Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Kashgar Tiger

Tibetan Emperor Trisong Detsen (reign ca. 756-797 CE),
 with Mañju
śrī  attributes of sword and book, Rubin Museum Collection

When Vairocana was a child, he was called, by his father I’d venture, by the name of Kashgar Tiger. This name held a special significance, not that I would expect anyone to know that. Precisely the contrary. The materials for drawing this conclusion are out there, but I believe they have not yet been put together. Some may know there is a two here and another two there, yet they haven’t bothered to add the one with the other to see the result.

If you are one of those highly unusual Tibetanists that haven’t heard the name Vairocana very much, just overlook what little remains of this blog and go directly to the Rangjung Yeshe Wiki to get acquainted ASAP.

I was looking once more at a book I’ve been spending a lot of time with lately, the history by Khepa Deyu, dated soon after 1260 CE. To give the context, Deyu continues an older Nyingma tradition started by Rongzompa in the early 11th century, by supplying his readers with an account of the successive ‘land-falls’ of Buddhist tantra in Tibet during the imperial and post-imperial period (that means, more or less, from the early 8th century through the decades surrounding the year 1000 CE).

I noticed something rather unusual about Deyu’s version. Rongzompa and every other Nyingma writer after him (it seems) have a set of seven such land-falls, while Deyu has ten (see Germano’s article, still the only thing there is about it). Also unlike the others, Deyu starts the chronological series with Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava instead of Buddhaguhya. The section I was looking at is that of the fifth land-fall, the one where Vairocana introduces Tibet to the Great Perfection or Dzogchen teachings of the Mental Class for the very first time.

Did Vairocana exist? No reason to be surprised by the question — I mean, some skeptics have asked just this question about Guru Rinpoche himself. People who are interested in the secular side of early Tibetan history are unwilling to step outside their corpus of secular Dunhuang documents (the OTDO is filled with these, or with non-Buddhist texts, with only one significant exception) to look at Tibetan Buddhist literature, even though by far most of the Dunhuang documents are indeed Buddhist scriptures. They are likely to treat what their colleagues in other realms of the humanities and religious studies are doing with disdain, or just ignore them.* All too predictably, one side is liable to say Guru Rinpoche didn’t exist, while the other side is bound to say he must have.
(*And of course people who are interested in the Dharma and its practices have no patience whatsoever with the secularist historians and their politics. The followers of the Dharma generally don’t even want to know if one or another of their saintly heroes might be mentioned in a stone inscription or in some old manuscript. They have faith and believe, so knowledge is not their problem. I’m not really talking about this type of practitioner today.)
The secularist historians don’t even want to hear a word about the subjects of what they will summarily dismiss as hagiography (even more tainted a word for them than historiography is). Both sides, in my view, can be real spoil-sports, blinkered in significant ways by their world views (that predict for them which items, which texts, are worthy of attention), more liable to head off our quest for truth and meaning than they are to help with it. I hope to show this in the case of one of these Buddhist saints, even if only in what looks like a minor detail, on only one of the multiple levels of conflict here in our Tibetological ghetto’s version of the two cultures.

I have no quick answer about the historicity of Guru Rinpoche, yet I’m quite convinced that Vairocana did exist, since we seem to have plenty enough ‘external verification’. This e.v. means a kind of triangulation used to coordinate points taken from sources of different nature or texts with disparate aims belonging to different lines of transmission. Doing this is supposed to result in greater certainty, to convince even those who are more skeptical than most. That’s what I figure I’m up to at the moment. (In an ideal blog, I would have brought in Bonpo testimony, since their histories also know of a 'Be-ro-tsa-na, but perhaps another time.)

Of course we shouldn’t (and won’t ever again) confuse him with the 12th-century teacher of Mahāmudrā named Vairocana, Vairocanarakita, and - a name uniquely his own - Vairocanavajra. We won’t mention that Vairocana again today. 

