Saturday, June 30, 2018

Dzogchen’s Hermetic Transmission Scene

The Tibetan-born translator Vairocana’s role in the transmission of Dzogchen, and particularly the Mind Series kind of Atiyoga Dzogchen, into Tibet has been a well kept secret in traditional Tibetan historical writing. It is as if the cultural image of the lotus guru Padmasambhava grew so large that many other important figures were made to take less and less space in the history books. In the case of Vairocana, at least, the cramped area allotted to him was clearly undeserved.*
(*We put up an earlier blog about Vairocana called “Kashgar Tiger,” where it was shown that there are good reasons for even the proud skeptic to believe in his actual historical existence.)
The story of Dzogchen’s first transmission to Tibetans in the 8th century is recounted in the Vairocana biography called the Great Mask, as well as in the post-1263 CE history of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism by Khepa Deyu. Two Tibetan men, Vairocana and Legdrug, were given an imperial commission, equipped with enough gold to fill a hind's hide, to bring back Buddhist teachings from India. Here is a rough translation from the Deyu (pp. 309-310). You need to understand that the Dzogchen masters of India as a whole regarded it as a matter of utmost importance that their spiritual treasure should never be allowed to escape India. The one and only Dzogchen master who agreed to help them was Śrīsiṃha:

“You came here accompanied by much hardship. As for conferring the teachings, I will do so. But the method of conferring them is quite a difficult one. If it becomes known that I have conferred them upon you, we shall all three be in danger for our lives, so we must act with skillful methods.” He [Śrīsiṃha] stuck his two disciples inside the skin bag made from the pelt of a hind. On their heads he planted feathers of the magpie. The teacher put them inside a copper water pot placed upon a tripod made up of three boulders. He closed the opening of it with a stone slate. On top of that he placed a large clay pot in which he himself stayed. Boring a hole through the clay, he spoke down to them through a copper trumpet. By day he taught them the teachings of cause and effect. At midnight he taught them the Rig pa khu byug, the Rtsal chen sprug pa, the Yul kun nas ’jug pa, the Khyung chen lding ba and the Rdo la gser zhun.* Then he asked them if they were satisfied. Legdrug said he was satisfied and, hoping for honor and recognition, returned early. But he was killed on his way back to Tibet by a borderguard. Vairocana said he was not satisfied, so the teacher went on to teach him the Nam mkha’ che, Rmad du byung ba and Man ngag rgya mtsho’i klong. When asked if he was satisfied, he said, “Yes, now I am satisfied.”
(*I didn’t translate the Tibetan text titles, because it is such a problem to do these titles justice in English, even more so than the texts themselves. Besides, you can conveniently locate a list of them in the Wikipedia, with translations not entirely satisfying, but not at all bad, really.)
This elaborate setup was meant to keep the Dzogchen masters of India from getting access to the information they were looking for. They suspected that India’s exclusive hold on the most lofty Buddhist teachings was in imminent danger of being compromised. They just didn’t know where and how and by whom.  That’s why I decided to call the elaborate attempt to block their supernatural access a firewall, just to keep things short, and to have a little fun using an anachronism that may be otherwise apt enough.

If the historian side of me speaks freely and plainly, I say it is very likely that knowledge of what Vairocana did in India was lost to the tradition, but that stories were introduced into the gap, including this story. But I hate to be a spoilsport, and I’m not really (certainly not always) wearing a history hat. I’m here to praise the Mind Series, not to look down my nose at it. Besides, it dawned on me just today that something interesting is going on here that is cause for perplexity, reflection and maybe even amazement. Tell me, were you able to visualize in your mind’s eye the setup as Khepa Deyu described it?  What does it look like?  Two bulbous chambers one on top of the other. They are elevated on a tripod, and therefore likely meant to have a fire beneath,* with a pipe joining the two chambers?  Is that what you saw?

(*It rests on three boulders, which is just how Tibetans make a hearth when they have to cook outdoors. Sometimes this is called by the name sgyed-bu, or sgyid-bu.)

Among the laboratory instruments much in use by early English and continental alchemists was a vessel nicknamed the pelican. I think it was named as it was because of a story about the bird rather than actual bird behavior. For the moment what birds really do doesn’t count for much. The pelican served in the Middle Ages as a type of Christ as the savior. Long ago I noticed an example above a tunnel door in an Oxford college. Very recently  I saw a crusader period example in the Upper Room on Mount Zion, one of the traditional sites of the Last Supper. Here is my photo of it.

