Sunday, December 30, 2018

Quingentenary of the Ganden Podrang Nearly Passes Unobserved

Ganden Phodang, the building, as it exists today at Drepung Monastery in Lhasa

It’s one of those mysteries in the history of history making why some major events get memorialized over the course of time with centennial observances, while others are overlooked.* A case in point: Even though the year 2018 is probably already over as you read this, it would be a pity if 2019 arrived before anyone thought to recall a significant development in Tibetan history that occurred in 1518, just 500 years ago. You heard me right, but allow me to explain.

(*To be sure, the idea of a centennial never occurred in earlier centuries in Tibet, where time was marked not by 100-year, but by 60-year cycles. But we’re not back there right now, we’re in the 21st century world, where things are seen a little different by us all.)

Well, with the deadline rapidly approaching, I’ll squeeze in a few words about why the restoration to the Gelugpa monasteries of a major annual festival and the presentation of a ‘palace’ to the Second Dalai Lama ought to be recalled half a millennium later. In a true sense, the past hasn’t even really passed, since the results of those events carry on in what is done and thought today, even given the twists and turns that occurred in the interval. I’m told dull-minded people do exist, and they along with certain politicians are the ones who when it suits them assert that the past counts for nothing for us in the present. I’d say the supposed irrelevance of history is just an artefact of our lack of attention to it, or an excuse for a more general apathy or antipathy.

The Zhang dictionary describes the events very succinctly:
"[In 1519] the Victor Gendun Gyatso was head of the assembly of the Mönlam.  This was the year the Great Mönlam was reinstituted in accordance with the earlier traditions of Sera, Drepung and Ganden."   
༼ rgyal ba dge 'dun rgya mtshos smon lam gyi tshogs dbu mdzad / 'di lo nas se 'bras dga' gsum slar yang sngar rgyun ltar smon lam chen mo tshugs 

"The Nedong ruler Tashi Dragpa offered the Blue Stone House (Rdo-khang Sngon-mo) of Drepung Monastery to the Victor Gendun Gyatso, and its name was changed to Ganden Podrang."   
༼ sne gdong mi dbang bkra shis grags pas 'bras spungs rdo khang sngon mo rgyal ba dge 'dun rgya mtshor phul ming dga' ldan pho brang du bsgyur

From 1498 up to and including the year 1517, Gelugpa monks were not allowed to participate in the annual observances that follow the Tibetan New Year, even though this “Great Prayer Festival”* had been instituted by none other than Tsongkhapa himself in 1409 CE, the same year he founded Ganden Monastery. At first the school was called Gandenpa, after the name of the monastery. This -pa construction in Tibetan would have us understand that Gandenpa just means [an] inhabitant[s] of Ganden. I believe the Ganden in Ganden Phodrang, too, is meant as a reference to Ganden Monastery, even if not entirely sure of it.**  
(*Mönlam isn’t well served by the translation prayer since that might imply a petitionary type of prayer. It’s more like a prayer of hope, an aspiration for a distant but achievable goal of the most positive kind, particularly Complete Enlightenment.) (**Ganden is also the Tibetan translation of Sanskrit Tuita, a paradise for the Future Buddha. I’d like to go into this another time, but the prominent New England professors Leonard W.J. van der Kuijp and Georges Dreyfus have drawn some interesting conclusions about the emergence of the name and early institution of the Gelugpa School that go against the grain of the usual conceptions. It may be needful to say that institutions scarcely ever sprout up fully grown at the fiat of a single Great Person with a singularity of purpose, but that’s how institutions often come to portray themselves later on, perhaps a result of efforts to promote unity within their ranks.)

The Victor Gendun Gyatso (1476-1542) would today be called  the Second Dalai Lama even though the title “Dalai Lama” was first awarded in the year 1578 CE, thirty-six years after His death.

So, to keep things short since I’m writing against the clock: I always tell people I’m stuck in the 12th century. There is truth in this, I freely admit. It could explain why I’ve found myself clueless to fathom the shock on people’s faces when you tell them that the Gelugpa school and more particularly the Dalai Lamas haven’t always ruled Tibet from the beginning of time.* 
(*Someone should also inform them of a much broader truth, which is that nothing in the present world was or is inevitable, that there have been forces at work in the past that helped bring about, and other forces that very well could have prevented, today’s institutions. We live, as we always have lived, in a permanent state of precariousness.)

Those shocked faces reveal an assumption, that Tibet remained always the way it was at the verge of the 1950’s. For them it was a culture wedded to immutability from time immemorial, so stuck in place as to be practically lifeless. But pay attention while I say that rule by the Ganden Podrang, the same name that was given to a building five centuries ago and the name that would eventually be found on Tibet-minted coins and currency notes, only effectively began in 1642, when the Fifth Dalai Lama rose to power with the indispensable backing of Mongolian patrons. 

I would say that I hate to disillusion people, but I neither love nor hate it. Buddhism is always there poised and ready to raise in us the consciousness that whatever gets put together through combinations of conditions is bound to come apart eventually. For readers of Tibetan, I can just remind you, འདུས་བྱས་ཐམས་ཅད་མི་རྟག་པའོ།། Eternity never happens. Contingencies happen.

Who could be better to quote than His Holiness the present Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who has often in recent years suggested, to the shock and dismay of many of his closest followers and admirers, that He may be the last Dalai Lama, that it depends on how the institution continues to serve the Tibetan people. But then we have to underline how He emphasized on the same occasion that Tibetan Buddhism will in any case continue. I wanted to quote His words directly, but every single news story from the early-to-mid 2010’s seems to paraphrase and mis-hear as much as it quotes, so I’m waiting on a more authoritative source, if you could be so kind as to suggest one.

I know a lot of people haven’t been keeping up with the news, thinking the Dalai Lama still rules just as before. In His 2015 CNN interview by Amanpour, He said, as transcribed by myself:
“In 2011 I totally retired from political responsibility, not only myself retired but also [the] four-century-old tradition [of the] Dalai Lama institution, particularly being head of both spiritual and temporal. That formally, voluntarily, happily ended.”

Clearly, important changes have already taken place. As far as the future roles of the Dalai Lamas are concerned, just as in the past, there are forces at work pushing this way and that. How things will play out in the end is anybody’s guess. No historian can know the outcome in advance, and it’s first and foremost the fools and political prophets who claim to have that kind of knowledge.

