Thursday, June 04, 2020

Tibetan Histories, a New Website

I was struggling with it until just a few minutes ago, but now I believe it is all there. I opened one of those new websites that Google supplies for free. As today is the eve of Saga Dawa I wanted to release it on this most auspicious day celebrating the Buddha. The website is the same kind I used for Tibetan Vocabulary, so there weren’t many surprises. Only this time I believe I succeeded in getting it all in one piece, without dividing it up.

What did surprise me on the day I first initiated the website was a visit from a very colorful bird with a distinctive song that descends like it’s running down a long staircase of sound, a Bee Eater. I had scarcely seen this rara avis before, and never outside my window. At first I thought I was seeing a Kingfisher, so I had to hit the reference books. Since then I’ve been hearing its song from time to time, unable to see where the sound is coming from. This could answer a question some people are bound to ask about the header photo you will see if you go to visit the new website.

While everything is already there, there are some more cosmetic types of formatting fixes that still need doing. So you might come back and have a look later on. I plan to work on it from now on online, rather than offline, so it’s likely to evolve by starts and jumps over the years that remain to me. I especially hope to integrate the add-in sections (marked off by bullets as you will see) into the main entries. That will take some time and effort.

Meanwhile I trust I can trust you to pass along the link to anyone you might think is interested in this kind of thing. I have a hope that non-specialists will read the newly added introductory survey of Tibetan historical literature, aimed at anyone who is curious enough to want an overview of what’s out there. I should have written this for the published book that came out over two decades ago. The late Anthony Aris wrote a clause in the contract so that the ownership of the copyright returned to my own hands in 2017, so no problems there. I don’t imagine the introduction by his brother Michael Aris was part of the bargain, so I haven’t included it.

Well, here it is. If you have comments and suggestions, I’d be glad to hear them in the comments section. If you don’t want your comment to be posted, just say so and I won’t post it. Or, if you know my email address you can write to me that way. So, anyway, here you go, just tap on it a time or two for quick results.

Tibetan Histories

  • I've sometimes dreamed about making available a Tibetan-letter version of it — that would make it simpler for many Tibetans to use — and had a few nibbles from interested persons. I'm physically no longer able to do all the keyboard work it would entail, so if you have any ideas let me know. An unrelated dream: I've thought to make this into a website with links directly to online resources, in particular texts of the works that are cataloged in it.

PS: I've stopped trying to edit online, but I do commit myself to 
making it into a real book (or e-book) during the year 2020.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Not a Padampa

As we’re prone to do when trapped in our rooms with nowhere to go, I was wearing out my eyesight for a good cause browsing through some recently posted photos of Tibetan art works at Himalayan Art Resources website. If you are reading Tibeto-logic you no doubt already know that HAR is the best place in the whole universe to see Tibetan art. No museum can compete with it, not even the Newark Museum. I was thrilled to see what did at first seem to me to be a brassy image of our hero Padampa. Have a look at it yourself by tapping on those purple colored words (or are they orange, you decide). I mean, it has one hand raised above the head, the other holding what could very well be a bag, and we know that Padampa’s “Interdependence Bag” does at times occur as part of his iconography, even in his left hand as we see here. And Padampa was well known for practicing yogic gazes out into space, something perhaps indicated by the way the right hand is raised above the head. But when I looked at the back side of the lotus throne, I soon changed my mind. There we can read a inscription very clearly: 
grub thob gling la na mo, or Praise to the Siddha Ling 
That means Lingrepa Pema Dorjé. On him have a look at the biographical sketch at Treasury of Lives. He may be regarded as the founder of the Drukpa Kagyü order, even if there has been some equivocation on that point. And that means the school affiliation of the image supplied on the website requires emending, too. Lingrepa is normally depicted in his untamable Siddha aspect, and the presence of a bag may just be telling us he was a wandering yogi, one who packed a bit of food for along the way, as yogis had been doing in India and Tibet all along, not just Padampa. I should look into this question, but right off the top of my head I just don’t know of any affinities Lingrepa may have had for Padampa or the Zhijé School. I do know that Lingrepa was often compared to the Indian Mahâsiddha Saraha, the one who made arrows.

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Read more

A fine new essay about Lingrepa has appeared. You may be able to locate a free copy of it on the internet, if not right at this moment in the near future. Here are the details: Marco Walther, “The Development of the Biographies of Gling ras pa Padma rdo rje (1128-1188),” Bulletin of Tibetology, vol. 51 nos. 1-2 (2015), pp. 99-113. It has a bibliography that includes earlier writings you may want to look into.

I guess I had a point to make about iconography here, and never actually made it. Padampa appears in many forms besides the better known ones (try looking here). There are quite a few un-inscribed portrait images that I would regard — because of a cluster of traits associated with him — to be what I call possible Padampas. This image could at first glance qualify as one of them, no doubt, but when we turn it over and find the label we realize our mistake.*
(*We might want to make an argument that labels carved in stone or etched in metal are always correct, but nowadays with the stakes high there is really no limit to the things business people might do to increase the value of their pieces. That said, I hasten to add that there is not any reason to think that is happening in this instance. After all, those particular iconographic features could just as well apply to Lingrepa as far as we can know, and anyway no particular advantage could be expected by altering the identity of the person portrayed. If anything, a depiction of Padampa would have more, and not less, value than one of Lingrepa.)

