Wednesday, August 03, 2016

The Harms of Firearms

From a Dunhuang mural of the temptation preceding Enlightenment

There is a lot of talk in recent years in the U.S., as there has to be, over the availability of firearms, their ubiquity in American homes.* I will say just to get it out of the way that not every Tibetan is opposed to weapons, as I know from experience. I even remember one highly respected elder Rinpoche telling me, in private, how much he “loves” guns (his word).** After a brief juvenile period playing with cap guns, then shooting stationary targets with BB-gun and shotgun, I have grown to personally dislike them, and choose not to own any. I think the world would be better off without arms and so much more so the arms trade. I wish other people could imagine a disarmed future as clearly as I do. Meanwhile, I choose to live my life free of the fear that guides those who live by the gun. I refuse to be intimidated by them. I won’t allow them to make me become one of them. I believe too much in the future of humanity to give in on this point.
(*Firearm deaths due to accident — including young children — and suicide, and not only murder [see this chart!] are unusually high in the U.S., and this is primarily due to their availability. Unfortunately all hopes of solution fall victim to the partisan polemic that largely defines presidential election politics in the U.S. these days [samples here]. This could lead us into yet another dreadfully dreary subject and I really don’t want to go there today.  **And of course there have been quite a few soldiers and hunters in the Tibetan past right up into the present. On that, too, I have no idea of denial.)

I wasn’t at all surprised to see a translation of an anti-firearms pamphlet from 19th century Tibet. After all, I’d seen it listed in a book about Tibetan art several years ago, so I knew it was supposed to exist, I just hadn’t seen it. I was surprised that somebody not only located this elusive text, but saw fit to put it into English.*
(*Go to page 513 in the bibliography at the end of Dkon-mchog-bstan-'dzin, Bzo gnas skra rtse'i chu thigs [“The Arts: A Drop of Liquid at the Tip of the (Brush) Hairs”], Krung go'i bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang [Beijing 1994], where you can find the words “Nyag-bla Padma-bdud-'dul-gyi Me mda' nyes dmigs.”)

The classical literature of Tibet knows of a pair of genres that kind of mirror each other, one of them called Benefits (ཕན་ཡོན་), and the other called Harm Focus or, to aim for more salubrious if unwieldy English, perhaps ‘Contemplating Deleterious Effects’ (ཉེས་དམིགས་)Benefits are usually about the good effects of the good and virtuous things you might want to do (or that you may need encouragement to do), while Harm Focus involves contemplations on the short and long-term ill effects of bad actions, bad habits. We’ve blogged about the Benefits before, about the benefits of prostration for example, but never about the Harm Focus. I believe the word Harm Focus goes back to the oldest layers of Tibetan Buddhism, where you are most likely to find it used for contemplations on the shortcomings of cyclic existence, or sangsara (in Tibetan terms, འཁོར་བའི་ཉེས་དམིགས་).*
(*The Tibetan word nyes-dmigs was used to translate the late Sanskrit and Pali Buddhist term ādīnava, defined in Edgerton's dictionary with the words "misery, evil, danger, mishap, wretchedness," in short, dangerousness or disastrousness... Look here, and here, too. The disaster that is... [fill-in-the-blank].  The downside?)

Illustration found in the works of Karma-bag-yod (1876-1942 CE)

The translated text (link below) dates to the 19th century, but I’m not very sure when firearms were first introduced. I think Toni Huber of Berlin discussed this problem somewhere, I just don’t recall where at the moment. I think the 17th century is more or less the right time frame for the introduction of the musket, perhaps going back into the 16th. The word for firearms has an older history. To clarify slightly: In the Tibetan canon, we do find examples of the term me'i mda', but perhaps even more often we find me-mda', this being the usual word for firearms in recent centuries. Me'i mda' translates word-for-word as arrow of fire, and me-mda', I suppose literally means fire-arrow. I suggest that even in the Kanjur and Tanjur examples of me-mda' the meaning of flaming arrow is close to what was intended.

But look carefully at the upper right hand corner of our frontispiece, that comes from a (presumably pre-11th century?) Dunhuang painting of the onslaught of delusionary powers (བདུད་) that Siddhartha experienced shortly before His Enlightenment. Examine its shape very carefully. It seems to have a cylinder attenuated at its middle, and what looks like a ramrod of some kind sticking into the right side, flames coming out of the left.

A curious side question:  If you look at the shape of the firearm aimed at the soon-to-be Enlightened One by the delusionary power in our frontispiece, you can see it has nearly the same shape of a thing you can see living beings doing their best to squeeze through in early western Tibetan depictions of the Wheel of Life (examples in Tabo and Pedongpo). This resemblance may or may not mean anything. I was just finding it bemusing. Anyway, all the armaments at the disposal of those delusionary spirits turn into flowers as soon as they try to enter the Buddha’s protective forcefield. Enlightenment means dispelling delusions, don’t you know.

Now go read that anti-firearms tract I mentioned before without delay:

I know that there are people who need to hunt for survival, and I’m not saying they should starve to death. But I’m not one of them, and I doubt you are, either. So most likely you don’t really need to think about gun ownership unless you are worried about your neighbors...  And what have you done to your neighbors that you are so afraid they might come after you?  

§   §   §

On the firearm-like item we mentioned as being depicted in some Wheels of Life, see, Helmut F. Neumann, “The Wheel of Life in the Twelfth Century Western Tibetan Cave of Pedongpo,” contained in: Deborah Klimburg-Salter & Eva Allinger, eds., Buddhist Art & Tibetan Patronage: Ninth to Fourteenth Centuries, Brill (Leiden 2002), pp. 75-84. I’ve been planning a blog on Wheels of Life, so for now just let me say that in some of the pre-Mongol period Chinese examples we can see the human (and animal) figures jumping through what look like barrels open on both ends. For examples of those, see pages 29 & 32 in Stephen F. Teiser's book Reinventing the Wheel. And notice the reproduction of the Pedongpo example, dated to 12th century, at p. 219. I’m still not sure how to understand these artistic examples properly. Perhaps we are meant to imagine ourselves getting fired off or shot out into our sangsaric destinies? Or are we just getting endlessly scooped up and dumped out unceremoniously if monotonously by the mill wheel of our lives? What’s your best idea? You know, at least something in the right ballpark.

For an interesting study of Tibetan anti-tobacco smoking (and snorting) tracts of the Harm Focus genre, see Daniel Berounsky's “Demonic Tobacco in Tibet,” Mongolo-TibeticaPragensia ’13: Ethnolinguistics, Sociolinguistics, Religion & Culture [Charles University in Prague], vol. 6, no. 2 (2013), pp. 7-34. 

For some finely crafted examples of Tibetan firearms and associated items, see Donald J. LaRocca, Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City 2006), pp. 198-212. You might have a look at the online description of the Met exhibit 

Tibetans and Tibetanists alike may find amusement and gain knowledge by doing an internet search for "ཉེས་དམིགས་" (I recommend doing it with the quote marks). You will see what sorts of subjects besides just tobacco and alcohol appear in the genre, which seems to be expanding in recent times to include marijuana (སྨ་ར་ཝ་སྣ་) and cannabis, for example.

There is a statistical study showing that over the course of U.S. history more people have died from guns in the hands of civilians than have died in all U.S. wars. Of course wars, too, need to be abolished.  
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