Thursday, June 14, 2012

Symbols on the Slope

Sound Symbols, including the Bell, the Conch, the Cymbals and the Book,
surrounding Samantabhadra and Samantabhadrî. Detail from 

huge scroll painting illustrating the  scripture entitled Stacked 
Auspiciousness Sûtra -Bkra shis brtsegs pa'i mdo - translated 

Continued from this blog
Each of the emblems on the slope of the Bell is placed within a ‘niche’ formed by monster-heads with pearl strings pouring out of their mouths. This monster-head is usually known by its Sanskrit name Kîrti-mukha, ‘Face of Glory.’[1] This Face of Glory most frequently appears at the tops of archways over entrances to temples and shrines or painted on the tops of pillars. Its symbolic significance is not clarified in our Tibetan texts about Bells, but its use in the design of the Bell probably has to do with protecting the entryway into the sacred space of the Bell’s chamber, rather like the Vajra Walls. 

The close relationship between the Face of Glory and the Makara has often been remarked upon, and it seems to us that the Lotus rhizomes often shown emerging from the mouth of the Makara are a symbol of the dangers of the deep. Note especially the presence in many Indian examples of a human figure next to the sea monster’s mouth or entangled in the lattice-work of rhizomes coming out of its mouth. This would be a symbol of the dangers of getting entangled or swallowed in the depths of the waters. The strings of pearls that often take the place of the lotus rhizomes would, quite the contrary, be a symbol of the water’s potential for producing wealth; “to extract a pearl from a Makara’s jaws was a proverbial example of courage.”[2] Perhaps the strings of pearls draped between the Faces of Glory in the design of the Bell have a similar meaning? Like they say, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

We might attempt to summarize the elements of the symbolism of the Bell in roughly the following manner. The Bell means Insight, of all the elements most directly symbolized by the face of Transcendent Insight, which rests on the Full Pot, a ‘cornucopia’ that symbolizes the fullness and wealth of the Buddha’s teachings as a major source of Insight. Transcendent Insight is ‘ornamented’ or ‘crowned’ by the half-Vajra of Method, of Full Knowledge[s], of the final adamantine state of complete Enlightenment. The Bell proper, with its sacred chamber protected by Vajra Wall and Faces of Glory, symbolizes the place of origin (the point of articulation) of the Buddha Word, the Dharma. This chamber is ‘crowned’ by the eight-petalled lotus containing the ‘seed syllables’ of the eight female Buddhas. Bells may be made to belong to one of the five Buddha Families (and the five Full Knowledges associated with them) by the placement of a set of their emblems on the ‘slope’ of the Bell.

Vajras and Bells are generally designed to go in pairs. This is illustrated by the fact that a Vajra with five prongs must always go together with a Bell having a half-Vajra with five prongs. Likewise, a nine-pronged Vajra goes with a Bell having a nine-pronged half-Vajra. A closed-pronged ‘peaceful’ Vajra goes with a closed-pronged ‘peaceful’ Bell. A peaceful Bell is distinguished not only by its closed-pronged half-Vajra, but also by the fact that the bottom ‘lip’ of the Bell turns inward slightly “like the mouth of an ox.” Wrathful Bells have not only open prongs on their half-Vajras but also a bottom ‘lip’ that inclines outward “like the mouth of a fully grown lotus.” The clapper, called the ‘staff’ (dbyug-pa), which ought to be eight-sided, is a symbol of Full Knowledge.[3] Although we have noticed only one actual example of such a Vajra, it is said that a Vajra with four faces must go together with a Bell with four faces arrayed around the middle of the handle.[4] The typical Vajra has no face at all, and according to the texts a no-faced Vajra must go together with a Bell with one face. Both Stag-tshang, Tāranātha and A-kyā all give the same reason for the fact that generally the Vajra has no face while the Bell has one. They say that the consonants of the [Sanskrit] alphabet, which correspond to Method, cannot be articulated alone (ergo, Vajras are silent, requiring no mouth; the Sanskrit word mukha means both mouth and face), while the vowels,[5] corresponding to Insight and the Bell, can indeed be articulated alone, and this is why generally speaking (even if there are exceptions) the Bell does, and the Vajra does not, have a face.

