Sunday, February 22, 2015

Reading at a Slow Pace

Take it easy, partners, and slowly move your hand away from the holster. This is not supposed to be anything like a critical book review. I gave up doing those a long time ago. I just had the idea to report on some of the high points in my recent reading experience. If I don’t have time to cover all the books I’ve planned to, I’ll just save them for another time. It is also not an advertisement to help anybody sell books. If you have the money, and can’t be bothered with visiting your local library, it’s entirely your fault if you buy them, not mine. 

I didn’t choose these books because I think you will necessarily like them. I don’t know exactly who you are and what your interests might be. I do assume you must be interested in things Tibetan, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation right here right now. I will just talk about newly acquired publications that I’ve enjoyed the most or found especially useful, thinking that if you are somehow like me, you'll enjoy and make good use of them too. You and I both know that no book is perfect, they all have their +'s and -'s, so forgive me if I only say good things about books that I anyway consider to be excellent.

I gave a lot of thought to the question which recent book in Tibetan and Buddhist studies might be regarded as the most beautiful (in terms of book presentation a well as content). I’ll exclude a few books from consideration just because I’ve mentioned them already in some earlier blog. In this category are Michael Henss' huge 2-volume boxed set on the artistic monuments of Central Tibet, as well as Jan Westerhoff's Twelve Examples of Illusion.  Are you ready for it? Today's award in the category of most beautiful Tibetan and/or Buddhist studies book goes to...

Cyrus Stearns, Song of the Road:  The Poetic Travel Journal of Tsarchen Losal Gyatso, bilingual Tibetan (in Tibetan script) and English on facing pages, published by Wisdom Publications & Tsadra Foundation, Somerville, 2012.

Congratulations Cyrus — and of course everybody else who had a hand in it — for producing such a handsome and different book. The translation is splendid. Thank you so much for allowing us the pleasure of reading back and forth between the Tibetan and English, so we can be amazed at just how well you’ve managed the transition from one to the other. As a translator (or so I think) myself, I’m certain other translators will find reasons for jealousy, or a gnawing sense of inferiority, or both.

It’s a travel account, and as such it’s amusing to read it in light of all those early western travelogues (some of whom, like Giuseppe Tucci, visited many of the same places), noticing the differences and similarities. This one, written in the early 16th century, is not about a destination but about the life on the road and the encounters along the way. It isn’t very long, but it took me a whole day to read, since I found myself slowing down and reflecting here and there. There is a considerable amount of candor for a text of its age. There are occasional accounts of visions, but miracles and magic do not figure in any major way. It is not a hagiography. It isn’t all about the author, still you get much insight into his personality. You start liking him. You feel sorry about his sore legs. And there are truly amusing bits. One is the vignette on p. 76 of a grouchy old Kagyüpa he met who wore one of those 'bear wall' (དོམ་ར་) sun vizers we once blogged about, but also wore another item even more seldomly mentioned, something called 'concealment wood' (སྒྲིབ་ཤིང་) a kind of wand of invisibility said to be quite rare yet discoverable in the nests of crows. I know I’ve only encountered this item once before.* Anyway, there is something here for just about everyone. Spiritual seekers, meditators, poets, historians, ethnographers, philologists, explorers and wannabe Napoleons will find their special brands of entertainment here. There are route maps, and black-&-white photos of many of the places Tsarchen visited. Some of the things he saw are now gone or in ruins, like the giant Maitreya of Tropu (ཁྲོ་ཕུ་) and the many-door Jonang Chorten.
(*No, I don’t mean the item itself, but the name for it.) 
Well, there are several other new books I was going to talk about, but they can wait. I have places to go and people to see. Don’t we all? And I doubt I’ll have much time to read in the coming month. Now that mailing prices for books have shot sky high, I recommend going on strike to protest. Ask your library if they can do the buying. If reading Tibetan-language books is one of your high priorities, think about sending a donation to TBRC. You know who they are. They are having a funding drive right now, so I advise you to calculate your book buying budget for the spring and send it to them instead. It will be money well given, and you can imagine much merit toward easy traveling in the future.  (And if you are the type that likes expressing outrageously high hopes, as Buddhists particularly tend to do, aspiring altruistic bodhisattvas such as yourself will bear in mind that a donation to them makes the inspiration available not to you alone, but to all other Tibetan-reading beings in the triple chiliocosmic universe.)

