Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Tibetan Magic in a Chinese Ghost Story

I was celebrating one of my most hallowed Halloween traditions the other night... trying to get myself a little frightened. Now and then it’s good to crank up the adrenalin. After searching around in the YouTube site and passing over a few slasher/psychopath movies, I settled on what looked like a suitably scary film called “A Chinese Ghost Story.” I do recommend it. It is well done, and the ghosts are just convincingly creepy enough to squeeze out of you a few involuntary squeals of terror so anybody in the same building with you will wonder What’s up? 

The hero falls in love with a beautiful young woman he never imagines could be a non-human spirit, which of course she is, and a mankiller to boot. At one point the Taoist priest who is actually a kind human being parading as a ghost in order to help other people (a kind of Bodhisattva after all), brings out a holy book to be used in exorcising the ghosts who actually are ghosts. The holy book you can see above.

Although the Taoist immediately says it is in Sanskrit, Tibeto-logicians know better and are not so easily fooled, thank you very much! The hero and the Taoist, taking with them the book, slip through a crack in the fabric of apparent reality and storm the netherworld in an attempt to save the spirit heroine, or at least make it possible for her to take a new incarnation as a human. I guess, technically speaking, she was already dead.

If you watch the movie all the way through to the end you will see how this Tibetan holy book is key to getting out of the predicaments both the hero and heroine had gotten themselves into. Enough, I won’t spoil it for you, not all of it.

But I did have the presence of mind to take a screen shot of the book as you see in the frontispiece. I took a phrase you can spot in the middle of it, “bkra-shis don-gyi lha lnga,” meaning something like the “five deities of auspicious purpose,” and placed it in the search box at TBRC. Using this simple method I was able to immediately and without any fuss or bother identify the entire holy book as the Buddhist scripture known in Tibetan as the Bkra-shis Brtsegs-pa'i Mdo (བཀྲ་ཤིས་བརྩེགས་པའི་མདོ།), the Sūtra of Piled Up Auspiciousness, or Maṅgalakūṭa Mahāyānasūtra if you prefer Sanskrit.

This never does make an appearance as an independent sūtra in the Kanjur collections, and when it is printed separately (I have a woodblock print of one I brought back from Ulan Bator), it still looks like an extract from the Lalitavistara Sūtra. According to the final line of it, it’s from the chapter of that same Sūtra where it tells of the Buddha's encounter with the two traveling merchants Ga-gon and Bzang-po (ག་གོན་དང་བཟང་པོ་), or again, if you are the type to prefer Sanskrit, Trapua and Bhallika. In a bit of a rush for time, I went directly to the Gwendolyn Bays translation of the French translation of the Lalitavistara Sūtra. I didn’t find the exact line there, but I was gratified to find a few pages of Buddha's blessing to the two merchants upon their departure, ensuring them of protection by all the divinities, star constellations and good spirits throughout space:
May the blessing of the gods be with you!
May success follow you always!

May all your affairs go smoothly

and according to your desire!
So even if it doesn’t teach how to exorcise evil spirits, it is nigh impossible to imagine how they could withstand all those heaps of good wishes and auspiciousness. Obstacles be gone!

But wait, now that I’ve gone to fetch the six-rung ladder from the other room so I could retrieve the Ulan Bator pecha from the highest shelf, I find that the extract from the Lalitavistara’s chapter 24 is only appended to the Sūtra of Piled Up Auspiciousness as it is found here in my woodblock as well as in the TBRC version of the Dhāraṇī Collection (གཟུངས་འདུས།). You never know these things until you find out.

Here is the pecha (with original cloth book cover) that has the woodblock print in it, 

and here is the title page.

And after turning a few of the unbound leaves, I find, on folio 7 recto, line six, the exact same line in question. Do you see it there?

Oh, and if you want to read this auspicious scripture in English in its entirety, you can navigate over to Gavin Kilty’s translation here. Once you are there you can locate our line on page 3.  Or try this translation by Thubten Sherab Sherpa. There may be even more translations out there.

I’ve once before had occasion to study this scripture, as I was concerned to know more about the auspicious marks on the Buddha’s body, and this Sūtra has an important passage about them.

Maṅgalam astu!   མངྒལམསྟུ།

Note: If you would like to watch the 1987 Hong Kong movie, I recommend doing a search for it within YouTube itself (these links are always changing and going dead after a short while) or do a more general video search, and if you want to find more details about the film, it appears that this page has the most information.


  1. Hi Dan, This is hilarious. I still remember that about four years ago, a friend and I were watching this movie in a theatre (yes, a reshow in a digitally remastered edition after 24 years of its premiere), and when the priest called the Tibetan as Sanskrit so confidently and authoratatively, we both could not help but burst out laughing. It was supposed to be a very edgy moment in the movie, and we found no way to explain it to our neighbor audiences who must have been annoyed by us.
    By the way, it is one of the most famous sinophone movies, and I like it a lot.

  2. Dear P, what you say reminds me of how I once had to "Shush!" my partner in a movie theatre when they showed the Nepalese mountain Machapuchare, the 'Fish-Tailed Mountain,' when the characters were driving up to Kashmir. But in all honesty, although you and I are perfectly correct to scoff at the Taoist for calling Sanskrit something so obviously in Tibetan letters, he's also in some degree correct, although you may need a freeze-frame to detect it. If you look at the screenshot that serves as the frontispiece, you can see in the last two lines the beginning of a mantra for creating auspiciousness that is, even while written in Tibetan script nonetheless in Sanskrit language. So I can sort of hear the Taoist wizard-Bodhisattva laughing back at us from the beyond. Thanks so much for writing, yours D.


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