In our general comments about the symbolism of the Vajra and Bell, we have tried to reach something approaching ‘adequate representation,’ which means among other things that we have not emphasized aspects of the symbolism that are likely to make shy juveniles and dirty old men blush or snicker. The ‘erotic’ interpretation is probably sufficiently obvious even to those whose minds are not inordinately occupied with such matters, even to people who have never felt compelled to follow the psychological insights of Sigmund Freud. Insight and Method are equally symbolized by the female and male forms of Buddhas frequently shown joined in the Parental (yab-yum) pose of sexual intercourse.[6] It is true that in modern colloquial Tibetan as well as in the more graphically erotic passages in some of the tantra texts, the Vajra serves as a metaphor for the male sexual organ. It is the Lotus, and not the Bell, that frequently serves in these same contexts as a metaphor for the female sexual organ. It is no doubt true that Vajrayāna often appears to be a sea of symbolic waves tossing aimlessly in the wind, and this makes it all the more important to develop a sense of perspective on what might be the metaphor and what the thing metaphorized. By simply seeing the general Buddhist background of much of this symbolism, we believe that some of the problem of perspective may be resolved. Followers of Buddhist tantra never lost their central Buddhist emphasis on the primacy of the motivation for Complete Enlightenment. When Vajra and Bell are conjoined in the course of a ritual, it means the union of Method and Insight, of Bliss and Emptiness, of Awareness and Emptiness. And it means those things if it means anything at all.

A Vajra with faces, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

[1] For an accessible retelling of the origins story for the Face of Glory, see Zimmer (1974: 175-184), Snodgrass (1992: 307 ff.), or Kollar (2001: 15), and for a more general discussion, see Agrawala (1965: 237-244). According to the Indian story, Shiva emanated a monstrous form in order to devour Rāhu, the ‘head of the eclipse.’ Rāhu was so frightened, he took refuge from Shiva’s monster with Shiva himself. The wrath of the monster which Shiva had generated had nevertheless to be appeased in some way, perhaps by means of a blood sacrifice. Shiva suggested to the monster that it might eat itself, which the monster then did, until reduced to nothing but its face, which Shiva then named the Face of Glory. In the Face of Glory that so frequently appears on the carved wooden plaques placed over temple doorways in Nepal, it often looks as if the head were ravenously devouring its own hands. In some, it holds a snake, suggesting a symbolic conflation with the garuda bird (it is the garuda you see in this position in Tibetan art).

Torana with Face of Glory in Patan's Durbar Square
Note, too, the Makaras on right and left sides
The Face of Glory would seem to be a suitable symbol for self-sacrifice, the only form of sacrifice countenanced by Buddhists. The Tibetan term used for Kîrti-mukha, Tsi-pa-a appears to be a borrowing from Sanskrit. A modern Tibetan-language dictionary defines Tsi-pa-a as: ‘a design of a flat-nosed creature that looks like a cat head, carved as an ornament at the heads of pillars and so forth’ (Chang 1986: 2186). We would suggest that other Tibetan words for the Kîrti-mukha, such as Rdzi-’go-pa-thra (in Ronge 1980: 270), Dzig-mgo-pa-tra (in Tucci 1966: fig.3), Rtsi-par and Ci-mi-’dra [chimera?] (in Helffer 1985: 63; Kun-grol-grags-pa 1974: 532), probably all derived from the original Tibetan Tsi-pa-a, a loanword from Sanskrit Cipaa, which means ‘flat-nosed’ (but note also gzi-gdong, ‘splendorous face,’ which may be a direct translation of Kîrti-mukha, in Singer [1996: 41], although no other instances of this word have been noticed so far). These forms would be explained as attempts to ‘Tibetanize’ (to find Tibetan etymologies for) an unusual foreign word. It is perhaps worth noting the curious fact that, in a recent catalog of Tibetan artistic treasures published in Hong Kong (Precious Deposits: IV 172), the Kîrtimukha that appears on a gilt wooden offering table is identified as a Kylin, or ‘Chinese unicorn,’ although this is likely a modern instance of the matching of what are, anyway, different cultural items in order to make things more familiar to a target audience. Incidentally, the motif is frequent in Indian architecture; Kîrti-mukhas with jewel garlands spilling out of their mouths are found for example on the sides of pillars at the Chālukya cave-temples, belonging to both Hindu and Jaina religions.
Wooden temple pillar,
detail from the capital
[2] Coomaraswamy (1971, pt. 2: 49-50). Note that nearly identical patterns of pearl-strings are to be seen on early representations of Indian Stūpa domes (dating from about the second century ce). This would suggest a symbolic equation of the ‘slope’ and ‘dome’ of the Bell with the Stūpa dome. Some early Stūpa domes are quite evidently bell-shaped, as for instance the Stūpas at Sarnath.

