Friday, September 21, 2018

Military Law Document of Imperial Era Recovered in 2014

An Old Tibetan army general named Sna-nam Rgyal-rgan,
aka Sna-nam Rgyal-rta Rgan-mo-chung, commander of the Central Horn:
after Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche

My heroes have always been the peacemakers. I guess I’ve told you this before, but in my high school Latin class we were forced to read Caesar’s Gallic Wars.* After enduring several months of what would nowadays be regarded as unbelievable cruelty I swore “I ain’t gonna study war no more” and meant it with all my heart. People who arm themselves are such fearful people, after all, and that’s no way to lead your life. But sometimes taking your job seriously as a translator you find yourself driven into areas you never even thought you would be delving into.
(*Imagine being told to admire a man guilty of acts of such belief-begging brutality.)

If you think the same person could not have written both this blog and some of those earlier ones, welcome to my world. Since the 2nd decade of the 3rd millennium got started I’ve been translating a huge book of history. It has a lot of Buddhist history, of course, but it also has a section on administration and law. The good thing is this section had already been studied directly and indirectly by several other people in the past starting with Giuseppe Tucci and Geza Uray in the 1950’s and ‘70’s, and onward. The bad news is that some of it still has difficulties, with interpretations that are sometimes deeply problematic, and to tell the truth likely to remain so.

With this background in mind, you might understand why I went to some trouble to get a recent publication by Pa-tshab Pa-sangs-dbang-’dus entitled Gsar-rnyed Byung-ba'i Spu-rgyal Bod-kyi Dmag-khrims Yi-ge, Bod-ljongs Mi-dmangs Dpe-skrun-khang (Lhasa 2017). I suppose the title could be translated “A Newly Found Document of the Military Law of Pugyel Bö,” with Pugyel Bö implying not only Tibet, but Tibet of the Imperial Period. When I sent away for it I imagined it would be a study of one of the Dunhuang Tibetan texts.

That’s why I was surprised when after it arrived I looked into the introduction. I found to my amazement that this clearly Old Tibetan text was physically located in Lhasa in 2014, when the head of the Dpal-brtsegs group by the name of Karma-bde-legs saw a photocopy and searched out the owner. The owner, a Tibetan merchant who told him the source of the manuscript was in western Tibet, sold it for a price of twenty lakhs of yüan, I suppose somewhere in the neighborhood of three thousand US. 

Even if I have no doubt it is a relic of Tibet's imperial period, I’m not so sure it had to come from Dunhuang. True, it has Chinese on one side of the paper (this kind of paper reuse happened in Dunhuang). It does resemble other Dunhuang texts in still other ways. Still, I’m not sure if its provenance is all that well established. Couldn’t it have survived the centuries in the dry altitudes of western Tibet? 

We do have one instance of a Perfection of Wisdom Sûtra volume that was initially scribed in Dunhuang, but preserved over the intervening centuries in Central Tibet. It is what is called an “Imperial Hundred Thousand,” or Bla-’bum, of Emperor Khri-lde-srong-btsan (unless you’re dyslexic and are thinking of Khri-srong-lde-brtsan, that means the early 9th-century Emperor Sad-na-legs, who reigned up until 815 CE). It was found in Drepung in 2003. We’ve blogged about this before (look here, where you can find all the references, too).