Our late 8th- and early 9th-century Vairocana is attested in the 'Phang-thang-ma catalog of canonical texts kept in the library of  the imperial palace of 'Phang-thang (see Halkias, p. 61; his name spelled Dpa'-khor Be-ro-tsa-na). And he is named in a wonderful small Dunhuang document concerned with Phurpa teachings.  There he is called Ba-bor Be-ro-tsa, numbered among disciples of Guru Rinpoche (see the old translation by Bischoff and Hartman, p. 23, or the newer translation by Kapstein, p. 158, or the newest, the Mayer tr., to be mentioned later on). 

Oh, and although I don’t think we are in a position to prove this just on the basis of a name held in common, our Vairocana could have been the Vairocana credited with inventing the Khotanese alphabet (well, if we can bring him into closer relationship with that part of Central Asia, then the possibility would gain strength, wouldn’t it?  See Emmerick’s book, p. 21 et passim).

But let’s move this background to one side and zero in on the strange and funny name that Vairocana had as a child. This name is usually spelled something like Ga[n]-'jag-stag. Very relevant to our arguments, as it will turn out, his father had a funny name, too, something like Pa-gor He-'dod* (Deyu spells it Her-'dod). Odd as the Pa-gor part of it may look, it’s just a place in Tibet (we won’t go into its location right now, since we have so many other things on our plate), so it’s the He-'dod that is hard to understand. And the name of the child Vairocana has the element stag that surely does means tiger (even if spark would be another possibility), but it’s also an element in quite a few Tibetan names of the imperial period, so here it’s the Ga-'jag that is a problem.
(*Maybe it's Welsh hendad, meaning ancestor. Well, do you have any better idea? If his name were Hebdoad, I suppose that would make him some kind of Gnostic or Manichaean. Enough of this fun. I give up, for now.)
Ga-'jag as a place name was long ago identified, in quite another context, with a region in the vicinity of Kashgar in Central Asia. In Christopher I. Beckwith’s by now classic game-changing study of the Tibetan imperial period he noticed, in a footnote (no. 7 on p. 144), that Gan-'jag is simply a transcription of "Ganjak (the country above Kashgar) the language of which was mentioned by the medieval linguist" Kashgari.  Someone else’s argument (look at pp. 8-9 the PDF here) prefers to find it closer to the mountain massif known as the Pamirs (there has been more discussion on this in an article by Denwood, not visible to me right now). I’d gladly change my title to Pamir Tiger, I’m just not sure yet. If truth be told, regardless of how it could embarrass me, I’m much more used to associating the name Ganjak with an Armenian historian by the name of Kirakos of Ganjak (d. 1272) and as an ordinary noun ganjak may be Armenian for stomach or gut, right? If you are not clear how far the Pamirs are from Kashgar, just go here, and then type in the box the words “Pamirs Kashgar.” This will show you they are about 200 kilometers apart. But for my purposes today I can afford to leave this quibble about exact location alone, 200 kilometers are not my biggest concern.

The true holy scripture of all secularist Tibetanist historians would have to be the Old Tibetan Annals. It gives yearly dated entries for a goodly span of early Tibetan history, from 641 to 765 CE (a few entries in between are lacking). The entries rarely give more than minimal information about where the Emperor spent the summer or winter, the places government meetings were held, alliances, new appointments of ministers, foreign expeditions and wars... exactly the kind of information craved by political historians, just not enough of it. Now we have a fine and fresh new translation by Brandon Dotson, and it is here, in the entry for the year 756 CE, that we find something very relevant to Vairocana, even if he is not directly mentioned. Judging from this it is quite sure Vairocana's father was an official imperial emissary to Central Asia, whether that means a place closer to Kashgar or the Pamirs, and in a more-or-less perfect time for Vairocana to be born. I'll quote the relevant part of the entry from Dotson’s translation (leaving off his notes and so on):
The Black Ban-'jag, Gog (Wakhan), Shig-nig, and so forth, emissaries of the upper regions, [all] paid homage. Pa-gor Na-'dod and Ce Snang-rtsan were proclaimed as reciprocal emissaries.
(For the Tibetan text, just go to OTDO and then search for "ban 'jag" or "shig nig." Shig-nig has been identified as Shughnan. Gog is of course the Gog of Gog and Magog. Ban-'jag according to Beckwith is just a minor glitch that should be read as Gan-'jag.)