[3] Mkhas-grub-rje (199x: 250; but see also p. 276, which calls it the ‘tongue’ as well as the Full Knowledge Clapper that emanates and absorbs everything).  The tongue (to point out the obvious) is what articulates everything (well, everything but the labials and perhaps the very deep gutterals).

[4] Stag-tshang (n.d. 33), too, mentions the possibility that Vajras and Bells may have four Faces. Among the few examples known to us of a four-faced Vajra is illustrated in Bromage (1952: plate 5, facing p. 135). It is pictured together with two Bells (as well as Skullcup, Phur-pa, Ga’u [Amulette Case], etc.), but neither Bell seems to be the ‘mate’ of the Vajra. The central section of this Vajra is also quite out of the ordinary; it appears to have three lateral ridges indented to accomodate the shape of the fingers in the manner of a ‘brass knuckle.’ Other examples include one from Nepal weighing about four pounds, which was published in Poussin 1916; another, described as a product of fourteenth-century China, in Essen and Thingo 1989: 262; yet another illustrated in Rituels tibétains 2002: 136. For still another rare example of a Vajra with four Faces, see the illustration in Levine (1993: plate 11) and also note, in the same volume (plate 9), a photograph of a Vajra and Bell set attributed to the eighth-century Tibetan Emperor Trisong Detsen. The latter Bell is equipped with a ring, but with the Vase of Plenty and the Face absent. The slope of the Bell bears no symbols other than the Vajra Wall and the Faces of Glory with pearls coming out of their mouths. The symbols of the Buddha Families are portrayed within the lotus petals on the dome of the Bell, which is unique as far as I know. Like some early Japanese examples, it has a rosary of large-sized Vajras circling it end-to-end just above the lip of the Bell in place of the Vajra Wall made up of Vajras standing on end.

Vajras and Bells are also known in Java. For example, in what may be one of the most elaborate Javanese Bells, we find four faces, while other aspects make it both similar (note the five-pointed Vajra at the top and the Vajra Garland near the bottom) and somewhat different from known Tibetan examples. It is illustrated in Scheurleer (1985: 182). For more on Indonesian vajras, see Ito (2003).

[5] Readers might do well to recall here that the vowel ‘A’ is regarded as the most abbreviated form, the ‘distillation,’ of the Transcendent Insight Sūtras. And, although this might seem overly obvious, the sounds of the Bell and other symbols of the Buddha’s speech make drawn-out sonorous sounds, rather like vowels, and not rasping, clicking, popping or snapping sounds, which would more resemble consonants. The vowel ‘A’ in particular is made with the mouth and throat cavities wide open, resembling the interior of the Bell. For information on traditional linguistic ideas, including the significance of ‘A’ as well as the equation of vowels with Insight and consonants with Method, see Naga (1999: 61-62).

