Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Pavements Like the Sea

Vancouver, August 2010

For a long time I’ve wanted to immerse myself in the Tibetan accounts of Buddha’s life, and in the last few years I’ve found occasions to do just that. Almost all the good books in English that tell the stories are old ones.* More recent Buddha biographies, even many of those written by Buddhists, unfortunately think they have to tell what little they do tell of Buddha’s life as straight-on history, as if they were in a position to be able to tell that the less miraculous a story is, the more verifiable therefore.** 
(*John Strong's recent book is not the only exception to this rule, but definitely one of the better ones. I very much recommend it. ** Today’s blog is about stories that have hardly anything of the miraculous apart from remarkable mechanical skills and empirical verification... It’s all about ‘hard science’ [at least on the surface of things] but — and here’s a point worth making — that doesn’t necessarily assure us of their historical truth... and yes, of course, other truths besides historical ones may well be lurking there... They most definitely are!)
I was looking in one of those old biographies, the one done by Wm. Rockhill, “Second Secretary U.S. Legation in China,” when I saw something that provoked one of those (honestly) not-so frequent déjà vus. It was also a moment of utter perplexity. Is it possible, I was thinking, that the Nepalese Queen of Emperor Songtsen Gampo could be identical to the famous Queen of Sheba who went to marry King Solomon?  (Only with some role reversals?) As you can already tell, it’s necessary to backtrack a little or we won’t accomplish anything beyond spreading bewilderment about in the world more than is really warranted or wanted. Here’s what the footnote in Rockhill's book (p. 70) said:
“In the Mongol history entitled Bodhimur (Schmidt, Sanang Setsen, p. 342), we read of the Nepalese princess, wife of the Tibetan king Srong-btsan-sgam-po, building a temple on Mount Potala at Lhasa, in which was also a crystal floor. The king was also deluded when he first saw it.”
Tritsun, the Newar Queen of Songtsen Gampo
Not having any quick access to Rockhill’s sources, neither to the Mongolian text nor its German translation by Schmidt, I turned to The Mirror that Shines Light on the Generations of Kings, a 14th-century history, perhaps the most popular one with earlier generations of Tibetan readers. I searched and located the story, right there near the beginning of its chapter 15. The following, just to get us oriented in time, would have taken place somewhere around the middle of the 630’s:  

“When [the Nepalese queen] Tritsun opened the door of the [Trulnang] shrine to allow the king to enter, he saw that the floor resembled water and that everything above it was reflected upon it. Thinking that the former lake had burst forth, he dared not proceed. Tritsun therefore removed the ring from her finger and threw it to the floor, whereupon it skidded across the surface like a pebble upon the ice. Seeing this, the king resolved to enter and said to Tritsun, “This shrine of yours is indeed miraculous!”   (Taylor tr., p. 178).
der khri btsun gyis lha khang gi sgo phyes nas / rgyal po nang du byon par bzhed pa la mthil gyi zha la chu'i mdog lta bu / steng phyogs kyi gzugs brnyan thams cad de la shar ba gzigs pas / sngar gyi mtsho 'di brdol 'dug dgongs nas / nang du 'byon ma nus pa dang / khri btsun gyis sor gdub phud de gtor bas / khyag thog khar rde'u bskyur ba bzhin khrol gyis song ba dang / rgyal pos gzigs pas thugs ches te nang du byon no //  der khri btsun la khyed kyi lha khang 'di 'phrul du snang ngo gsungs /  
Compare the Sørensen tr., p. 285, with footnote no. 871, which has references to parallels in other history books that we ought to look up. Note a further description of the floor on Sørensen's p. 286:

“Its cement-floor is lapis lazuli-coloured,
[In which] the drawings [on the ceiling] above (steng) [i.e.] the fish and water-creatures
Are just like reflections in a mirror.”*
(*This bears a positively uncanny resemblance to the quote by Lehmann you will find below.)

Note the goat by the lake
This is the very story that supplies an explanation for the "Trulnang" part of Rasa Trulnang (Ra-sa 'Phrul-snang) Temple. Rasa means goat (ra) earth (sa) because the goats brought the earth that filled the lake (something alluded to in the quote above). Rasa was the original name of the city before it was changed to Lhasa.

