Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Five Seals of Bon, New Surprises

Five Seals symbols at end of Menri Manuscript EAP687/1/39
Click to enlarge

You might remember last May’s posting addressing my mistake in saying that in Tibet the Seven Seals (or in Bon, the Five Seals) are never represented by symbolic figures. If memory is short, go to “Five Seals of Bon, but with Symbolic Figures This Time.” Then come back here.

As if to drive the point even further and deeper into my earlier error, yet another rather different representation of the Five Seals according to Bon has shown up among the manuscripts digitized at Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Centre or, as it is also known, Menri Monastery.

We’ll just look at the first two lines of the script underneath the symbolic figures, as they supply explanation for what we see there.  You see a whole string of five syllables in the 2nd line outside the margins, so you have to wonder if it was there originally. This repeats the syllable that means ‘seal’ five times: རྒྱ་རྒྱ་རྒྱ་རྒྱ་རྒྱ།.  

From the manuscript of a work entitled ’Od-gsal Sems-kyi Me-long, or Clear Light Mirror of Mind. It forms a part of the orally transmitted Dzogchen teachings from Zhangzhung (ཞང་ཞུང་སྙན་རྒྱུད་).

The two lines that serve to label the seal illustration reads like this (forgive me a few tacitly fixed spellings):


The Seal of Air, green, an unchanging yungdrung.


The Seal of Water, blue, the wheel-turning king.


The Seal of Fire, red, the lotus of great power.


The Seal of Earth, yellow, the precious jewels.


The Seal of Space, white, the victory banner that never declines.

རྒྱ་ལྔས་མི་འདའ་བཀའི་རྟགས་།། རྒྱ་རྒྱ་རྒྱ་རྒྱ་རྒྱ་།

The marks with five seals of the inviolable word: seal seal seal seal seal.

I hope that was clear enough to show that once again, we can and do indeed find in Tibet a set of seals (five rather than seven this time) accompanied by symbolic figures, here we even find color correspondences. The figures are interpreted and named in terms of the five elements of traditional physics. If we were to look into this further, we would see that much of it agrees with symbolism typically found embedded in the hearts of mandalas.

So before saying farewell for today, I’d like to add one more piece of evidence in case it is needed to argue against the many who are understandably skeptical of my claim that a quite ancient Aramaic expression for “seal” may be found in medieval Tibetan manuscripts simply transcribed. It is for the sake of these doubters that I present a piece of manuscript evidence that necessarily precedes the 1245-ish evidence in the Zhijé manuscript we already supplied (here). The following illustration comes from the Matho fragments, taken out of a virtual time capsule closed in around 1200.

Matho fragment "v424."

Right there in the penultimate line, at the very end of the line, you can read ཁ་ཐམ་མོ་།།, kha-tham-mo. There you have that word kha-tham that goes back to ancient Aramaic, even if what we have here is a little unusual in placing a ‘final stop’ (slar-bsdu or rdzogs-tshig) at the end of it. So far this is the earliest datable manuscript use of this particular sealing expression in a Tibetan work that I know of. 

And it is clearly datable prior to the advent of the Mongols and Tibet’s borrowing of the Mongolian term tamga, in the form of tham-ga (dam-kha, etc.), a word Turko-Mongolian tribal groups used to mark group identity and ownership using emblems that often look like runes. I think these two Tibetan borrowings, despite their similar meanings and the syllable tham they hold in common do not share the same history.  They may both ultimately go back to the same ancient origins at the cusp of Afroeurasia, and I believe this to be the case, but in Tibet the two were borrowed via different languages at different times, and went on to serve different functions.  Kha-tham, I would say is the earlier borrowing, pre- rather than post-Mongol advent, just how early and from whom I’m not yet ready to conclude.  And kha-tham, unlike tham-ga, is only used in these sealing expressions at the end of a book.


Need more to look at?

The Matho manuscript fragments, retrieved from chortens near the Matho Monastery in Ladakh, were introduced in some recent blogs. I have it in my mind to do more blogs about them concentrating on their Zhijé and Kagyu content.

EAP687 - Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), British Library, London.


Samten G. Karmay, The Little Luminous Boy, White Orchid Books (Bangkok 1998). Through painted images and brief, often very brief, biographical sketches, this book informs us about the masters who transmitted the Zhangzhung Nyangyü teachings, instructions on the nature of mind of breathtaking beauty and wisdom.