Meanwhile, I think we should all join the Tibetan community around the world on the last day of 2018 by celebrating the long life of His Holiness. Every single Tibetan I’ve met inside or outside Tibet thinks the world of Him. And Gallup released a poll of Americans showing His Holiness still ranking highly—one of the top ten—among the most admired men. There are precious few humans with the ability to engage and inspire humanity in humans as He does. So if it is up to me we will end the old year and open the new with hopes for the best of all possible futures for Him and for all us sentient beings in the years ahead. That’s my Mönlam.

§   §   §

Read when and if you like:

There is a fairly good Wikipedia article on the Ganden Podrang that I recommend for those who feel need of an introduction to the subject.

Matthew T. Kapstein, The Tibetans, Blackwell Publishing (Oxford 2006), pp. 130-131.

Vincent Lemire, Jerusalem 1900: The Holy City in the Age of Possibilities, University of Chicago Press (Chicago 2018), particularly the section entitled “The Causes of Forgetting,” on pp. 7-10. Putting the many differences aside, it may be worthwhile to ponder why the Ottoman Empire, which lasted through roughly the same centuries as the Ganden Podrang, is also drably painted as dreadfully stagnant and unproductive. I see it as a failure of the historical imagination, which cannot find the life in these periods because of cultural and ideological presuppositions and biases.* Our lack of interest does not translate into the absence of events.

(*And, although I don’t intend to go into it right now, in both the Ottoman and Ganden Podrang cases, [1] the difficulty of access to sources due to limitations placed on their access or [2] our difficulties in reading and interpreting them.)

Pankaj Mishra, “The Last Dalai Lama?” The New York Times (December 1, 2015). You might not be able to procure it without a digital subscription to the newspaper, but go ahead and try. I suggest taking time to read the whole long essay, since it does have an important message about the variety of points of view available among exiles in India.

Glenn H. Mullin, The Second Dalai Lama: His Life and Teachings, Snow Lion (Ithaca 2005). Previously published under the interesting title Mystical Verses of a Mad Dalai Lama. There is a section on the reestablishment of the Great Prayer Festival on pp. 94-98.  Besides this work by G.M. I know of only a couple of studies and translations connected to the Second Dalai Lama, which is a pity. He wrote about a lot of fascinating subjects in fields of poetics, alchemy, philosophy, Buddhism and the Vajra Vehicle.

Hugh RichardsonCeremonies of the Lhasa Year, Serindia (London 1993), pp. 11-59. This is still by far the best account of the events in Lhasa during the first month of the Tibetan-style year, which include among other things the observance of the Great Prayer. It is illustrated with black-and-white photographs.

Tsepon Wangchuk Deden ShakabpaOne Hundred Thousand Moons: An Advanced Political History of Tibet, translated by Derek F. Maher, Brill (Leiden 2010), vol. 1, pp. 269. 295. An excerpt follows: 
“In 1518, the Nedong King Tashi Drakpa offered his home at Drepung Monastery to the second Dalai Lama Gendün Gyatso. Renamed Ganden Podrang, it served as a sort of monastic estate of the Dalai Lamas. When the Fifth Dalai Lama came to political power in 1642, he named his government after this institution.”

Turrell V. Wylie, “Monastic Patronage in Fifteenth-Century Tibet,” contained in: Gray Tuttle and Kurtis R. Schaeffer, The Tibetan History Reader, Columbia University Press (New York 2013), pp. 266-277, especially p. 271.

Zhang Yisun (1893-1983), et al., Bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo, Mi rigs Dpe skrun khang (Beijing 1985),  in the chronological table in the back of its third and final volume. This has been reprinted several times, in 3, 2 or just one volume. By now every serious student of Tibetan knows and uses it in one form or another. If you like or need an introduction to this and other important lexical resources, look at this earlier blog.

§ § §

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  

—Wm. Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun.

And I want to add, quoting from who knows who:  

A little more knowledge is always a great thing.

A Tibetan banknote. The legend in the two yellow fields can be translated, “100-Srang currency note of the heavens-appointed Ganden Podrang, victorious over all directions, in both religious and political affairs.” From its serial number we may know that it was printed in around 1958. I apologize that the photograph is not reproduced here in the correct scale or dimensions. The printed field ought to measure 18.25 by 11.85 centimeters.

NEW YEAR postscript:

Have a look at the biography of the Second Dalai Lama by Miranda Adams, posted at The Treasury of Lives website ten years ago. The site has grown impressively in depth and coverage in recent years, and it relies on donations. That was a subtle hint.

Oh, and it came to my attention, since I was paying attention, that Martin A. Mills has written an essay entitled “The Last Gift of the God-King: Narrating the Dalai Lama’s Resignation,” for a new book entitled Tibetan Subjectivities on the Global Stage, edited by Shelly Bhoil and Enrique Galvan-Alvarez, and published by Lexington Books (Lanham 2018?). It has several quotes from His Holiness I wish I had used, especially in this one, dated March 19, 2011, that you can find at the link he supplied. I think also well done and relevant is an article by Emmi Okada, “Constructing the Secular: The Changing Relationship between Religion and Politics in the Tibetan Exile Community,” Himalaya, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, vol. 36, no. 1 (May 2016), pp. 80-95, perhaps available online (try here). There are other interesting things to read, just do a Schmoogle search for “Dalai Lama retirement.”

Monday, December 17, 2018

Tibetan Vocabulary

I must apologize. I know according to my own rules I am supposed to post something here every month or so. Ease up on me though. It’s not like I have a contract or anything. I reckon myself free apart from the dictates of my own conscience. That’s the beauty of retirement. It gives a fellow lots of time to do all that work he’s been putting off for years. I know, I haven’t finished putting up all of TPNI yet, and already I’m starting to put up something else. I suppose my problem is that all of a sudden I discovered that free websites are now available that no longer limit the size of ordinary text files. That means the sky is the limit, I suppose. In actual practice what I get are “error” messages every time I try to add another big piece of text. Still, after some initial confusion and struggles against the machine, it seems to work just fine.

