Sunday, September 29, 2019

Locating a Tertön Prayer in Terma History

"Magic and Mystery in a Tibetan Woodblock Print" could’ve been the title. There are some mysteries here begging for clarification ... your clarification, and for the magic, well, with a little patience you will see some soon enough. Once again, this not a report of my success, more like an account of a long continuing struggle likely to continue far into the future. It has a long back story, in fact a little too long, so for now I’ll stick to a few small bits of that semi-personal history.

Notice the weird gter snyon in the transcribed title. I hope it wasn't me.

In the early ’80’s I was one of the catalogers of the Berthold Laufer* collection of Tibetan manuscripts and woodblock prints kept by the Chicago Field Museum in Chicago. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. One of the very few photocopies of texts that somehow remained in my possession, even if it was misplaced for a few decades, was a very interesting Tertön Prayer. Over the years I often felt its loss and doubted I’d ever see it again. Forgive me if I don’t go into the sad and painful circumstances that led to its recovery. Instead let’s go inspect this manuscript and its intriguing features, beginning where it begins, with the title. This is going to be a kind of show and tell, with a lot of show and not so much tell.
(*That’s him staring out at you from the frontispiece.)
The title of the Tertön Prayer

As you could observe by glancing above, the first mystery is in the title itself, right in the middle, where two syllables are impossible to read with any assurance of making sense.*

(*and the form of the genitive ending right after those two syllables is impossible if the preceding syllable ends in a vowel, as it seems to do here... this detail forces us to think and think again about how to read through the letters, letters a little further obscured by what looks like a near-horizontal smear near the bottom.)

Just for curiosity’s sake, here is an unofficial printout, done back when daisy wheel printers were in style although I think this was done by a dot matrix tractor-feed printer, of the page that contains the extremely brief cataloging entry (click on it to enlarge).

Along with the photocopy of the Tibetan text I also recovered a typed transcription of the text, typed with my fingers, with some of my own added annotations (that bit of red I added just last year). Notice that “drang ma kyi” was my reading back then, in the early years of the ’80’s.

These are all four rectos of the text. At the moment I would like to draw your attention to the two syllables floating alone and outside the box of all four folios, the lower left hand corner (I know you don’t see anything like this on folio 4, but trust me, there’s one there, too). 

A close-up to show both the complete title and what looks like a marginal notation that reads khang lhu. Although a matter of great obscurity for most of us, there has all the same been a thin vein of discussion about this rare phenomenon of Tibetan woodblock printing, first named and identified by Helmut Eimer as something he called Schnitzerkolophonen, or carvers’ signatures.

This slide has a brief bibliography of everything I can come up with at the moment.

Another example from folio 2 recto. What follows is from folio 3 recto.

There is only one obstacle to identifying these things as carvers’ signatures, and that is that they hardly make any sense as representations of names — well, unless they are using a method of abbreviation that is both obscure and severe. For example, in the example immediately above, phag bkra, we could theorize that the phag with likely meaning pig is short for some sort of clan or place name acting as a specifier.* It could be short for something longer, let’s imagine a place name Phag-tshang that means Pig Pen. Then the bkra could be short for, say, Bkra-shis-rgyal-mtshan or some other such common given name. That is a nice theory. The main problem is it only seems to work nicely on this particular example, and not on any of the others.
(*Something like a last name in English, except that it always comes first.)

In our next slide I’ve charted out all four examples for your puzzlement and contemplation:

Helmut Eimer dates these kinds of marginal carver signatures somewhere in the 15th or 16th centuries and believes they are most likely to be found in Mang-yul Gung-thang prints, even if not entirely restricted to that place.

Marta Sernesi has said: 

"16th century prints from South-Western Tibet (Mang yul Gung thang and La stod lHo) often carry the signatures of the scribes on the blocks, which are called ming thang or ming yig thang..."  (Go here, download the PDF, and then scroll down to page 344.)