Trulnang means ‘magical’ ('phrul) appearance or shining or reflection (snang). Or to keep it simpler, Trulnang just means a bewilderingly fantastic vision. Rasa Trulnang is the more correct name for the Jokhang (as most English speakers are likely to know it) or the Tsuglakhang, as locals are likely to call it. It’s only the most important temple in the entire history of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. And our water-floor story is being told about its builder and one of his wives, just as that other story is told about the most famous temple builder of the Middle East, King Solomon, and one of his many wives... I guess you can intuit where I may be going with this.

On the same pages of his book, Wm. Rockhill tells a canonical episode associated with Buddha’s life, but centered on a figure called Jyotishka. King Bimbisara was invited to Jyotishka's house, or rather we should say, the king, king that he was, had himself invited. As he passed through the wealthy man’s jeweled door,    

He saw before him like a lake of water, in which fish were made to move by machinery. The king, desiring to enter (the room), commenced undoing his shoes, when Jyotishka said, “Sire, why are you getting ready to bathe?”  
“Because I must wade in the water,” he replied. 
“Sire,” Jyotishka answered, “it is not water, it is a floor of jewels which looks like water.”  
“But those fish which seem to move about?”  
“Sire, they are made to move by machinery.”

rgyal pos de’i bar sgo’i phyogs rin po che’i rang bzhin las gyur pa rdzing chus gang ba lta bu de na nya dag rgyu ba ’dra ba’i ’khrul ’khor gyi sbyor ba byas pa dag mthong ste |  nang du ’gro bar ’dod nas lham dag ’dud par brtsams pa dang  |  me skyes kyis smras pa |  lha ci’i slad du chags dag bsil bar mdzad |  des smras pa |  gzhon nu chu la ’bog par bya ba’i phyir ro ||  me skyes kyis smras pa |  lha ’di chab ma lags te |  chab lta bur gda’ ba ni rin po che’i sa gzhi lags so ||  des smras pa |  gzhon nu nya rgyu ba dag ’di ltar snang ngo || lha ’khrul ’khor gyi sbyor ba las de dag rgyu bar gda’o.* 
(*The text was found at this website, in the context of the Vinayakṣudraka. I fixed a few things I was sure needed fixing, but didn’t check the Dergé Kanjur version yet.)

I’d like to point out that the word behind ‘machinery’ here is the very same yantra / mechanism we’ve considered at some length in an earlier blog. But, well, I see that my short story is already getting long, so let me quote from the scripture often known as the Koran (al-Qur'an), ch. 27 - The Ants, verse 44: 

Then she was bidden to enter the palace; but when she saw it, she thought it was a deep pool of water, and bared her legs. 
But Solomon explained, ‘It is just a palace paved with glass.'
And she said, ‘My Lord, I have wronged myself: now I submit myself along with Solomon, to God, the Lord of the Universe!’ 

Persian miniature ca. 1595
As the Mir article amply discusses, we are to understand by this that she simultaneously realized her error with regard to the floor being a water surface and her error at not believing in the one God. Seeing through error is what it’s about, is it?

There are a lot of retellings of the story in the Islamic world, some of them saying Solomon was not all that sure she was marriage material. What he really wanted to do was check and see if she had hairy legs or not, which was why he made the floor so shiny and reflective in the first place. It was just to trick her into lifting up her robe so he could satisfy his curiosity and make a better informed choice. But that's only one of many amusing tales. Most amazing thing of all, for me, is this:  At least one version of the Islamic story (told by Grierson as well as Elias, p. 64) says that Solomon's palace was built with a glass floor, with real fish and other sea creatures swimming beneath it. The stories do, after all, look quite a bit the same.

But wait, take a minute to reflect on what it means to be obvious. Humans can’t take a single step without implicitly trusting in the ground to hold them up. The story upsets the expectation of being grounded, at least for a time. Their eyes are not failing them, yet they don’t see what’s there. Maybe it’s about rethinking our assumptions, our fundamentalisms, even? Hell, I don’t know what the story is about any more. I might have thought I did. If you are in a mood to wonder about it some more, have a look at the Lethaby passages I’ve typed up for you down below. Architecture has its sky above and its earth/waters below just like our world does. That much seems so clear it ought to go without saying. But there, I said it anyway. I hope you’ve enjoyed these small reflections. I hope you didn’t find them too limiting.