It’s true that a version of “TibVocab” has been available to the world for years now at THLIB, as part of their much-used “Tibetan-English Translation Tool,”  I say much-used because 21st-century students of Tibetan written language can scarcely move without it. But there is one particular inadequacy in the way TibVocab is presented there. I had intended to produce a word index, with the references supplied, and often with citations from the literature, especially in case of problematic terms that still haven’t been defined adequately. I do appreciate all the serious work that went into getting it up there, but in the dictionary tool there is no place to put a key to bibliographical references, so it simply disappeared. One large part of TibVocab's reason for existence vanished into thin air.

One more thing, TibVocab has expanded during the years that passed since it segued into the Dictionary Tool. That means when you go to the link I will supply presently, you will have a somewhat better chance of finding that word you’re  looking for.

For more about what TibVocab is and isn’t you can read the introduction at the website itself. I can’t promise anything for tomorrow, but as of today, I have only gotten started with the initial letter KA. I know that in coming days I’ll be testing the limits of what ‘full capacity’ can mean in a free website, but I’ve got the time. And I’m developing the patience.

So if you like, go visit it now by clicking with all your might on THIS LINK, or just double-click on the banner you see up above at the very top of this blog entry. Once you get there, feel free to make a bookmark.

A free tip:  If you would like to limit your search to main entries, as you might, just add a bullet [•] immediately before the word you would like to find.

If you do on an odd chance come across a very unusual word such as mu-yad (or dmu-yad) I recommend that you look in TibVocab, of course, but I’m not saying you should stop there. Go ahead and do a word search in TBRC's repository of scanned Tibetan texts.* It immediately locates any Tibetan word within a corpus of over a million pages of text. You aren’t all that likely to find a definition using this method, but what you will find are a number of usages in various contexts that could help a lot in your efforts to divine meanings.**
*Come to think of it mu-yad wasn't such a good choice for an example after all.  Having gone to TBRC I see that only one result pops up, and not a very illuminating one at that. Since Tibetans didn't often have reason to speak of deserts, I'd say try searching for mya-ngam (with the final 'm') instead. And after the experiment do read Joanna Bialek's “The Tibetan Fiery Way to Nirvana: Reflections on Old Tibetan mya ngan,” Rocznik Orientalistyczny, vol. 70, no. 2 (2017), pp. 60-96. Or use a TBRC search to try and figure out which celestial display is indicated by dgu-tshigs or dgu-tshigs skya-mo. What does star arrow (skar-mda') mean? You got the idea even before I got to telling about it.
**I rarely make appeals for anything at Tibetologic, but seeing that many of us are in the middle of the holiday season, do think about making a donation to TBRC just because they are doing the work of gods and would make excellent use of the offerings. Without TBRC 21st-century Tibetologicians cannot thrive, let alone be of good cheer.

§   §   §

Progress (?):

December 22, 2018:  All my struggles with the letter tsha trying to get it up there have failed repeatedly. It seems my idea that limitless space was available for single documents wasn't correct. Wondering if I should open a new free website or what? Well, 2/3rds of it is up there. I may have to come up with some other solution. Meanwhile, for people in the Christmas world, Merry Christmas and/or happy holiday of your choice. In any case be happy.


January 5, 2019:  At last, success! Now, even though the document is divided into two parts (with the bibliography as a 3rd part), they have been linked almost seamlessly. Starting at this address (the very same link supplied before) I think anyone can figure out what's going on:

Saturday, October 20, 2018

On the Dhole, the Wild Dog Dhole

A dhole, or more specifically Cuon alpinus dukhunensis

In the bus on my way back from my Rheumatology appointment, I wanted to withdraw my attention from the bothersome crowd, so I drew from my knapsack the reading material I’d taken with me for the waiting room. It was written by an acquaintance from long ago, and its title, implying some ambiguity or confusion between the classes of dogs and cats, intrigued me.

Of course the Tibetan side of things was what most interested me, nothing new there. Ruth Meserve, my muse, makes use of two lexicons of the sort that have Tibetan components entered into a multilingual setting. One is the five-language dictionary, called therefore the Pentaglot, that dates from 1771-1794, while the other is Jampel Dorjé’s Materia Medica. Well known to the world at least since Lokesh Chandra published it in Delhi way back in 1971, its woodcut illustrations of plants and animals, among them the Abominable Snowman, were its main attractions for the larger body of humans unready to get serious and deal with the language problems. 

For the translations from Jampel Dorjé’s book, the author relied on a Tibetanist, Frederica Venturi (footnote 45 on p. 147). In observance of old-school scholarly noblesse oblige, the author accepts all errors as her own responsibility. I won’t bore anybody with my quibbles about little inaccuracies. That would be unkind or boarish for no reason of any importance, so I’ll just give translations of my own. Here they are.

Jampel Dorjé, p. 237c:  The animal called gung.

The caracal (gung).  It is called Dog of the Forest. Like a tiger, but murkier colored, dark with black striations. Its body is about the size of a full-grown fox. The Crystal Orb (Shel-sgong) says:  
The types of flesh that eliminate illnesses caused by gdon possession are these: wild man [abominable snowman], lion, tiger, leopard, bear, wild goat, wild boar, sambar deer (lit., snow deer), bamboo [dwelling] tiger, lynx, lammergeier, elephant, caracal, hoopoe, crow and raven.

Jampel Dorjé, p. 237c:  The animal called 'phar-ba

The ’phar-ba. It is called Small Red Mountain Dog, as well as Lives on Game Animals. It bears resemblance to a domesticated cat (byi-la), but is larger, about the size of a fox, and is colored a murky red. The tail of one linking with another, they climb trees.* These both** are, in the [Medical] Tantras, taught to belong to the class of carnivores.***
(*This is my reading of the statement, although I do not believe prehensile tails are a feature of any kind of dog or cat for that matter. It is as if part of a description of the spider monkey got misplaced here. And if this is a dhole, the spots do not at all belong in its woodcut depiction.)
(**I guess this means the 'phar-ba and the animal mentioned just before it, the leopard [gzig].)
(***I guess this intends the section on flesh-derived medicinals in the Explanatory Tantra at the end of its 20th chapter, although I checked and didn’t find that leopard and 'phar-ba are mentioned in the same context.)

SO MANY THANKS to Ruth Meserve and Frederica Venturi for forcing me to think more about dholes. Not only myself, but everyone else on the planet should be thinking more about these disappearing wild creatures while we have the chance.*
(*Take note of this alarming evidence of human harm to the biosphere in the form of massive insect loss that goes together with declining populations of the creatures who feed off of them. See also this report from the World Wildlife Fund on just how quickly the free-ranging animals are disappearing. It’s called “Living Planet Report 2018: Aiming Higher.”)

