Saturday, February 18, 2017

Wheel Turning Mouse

I was perfectly relaxed this morning, leisurely absorbing a fascinating article by Minoru Inaba on the subject of From Kesar (see our blog entry "From Gesar"), a Turkic king of the general region that included Kabul in the early 8th century. The first item Professor Inaba brings forward in evidence is a stone stele with a curious inscription. It tells of Śubhakarasiṃha's journey to China, where he finally arrived in 716 CE. After passing through Kashmir where he levitated his way over an unfordable river, he visits Uddiyana (see “Swat's Good Feng Shui”), and what he finds there is “a white mouse which was spinning the wheel and gathering donations everyday.” 

There is no indication of how the author — evidently Li Hua or some other disciple of the famous Indian esoteric Buddhist master — felt about this mouse or its whiteness, nothing to elucidate what kind of wheel it was spinning, no explanation how it merited religious veneration in the form of donations. Donations of what? Things written in stone tend to be glib, chiseling is hard work after all. For myself at this very moment, so is using the computer keyboard, so I'll make this brief.

Wait, I can read your thoughts and they are saying ‘Why in heaven’s name would a cult of a white mouse find itself so worthy of the traveler's attention during his brief stay in the homeland of Padmasambhava in the Swat Valley known to Tibetans as Orgyan?’  My thoughts exactly. 

The human mind loves puzzles, but at the same time finds them so discomforting that it will reach for practically anything to come up with a solution. One idea did occur to me, although I don't have the least idea if it is going to turn out to be correct or not (for that I would need your help or hindrance). Let’s see how far it can go. Perhaps ‘mouse’ or ‘white mouse’ is actually a personal name that for better or worse got translated somewhere along the way. In Indic languages the usual word for mouse is something like mua. As many Tibeto-logicians know, the name of Moses (called Musa in Arabic, and Moshé in Hebrew) in the Kālacakra Tantra was dutifully rendered into Tibetan as Byi-ba meaning mouse (see Hoffmann's article). Now here is the big What if! What if the mouse appears here in stead of a name for someone with a name similar to that of Moses, or just similar to any old word for mouse?

Here’s a guess that seems to roughly suit the time and place. It could be Jabir. Jabir appears in Tibetan sources as Dza-ha-pir (and the like) in association with particular long-life alchemical practices that were passed on in Tibet. Of course he is the one called Geber in European alchemical tradition, so he seems to have been or become renowned over a huge part of Eurasia. He has no exact birthdates, although as can be known from a quick web search, he is guesstimated to have lived from 721 through 815. He may have been Persian by birth, but in any case ended up in Khorasan (in what we now call Afghanistan) after the Abbasid revolution ended in 750. Mike Walter has published three amazing essays about the Tibetan sources on Jabir. To these I refer those who wonder, as many do, why that could even be possible.

In a world where we are slowly but surely, if resistantly, growing accustomed to Trumpian paralogistics, I can forgive you if you’re thinking this doesn’t tread water. Just let me add that Musa (for Moses) does appear in Jabir's full name: Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan, meaning Jabir, Father of Musa and son of Hayyan. 

Okay, I tried. But I must admit I haven’t convinced myself that it was Jabir who was ‘turning the wheel’* in Oddiyana when Śubhakarasiṃha was passing that way in the early 710’s. The timing may be close, but not close enough for comfort. And like most puzzles, the solution even if it were established, which it isn’t, brings with it more puzzles. So this is where I appeal to you, dear friends, to write in with your cogent explanations and your bright ideas. There must be sense in this I’m still not able or willing to see.
(*For Tibeto-logicians that is just a nice metaphor that means teaching Dharma... or could it mean ruling?)

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Helmut Hoffmann, “Kālacakra Studies I: Manichaeism, Christianity and Islam in the Kālacakra Tantra,” Central Asiatic Journal, vol. 13 (1969), pp. 52-73, with the discussion of Moses and mice on p. 58. 

Minoru Inaba, “From Kesar the Kābulšāh Kingdom,” contained in: Michael Alram, et al., eds., Coins, Art and Chronology II: The First Millenniun C.E. in the Indo-Iranian Borderlands, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 1999), pp. 443-454.  Try "" On p. 448, the reign dates of From Kesar (or if you like me prefer the form From Gesar) are more or less determined to be from around mid-730’s until 745 when he was succeeded by his son Bo Fuzhun.* 
(*Obviously a name that comes to us by way of Chinese sources, not that there was anything Chinese about him).

Silvio Vita, “Li Hua and Buddhism,” contained in: A. Forte, ed., Tang China and Beyond (Kyoto 1988), pp. 97-124. Inaba makes reference to it. This could have the answer to the mouse mystery for all I know (since I can’t get access to it from where I am).

Michael Walter, “Jâbir, the Buddhist Yogi I,” Journal of Indian Philosophy, vol. 20 (1992), pp. 425-438.

——, “Jâbir, the Buddhist Yogi II: ‘Winds’ and Immortality,” Journal of Indian Philosophy, vol. 24 (1996), pp. 145-164.

——, “Jâbir, the Buddhist Yogi III: Considerations on an International Yoga of Transformation,” Lungta [“Cosmogony and the Origins,” guest edited by Roberto Vitali], vol. 16 (Spring 2003), pp. 21-36. 

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Last word:

Nature does not open the door of the sanctuary indiscriminately to everyone … No one may aspire to possess the great secret, if he does not direct his life in accordance with the researches he has undertaken. It is not enough to be studious, active and persevering, if one has no firm principles, no solid basis, if immoderate enthusiasm blinds one to reason, if pride overrules judgment, if greed expands before the prospect of a golden future …  Jabir ibn Hayyan.

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Afterword (May 16, 2017):

Now you had better move on to reading the comments section, where a revised translation gives the puzzling passage a different spin!
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