Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Bagel, Baklava and Bag-leb


I suppose this to be the original bagel,
even if in Turkish it’s called simit.

I won’t waste breath apologizing for the frontispiece. Still, I wish I hadn’t put it up there. It’s making me drool... crunchy, salty yet soft inside, and I can’t have one if only because of the gluten. This is, in case you don’t recognize it, a Turkish-style bagel called simit. You probably won’t find them among the items called bagels in your local convenience store. You might have to ask.

You could have already guessed what we’re aiming for when you first glanced at the title of today’s blog, so I’ll keep it short. A bagel is not a baklava, but could share some etymological roots, it seems to me. Could this also be true of the Tibetan food term bag-leb?

To begin with, as you may know there are several culinary invention myths associated with the Turkish siege of Vienna. Let’s skip over the milk-coffee, the coffee-house, and the croissant — the croissant is supposedly based on the Turkish/Islamic crescent — and go straight to the matters that interest us right now, the bagel and baklava.  It is usual to find a Germanic root meaning 'round' behind bagel, or just to assume the Yiddish origins of the word, an automatic assumption (likely to be accepted without investigation) just because it is so widely regarded as a Jewish food. But legend says it was invented by a Viennese baker to commemorate victory over the Turkish forces, based on the shape of the stirrups of the Polish cavalry. I’m already confused about what counts as real history or not, and in danger of making matters worse, but I believe the bread item itself, or should I say items, were of Turkish origins, the naming based in confusing which of the newly introduced doughy items was which. Tell me if I’m wrong.

Baklava you must know is made of super-thin pastry layers and filled with nuts and honey. It has a clear Turkish name, first borrowed into European languages in the mid-17th century.  But just remember what a huge territory was ruled by the Ottomans then and since and you will know where to find the places where baklava is well known as part of the national cuisine. They have different styles of making them, of course, and tend to pronounce it with an accent on a different syllable. I like to say it with an initial accent. But if the Ottomans donated it to the Austrians at that point, there is still no telling how much history was already behind it. Most think it is quite ancient, guessing it is Roman or even Babylonian, it is difficult to find agreement.

There are even those who argue that the word, if not the sticky sweet itself, goes back to the time when Turkic speakers neighbored Mongolian speakers in the Orkhon River valley of Mongolia, far before the Turkish migrations. I haven’t found any sense of consensus on this.

Then, during the long centuries of emigration and expansion into Asia Minor, the Turkish people absorbed a tremendous number of words from neighboring languages, particularly Arabic and Persian, so much so that Ottoman Turkish got complicated. So it might not be possible to be sure of the word’s ultimate origins. I know I can’t tell you, even if I’m working on expanding my Turkish vocabulary again these days.

So now that we’ve managed to reach so little certainty on those first two words, let’s see what we can do with the third, the common Tibetan word bag-leb for ‘bread’.

Some people think, mistakenly as we will see in a moment, that bag-le-ba is just another spelling (perhaps the more correct spelling?) for Tibetan bag-leb.

A TBRC search of bag-le-ba reveals that in its 6 occurrences it is 5 times used as a regional or country name with its own peculiar script (or is it the script only that has the name?).  In one instance only is it a type of cloth (perhaps a cloth named after the place?). To be safe, I tried searching for bag-le-pa, and the 4 occurrences there point to it being a fabric. And the most likely solution to this, too, is to see it as meaning Pahlava.*

(*There are some country lists contained in Tibetan translations of scriptures where Pahlava appears in the forms Pa-hu-pa and Ba-hu-ba, both of these I think being based on misreadings of a more exact transcription that also occurs: Pa-hla-ba.) 

But, and this seems like a large but, in those cases where a fabric is concerned, it is possible these are all references to cloth made from bark, and this draws us into an Indic/Sanskritic etymology for bag-le-ba that likely has no connection to Pahlava.

Paul Pelliot, in his legendary Notes on Marco Polo, suggests it may be explained by a Prakrit form similar to Bengali bāklā, 'bark.'  The Sanskrit form is valkala. Emeneau wrote a piece on bark clothing, so you can read about that for yourself in case you have trouble believing in it.

In short, we can now forget about bag-le-ba. When you encounter this spelling it never means bread.

So now that we have eliminated this touch of confusion with the Persian realm and its script as well as cloth made of bark, we can settle down to the word bag-leb. Bag-leb is, as we said, the quotidian Tibetan word today for bread. It may be true what Laufer says, I cannot eliminate the possibility that it’s a two-word expression meaning flatbread. Still, I think it could well be another example of what I call a ”Tibetanization,” a borrowing that slowly and unconsciously naturalizes the foreign word by spelling it in a form that lends itself to a Tibetan meaning. And this is especially likely in multisyllabic words in my experience. See our earlier blog about Turkish and Mongolian loans in Tibetan.