PS (March 24, 2020)

Since posting this I thought to take a closer look at other Padampa images that are featured on this HAR webpage. I was surprised to see a special category of Padampas in the [right hand] “salute gesture.” This does of course include the very image that contains the inscription identifying it as Lingrepa, and to me this casts in doubt the inclusion of this entire group among the Padampas. Why not call them all Lingrepas on the strength of the inscriptional evidence? Still, there are one or two examples in this group that have enough Padampa characteristics I would still want to call them possible Padampas, this one in particular, although the right hand really isn’t raised high enough to be in the salute gesture. This same one has been published a few times, as for example in D. Weldon & J.C. Singer, The Sculptural Heritage of Tibet, Laurence King (London 1999), plate 31 on pp. 154-55, where it is labelled as “Yogin.” This yogin, along with the nude image that once belonged to  R. H. Ellsworth, I regard as possible or possibly even probable Padampas, as I’ve argued before in the case of the Ellsworth.

PPS (March 26, 2020)

Just to add perplexity to complication, try this experiment. Go to the HAR website’s page about a thangka with Pemakarpo as its central figure. Scroll down the page until you find a detail with the added label “Ling Repa.” Tap it for a closer view (or go here). If it didn’t hit you like a hammer right away, let me tell you, this is a perfectly normal Zhijé form of Padampa, with the mirroring hand gestures unique to Padampa, the loose blanket around the lower part of the body, the earrings, everything. In my mind this is not just a possible Padampa, it’s a definite one. If you would like to have a closer look at the painting as a whole, you can see what I believe are biographical scenes from the life of Pemakarpo, the Fourth Drukchen showing his meditations and visionary experiences. One of these scenes shows what I imagine is the Drukchen himself in a posture of veneration beneath what would have to be a vision of Padampa's presence. Unless there is a label saying Lingrepa somewhere there, and I couldn’t find one, I think that is what we are seeing. Oh, and one more thing, unlike Lingrepa, we know that Pemakarpo had Zhijé teachings, and he composed a respectably lengthy text on the subject (details here).

HAR 65368, detail

PPPS (April 11, 2020)

Here’s another bit of fun with iconography I’d like to share and discuss if you have time for it. Have a look at this all-too-short video that informs us that the thangka, while bearing characteristic marks of an old (perhaps pre-Mongol period) painting, nevertheless has to be dated two centuries later because the curator identified a figure in its upper register as being Pema Lingpa (1450-1521 CE). It’s true that Pema Lingpa is often depicted this way, with an Orgyan hat like that of Guru Rinpoche and the longlife vase held in the palms of hands in meditation gesture, just as you see here. But notice right away in the first seconds of the video the arrow pointing to something the unnamed scholars supposedly missed, an inscription that indeed reads when we standardize the Tibskrit spellings Puṇyamaṅgalaṃ. Okay, but this is a Sanskritized 'name mantra' of a Tibetan (as we can see in the portrait itself) who would have been named Bsod-nams-bkra-shis.  The name Bsod-nams-bkra-shis does not as far as anyone seems to know belong to any set of names given to Pema Lingpa.  We know it *does* belong to a number of other people. So answer this puzzle: Given the fact that it fits the iconography and looks like Pema Lingpa, the label tells us it must be someone else. Is someone overlooking something?*
*(Just now I noticed that HAR has posted a version of this same painting with added English identifications. Have a look.)

Finally, if you went to HAR and liked what you saw there, you might consider a donation by looking at its Go Fund Me page. It's just a suggestion, I mean it's no business of mine what you do with your hard earned money or your ill-gotten gains. Whichever.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

A Short Survey of the Stages of the Bodhisattva Path

I found this going though old papers I hadn’t had access to for a few decades. I was initially a little puzzled what it was. I did recognize it as a draft translation. I worked on a lot of those back in the days. But nowadays with such easy ways of searching things out on the internet, it wasn’t long before I was able to tell you it is the beginning of a translation of a work by Śākyaśrībhadra.*

I submit it to your critical eye with the hope that humanity will take advantage of their involuntary isolation to reconsider the wrong paths that have been taken in recent years and contemplate ways to achieve a better future for every last sentient suffering being.

(*Apart from the title itself, the most important clue was the name Byams-dpal. That’s a slightly shortened version of the name of Khro-phu Lo-tsā-ba Byams-pa-dpal (1173‑1225 or 1236?). He was the one responsible for inviting Śākyaśrī to Tibet in the first place.)

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For a biography of Śākyaśrī by Alex Gardner, see this page in Treasury of Lives. When he died in 1225 or 1226 or 1227 his age was either 64 or 99, it isn’t sure which. I hope you can enlighten us.

For a comparative edition of the Tibetan text, see this TBRC link.  This was not the version used for the translation you see here, something that at this point I have no easy way of knowing. Śākyaśrī arrived in Tibet in the company of nine or so “lesser pundits,” among them the famous Vibhūticandra, and he departed via western Tibet to Kashmir in 1218. Here are perhaps the main works written in languages other than Tibetan about his life, in case you are interested to learn more.

•     H. Hadano, Kāśmīra‑mahāpaṇḍita "Śākyaśrībhadra," Tibetto Kinsei Bukkyôshi Josetsu, Hadano Hakuyū Tibetto Indogaku Shūsei (Kyoto 1986), pp. 239‑258.  Originally published in Bunka, vol. 20, no. 5 (1957).
•   David Jackson, Two Biographies of Śākyaśrībhadra: The Eulogy by Khro‑phu Lo‑tsā‑ba and its "Commentary" by Bsod‑nams‑dpal‑bzang‑po, Franz Steiner Verlag (Stuttgart 1990). Not meant for easy popular consumption, this is one of the great works of late 20th-century Tibetology. Seriously, don’t let the thinness fool you.
•     Leonard van der Kuijp, On the Lives of Śākyaśrībhadra (?‑?1225), Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 114, no. 4 (1994), pp. 599‑616. At p. 603, LvdK promised a study on the dates of Śākyaśrī, something we anticipate with ever decreasing patience.