The stone carving has gotten worn over the last millennium, so I’m not sure how well you can see how the beaks of the pelicans are poking into their own chests. So let me find another example out on the internet.

For the source, look here.
Here it is easier to see that the pelican is curving its neck down to reach its own breast in order to draw blood to feed its chicks. If you can’t begin to see how that might be an image of Christ’s bodily sacrifice that for Christians means redemption, the eucharist and so on, you may need to brush up on Christian theology and get back with me. No time to go into it just now.

Forgive me if I haven’t made it very clear where I’m going. I don’t suggest that medieval Christian pelicans have anything at all to do with the Dzogchen transmission story’s firewall. Not directly. I’m just saying that the firewall is remarkably similar to an alchemical setup named for its resemblance to the pelican, used for distillation purposes. It’s the traditional symbolism that explains why the beaker used in medieval alchemy was called a pelican. The beaker itself, or the distillation setup, is our main point of comparison. Not the pelican bird.

Some distillation vessels have a long spout leading into a collecting container off to the side, while others have spouts leading back into the heated chamber below, so the distillate can undergo the process again and again, resulting in a super-refined product. This can be called a circulation vessel.

In western alchemy, the pelican represents the reddening, or rubedo, the penultimate phase just before the formation of the Philosophers Stone.*

(*You can see double-beaked pelican vessels depicted near the top of the so-called Ripley Scrolls for this reason, I think.)
Thanks to the elaborate firewall setup, it was possible to prevent even the most spiritual masters with the most highly advanced clairvoyant powers from knowing just how the transmission of Dzogchen Mind Series took place:
The Paṇḍitas talked among themselves, “By employing prasena divinations, we would realize who it was who taught this teaching.” The results of their investigations were as follows. “The master who taught this teaching was this one: There is a lake on the surface of three mountains. On the surface of that is a rock. On the surface of the rock is a creature, its body filled with eyes and with a very long beak. This is the one who gave the teachings to the two hinds.”   
So they didn’t discover who it was.
I was just wondering why all those lab vessels are to this day called beakers, anyway?  Because of the beaks? What is a retort? An alembic? I’m not clear on a lot of matters alchemical. Still, given that this is what we are presented with, the message seems to me clear, that the tellers of the story intended to tell us that Atiyoga Mind Series Dzogchen is not just a distillation, it’s a super-refined super-distillation of the Buddha’s teachings, the essence of the essence. (Ever wonder why the Mind Series texts are so tiny, as short as just six lines of verse?) They are saying that this process creates something miraculously effective, something like the universal medicine or gold-transforming elixir promised by alchemical manipulations of the elements. Well, that’s what I’m thinking. What do you think they wanted to say?

PS:  I appreciate you allowing me this time to talk about a strange idea that popped into my head, but now I really have to go back to my less fun work. I was letting myself get tied up in the tedium of it, and so I thank you for the brief respite. And one more thing, I would like to encourage or even urge you to exercise your freedom of expression. As they say, use it or lose it. Say what you think! And if you want, you can say it here in the comments section.

•  •  •

The Double Pelican, from the Buch zu Distillieren, by Hieronymus Brunschwig, 1519 CE
I think this can also be called the Twins. I wonder how the distillate could ever be removed from it.

Agrawal, D.P., “Indian Chemistry through the Ages.” If you wonder whether India knew the use of distilling apparatus, this essay is for you. Not only did she know about it, she may have invented it.

Dpal-lhun-dgra-'dul, Bod-kyi Lo-rgyus Thog-gi Skyes-mchog Pa-gor Bai-ro-tsa-na'i Skor-gyi Dpyad-brjod, Bod-ljongs Mi-dmangs Dpe-skrun-khang (Lhasa 2012). This is really just an edition of Great Mask biography in 15 chapters, with a very long introductory section added by the modern editor. For the firewall see p. 335.

Dudjom Rinpoche Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, Its Fundamentals and History, Gyurme Dorje, tr., with collaboration of Matthew Kapstein, Wisdom Publications (Boston 1991), vol. 1, pp. 538-540. This account of the transmission neglects to tell the story of the “firewall.”

Fairley, T., “Early History of Distillation,” Journal of the Institute of Brewing, vol. 13, no. 6 (1907), pp. 559-582.  Look here for a free-access PDF. You can even find illustrated here a distillation setup from Tibet and Bhutan.  Page 576: 
“Where the process [of distillation] required a prolonged heating or digestion, a vessel with two side arms or tubes joining the body with the head was used, called the pelicanus, from the resemblance of the outline to that of a pelican plucking blood from its breast according to the ancient fable. A modification of this apparatus with two vessels was called gemellus, the twin brothers...”