If ming thang is the word for it, and I really have no reason for doubt, then it could mean no more than name field, serving a purpose somewhat like the cartouche in ancient Egypt.

Eimer accepts Franz-Karl Ehrhard’s suggestion that these name tags may have been placed where they are for the purpose of calculating work done and payments due, but he thinks religious merit was also involved. I think all this is correct.

So far we identified two mysteries: [1] The mangled title and [2] the presence of what look like carvers’ signatures, even if that idea seems to fall apart due to the difficulty in finding names in them. [3] Now a third mystery, and the one that has troubled me most of all: It looks like the better part of the colophon has been made to disappear. On close inspection, it is clear this alteration was entered into the blocks itself, and not just into our particular print. I would like to prevent you from imagining that some innocent child with a large magic marker accidentally effaced it. Just observe up close and you can see the grain in the black area indicating wood. Most likely the original words were gouged out and replaced with a wooden plug. This technical method, mostly used to make corrections in already-carved blocks, is another matter that has been documented by Helmut Eimer. The bonded plug, whether blank or carved with letters, would serve a necessary function, to preserve the structural integrity of the woodblock as a whole as it is made to undergo the stresses of the printing process. Wood has a tendency to split, as you may know.*
(*I think I can guess that they may have avoided giving this treatment to the first bit of the colophon because that would have involved gouging into the very center of the woodblock, along the wood grain, significantly increasing the chances of a serious split that would necessitate discarding and re-carving the entire block.)

The still-existing words of the colophon are difficult, yet possible, to make out in the Laufer print. About all the sense we can make here is “Thus, in those words, the purifier vidya-mantra[s?]...” This is hardly enough to make sense on its own, so we can wonder why it was allowed to remain when the remainder was elided.

Last year when I sent him an email asking him about his research on the carvers’ signatures, Helmut Eimer surprised me. No, really, he shocked the hell out of me when he told me how he had happened to run across a second copy of the Tertön Prayer in the form of a manuscript kept in Berlin. So, after looking it up in the catalog and getting more advice from the cataloger Karl-Heinz Everding, I e-mailed the librarians in Berlin to get a copy, and it didn’t take them very long. A significant part of the mystery could be largely solved.

Here in this next slide you can see the beginning, including the title, of the Berlin manuscript.

Here the last three lines of the verse, plus the final word of the first line, are the very words that were removed from the woodblock print.

“The composer of those words? The Vidyâmantradhâra
Pel Tashi Tobgyel Wangpoi De,
also called by another name Guru Ralpacan,
a wanderer with no established abode is who wrote it.”

You can check the translation for yourself in the next slide:

As much as we search for some, there is a yawning absence of substantial information on the life of the author. The main source seems to be the Anuyoga Empowerment lineage history by the 2nd Rinzin of Dorjedrak. To best of my knowledge there is no full biography dedicated to him, unfortunately. He was a layperson, a lay Ngakpa and not a monk, as we can see from this miniature that was and for all we know might still be kept in Paris:

I don’t have the time or ability to go into the political situation in Ü and Tsang provinces in the mid-to-late 16th century. I know a lot of people, among them I count some good friends, who have more expertise in that area than I could ever claim. Still, we have to say something about one important ruler named Zhingshakpa Tseten Dorje. An ordinary farmer, yet he had some family relationship with the Rinpungpa ruling family and gradually rose up through the ranks until 1548 when he took the headship of Samdruptse Palace. He went so far as having his own older brother murdered along the way, and turned against the very Rinpungpa rulers that had promoted him.

But what does that have to do with our prayer author? Well, Tashi Tobgyel, a descendent of the Tangut royal line, had a disagreement with his older brother, and Zhingshakpa's elder son took the side of that older brother against him. Because of this, Zhingshakpa had him exiled to Ü province, where he settled in the Chonggyé Valley.