For a published example of the work itself, 
see Śākyaśrībhadra, Bodhisattvamārgakramasaṅgraha (Byang chub sems dpa'i lam gyi rim pa mdor bsdus pa).  Tôh. no. 3962.  Dergé Tanjur, vol. GI, folios 198v.1‑199v.5.  Translated by the author and Byams-pa'i-dpal.  Or just cut-&-paste the entire Tibetan title into the search box at TBRC.

For a resumé of its content, you might look at the entry in Malalasekera's Encyclopedia of Buddhism,  vol. 3, p. 240, or see Dölpa, Gampopa and Sakya Paṇḍita, Stages of the Buddha's Teachings: Three Key Texts, translated by Ulrike Roesler, Ken Holmes and David P. Jackson, Library of Tibetan Classics series no. 10, Wisdom (Somerville 2015), pp. 635-636. If I knew of a complete translation, I would have told you about it.

§  §  §

Postscript (April 7, 2020): I hardly believe it myself, but I actually did find a translation at BOOTL, an internet resource that will be of special interest to translators and people who read translations. I recommend to have a look at it here.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Stone Meditation Seat in Amdo

Our thanks to Katia Buffetrille, who sent us this remarkable sign of Padampa’s presence way up in Amdo to the south of the Blue Lake known under various names, among them Kokonoor.

The full stone inscription, written in widely separated syllables around two sides of the squarish boulder may be roughly phoneticized, Romanized and translated as:

“Gyagar Padampai Gom Tri”

rgya gar pha dam pa'i sgom khri/

[This is a] Meditation Throne of India Padampa.

According to Katia, if I understood her directions correctly, it was in 2011 as they were walking around Nyenpo Yutsé (Gnyan-po G.yu-rtse), near Mâra Lake (Bdud-mtsho, or Sdug-mtsho) in the region now called South of the Lake (Mtsho Lho), meaning below the Blue Lake (Mtsho Sngon), that they encountered this remarkable stone.

Eventually I’d like to put together an inclusive account of Padampa-related sites. Knowing about this seating place in Amdo helps us by adding to what we have already learned about his visits to such places as Yunnan, Wu-tai Shan and the vicinity of Lhasa (Garu Convent).*
(*José Cabezón & Penpa Dorjee, in their brand new book, Sera Monastery, Wisdom (Somerville 2019), do mention, on p. 331, “Garu (Ga-ru), a nunnery, is said to have been founded by Padampa Sangyé in the eleventh century, Panglung (Spang lung) by one of Padampa‘s students in the eleventh century...”  Although such brevity in an otherwise elaborately detailed book might seem excessive, it is more than compensated by the more generous treatment by J.C. in “The Hermitages of Sera” at the THDL website. Go ahead and visit it by tapping here. The historical section that follows this one has the Padampa connections. What is most interesting for today's blog is just that there was once in Garu Convent a square stone throne Padampa sat upon as he was deciding where to site the building, a stone apparently no longer there. It also had letters inscribed on it.)

For fun, double click on Katia's photos to see what sentient beings you can identify.

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Postscript 1 (March 13, 2020):

I’ve been told I may not have gotten the geography quite right, making it sound as if it’s close to the Blue Lake when it’s actually quite far. I’ll look into that some more. And I’m also told that there is more on Padampa associated places in Lhasa and Phanyul areas in a recent publication by Serindia that I do not have at hand at this moment.  I’ll look into that, too, and get back with you. The book I speak of is this one: Matthew Akester, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo’s Guide to Central Tibet.

Postscript 2 (March 13, 2020):

I sometimes wondered why I even had a copy of  J.F. Rock’s very heavy 1956 book The Amnye Ma-chhen Range and Adjacent Regions, a Monographic Study, published in Rome by the Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente. It could well be nominated for the most unreadable book in the history of Tibetology. I mean overall, since it does have some fascinating paragraphs buried in all the geographical minutiae. And the black-and-white photographs that take up most of the thick volume are really interesting, the pictures of people even more than the landscapes and buildings. My reason for mentioning is that it has a map, sheet 5 of the 5 folded maps inserted in a pocket in the back of the book, of the area “Nyen-po-yur-tse Dza-ra” (གཉན་པོ་གཡུ་རྩེ་རྫ་ར་). Actually, the brief section of prose about this same area is at this very moment of much interest (pp. 129-31). I think Rock didn't go there personally, but relied on information from a non-denominational Christian missionary by the name of William E[kvall] Simpson (1901-1932). Rock even credits him with the discovery of the place, whatever that means (and I guess what Rock does mean is that up until then, the mountain had not been included in any known map). This missionary named Simpson is subject of a 1932 book (or booklet?) given the title A Martyred Missionary, for reasons you may easily discern. I’ve never seen it. Few have.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Prayer Wheels Came from Where?

It’s such a pleasure to read the essays of Rasé Konchok Gyatso, each one devoted to a subject even more interesting than the last. Now is one of those times I wish I had paid more frequent attention to modern writings, although I refuse to regret all those years I was caught up in the 12th century. Hell, I still am. Anyway, here is my aim today: I just want to draw attention to a brave attempt to ascertain the time and place of origins of what the world knows as Prayer Wheels.