I confess to being inspired by another message that issues out of Meserve’s essay. It caught me off guard, the idea that animal names can be shifted around because of naming taboos. I haven’t heard about this particular kind of naming taboo in Tibetan culture, but I guess it only makes sense that the most feared animal would be the one whose name would be avoided. Could this be invoked to explain why Padampa Sangyé always used the word for camel to name the bear?  I mean, literal dictionary-slaves would inevitably translate his words kind of like, “Camels crave honey,” when I think they do not, even if they can be made to eat it. Well, they are said to love air.

244a: Rnga-mong.  Camel.  Air Lover (rlung dga') is one of its epithets here.

All about the books:

Jampel Dorjé ('Jam-dpal-rdo-rje), Gso-byed Bdud-rtsi'i 'Khrul-med Ngos-'dzin Bzo-rig Me-long-du Rnam-par Shar-ba Mdzes-mtshar Mig-rgyan, contained in:  Lokesh Chandra, ed., An Illustrated Tibeto-Mongolian Materia Medica of Ayurveda of 'Jam-dpal-rdo-rje of Mongolia, with a foreword by E.Gene Smith, International Academy of Indian Culture (New Delhi 1971), pp. 1-347. I put up another entry  from this text for the hare or rabbit in an old blog of about 7 years back called Ownerless Donkey. In the colophon the author calls himself a layperson of the Naiman clan who later on after his arrival in Tibet made revisions to his text. We can call this a Mongolian work of Tibetan literature, as it was originally composed in Mongolia by a Mongolian. In the early days I had no idea who the author was, and only slowly, with help from Vladimir Uspensky, could I begin to get an idea about who he was.

Jampel Dorjé (’Jam-dpal-rdo-rje) aka Don-grub-rgyal-mtshan, aka Tho-yon Ye-shes-don-grub-bstan-pa’i-rgyal-mtshan lived from 1792 to 1855. I’ve never seen the woodblock print of his entire collected works although a set is registered in the Drepung Catalog, p. 2063, and I’ve noticed a listing of the titles it contains in another catalog. And I’ve noticed a record of teachings received as well as a biography that ought to be available in Rome. One valuable service he performed for Tibetan literary history is his anthology of early Kadampa works, or selections from them, many still not made available to us in any other form.

Mdo Dbus Mtho-sgang-gi Sman-ris Gsal-ba’i Me-long, Mtsho-sngon Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang (Xining 2009). In my experience copies were very difficult to obtain, but I finally succeeded. Volume 3 is the one about animals. Almost entirely in Tibetan language, it does supply Chinese names for the animals. This is a modern work, most of the time supplying systematic descriptions based on direct observation, it seems. However, the illustrations of animals are largely unclear, and not up to any scientific standards. It is a shame there is no entry for the gung, but the ’phar-ba entry is there, on pp. 55-56. To give a rough translation of the descriptive parts:  
“Its bodily shape resembles the dog. It is about a meter in length. Its tail is slightly bulging, its tip a murky dark color. The entirety of its body is the color of kham-ser, and on its back is kham-nag, its belly hairs lightish yellow. The fur on its four paws and on its back resemble each other. (This is written after inspecting an actual specimen in the district north of the Kokonor.)”
It seems to me that this description matches photos and descriptions of the dhole very nicely. The color terms here are tricky to translate, but perhaps the English word tawny works well enough, with kham-ser leaning more toward the yellowish tawny, and kham-nag toward the darker kind. I have another book on Tibetan wildlife that has only Chinese and English. I picked up my copy a long time ago at a bookstore inside the entrance to the Norbu Lingka. The English title is An Instant Guide to Rare Wildlife of Tibet. On p. 11 it has a photo of Cuon alpinus, and even though it is labelled as "Jackal (Wild Red Dog),” it absolutely resembles the dhole. 

Ruth I. Meserve, “Wild Dogs or Wild Cats? Puzzles in Lexical Sources and Medical Texts from China, Tibet and Mongolia,” Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi, vol. 23 (2017), pp. 137-165.

Skad Lnga Shan-sbyar-gyi Manydzu'i Skad Gsal-ba'i Me-long, Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang (Beijing 1957), in 3 volumes.  Called the Pentaglot, this is a five-language dictionary published on the basis of a manuscript version kept in the “Pho-brang Rnying-pa'i Nor-rdzas Bshams-ston-khang.” Manchu, Tibetan, Mongolian, Uighur and Chinese are the five languages.

Joel Sartore, photographer for the National Geographic, takes amazing photos of rare animals he is convinced are unlikely to be with us much longer, and one of them is of a zoo-kept dhole that you can see HERE. His home page is here. You will probably find yourself unable to not love these portraits of extraordinary beasts.

After Mdo Dbus Mtho-sgang-gi Sman-ris Gsal-ba'i Me-long
a drawing of a dhole ('phar-ba)

(*) (*) (*) (*) (*)

Add-on (November 11, 2018):

I finally got ahold of a classic article by the well-known linguist and Indologist M.B. Emeneau entitled “Taboos on Animal Names.” It was published in the journal called Language, vol. 24, no. 1 (January 1948), pp. 56-63, with a brief appendix added on in no. 2 (April 1948), pp. 180-181. As a native son of the southern parts of India, likely the area of Andhra and so likely a Telugu speaker, the elderly Padampa could have been observing a word-avoidance practice from his childhood days. Of course, bears are not prevalent in south India, but we do find south Indians not naming larger carnivores such as tigers, particularly in the morning hours. They would call the tiger by the name of the dog or the jackal, and a number of examples for this are supplied. So I feel a little more emboldened to believe that Padampa knew he was avoiding pronouncing the name of the bear when he called it camel...  Emeneau didn't think the practice was just a hunter's superstition, but that it had wider religious significance.

Oh well, but then I find this article on Bear lore telling us that avoidance of the bear word is universal (by which I guess it means all over Eurasia):  
“Features that appear universally according to Vasil'ev (1948) and Paproth (1976) are: 1. prohibitions of direct reference to Bear by the general proper names, 2. use of circumlocutions in referring to or addressing the bear.” 
Source:  Page 346 in Lydia T. Black, “Bear in Human Imagination and in Ritual,” Ursus, vol. 19 (September 1998), pp. 343-347.