Indeed, it is the case that as far as there is such a thing as traditional Central Tibetan bread,* it would to be in the form of approximately three inches in diameter, & maybe 3/4" high, rounds, more along the lines of a thick pancake or flattened roll than a loaf of bread, and usually made with brown wheat flour. In my experience the better ones always were.

(*Not everyone will appreciate the note of skepticism, but I have yet to run into a bona fide pre-20th-century usage of the word bag-leb, and all my searches for early instances have been in vain. You can go to TBRC and try searching for it yourself. But wait,  I spoke too soon. I do seem to find one usage in a medical work preserved for us in the Tanjur written by an Indian physician Raghunātha (Ra-gu-nā-tha/ར་གུ་ནཱ་ཐ་who visited Tibet sometime after 1656. This is significant! I do wonder if the Indian writer intended an Indian flatbread, roti or chapati or the like, when he used the word. It seems to be difficult to find evidence for these Indian breads in pre-Mughal literature.)

So finally, I ought to be ashamed of myself. After all, I’ve invited you over to visit from a great distance for a much-kneaded discussion over a cup of tea only to offer you an empty, or very nearly empty, plate of answers. So now it’s your turn. Tell me what makes sense to you.

Testimonies of some highly reputed scholars of past generations

M.B. Emeneau, “Barkcloth in India—Sanskrit Valkala,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 82, no. 2 (April 1962), pp. 167-170. I believe this is the single best discussion on this important topic, in case you’re curious as I think you are. Surely you are thinking, Is it comfortable? Can it breathe?

Berthold Laufer, “Loan-Words in Tibetan,” T'oung Pao, vol. 17, no. 1 (1916), pp. 403-552, at p. 532, footnote 1:  

The Tibetan word pa-le (“bread”), however, which Dalgado (l.c. p. 120) derived from Bell’s Manual of Colloquial Tibetan and with an interrogation-mark placed among the derivatives from Portuguese pão does not belong to the Romance languages. It is written bag-leb, both elements being genuine Tibetan words, bag meaning “flour, pap, porridge” and leb, “flat.”

Paul Pelliot, Notes on Marco Polo, vol. 1, p. 465: shows once more that the translators of the Mahāvyutpatti from Tibetan into Chinese often adopted arbitrary interpretations : hua-mien, ,,cotton”, is given as a translation of Skr. vakkali, Tib. bag-le-ba. But the would-be Skr. vakkali can be nothing else than a Prākrit form of Skr. valkala, ,,bark garment” (cf. Pali vakkala and vakkali), and Tib. bag-le-ba seems to be an adjectival form of bag-le, itself based on a Prākrit form similar to Beng. bāklā, ,,bark” (on which cf. J. Bloch, La formation de la langue marathe, 404; but bag-le-ba may have been contaminated by Bag-le-pa or Bag-le-ba, ,,of Balkh”).  

NOTE of mine: just a comment on those last words, I think Pelliot introduced an unnecessary confusion with Balkh. Balkh is represented in Tibetan sources in the forms Bag-la and Sbal-kha. Heed the metathesis, it happens, especially when liquids are involved.

On the web

For a discussion on the bagel, look here. Search for yourself and find a lot more. I regret that I didn’t read this book before posting my nonsense: The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, by Maria Belinska. You can see some of it at Googlebooks if you look for it.

For a recipe with clear directions for making bag-leb (བག་ལེབ་), go to this page at Yolangdu website. You should at the very least go there for its photograph of what ordinary Central Tibetan bread looks like. Yolangdu is a commercial site in the sense that they offer travel services as well as a cookbook that can be purchased. I am not advertising their paid services — this is a non-commercial blog — just linking this particular page with its recipe generously offered to the world without any price attached.

For a trip around the world showing the many forms that bread can take, I think this page is the greatest: It has photos of every type mentioned in this blog, including Tibetan baleb and Turkish simit.

Some books about Tibetan food

Rinjing Dorje (Rig-’dzin-rdo-rje), Food in Tibetan Life, with illustrations by the author, Prospect Books (London 1985). 

Not just useful for its recipes, this has impressive cultural information on such matters as table manners, joking and swearing. So I recommend reading it even if you don’t like food. My older brother once borrowed the book, and swore that he did his best to follow its directions for making Tibetan beer and nearly died when he tried it, perhaps because he took seriously the suggestion that eagle shit and aconite might be used in the yeast starter. But my dear brother, rest his soul, always had a flair for the dramatic, knew how to embroider his travel stories to ensure maximum impact. I never had that useful ability myself.

