read:

Thomas Block, Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity, Fons Vitae (Louisville 2010). The same author's shorter and perhaps more accessible article “The Question of Sufi Influence on the Early Kabbalah” may be encountered online at, which is definitely worth a visit. I think the book overly belabors its point that Kabbalah owes much to its historical encounter with Islam and Sufism, but that could just be me. The author is so thoroughly convinced his readers will be overly resistant. (I recommend turning to the works of Paul Fenton listed in his bibliography.)

George Perrigo Conger (1884-1960), Theories of Macrocosms and Microcosms in the History of Philosophy, Columbia University Press (New York 1922). Available for free in digital archives, this has surely been one of the most-consulted general works on its subject. As an alternative general study, there is the independently written and in some ways preferable essay by Rudolf Allers, Microcosmus: From Anaximandros to Paracelsus, Traditio, vol. 2 (1944), pp. 319-407. Allers was best known to history for being a breakaway disciple of Sigmund Freud and for his book on Freudian psychology entitled The Successful Error. For this reason alone there would necessarily be a webpage devoted to him.

Gunilla Gren-Eklund, The Meanings of Words and the Categories of Things: Indian and Aristotelian, Orientalia Suecana, vol. 48 (1999), pp. 43-48. It was reading this article that first got me thinking about this subject.

Ayala Eliyahu, The Cosmic Circle of Ibn al-Sid al-Batalyawsi: The Representation of a Humanistic World View. Unpublished paper delivered at the conference “Text & Image in Religious Cosmography,” given at the University of Haifa in July 2011. Note, too, that Batalyawsi has been much mentioned in recent writings of the well-known Kabbalah scholar Moshe Idel, especially his Ascensions on High in Jewish Mysticism.

Ronald C. Kiener, Jewish Ismā'īlism in Twelfth-Century Yemen: R. Nethanel ben al-Fayyūmī, The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 74, no. 3 (January 1984), pp. 249-266.

Gavin Kilty, tr., Khedrup Norsang Gyatso [Mkhas-grub Nor-bzang-rgya-mtsho], 1423-1513 CE], Ornament of Stainless Light: An Exposition of the Kālacakra Tantra, Library of Tibetan Classics no. 14, Wisdom (Boston 2004), at p. 327.

Cyrill von Korvin‑Krasinski, Die zehn Kategorien des Aristoteles im Licht der altasiatischen Seinsstufen symbolik, Symbolon, vol. 4 (1964), pp. 119‑148.  
This appears to be quite relevant to the subject of our blog, written by a person well known for his early study of Tibetan medicine, also author of a book entitled Mikrokosmos und Makrokosmos in religionsgeschichtlicher Sicht. The article is not available to me. I’ve never seen it, have you? I guess it’s possible that it has the same ideas I thought I came up with 40-odd years later.

J.N. Mattock, "al-Maḳūlāt." Contained in:  Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs; Brill (Leiden 2011). I could fortunately use the online version.

John Newman, A Brief History of the Kalachakra, contained in: Geshe Lhundup Sopa, R. Jackson and J. Newman, The Wheel of Time: The Kalachakra in Context (Madison 1985), pp. 51-90.  Also available online, and especially recommended as an introduction for readers looking for some more background.

John Newman, Islam in the Kālacakra Tantra, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, vol. 21, no. 2 (1998), pp. 311-371.

John Newman, The Daśākāravaśin in the Kālacakra Tantra, a paper presented at the American Academy of Religion's annual meeting (November 25, 1991).  An unpublished draft of the paper on the very subject of the Ten Powers (or is this the right name for them?) courtesy of the author. I haven’t gotten around to making use of this yet, perhaps in a future blog.

Giacomella Orofino, Apropos of Some Foreign Elements in the Kālacakratantra, contained in: Helmut Krasser, Michael T. Much, Ernst Steinkellner, Helmut Tauscher, eds., Tibetan Studies I and II: Proceedings of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz 1995, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Wien 1997), vol. 2, pp. 717‑724. 

The most interesting thing for myself in this fascinating (if perhaps difficult to procure) essay is the part about the “active intellect” of Islamic philosophy popping up in the Kālacakra (although in a negative context, and even if it was misconstrued at times in Tibetan as byis-pa’i blo, which means ‘childish mind,’ rather than byas-pa’i blo or byed-pa’i blo, the ‘mind that made’ or ‘mind that makes’...).  The 'Aql fa'al, or active intellect is especially emphasized in philosophical currents of Isma'ili and related groups that were active in the 9th-10th century when the Kālacakra system was in formation.