+  +  +

Meanwhile, I see that yet another bit of Jampel Dorjé's materia medica, the entry on the otter (ཆུ་སྲམ་), has appeared in an article that surfaced recently. Equipped with an institutional subscription, as you must be, just go here, and up on your screen ought to appear Lobsang Yongdan’s “Precious Skin: The Rise and Fall of the Otter Fur Trade in Tibet.”

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Efficacy of the Living Dam

Today’s blog has something to do with singing bowls, skepticism, physics, and the creative metaphysics of sound. As is often the case in these pages, there will be no conclusion apart from the one you draw yourself. We’re not children here, are we? We don’t need to be told what we think.

The thing that provoked me was this: I was looking through a book I’d never looked at before, with the promising title Magical Techniques of Tibet, by one J.H. Brennan. There on page 33, I saw a passage that caught my attention partly because it was about something Madame Alexandra David-Neel observed and described herself, a Bonpo ritual performed at a Bon monastery called Tesmon, a ritual used to drive an unwanted person away. Always a sucker for the miraculous event, and always interested to know what people are saying about Bonpos, I decided to investigate a little more. The book cited as source is given with all its details in the bibliography: Alexandra David-Neel, Bandits, Priests, and Demons, Uitgeverij Sirius en Siderius (The Hague 1988).

The trouble was, it appeared this book did not exist. Or at least it was a puzzling problem. Perhaps Bandits, Priests & Demons represents a Dutch title for one of her books that bears a different title in English? Now that I’ve enquired about it, I guess this does solve the problem.

I found that the monastery of Tesmon that Brennan mentioned is, oddly, known from another authoritative (smiley!) book by Megan McKenna entitled Keepers of the Story, at p. 164:
“After docking in the Bay of Bengal, Emdlen and six companions made a grueling trek across the harsh terrain of India and the mountainous expanses of Nepal. After eight months, they reached the Bon monastery of Tes-mon, Tibet. Huthaum Re was expecting Emdlen. This mystified his Atlantean companions...”

Well, to shorten the story of my own long journey, I eventually found out that David-Neel did indeed tell a story connected with the Bön Tesmon Monastery in her 1936 book Tibetan Journey, which I didn’t physically possess, even if a miserable scan quickly popped up on the internet. 

I left this blog for several months in suspended animation, while the book made its way to me over the sea. I’ll tell you what I found there later, but meanwhile, I really wanted to locate the Bon Monastery, which ought to have been not far from the important town of Kandze (Dkar-mdzes/དཀར་མཛེས་) in Kham Province. This is the one book by David-Neel where most of the time you know exactly where she is, but Tesmon isn’t marked on the map that comes with the book, and it is also not to be found in what is without a doubt the most complete catalog of Bon monasteries, the one printed in Japan that you will see in the list of authorities down below. I know there is one French writer with the temerity to publish a book about how David-Neel didn’t actually go to Tibet. No Tibetanists I’ve ever known has any such doubt. Even the semi-miraculous things she witnessed are indeed just the kind of semi-miraculous things you can know about from many Tibetan sources (like the gomlungpa speed-walkers and so on). For the doubters, I can just say that the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India, somehow has some travel documents officially issued for her travel in eastern Tibet. I see that Kandze is even mentioned in one of them. Have a look here to find out more.

§  §  §

The following passage is taken from Alexandra David-Neel, Tibetan Journey, John Lane the Bodley Head (London 1936).

[p. 176]
Towards the end of the afternoon we arrive in sight of the Bönpo monastery of Tesmon. To reach it, we

[p. 177]
have to cross a bridge. Like so many of the Chinese bridges this one is arch-shaped, and, for the moment, the only part of it that emerges from the water is in the centre of the river, which has risen to three times its normal height. The way on to the bridge from either side is by a primitive stairway, made of unhewn slabs of rock. This stairway has now disappeared under the water and the current beats violently against it. Between the first step and the place where we have stopped is about fifteen yards; this distance will have to be crossed in the rushing river.

Carrying their loads on their heads, the porters go over one by one, each of them supported on either side by a man who is not loaded. Other villagers form a chain, evidently with the purpose of catching their comrades should they fall and of preventing them from being carried away by the river. With their arms stretched out sideways, they all stand above those who walk in the water, instead of below them, facing upstream. I wonder what their idea is. It is quite certain that if a man or his load were to fall, this chain of arms, placed where it is, would not prevent either of them from being swept away. But I must be the only one who thinks so. The imperturbable seriousness of all those around me plainly shows that they have no doubt as to the efficacy of the living dam.

In order not to stand in the mud during the time that it takes for the luggage to be carried over, I remain seated on my big black mule, watching the operation. When it is finished, Sonam and Tobgyal lead my beast to the stairway. This kind of bridge is never crossed on horseback, and now less than ever is it the moment for making the attempt. I therefore dismount on to the submerged steps. The mule will he taken over after I have passed across. The bank is higher on the other side, consequently the water has not spread so far inland. When I reach the other end of the bridge

[p. 178] a man picks me up, puts me like a sack over his shoulder, and carries me to safety.

We are going to stay at the monastery. One of the monks gives up his quarters to me: two little rooms, one of which is a kitchen, the other a bedroom. I settle myself in the latter, and Yongden will sleep in the kitchen. My boys and the militiamen will be housed by another monk.

It has been a tiring day for the porters. I urge them not to return at once to their homes, where they would only arrive late in the night, but to rest first. In addition to their tip, I offer them a good supper; they can then leave at daybreak. The thought of a “good supper” instantly settles the question. They decide to remain. After giving orders for them to be provided with flour and meat for making soup, I go back “home”.

The owner of the room that I have been given must be an ascetic, or else a poor man — unless he be simply a sage. His household goods consist of a low table, before which he sits on the floor; a brazier; a set of unpolished wooden shelves, which serves for a bookcase; two blankets for a couch; and a long stick, suspended from the ceiling beams by cords, for hanging clothes on. To these must be added the torma (ritual cakes) cupboard”, a kind of tabernacle in which, by means of magical processes, the Lamaists, as well as their Bönpo colleagues, imprison a being of demon race or a wrathful deity.