Then a famous verbal exchange took place that is repeated almost every time Tashi Tobgyel is mentioned in the historical sources. Up to this point I’ve relied mainly on Shakabpa’s wellknown political history, but now I turn to what may be the ultimate source of this account in the Anuyoga Empowerment history, completed in 1681.

Zhingshagpa literally added insult to injury with his wickedly clever couplet punning on Tashi Tobgyel's name:    

Here is my rough translation:

You who are supposed to be 'powerful' are just a powerless wanderer.
I banish you to the banks of Preta City [Yama's abode in the land of the dead].

Tashi Tobgyal responded in kind:

You who may be called "field" have all ten fields complete.
I toss you in the jaws of the head of the eclipse god Râhula.

We have to admire the poetic skill behind these clever puns based on the names of their opponents. Yet this poetry competition had grievous consequences. Everybody believes Tashi Tobgyel’s magic caused the death of Zhingshakpa who before long died of an illness. Tashi Tobgyel may have already earned a reputation for magical powers. If you can imagine there is even an instance when for seven days he reversed the flow of the Brahmaputra River. When stories like that are told about a person it makes for quite the reputation.

As a refugee in Chonggyé Valley, Tashi Tobgyel married into the local ruling family, and into this very family the Fifth Dalai Lama eventually took birth. The Fifth was a great admirer of Tashi Tobgyel, a follower of some of his terma teachings including the cycle known as Karmaguru. Jake Dalton, in his book The Taming of the Demons (pp. 140-141) retells the remarkable story about a dream vision the Fifth Dalai Lama had in around 1642, as he was rising to power. In it, Tashi Tobgyel bestowed upon him empowerments of Karmaguru cycle and gave him a phurpa which he tucked into his sash. As you may know, this became a standard feature of The Great Fifth's iconography, just as you also see  in the icons of Tashi Tobgyel illustrated above, interestingly enough.

There is a lot more that has been said and will be said about all of this. I much recommend some relevant works by Samten Karmay and James Gentry. But let’s turn to the content of the Tertön Prayer and say a few words about that before we call it a day.

These are the three main sources that were written as commentaries, commentaries that took the Tertön Prayer as their root text, quoting the verses and then discussing the teaching lineages (in case of Fifth Dalai Lama’s work) or lives of the Tertöns named in it. The existence of these works demonstrates the enduring impact the prayer had on historical understandings about the Tertöns.

Since you may have already thought to ask the question the answer is: No, this way of arranging the biographies of the Tertöns did not survive in Kongtrul’s famous Tertön Gyatsa of 1886. The somewhat earlier (early 19th century) history by Guru Tashi does in its brief section 4 of chapter 4 follow the Fifth Dalai Lama’s work. But he begins with a list of Tertöns that have prophecies in the Thang-yig texts, as he clearly believes these are the most significant and authentic Tertöns. Actually, Kongtrul has the same approach as Guru Tashi. He includes very many of the Tertöns mentioned in our prayer (I haven’t done a detailed comparison yet), but the original order has been abandoned. Clearly a lot of work needs to be done comparing the Tertön histories. So far Kongtrul’s is the only one that has been fully translated (partially by Eva Dargyay and then by Ramon Prats, and fully by Yeshe Gyamtso), and all others are most usually ignored, which is a shame... I hope one of our legendary young Tibetologists is listening to this.

Looking at the Tertön Prayer itself, what strikes us right away is that the first verse is devoted to a relatively unknown Tertön named Dorjebum (Rdo-rje-'bum) known for his medical terma. He is, in the Zab-bu-lung history explicitly stated to be the first of the Tertöns. The same history does slip Sangyé Lama (Sangs-rgyas-bla-ma) into the discussion, but I fail find him in the prayer itself.  The Fifth Dalai Lama also mentions Sangyé Lama here, but says only that his lineages were not received. It may be due to Kongtrul that it is now common knowledge that Sangyé Lama must be called the first. As a rediscoverer, he may have himself been rediscovered, or at least revalidated, in the 19th century.