Bod-kyi Nyer-mkho'i Zas-rigs Tshig-mdzod (“Tibetan Traditional Food and Drink Dictionary”), Kokonor People's Printing Press (Xining 2000). 

Perhaps you can view it here (!rid=W20183). The brief introduction and postscript can be read in English. Each entry gives definitions in Tibetan, Chinese and English, although it is often the case that the Tibetan definitions are much longer and more detailed.  Notice that the late famous Namkhai Norbu was involved in the making of this reference work, but his name is given as Mr. Na Ka Nuo Bu, “the famous Tibetan scholar of Italian Oriental University.” The entry for bag-leb defines it as a name for flat go-re, which is interesting, even if the English translates with the technically incorrect “Baked bread.” Looking at the entry for go-re, it says it is the general word for any kind of bread, and then continues with 3 pages of entries for different types. I think the basic meaning of go-re is simply round, with extended meaning of completeness, while in the kitchen context the best translation might be bun.

Bod Zas Bdud-rtsi’i Bum-pa (‘The Vase of Ambrosia that is Tibetan Food’), Tibet People’s Printing Press (Lhasa 1993). 

Perhaps you can view it here (!rid=W4CZ309050). I wouldn’t much recommend this recipe book for most people. There is hardly anything in it for me since I’ve reverted to the vegetarianism of my younger years and have discovered a need to stay gluten free. Well, there is one very simple recipe for honey bread (sbrang thud) that is sounding good, although I think I’ll make it with teff. You know, I once enjoyed fresh croissants from the French Bakery in Lhasa, proving true that line of a song, “It’s a whole world after all!”

And a final note for myself (July 29, 2021)

I ought to think more about one occurrence of a region called Bag-le. This is in the discussion of earthquakes found in the omens text by Garga (Derge Tanjur, Toh. no. 4321).  It is mentioned just before Persia, and seems to be described as located in Tokharia (the western one no doubt, not the eastern). It’s part of a longer list of countries, and looks like this with country names turned red:  tho gar gyi yul bag le dang  /    bar sig [~par sig] gi yul dang  /... That means that Bag-le probably means Balkh (Skt. Bāhlika), so I should go back and apologize to Pelliot for doubting him.

Friday, July 02, 2021

The Realm of Dharmas, Chapter Three: Metaphors of Bodhicitta




[Having shown the nature of Bodhicitta, now the nature where all dharmas are gathered into the Great Completion in Bodhicitta’s continuity is explained.]

Absolutely  everything  is  gathered,  subsumed  in  Bodhicitta.

Because no dharma whatsoever is excluded from    Bodhicitta.

all dharmas are of the nature of                                      Bodhicitta.


[These three things are to be known for Bodhicitta— its simile, the significance of its simile, and its signs.  First, the simile—]

The SIMILE of Bodhicitta is “It is like the sky.”

In Citta there is no root cause and nothing that produced it and

so it is unpredictable, beyond communicating, beyond the sphere of thought.

“Sky Realm” is just an illustrative metaphor

which is not to say, “The metaphor itself is it!”

How then would the thought and expression lead to the metaphor’s meaning?

It is to be understood as an illustration of Bodhicitta’s pure nature.


The SIGNIFICATION of the sky-equal self-awareness

   that Bodhicitta is

is   that it is no thing for thought,

       beyond illustration and communication.  It

is   self-luminous,          unmoving—spacious receptive centre

       of Sheer Luminosity.     It

is        Dharmabody—spacious centre of Bodhi Heart.


[Now an uncompromisingly presented statement on the nature of Awareness-Bodhicitta which is sky-like pure, not belittled and devoid of partial definitions.]

Its SIGNS:  From its special powers dawns everything there is.

When they dawn, there is no ground for dawning, no agent of dawning.

Even just the word ‘dawning’, if you think about it,

is sky-like.

When you comprehend the non-preferential Great Levelness

in one fell swoop, precisely

that is the receptive centre of the spread-out-to-the-limit

beyond subject/object dichotomies.

[The manner of dawning in the Awareness continuity is unimpeded like the reflection of the sky in clear waters.  It dawns as various things, but even as they seem to dawn, in truth there is no ground or agent for dawning.  So they dissolve in the Void, pass over the pass into the nonpreferential Dharmabody.  By the statement, “nonpreferential Great Levelness,” the Mind Proper may be understood as sky-like.]


[The significance of that is subsumed in the Dharma Proper without centre or circumference.]

Uncompromisingly presented illustrations are made by way of simile,

significance and signs

all the way up to self-engendered Full Knowledge and Dharma Proper.