My host carries away his blankets and some books, then leaves me alone. I hang my wet clothes on the stick and make my bed. While waiting for my meal to be cooked, I shall visit the temple, where an office must be in progress, for I hear the dull sound of a drum that is being rhythmically beaten. But before going there, I want to see what is in the tabernacle.

This wish is not idle curiosity on my part, but a desire for knowledge. Does a Bönpo stock it in the

[p. 179]
same way as a Lamaist? As a rule these cupboards are kept padlocked; for the uninitiated must not gaze upon their contents. The ordinary reason given for this prohibition is that the being who is held captive there may then escape or become irritated. However, the Tibetan occultists explain things differently. According to them, that which resides in the mysterious tabernacle is a force created by magical processes. They say that the tormas that are found in the tabernacle have been “animated” by the one who has placed them there and that an “energy” of a different order has been incorporated in each of them. Exoterically each torma is said to represent a different personality, divine or demoniac. Shut up in the tabernacle after having been thus “animated” and each of them provided with suitable food”* these tormas form a group of active energies, of “living entities”, among which various secret exchanges and mysterious combinations take place. It naturally follows that an inopportune opening of this occult laboratory may disturb the work that is going on within it and unseasonably liberate the force that should remain captive. This force, through not being controlled and directed by a competent initiate, can cause harm and take for its first victim its imprudent liberator.
(*This food consists of offerings of rice, meat, wine, tea, etc., or of other tormas that represent nourishment.)

At least, this is what I have been told, but my informants themselves have been careful only to apply these explanations to the tabernacles that belong to initiates in secret sciences. Those that are found in the rooms of the ordinary monks are of little or no importance, for their owners have neither the necessary power for “animating” the various tormas, nor the knowledge required for grouping them in the correct way.

My host’s little cupboard must have belonged to

[p. 180]
this last category. Made of roughly carved wood, blackened by smoke, it had nothing impressive about it. There was no padlock on the door. Inside I saw ten tsa-tsas,* which probably represented the ten Bönpo Sages, and a triangular torma, in front of which, by way of offering, lay a heap of dusty cutlet bones. All this was not of great interest. However when you are curious by nature, there is always some question that requires answering. Why were these bones, without exception, all cutlet bones? Did my host only eat this part of the animal, the remains of which he passed on to his favourite demon; or was it the demon himself who demanded these particular bones? Here was a mystery to be solved.
(*Imitations, modelled in clay, of the monuments called chörtens [the stupas of India].)

In the temple, on the other side of the court, someone continued to beat a drum rhythmically. Perhaps I could find somebody over there who, without my having to confess my indiscretion, would enlighten me as to the particular part that cutlet bones play in Bönpo rites.

So I go down into the court, mount the temple steps and enter the building. The interior is very gloomy, almost in darkness. A single lamp burns before the altar. Not far from it two people are seated; the man who is beating the drum and another man who is chanting in a low voice what he reads in a book that is lying on a narrow table in front of him. A lamp, placed close to the book, casts a curious light on the faces of the two monks.

My eyes becoming accustomed to the darkness, I am also able to distinguish some tormas, four tiny lamps, and the various other objects forming a kyilkhor (magic diagram )* that is set up on another table in front of the celebrants.
(*Magic diagram on the different parts of which various objects are sometimes placed.)

[p. 181]
While I am watching them, some of my porters enter the temple. Doubtless, like me, they are strolling about until supper is ready.

They remain motionless for a time, then one of them takes a few steps forward. Something, a table or a bench, which he does not see in the shadow, lies in his path; he knocks against it and it overturns. The noise the thing makes in falling resounds through the empty hall. Under his breath, the man snaps out a low oath. The reader lifts his head.

“Go away,” he orders, using the most authoritative and the least polite expression in the Tibetan language.

David-Neel's travel companions:  Lama Yongden, her adopted son,
and three servants:  Sönam, Tobgyal and Sezang Tales.

There are sceptics in the Kham country, and they exist in greater numbers than one would have thought possible. There, coming from the lips of a woman, I have heard the most terrible blasphemy of which a Tibetan can conceive : “I don’t care a rap for religion, I like money better.”

At the base of the intellectual ladder the sceptics of Kham remain usually in the state of mind illustrated by this impious woman, although, as a rule, they are more discreet as regards the voicing of their unbelief. On the upper rungs of the ladder, sceptics are occultists. or, sometimes, profound thinkers.

The man who had just sworn so rudely was an “unbeliever” of the lowest rung. As I learnt some hours later, he had lived at Tachienlu and at Chengtu, and had probably broadened his mind there after his own fashion.

He violently resented being ordered about in so rude a manner.

“I am not a dog,” he said. “I didn’t see the bench ... it isn’t broken .... I’ll pick it up. There is no reason for you to speak to me in this way.”

Whereupon he stoops, lifts something up, which scrapes the floor noisily.

“Go away!” repeats the celebrant.

“I won’t go.” retorts the man obstinately, making a movement in the direction of the lama.

[p. 182]
“Do not come near the kyilkhor!” imperiously orders the monk.

This interdiction only irritates the aggressor the more.

“Oh! your kyilkhor!, your tormas!” he shouts.

“The ta ren (distinguished people) foreigners,* who are very learned, say that it is momos (bread) dough and that all that is chanted in the gompas is only nonsense. . .. Speaking to me as if I were a dog!”
[*My added note: The porter is using Chinese here, ta ren meaning “great man.”]

The rustic was wound up. His companions had seized him and were trying to drag him outside, but he was a hefty fellow and his anger only increased his strength. He freed himself, cursing, and again shouted.

“Your kyilkhor! . . . Your momos! . . . I will break them to pieces. . . . Speaking to me as if I were a dog!”

Then, as he rushed forward, the Bönpo, at the other end of the temple, seized the shang* that was beside him and shook it. An extraordinary sound, made up of a thousand unloosed cries, filled the hall with a surge of tumultuous vibrations and pierced through my brain. The scoffing peasant gave a cry. I saw him recoil violently, with his arms outstretched before him, as if to thrust back some terrifying apparition.

A Shang Bell.  Courtesy of Himalayan Art Resources, HAR 81413

“Go away,” the lama repeated again.

The other men hastened to their comrade’s aid, and they all left the temple in a great state of agitation.