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Here is your counterintuitive (or is that oxymoronic?) homework assignment for today:
Google "contemplative reading."
And if you do look for Song of the Road at Amazon, check out the review by "Inner Exile." It is so much better than anything else I've seen written about Cyrus's book.

I’ve found that if you locate a book in Googlebooks, they supply a “Find in a library” button. Assuming you've allowed your computer to know your location in the world (and you very probably have), you should be able to know if the book is in a public collection near you by simply clicking on that button (OCLC's Worldcat can do it, too, supplying as they say access to “two billion items”). Then all you have to do is bike over to the library, get a library card and check out the book. Books are so much better companions than screens are. Books don’t have so many other distractions built into them. OK, it’s true, with an especially tedious book you might feel the urge to flip through the pages quickly, but this problem is many times compounded when reading off a clickable device. Just because something has flashed in front of your eyes doesn’t mean you’ve read it. And a good reading experience is always accompanied or followed by reflection and inspiration. Always. There is no way to speed it up.

If reading difficult Tibetan cursive manuscripts is something you would like to try, then you may like to know that the text that Cyrus translated, Tshar-chen Blo-gsal-rgya-mtsho — ཚར་ཆེན་བློ་གསལ་རྒྱ་མཚོ་  (1502‑1566),  Rang gi rtogs brjod lam glu dpyid kyi rgyal mo'i dga' ston — རང་གི་རྟོགས་བརྗོད་ལམ་གླུ་དཔྱིད་ཀྱི་རྒྱལ་མོའི་དགའ་སྟོན་, has been published in the form of a manuscript reproduction as Blo-gsal-rgya-mtsho, Rang gi rtogs par brjod pa lam glu dpyid kyi rgyal mo'i glu dbyangs (cursive ms. in 17 fols.), in the Dpal-brtsegs history set, vol. 58, pp. 401-432.  I think this 17-folio manuscript is the same one, albeit in a different publication, that Cyrus used, although I'm not completely sure of it (being a little concerned about the different forms the titles take).

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sheep Year Happy Losar!

Although a special blog for the holiday was in the works, this auspicious picture is offered in its place. Have a great new year with good health, plentiful energy, enough wealth, much contentment and hope for a brighter future for Tibetans and peace for the whole world.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Newsweek’s Photo Fact-Check Fail

This is not, we repeat, NOT, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Discovering a major news magazine’s huge mistake ought to be an opportunity for gloating. In this case none of that gloating would be mine, since the whole idea and the research involved here comes not from me but from R.K., who is now going to build a major reputation for his initials, since that’s all he wanted to put here. The problem is a photograph that has sometimes been used in stories about His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who yesterday enjoyed a Prayer Breakfast in Washington with The President of the United States of America Barack Obama, and had a long time before that received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, etc. etc. Honestly, I assume everybody in the known universe knows to whom it is that we refer.

In the Newsweek story in today’s February 6, 2015 issue — Peter Popham’s “Relentless: The Dalai Lama's Heart of Steel” — the photo appears as above in our frontispiece, but labeled with the following caption:
“Young Dalai Lama at Usersky-Danzan temple in Mongolia in 1939, aged three. 
Since the present Dalai Lama — or, if you prefer, Jampel Ngawang Lozang Tendzin Gyatso, འཇམ་དཔལ་ངག་དབང་བློ་བཟང་བསྟན་འཛིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ་ — was born on July 7, 1935, and Tibetan ‘age’ is always calculated up one year, that would make the photo date from around 1937, right? Wrong.

To see just how wrong this is, have a look at the front page of this newspaper. Do not fail to make a note of the date you see there.