Was I the only one who noticed the similarity between Pa-gor Na-'dod and Pa-gor He-'dod? Granted two such similar names could have been given to different people within the same family (for example, consciously giving a boy a name resembling his grandfather’s). Still, chances are good that one is just a scribal transformation of the other, a problem of the kind that bedevils Tibetanists at every turn, or so it sometimes seems. So it’s very likely that it was Vairocana’s father who was sent to Central Asia. 

The name of the child Vairocana that is found in the hagiographies is also found in the Sba bzhed, a work that ought to be regarded (temporarily disregarding the complexities of its internal textual transformation history) among the oldest narrative historical sources we know about, along with the Old Tibetan Chronicles. What is more, this name finds its indirect but sure explanation in the secular bible of the Tibetological historicists, the Old Tibetan Annals. We’ve brought the secularists’ world view into a point of contact with that of the Dzogchen specialists. How do you imagine they will get along? Do you see any reason why they shouldn’t?  (Get along, I mean.)

§  §  §

Print publications:
Friedrich Bischoff and Charles Hartman, Padmasambhava’s Invention of the Phur-bu: Ms. Pelliot tibétain 44, contained in: Études tibétaines dédiées à la mémoire de Marcelle Lalou, Librarie d'America et d'Orient (Paris 1971) pp. 11-27. —— Forty years later, there is a newer translation of Pelliot tibétain 44 by Matthew Kapstein, and I believe Rob Mayer has done and will one day publish a study of it. Rob Mayer and Cathy Cantwell have written about the text in the 4th chapter of their recent book, Early Tibetan Documents on Phur pa from Dunhuang, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 2008). There they supply what may be the first complete translation.
Philip Denwood, The Tibetans in the West, Part Two, Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology, vol. 4, no. 4 (2009), pp. 149-160. This is available if you have an institutional subscription to Brepols. I don’t. 
Brandon Dotson,  The Old Tibetan Annals: An Annotated Translation of Tibet’s First History, with an annotated cartographical documentation by Guntram Hazod, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 2009). The relevant entry is on p. 129. 
R.E. Emmerick, Tibetan Texts concerning Khotan, Oxford University Press (London 1967), with "ga-hjag" appearing at pp. 45, 71 and, on p. 94, simply identified as meaning Kashgar.
David Germano, The Seven Descents and the Early History of Rnying-ma Transmissions, contained in: Helmet Eimer and David Germano, eds., The Many Canons of Tibetan Buddhism, Brill (Leiden 2002), pp. 225-263. 
Georgios T. Halkias, Tibetan Buddhism Registered: A Catalogue from the Imperial Court of 'Phang-thang, The Eastern Buddhist, new series vol. 36, nos. 1‑2 (2004), pp. 46‑105. You can now read this on your Kindle or whatever by first going to this page at Archive.org.
A.W. Hanson-Barber, The Life and Teachings of Vairocana, doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin (Madison 1984). H-B (on p. 43) finds the Tiger year date of Vairocana's trip to India, at the age of 15, to be the year 765 CE. If this is right he would have been 5 years old when his father was sent on his mission to Kashgar or its neighborhood. It seems at least one source has Pa-gor He-'dod as his uncle, not his father (see p. 50), perhaps even his adoptive uncle.
Matthew T. Kapstein, The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation and Memory, Oxford University Press (Oxford 2000). For a free PDF of an interesting article by this author about the tantra collection of Vairocana, look here. To see a list of titles from that tantra collection, go to TBRC at this page.
Samten G. Karmay, The Great Perfection: A Philosophical and Meditative Teaching of Tibetan Buddhism, E.J. Brill (Leiden 1988).  There is a summary of the Great Mask biography of Vairocana at pp. 18-33. There is a freshly published new edition of this book, not yet at my fingertips.
Rob Mayer, Did Vairocana Have Lice? If you’ve been spending sleepless nights wondering about this, look here. You will notice this blog entry inspired quite a lively discussion.
Yudra Nyingpo (G.yu-sgra-snying-po), The Great Image: The Life Story of Vairochana the Translator, tr. by Ani Jinba Palmo, Shambhala (Boston 2004). I call it the Great Mask, not that it matters in the least. For Tibetan texts, try going to TBRC and searching for 'Dra 'bag chen mo. There is even a beautifully woodblock printed edition if you can get access to it.
Sba bzhed.  For the text, look here. Then scroll down to p. 58 of it, and what do you see but this? —  "pa gor na 'dod {he 'dod kyang zer} kyi bu pa gor bai ro tsa na."  This says that Pa-gor Vairocana was son of Pa-gor Na-'dod, who is also, the inserted note says, called He-'dod. This does support and even seems to clinch our idea that the two names point to the same person. Have a look at p. 59, too. Then you may see that the Stein version of the text doesn't have the note, but simply gives the name of Vairocana's father as Pa-gor Na-'dod!  The very name that is in the Old Tibetan Annals.
What could the Pamirs have to do
with the peak-of-peaks of Vehicles?