I guess the ultimate source of this illustration is Giovanni Baptista della Porta, De Distillationibus Libri IX, published in Strassburg in 1609

Samten Gyaltsen Karmay, The Great Perfection, a Philosophical and Meditative Teaching of Tibetan Buddhism, E.J. Brill (Leiden 1988). 

There is a newer edition, but I don’t have a copy. There is a whole chapter in this book about Vairocana that does include an account of the Dzogchen transmission, but not a word about the firewall. I suppose the omission is justifiable on the grounds that the story is so wildly improbable that it couldn’t possibly be historical.

Erik Pema Kunzang, tr., The Lotus-Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava by Yeshe Tsogyal, Shambhala (Boston 1993), pp. 90-97.  At p. 91 we read:  
“He [Śrīsiṃha] took them into a house surrounded by nine walls and conferred the empowerment of direct anointment. He then placed a huge copper vessel upon a tripod, and the master sat himself upon it. He donned a cotton robe with lattice work, put a copper pipe to his mouth, and gave teachings.”  

— This is so much less detailed than the Khepa Deyu, so I would say Deyu must have based himself on the Great Mask (well, some version of it), and not on the Copper Isle biography that is the source of Erik’s translation.

Nyang-ral Nyi-ma-'od-zer, Chos-'byung Me-tog Snying-po Sbrang-rtsi'i Bcud, Bod-yig Dpe-rnying Dpe-skrun-khang (Lhasa 1988), pp. 317-321, has the account of Vairocana’s India travel in it. It doesn’t tell about the elaborate “fire-wall” protections, but it does say that the Indian masters were zealous about keeping the Mind Series teachings in India. Vairocana has to learn the fast feet practice to get over the mountains as quickly as possible.

Sakyapa Sonam Gyaltsen, The Clear Mirror, a Traditional Account of Tibet’s Golden Age, tr. by McComas Taylor & lama Choedak Yuthok, Snow Lion (Ithaca 1996), p. 139:  
“Then Gar... arranged three large hearth-stones on the floor and placed a great cauldron filled with water upon them. Next, he scattered the feathers of various species of birds on the water and covered the cauldron with a red shield. He seated his hostess on the shield and covered her head with a pot which was itself covered with a net. He bored a hole in the pot and inserted a copper trumpet into the hole through the net...”  (Compare the Sørensen translation if you like.)

Per K. Sørensen, Tibetan Buddhist Historiography: The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies, An Annotated Translation of the XIVth Century Tibetan Chronicle: rGyal-rabs gsal-ba’i me-long, Harrassowitz (Wiesbaden 1994), pp. 224-225.

Rolf A. Stein, The World in Miniature: Container Gardens and Dwellings in Far Eastern Religious Thought, tr. by Phyllis Brooks, Stanford University Press (Stanford 1990), pp. 232-233.  

Stein was probably the first Tibetanist to notice that the story of the elaborate secrecy precautions taken by Śrīsiṃha* is so exactly paralleled in a story about what took place in 7th-century China when Minister Gar went to find a Chinese princess to be given in marriage to the Tibetan prince and heir to the throne. He even notes (without supplying details) a parallel in the Gesar Epic. 
(*Stein’s source for the Śrīsiṃha story is the Copper Isle version of the biography of Padmasambhava according to the 12th-century Nyangral Nyima Özer. For this see Erik Pema Kunzang, tr., listed above).

Yudra Nyingpo, The Great Image: The Life Story of Vairochana the Translator, tr. by Ani Jinba Palmo (Eugenie de Jong), Shambhala (Boston 2004), p. 117:  
“Inside his room Master Shri Singha put a clay pot on top of three big stones and surrounded it with a net. He sat inside the pot and had the opening covered with a big lid on which a pan filled with water was placed. A pipe ran through a hole in the pot and crossed through a cleft in the wall outside of the house...”  
— I’m puzzled by the differences here, and imagine Khepa Deyu must have drawn his extracts from a different version of the Great Image.

On the pelican symbol, look here and here and here and here.

One of the most intriguing artistic deployments of the pelican symbol is found on the back side of Hieronymus Bosch’s “St. John on Patmos.” Look here, if possible, since you can see it in a very large size. The Pelican with her chicks is perched on top of a vertical boulder emerging from the middle of a lake. Do you notice what is going on at the bottom of the boulder, just above the lake level? Is this boulder in fact some kind of furnace?