The Prayer Wheel, to call it by its popular-in-English but imprecise name, is one of the objects most associated with Tibetans, a kind of cultural marker of Tibetan-ness, in fact one of the best known such markers. As Rasé starts out his essay (I’m paraphrasing or summarizing in the following paragraph): 

Nowadays one of the special things that marks those who have faith in Tibetan Buddhism is the hand-held Mani Wheel and the more general category of Mani Wheel. There are nowadays, he tells us, even electrically powered Mani Wheels of various sizes, and they are often to be seen in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and areas of China. As possible sources for the earliest history of the object, he turns first to a “table of contents” of Ka-tshal Monastery, which lists one owned by Emperor Songtsen the Wise. He then mentions a story of one brought to Tibet by the Chinese princess Wenching Kongjo, and a Chinese Wheel of the Jowo (Jo-'khor Rgya-nag-ma) kept as one of the chief objects of veneration in Beru Monastery in Nangchen. Then he quotes at some length from a text devoted precisely to the subject, Talk of Immortal Joy: Precepts of All the Victors.* This text with no authorship statement attributes the same origins to the Wheel as is ordinarily given for the Perfection of Wisdom, which is to say that Nâgârjuna brought it to India from the land of the nâgas presumed to be in the ocean’s depths. It then followed the main trunk of the early Kagyu lineage, through Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa and so on. The Talk text says if you want to know more on the subject, look at the works of Karma Pakshi (1204 or 1206-1283 CE).

(*I supply the link to the cursive manuscript of which he speaks at TBRC. I think the printer named in the colophon as Rgyal-sras Rin-chen-rnam-rgyal is likely to be the one and the same as well-known printer Lha-btsun Rin-chen-rnam-rgyal [1473‑1557 CE], although this could benefit from further verification. On 2nd thought, he can't possibly be the Lha-btsun, because it says he was printing on the orders of Dwa-ching Ba-dur, this title, when used on its own, can be nothing except a way of speaking about Khangchenné Sönam Gyelpo, ruling Regent of Tibet until he was murdered by his ministers in 1727 CE. This is very likely some version of the Tibetan text that underlies the translation in Ladner et al., pp. 63-75. See its closing words on p. 75: “[This was written] by Rinchen Nampar Gyalwa in response to the inquiry of Tedai Chingwadur.”)

But then all of a sudden on p. 1383, all this purported evidence starts to lose air. In all the biographies of the early Kagyü masters, he says, and in all the works associated with them, not once does a Wheel make an appearance. It is true that if you inspect the works of Karma Pakshi, you do find out how four Skygoers revealed to him in a dream a melody for the Mani recitation. This initiated the practice of singing it rather than just reciting it, but it has no implications at all for the use of Wheels. Another fascinating and difficult work of the same author — recently studied by Matthew Kapstein* — does mention the turning of wheels, but there is no way this could refer to the Wheels as we know them.
(*See Kapstein’s work listed below. A side issue: If it is so that Tibetans did not do the Wheel turning practice in pre-Mongol times, then it does cast a shadow on Lynne White Jr's idea that the ball-and-chain governor would have been brought to Italy from Tibet via Central Asian slaves in the later days of the Mongol period of Eurasian domination. What would seem to be the case instead  is that both Italians and Tibetans were beneficiaries of a technology that some third party invented. )

The Rasé essay goes on to discuss the Mani Kambum evidence associating the practice with Emperor Songtsen (1st half of 7th century). He finds that when it speaks of the benefits of reciting the Mani, it intends just recitation, not Wheel turning, and likewise one finds no positive evidence in works of Nyangral (1124-1192) and Guru Chöwang (1212-1270). Rasé then concludes that there is absolutely no indication of the existence of the Wheel turning practice in the 14th century or before. To be clear, he isn’t ready to say exactly when or by whom the practice was first done, and finds it sufficient to be a little vague about dates if that’s the best we can do. I agree with that, too. I might not be so convinced that the large Wheels arrived first, and hand-held Wheels later, although I think I can see the logic of believing so, since the latter involves a technological innovation: the ball-and-chain governor.*
(*And, I might add, the early Huayen Chinese temples with their revolving libraries better compare to the large Wheels than to the hand-held ones. For one thing they lack the ball-and-chain governor. Oh, and the Chinese examples weren’t round cylinders, they were octagonal. I have a lot to say about octagons, but I’ll hold off on this for now.)

Then he goes on to some of these later works, including early 19th century works by Gungthangpa and Sengchen Lama already studied over three decades ago,* but newly indicating sources in works by Kagyü authors of the late 15th through early 17th centuries.
(*The footnote got too long, so I moved it to the end.)
It would be the more interesting part of the blog, but for the time being I will stick to the historical question of origins and avoid commenting on the past and contemporary significance of Wheel revolving practices, although the learned Rasé does go into this issue. He believes most people would benefit more if they would do more serious reading, study and reflection on the Buddhist texts and ideas, and less spinning. 

Once as I was traveling in the northern India I stopped in one of those travelers’ cafés for a much-needed tea, I happened to sit across from a young Britisher holding and turning what has to be the largest hand-held wheel I’ve ever seen. It had a huge cylindrical drum and a handle so long you could rest the end of it on the ground even when spinning in a standing position. It did make me curious, so I got into a conversation with him about it. By the time it was done I had the impression he was sincerely involved in the practice, and not just having a bit of fun. Not simply appropriating inappropriately, as we might be more likely to conclude when faced with things of this sort nowadays.

