Monday, September 24, 2012

Three Recent and Rare Tibetological Books

A snapshot of the Templeman book cover

I assume anyone reading Tibeto-logic already knows how to do internet searches for book titles. They also probably know what are the most likely libraries and commercial sites where those titles might be acquired. I have made — and do make — exceptions to the no-commercial rule occasionally when [1] I can justify to myself that I don’t have any compelling personal or commercial interest in promoting the book* and [2] the book is too likely to be overlooked by those who would find it interesting (translated: worthy books by more obscure or indie publishers). Even then, I don’t think I’ll give you direct links to suppliers. Let’s just say these are rare species, and that this blog is one of those rarely granted hunting licenses —  once you do find these books you can proudly display them as hard-won trophies on your shelves, brag to your friends how you battled all odds to get them, and you might even read them if you feel so inclined. Not to stretch the ironically-intended hunting metaphor further, rest assured what you will find here are friendly introductions — not so-called critical book reviews with their yawn-invoking typo hunting — so relax and keep reading, but only if you want to. We start with a tale of magic, an untimely death and of all things frogs.
(*I won’t ask you to buy my sister’s novel, no matter how much I think you should, and no matter how much difficulty I have restraining myself.  I have a policy to attempt a strict boundary between Tibeto-logic and commercial concerns. That’s why, among other things, I zealously prescreen each comment to make sure there will be not even one spam posting.  I hope you will never see ads on Tibeto-logic. Sometimes we literally have to fight to make our contested little islands on the internet about love of learning instead of commerce. Of late the spammers (the spambots? I doubt their humanity) have gotten quite aggressive, even sending in advertisements in Hindi and Russian using Devanagari and Cyrillic scripts.  Why just a few minutes ago I got three different spam postings with links to dozens of women's shoe sellers. They often spout a few compliments — the proverbial deer head placed with care in front of the mule meat — and then back-link to some page selling Italian handbags, the filthy bastardini! This non-advertising policy of mine even extends to books, although this is the hard one. I mean, every reference to a book might in some sense be an advertisement for it. I’ll grant you that.)

Years ago while I was a young student struggling with Tibetan, my class was reading an amazing text about a woman who died and came back from the dead.  My teacher insisted on reading one passage of it as saying that the woman had been made deathly ill through black magic after an enemy had put a dead frog under her mattress. The way I read it was that the woman was in the process of dying, and soon after leaving her body she looked down and saw what looked to her like a smelly frog corpse lying there on the bed. Although that’s what it looked like, it was in reality nothing else but her own dead body. 

I guess all of us who have been students have experienced these small crises of confidence in our authority figures. Wisdom in hindsight is all well and good, but I must confess that at the time I was upset with my teacher. Now I think I overreacted. Shy person that I was, yet I had the temerity to suggest it would be possible to read it my way. Still he insisted, just to drive in his point adding in an instance of this kind of black magic being performed with frogs in some other place — the details of his argument are no longer clear in my mind. In any case the outcome was good, I better learned to respect people that don’t see things the same way I do, a very useful skill that requires constant testing and honing. And face it, there is no good reason to keep authority figures since we’re all just trying to do our best with what we’ve got under the conditions we find ourselves in.

So, it isn’t out of a sense of pride and vindication — really not — that I warmly welcome and recommend a new book by Daniel Berounsky of Prague. This book with the title The Tibetan Version of the Scripture on the Ten Kings (and the Quest for Chinese Influence on the Tibetan Perception of the Afterlife) covers an impressively large territory. We say this even though it does have a main focus in a single astounding text — one that doesn't really have a title — about the Buddhist hells. This is the kind of text that perhaps should not exist. It is a scripture, yet is not to be found in canonical catalogues of scriptures. It is in Tibetan (and most Tibetan scriptures by far are translated from Indian languages, predominantly Sanskrit), yet it contains clear signs of being translated from Chinese. 