“When one has arrived at the summit of the King of Mountains,
all the lower valleys are seen at once.

“The valleys do not see the nature of the peak.
Just so, the Vajra Heart Ati
is the peak of peaks of Vehicles
which clearly sees the meanings of all the others.

“The lower Vehicles do not see the meaning of this Ati.
That is left for the time when they have arrived-at the naturally-arrived-at

— Longchenpa, Chöying Dzö, chapter 7


I admit, in my efforts to juice up what may be a dry subject, I may have laid down the polemic a little too thickly. The truth is — as I notice just now as I’m poised to click on the “Publish” button — the Vairocana connections between the Sba-bzhed, Dba'-bzhed, Dunhuang text (PT 44) and the Old Tibetan Annals entry for the year 756 CE have been pointed out in a footnote already in a work published 12 years ago, effectively beating me to the punch. I’ll just give you the reference for now and consider my job done:  
dBa' bzhed: The Royal Narrative Concerning the Bringing of the Buddha’s Doctrine to Tibet, translation and facsimile edition of the Tibetan text by Pasang Wangdu and Hildegard Diemberger, with a preface by Per K. Sørensen, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 2000), p. 70, note 238. 
The dBa'-bzhed, by the way, spells the father’s name as Pa-'or Na-'dod. The one connection that is made in today’s blog, and not made in that footnote, is the significance of the Kashgar Tiger name. So, OK, I guess I've at least succeeded in adding one small point for Tibetological consideration.

§  §  §

Oh, and one last thing. I forgot to mention before that you can find a brief biography of Vairocana based on Dudjom Rinpoche's history, where else but at the Light of Berotsana webpage? Have a look at this PDF.

And the last of the last things for sure?  The Rangjung Yeshe Wiki has put up the entire biography of Vairocana in Tibetan unicode font!  ལོ་ཙཱ་བ་ཆེན་པོ་བཻ་རོ་ཙ་ནའི་རྣམ་ཐར་  It's fully searchable, and it's been there since July 2010, completely unknown to me.  To go there go here.


  1. Dear Dan,

    Just out of the blue: Has anyone considered the possibility of Gañja (Sanskrit)?



  2. Dear Dorji,

    Not exactly that, but very nearly, actually. On p. 144 of Beckwith's book (ref. above) he talks about the spelling that's actually found in the OTA: Ban-'jag.

    "The name is written Ban-'jag, which is a perfectly good transcription of the Middle Persian word for hemp, banjak. (See H. Nyberg, A Manual of Pahlavi..."

    He goes on to say how it seems to be a scribal error for Gan-'jag, adding hat the letter 'b' is often written with a long tail on the right side to be more easily confused with the letter 'g' (giving a ref. to a work by Uray in support of it).

    So flying out of the blue and straight into the grey, the answer to your question seems to be yes and no.


  3. A scholar in Jerusalem warns of "secularist historians?" And the blog isn't to do with "Biblical archaeology?" Yes, this is to latch on to something that was not the main point of your fascinating discussion about Vairocana possibly being an ambassador's son, but I do suspect your "secularist" (and "historicist" and "secularist historian") is a straw man. I mean, are there really 'people out there' who are going to gnash their teeth if a pillar of collective memory like Vairocana or Padmasambhava turns up in documentary sources or is sufficiently triangulated such that they must be admitted to the historical record? I agree that such a person would be a kill joy. I'm just not so sure that s/he exists.
    And a propos Biblical archaelogy, I think it is time for a minimalists-versus-maximalists-type debate in Tibetan studies. But I hope you aren't counting on me as a standard-bearer for the arch-minimalists, even if I seem to have translated their "Bible."

