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!


  1. Hi Dan,

    In chinese it reads "白鼠旋繞"*1, which means the white mouse (白鼠) is spinning around (旋繞) Śubhakarasiṃha, donates money daily (日獻金錢) to Śubhakarasiṃha. I think the word wheel here in Professor Inaba's translation might misleading ^^;



    1. Dear Ben,

      Thanks, this is fun! Here's what I'm thinking at the moment: In the passage Prof. Inaba supplies, there are three main events marking his movement from north India to Tarim Basin, in this order: 1. Levitating in order to cross a river (in Kashmir). 2. This mouse-related event. 3. Proving impervious to blows from a sword (on his way to the high mountains). 1 and 3 are threats to the progress of his journey. They demonstrate the hero's miraculous power. to overcome obstacles from natural elements (1) and humans (3). But what does 2 demonstrate? His generosity to small creatures? It still doesn't seem to fit, and seems a rather inconsequential thing to mention. Really, what would be the motive of telling how a mouse ran around him and gave him money every day? I'm not saying you're wrong, but I'm still puzzled by your solution. How do you explain it?

    2. Dear Dan,

      I just found that Ganesha has some link with mouse, and Ganesha is also god of good fortune... I think good fortune is very important for chinese people, maybe that's why Li Hua tried to record it ><



    3. Dear Dan and Ben,

      This is Minoru Inaba writing. Thank you for mentioning of my humble paper in this blog (I have just noticed that it is here). As to the translation of stele of Śubhakarasiṃha, Ben is right and my translation is wrong (he politely writes 'misleading' but it is a obvious mistake!). Thank you for correction, Ben. As a matter of fact, when I first thought about the implication of this phrase, I could only imagine the small mouse was running inside something like hamster wheel and people paid some money for that. However, the Chinese phrase could only be read as white mouse spinning around Śubhakarasiṃha, just as pointed out by Ben. This was pointed out by my colleague immediately after the publication of the paper and I should have corrected it, but I didn't due to my laziness. As a matter of fact, the stone stele inscription has been quoted in Song Gaoseng Zhuan (Taisho 50: 714b-716a), with a bit of change: namely 白鼠旋繞 becomes 白鼠馴遶. With the latter we shall render it as "white mouse has been trained to rotate/spin around..." Anyway, I hereby ask to replace my wrong translation with more precise one.

    4. Dear professor,
      It was a great pleasure and a joy to receive your comment. Even if this revision gives the mouse story a different spin, I'm still curious about it. Now it does appear that we have to rethink the whole thing. I wonder if you have any answer to the questions I asked Ben back in my February 20 reply to him: What would the story mean? Why, for what purpose, was it told? Is the white mouse circumambulating Śubhakarasiṃha? I mean, I suppose we could say it was remarkable that a white mouse had so much reverence for him, that it both circumambulated and made offerings (of money? do mice have money to offer?). If so, that makes a certain sense, and tells us Śubhakarasiṃha was worthy of respect at least. But if the mouse is just spinning around like a whirling dervish I have trouble seeing the sense in that. I'm suspecting, too, there may be a divination practice here, something like the parakeets that pick out a roll of paper that contains your fortune? Is this idea too crazy? (I'm not sure what this would mean in the context of the story, either, I'm just suggesting it as a possibility that may prove useless.) So anyway, I looking forward to hearing what you have to say, and hoping for a brighter future for us all.
      Yours, D

    5. Dear Dan, (let us drop the formality, no need to use professor!)
      Thanks a lot for your prompt comment. Actually, I am sharing same kind of question with you. And that is why I first translated it as may make some sense, which, unfortunately, is wrong as a rendering of Chinese. And what was in my mind is exactly what you write about divination practice using small animals or birds. Maybe there was a kind of people's attraction using mouse running in the Hamster Wheel, which some how drops something like small paper roll and the owner of the mouse sells that paper to the customer...
      What we should also consider is that the stele was made by Chinese men of letters based on what Śubhakarasiṃha had told them. Thus there is a room for miscommunication between them especially about something miraculous (cf. the story of milk flew in the air entering his mouth etc.).
      Still, unless some supporting evidence (even circumstantial), we can't go further. If you know the modern practice resembling what I wrote above, please tell me.
      All the best,

  2. Thanks, but well, I'm not sure. I'm still thinking. I reckon good fortune is very important for all the peoples all of the time. And Ganesha and his rat vâhana are more complicated than that: not just luck, but more about boundaries and obstacles and getting through them. I'm thinking maybe the mouse was 'turning the wheel' in the sense of ruling. Besides the Nutcracker, there is another famous "mouse king," in one of the stories in a 6th-century Persian story collection (sometimes called “Fables of Bidpai”). Most of the stories in it have Indic origins (especially Pañcatantra), but the verdict is that the mouse king story isn't found in the Indian sources, and may be Persian in origin. That argument is made by François de Blois in “Burzôy's Voyage to India and the Origin of the Book of Kalîlah wa Dimnah,” Royal Asiatic Society (London 1990), p. 13. But even if the story is that he arrived at the court of a mouse king who was every day receiving offerings, it still doesn't demonstrate the heroic traveler's unusual powers. It still doesn't fit very well sandwiched between the powers of levitation and the iron-skinned resistance of the esoteric Buddhist master. I'm not ready to stop thinking about it. This mouse is starting to haunt my dreams, not that it's making anything clear. Not yet.
    Yours, D

  3. According to Cunningham's Law,* someone should have come up with the correct explanation by now!

    *The way to elicit a correct explanation is to put forward an incorrect one."


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