The “frozen sea” in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
(read the Barry essay and all will be clear)

•  •  •
Literary works:

Fabio Barry, Walking on Water: Cosmic Floors in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Art Bulletin, vol. 89, no. 4 (2007), pp. 627-656.

Rosemarie Haag Bletter, The Interpretation of the Glass Dream-Expressionist Architecture and the History of the Crystal Metaphor, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 40, no. 1 (March 1981), pp. 20-43.

William M. Brinner, Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam, Journal of the American Oriental Society (January-March 1996).  Digital version here.

W. Crooke, The Queen of Sheba, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, new series vol. 45, no. 3 (1913), pp. 685-686. 
“The tale of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon is current at the present day in Palestine, and an old Saracenic bath-house near the Bâb el-Asbât, or ‘Gate of the Tribes,’ in the eastern wall of Jerusalem is pointed out as the scene of the incident. This building was demolished in 1906...  Tales of walking into a place supposed to be full of water are common...” 
Lois Drewer, Fisherman and Fish Pond: From the Sea of Sin to the Living Waters, Art Bulletin, vol. 63, no. 4 (December 1981), pp. 533-547. Besides the illuminations on the symbolism of fish and fishing, there are some illustrations of mosaic floors with fish swimming in them.

Jamal Elias, Prophecy, Power and Propriety: The Encounter of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  Look here. And if that doesn’t work, look here and scroll down to try and find it. At his footnote 1 you will find a lot of references to writings I haven’t made use of here.

G.A. G[rierson], Duryodhana and the Queen of Sheba, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, new series vol. 45, no. 3 (1913), pp. 684-685.
“In order to prevent Solomon marrying Bilqis, the Jinns told him that her legs were covered with hair, and that she had ass's hoofs instead of feet. To discover if this were true, Solomon built a marvellous palace with a glass floor, beneath which was water supplied with fish and other sea animals swimming therein. He sat on his throne in the midst of the palace and called Bilqis to him. When she came to the glass floor she tucked up her dress in order to wade through the apparent water, and Solomon saw that, sure enough, her legs were hairy...”
Jacob Lassner, Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam, University of Chicago Press (Chicago 1993). This is another book I should have read through before blogging about the subject, but haven’t yet. See parts of it for free here.

Karl Lehmann, The Dome of Heaven, The Art Bulletin, vol. 27, no. 1 (March 1945), pp. 1-27. Page 5:  
“[A] persistent interrelationship exists between ceilings and floor decorations. In most cases, we see projected upon floors the schemes which were originally developed on ceilings. Sometimes, and as early as the first century B.C., we meet a direct representation of a ceiling on a floor, as if it were reflected in a mirror.”
William R. Lethaby (1857-1931), Architecture Mysticism & Myth, Solos Press (Bath 1994) reprint of 1891 edition. Especially the chapter 9, “Pavements like the sea,” and chapter 10, “Ceilings like the sky.”
“Now, there is an Eastern legend of Solomon laying a floor like the sea in his wonderful palace in Jerusalem:—'When the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, she came to prove Solomon with hard questions' (Book of Chronicles). These, according to Eastern tradition, were riddles, like those which passed between Solomon and Hiram of Tyre. But 'there was nothing hid from Solomon,' and, en revanche, he retorts by transporting the throne of Queen Balkis to his palace by the aid of the genii who ever served him, so that on her arrival she was confronted by her own throne. 'It was said unto her: enter the palace. And when she saw it she imagined it to be a
p. 206