The Chinese text on the Ten Kings was subject of a 1994 book by Stephen F. Teiser.  (No, it might help, but it isn’t necessary to read Teiser’s book first.) The Tibetan manuscript is graced by what might be considered folkish or naive painted illustrations (done in Tibetan style but with clear Chinese background most evident in the magistrates’ hats and so on, as you can see already on the cover) that are despite or because of that quite pleasing to the eye and fascinating in their content. These miniatures include some of the most gruesome and cruel scenes ever made available to us by the human imagination. (Coming from someone who just watched A Cabin in the Woods, I think my saying that means something.)

Part of the area covered are those revenants that Tibetans call passed-on returners or delog ('das-log), including that self-same woman who saw her body as a frog. Lingza Chökyi was her name. Was that a warm recommendation? Well, yes, it was. And if you want to read the story about the frog, the translation starts on page 58. Still, I should add, since it might create confusion: Through the magic of manuscript variations, the frog (sbal) has become a snake (sbrul). So be warned about that. I like this book very much. I enjoyed the reading of it.

One very unclear photo of the image at Triloknath

The contents of the volume from Monash University edited by David Templeman and entitled New Views of Tibetan Culture have already been described, with a listing of the individual titles and authors, at Indologica blog, here. These are all fine papers, each with its own laudable merits. Myself, I found most immediately fascinating the essay on the famous old Triloknath temple in Chamba by Diana Cousens. I hope you will get a chance to look at this book, otherwise you will be forced to find satisfaction in the fuzzy photo of its famous image you see above. D.C. located on the black market (Huh!?) a sharp and wonderful photo of it without the cloth that usually mostly conceals it. Cousens shows how a remarkable array of local and translocal secular and sectarian concerns converge and diverge on and from this small but culturally-historically (not to mention Buddhalogically) important image and the small temple that houses it — spirit mediums, sheep sacrificers, self-flagellators, dancers, drinkers, volley-ball players, picnickers and linga worshippers share the space with Buddhists. In other places, in other contexts, it is so often the case that disparate perceptions converge on a single object. Interesting to see how these tensions get dealt with, isn’t it...

Not intending to sound as if I’m criticizing the author for not doing what there was never any intention of doing, still I will say as an afterthought that there isn’t very much of the historical background here. That kind of material, although not all that abundant really, may be found elsewhere (especially in some works by Mahesh Sharma, listed at, here). If you’re one of those oddballs that like looking into the past, I’d first recommend an old article based on an even older Tibetan-language guidebook to the temple. I have put up a page about it at Tibetological website, here, including a small bibliography. For the insufficiently Tibetolognoscenti, or for those who just try their best to avoid reading German, I send you instead to the life of Götsangpa, one of the early Tibetan visitors to Chamba, at Treasury of Tibetan Lives, here.

Number 3 on our list, but very high in our esteem is Francis Tiso’s Milarepa book.  (Look for Francis Tiso in the sidebar for a rather dated CV.) Tibetologists need no introduction to Frank’s work on Jebtsun Milarepa (ca. 1050-1123). He wrote a dissertation over two decades ago entitled A Study of the Buddhist Saint in Relation to the Biographical Tradition of Milarepa, dated 1989, and perhaps available from UMI or Proquest if you have the necessary means. I fear it will be even more difficult to get this newer and further developed volume of Milarepa research:  Liberation in One Lifetime: Biographies and Teachings of Milarepa, Proforma (Isernia 2010).  Featured at the core of this book (as with the earlier dissertation) is a translation of the 13th-century Milarepa biography written by Gyeltangpa Dechen Dorjé (Rgyal-thang-pa Bde-chen-rdo-rje)

There is quite a lot going on in Milarepa studies in recent days, a lot of papers, books and dissertations, so many that it would be a weariness for all of us if we had to track down every last one of them. We might just mention that one of the most important younger researchers in this area is without a doubt Andrew Quintman. He has made a fresh new English translation of Milarepa’s most-read and best-loved biography (also published in 2010). There is an engagingly written piece* by Ruth Gamble in the just-mentioned volume edited by Templeman, to underscore a highlight or two in what would otherwise be a very long list.

