Sunday, December 28, 2014

Marvelous Man-Lifting Kites (& Giants in Caves)

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Several years ago I joined a Yahoo discussion group devoted to the teachings of Tuesday Lobsang Rampa (1910‑1981). It was not just a whim, I was more than a little curious and thought it would be a learning experience for me. Once again, I heeded that irritating impulse of mine to dig into things a little further, or to do, in a word, research. These are people who have heard all the evidence that Rampa was himself a faker, yet go on insisting that his teachings are none the less true and very effective for them, regardless of all those misrepresentations they are couched in. I am a little perplexed when I see this, thinking that genuinely useful teachings ought to come from a genuine source. I could be wrong about this. People want to grow, that’s for sure, and usually it happens while they are preoccupied with other things. But they don’t have much patience or perseverence, and meanwhile they would really rather just be entertained. I guess we are all familiar with the Barnum effect, the dictum — not Barnum’s own — that a ‘sucker is born every minute’ so why not serve their needs? Excuse me, I’ll be right back. I just remembered I have a giant petrified hominid in my back yard begging for me to dig it up.

If Rampa told something not true about the man-lifting kites to make the story more entertaining, what’s to say he wouldn’t also add non-truths to his instructions on telepathy, astral traveling and so on? People are in some ways and at some times so trusting, so likely to get hooked in. How do you know when you’re real enough to be teaching other people in an honest way (I don’t mean specially religious or spiritual teaching, but any kind of teaching). I think about it and then go on to think some more, and in the end I just don’t know. If every person has to work out her or his own salvation anyway, then the search for the ‘perfect’ teacher could be a distraction. True no doubt, but what would that perfection look like if you found it? If there is no complete fraud, there is no completely genuine article, both are idealizing extremes that ought to be recognized as such.

“They shall have mysteries-- ay precious stuff For knaves to thrive by-- mysteries enough; Dark, tangled doctrines, dark as fraud can weave, Which simple votaries shall on trust receive, While craftier feign belief till they believe.”
— Thomas Moore (1779-1852),
The Veiled Prophet of Khorrasan 

What he says is true enough, but for all we know Moore could have been talking about psychoanalysis... Well, if the word had even been coined yet. The poster above Fox Mulder’s desk in the X-Files, if I remember right, reads “I want to believe.”* Indeed. What are we to believe? Just because something is unbelievable does it mean we have to make an all-out special effort to believe it? Amusing to consider the consequences of applying this axiom in a number of areas!
(*Imagine a man who everyday tries to walk out on a branch, reassuring himself by repeating to himself ‘The branch is strong.  The branch is very strong, very very strong...’ and each day his faith becomes stronger and stronger while he walks out further and further on the branch until one fine day the tree breaks a limb and so does he.)

Rampa was in reality a cranky old opinionated paranoiac, sour and sickly for most of his life, who didn’t mind telling people how he was against women’s rights (for example)  and how everybody — Tibetans, Tibetologists, the press, the governments — had been plotting against him all along...  Sound like somebody you know? And since he didn’t have all that many visitors up in cold Calgary, most of his socializing seems to have taken place through the postal system. 

Okay, more than enough of that sad contemplation, and on to something really interesting, those man-lifting kites!

The Rampa Kite Illustration

Can you make out the human figure standing there in the pilot’s seat? Is that ballast hanging at the ends of the wings?  Do you think they flapped?  Flight worthy you think?

But do notice this:  Man-lifting kites were employed by Chinese generals in warfare in quite early times, or at least the idea that they did is very firmly in place in the Chinese sources.

“Kung-shu* himself made an ascent riding on a wooden kite in order to spy on a city which he desired to capture.”

 ——Berthold Laufer, "The Pre-History of Aviation," Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago 1928), p. 23.
(*This Kung-shu was a contemporary of Confucius.)

And military uses of kites, even for lifting up humans for surveillance purposes, were well known to other nations well before Rampa’s time. Notice the date on the source that follows, six years before the birth of Cyril Hoskins.

