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?)

§  §  §

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!  


  1. Great article for a Sunday tibetanist like me, poor, endetted, living near a library with hardly any humanities, not to mention Tibetology, and where books in English are rare in general. I decided to go for Tiso's book. Too bad for my kids, they will have to survive on pasta this week. But they're used to that.

    It seems to me you are a bit harsh on deconstructionism, making it into an extreme. Isn't it a friend of Prajna?

    Thanks and best wishes,

  2. Hi J,

    It's always a joy to hear from you. As for my being hard on deconstructionism, don't forget the 'Pitiless' adjective that I meant to be taken together with it. I think pitiless deconstructionism is precisely the nihilism Buddha regarded as just as bad or worse than the opposite extreme of eternalism (the "I'm going to live forever" stuff most other religions are full of).

    If deconstruction is a "clearing" gesture to get rid of the crap that gets in the way of seeing freshly, I'm all for it in general. So long as it isn't just a new form of haughty disregard (the world has enough of that without fostering it).

    My, it's so nice to get a message from a real person, one with real empathy, after the pitiless attack of the spam bots that seems to have lasted all summer.


  3. Ah nihilism! I remember having read somewhere in one of Gendun Chopel's works to not try and avoid "nihilism" too much, since it was impossible anyway to live up to for anybody. Nihilism is probably a "faux problème" as the French say. It must be a scarecrow word. Apart from in Dostoievski's novels I have never read about anyone calling himself a nihilist.

    Gosh, the pitiless wars against spambots that seem to rage behind the pleasant screens of Tibeto-logic. Keep up the good work! ;-)

  4. Oh come off it Joy. Somehow I don't see it in your character to be encouraging people to lose heart and give up hope and just want nothing more than to end it all. Or do you mean something else by nihilism?

  5. You are giving me quite a lot of homework here, I am not sure I will have the time to comply. The word nihilism is quite new and seems to have been used by Tourgueniev for the first time.

    When I say nihilism is a scarecrow word I mean that it invites one to stop to reflect further. It says don't go there, don't go beyond. That's my main objection against the use of the word nihilism.

    Next, it is often used by some who have a certain belief or ideal in order to designate those who don't share that particular belief or ideal. If one doesn't share that particular belief, which is as dear as life to them, it is as if one doesn't like life. Beliefs and ideals are allergic to the slightest dissonance.

    It is hard for me to imagine nihilism or nihilists,such as they are made out to be by people using the term. A nihilist with parents, a wife and children and a job, what would he be like?

    I found some of Gendun Chophels stuff I mentioned earlier. It’s from Donald S. Lopez’ book.

    I had to remove the quotes, because they were too long and exceeded the 4096 character limit. For those who have the book, numbers 42 and following, 121 etc.

    44 In brief, when one thinks that a pot is utterly nonexistent and sees it di­rectly with the eyes, the illusionlike awareness is produced automatically. Thus, what danger is there of falling into nihilism? Thus, I would say:
    45 When one decides that it does not exist with one’s mind and sees that it exists with one’s eyes, even without being taught by the yellow hat abbot, what can arise other than the awareness of illusion?

    121. If not as­serting the conventional has the danger of falling into nihilism, then one would be compelled to refute or prove whether or not what is perceived by the eyes and ears exists, but that is not necessary. Even though the mere words nothing exists are spoken from the mouth, it does not in any way affect how things are apprehended by the mind. Therefore, I see no reason why the pair, refutation and proof, need to be taken so seriously. On the contrary, when someone who has no such assertions is asked what is out there, he will be bound to say that it is a mountain, it is a tree, and that it is a human. Thus, there is no need of another method to compel [that person] to accept these things through many reasonings. »

    Etc. etc. There is more of it.

    Then there is to choice of the word nihilism to translate the sanskrit (cheda, uccheda, in Tibetan chad pa). It apparently means cessation, discontinuance, discontinuing, interrupted, expired. The Buddha warned against uccheda ditthi, "the belief in the existence of an ego-entity or personality as being more or less identical with those physical and mental processes, and which therefore, at the dissolution at death, will come to be annihilated."

    I think that must be quite a widespread view in the modern world. And even according to Buddhism, nothing that we identify our lives with, survives the dissolution process at the time of death. Everything we believe to be, our physical and mental processes do indeed stop at the moment of death. So what's the big deal with uccheda ditthi?


  6. hello:i great post...and i am still reading....... i google the book about milarepa and i find the site about the autor: he his a milarepa budhist in a catolic monastery or.... i will keep reading....
    he does reteats

  7. Dear Joy,

    Sorry I haven't had a chance to think enough about the important issue of nihilism (which we must use without the capital mark for a reason). I've been spending all my email time destroying elevator shoe ads thrown at me by the spambots. After I got a dozen all at once this morning I had to figure out how to install Blogger's "captcha" function, something I know you are going to lov every time you need to put up a comment, which I hope will be often.

    I get your point about 'scarecrow' words. When I was in high school, my friends and myself were often said, by the teachers, to be hopeless victims of cynicism. And for very much the same reasons as your scarecrow nihilists, since we didn't accept as overwhelmingly important those things our teachers thought we ought to find important. I have to admit, I was a special problem for them. Whatever they made us study in school, I was bound to search for its antithesis, or some entirely different approach or point of view.

