Saturday, April 15, 2017

Book Arts, Consecration and Letters

Since the subject is holy books, and the ritual methods for making books holy, let’s first think about books and briefly look into some of the relevant terms for them. Then we’ll prepare the way for exploring some thousand-year-old evidence about book production, consecration and related issues. All of the consecration texts we plan to examine date to pre-Mongol times, at least, and the most basic ones were revealed by Shenchen Luga in 1017 CE, exactly one millennium before now. So today we will take a glance at his life, say something about consecration and letters and what the two of them have to do with each other. First, some etymologies.

What were and are the Tibetan words for books? The Tibetan translators of Indic literature always seem to translate Sanskrit pustaka (the final -ka is somewhat optional) as glegs-bam. But it appears that the Sanskrit word pustaka was also borrowed via a Middle Indic form pothi into written Tibetan (po-ti), until modern times when it appears in the single-syllable form pod. Well, at least that is how I see it at the moment, although it does require more research and reflection. I translate glegs-bam as “the Volume” with a capital ‘v’, in order to underscore its status as a sacred object. The modern term is dpe-cha, with apparent meaning partial example or the like. I have no idea where that comes from. Another modern word, the one most likely to be used for regular Euro-format books, is deb, shortened from deb-ther, a Mongol-era borrowing (Greek diphtherâthat is related to the English word diphtheria.

Nota bene!  None of these words occur in the searchable body of texts among the Dunhuang documents, although bam-po does, and bam-po means a fascicle, perhaps in the sense of a stitched or glued bundle of paper as found in China. Or maybe the bam-po was a Tibetan invention, I’m not sure of it. It seems it was a term used for inventory in the early Tibetan scriptorium, and that could be enough to explain why Tibetan translated scriptures in the Kanjur often tell you when a bam-po has come to an end, or give a “bam-po count” for the entire scripture. This bam-po count did not exist in India (see the van der Kuijp article). 

An example of a South Asian palm-leaf book,
complete with the two binding cords running through each leaf.

While not the very first, certainly one of the first and, as time would prove, the most widely influential of the treasure revealers for Bon tradition as a whole was Shenchen Luga (d. 1035 CE).* It is recorded in what I regard as the most reliable of the early accounts that, after his scriptural findings in 1017 CE, he kept silent for a period of one twelve-year cycle about the texts and their content. In the same source we learn how one named Sbrags-sto Ku-ra had built a chorten and invited a physician named Zhang to consecrate it. During the course of the consecration (zhal-sro), Shenchen raised a question about what a chörten of Dharma Body might be, insisting that there is nothing about a chörten that could apply to Dharma Body. After this debate, signaling his debut as a teacher, he gradually over the coming years let his excavated scriptures be copied by others. Among his first followers was one named Cog-lha G.yu-skyid, who asked to see them all. He made a special request to make his own copy of the Khams chen scripture, and in fact constructed two copies, one for Shenchen and one for himself. The one for himself was called the Red Hundred-Thousand ('Bum dmar), and the one he made for the Great Shen was called the Royal Hundred-Thousand with Hardened Leather Book [Boards] (Bla 'bum bse gleg[s] can). The last-mentioned is the one that the Venerable Tenzin Namdak once told me that he had seen with his own eyes when he was still living in Tibet, prior to his escape.
(*Shenchen Luga I go on to call the "Great Shen," translating the first part of his name Gshen-chen Klu-dga'. Shen is the clan name. Sometimes he is called Gshen-sgur, with reference to a postural anomaly of his due to some sort of accident. We might conceivably translate this as Hunchback of the Shen Clan.)
The Great Shen. Notice the stack of books behind him to his right.
Tucked into his sash, the phurpa, too, connects with his scripture discovery.

A set of consecration texts is always included in the lists of the Great Shen’s scriptural findings, and we will say more about them.  A text that I would regard as a more problematic one, on the life of the Great Shen's disciple Zhuyé Legpo (ཞུ་ཡས་ལེགས་པོ་ 1002-1081), has its own elaborate story about how the first copies of the scriptures were made by him soon after their discovery. In this version, the intent to make copies of the scriptures was there even before they were excavated. The Great Shen speaks to him in verse:

The teachings that belong to you
are currently under the ground.
In order to extract them from the soil
I need a load of axes and picks.
I need thirteen able-bodied men.
I need six loads of paper and ink.
I need a hundred scribes to copy them out.

While quite detailed and dramatic, this story does not sit well together with the other account that has the Great Shen doling out scriptural texts one or several at a time over a lengthy period, which is one of several reasons for my reservations. But disregarding them for now, our text goes on to say that sixty-five scribes worked for three months and five days.  Their work was checked over three times, resulting in eighty-six volumes of scripture.

In 1038, following the same source, Zhuyé had a vision at the site of an ancient temple Zo-bo Khyung-slags that inspired him to build there.  When the new temple was completed, he invited seven teachers to the consecration. Among them, despite the chronological impossibility, was the Great Shen himself, who would have already died in 1035. Even more strangely, the guest list included the Bengali teacher Atiśa, who would only arrive in Tibet in 1042. Atiśa performed a special ritual called Stong gsum snang srid g.yen bcos, which we might translate Mending Divisiveness in the Phenomenal Triple-Thousand [Universe].  It appears it was at that same meeting when Atiśa gave him names for his son Skyid-po as well as his future grandson Jo-thog.

My main point to make here is just that while consecration rituals are found among the Great Shen's textual discoveries, they are also important in the associated narratives.

