Sunday, May 28, 2017

Scriptural Letter Magic

In a story well known to adherents of Bon, the Magic King Kongtse builds the most amazing temple on an island. To build it, Kongtse has to call upon some very dubious characters — a few of them with names that seem to come straight out of Indian epic literature — and these same characters tear it down again...*

(*This story has been told by Karmay Samten Gyaltsen and Gurung Kalsang Norbu, so I won’t repeat it here. Today’s blog is a continuation of this one.)

As part of this narrative of temple building, one of Shenrab’s wives is deluded by a demon into burning the “scriptural to bag” (bka'i gto sgro) that contains the set of scriptures known as the Four Bon Doors and Treasury making Five.*  Looking at the consecration literature of Bon, it eventually becomes more and more clear that the temple building of Kongtse and its consecration was the single past event that serves as paradigm for all later performances of consecration rites.
(*Some may want to take the syllable sgro to intend sgrom, meaning box, but no, it does indeed mean a bag or pouch.)

This story, told in all the three major biographies of Lord Shenrab, is also told in the first text that appears in the consecration volume of the Bon Kanjur.  Its title page is the one you see below.

This title conceals within it two texts each with its own colophon. The first of these gives the name of a concealer in the imperial period that you see here below in the 2nd line: De Gyimtsa Machung.

I would just like to point out that there is a person with a very similar name in the Old Tibetan Annals entry for the year 653, where one named “Spug Gyim-rtsan Rma-chung” is appointed governor of Zhang-zhung. Here is another one of those Bon connections with Dunhuang documents that needs to be studied and contemplated.* But anyway, as the text was hidden at Sham-po, we may understand that this, along with the other text, was a 12th-century discovery of Matön Sherabsengé, although he is not directly named here in this text.
(*There is the not-so-small problem that the initial syllables, in the position where we would expect a clan name or the like, are different. I don't know enough about Lde and Spug[s] as clan names to make arguments or come to conclusions. The Spug/Sbug[s] clan seems to have existed in imperial times in both Kokonor area and in southwestern Tibet. A figure named Spug Gyim-tang Rmang-bu surfaces three times in a Dunhuang document, PT1287, with the clan name given as both Spug and Spung.)

Out of the ashes of the incinerated scriptures emerge the Five Heroic Letters. These letters transmute into the complete set of scriptures that is then written down in five Volumes. Letter magic of Bon, in some part at least, corresponds with phonetic arrangements of the letters. So I would say their magic is not entirely disconnected with linguistic science. It could be closely linked together with it. The first chart you see below is based on a passage taken from a relatively recent Bon grammatical text. The Five Heroic Letters are given in the first column, with their elemental correspondences in the 2nd, while columns 3 to 9 are the letters generated from them. The yellow chart beneath it is placed here for comparison. It marks not only the elements, but also the points of articulation. The correspondences between the letters contained in the two charts may be only partial, but I suggest that they share larger ideas in common.

These volumes, as you would expect, are called glegs-bam, but they are, as it says, “bound into glegs-bam  (gleg-bam-du sbam, and we also find sbams-su sbams, bound into bindings). This active verb that means to bind you do not encounter very often. The sections that involve the punctuation marks and letters in this text are interesting, but I should like to mention a few other things found in it before moving on to the next. One substance that is not used in Chos consecrations, or more particularly in the exorcism rite that forms a part of every consecration ritual, is ephedra (mtshe).  In Chos consecrations gu-gul* and mustard seed are used, while in this Bon text it is ephedra and mustard seed.
 (* Although it does surely come from an Akkadian word for frankincense, in Modern Tibetan it  can mean Google, which is rad or even a bit wack. Ephedra has special usages in early Tibetan rituals that deserve more attention than I can give them here.)

The concealed 2nd title that begins on p. 55 is if anything even more interesting than the first. It is here that we find not only yet another section on the letters of scripture, but some interesting things about pens, ink, and paper. There is even a section that could be regarded as a semi-independent consecration rite specially done for the paper both during and after its making... oddly so, since consecrations are normally done only after the object is fully completed. This is a rarely spoken but hardly ever broken rule. I’ve made a draft translation of this passage, but will save it for another time after I find ways to improve it.

More unexpected details pop up, even a reference to the two string-hole circles (p. 61) called spyan-skor, or ocular circle. You can see them in this surely pre-Mongol and possibly even late imperial period example:

Folio no. 259 of the 4th volume of an Hundred Thousand Perfection of Wisdom manuscript

In another blog, we’ll continue taking notes, looking at some of the other texts found in the consecration volume of the Bon Kanjur. 

Next: “The Micro-Consecration of a Punctuation Mark.”

§  §  §

On some sources on consecration and so on:  

For an extensive bibliography of both Indian Buddhist and Tibetan consecration literature, see Yael Bentor’s book, Consecration. Since it is brief and no more than an outline, we haven’t taken into consideration the text of the Great Translator Rinchenzangpo, although it is frequently cited in the later literature. Atiśa's text was composed in Sanskrit at Vikramaśīla Monastery near the Ganges River. He translated it together with his Tibetan disciple in around 1040 CE and apparently took the only copy with him to Tibet, as I know of no indication that it had any influence in India, no surviving Indian manuscript fragments and so on. The other Indic consecration works are detailed in Bentor, Consecration, pp. 349-353.


  1. The following is cut from an email by Chris Hatchell:

    As you suggest, many of the elements in your consecration texts are found in the gZer-mig as well.

    In the ZM, what is "bound" is bundles of (blank) white paper (dung gi shog shog bam du sbams) that fall from the sky so that the scriptures can be written down. Just as you suggest that Kongtse’s temple is the paradigm for consecrations, it is also the location that makes possible the first uses of statues, reliquaries, and scriptures. The ZM tells how this specially protected environment (ephedra!) finally provides a place where the Bön texts to be written down. Shenrab first pens them (magically of course) over the course of 2,500 human years, and puts them into the five volumes that you mention. But then there is concern that those five texts might be too dense. So Sangpo Bumtri comes, performs a ritual that causes pads of paper, ink, pen, and scribes to descend from the sky, and then Sangpo dictates easier (and I think longer) versions of the scriptures that the scribes write down. There is an interesting poetic invocation that Sangpo makes, causing all this to happen.

    I like your mention of the gTo “bag” (sgro). The ZM consistently uses “sgrom.” Do you think that could be a “bag” as well? Yid-kyi-khye’u-chung is always running around with one of these, and I always think it would be uncomfortable to be flying around with a “box.”

    --Chris Hatchell

    1. Dear C.H., Thanks for writing, that's a fascinating topic I ought to study more closely when I get a chance. I do get your point about the gTo bag / box. Looking through some of my resources I get the impression that the box (sgrom) spelling is the less frequent one, so perhaps we will have to go with the bag (sgro) just for that reason. Another thing, the Combined Sutra (Mdo-'dus) version of Lord Shenrab's biography, arguably the older of the three main ones, has two available versions that use the bag (sgro) spelling consistently, and one that sometime has the bag (sgro) and sometimes the box (sgrom), but once or twice even uses the lamp (sgron). I do more often fly with bags than with boxes, although I've flown with both before. Take it easy and write again when you get a chance. Yours, D.


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