Photographic facsimiles of the original manuscript pages are included.  Without committing to any serious paleographical analysis, it is plain to see that many of the markers normally associated with late imperial or post imperial Tibetan texts are present. The positionings of the vowels over their consonants, the extra-added syllable-final 'd's, and so on.  Each line is numbered in the Tibetan-script transcription of the text. One thing that interested me a great deal was the strange way Old Tibetan represents the interrogative pronoun gang by assimilating the 'nga' to the added grammatical ending. For instance, where Classical Tibetan would have genitive and agentive forms gang-gi or gang-gis, meaning whose or by whom, Old Tibetan often has gag-gi and gag-gis.* We can notice this same phenomenon in the Tibetan Avatamsaka Sûtra, which shouldn’t be such a big surprise, since this is one Old Tibetan translation of a scripture that was never put through the revision process. I think the reason was that no Sanskrit text of this huge collection could be located to serve as a basis for revision. I'm sure somebody is studying it right now, but it is sure that the Bla-'bum just mentioned was also an early and relatively unrevised translation.** Anyway, the form gag-gis appears in the military law book at line 408.
(*Search for these forms in OTDO, but make sure to check the box that says "ignore case." The form gag-na should never occur, but there is one instance of it, as if to spoil my theory of how things are supposed to work. In modern Tibetan, the syllable gang got reduced to the ga familiar in such terms as ga-par and ga-nas, meaning where / where to? and where from? Also, ga-tshad, or how much?)
(*Its colophon calls it a reg-gzigs, a way of referring to the abbreviated/abridged form of the earliest Hundred Thousand translations.) 

Let’s try and see if we can find out what’s going on in the text here, starting around line 406. I think it’s saying something like this: If the scouts* are negligent in their tasks and are sighted by the enemy, according to the laws of the battlefront (occupied frontier?)... ... The scout who does not sight out the enemy is found at fault. One who gives a crafty/false count and is found guilty is put to death, while his wife and children (bu smad) are expelled to a far place beyond the borders.
(*The term bya-ra rta-ra is much repeated, perhaps a compound of two types of scouts.  The term bya-ra is the more familiar one with the meaning of scout or spy.  Generally we would expect rta-ra to mean a horse corral or stable, but that meaning doesn't at all fit here.)

I didn’t put any of this in quote marks because the reading is far too uncertain. The translation, if I can call it that, was done on the spur of the moment. I wanted to include something here to give a taste of it, bitter as it is.

Tibetan Woman Warrior, after Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche

A few sites to sight out on the internet

Notice that in June of this year there was a small conference about Tibetan warfare.  I see there is an associated webpage dedicated to the history of the Tibetan army for the duration of the Ganden Phodrang period. I think you might find it worth the time you will spend there.  Look here.

There isn't a lot of literature dedicated to Tibet's military history, but if you go to this link at TBRC, you can find a listing of a few items.

Related is our earlier blog on firearms.

I put the Tibetan-letter version of the bibliography for the sake of people who do Schmoogle searches in Tibetan script:  

གསར་རྙེད་བྱུང་བའི་སྤུ་རྒྱལ་བོད་ཀྱི་དམག་ཁྲིམས་ཡི་གེ།  བོད་ལྗོངས་མི་དམངས་དཔེ་སྐྲུན་ཁང་༼ལྷ་ས་ ༢༠༡༧༽.

If you are interested in the military equipment used by Tibetan armies of various periods, best look at Donald J. LaRocca's book Warriors of the Himalayas, available from your favorite book dealer, probably.

A note on illustrations

I believe the line drawings were done by the late Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche (མཁས་བཙུན་བཟང་པོ་རིན་པོ་ཆེ།) of Bodhanath, Nepal. They were reproduced in his Tibetan-language book with the English title A Nectar for the Ear: An Early History of Tibet edited from the Findings Unearthed at the Dunhuang Caves (Kathmandu 1986). The added color is proof you should keep your books out of the reach of children.



I searched OTDO again for the forms gang-gi and gang-gis, and I noticed these "classical" forms appear in inscriptions no earlier than the time of Emperor Sad-na-legs, who reigned from circa 800 to 815 CE. I wonder if that might mean that the forms gag-gi and gag-gis would be markers of texts from before those times? Just an interesting idea, no assurance if it will work out on closer investigation.

Bettina Zeisler of Tubingen wrote an interesting essay that identifies certain word forms that can indicate relative age of Dunhuang texts, although the gag-gi[s] is not among them.  See her “Las.tstsogs etc. — On Internal Cues for Dating Old Tibetan Documents,” Zentralasiatische Studien, vol. 45 (2016), pp. 467-491.

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