Today our most cosmopolitan convert Buddhists, as well as many young born-Buddhists, attracted as they are to the more cerebral science-like or philosophical types of Buddhism — or targeting what they regard as more profound meditations — almost instinctively disdain the practice. Or, even if they imagine it may be some good to some people some of the time, would never think of engaging in it themselves. People who see the Wheels turning might think it’s superficial when the problem is they are only seeing the surfaces of things. I think Rasé would agree with me that the practice has little or no value if it is in fact done mechanically. It ought to be part of a more general practice that includes actual (not virtual, digital, or mechanical) mantra recitation  and the visualization of divine forms of enlightened wisdom. But then as far as I think I can tell, it always is. So, no problem, is there? Do you see any?

At the Library, on a Cloudy Day

M. Kapstein, “The Dialectic of Eternal Heaven: A Tibetan Defense of Mongol Imperial Religion,” contained in: Matthew T. Kapstein and R. Jackson, eds., Mahāmudrā and the Kagyü Tradition, International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (Andiast 2011), pp. 259-316. 
If you would like to try your hand at this or sharpen your skills, try to find the 2nd Black Hat Karmapa’s work in TBRC. To do this it may help you to know that it bears the title Dam pa'i chos 'dul ba'i gling bzhi [~gleng gzhi] na gos dmar can gyi yul nas 'ongs pa'i mkhas pa yang dag phyi rol nyid bzhugs gsungs te / de la sha na pa'i gos can 'jam dpal dmar po la sogs pa'i tshan 'brug tsam du tha snyad 'dogs shing ngo bo cig la / mthong tshul tha dad pa 'di lta ste / mo gho ding ri'i sgra tshad. Well, on second thought, follow my advice and just search for the last six syllables.

Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), China Illustrata

I’m not entirely sure of it, but this work first published in 1667 may be the first ever illustration of a Tibetan Prayer Wheel. A little difficult to make out, you may have to take a second look at p. 60 of Charles van Tuyl’s English translation from the Latin, as published by Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies (Bloomington 1987), on the first page of Part II, Chapter 4. A "Tartar Kalmak Lama,” whatever that is supposed to mean, indicates with his right hand an immobile Wheel on a cubic pedestal below himself. Look closely and you will see that the cylinder is a little too elongated, but the handle is clearly visible, and off to its right you can see the ball-and-chain governor is straight, but angled awkwardly at around 3 o’clock. It looks as if it may have been held in the hand of the figure in the original sketch, but the illustrator took the liberty of portraying it separately. In any case, this visual European evidence doesn’t help us move back the dating of the hand-held Wheel.

L. Ladner, et al.Wheel of Great Compassion: The Practice of the Prayer Wheel in Tibetan Buddhism, Wisdom Publications (Boston 2001).

H. Loveday, “La bibliothèque tournante en Chine: Quelques remarques sur son rôle et son évolution,” T'oung Pao, 2nd series vol. 86, nos. 4-5 (2000), pp. 225-279. 
Loveday believes the building of these revolving libraries in monastery temples was very popular in China between the 11th and 13th centuries. Although only two examples have survived from those early times, we do have clear descriptions of them starting in the 11th. There is more literature on the subject of revolving libraries in China, so I only offer this as a sample, a recent sample. For visuals, try searching the internet for the words "revolving repository" or "revolving library" using the quote marks, and perhaps narrow down your search by adding China or Buddhist.

Ma-'Khor-lo'i Phan-yonSee it here
Apart form a partial translation in outline/summary form included in this essay by His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Sakya entitled The Use and Benefits of Prayer Wheels, I’m not sure if anyone has made use of this text, printed at a Drigung site in Tibet in woodblock form in around mid-20th century. No author is immediately evident. Even if there is a tertön named near the end, he’s only tertön of a brief appended prayer, not of the work proper. Seeing that it hasn’t been completely translated as far as I can tell, I posted my own translation at Tiblical website. I translated this many years ago, and have only now dusted it off and polished it ever so slightly.

D. Martin, “On the Origin and Significance of ‘Prayer Wheels’ According to Two Nineteenth-Century Tibetan Literary Sources,” The Journal of the Tibet Society, vol. 7 (1987), pp. 13-29. Try to get the PDF by tapping twice on the title.

Rasé Konchok Gyatso (Ra-se Dkon-mchog-rgya-mtsho), “Ma-i ’Khor-lo dang Lag-’khor Rigs-kyi Byung-tshul Dpyad-gleng,” contained in the same author's Bod Rig-pa’i Dpyad-rtsom Brgya dang Brgyad-cu-ma, Bod Rang-skyong Ljongs Dpe-skrun Do-dam Khru’u (Lhasa 2016), at pp. 1381-1390.

G. Schopen, “A Note on the ‘Technology of Prayer’ and a Reference to a Revolving Bookcase in an Eleventh-Century Indian Inscription,” contained in: Gregory Schopen, Figments and Fragments of Mahâyâna Buddhism in India, University of Hawai’i Press (Honolulu 2005), pp. 345-349. 
I might point out that if the Tibetan practice as such did not exist in the 11th century, then it might cast doubt on the interpretation of this Indian inscription as an instance of it. But then again, I believe Huayen temples in quite early times, let’s say in the 7th century, and in areas not impossibly far from the Tibetan plateau, did have revolving scriptural bookracks. To this Chinese Buddhist evidence of revolving holy texts our contemporary essayists including Rasé could have given more attention (see the Loveday, listed above).