"The Great White Lama:
Notice His Cunning Little Toes"
published Monday, June 3, 1929
Our conclusion is very simple and indisputable. Since this photo was published in 1929 (and it seems it had already been published in England a year earlier*), it simply cannot be His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Newsweek must fix their error in dating it to 1939, ten years later. It is really beside the point if others made this or similar mistakes before them.** It might be interesting to trace the genealogy of this particular error in some detail someday, in some doctoral dissertation or whatever, but an error it most surely is.
(*This website [go there and search for the number "10215921"] says it took the photograph from The Illustrated London News of 22nd Dec 1928.)
(**Just do an “image search” on the internet, and you will find it has been used a number of times as if it were a photo of the His Holiness.  Of course there is yet another mistake in the Newsweek picture caption, since His Holiness as a child never set foot in Mongolia.) 
It has to be a photograph of someone else, and the question remains, Who? The newspaper story places it inside Tibet, but it is not always the case that the earliest version of the story is the truest therefore. If the photo was taken at a place called “Usersky-Dazan,” it would not have been in “Thibet,” but rather in Mongolia, Buriatia, or Kalmuckia somewhere.* So if you know or can find out anything at all about this little Lama with his dextrous toes, drop us a comment, let us reason together and seek out the truth even while we are sifting out the errors.
(*That Slavic genitive ending kind of gives it away, and the “Dazan” is a foreign and very likely Mongolian spelling for Tibetan Datsang, or གྲྭ་ཚང་  Mongolian always replaces the Tibetan final ‘ng’ sound with final ‘n’.  For a curious picture said to be from Usersky-dazan, have a look at this commercial site.  I also found in a newspaper archive a story published in the San Antonio Light for April 10, 1932, an article entitled “Why the Obscure Mongolian Baby Born at the Proper Minute is Worshipped as a God,” but seeing it involved filling out a long form and paying ten U.S. dollars, I decided to let it be.  I did manage to find a clue that this Dazan ought to be located 20 miles from the ever-moving and ever-growing town of Urga. Urga is regarded as the old name for Ulan Bator.)
Here is the larger version of the photo I promised you earlier on. Take a very close look at it. If you detect signs it could be a collage of two different photographs, you may not be entirely alone. You can see that somebody's bad touchup job turned the beautiful double-Vajra design on the hanging cloth into a kind of crude looking cross.

For this Getty image, look here.

Addendum (February 7, 2015):

I am happy to report that the identification problem is largely solved, and I can tell you, Newsweek is going to feel even sillier than expected with cake all over his face. Again, I don’t get any gloating rights.  All the credit goes elsewhere.  Well, yesterday, as I was putting up the blog I did have the presence of mind to send an email to someone I was sure would be able to answer a few Mongol-ological questions, about where the monastery might be, in particular. But I have to admit that Agata Bareja-Starzynska of Warsaw surprised me with her brief and directly to the point information. In yesterday's first email she identified the “Usersky-Dazan” monastery as Gusino-ozersky (or Gusino-ozerskii Datsan) in Buryatia. And already last night she told me that the boy in the photo was most probably the one playing a lama in the Pudovkin movie “A Storm over Asia.” And this morning, I received the following email sent late last night. Seeing this evidence throws a very different light on the identity of the toe-crossing child Lama. To put it mildly, it was not the  solution I was expecting, not at all.

Found it via Internet!
see a scene at 1:04:13 till 1:06
the Lama boy is there playing with his toes.

For myself, the scene started closer to 1:03. I recommend starting several minutes earlier, since there are scenes to be seen of Cham dancing that are quite impressive. I admit I have still never seen this movie (apart from this scene of course). I only now learned how to make “screen shots” on my Mac, so I’ll put some examples down below for the convenience of blog readers too lazy to watch movies.