Paul E. Walker, Early Philosophical Shiism, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge 1993), p. 103. Al-Sijistani was active between 930's and 970's:
“Nature arises within soul and this process al-Sijistani describes as “gushing” (inbijas). Since soul contains two contrary dispositions: motion and repose; in what she produces, these create a further pair: form and matter. Matter passively accepts the alternation in it of forms. Thus matter is inert and form constantly changing. The result of the union of form and matter is physical being which may also be defined as the world of substance and the nine accidents, or in other words the ten categories listed by Aristotle: substance (jawhar), quantity (kammiya), quality (kayfiya), relation (mudaf), time (zaman), place (makan), possession (jida), position (nusba), affection (maful), and action (fafil). Al-Sijistani mentions the categories in this order and calls them as a whole the “world of nature” (Calam al-tabl'a).”
This nicely displays the set of ten as very active and universal forces in cosmogenesis, not just cosmology. That’s why I quote it here.

Steven M. Wasserstrom, Sefer Yeṣira and Early Islam: A Reappraisal, Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, vol. 3 (1993), pp. 1-30.  Idem., Further Thoughts on the Origins of Sefer Yeṣira, Aleph, vol. 2 (2002), pp. 201-221.

Analysis of the syllables e and vam (evam being the first word of every Buddhist scripture),
seen on either side of the Ten Powers monogram depicted earlier on.
From “Illusion Web,” available at Digital Himalalaya.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dragon Year Losar eCard Greetings

This is that time of year when a lot of people are out on the internet using their search engines to locate sources of Losar e-cards. I know it’s true. Never mind how. But I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to look at some of the rest of Tibeto-logic while you are here. I've put up blogs about the Tibetan New Year (Lo-gsar) a couple of times in the past. In 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and now this. So as you see, it’s become a bit of a tradition. Well, as traditions go, Losar eCards, not to mention Losar cards of any kind, are not very old ones. Most of you probably already know my philosophy about Losar e-cards, which is that they are so much nicer if you give your card a personal touch, even better if you do the artwork yourself (just do something artistic and when it’s done, scan it or make a digital photo so you can then attach it), and best if you don’t overdo the photoshop possibilities like I did. If you want to see what it looked like before I pushed a blue button maybe I shouldn’t have, look just below. If you want to use one of these, be my guest. Just slide it off the blog and onto an open email, then drop it. That should work. But I suggest doing an image search for “dragon” to see if anything out there inspires you. There is a lot of fantastic dragon art to be found.*
(*but please don‘t send your friends e-photos of dragons printed on human skin... You know, tattoos. They may get wrong ideas. But I don’t really know your friends, now, do I?  Try this color-your-own dragon at Himalayan Art. Have a look at these very impressive dragon artworks, but perhaps these are more fit for use, well, some of them at least.)
I doubt anyone has noticed yet, but Tibeto-logic has been up and growing for several years now. It has visitors from all over the world. Even readers from the Peoples Republic have been showing up again of late (they aren’t supposed to, I understand). The first post was in August 2006, and the number of posts has climbed to more or less one hundred by now. I’m not sure what number this one will be exactly.  Number 98 or 99, I think. I’m aware that some of the blog entries are rather technically Tibetological, and if that is not exactly your cup of tea, I must apologize for them. Some may find it curious to learn that Tibeto-logic’s by far most frequently read blog is one with the title, “The Monkey and the Croc/Turtle.”* The reason for its popularity, I gradually came to understand, was because school children in the Philippines are sometimes required to write about this story, since it was once studied in a brief publication by José Rizal (1861-1896), a national hero of theirs. He compared the Japanese and Philippine versions, and concluded that the Philippine was more original. I sort of wonder how many cut-and-paste versions of this blog have been slapped on the teachers' desks on “assignment due” date.

(*The 2nd most-read blog is one on the Tibetan Olympics of 1695.)

Oh, and Losar is officially slated for the 22nd of February to the best of my knowledge (there are places that celebrate it at different dates for different reasons). So there’s still plenty of time to get your card ready. Just don’t put it off too long, you hear me?

(*Were you wondering about the poster? It’s been on my wall since around the mid-1980's, after a time in Kathmandu. It’s right up there above me at this very moment watching over what’s going on down here. To tell the truth, it doesn’t look like the Tibetan world has much to celebrate, and if you don’t know why, it means you haven’t been following the news. I’m of the opinion that Losar ought to be observed, even when it can’t be celebrated.)

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