§  §  §

An added note (July 1, 2018):  I noticed that the Padmakara Translation Group, in their published translation of Zurchungpa's Testament with commentary by the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, chose to translate the Tibetan name of a bird — skyar-mo / སྐྱར་མོ་ — as pelican.  Examples are in the Snow Lion publication of 2006 at pp. 157-8. 291 and 344.  These metaphorical passages interest me a great deal, since it is one of those points of contact you can see with the precepts of Padampa, one of several remarkable matches. Now I suppose Padampa himself could have had the pelican in his mind, and its practice of carrying around fish in the sag of its beak is well enough known, so the metaphorical usage makes a lot of sense. However, I believe Tibetans had no experience of pelicans, so I chose to translate it as heron instead. I know of no actual record of an honest-to-goodness Tibetan word for pelican.* On the other hand, one modern materia medica book clearly describes skyar-mo as some kind of a duck. Oh well, I’ll think about it some more. Meanwhile let me know if you happen to spot any pelicans in the high Himalayas.
(*I found a few Tibetan-language definitions of pelican in English-Tibetan dictionaries, but they don’t count.)


  1. Thanks for this very interesting post, Dan. Sorry to further distract you from more mundane work (me too), but I've often been struck and baffled by that weird transmission set-up as described in Vairocana's life story, but your alchemical vessel theory makes sense of it. So I wonder if it is worth looking again at the title of the rDo la gser zhun in this context? I think it was probably the earliest-composed proto-Dzogchen text, and closest to the Indian context. The phrase rdo la gser bzhin (not zhun) is found in the text itself and may be where the informal title (the other title of course being Byang chub sems bsgom pa) was drawn from. If one accepts your alchemical interpretation of the "firewall" perhaps the frequent translation of "Gold refined from ore" would be better more literally translated as "Like gold in stone", or something like that? I should probably also change my translation of that line of the text (for which see my paper in the last issue of the RET) from "like those who mistake stone for gold" to simply "those who, like stone in gold...".

    1. Sorry your email got lost in some Blogger tech problem for a couple of months. What you say is surely worthy of reflection. I wonder, though, whether it is zhun or bzhin, it's still more a matter of gold assaying or gold smelting processes rather than alchemy per se. More about identifying and purifying rather than transformation (not to say that transformation doesn't take place in smelting processes). I'll have to go read that RET article to get a better idea. Yours, D.

  2. The firewall (nice one btw!)immediately reminded me of a scene in the Clear Mirror of Genealogies (rGyal rabs gsal ba'i me long). In it Minister Gar gets his hostess to describe the princess Kongjo to him so that he can pick her out of a lineup. The hostess is afraid that people will find out through means of astrology that she told him. Gar then thinks of a way to make it 'untraceable':
    He puts out three hearth-stones, places a water-filled cauldron on top, scatters feathers of all kinds of birds and covers the cauldron with a shield. He puts the hostess on the shield, puts net-covered pot on her head, bores a hole in the pot and inserts a copper trumpet into the hole. (see the translation p. 139) I haven't got my copy of the Tibetan version with me at the moment. I think the resemblances are uncanny! I am not sure if what is translated as 'astrology' corresponds to the Tibetan pra(sena). In any case hearth stones, cauldrons, bird feathers and pots seem the way to build a firewall alright!

    1. Dear Lowlander,

      Yes, look at the bibliography above under "Stein," who was probably the first ever to publish anything about the startling similarity of the Vairocana and Minister Gar stories. There are some new studies about the Gar stories, too. I've had the idea that some of them can be found in late Judaeo-Persian stories about the wisdom of Solomon, and have meant to write about that, just that other things get in the way. The Gar family territory was in the Bzhad ('Jad) Valley in Tsang Province, and a new old history about that area has recently seen light. It dates to 16th century, I guess, and it's by Kun dga' tshe dbang don grub (16th century), identified as a nephew of the more famous Kun dga' grol mchog. It's been published with the title Bzhad kyi lung bshad rnam dpyod smra ba'i sgo 'byed mkhas pa'i dga' ston, Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang (Lhasa 2016), and it includes a facsimile of the cursive manuscript. The Gar family got too powerful, so they were ultimately exiled to China, where some tombstones have been found. More fascinating things somebody should be blogging about already. I wonder about the feathers (is this to fool the diviners into thinking birds are present?). Pra is usually done with the help of a virgin child staring into something shiney. In Egypt they did it with drops of ink. I'm sure you know (but I put for others who may be interested) Giacomella Orofino has written about this in her article "Divination with Mirrors: Observations on a Simile Found in the Kâlacakra Literature," in the proceedings of the 6th IATS conference, the one in Fagernes. I just checked Sørensen's translation, pp. 224-5, and see that an interesting kind of 'calculation' is mentioned in one version of the bKa'-chems: spor thang khra mo'i ju zhag gi rtsis pa, How strange... What do you make of it? I mean "spor thang" is an Old Tibetan translation of the title of the I Ching, while "ju zhag" is Bon string divination. Maybe the "khra mo" is supposed to be "pra mo" (a combination of Pra and mo?)? I have so many questions about what's going on here, and there, and everywhere. But my usual methods of finding out only get so far. Thanks for writing, and please write back to pull us out of our bewilderment and into the light.