The Guru Tashi history has an argument that Dorjebum lived four generations before Yuthokpa, so dating Yuthokpa’s activities to around 1200, that would put him in about 1080 CE, so that’s about the best I can do at dating him.

Immediately after the doctor’s verse, verse 3 is about two women Tertöns, yet another somehow surprising feature. Why, we wonder, would physicians and women Tertöns take priority?  It is only in verses 4 and 5 that we get the names of the Tertöns of greatest renown (to us at least), Nyangral Nyima-özer and Guru Chöwang. 

Quote at the opening of the terma section of Fifth Dalai Lama's Thob-yig.     

Seeing how he starts with the ‘earliest’ Tertön you might expect him to follow a chronological arrangement, but this is not the case. The Fifth Dalai Lama opens the terma section with his assessment of the content which is if anything thematically, not chronologically, ordered:

gnyis pa zab pa gter ma'i skor la / thang yig tu gter ston phal cher gyi lung bstan mtshan smos rnams kyang lam tsam las go rim nges sbyar rang du mi 'dug pa dgos pa'i dbang gis gab dkrugs su mngon.

In the Scroll Document (Thang-yig) the prophecies of most of the Tertöns name their names, but these are only roughly, not exactly arranged in any definite order, [this order being] clearly disrupted on account of [other] needs.”
chos 'byung rnams su yang dpyad bzod mi bzod sna tshogs snang la /   khri srong rnam sprul dpal bkra shis stobs rgyal gyis mdzad pa'i sprul sku gter ston grangs nges kyi gsol 'debs thugs rje'i nyin 'byed la snga phyi'i go rim ma mdzad par mtshan dang chos skye brgyud sogs gang 'tsham sde tshan du bsdoms par gnang ba'i go rim gyi dbang du byas te...
[I omitted a clause that seems to say "In the Dharma Histories there appear various [systems?] that may or may not hold up under close scrutiny."]  
“The work Compassion's Daymaker: Prayer of the Emanation Body Tertöns of Definite Number was composed by the emanation of Khri-srong by the name of Dpal Bkra-shis-stobs-rgyal. In it there is no chronological ordering, but the names [of the Tertöns] are combined in sets based on such things as name, Dharma teaching, birth and transmission lineage.”

I assume no one will find it the least bit surprising if the Dalai Lama’s characterization of the Tertön Prayer’s internal organizing principles is so exactly on mark.

Another interesting verse to think about is the verse no. 23 about the group of Tertöns with Lingpa (གླིང་པ་) in their names.  It contains eleven names and explicitly addresses itself to “the unmistakable 11 Lingpas” as a group. The Zab-bu-lung history adds a fifth line to verse 23 containing 3 added names and addresses itself to “the 14 Lingpa Tertöns.”

The commentary on verse 23 on the Lingpas takes up by far the greater part of the history, extending from p. 98 to 225. That means a little more than one third of the total length of the history. Actually, the history, at p. 217.1-2, has a mchan-note somehow explaining the addition: 

gter bton bkris [~bkra shis] grangs kyi dbang du byas na gling pa bcu gcig du gsungs 'dug na’ang / las 'phro gling pa phyi ma / zhig po gling pa / bde chen gling pa gsum po 'di gling chen brgyad kyi grangs la 'dug pa gling pa bzhi byas nas mnan pa yin.

I have trouble with the arithmetic, although I understand that the unknown person who wrote this mchan-note is offering an apology for increasing the number likely meant to justify it.  My solution is to fix the number 4 and assume in its stead 14 was intended. I assume that “Gter-bton Bkra-shis” is intended as a short name of the prayer author, and offer this quick translation:

“If we go by the number in Tertön Tashi, he clearly states there are 11 Lingpa.  Yet this triad of Las-’phro-gling-pa the Later, Zhig-po-gling-pa, and Bde-chen-gling-pa is present in the enumeration of the Eight Great Ling, so they have been added bringing the number of Lingpa up to 14.”