Anonymous, Science, New Series vol. 20, no. 497 (July 8, 1904), p. 64:

“IT is stated in the London Times that the man-lifting kite, as invented by Mr. Cody, has during the last few days been subjected to further trials at Aldershot with the view of testing its feasibility and usefulness for observation purposes in war time. The main features claimed for the kite are, first, its extreme simplicity and the ease with which the various component parts required to work it can be transported from place to place; and, secondly, that it can be flown in heavy wind such as would render the use of the war balloon almost impossible. A number of Royal Engineers are now under instruction in the working of the kite in order that it may be thoroughly tested.”

It isn’t exactly the question here whether man-lifting kites were known in China or England at any particular time. The question is ‘Did Tibetans in the first half of the 20th century fly inside kites for recreational (or any other) purposes?’  The answer to that question is by all accounts of Tibetans themselves an unequivocal “No!”

•  •  •

For background on what follows, try looking at L. Fitzpatrick, "L. Rampa: Sacrophagus with Giants of the Past and Machinery in the Caves of Tibet."  Click here.  

The western idea that there was a kind of giant Golem or the like in the Bietala* has a bit of history behind it, going as far back as the 18th century. My position is that it emerged out of a misunderstanding of descriptions of what the tomb-chortens of the Dalai Lamas were built to contain (along with a confusion between container and contents). That Rampa continues this earlier western misconception fits into a larger pattern that extends to his teachings, including practical instructions for astral travel, presented as Tibetan when in fact they are entirely taken from western occultism (Proclus, Blavatskian Theosophy etc.).
(*i.e., Potala; as long ago as 1683 in a book by M.A. Mallet, De L'Asie, some imagined they could hear the Italian word bietola for ‘beet’, the red vegetable source of all borscht.  For the illustration, go here.)

Q: What was gold-covered, in fact?  A: The chortens.  But the mummies could also be gilded.

Q: What was giant in fact?  A: The chortens.

Q: What do the chortens contain?  A: Mummified bodily remains of the Dalai Lamas, mummified in cross-legged seating position, of ordinary human size or smaller.

Q: How ancient are the times we are talking about here?  A: The first in the series of tomb chortens built within the Potala was the one for the Fifth Dalai Lama after His death in 1682.

§  §  §


I noticed an interesting thing in a bibliography, something I haven’t seen yet, that may have a bearing on a future discussion of Rampa kites:  J.E. Nowers, “The Man Lifting Kite: A Forgotten Invention?” Royal Engineers Journal, vol. 109 (1995), p. 96.

If you are deeply into kites, man-lifting or not, you must read Laufer’s little book we mentioned above, but also this:  Joseph Needham, et al., Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4: Physics and Physical Technology; Part 2: Mechanical Engineering, University Press (Cambridge 1965), pp. 568-602.

If you need some introducing to Rampa, here is something short and to the point from Tricycle magazine: Lobsang Rampa: The Mystery of the Three-Eyed Lama by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

For Tibeto-logic blogs on the "Three Eyes," see this one and this one from way back in 2007, with some of the more essential Rampa bibliography not mentioned here today. Those old blogs provoked some animated and entertaining discussion, informative, too.

There is, of course, a website devoted to Rampa's teachings, but at this very moment, it is "under construction."  Try your luck and look here.  And yes, there is a Wiki page about him.

Ancient Indian Aircraft on Agenda of Major Science Conference.  Huh? 
(See now the postscript, below.)

§  §  §

After a talk that was then published in 1961, the late Hugh Richardson fielded questions from the audience, including this one:

 Q: Is there any truth in the story of an operation to open the "third eye"? 
 A: None whatsoever. The book which describes it is an utter fraud. It was written by somebody who had never been out of England.

"Utter fraud?"

There are those fascinating figures from long ago who had the vision to believe the moon was a reachable goal.  Were they believed much?

A few like Wm. Blake thought it would be wanting far too much (as we tend to do).

Speedy Gonsalez? Far ahead of his time.
I want!  I want!

There are genuinely people (6% of the population of the U.S.) who believe humans have never set foot on the moon, viewing NASA as an utter fraud. But even if these people are as deeply deluded as I believe they are, isn’t it also the case that the moon landing was "staged" to appear in a particular light, to make a particular type of impression on we the earthlings? Do you think everything about it was utterly spontaneous and unrehearsed? I guess you get my general drift.