For your more dedicated Tibeto-logicians, some further complications about sources

For the two compositions by Gungtangpa and Sengchen, both done at the behest of Mongolian disciples, see Martin, listed above, noting that translations of both texts appear in Ladner et al., pp. 53-61, 77-79. Left unnoticed in both Martin and Rasé's essays is yet a 3rd early 19th-century composition, one by the Fourth Panchen Lama (1781/2‑1853/4 CE) translated in Ladner et al., pp. 41-51, and the Kumbum printing of this text can be found here. It could not be immediately located in a listing of titles in the 4th Panchen Lama’s works, although it might have been included in his miscellany (gsung thor-bu), something I haven’t checked yetLadner et al., pp. 81-84, also has a briefer work by a Mongolian Lama of Urga: Kyai-rdor Mkhan-po Ngag-dbang-mkhas-grub (1779-1837 CE)on the benefits of turning Wheels. For its Tibetan text, try here.

Illustration from Alphabetum Tibetanum (1762), courtesy of
New York Public Library Digital Collections
If you require a brief introduction to the book itself,
look here.

Additives may be good for you (May 5, 2020):

I learned from an article by Fabio Rambelli I just read that revolving scripture repositories, “normally octagonal,” existed in Japan, too. Although documentation is not available for several more centuries, the Chinese figure credited with their invention was Fu Xi (497-569 CE), aka Fu Dashi. They were brought to Japan by Zen monks in the late 14th century. One of the oldest ones that still exists in Japan, built in 1408, contains a printed edition of the scriptures from Yuan period Hangzhou. This information goes along with a lot of theoretical reflections about culturally differing attitudes toward automation and automatons that often made me think of that old blog about “Dampa’s Droids.” I did wonder how the shakuhachi flute could enter into this kind of discussion (I never heard that Indians, Buddhist or otherwise, ever classified musical instruments as a kind of yantra), but then found myself convinced. Just search the internet for “Dharma Devices, Non-Hermeneutical Libraries, and Robot-Monks: Prayer Machines in Japanese Buddhism,” Journal of Asian Humanities at Kyushu University, vol. 3 (2018), pp. 57-75.  Most of the information I mentioned could also be found, in shorter form, in Rambelli’s book, Buddhist Materiality: A Cultural History of Objects in Japanese Buddhism, Stanford University Press (Stanford 2007), pp. 106-107, in case you have this book or can locate the pages in Kugel Books. And while you are there, see if you can go here.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Great Balls of Iron

It’s one of those oddly interdependent co-incidents that now and then show up to remind you the Enlightened Ones got it right. In the last couple of days a whole lot of clues about this subject have been falling at my feet from out of the blue and from different directions in space. This augury leaves me with little choice but to blog about it. Who am I to question when the world conspires against me? Wait, that was a question, wasn’t it.

It may have started last night when to pass the time on the train home from the airport I was reading Charles Ramble's article about a 20th-century novel, Vicissitudes of a Ordinary/Commoner Family.

That novel brings back old and odd memories of my first time in Lhasa. I was in a bookstore and had spent half the afternoon making a pile of Tibetan books, mostly about Buddhism, to mail home to myself when our minder (if you have been there in those days you probably know what I mean), a quite young Tibetan speaker, pretending to interest himself in books for himself as well as the books I was choosing, finally turned to me and told me that there is only one book worth reading, that same Vicissitudes book just mentioned. Of course I put it on top of my pile, mainly out of curiosity why he thought I should forget all those Buddhist books. I never understood where exactly he was coming from, perhaps because I shelved the book and hardly looked at it again.

The famous professor’s book review started me thinking when I reached the part where he tells how Tibetan commoners couldn’t possibly share drinks or dine with metal smiths.* What I was thinking, first of all, was just how different that makes Tibetans from their northern neighbors, the Mongols and Turks. Why are Tibetans so hard on people who smelt?
(*Commoners and smiths do not share a ‘mouth’ [kha] connection.)
It’s well known that the Mongols as they extended their empire in the Middle East & Eastern Europe — even in cities that had resisted the siege and were for this reason subjected to their over-depopulation policy — spared the lives of artisans, especially the smiths, and above all the goldsmiths... 

Remember the story from an earlier blog of that French goldsmith taken captive in Hungary, the one who ended up making a giant wine dispenser for the Khan in Karakoram, its ruins visitable in today’s Mongolia?* Smiths were so greatly valued by the Mongols they went out of their way to procure them so they could put them to work doing what they do best. See the blog with the verses “In Praise of Beer,” written by Pagpa. But do come back, since I haven’t said anything yet.
(*The ruins of the city. Of the wine dispenser there is not the least remaining trace, although one small tourist hotel had put up a weak facsimile of it, and that was fun to see.)

For months now I’ve been watching a 300-plus-episode epic on the rise of the Ottoman Dynasty, and particularly the father of its founder, a contemporary of Pagpa by the name of Ertugrul. The latest episode I’ve seen shows the Seljuk princess Halime making a perilous journey together with an unrelated old blacksmith they called Wild Demir.* Quite a contrast with the blacksmith Lhakpa in Vicissitudes.