But enough about those interesting questions, since our time is flying and we need to get tickets for far destinations. So if you have the time and if you would like to see the complete text of the prayer with a concordance to the commentarial works, here is the web page where before you know it you can see it all:

Click here to go there 
(file updated on 4th of October 2019)

Conclusion? Maybe one located at the end of time?

At the very least, despite a number of avenues of research and argument left open, we may say, obvious as that may be by now, that the Laufer xylograph supplies an example of the motivated defacement of printing blocks. In the defacement of the title we find the motive of expressing disagreement with the idea that there might be a determinate number of Tertöns. In the blocking off of most of the colophon we see an equally deliberate attempt to erase memory of the author. At the same time, it appears that the prayer, those modifications having been made, was regarded as worthy of being printed over and over again from those woodblocks on account of its valuable content.

Both the block carving and the defacement very likely took place in the Tsang region rather late in the 16th century or early in the 17th. The presence of carvers’ signatures alone suggests Tsang during those times. And of course the fact that the author was a very controversial figure suggests motives most likely to be found in Tsang after the author’s exile to Chonggyé valley in 1579. I suppose I may be reading too much into it, but I think the last line in the prayer’s colophon suggests he had already gone into exile when it was written:  “a wanderer with no established abode.” As a landed aristocrat by background, he would hardly make this statement lightly.

Oh, and one more thing: One of the great remaining mysteries in the bibliography of Tibetan histories is the fact that Tashi Tobgyel composed a history of the Old Translation Nyingma school at the request of a Kagyüpa, the Fifth Drukchen Rinpoche (1593-1641). A lengthy criticism of that history by Sogdogpa has been published,* but the history itself is nowhere to be found.  Now why do you think that might be? Is it possible an entire history book got lost in the same politico-magical controversies that brought about the woodblock defacement?
(*I’ve been corrected on this particular point. See the comment section below. The author is named even if not yet definitely identified, but it isn’t Sogdogpa, despite being published as part of Sogdogpa’s works..  —Oct 15, 2019.) 


This always happens to me. I was thinking I was done, but perhaps a few words about the need and significance of this kind of study are in order. So far the field of Tibetan Studies has more or less been operating under the impression that the history by Kongtrul has everything we need to know about the lives of the Tertöns.* I would like to encourage more investigation of early accounts of collectivities of treasure revealers that would then go on to go outside the history book genres a little in order to encompass collective prophecies, too, not just collective Tertön prayers. 

Among other things we may need to contemplate why some earlier histories disappeared, not just the one just mentioned, but another specifically about Tertöns by G.yung-ston Rdo-rje-dpal (1284-1365).** And of course, it needs saying that the Bon school must be brought into our future conclusion-making processes, as they have a rich literature of Tertön histories, prayers and prophecies of their own. It’s even possible that followers of Bon got their terma traditions underway before the Nyingma did. 

I guess collective prophecies of Tertöns whether Bon or Nyingma emerged in the 14th century while the Mongols were loosening their grip on Eurasia, even if a lot of individual prophecies existed before that time. I’m not sure what I just said is correct, but somebody needs to put their neck out and make these kinds of hypotheses so they can be proven or disproven. That way the field of study would be making better progress.
(*A remarkably early and brilliant exception is the article by Janet Gyatso listed in the bibliographical listing below.  **It is mentioned in the Guru Tashi history, the 5-volume pothi edition, vol. 4, p. 107.)

§   §   §

Some publications:

Please notice that just a few references are supplied here. There is no idea to supply coverage of the field of Tertön studies. There have been quite a few significant studies recently, and we’ll be sure to mention them some other time.
Eva M. Dargyay, The Rise of Esoteric Buddhism in Tibet, Motilal Banarsidass (Delhi 1979), the 2nd revised edition.

Janet Gyatso, “Guru Chos-dbang's Gter 'byung chen mo, an Early Survey of the Treasure Tradition and Its Strategies in discussing Bon Treasure,” contained in: Per Kvaerne, ed., Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 6th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Fagernes 1992, The Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture (Oslo 1994), pp. 275-287.

