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.


  1. in france they are doing a lot for her 100 years:
    in 2018, we shall celebrate the 150th anniversary of her birth by an exhibition inaugurating the overall project of redevelopment of Samten Dzong – a name chosen by the writer – at the same time a Residence for Reflection, a place for living and a place for writing.

  2. Dear C.G., Thanks for the link, I had no idea about the 150th birthday. Now I see from the same website that now would be a bad time to visit Samten Dzong, since it's closed for renovations until June 2019. Yours, D.


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