(*See Diriliş: Ertuğrul, Series 2, episode 41, or episode 117 overall. That demir is just the Turkish word for ‘iron’. He belonged to the Tayi tribe, that may have been the tribe of origin of the Ottoman rulers. Things are never all that simple, but even if it were, some say that the Tayi tribe was of Mongolic not Turkic origins. Perhaps they gained Turk/Turkoman identity when they converted to Islam? I’m not nearly half way through the episodes of the Ertugrul TV serial, but already I know a lot more Turkish than I ever did before, and yes, a lot more about the history of the Ottoman Empire. Watching the largely fictional show has made me search out more reliable sources of knowledge.)

Oh, and another thing, yesterday morning I was looking through the recently published collection of essays by one of the most interesting of early 21st century Tibetan authors, a scholar of the ’Bri-gung school by the name of Rasé Konchok Gyatso. Among those essays I found one about Tibetan society’s negative attitudes toward blacksmiths, not just them but also butchers and women. He gets discussion started with a quote from the French author Ru’u-su’u (རུའུ་སུའུ་) about human equality, making use of a modern Tibetan term dra-mnyam (འདྲ་མཉམ་for equality. 

And to think that the Mgar Ministers of the Old Tibetan era, who were practically running the Empire for a very long time, were smiths in their family origins if the name is any guide. Tibetans picked out for special contempt artisans of all types. Of course farmers and nomads were the most normal things you could possibly be in those days all over Eurasia, not just Tibet, but the Tibetan commoners’ tendency to hold prejudices against suppliers of objects they need to do their work requires explanation.

Rasé explains that Buddhism itself (along with parts of Indian culture that came with it that may have roots outside of Buddhism) is to blame. How so? Buddhism has strong ethical arguments against taking life, any life. Butchers are directly involved in the business of killing, but smiths produce the instruments butchers need for their work, along with tools of warfare that entail killing done from other motives. Rasé at one point adds in the categories of hunters (among them, the pika eaters) and potters, although he doesn't discuss prejudicial attitudes against them any further.  I’m not familiar with the term ya-bo that he uses here, although it occurs in a legal code he later quotes from, and he glosses it as anyone who makes a living from the hunting of animals. The legal code makes a triad of ya-bo with smiths and butchers.  If I could be allowed to attempt a translation of this passage, from the Legal Code of the Roaring Turquoise Dragon (གཡུ་འབྲྲུག་སྒྲོག་པའི་ཞལ་ལྕྕེ་):
“When the A-tse King of Upper Tibet was slain by the Mongols (Hor), for the indemnity they weighed an equal measure of gold. In case of ya-bo, smiths and butchers, when they are killed the indemnity is one jute rope.”  

སྟོད་ཨ་ཙེ་རྒྱལ་པོ་ཧོར་གྱིས་བསད་། སྟོང་ལ་གསེར་དང་མཉམ་འདེགས་བྱས། ཡ་བོ་མགར་བ་བཤན་པ་གསུམ། བསད་ཀྱང་སྟོང་ལ་དྲེས་ཐག་གཅིག

(My note: I suppose by A-tse King is meant the Ya-tse King in the area of Gugé; to locate it just go to the extreme northwestern corner of modern Nepal and you will be in the right neighborhood. I suppose what is meant here is that they measured out an amount of gold equal to the weight of the king's body. Hor originally named the Uighur Turks, but was applied to the Mongols after their emergence in the early 13th century.)

Reflecting on a reading of Rasé's essay, which deserves more attention than I’m giving it, I have to say I do agree with much of his critical argument. He says to think of metal smiths as “dirty” and polluting is “brainless ignorant superstition” (ཀླད་མེད་གཏི་མུག་རྨོངས་དད་པ་). And now that I’m a vegetarian again, I do think, as Rasé says in his own way, there is a contradiction in condemning or looking down on butchers when the ones doing this condemning are enjoying eating the meat they provide. They supply a demand, and the ones doing the demanding despise them for supplying it? What could make that right?

And finally, just a few mornings ago I opened an email from my old friend R.M. that linked me to an article more or less directly about thu-lum — a word you may remember from an earlier blog here at Tibeto-logic.  If you don’t remember it, and who could blame you since it was half a decade ago, you might like to have a look here, then scroll down toward the bottom of the page.  The article by Joseph Marino, details below, is all about descriptions of Buddhist hells, and one in particular where its denizens are made to swallow flaming hot balls or ingots of iron. I won’t go further into this hell right now, just to say that the blazing ingots, whatever their origins, were represented in Tibetan translations with a word borrowed from the Turkish tongues (perhaps via Mongolian?).* This word thu-lum has quite an old history in Tibetan, as far as I can tell first appearing in a translation of a portion of the story of Rāma of Indian epic fame (ITJ 0737-1). That means likely 10th century or earlier, making a Turkish borrowing the more likely.**
(*A global search of the Derge canon yields nearly 60 instances of usage for the word thu-lum, and by far most of these contexts have to do with iron ones that are or would be hot and painful when swallowed. Some day when the Buddhist scriptures among the Tibetan Dunhuang documents will be digitized, and there is some movement right now to do this, we may be able to say more about the earlier history of the Tibeto-Turkish-Mongol word.  **If you are interested to know more about the fates of Rāma  stories in Tibet, I recommend the essay by Roesler listed below.)

In earlier centuries in Tibet, the first person brought to mind when you hear the word ‘iron’ is Tangtong Gyalpo, the well-known builder of chain suspension bridges on the Plateau. So there can be no doubt that, at least when done with altruistic or at least public-minded purposes, metal working could, even if only in this one rare case, be regarded as good and noble. An exception can prove a rule.  And rules can be improved upon, especially when they involve socially engrained injustices that so many centuries of Buddhism failed to find ways to overcome. Living traditions always have changed, and we may hope they can find and compassionately promote the right methods to change for the better without trying to fix whatever it is that was already right.