Yeshe Gyamtsho, tr., Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Taye, The Hundred Tertöns: A Garland of Beryl, Brief Accounts of Profound Terma and the Siddhas Who Have Revealed It, KTD Publications (Woodstock 2011). See especially the entry "Karma Guru" on pp. 243-244. 

Ramon Prats, Contributo allo studio biografico dei primi Gter-ston, Istituto Universitario Orientale (Napoli 1982).


A quick climb out on a limb:

This final note is likely to seem trivial and nitpicking to more casual investigators than yourselves, but one of the loose ends still remains to be tied in: How is it possible that the woodblock could have once been carved with the actual title grangs nges kyi  and through manipulation of the already-carved letters made to look like what we have in the Laufer example, that might be read something like brang ma kyi. Thinking it through everywhere but Tuesday, I venture a solution. Although abbreviations are rare in headed script (dbu-can) texts, especially woodblock printed ones, it is possible that not enough space was left for the title when the carving was done. Well, okay, this brings up another question: Why wasn’t the normal practice followed to begin with? That is to say, Why wasn't the title featured prominently by being left floating alone in the middle of the recto of the first folio? I suggest this might have been done, but that something troublesome happened to the woodblock for the title page, so instead of carving a complete new block, they decided to crowd the title into the blank space, blank space as is often found at the beginning of texts on the folio 1 verso side. I know this must sound rather what-if-ish, but even if the explanation is reaching too far in your opinion it still may be that an abbreviated way of writing was used, so that instead of carving grangs nges kyi, or གྲྲངས་ངེས་ཀྱི་, the carver carved grang[s ng]es kyi, or གྲྲངེས་ཀྱི་ instead. So imagine གྲྲངེས་ཀྱི་ in raised wooden letters, and how you could take a couple of swipes with a sharp knife-point to obliterate a ligature here and a ligature there and end up with something that looks like བྲྲང་མ་ཀྱི་. Hmmm. I’m still thinking about it. Have some better idea?

Anyone the least bit familiar with the story of Lobsang Tuesday Rampa will already be apprised of the danger of climbing out on a limb for any reason. Wood can split, after all.

Appendix (October 3, 2019):

This also always happens to me. I don't think there is any reason for me to feel guilty for not finding it before, since the TBRC catalogers misread the cursive title, making it not very searchable. Anyway, just a few days after posting I found yet another manuscript version of the text that forces me to update my edition (linked above). You can see all the details in the slide that follows. Have a great year, and write if anything comes to mind. We're all friends here, and we can admit when we overlook things or make mistakes.

October 19, 2019
I noticed a few days ago that, according to the native statistics supplied by, Tibeto-logic has passed the one million mark in page views. Among those in-large-part accidental visitors are no doubt some people like yourselves who actually read the thing. This counting began in the year 2010, so that means the preceding years are unaccounted for.  The first Tibeto-logic blog is dated to August 2006, as you may see on the sidebar over to your right. I never thought quantification counted for much, so this is neither here nor there.  I do get tired sometimes, but don't think I will stop until I lose my typing ability or run out of things to say, whichever comes first. I do want to encourage more competition, so if you are thinking to start a Tibet blog just drop me a line and I'll do my best to help you get started. Typing ability is the most important thing, but writing ability comes in a close second. The rest is easy.
I would like to single out and thank Small Person, and the late E.S. in particular for their moral support and encouragement along the way. If not for them I might have given this up a long time ago, even before everyone except us moved to the fast-food outlets like Facebook and Twitter, never to be heard from again. Don’t you dislike crowds? Especially when the crowds get bossy and judgmental at every opportunity as they are doing on so-called social media. When you visit Tibeto-logic, you’re entering a boss-free zone. I hope you can feel a sense of relative freedom from social constraints and judginess. I know I do.

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