      One thing we might bear in mind is that although the Lde'u dating to 1261 is quite distant in time from the events in question, it still predates the "Clear Mirror of Royal Dynasties." The dating of the Bka'-chems is a problem. I believe in its age, but like other such early sources, there is much evidence it has suffered much in the manuscript transmissions...). That goes for the Great Mask biography of Vairocana, too. The Lde'u surely had its source in an earlier (less affected) version of the Great Mask, even if the Lde'u underwent those kinds of transformations itself. There is such a lot of work that needs to be done philologically speaking.


    2. Just for the record, here is quite an interesting paper about the connections of the Mgar with 'Jad/Bzhad Valley: ’JAD-PA DPAL-LDAN-TSHE-RING, "Gsar-du Rnyed-pa’i Bzhad-kyi Lung-bshad ces-pa’i Dpe Rnying Zhig dang De-las ’Phros-pa’i Mgar Stong-btsan Yul-srung-gi Khyim-rgyud-la Bskyar-du Dpyad-pa," contained in: Bsod-nams-mtsho, ed., Skabs Dang-po’i Zhang-zhung Rig-gnas Rig-gzhung Dpyad-gleng Tshogs-’du’i Dpyad-rtsom Phyogs-bsgrigs, Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang (Beijing 2016), pp. 198-210.

      And here are some of the studies on the Mgar family I alluded to before:
      — Emanuela Garatti, "Shifting Memories and Changing Allegiances: Tracing the Descendants of the Tibetan Minister mGar through Chinese Funerary Inscriptions," Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines, vol. 33 (October 2015), pp. 155-185.
      — Thomas Kerihuel, "The Early History of Mgar: When History Becomes Legend," Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines, vol. 21 (2011), pp. 105-121.
      — Hugh Richardson, "The Mgar Family in Seventh-Century Tibet," contained in: High Peaks, Pure Earth, Serindia (London 1998), pp. 114-123.

  3. I believe Blogger stopped sending "comment notifications," so if you sent a comment, please send it again if you can. This comment itself is a test to see if the commenting system is working. Let me know if you see this. -D

    1. Not to worry, but Blogger's comment notifications are once again falling into my private email box.

  4. Hi Dan:

    Check out this source in vol ka of the Bairo rgyud 'bum, which I believe is the earliest account of Vairocana's bringing Dzogchen to Tibet.

    bstan pa yongs kyi snying po/_/gsung rabs ma lus pa'i nying khu_/_rgyud thams cad kyi rgyal po/_/'grel pa thams cad kyi 'dus pa/_lung thams cad kyi bla ma/_gsang ba man ngag thams cad kyi nges don 'di'i lugs kyi_/_man ngag bshad pa/

  5. Hi Malcolm, Welcome. Your quote made me reflect on the meaning of nying-khu. I think it is like Sanskrit manda (with dots below the n and d). It's more like the nutritious cream that rises to the top when you heat the butter to make ghee (and I think literary Tibetan knows ghee as mar-khu). But then in the case of beer, it does seem to be used for the alcohol content sometimes, although others define it as the sediment that is a byproduct of beer making (this is a puzzle for me). Not that I'm quibbling about whether a cooking metaphor and a distillation metaphor can have the same meaning, I think they jolly well do in this case. Cheers! And nice hearing from you.
    Yours, D


  6. PS: Oh, and one more thing, Malcolm. What do you think people have in mind when they spell nying-khu as snying-khu? I've sometimes been tempted to mistranslate it as "heart soup." Oh, well. Better heat supper.

  7. Just to say I just noticed a major resource on Indian alchemy has been published: Oliver Hellwig, Wörterbuch der mittelalterlichen indischen Alchemie (try searching the internet for it). It has some line illustrations of alchemical setups, although I haven't immediately noticed a pelican-type setup among them. Still, we need to look into this aspect some more.


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