But still, I believe not one among all the hosts of Milarepa-wallahs can very closely approach Tiso’s combination of skills. He is both competent and critical in the academic sense and empathetically engaged in the material in ways that make it resonate on a number of levels. He has an impressive breadth of knowledge, yet keeps his conclusions vulnerable (as one must, but really, how often do you see it?). If upon closer historical investigation we see some of the narratives fall apart, we can simultaneously sense the living forces that anyway made such narratives develop. We can intuit simultaneously what the life of sanctity meant to the tellers of the saint stories, and what it could mean to us. And even in the degenerate times we live in we might conceivably achieve these insights without falling into the early-21st-century Buddhist’s two extremes — those of pitiless de[con]structionism and newage-ish dis[con]figuration of tradition.
(*It has the title Laughing Vajra: The Outcast Clown, Satirical Guru and Smiling Buddha in Milarepa's Songs. It attacks the very good question whether or in what way Milarepa’s humor might be regarded as funny. This is a great contribution to the still-rarely-touched area of Tibetan humor studies.  By the way, does anybody know the term Tibetans today are using for comic book? The question came up recently, and I didn’t have an answer handy... I still don’t. While we’re at it, what does the word shog-bkra mean to you?)

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Afterthought:  I feel for the young Tibetanists of the world. There are so many new books coming out all the time. Some of them are just plain wonderful, but then far too often so are the prices. The only solution (short of selling the car, giving up vacations and mortgaging the apartment) is to stay close to a well stocked library without budgetary restraints if such libraries may be said to exist anymore. Perhaps you have one of those in your neighborhood. I feel I ought to reassure you that if you can find any of the three books featured in today’s blog (and I leave the finding up to you), then you are likely to be surprised how little they will cost. I mean, relatively speaking!  

Thursday, September 06, 2012

The City in the Sky Illusion

Trouble concentrating on your work? Keep seeing things that very probably aren’t there? Or at least aren’t there in the way they would seem to be there? You may be sure you are not alone.

Somehow when I did the blog about the floor/water confusion illusion — the one that explains how the Jokhang Temple got its original name — I overlooked something very important, something we might even call a game changer. It’s often been my experience that just when I thought I had something all figured out, that was practically the same moment when something new came up and the bottom fell out. 

Could it be that India is, once again, the source of a Eurasian phenomenon? Does an Indian epic story date further back than the story told about the queen of Sheba? We really must ask this question, although answering it... well...

One thing Lethaby mentioned briefly in the long piece of his quoted in that blog, but that I failed to go into, is the story from the Mahabharata Epic. This surely must count as one of the oldest accounts, or even perhaps the oldest of them all. Duryodhana's humiliation he felt from Draupadi's scornful laughter is sometimes seen as the true cause of the great universal-scale battle at Kuru Field. If you’re not familiar with Indian epic, I’ll just send you to video versions at the end of today’s blog rather than spoil the plot for you. There you will learn about the miraculous city of Indraprastha, built by Vishvakarman, the divine craftsman. When Delhi was founded, Indraprastha was nearby, or at least its ruins were, but now it is believed that New Delhi has long ago swallowed up and digested its original site. If you’ve been to Delhi you would know that some intangible something of Indraprastha still remains there. More on Indraprastha soon, but now let’s look at another city, a city of the disappearing kind.

“The Sampua says:

‘The same as Haricandra’s city, 
appearing like play in a dream.’

“There was once a city called Harikela near the ocean in southern India. In the summertime, when rain fell during the night and the sun shone during the day, a reflection appeared in the sky in the shape of the city, down to the exact people and animals. The Indian commentaries on the Sampuṭa say that a reflection appeared of Haricandra (a past king of that country) and his retinue going to Khecara without having discarded their bodies. In any case, that type of appearance arises from the combination of those dependently arisen connections: the rain falling in the night, the clear dawning of the sun in the morning, and the traveling of King Haricandra to Khecara.”