Dung! Dung! continued the placid drum, quietly marking time for the soft chanting of the Bönpo, who once more sat in front of the kyilkhor.

What had happened?— I had not remarked anything peculiar beyond that strange sound. I went out to question the porters. The braggart who had disturbed the office boasted no longer.
(*The shang (written gshang or གཤང་) is a musical instrument that is special to the Bönpos, In shape it faintly resembles a cymbal with a turned-in edge, and has a clapper attached to it. When shaken the clapper is usually held on top, as in an inverted bell.)

[p. 183]
“I tell you it was a serpent,” he was declaring to the others who stood round him in the court. “A serpent of fire, which came out of the shang.”

“What, you saw a serpent of fire?” I asked him. “Is that why you shrieked?”

“Did you not see it? It came out of the shang when the lama shook it.”

“You dreamt it,” I replied. “I saw nothing at all.”

“We did not see the serpent; but lights flashed from the shang,” interposed his companions.

In short, they had all seen some marvel. Only I, unworthy foreigner, had been blind. However it might be, it was only fitting, since I was receiving hospitality in the monastery, that I should apologize for the rudeness of one of the men I had brought with me.

I re-entered the temple and remained standing near the door, waiting for the office to end. The acolyte who was beating the drum stopped at last, put the instrument back into its cover, and the celebrant wrapped his book in a piece of silk.

 I went forward and expressed my regrets for my porter’s behaviour. The lama courteously received my apologies. “It was not your fault, it had nothing to do with you,” he said. “The thing is of no importance, do not think any more about it.”

I had fulfilled that which politeness demanded from me. The Bönpo remained silent; there was nothing left for me to do but to go. Yet the strange sound I had heard and the villagers’ visions continued to puzzle me. Unconsciously, I looked at the shang, the tangible cause of all this phantasmagoria.

It was not difficult for the lama to guess my thoughts.

“You would like to hear it sound again?” he said to me, with a vaguely mocking smile.

“Yes, Kushog, if it will not trouble you too much. That instrument has a curious sound. Will you please shake it again?”

[p. 184]
“You can do it yourself,” he answered, handing me the shang.

“I am not an expert at handling it,” I made him observe.

For indeed the sound that I produced in no way resembled the one I had heard.

“I have not your skill, Kushog,” I said, returning him his instrument. “No serpent has come out of your shang.”

The Bönpo looked at me inquiringly. Was he pretending not to understand, or did he really not understand?

“Yes,” I resumed, “the vulgar man who spoke to you so rudely declares he saw a serpent of fire come out of the shang and rush at him. The others saw flashes of light.”

“Such is the power of the zungs (magic word) that I uttered,” declared the lama, with a slight emphasis. And he continued in a low voice:

“Sound produces forms and beings, sound animates them.”

I thought he was quoting a text.

“The chirolpas (Hindus) say that too,” I retorted. And in the hope of inducing the Bönpo to express his opinion, and to speak of the doctrine he professed, I added:

“Some, however, believe the power of thought to be superior to that of sound.”

“There are some lamas who think so too,” answered the Bönpo. “Each has his path. Methods differ. As to me I am master of sound. By sound, I can kill that which lives and restore to life that which is dead.”

Kushog, these two things: life and death, do they really exist as absolutely distinct opposites?”

“Do you belong to the Dzogschen sect?” asked the lama.

[p. 185]
“One of my masters was a Dzogschenpa,” I answered evasively.

The Bönpo remains silent. I would like to bring the conversation back to the subject of life and death and to hear his theories concerning it, but his silence is not very encouraging. Must I interpret it as a polite hint that it was time I went away? Suddenly, however, the lama mutters to himself, seizes the shang, and gives it several shakes.

Wonder of wonders! Instead of the terrifying sound that it has given out before and the anything but harmonious one I myself have produced, I hear a soft peal of silver bells. How can this be? Is that Bönpo simply a skilful artist, and can anyone, with the necessary practice, obtain such vastly different effects from so primitive an instrument as the shang, or else, must I believe, as he has proudly declared, that he is really “master of sound”?

The desire I felt to talk with the lama had greatly increased. Was I going to succeed in getting him to explain the mystery of the shang? ...

A commonplace incident put an end to the interview. Yongden entered the temple to tell me that our supper was ready. The lama quickly took advantage of the interruption to escape from me, pretending, with a great show of politeness, that he did not wish to detain me.

Rain fell in torrents during the night, and it became again necessary to send a gang of mountaineers to examine the path I had to follow, before attempting to go along it myself with the beasts and luggage. This circumstance forced me to remain for a whole day in Tesmon. I determined to profit by the delay to try and see the “master of sound” again. Unfortunately it continued to rain, and the inmates of the monastery remained shut in their homes. I could not go and indiscriminately knock at their doors in order to find the one who interested me. Such behaviour would have given offence. However,

[p. 186]
Yongden, as a young man, had greater liberty of action. He discovered the master of sound’s house, and, thinking himself extremely diplomatic, invited him to come to tea with me.

The Bönpo accepted. An hour later, accompanied by a young trapa, he came to the cell I occupied. Our conversation began with the usual polite enquiries. After which the lama wanted me to tell him about my travels in India. He questioned me concerning the customs of that country, then regarding its religious world: the Buddhists and Hindus, their practices, the supernormal powers they attributed to their dubthobs (sages who possess supernormal powers). I endeavoured to satisfy his curiosity, hoping to find a favourable moment in which to question him myself. He gave me the opportunity when speaking of the powers of the Indian dubthobs.

“There is no necessity to go to India to meet men who possess these powers,” I said to him. “You, yourself, I think, made that clear last evening. And, moreover, the Hindus, who look upon Tibet with veneration, as the home of great sages, also believe that magicians exist here who are much more powerful than theirs.”

“That is possible,” answered the Bönpo. “I have never been to India. It is about the shang that you are thinking, is it not? Why do you attach so much importance to this trifle. Sound has many other mysteries.

“All beings, all things, even those things that appear to be inanimate, emit sounds. Every being, every thing gives out a sound peculiar to itself; but this sound, itself, becomes modified, according to the different states through which the being or thing that emits it passes. How is this? — It is because these beings and things are aggregates of atoms (rdul phra) that dance and by their movements produce sounds. When the rhythm of the dance changes, the sound it produces also changes.