great water, and she discovered her legs, by lifting up her robe, to pass through it. Whereupon Solomon said unto her: Verily, this is a palace evenly floored with glass' (Koran xxvii.) Or, as some understand, adds Sale, this was in 'the court before the palace, which Solomon had commanded to be built against the arrival of Balkis; the floor or pavement being of transparent glass, laid over running water in which fish were swimming. Fronting this pavement was the royal throne, on which Solomon sat to receive the Queen.'
A similar floor is given to the palace of The City of Brass, in the 'Arabian Nights,' probably the most wonderful piece of architectural imagination in literature. The Emeer Moosa and his followers came to a high-walled city, from the midst of which shines the tower of brass. They entered and pressed on to the palace, and found a saloon constructed of polished marble, adorned with jewels. 'The beholder imagined upon its floor was running water, and if any one walked upon it he would slip. The Emeer Moosa therefore ordered the Sheykh Abd-Es-Samad to throw upon it something that they might be enabled to walk upon it; and he did this, and so contrived that they passed on.'
The story, incorporated in the Koran soon after the year 622, is probably from the Talmud, which contains this version:—All the kingdoms congratulated Solomon as the worthy successor of his father David, whose fame was great among all nations, save one, the Kingdom of Sheba, the capital of which was called Kitore.
To this kingdom, Solomon sent a letter.
'From me, King Solomon, peace to thee and to thy government. Let it be known to thee, that the Almighty God has made me to reign over the whole world, the kingdoms of the north, the south, the east, and the west. Lo, they have come to me with their
p. 207
congratulations, all save thee alone. Come thou also, I pray thee, and submit to my authority, and much honour shall be done thee; but if thou refusest, behold I shall by force compel thy acknowledgment.
'To thee, Queen Sheba, is addressed this letter in peace, from me, King Solomon, the Son of David.' When Solomon heard that the Queen was coming he sent Benayahu, the son of Yehoyadah, the general of his army, to meet her. When the queen saw him she thought he was the king, and she alighted from her carriage.
Then Benayahu asked, 'Why alightest thou from thy carriage?' and she answered, 'Art thou not his majesty the king?'
'No,' replied Benayahu, 'I am but one of his officers.' Then the queen turned back and said to her ladies in attendance, 'If this is but one of the officers, and he is so noble and imposing in appearance, how great must be his superior the king.'
And Benayahu, the son of Yehoyadah, conducted Queen Sheba to the palace of the king.
Solomon prepared to receive his visitor in an apartment laid and lined with glass, and the queen at first was so deceived by the appearance that she imagined the king to be sitting in water.
And when the queen had tested Solomon's wisdom and witnessed his magnificence, she said, 'I believed not what I heard, but now I have come and my eyes have seen it all; behold, the half has not been told to me. Happy are thy servants who stand before thee continually, to listen to the wisdom of thy words. Blessed be the Lord thy God, who hath placed thee on a throne to rule righteously and in justice.'
There is a practically identical story in another of the quarry books of the world, the Sanscrit epic of the Mahabharata, which sings the long strife of rival royal
p. 208
houses. One of the Rajas celebrates a royal sacrifice. 'When the sacrifice had been fully accomplished, Duryodhana entered the place where it had been performed, and saw very many beautiful things that he had never beheld in his own Raj at Hastinapur. Amongst other wonders was a square, made of black crystal, which appeared to the eye of Duryodhana to be clear water, and as he stood on the margin he began to draw up his garments lest they should be wetted, and then throwing them off he plunged in to bathe and was struck violently on the head against the crystal. Then he was much ashamed and left that place.'
Mr Talboys Wheeler suggests that this may be borrowed from the Koran, but allows that it may have had an independent origin. There can, however, be little doubt that these transcendental palaces, which are handed on through milleniums of Indian story, find their origin in the structures of the land which is not subject to winter's wind, nor any decay—The City of Gold founded in the waters above the firmament.
In the fifteenth century Italian romance, called the Hypnerotomachia, the author seems to have collected all the architectural wonders of history and romance; but how should he come by this same story? Poliphilus, after penetrating zone after zone of gardens, which occupy an island, comes at last to a circular temple, open to the sky, and on entering it was astonished to find 'a marvel more grand and stupefying than anything he had ever seen;' the whole area of the amphitheatre was apparently paved with one sole stone of obsidian, entirely black and of invincible hardness, so polished and shining that at the first moment he feared destruction by walking into an abyss. It reflected the light of day so perfectly that he contemplated the profound and limpid sky as in a quiet sea: everything was reflected as in a polished mirror.
p. 209
According to the story in the Koran, Solomon's throne seems to stand on the waters, just as was imagined of God's throne. 'It is He who hath created the heavens and the earth in six days, but His throne was above the waters, before the creation thereof' (Koran xi.). 'For the Mohammedans supposed this throne, and the waters whereon it stands—which waters they imagine were supported by a spirit or wind—were, with some other things, created before the heavens and the earth. This fancy they borrowed from the Jews, who also say that the throne of glory then stood and was borne on the face of the waters by the breath of God's mouth' (Sale). An account of this pavement of waters above the firmament is given in Smith's 'Dictionary of the Bible'—'Further, the office of the rakia (firmament or solid expansion) in the economy of the world demanded strength and substance. It was to serve as a division between the waters above and the waters below . . . . and accordingly the rakia was created to support the upper reservoir (Psalms cxlviii. 4 and civ. 3), where Jehovah is represented as "building His chambers of water," not simply in water, that being the material of which the beams and joists were made.'
In Ezekiel's vision of a perfect temple, after he has seen every court and chamber, and measured them with his reed, he is brought again to the door (Ezekiel 47:1):—'And, behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the house eastward: for the forefront it of the house stood toward the east.' The waters came from the south of the altar, and after passing through the court and the outer gate became a mighty river flowing to the sea. It is the river of the water of life, 'and everything shall live whither the river cometh.'
p. 210
To return to Constantinople once more: an account of the emperor's bed-chamber, in the imperial palace, is given by Bayet (L’Art Byzantin.), quoting from Constantine Porphyrogenitus. A range of the palace called 'Cenourigion,' was built by Basil, the Macedonian; one of the rooms had sixteen columns, of green marble, and of onyx, sculptured with branches of the vine, and the vault was covered with golden mosaic. 'But nothing could equal the royal bed-chamber. The pavement was of mosaic, the centre was a peacock in a circle of Carian marble, surrounded by rays, and an outer circle. From this second circle issued, as it were, streams or rivers of green marble of Thessaly, which flowed, seemingly, to the four angles of the room (comme des ruisseaux ou des fleuves de marble vert de Thessalie); the four interspaces left between the marble streams had eagles wrought in mosaic, which seemed to live and to breathe. The lower part of the walls were encrusted with glass, in many pieces of varied colour, in the forms of flowers. Above a gold band, the walls were covered with mosaic, on the golden field of which were enthroned Basil and Eudoxia, and their children around them. In the centre of the ceiling glittered a cross of emerald glass on a star-lit sky.' In the same book (Bayet) is a story taken from Codinus, of flooding Sta. Sophia with water, which, although not questioned by the author, seems to be an expedient so impracticable and injurious as to be obviously a myth—just such a myth as would arise to account for a pavement representing water. 'When the dome fell in Anthemius and Isidore were dead, but the latter had left a nephew, who was charged with the works. He increased the elevation of the cupola, and at the same time gave greater solidity to the great arches. They this time left the centres longer in place, and all
p. 211
the scaffolding. They also inundated with water the lower part of the church, so that pieces of wood in falling should not cause any injury.'
In the great area of Sta. Sophia it is not possible to see the floor, but in one of the galleries a green marble pavement is still uncovered. It is formed of very large slabs of antique Cipollino (Browning's 'onion stone'), the slabs being laid in such a manner....  ___  [Read the whole chapter here.] 