One of Cody's Man-lifting Kites

I’ll end by giving Rampa the final word. These are practically his final words, since they come from the end of his final book, written not long before his death. I want to underline the words true, absolutely true, but perhaps it isn’t necessary:

“These books, my books, are true, absolutely true, and if you think that this particular book smacks of science fiction you are wrong. The science in it could have been many times increased had the scientists been at all interested, but the fiction—there just isn't any, not even “artists' license.” ”


Postscript (May 16, 2015):

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Turkish & Mongolian Loanwords

The Tibetan words here are, to transcribe them into Wylie, in order:  sku-bde-rigsgang-zag, chol-kha, 'jam, thu-lum, na-so, no-kar, pag-shi, beg-tse, sbe-ka, tshan, she-mong, hor-dud, and am-chi.  I know the letters are small, so double-click on the image to enlarge it.
In times gone by, musk was the most popular Tibetan product in the whole world. Now that the musk deer is considered endangered it’s been replaced by synthetics, so much so that now Tibet’s biggest money maker is Buddhism, which seems to be facing the same fate. The Mongolian is kuderi, and the Tibetan borrowing of it gives it Tibetanizing spellings that make it seem to mean family of healthy bodies, but using very honorable language. Why would Tibetans ever think to borrow yet another word when they already had such a perfect one of their own for it, gla-ba? I have no idea.

Gang-zag is a tricky word, since its usual meaning is person (Sanskrit pudgala), not pipe.

I know I once claimed that sbe-ka had something to do with the Sanskrit word for frog, and now all of a sudden I’m contradicting myself finding an Old Mongolian origin for it in a word for wrestler. I admit I was probably wrong, although come to think of it I could have been right. For more on the frog read further.

You may well wonder what metal ingots might have to do with whole animal pelts. Well, even if you weren’t wondering: In ancient times in the Middle East and elsewhere, there was a practice of pouring molten metal into whole animal skins immersed in water. The result would be an ingot with four short legs that made the very heavy objects a lot easier to for two people to handle.

Emchi is nowadays a most common Tibetan word for physician, entirely suitable for addressing your doctor in person. Goldstein's dictionary even records the spelling em-rje, one of those cute (and endearing) Tibetanizing spellings since the 2nd syllable means lord, making it all that much more respectful.

I imagine all, or at least most, of these loanwords from Mongolian entered Tibetan during the time of the Mongolian Empire or at least not before. I doubt you will find any of them in the Dunhuang documents or other pre-Mongol period sources, but Tibetanists can test this for themselves at the OTDO.

Here is a photo of a horse-hair thug, a traumatic symbol of Mongolian terror in the late 12th-13th centuries that we mentioned in an earlier blog. Still today, Tibetans use it to mark the location of gönkhang chapels where fear is (ideally) taken onto the Path.

The Tibetan words here are, to transcribe them into Wylie, in order:  khol-po, cog, chu-ba (or phyu-ba), 'cham, thug, sbal-kha, yol, gshang, and sag-ri.

Many of these words you see here, taken from Turkic languages, are not commonly encountered in Tibetan and a few are extremely rare (the names of Turkic gods, cog and yol only occur in long-forgotten Old Tibetan documents), although others such as chu-ba and 'cham are everyday words.

Here is a home video that shows you not only how to wrap your chuba, but throws in momo steaming as well. What a bargain! There is plenty of evidence for what early Uighur outfits looked like in donor portraits. Look here. Find a discussion of the word-connections for the clothing here (but please do correct the picture label there to read "Tibetan Chuba").

On the Turkic words for both the masked performers and the bell (just below), see Emel Esin's A History of Pre-Islamic and Early-Islamic Culture (Istanbul 1980), p. 107.

The gshang bell, used primarily by followers of Bön, but also by some Kagyü Lamas and spirit mediums, looks like this:

For the Tibetan word for that shagreen that helps you keep a nice and tight slip-free grip on knives and swords, have a look at this March 2009 blog entry of Sitahu where C.C. and I had a lot of fun discussing it. I have to say, I have nothing more to say about it, and I admit this much to my great chagrin.