—  Source:  Cyrus Stearns' fabulous book of translations, Taking the Result as the Path, Library of Tibetan Classics (2006), p. 438, in a section supplying examples of illusory appearances, in a work by Jamyang Khyentsé Wangchuk (1524-1568). Khecara means 'sky life' or heaven.

I doubt anyone has noticed, but illusions have featured regularly in Tibeto-logic blog. Some of these are illusions we share, some are limited to myself, while others are entirely your own, not that you would ever know, or want to know that. Sometimes I think this blog is an illusion. I mean, it shows up on the screen, but is it actually there in the way it appears to be there?

    Videos for your vision (Don’t trust it! The vision I mean. At least not too far):

I recommend this short one (tap there in case you don’t see it appearing just above). Although it’s in Hindi you will understand practically everything if you have spent even one week in India. I mean, I think “Cha-lo!” is the first word every foreign visitor learns during their first trip on an Indian bus. It means "Let's go!"

There is a longer version, if you have time for it — one with English subtitles.  It’s in one episode of the television serial version of the Mahabharata done by B.R. Chopra et al., in 94 episodes broadcast between 1988 and 1990. If you were so unfortunate as to need a taxi to the airport when this show was on the air, forget about it; you made a big mistake. You could have shouted Cha-lo! until you went hoarse and the cows came home for all anyone cared. Everybody regardless of their name was glued to TV sets wherever TV sets were to be found. The whole country was practically at a standstill. Go here to episode 44 and try to understand why.  Wait about 20-some minutes into it for the watery floor episode.* 
(*The linked video has English subtitles. It seems to load slowly, so go put on a pot for tea meanwhile. Only 13 people have viewed it as of today. That may seem like an unlucky number, but not really, and anyway, I predict it will change very soon. With this blog I celebrate the blog with the ultimate in auspicious numbers.  This is number 108 since I started Tibeto-logic six years ago, almost to the day.  Six years later and Dolma Kyab, a young man who featured in the first Tibeto-logic blog posting, is still in prison as a punishment for writing an unpublished book. My sister, who has written an excellent novel is, the last I heard, free from prison, but her book has not been published. Injustice is injustice regardless of where you find it. Oh, Happy Birthday Kim!)
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Links for the fun of it:

Phantom cities like Harikela have shown up in other parts of the world. I can’t vouch for the truth of this one, but it sure is interesting.

And what about those legendary missing pagodas at Mahabalipuram in South India that miraculously reappeared during the Tsunami of 2004? Not exactly the same thing, of course, but fascinating anyway. Look here.

There was a magically projected city in the Lotus Sutra. Also not exactly the same thing.

In China a city appeared floating above the river on a cloud. This is the same thing, isn’t it?  See this video filmed just last year, although it has elsewhere (look here) been debunked as a fraud. A fraudulent illusion? Who and/or what is deceiving who precisely?

What is a Fata morgana exactly? If it just means an illusion in which objects that are actually there appear to be much larger than is ordinary on the horizon, I’ve seen them plenty of times, and it would seem silly to pretend to debunk them. In that account of Harikela, there is an impressive amount of attention paid to the physical conditions necessary for such illusory visions to arise. But wouldn’t that just go to prove that illusions are very ordinary? natural even? Or that they are very much a part of our ordinary existence? Are we getting confused yet? Oh well, yes, I’d say the confusion goes back very far and runs quite deep. What evidence would make anyone imagine otherwise?

Frontispiece: Not a real Fata morgana, this building on a northern Taipei hilltop might appear to resemble one, which is about as close as I could get photo-wise.

Some amazing artwork
is to be seen
Try not to fall in.

Highly recommended: 

A time or two around on the Magical Mystery Tour ride at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen if such a ride exists (did it ever?).
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