Oh the movie! I forgot to say something about the movie. I found out that it’s a famous full-lengthed silent film, supposed to have been a landmark in cinematographic history when it was made in 1928. The director was Vsevolod Pudovkin, and the English-language version is called “Storm over Asia.” The original title means “The Heir to Genghis Khan.” If you want to know what it’s about, have a look for yourself. But before you go, just let me get in one last jibe, smear a bit of that cake around on Newsweek’s face. The photo Newsweek innocently believed to be an image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama took on an aura of reality in two distinct historical phases: [1] an early Soviet period movie and [2] a newspaper story concocted out of the same for the bemusement of English and American readers who would not have known any better. Or were the journalists themselves the ones who knew no better?

Screen shots from the movie

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Another Addendum (February 8, 2015):

I was thinking there was still an area of mystery that ought to be explored if possible, namely, ‘Can anything more be known about the actual child who played the part of the infant Lama?’ Somebody told me he would be the best person to find out about anything that happened in Buryatia, so I wrote to Nikolay Tsyrempilov, who works at the Buryat State University in Ulan Ude. I was delighted by his fast response, and will, with his kind permission, pass on two passages from his emails, the first dated yesterday and the second dated today.

The first quote:
“As for your question, I have nothing new to add to what you already know. That’s absolutely true that Usersky Dazan is Gusinoozersky Datsan, the main Buddhist monastery of Buryatia until 1940s. Pudovkin made some important episodes of his movie at that monastery. I think that the boy was just a simple boy who was selected in the process of casting. I don’t believe that he was a real tulku. My opinion is based on the fact that in 1928 it was not safe for high foreign Lamas to stay in Buryatia. A year earlier the Soviet authorities launched repressions against the Lamas, and if you watch the movie carefully, you’ll see how anxious the lamas’ faces are. A couple of years before some Tibetan tulkus, e.g. Tangring Rinpoche, had stressful experiences  staying in Buryatia. In 1928 the situation was even worse. If you look at the boy you can see that his attire is not typical for small tulkus. They just put a piece of yellow (I believe it is yellow) cloth on him. Probably, that was the reason he was called the white lama.”
The second is in answer to a question I had about the throne, and not just the child seated on it.  I was thinking that the cloth that hangs down in front is a real throne cloth, featuring a large double-Vajra design, as we often see on Rinpoche thrones. But I was also thinking that the throne was far too low and close to the pavement to be a real Rinpoche throne.  So here is Prof. Tsyrempilov's response:
“As for the throne, I think it’s a fake. It looks like a real one, but I believe this one was hastily constructed specially for the movie. Yes, it seems rather too low. The boy is not an ethnic Russian, he is a typical Buryat.”

§   §   §

A wrinkle (Valentines Day, 2015):

If we were thinking there would be a smooth path to identifying the real young man in the photo and in the movie before the photo, a new and interesting wrinkle has come up along the way. I also wrote to Andrey Terentyev of St. Petersburg, author of some excellent books on Tibetan art and so on that I may blog about sometime soon. The surprising new news is that the temple in which the little lama was sitting was not in Buryatia as we had thought. I mean, it would be only natural to assume that he was filmed there, in the same place as all Cham dancing scenes that came before. But it now appears that this, like so many other things, is an illusion. Andrey says he immediately recognized the temple and its main image (or images) as the ones that were, in around the mid-1930's, at least, in the Buddhist temple that Agwan Dorjiev founded in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Just below is a photo from that time that he sent me. I could locate a similar photo in a published book that dates it to the early 1930's, so at least we are in the right general time frame here. The temple still stands in Petersburg, I once visited it myself, and I can tell you that the large main image that is there now is not the one you would have seen in the 1930's (the one that appears in our photos).  Andrey also sent a nice photo of the main image that you can see further down.

Interior of Dorjiev's Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg, early-to-mid 1930's

Compare what you see here to the first in the set of four screen-shots from the 1928 movie that I’ve posted above. Look closely and decide for yourself if what you see is the same place or not.