A.E. Rogozhinsky and D.V. Cheremisin, “The Tamga Signs of the Turkic Nomads in the Altai and Semirechye: Comparisons and Identifications,” Archaeology, Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia, vol. 47, no. 2 (2019), pp. 48-59. 

Andras Róna-Tas, “Some Notes on the Terminology of Mongolian Printing,” Acta Orientalia Hungarica, vol. 18, nos. 1-2 (1965), pp. 119-147. Here Tibetan tham-ga is identified as a “late borrowing” from Mongolian. Indeed, it was getting used increasingly over time, with its primary usage being seals used by members of the official bureaucracy.  Thel-tse is another word for it.


An exchange of ideas that took place in the comments section of Sam's blog Early Tibet back in 2009 is worthwhile going back to, especially because it’s funny.  A veritable riot of ideas bouncing back and forth:



In response to today's blog Lloyd Graham made these much valued remarks, sent via messages on December 14, 2023, and placed here with his kind permission:

Excellent, thanks Dan!

The overt colour correspondences interest me as I have previously argued that the colour associated with each of the Seven Seals in the Book of Revelation links that seal to one of the seven classical planets.

Here's the link:

It seems to me that the two seals at the right of this new set have a lot in common with the corresponding two seals in the previous set that you posted back in August: (1) three tear-shapes or triangles in a pyramid configuration, and (2) a spiral crook ornamented with adjacent leaf-tips or serrations. The swastika appears in both sets, albeit in different positions. The remaining two seals in the new set seem to have no relationship to their counterparts in the earlier one.

The right-most seal is much more coherently and carefully drawn in the new set; the version in the earlier seal set is very crude and looks as if the original has undergone numerous rounds of poor copying to the point where it has become completely cryptic. The next seal along is also reduced from an intricate and cursive leaf-like icon containing three “eyes” in a pyramid configuration to a bare schematic of three triangles in the same configuration. Overall, the seal set that you posted in August could be a much debased form of the one in the Menri manuscript, with symbol degradation (of the two right-most seals), repositioning (of the swastika) and outright substitution (of the remaining two seals).

I see exactly this sort of degradation in representations of the Judeo-Islamic Seven Seals.

An afterthought. If I’m correct in reading the seals left-to-right, the Menri Ms. identifies one of the fully substituted seals as Water. The stack of three wavy lines at the left of the earlier seal set is similar to the almost universal pictogram for water, of which the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph is a good example:

= = =

A brief reply (Dan, December 19, 2023) 

A victory banner ought to look something like this:

Rgyal-mtshan, Victory Banner

I’ve been looking hard for something like a star or other celestial body in the various series of Tibetan seals, and haven’t found any. Here it appears that all the colors correspond to those commonly associated (in symbolism found in many mandalas) with the five elements. So this seems to set the Tibetan (and Indian Buddhist) evidence of the Seven (or Five) Seals apart from the rest.

I wonder why the foliage seems to accompany most of the elements in this new example. It is boxed together with each of the first three seals, but then boxed alone between the 4th and 5th. I suppose I’ll go on being puzzled by this until long after the holidays are over. Shouldn’t some mysteries remain sealed?

§   §   §

Postscript (February 14, 2024)

Now this!  I can’t explain how these things keep popping up.

I found it as fol. 4 of text no. 194 in the Drangsong Collection in Mustang, Nepal.  For more on this collection, look here:

You can go here and view the entire text:

The cursive manuscript doesn't have a front title, although in the margins it does have the short title Rab-gnas meaning Consecration.

To get a better look, just double-click on the photos to expand them.

Here the Five Seals appear to be growing on trees, like fruits.

I know, I should transcribe and translate the accompanying text. Give me some time and I’ll make the effort.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Dan. I met you once, at the conference at Tara Mandala. A non-scholar, I--admittedly--skim for the parts that fascinate me as an in-depth Nyingma practitioner. I wanted to mention that Jim Valby translated the Kunje' Gyalpo, in its entirely, in multiple self-published paperback volumes. Also, I have naive question. I know the extant menngagde tantras are clearly from a later date. But, I'm wondering if you have noticed any precursors, or hints, of their older roots in the Matho trove. Thank you.


Please write what you think. But please think about what you write. What's not accepted here? No ads, no links to ads, no back-links to commercial pages, no libel against 3rd parties. These comments won't go up, so no need to even try. What's accepted? Everything else, even 1st- & 2nd-person libel, if you think they have it coming.

Follow me on