Mustansir Mir, The Queen of Sheba's Conversion in Q. 27:44: A Problem Examined, Journal of Qur'anic Studies, vol. 9, no. 2 (October 2007), pp. 43-56.

Christopher R.A. Morray-Jones, A Transparent Illusion: The Dangerous Vision of Water in Hekhalot Mysticism, a Source-Critical and Tradition-Historical Inquiry, Brill (Leiden 2002). I’d love to read this book but, as it is quite expensive, we have to regard ourselves as fortunate to be able to read the parts of it made available here.

W. Woodville Rockhill, The Life of the Buddha and the Early History of His Order, Derived from Tibetan Works in the Bkah-hgyur and Bstan-hgyur, Followed by Notices on the Early History of Tibet and Khoten, Pilgrims Publishing (Varanasi 2004), reprint of 1901 edition. The relevant passage is on p. 70. 

Per 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).

John S. Strong, The Buddha, a Short Biography, Oneworld (Oxford 2001/2002).

McComas Taylor & Lama Choedak Yuthok, trs., Sakyapa Sonam Gyaltsen, The Clear Mirror: A Traditional Account of Tibet’s Golden Age, Snow Lion (Ithaca 1996).

° ° °
Out on the web:

For an argument in favor of the Qur'anic source being older than the Judaic source, look here:

You can see a lot of artworks inspired by the Queen of Sheba here:
° ° °

And I saw something like a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had been ....The very sight of the pavement, therefore, on which they stood ...  Revelations 15:2 (in a visionary description of a heavenly throne room).

I Feel Free
    by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown, from the album Fresh Cream (1966).