I’ve found that you can find a lot more Tibetan words lifted from Mongolian in a convenient list — with discussion — in the 2008 doctoral dissertation of Tóth Erzsébet (Elisabeth Toth), Mongol–Tibeti Nyelvi Kölcsönhatások (found online here), pp. 13-34. It’s interesting that the Tibetan name used in recent times for Russia, ཨུ་རུ་སུ་, was taken from Mongolian. It would appear that Rgya-ser/ རྒྱ་སེར་ ['Yellow Expanse'?] is the more genuinely Tibetan name for this northern vastness, but it, too, doesn’t seem to date back more than a few centuries, so I very much doubt it could have anything to do with the Khazars.  I think it could very well have something to do with the memory of the Golden Horde.

All these vocabulary connections are provisional and merit prolonged study, reflection and discussion.


Postscript!  (January 18, 2015)

The more I travel the less I know. No need to search afar for something so close to home. These wise adages (or something close) are often repeated and never heeded. But I had a funny experience today that brought it all home for me. I was digging in the back of the refrigerator and came up with a good proof of that ages-old wisdom (wisdom being something I do believe can be found at home, after all). It's been ages since that change of flights in Istanbul, over a month now, but I found the leftovers of something purchased in the duty free there. I hope you won't be offended if I show it to you. I must warn you it is slightly smelly, but not in such a bad way:

Notice those words on the label “Tulum Peyniri.” That means ‘cheese’ (peyniri, evidently the same word you find in palak paneer!) made in a tulum. That’s right, this cheese was traditionally (at least) made inside of a complete skin of a four-legged animal, the same word tulum that Tibetans borrowed at one time or another. A search of the internet came up with this exact cheese, suggesting we ought to mix it with walnuts, and this turned out to be a very good idea. Go ahead and go here and read what it says. I couldn’t find any pictures of how the cheese is or was made in Turkey, although I did find some nice photos of Jordanian Bedouin women showing how it’s supposed to be done.  Go here and here (I didn’t want to swipe the photos, since it’s a commercial site intending to make money... Follow the links, but beware of buying!)

By the way, a quick search of the e-text repository at TBRC immediately turned up 272 matches for ཐུ་ལུམ་ (thu-lum). So it is a word that is encountered in Tibetan literature from time to time (I’ve encountered it mainly in colophons... I remember I once mistranslated it as ‘cannonball.’  Live and learn. See you later. Take it easy.).

±  ±  ±

Oh, I forgot to say that tulum is also a modern Turkish word for the bagpipe. I imagine it has something to do with the way they used to be made. And we really shouldn't leave the subject of inflatable skin bags (a subject that has been interesting me lately for other reasons) without mentioning their use for floating on the water. There is a remarkable Assyrian frieze depicting a man using a skin bag for floating in the water supposed to date from circa 800 BCE.  And the use of flotation devices is well known from Tibetan travel accounts, and in older Tibetan literature we have the very interesting Tibetan words rkyal (རྐྱལ་) used both for the float and for the storage bag and phyal (ཕྱལ་) more with the meaning of a float or a buoy.* To judge from the Englished version, the preparation of flotation devices for crossing rivers was something Padampa used as a metaphor for helping other people to get beyond suffering.**
(*The Rangjung Yeshe Wiki entries I've linked for you don't have either of these meanings with the meanings I've given for them, but that ought to be no great cause for surprise or concern. Longchenpa loved to use the word phyal metaphorically for floating freely with nothing to hold you in place.  **Blue Annals, Roerich tr., p. 922; but now that I check the original text, there is no word for any flotation device there.  It uses the word skya-gdos, སྐྱ་གདོས་, a compound of the words for oars and mast, both of them locomotive rather than flotation devices.  Which goes to show, it can be a problem to rely on translations, even when done by humans as competent as Gendun Choephel, who used the same woodblock printing of the Blue Annals as I do. So don't blame the different readings on variant readings.)

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