Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Hard Concept

Tsongge José said, “Oh Dampa, Delusion must have a very good foundation stone. No sooner do you think it’s dissolved but it proves itself invincible.”  Dampa was delighted to hear this, “Nothing could be more true than what you just said,” he replied. “The foundation of our selfhood-concept is harder than rock. Its illusions are more firmly in place than the four-sided mountain, [and that mountain has ] a peak of suffering higher than the sky. You may as well fire away with the catapult of your learning and reflection. You can go ahead and gouge away with the chisel of the [spiritual or meditative] precepts. Destroyed? Hardly! It doesn’t even get a crack. If the foundation that lies at the root [of the selfhood-concept] collapses on its own, it’s only then possible it can be destroyed.”

—The source is the Zhijé Collection, vol. 2, p. 295. I added a few things in parentheses for clarification, but that doesn't mean this is otherwise a word-for-word translation, it isn’t. I was also able to compare with a newly available Bhutanese text from Tsakaling... I'll have more to say about these amazing old Padampa manuscripts that are being made available these days in some other blog.

This Padampa story suits my mood today, so I whipped up a translation.  Besides, I’m sure most regular readers of Tibeto-logic are by now royally sick of all the talk about material goods in those regalia blogs (and there may be more to come, I’m sorry to say).  The Nyingmas have an odd and curious term they use sometimes a-’thas (ཨ་འཐས་), that means something like persistent materialization. Just because  things seem solid doesn’t make them so.  I’ve noticed the term used in ways quite similar to Dzogchen usage in the Zhijé Collection which is an interesting thing. I’ve also noticed some translators using that cold contemporary term as dear as it is endemic to academic theorists —  reification — to stand for a-’thas.  Not completely off, not all that bad really, but still trying to play basketball on what is very clearly a soccer field, I think.

I put the frontispiece — ultimately based on the Berlin manuscript* of the biography of Lord Shenrab known as the Gzer-myig (acquired from Austin Waddell) — for no other reason than it shows a shamanic type of priest holding a feather.  Well, the German caption says it’s a priest, but the Tibetan caption says it’s a donor (yon-bdag - ཡོན་བདག་), quite a different story.  You can see that one hand holds the feather while the other holds a flat-bell, a gshang (གཤང་). In the section that comes immediately after the one we just translated, Padampa does a divination for the community holding a feather in one hand and a bamboo in the other. It isn’t clear how this divination was supposed to work, but I’m trying to figure it out by looking more into his divination practices in general. They seated a young girl on a white felt cloth, and she seems to be the one who made a choice between the feather and the bamboo. The white felt cloth suggests the altar cloths often used by Tibetan shamans and mediums. I’ve noticed Padampa’s use of the white felt as altar cloth on another similar occasion. I believe I can also justify characterizing Padampa's role here as shamanic because of who he invokes. He doesn't call up Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. He calls upon two entities, the lord/owner of the sky and the lord/owner of the earth.
(*You can find it at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, where it is the first among the Waddell manuscripts.  Now available online, here [amazing to look at], it was catalogued a long while ago by Dieter Schuh.)

I think in a very real way the Indian master Padampa is here, as in the other example I mentioned, playing the Tibetan-style shaman for the sake of his community of Tibetan meditators. In this case they were facing a potentially devastating problem, one hinted at in other places, a serious epidemic disease that could have wiped them out completely. Even the most seriously spiritual people are likely to have this-worldly problems that require their immediate attention. Unless you see something else here, that may be Padampa's teaching for our day.


  1. Is this a way of wishing, "Happy Holidays" on behalf of one of our favorite curmudgeons?

  2. Ho ho ho! You could say so. Great hearing from you again, S.P. I feared something could have happened. My interest in Padampa matters has never waned, but recently I'm especially excited to receive somewhat unexpectedly copies of several great Zhijé manuscripts from Bhutan. There are even texts from a tradition that originated during Padampa's middle stay in Tibet I didn't know still existed (except for a listing of titles). I hope in my geezer-hood I can keep enough mental focus to do a lot more about him.
    - D

  3. Greets. :) If it's not one thing, it's another; and I let myself get called away. Yesterday, I found myself in the neighborhood while surfing for current write-ups on Padampa. No doubt about it. This blog is the "go to" site for anything substative and readily accessible. Anyway, after coming to this page as your latest post, I just had to add my two cents.

    Let me conclude by adding this one more cent:

    I am confident that comparing Padampa's approach with those of the various shamanic forms of his day will clear up a lot of confusions. It will get everyone to face (head on and hard-nosed) the issues of transcendence and marginalization as Padampa deals with them and as others deal out to Padampa.

    Looking forward to many more studies about the Old Man and always hoping for the definitive biography to come out one day,

    Regards from Short Person (identifying myself as Small Person yesterday, probably because I was very tired).

  4. Dear Small or Short, it doesn't matter. Now I owe you 3 cents. I think I'd like to straighten out some of the confusion surrounding Padampa's ability to confuse categories... I'm sure what I meant by that wasn't clear, but anyway. He didn't become less of a Buddhist teacher by making use of divinations and shamanic rites. He didn't shy away when he could see the wisdom in doing them. That old transcendence-immanence distinction can be a hard one. But what is the predicament that we need to get out of is probably a better question, I think. Predicament could mean a lot of things, but basically I think it's all about the sense of being stuck and stagnant. Whether we're transcendentalist or secularist, we ought to agree it's better to be alive and moving. And of course improving!

  5. We'll just have to see what the Ole Fella pulls out for you from the interdependence bag.* Ho, ho, ho ...!

    [*Others "listening in" may want to see the post dated Saturday, February 12, 2011, called "The Magical Medical Bag Texts for more info.]

  6. Dear [E.]S.P., That's very funny that you mention the bag, especially since only yesterday I got a book in the mail. It's the first ever published version of the "Magical Medical Bag" texts (as far as I knew my copy from Mongolia and the Copenhagen manuscript were the only things that existed, but now I know better). It was published in Lhasa in 2014, apparently based on a manuscript kept in the Potala. Live and learn, I always say. Both are important.

  7. Why don't we tell it like it is? It's a sign from heaven!

    And you thought you would have the luxury of "relinquishing the search for the historical Padampa"---yes, I've read some of your recent posts. Score one for those of us who live in hope of the "things unseen"...: a glimpse of Padampa, the real person.

    Looking forward to hearing more about the feather and bamboo---and, possibly, an opportunity to compare an apple with an orange,

    Fa la la la la ... la la la!

  8. Just touching base. Any sightings reported from this corner of the sky?

    With humble regards,

    The Short Person

  9. Dear Sp, I know you know the sky has no corners. Always teasing, aren't you? But a lot is happening on the Padampa front, like the medicine text I just mentioned and I hope to blog soon about all that. Right now for me most exciting are two new Zhijé histories from the 13th century, one by the Nyedo teacher Kunga Zangpo written in 1277, and another even more surprising history of the 'Middle Transmission,' from a Bhutanese monastery's collection. I'll have to make the time to write about them soon. We'll see. Thanks for connecting things.

  10. Many thanks.

    Okee dokee. I'm off to report back to the crow's nest. It may interest you to know that the crow was curious too and asked one of the mice to sound out the depths, so to speak. [Hmm. I guess I'll swing by the rats and roaches also ... just to make sure that someone is keeping them in the loop.] Scuffle, scuffle.



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