Feel when I dance with you,
We move like the sea.
You, you're all I want to know.
I feel free...

I can walk down the street, there's no one there
Though the pavements are one huge crowd.
I can drive down the road; my eyes don't see,
Though my mind wants to cry out loud.
I feel free...

Dance floor is like the sea,
Ceiling is the sky.
You're the sun and as you shine on me,
I feel free, I feel free, I feel free.

- - -

Further support for the idea that it was the floor that gave the Jokhang the 2nd half of its original name Rasa Trulnang...  

The Extensive History of the Dharma's Emergence in India and Tibet, composed by Khepa Deu (ca. 1260's), at p. 292:
“After this speech, the king (Songtsen Gampo) was accompanied by his sixteen ministers as far as the low valleys in the east.  He remained there for thirteen years.  When the temples were finished, after he had constructed Total Completion Very Happy (Yongs-rdzogs Rab-dga') Temple, he returned to the center where Ongjo had built the Temple of Ramoche and Tritsun had built the Temple of Goat Earth with three storeys.* He went to the top of the building and from there it was clear that the inside of Goat Earth was full of water.  So he threw down his staff and it was plain to see that it was floating back and forth on the surface of the water.  But then he was delighted when he tossed away his ring and it made a clear ringing sound.  He declared, "Tritsun's temple here appears to be miraculous ('phrul-du snang)."  From then on the temple was known as Miraculous Appearance ('Phrul-snang).”
blon po bcu drug dang bcas te mdo smad shar phyogs su [phebs] / dgung lo bcu gsum bzhugs te lha khang rnams tshar nas / yongs rdzogs rab dga'i lha khang bzhengs su gsol nas / dbus su byon pa dang / ong cong gis ra mo che'i lha khang bzhengs / khri btsun gyis ra sa'i lha khang sum thog bzhengs 'dug nas / rtser byon pa dang / ra sa'i nang chus gang bar mngon nas / phyag gi lcag bor bas / chu'i kha na lcag yom me 'dug par mngon / sor gdub bskyur bas / sing khrol la song bas mgu ste / khri btsun gyi lha khang 'di 'phrul du snang ngo // gsungs pas 'phrul snang du grags so / 
(*Ongjo is his Songtsen's wife from China, Tritsun (Khri-btsun) his wife from Nepal.  "Goat Earth" translates Ra-sa, meaning the Jokhang Temple.)

 ° ° °

A note on illustrations —  Our frontispiece was photographed at the Sun Yat Sen Chinese Garden in Vancouver in 2010, immediately after the IATS was over. The final photo is taken from the floor of the Greek Chapel (the Catholicon) of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. If you didn’t notice already, look at it again and tell me if what you see is a flat surface. Maybe not?  Look again. Still don’t see it?  I read quite a harsh review of it, so I have to say, if you would like to see the most beautifully conceived and produced book in the recent history of Buddhist studies, I warmly recommend Jan Westerhoff's Twelve Examples of Illusion. You start to appreciate the book before you even open it, such an amazing dust cover covers it. And you don’t have to be a philosopher or a Buddhologist to read it, such amazingly clear prose was used to write it. This book may not really exist. It has illusion written all over it.

° ° °

Add-on - May 18, 2012:

I was just looking over the English translation of Ven. Chetsang Rinpoche’s history book today, and noticed this bit translated from the Feast for Scholars (Mkhas-pa'i Dga'-ston). The context is a description of the freshly built Rasa Trulnang Temple (here dated to the "Iron Bull year 641"):
“All the flooring, as blue as lapis lazuli, bore drawings of water fowl and water, on top of which appeared marvelous drawings of fish, crocodiles, birds, and so on.”
Source:  Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang, A History of the Tibetan Empire:  Drawn from the Dunhuang Manuscripts, tr. by Meghan Howard and Tsultrim Nakchu, Songtsen Library (Dehra Dun 2011), p. 223.

- - -

Here’s the passage from the Tibetan version of the history (published in 2010), where it may be found at p. 236:
“de yang mthil zhal thams cad bai .dûrya sngon po ltar ngang pa chu'i ri mo can la / steng gi nya dang chu srin dang / bya la sogs pa'i ri mo dang 'phrul gyi gzugs snang ba...”
Contemplating the Tibetan, I think there is a slight inadequacy in the English translation. As I read it, it’s saying that the forms such as fish, makaras, birds and so on that were painted above (steng-gi) were reflected in the pavement that had the water designs in it as well as ducks (ngang-pa) down below.  The translation obscures another essential message of the original since it doesn’t convey to us that the 3rd and 4th syllables that go into the name of the temple, Rasa Trulnang, are included here.  Really, the miraculousness in the temple name is owed entirely to its floor, which would be one of the main points I wanted to make, actually, in this blog effort.