Bits of bibliography

Peter H. Hansen, “Why Is There No Subaltern Studies for Tibet?” Tibet Journal, vol. 28, no. 4 (Winter 2003), pp. 7-22. As if in answer to the question after a decade-long wait, see the book edited by C. Ramble et al., below.

Joseph Marino, “From the Blacksmith’s Forge to the Fires of Hell: Eating the Red-Hot Iron Ball in Early Buddhist Literature,” Buddhist Studies Review, vol. 36, no. 1 (2019), pp. 31-51. 

Leonard Olschki, Guillaume Boucher, a French Artist at the Court of the Khans, John Hopkins Press (Baltimore 1946). A number of articles on the Karakorum fountain have appeared of late on the internet, particularly well written is this one by Devon Field

Fernanda Pirie, “The Turquoise Dragon: Symbol of Political Status?”  See this page at

Charles Ramble, “The Tibetan Novel as Social History: Reflections on Trashi Palden's Phal pa'i khyim tshang gi skyid sdug,” Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines, no. 49 (May 2019), pp. 149-191.

Charles Ramble, Peter Schwieger, Alice Travers, ed., Tibetans Who Escaped the Historian’s Net: Studies in the Social History of Tibetan Societies, Vajra Books (Kathmandu 2013).

Rasé Konchok Gyatso (Ra-se Dkon-mchog-rgya-mtsho), “Bod-kyi Sems-khams-kyi Snang-tshul-las Mgar Bshan Bud-med-la Mthong-chung Byed-pa'i Lam-srol-gyi 'Byung-khungs Bshad-pa,” contained in the same author's Bod Rig-pa'i Dpyad-rtsom Brgya dang Brgyad-cu-ma, Bod Rang-skyong Ljongs Dpe-skrun Do-dam Khru'u (Lhasa 2016), at pp. 1160-1167.  The two types of discrimination against smiths that he mentions are described in the phrases kha-phor mi bsre-ba, and gnyen-sgrig mi chog-pa, that I take to mean not putting together the [personal] bowl [for both food and drink], and not allowing marriage. The non-commensal and unmarriagable do fit together, in the sense that married people have to also be fed by their in-laws. Most marriage rites include somewhere within them the act of eating together.

Hugh Richardson, “Further Fragments from Tun-huang,” contained in: High Peaks, Pure Earth, Serindia (London 1998), pp. 28-36.  On p. 35 you can see a number of comments about how, at least in post-imperial times, Tibetans despised smiths, even while other Central Asian peoples held them in very high esteem.

Ulrike Roesler, “The Adventures of Rāma, Sītā and Rāvaṇa in Tibet,” contained in:  John Brockington, et al., eds., The Other Rāmāyaṇa Women: Regional Rejection and Response, Routledge (London 2016), pp. 44-70.

Cyrus Stearns, tr. King of the Empty Plain: The Tibetan Iron Bridge Builder Tangtong Gyalpo, Snow Lion (Ithaca 2007).  This is a complete translation of the life of Thang-stong Rgyal-po Brtson-’grus-bzang-po (1361?‑1485), often known as Lcags-zam-pa, which is to say, the Iron Bridge [Builder].

§   §   §

Looking for something to read in English on Tibetan smithing?  There is an essay on ironworking by John Clarke contained in Donald J. LaRocca, Warriors of the Himalayas, Metropolitan Museum of Art & Yale University Press (New York & New Haven 2006), pp. 20-33.

Or would you prefer something in German about Tibetan metalworking?  Try Hanna Rauber-Schweizer, Der Schmied und sein Handwerk im traditionellen Tibet, Tibet-Institut (Rikon 1976).

If you are looking for something in classical Tibetnn language, matters are more complicated, although I have noticed a short treatise about metalworking for image making in The Collected Writings (Gsung-'bum) of 'Bri-gung Chos-rje 'Jig-rten-mgon-po Rin-chen-dpal (New Delhi 1971), vol. 2 (Kha), pp. 10.5-14.6. It has its difficulties for even more seasoned Tibeto-logicians, but part of its attraction is precisely because this 12th-century work has interesting words for files, awls and engraving tools, but more to the point a few things to say about choosing good quality metal and the smelting of it.

Notice the iron chain links in his hand,
a wall painting photographed in Bhutan

PS (February 5, 2020):

I noticed on p. 203 of an essay by Peter Jackson (I'll give you its reference in a minute) the story of how Hülegü extracted a promise to spare the lives of the inhabitants of Harim if they would yield to his army.  They hesitated and asked for assurances from the Muslim ruler of Aleppo. But these supposed assurances were only meant to lure them out of the city to their slaughter.  Only a blacksmith, an Armenian, was spared.  The Syriac historian and Jacobite Christian Bar Hebraeus tells this story that you can find here, also.  So this one example is offered just to show it wasn't only in Budapest that the lives of smiths were spared.*
(*The moral to the story from the Mongol invader viewpoint is just this: Those who fail to submit to us immediately are already sentencing themselves to die by our hands. If the Harimites didn't quite understand this, seeing what happened to them might be effective in preventing such misunderstandings in the future.)

Peter Jackson, “Hülegü Khan and the Christians: The Making of a Myth,” contained in: P. Edbury & J. Phillips, eds., The Experience of Crusading 2. Defining the Crusader Kingdom, Cambridge University Press (2003), pp. 196-213.
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