[6] They are never portrayed in an ordinary horizontal position, but are rather in seated meditational postures (the female Buddha seated on the lap of the male, although in the case of Vasundharā, a female Buddha associated with wealth, Her male consort may be depicted seated on Her lap) in the case of the majority of peaceful forms of Buddha, and very often standing (in a dynamic pose, as if they were getting ready to lift off of the ground) in the case of wrathful forms, although wrathful and semi-wrathful forms do occasionally occur in seated postures. The translation ‘Parental’ is for some curious reason never used in the literature on the subject (again, it doesn’t suit our fantasy interests), even though that is what the word yab-yum, as an honorific form of pha-ma or ‘parents,’ means, while the symbolism in so many places clearly emphasizes conception and birth (indeed, the entire rebirth cycle), most assuredly not that recently coined barbarism ‘recreational sex.’

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literary sources

Studies in Indian Art, Vishwavidyalaya Prakashan (Varanasi 1965).
Tibetan Yoga, The Aquarian Press (London 1952), 1st edition. I haven’t been able to learn much about this author.
I-sun CHANG (Krang Dbyi-sun) et al.
Eds., Bod Rgya Tshig-mdzod Chen-mo, Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang (Lhasa 1986), in 3 volumes.  A Tibetan-Tibetan-Chinese dictionary.
Yakas, Part I and Part II, Munshiram Manoharlal (New Delhi 1971).
Gerd-Wolfgang ESSEN and Tsering Tashi Tingo
Die Götter des Himalaya, Buddhistische Kunst Tibets. Die Sammlung Gerd-Wolfgang Essen, Prestel-Verlag (München 1989), vol. 1 (Tafelband).
Essai pour une typologie de la cloche tibétaine dril-bu, Arts Asiatiques 40 (1985b) 53-67. It should be worth your while to have a look at the online version here at Persee Scientific Journals (it ought to be free)... I mean even if the French slows you down a bit.
Naoko ITO
Priest’s Hand-bells (Ghaās) in Asian Countries: Especially on the Samaya Design on Indonesian Bells, Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies, vol. 51, no. 2 (March 2003), pp. (8)-(11).  See if this Cinii link to a PDF will work for you (or go here and search from there).
Symbolism in Hindu Architecture, as Revealed in the Shri Minakshi Sundareswar, Aryan Books International (New Delhi 2001).
Gsang-sngags Theg-pa Chen-po’i Bsten-par Bya-ba’i Dam-rdzas Ji-ltar ’Chang-ba’i Rnam-bshad Rnal-’byor Rol-pa’i Dga’-ston (‘Feast of the Play-acting Yogis: An Explanation on How to Hold the Commitment Substances for Use in the Great Vehicle of Secret Mantra’), contained in: Mkha’-’gro Bde-chen-dbang-mo, et al., Yum-chen Kye-ma-’od-mtsho’i Zab Gsang Gcod-kyi Gdams-pa Las Phran dang bcas-pa’i Gsung-pod, Tshering Wangyal, TBMC (Dolanji 1974), pp. 515-599. Notice the similarities of this title with the title by Mkhas-grub-rje, listed just below.
Blessing Power of the Buddhas: Sacred Objects, Secret Lands, Element Books (Shaftesbury 1993).
Rdo-rje Theg-pa’i Lam-gyi Yan-lag Mi-’bral-ba dang Bsten-par Bya-ba’i Dam-tshig-gi Rdzas Med-du-mi-rung-ba-dag-gi Mtshan-nyid dang / Ji-ltar Bcad-pa’i Tshul la sogs-pa Rnam-par Bshad-pa Rnal-’byor Rol-pa’i Dga’-ston [‘Yogis’ Acting Festival: A Detailed Explanation of Such Matters as the Characteristics and Methods for the Holding of the Indispensible Commitment Substances which are, in the Branch Vows of the Vajra Vehicle’s Path, Never to be Parted from, and are to be Put to Use’], as contained in: Collected Works of Mkhas-grub-rje, as contained in:  Rje Yab-sras Gsum-gyi Gsung-’bum [impressions from the 19th century Sku-’bum Byams-pa-gling woodblocks] (Kumbum Monastery 199x), vol. 15 (ba), pp. 205-344.  I used CD digital reproductions supplied by Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (New York).
Acarya Sangye T. NAGA
On the Function of Tibetan Letters, Tibet Journal (Dharamsala), vol. 24, no. 3 (Autumn 1999), pp. 57-76.
With F.W. Thomas, A Nepalese Vajra, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1916), pp. 732-735.
Precious Deposits: Historical Relics of Tibet, China, Morning Glory Publishers (Hong Kong 2000), in five volumes.
Rituels tibétains. Visions secrètes du Ve Dalaï Lama, Réunion des Musées Nationaux (Paris 2002).
Veronica RONGE
With N. G. Ronge, Casting Tibetan Bells, contained in:  Michael Aris and Aung San Suu Kyi, eds., Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson,  Aris and Phillips, Ltd. (Warminster 1980), pp. 269-276.
Pauline Lunsingh SCHEURLEER
Asiatic Art in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Meulenhoff/Landshoff (Amsterdam 1985).
Jane Casey SINGER
Gold Jewelry from Tibet and Nepal, Thames and Hudson (London 1996).
The Symbolism of the Stupa, Motilal Banarsidass (Delhi 1992).
Rten Gsum Bzhugs-gnas dang bcas-pa’i Bsgrub-tshul Rgyas-par Bshad-pa Dpal-’byor Rgya-mtsho.  Microfilm of a 54-folio manuscript in the possession of Gyaltsen (Swayambhunath, Nepal) courtesy of the Nepalese National Archives (reel no. E574/29; running no. E15094).  A treatise on Buddhist sacred arts composed in 1459.
Tibetan Folk Songs from Gyantse and Western Tibet, with appendices by Namkhai Norbu, Artibus Asiae Publishers (Ascona 1966).
Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Bollingen Series (Princeton 1974).