Try to visualize together with me if you can, how the water designs, the waves and ripples in the floor, might have combined with the reflections of the fish and so on coming from the ceiling above, when you stepped into the room. How would they move in relation to each other as you moved about the room... Could we call it a ‘shifting of planes’? Remarkable, isn't it, even to just imagine it! If you see it there’s no need for me to say more. If you see it, it isn’t just a dream.


  1. Meraviglioso, vero!


  2. Isaac Jacob Schmidt's "Geschichte der Ost-Mongolen ..." (St. Petersburg and Leipzig 1829) is available on-line on Google Books, URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=C2oiAQAAMAAJ
    The Information on p. 342 is not given in the main text, but in a reference that gives a paraphrase of the "Bodhimör" (so Schmidt's transliteration). So far I know, Bodhimur or Bodhimör is a Kalmuck translation or more or less free version of the rGyal rabs gsal ba'i me long.

  3. Dear Peter,

    Thanks so much for that crucial reference! I should go up and fix the blog (or should I?), at the part where I say it's not easily available. The PDF took about 4 minutes to download, which seems more than easy to me.

    I just located quite a vigorous discussion about the Bodhimor identification problems at Theosophy.net, since it's a book title mentioned by Blavatsky. It's HERE (I hope).

    Thank you for writing.


  4. Chances are very little will be found of the alleged Tibetan Buddhism of HP Blavatsky. She appears to have picked up much of what she "knew" from the book "Buddhism in Tibet" by Emil Schlagintweit. Our entire collection of documents can be found under the Resources menu at Theosophy.Net

    Certain books of hers, most notably "Voice of the Silence" have been endorsed by the Dalai Lama as being Tibetan in origin. The issue with Blavatsky, as always is one of separating truth from fiction. Her believers can be as much an impediment to getting to the truth as the paucity of literature to support her claims.

  5. Hi, J, thanks for that comment. I know that H.H. the Dalai Lama did write a bit in favor of The Voice of the Silence, but I sincerely doubt He ever said he's convinced it's a translation from a Tibetan source. He may have endorsed it for having some content conducive to Buddhist values, but did he ever say it was truly Tibetan in its source-text? That I strongly doubt, but would love to know the reasons I ought to believe it.

    Looking at Blavatsky's own preface, especially, I'm bewildered by the bits of "Tibet authenticity" (the word lug[s] meaning 'method' for example). And then the bizarre things like senzar and lanoo (?!) — the coded hieroglyphs (possible to read without knowing any particular language?? Hmmm...) and "disks" `— things that don't really ring any Tibetanist bells... I strongly doubt that the content can be traced to a Tibetan source. Has anyone ever suggested a Tibetan title for the source of the translation (besides the cryptic shuffling in the work's own preface; here at least one thing is very clear: She's confounded Nāgārjuna's Paramārtha[stava] with the Prajñāpāramitā, neither of which could possibly have any connection with the content of the Book). The emphasis on "the one" and the cosmic sound you find in some kinds of Hinduism, but not Tibetan Buddhism.

    I once heard a Tibet-born Tibetan teacher say that nobody had brought more people to an interest in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism than Lobsang Rampa. That definitely doesn't mean he was endorsing Rampa or his "Tibetanness." Quite the contrary, he had no doubt Rampa made up his Tibetan identity in order to impress and fool other people.

    Which is NOT to say that both Rampa and Blavatsky may not have had true insights or effective techniques (I got into this kind of misunderstanding with a follower of Eckankar in an earlier blog). I have no personal reasons to go after Blavatsky or Rampa. I think in these cases the real sources are western Hermeticism and religious/occult/mystic/magic ideas, primarily.

    On the surface, Tibet is just what you expect to find in Rampa and Blavatsky, but if you look closer into their works from a Tibeto-logical point of view, there is little to hold it up. Kind of like that pond in the palace.

    Not to get too far off the subject.



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