In these sky-like Three Great Rays personified,

absolutely everything is included.  Their nature is undifferentiated

and unbreached.

In the Realm womb of the great vast level beam,

everything is totally levelled, with no sooner/later,

no good/bad.

This is the meaning behind Vajra Being and Total Good.

[The All Making King says,

In order to actually realize its meaning…

the simile is to consider it as sky-like;

the significance is the unproduced Dharma Proper;

and the signs are Mind Proper unimpeded.]


[That Awareness is taught to be like the essence of the sun.]

Bodhicitta is like the essence of the sun.    For,

in its own continuity is Sheer Luminosity, totally uncompounded.

No dharmas cloud it.

It is naturally-arrived-at by passing right through.

No dharmas diffuse it.

It is the undistracted Dharma Proper continuity.


[An expansion on the preceding verse.]

The Three Bodies are beyond inclusion and exclusion:

from the Void—the Dharmabody,

from the shining—the Perfect Assets Body,

and the ray-bearing Emanation Body.

When their naturally-arrived-at qualities are totally taken on,

they are unclouded by the darknesses of faults and injuries.  They are

one—no sooner/later, no past/present/future, no transforming/transporting;

one—embracing all Buddhas and sentient beings.  This

one    is called, “self-engendered Bodhicitta.”

[Dharmabody is the void part of Mind Proper.

Perfect Assets Body is the shining part.

Emanation Body is the dawning part.

But even while saying these things, substantially

you get no recognizable dharmas at all…and the underlying meaning of those statements is that past, present & future are naturally-arrived-at without transforming or transporting.  Because, in the manner of an essence   it embraces all sangsara/nirvana,  the Sugata Essence vastly embraces all animate beings.]


[From the same continuity, appearances and becoming are shown to dawn.]

Bodhicitta’s special powers are whatever dawns,

all the various appearances of birth and motion,

material and vital, appearances and becoming,

realization and lack of realization.

[The nature of Awareness is like a mirror, and the special powers in its continuity are like mirrored images.  This is how it is the basis for the dawning of everything.]


[Apart from their mere dawning, they have no nature.]

While all these appear, there are no several natures.

Like mirage water, dreams and echoes;

like phantoms, reflections, Gandharva cities

and faulty vision, they have no existence whatsoever.

There is no basis for their appearances.  They are

mere temporary perceptions

in between which the Dharmabody  may be realized.

[Just as dreams do not come when you have not gone to sleep or after you wake up, but rather in the depths of sleep, even so, the erroneous appearances of sangsara occur neither in the time of the first Dharma Proper nor when the goal of nirvana is achieved in the end.]


[Showing that those appearances are unmoved from Dharma Proper.]

Out of the nature of naturally-arrived-at Bodhicitta

unimpeded play, the sangsara-nirvana magical display, comes.

When all those projections are comprehended in one fell

swoop in the Realm,

you may be sure that they have never ever moved from the primordial



[Because everything is completed in the Realm, it is taught to be Dzogchen, the Great Completion.]

Here all is the Bodhicitta continuity.

One complete, all is complete.     The unmade significance is


The nature naturally completed,

the self-engendered Full Knowledge,     is



[In the substance of Awareness which is not-at-all-arrived-at, everything dawns.  Therefore, they dawn without impediment out of the continuity of the unproduced.]

Bodhicitta, whether visible or invisible,

isn’t in external/internal or sangsara/nirvana dharmas.

But yet, out of its special powers, by the nature of motion,

appearances/becoming and sangsara/nirvana

dawn as the play of the myriad things.


[Since the substance of Awareness is not-at-all-arrived-at, it is beyond appearances and void.  For what is essentially not a subject for discussion, the occurrence of deceptive appearances arising in its continuity has not been experienced.]

From their mere dawning alone,

forms of void nature appear.

From the birthless they appear to be born.

From the very time of their appearing to be born, there was nothing


From the unended things may appear to be ended.

But there is no ending.

Forms of void illusion appear.

From their abiding alone

no dharmas of abiding exist.

There is no basis for making them abide, only

a comingless, goingless continuity.

However things appear, they are not thereby arrived-at.

So it is enough to say just, “They have no nature.”


[The meaning is summed up in the simple fact that no matter how things appear, they have no nature thereby.]

Those appearances may dawn themselves from the special powers,

but “interdependent origination” is an exact term for expressing their


From the very time they appear to dawn from the special powers,

there are no possibilities for preferences, no side taking as to whether

they do or do not dawn.

So ‘special powers’ itself is a mere term of no substance.

Everything has always never

never moved the least bit away from

the untransformed and untransported

continuity that Bodhicitta is.

 — Return to Chapter One

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