  4. Dear Brandon,

    From where I sit those killjoys are out there, altho' I won't be naming names today. I've always considered it a significant task to find ways to prove things to the people who are least ready to have them proved to them. It's not just for the challenge. But then again it's not for the pleasure of feeling like a big skeptic, a bearer of bad news to the believers. It's because proving it to the least inclined to accept means you've done the best possible job to prove it to anyone. I love the stories in the Bka'-chems Ka-bkol-ma, believe in them (in some ways and sometimes), and would want to argue vigorously for retaining them as testimony for what happened in imperial times even if it were found that not a bit of its content dated a minute earlier than its finding by Atisha or the Mad Woman in 1048 (as if that were going to happen). I think it's good to be skeptical of the skeptics' ideas, which does now and then turn me into a anti-minimalist of sorts. Any nominations for the flag bearer of minimalism? If we're to have a debate we're going to need one or two.

    Thanks for writing and see you at the minimalist-maximalist wrestling matches in Urga! (Is this a panel proposal?)


  5. Hi Dan,

    Certainly not a panel proposal. And I, too, shall keep schtoom with any nominations. Better we keep it informal, and debate over cups of fermented mare's milk. And best to do it in Tibetan, with Tibetans. One problem is that I've not come across a Tibetan minimalist, and I suspect that if I did, s/he'd be an ideologue with little knowledge of the narratives s/he debunks as superstitions.


  6. Ideologues are just people who carry through with their ideas, aren't they? They don't leave them on a shelf to do nothing. Or at least they are conscious of what they are doing when they let their ideas determine how they pattern their experience (or their evidence), aren't they?

    But no, I get your point, I really do. I just wonder why you didn't present it with many pages of theoretical justifications? Oh well, I'll try to make funny jokes another time, preferably at a time when they would be working for me.

    Reminds me of the academic who said that because he needed to justify his lack of theoretical approach to his subject area he felt he had to write several hundred pages of theoretical discussion to justify his neglect of theory... And there are people who think we have to bring it into Tibetan studies since it's been lacking there so far? Well, Yes! I've heard it said... I think it's all about who is going to get to do the talking, us or them! (Whoever *they* are).

    Maybe somebody could propose a proposal something like, "On the proposition that Tibetan Studies stands badly in need of strong injections of contemporary theoretical meta-discourses..." All in favor?

  7. One other last of the last things to add: A modern scholar named Zhonbu Tsering Dorjee ('Brong-bu Tshe-ring-rdo-rje), well known for his contributions on Nietzsche ('Jar-man-pa Ne-khre) as well as his study comparing Prajñâpâramitâ with the thought of Plato (po lā thu), has published a book Rtsod bzlog them spungs ma: Bstan pa bar dar dang de'i snga phyi'i gnad don skor gleng ba, Gansu Nationalities Press (Lanzhou 2007), that includes (on its pages 57-97) two articles about Vairocana. He does discuss quite a bit the problem of who his father was (musing that perhaps he had two fathers in a kind of polyandrous family setting; see p. 60), but doesn't seem to make the connection with Ganjak of Kashgar region. He does discuss other people named Vairocana including the 1st century (more or less) cultural hero of Khotan. Anyway, interesting to read and consider the ideas in these two essays.

  8. "The Känchäk (or Kanchak/Kanjak), who lived near Kâshgar, a Qarakhanid holding by the early 10th century (Necef 2005, 191-192), appear to have been previously speakers of an Iranian language close to Khotanese Saka." Peter B. Golden, "The Turkic World in Mahmûd al-Kâshgharî," p. 22. Since Golden locates Kanjak close to Kashgar, that's good enough for me. It is possible that in the time of Vairocana's father, the Turkicization hadn't set in yet. Anent the earlier comments, the meeting in Urga has come and gone, but we were unable to rustle up even the minimal number of minimalists needed to get the much-anticipated debate underway. Maybe in Norway.


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