Main central images in the Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg, early-to-mid 1930's
I’m not one hundred percent, but I think that the smaller Buddha you see in front is the silver Gautama Buddha donated by the King of Siam especially for the consecration of the temple.* Its building began in 1909, with the permission of Czar Nicholas, and that story is a fascinating one we can’t go into right now. Needless to say, not everyone was in favor of its building, and Dorjiev reports in his memoirs that he received a number of death threats. Still, after the building was finished, the monks seem to have gotten on well with their neighbors.
(*Now, February 15, 2015, Andrey informs me that the Gautama was in fact copper, not silver, so my authority on this is  certainly misleading. Thanks to Andrey for fixing still more of my mistakes.)

An email communication, dated February 15, from Andrey:

Dear Dan,
It’s true about looting the temple and fixing main image afterwards. But that image was made of alabaster and later was changed by Dorjiev for a metal one which you see on our photos.
One friend of mine, who was the main Snelling’s informant didn’t speak good English, so I suspect that Snelling mixed info on Siamese Buddha with another story concerning the famous Sandalwood Buddha statue made during Buddha’s lifetime and kept in Russia since 1900.
The Siamese statue was made of copper or brass. It was kept in the Museum of History of Religions and Atheism where I worked for 13 years.a

I should add a few clarifications: The alabaster, being either white or lightish golden colored, was at least partly gilded over.  The 1916 photo is different from all the others, since the Buddha's curls appear white (probably because the alabaster was not gilded there), the eyes are quite glowingly white, and the throne backing is very different.  The sandalwood Buddha Andrey mentioned is something he knows about, since he wrote a book on exactly that subject:  

The Sandalwood Buddha of the King Udayana. St.-Petersburg: A.Terentyev, 2010
Parallel Russian and English text
ISBN 978-5-901941-25-6

I noticed one detail that confirms or even clinches the fact that the scene of the little Rinpoche was shot in the St. Petersburg temple. I wish I had a copy of it to upload, but if you have the book at hand, turn to John Snelling's book Buddhism in Russia (Element 1993), photo no. 16 in the middle of the book. There you see a photo labelled "Danzan Norboyev, sixth incarnation of Ganzhirva-Gegen, on the high lama's throne in the Leningrad Temple." Now get out a magnifying glass and examine the fabric covering the backrest part of the throne (the part behind the back of the Lama).  Now look at the fabric covering the backrest in the scene from the 1928 movie.  The floral fabric pattern is the same. And Danzan Norboyev (1887-1935) would have arrived in St. Petersburg in around 1929, so the dates are close enough we can be fairly sure it is the same piece of cloth. A minor detail, I suppose, yet telling.

So, let’s see where we stand right now...  Far from being a photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the photo Newsweek published as being of Him was passed down from English & American newspapers of 1929 to 1932 that, without admitting doing so, took it from a Russian movie released in 1928. Now we know that the shots of the young reincarnate in that movie were actually taken in St. Petersburg, in a temple built for the use of the many Kalmucks and Buryats staying in St. Petersburg in those days. No reason why the child could not have been a Buryat as N.T. says he was, no reason at all. If I had a hammer handy I would want to pound on each letter as if it were a nail piercing the conscience of Newsweek, but I guess bold print will do well enough:  His Holiness was not in St. Petersburg in the 1920's, and the child filmed there was not Him, not Him at all.

Can you believe that "Getty Images" still has it up on their site among its Dalai Lama photos? And with what is, in any case, a very mistaken caption: 
"Un des enfants designes par les pretres de la Cite interdite comme pouvant eventuellement succeder au Dalai-Lama defunt, il n'en fut pas le cas, a Lhassa, Tibet, Chine, le 21 decembre 1933."

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P.S. (Not intending to let Newsweek off the hook, but...)

  • Of course, to His Holiness this kind of identity problem will bring no grief at all. 

  • It is difficult to predict precisely, and I wouldn’t ever for the life of me even seem to second-guess His Holiness, but I strongly suspect His reaction would look a lot like this:

End of story?  As of beginning of July 2015, it would appear that Newsweek did at last remove the offending photograph.  It took them a long time, but they were finally responsive.  This has now been independently confirmed by Raj Kumar, so we may regard our campaign as successful.  That feeling of success is such a sweet one, isn't it?
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