It has been over 30 years since I first noticed some remarkable connections between these consecration texts of the Great Shen and the consecration text of Atiśa. Most impressive is the fact that in both we find the chorten topped by a Birdhorn (བྱ་རུ་ - bya-ru) finial, and in both the Birdhorns are said to symbolize wisdom and means. It is most surprising to find Birdhorns in a non-Bon text, and I know of no other case of bya-ru being used in them with the same meaning, let alone the same symbolic associations.

Now a few observations about consecration and its literature in Tibet, and first of all some basic terminology: Our Bon texts generally prefer the term zhal-bsro in place of the more familiar rab-gnasZhal-[b]sro literally means face warming, but I think heart warming is a more communicative rendering. We will not find this vocabulary difference so surprising when we learn that zhal-bsro is the form known in Old Tibetan texts and inscriptions from the imperial period, while rab-gnas is not locatable in them. Another related Bon term is nang-rdzong, used for the pre-consecration rite of depositing holy items that is usually called rten-gzhug or gzungs-gzhug.*

*So there are certain peculiarities like these to be found in the Bon literature. If we survey the literature on consecration in pre-Mongol Tibet, what we find are perhaps four lengthy manuals or sets of manuals, apart from those of Bon. Of these, the Rong-zom-pa and Atiśa manuals date to around mid-11th century, while the Sakya master Grags-pa-rgyal-mtshan's dates to the late 12th. We should also mention that there are a number of less lengthy manuals by Kagyü masters of the late 12th century. Among those just mentioned the most substantial are Phag-mo-gru-pa's. In terms of sheer volume, the Great Shen surpassed them all.

Here you see the title and opening words of an appendix to Ven. Tenzin Namdak's 1984 treatise on the arts, meaning primarily religions icons. He starts with an interesting passage from the Gzi-brjid, and for the moment I only want to point to the first words even if there are many other things of interest there: As you see, it mentions the dang-thogshad and tsheg as being counted among the 30 magic letters. This idea that the punctuation marks are part of a set of letters is something shared with the consecration literature. In that literature, we find somewhat peculiar terms for talking about these common Tibetan punctuation marks, as you see below. The word dang-thog, the most special one, seems to be used only in Bon texts.

I used the fancy version of the shad punctuation mark here, although the plain one is the one ordinarily used to divide up [1] members of a series of things, [2] clauses or [3] sentences.

The tsheg point divides the language into syllabic units. Tibetan has a monosyllabic writing system, but it is not a monosyllabic language.  The language tends to be bisyllabic (or trisyllabic) rather than monosyllabic.

It will be clarified in coming blogs how for these Bon consecration texts even the most minute bit of a holy book contains a full share of its holiness, and this goes for not just individual letters, but punctuation marks as well. In fact, as we will see before too long, each letter and punctuation mark merits its own individual micro-rite of consecration. Each letter is honored and celebrated as a holy object in its own right. Oh my, what is this leading into?

To be continued...

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Sources of external justification (or whatever):

Leonard W.J. van der Kuijp, “Some Remarks on the Meaning and Use of the Tibetan Word bam po,” Bod Rig-pa'i Dus-deb, no. 5 (2009), pp. 114-132. This is the latest on the subject, although earlier articles by Ernst Steinkellner and Helmut Eimer have weighed in on this weighty issue. I should note that the Negi Tibetan-Sanskrit dictionary, p. 3716, does have two examples of the word bam-po used to translate two different Sanskrit words, but in both examples the meaning is  a bundle  of something that has nothing to do with books. Look at this Old Tibetan text, and be sure that both Chinese and Tibetan books could have bam-po counts. The oldest Tibetan word for holy book known to me, from somewhere around, let's say, the time of Emperor Ral-pa-can, is Dar-ma, a Tibetan borrowing of Sanskrit Dharma. It isn’t very well known, I suppose, but one of the frequent meanings of the word Dharma in Great Vehicle Buddhist scriptures is scripture or scriptural volume. For more evidence of this, see Hugh Richardson's chapter, “The Dharma that Came Down from Heaven,” contained in his book High Peaks, Pure Earth, Serindia (London 1998), pp. 74-81. I’d suggest a more accurate reading of the title would be The Single-Fascicle Holy Book that Fell from the Sky (གནམ་བབས་ཀྱི་དར་མ་བམ་པོ་གཅིག་གོ).

A short biography of Shenchen Luga has gone up at Raven’s site (look here).

China during the Sung Dynasty employed a technique called butterfly binding, making use of adhesives rather than stitching. For a brief outline of the types of binding used in Chinese history, look here.

I would like to point to some very recent book-length studies that I personally have found most interesting and useful for thinking about Tibetan book culture, although they are very different from each other. Here you see the covers of two books that present a contrast, what perhaps we could call a scientific vs. a literary approach. In my view they nicely complement each other, so I warmly recommend them both.

We might regard the two books you see below as compositions by modern Tibetans. The first is much recommended to everyone who reads Tibetan in case you can find it. It is practically an encyclopedia of Tibetan book culture. The second written by Kongtrul a little over a century ago is relevant for its section on the book arts, but the whole translation by Gyurmé Dorje is in itself a thing of wonder... an awesome work of translation art.

Afternote (April 16, 2017):

Perhaps the modern Hebrew word daf meaning page or paper, is related through borrowings to Tibetan deb?  The Sumerian word that could be the progenitor of them all is dub.  See the etymological musings here.
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