Remarkable Old Tibetan examples of Double Vajras, ink on paper: IOL TibJ 384
Mdm. David-Neel calls them gyatams.

“It is said that, in the beginning, the wind, in whirl-

[p. 187]
ing, formed the gyatams, the base of our world.* This whirling wind was sonorous and it was sound that aggregated matter (rgyu) in the form of gyatams. The primordial gyatams sang and forms arose, which, in their turn, generated other forms by the power of the sounds that they gave out. All this does not only relate to a past time, it is always thus. Each atom (rdul phra) perpetually sings its song, and the sound, at every moment, creates dense or subtle forms. Just as there exist creative sounds, which construct, there exist destructive sounds, which separate, which disintegrate. He who is capable of producing both can, at will, construct or destroy. There is one sound that is called by our masters : ‘the sound. that destroys the base’. This sound is itself the foundation of all destructive sounds. The dubthob who could cause it to sound would be capable of annihilating this world and all the worlds of the gods up to that of the great ‘Thirtythree”, of which the Buddhists speak.”

After this long speech, the Bönpo took his leave, wishing me to a happy journey and fine weather for the next day.

The rather abstruse theories he had propounded were not lacking in interest, but they brought me no light on that which remained, for me, the “mystery of the shang”.
(*An allusion to the Tibetan cosmogony. According to it, the wind — explained as being movement — produced the first forms. These forms, the Lamaists conceive as gyatam, that is to say, the shape of two dorjees (ritual sceptre) placed crosswise. As a rule, the Böns imagine them under the shape of swastika — the symbol of movement. My informant belonged to the White Böns who have adopted many lamaist theories.)

§  §  §

This passage may tell us something worthwhile about how sounds can change perceptions or have other effects on us. No doubt a “Tibetan Bells” concert can be very soothing and entrancing. I've known this to be true despite my resistance to something I regard as made up in Thamel for the foreign mountain hikers. The street hawkers there know that hooking “Tibet” in front of anything you’re selling is much more likely to land a sucker.

The gshang bell is after all what this piece is about, not our contemporary singing bowls. If anything, it is the sound effects rather than the instrument that can find authorization in David-Neel’s story. I’m sure the gshang bell, even if originally Persian, actually does go back to Tibet’s culture of the Imperial Period. We find one clear and unambiguous usage of the word in a weird Dunhuang text about a part of a high-class funerary rite that includes a mdzo sacrifice. The priest is supposed to hold a gshang bell in his right hand, and a wing in his left. It’s the wing as a ritual implement that can mark a ritual as shamanistic or mediumistic on the plateau still today. Even more surprising, the priest seems to be called Gshen-rabs-kyi Myi-bo. Henk Blezer discussed this passage a long time ago, in an article you can see after freely downloading it, so I'll just send you there and say goodbye for now.

Supporting witnesses:

I’d like to thank a true friend H.B. for an email exchange we had about two years ago that helped to clarify some problems of Dutch bibliography relevant to this particular blog.

Joachim-Ernst Berendt, Nada Brahma, the World is Sound: Music & the Landscape of Consciousness, East West Publications (London 1988), written from a jazz and Hindu perspective. Hindus are the ones called Chirolpas (ཕྱི་རོལ་པ་) in the David-Neel passage, although I suppose jazz musicians could be added to that category as well. Take note that David-Neel's story also features in this book, in a condensed form, on pp. 178-179. These days I prefer my jazz with Maghrebian characteristics (listen to and watch Dhafer Yosef here).

Henk Blezer, “sTon pa gShen rab: Six Marriages and Many More Funerals,” Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, vol. 15 (November 2008) [Tibetan Studies in Honor of Samten Karmay], pp. 421-480. Freely available online.  If you would rather look at the Dunhuang text itself, it’s HERE.

Mirielle Helffer, “La question des bols sonores dits bols tibétains,” contained in: Mchod-rol, les instruments de la musique tibétaine, CNRS Éditions (Paris 1994), pp. 327-329. It’s already been more than two decades since it was shown beyond much doubt that "Tibetan singing bowls" are a very recent invention in which non-Tibetans filled all the main roles. I think they were invented in the tourist market center of Kathmandu known as Thamel. Thamel merchants have long recognized the added value of objects when hawked as “Tibetan.” By now these bowls are so ubiquitous, it seems overly rude to point out their inauthenticity, especially now that even young Tibetans have been seen to believe in them. Around the turning of the millennium, I remember seeing a news story in which a Tibetan monk rang several such bowls that had been placed on strategic bodily positions over the chakras in order to heal the poor western seeker, and at that very moment I decided to give up trying to persuade anyone one way or the other. Skeptics are never honored in their own blogospheres. Why raise dust when for so many the question has already settled long ago if it was ever asked at all? Why cry out in the wilderness where nobody’s ready to hear? If singing bowls can provoke neural re-entrainments as a number of websites are currently claiming, why bother about how they came about?

Braham Norwick, “Alexander David-Neel’s Adventures in Tibet: Fact or Fiction?” The Tibet Journal, vol. 1, nos. 3-4 (Autumn 1976), pp. 70-74. Things didn't work out well with David-Neel’s new secretary Jeanne Denys. Disgruntled, she went on to write an exposé published in 1972 that created a shadow of doubt in many minds about the factuality of D-N’s books. J.D.’s shortcoming is she had only very thin knowledge of the Tibetan realm to work with. I’m reminded of a 1995 book by Frances Wood about how Marco Polo never went to China. It is usually easy to debunk this kind of debunkment, and skeptical scholarship often needs to be subjected to skeptical scholarship. So much is clear.

Tshering Thar, “Bonpo Monasteries and Temples in Tibetan Regions in Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan,” contained in: Samten G. Karmay & Yasuhiko Nagano, eds., A Survey of Bonpo Monasteries and Temples in Tibet and the Himalaya, Senri Ethnological Reports no. 38, Bon Studies no. 7, National Museum of Ethnology (Osaka 2003), pp. 247-668, at pp. 415-417, where only one Bon monastery is found in the vicinity of Kandze, the one called Gong-lung G.yung-drung-mi-'gyur-gling. It is extremely small. Anyway there is no reason at all to think it might be the Tesmon Monastery visited by David-Neel. So far I haven't even been able to decide how Tesmon would have been spelled in Tibetan. Maybe you can tell me.

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