    So I think I do have your wavelength more or less. What I'm not so clear on is whether you think I'm using nihilism as a scarecrow word, or Buddhists (or even Buddha Himself) use their versions of nihilism as scarecrow words, or whether it has any real meaning at all? As far as I can know, I'm fairly sure Buddha was set against it, just as much as he was against eternalism.

    I mean, in some real and I think significant sense all words are scarecrow words. They are all formed by people reacting for and against each other. They're all products of the love-hate relationships we have with other people, not to mention the ignorance... So therefore all words are always doing what you accuse (me or them or whoever) of doing with the word nihilism. (Does what I just said make me a nihilist?)

    There's no rule that you can only use words for people if they would first agree to use them on themselves, is there?

    And by the way, I think people with wives and children are even more susceptible to nihilism, as I want to use the word. They certainly leave themselves open for faith-destroying burnout, and nothing promotes nihilism, fatalism or loss of hope more than a family tragedy. I've seen it too many times to be told otherwise.

    As a friend recently put it, nihilism means making as if nothingness were an absolute. Thank goodness the Buddhism I know [1] doesn't have absolutes and [2] doesn't promote dead emptiness, but only the living and loving kind. I'm sure you're familiar with the Brahmaviharas, and what sets them apart from the kleshas, so I won't go on to ask the Buddha to memorize the alphabet, as that saying goes.


  8. I had to cut-and-paste the following comment from J (a possible robot by his own admission) verbatim (except the smiley that oddly turned into a "J"), so I'm having 2nd thoughts about the captcha installation (I can't tell how hard it is since I'm not asked to do it, me being the blogger himself and therefore not a robot).


    Dear Dan,

    Sorry to hear about the spambot proliferation. My lamas always advised me in the case of pests to practise bsur mchod or chu gtor. After the offering, you probably need to spread the water and the offerings on your computer. That will probably get rid of the spambots. J

    I wasn’t thinking of you nor of the Buddha, when talking about scarecrow words. You are the best person to know and to write what you mean and the Buddha was the best person to know what he meant, but unfortunately he didn’t write much himself, so we only have others to tell us what the Buddha meant. Needless to say, I don’t always agree with those others (there are and were so many of them !). But I of course always agree with the Buddha. The things I don’t agree with were no doubt not said by him, but added by others for various reasons. They shouldn’t have given me free will, because I may use it.

    Since we don’t have access to the Buddha and his intentions, we will have to look at how his followers interpret his instructions. It’s them I had in mind. And they are indeed set against nihilism … and eternalism. But more against nihilism. Buddhism, as I see it now, is not devoid of eternalism. But without eternalism, I wonder whether religion is possible at all ? I do subscribe to many Buddhist values, and morality, especially regarding body and speech. But when it comes to mind, I need more freedom than many followers will allow. Free Spirit.

    You are right about all words being scarecrow words of some sort (and I guess this opinion could be taken for nihilism). But that’s exactly why I need the freedom. There is a dimension, mind, where limits should apply less. I am talking about disciplin, because the concepts of nihilism and eternalism are meant as limits for mind. But otherwise mind is the ideal dimension for experiencing, exploring, and enjoying freedom.

    You seem very hard on families. Yes they are the playground of numerous and deep suffering. But I see now that for you nihilism is the opposite of hope and faith. For me, hope and faith are life. They must be somehow linked to our survival instinct. Nihilism and eternalism are only superficial, mental, they don’t get to that level which is more spiritual. Of course all levels interreact and as such, they have some influence on each others. But if one wants to shield oneself against the dangers of extreme opinions (nihilism and eternalism) and other « wrong views » (log lta), then I’m afraid one cuts off an important part of oneself. I think that may be the freedom that tantrism wanted to recuperate. It also goes against the important value of freedom of thought (and the expression thereof).

    You very appropriately bring up the Brahmaviharas. Nāgārjuna was frequently accused of being a nihilist. Not giving one’s assentment to any opinion may be interpreted in that way. Espcially by religions who are generally inclined to eternalism. Again I think opinions are superficial. I can easily imagine a « nihilist » or an « eternalist » agreeing and living up to the Brahmaviharas or their cultural equivalent of them. Because the Brahmaviharas are at a deeper level, with faith, love and hope.



    PS I don’t seem to be able to get through the robot detection procedure. I start having doubts about myself.

  9. This is just a test of the automated robot eviction procedure. If this had been a real automated robot eviction procedure, this comment would not have been posted.

  10. This may come a bit late, but I'm happy to report that Father Tiso's tome on the Lord of Yogins is now available for download, as a PDF file, from Just enter the title in the search field and take it from there. I won't even begin to ponder on the legitimacy of this file sharing site. What counts is that I now have a copy of this exceedingly difficult to find book. I couldn't find a single online bookseller who has it, let alone its price. Being a simple "bka' brgyud pa" monk with a taste for Tibetological studies as a pastime, this solution suits me just fine...

    Best from Kathmandu,

    Sherab Drime


Please write what you think. But please think about what you write. What's not accepted here? No ads, no links to ads, no back-links to commercial pages, no libel against 3rd parties. These comments won't go up, so no need to even try. What's accepted? Everything else, even 1st- & 2nd-person libel, if you think they have it coming.

Follow me on