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visible sources

For a historically outstanding Vajra and Bell set said to have been given to Kûkai in China in around the year 800 CE, see the blogsite Flower Ornament Depository.  You may also see them here.  More marvelous Japanese Vajras and Bells are found here.  

Explore the remarkable wealth and variety of Vajras and Bells at this Himalayan Art webpage.

For the most impressive collection of Vajras from all times and places, see this webpage entitled "Sundial - Isan."  Some quite remarkable Bells are there.

For a very brief introduction, look here, and if you want to read about bells more generally, you might enjoy this 3-year-old blog called Bell Envy.

misgivings and afterthoughts

I think I might change my mind about the etymology of the Tibetan form Tsi-pa-ṭa painted on the 'bow'-shaped capitals of pillars. I'm thinking it just stands for Sanskrit Citrapatra, or 'painted surface.' I confess, too, that there is some confusion between this being (which has a nose, not a beak) and the Garuda (which must have a beak for eating Nagas) and the Face of Glory (probably eating its hands) and the Makara (which ought to have a long snout). These four monstrous faces seem to get mixed up by the artists, with elements belonging to one being added to the other. So perhaps I may be forgiven for the confusion I've exhibited here even if it is in some part my own. I would hate to be overly conclusive about things that may be open ended in reality. Who wouldn't? Hate it, I mean.

There's an interesting bit of a blog page at Brainwave by Shalini Srinivasan called "Sea Monsters." I wonder, though. One of the more frequent suggestions for the real-life counterpart of the Makara is the Ganges river dolphin (but the crocodile is frequently mentioned, too).  It's true the river dolphin, like the Makara, has a long snout, but I wonder if it might just as well be a kind of Manitee like the Dugong, or perhaps the gargantuan Sea Cow. These largely vegetarian sea creatures (frightening, perhaps, but harmless) tend to feed off the bottom, and even pull up rhizome systems for their between-meal snacks. That habit is also suggestive of the Makara, I think. And it ought to be a sea creature, not a river creature after all.

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