Saturday, October 14, 2017

Tibetan Bell in Armenia - Concluding

We continue where this blog left off.
This hand bell or drilbu, taken from an online auction site, has the mantra oṃ aḥ hūṃ in vertically stacked (not horizontal like ours), raised letters on the interior of the bell.  Click on the photo and perhaps you will see it better. This bell is rather unusual in its appearance, and although there are textual recommendations to place the mantra inside the slope of the bell, this seems to have presented some technical difficulties since it is rarely done. I assume our triply-repeated mantra was written in the form of a band encircling the outside of the slope of the bell, although I admit this is an assumption that could be proved untrue.

In general, what we can say about this three-syllable mantra — more ubiquitous in Secret Mantra Buddhism than the world-famous Mani Mantra — is that it is for blessing offerings.  The three syllables are for the Body, Speech and Mind of the Buddha. The mantra brings the blessings of all three to the offerings being made, whatever they may be. In practically every ritual you can see how the name of the offering is placed immediately after the first two syllables and before the third. In the case of our bell, my intuition is that it isn’t exactly or exclusively intended for offering purposes. For one thing, it is repeated three times, and this kind of repetition seems to be found mostly in food blessings and the like. I think our bell inscription has a consecratory significance, primarily, but I’m open to better suggestions.

So while we are drawing to a close, with a fervently whispered hope for an actual photograph of the inscription, since having one would further our investigation like nothing else could, I’d like to draw attention a few of its interesting features. As we mentioned, it is usual to write oṃ without the length-mark. That the bell inscription surely has this length-mark appears to mark it as archaic or at least archaizing. The visarga here seen as two small circles one on top of the other is missing in the Alishan eye-copy, although it would be strange if it were just overlooked. Schmidt’s metal-type does have it (his own correction based on Csoma de Körös? How can we be sure?). And finally, it violates more recent writing standards to put a tsek-mark, the syllable-dividing mark, in this case, immediately before the shad sentence-ending mark (the vertical stroke). In truth, in writing Indic mantras such as this, it ought to be the rule, a rule not always followed, that no tseks should be used at all. After all, it is Sanskrit language, where nothing like the tsek is needed to begin with. 

Just one more example of the lengthmark, perhaps the earliest one known to me right now, comes from the Tibetan imperial (or early post-imperial) period. It is a “pen-testing” or doodling paper found in Dunhuang.* Here you can see twice the o with the lengthmark beneath. The scribe amused himself, and us, by making the two wings of the vowel ‘o’ look, well, like wings ready to lift off and flutter about the room. This only helps with the point that the lengthmark is indeed found in early times.

(*I seem to remember Sam van Schaik was the first to draw attention to this, although at the moment I can't find the exact blog in Early Tibet. On the pen-testing papers, see Takeuchi.)

Now we should make some brief comments on modern ideas about the bell and the reasons for its unavailability. In 2014, I asked world-renowned Armenian Studies savant Prof. Emeritus Michael Stone some questions via email, and he is the one who suggested to me to have them circulated to an Armenian Studies discussion list. There were a number of responses, but since I haven't asked for let alone received permissions from them to repeat their words, I will just state my own generalizations, additionally based on modern literary sources both on and off-line, such as those you see just below:

Some interesting ideas on how the bell got there, found in recent literary sources.

To judge from the responses received back in 2014, we may say: There seem to be two opinions among the experts about why the bell itself is currently unavailable for inspection. One that it is still at Etchmiadzin Cathedral, but placed in storage somewhere. The other that a public address system was installed and the bells (the Tibetan bell presumably among them) subsequently distributed to churches in other parts of Armenia. My general impression is that for Armenians today, the existence of the Tibetan bell is a matter for pride, and one more indication among many of the wide-ranging activities of their ancestors.

A conclusion for the time being

If we were to draw analogies between philology and archaeology — and I think doing so could make very good sense — I would say that paleography is the pottery analysis of the text philologist. Together with the paper-and-ink analyses now gaining in popularity, paleography can prove a powerful tool for dating physical manuscripts and inscriptions, similar to the dating of archaeological strata through pottery. No serious paleography can be done on Armenia’s Tibetan bell inscription without first having an accurate record of the letters and their very shapes. This is the primary motive for our bell quest. Similar to paper-and-ink analyses, we might add, a 21st-century metallurgical analysis of the Armenian bell could allow certain conclusions about the places where the metal was mined. How unfortunate it is for us that the possibility of paleographical and metallurgical findings seems to have receded out of our reach.

Holy objects present us with the ever-mysterious numen normally out of our grasp in our everyday lives, but they may be the very things that make us hold on to religions as tightly as we do. As objects, they persistently present themselves to us, as if they possessed the formed solidity of text-book materiality, Aristotle’s forma et materia forever superglued together. Some objects are hard to ignore and demand our attention. Out-of-place objects particularly so.

Armenia’s Tibetan Bell bears on its surface an inscription identifying it as a consecrated Buddhist object, made holy through a consecration ritual. And what is consecration but a ritual agreement that with all the odds against it happening the holy can indeed be localized within the most material of things.* And there are reasons this unholy and theologically improbable union should be regarded as helpful.

(*See King Solomon's speech at the consecration of the Jerusalem temple in II Chronicles 6:18 where he brings up exactly this kind of objection.)

Out-of-place artifacts — and I think our Tibet Bell in an Armenian church must surely be seen as an example — threaten our normative academic discourses of difference and belonging. They are matter out of place, so to speak. They violate the normative philological principle of ‘fit’ (the demand that a new bit of evidence can only be accepted in evidence if it fits within a range of earlier well-established evidence). They seem to say, No more business as usual, it’s time for a change of view.

And in the case of our bell, despite all the objective materiality it ought to have, it remains elusive and untouchable, perhaps even hidden from our eyes, our touch, and most significant of all, our hearing. We can only hope that this out-of-place artifact turned mis-placed artifact will turn up soon to help us answer the remaining questions burning in our minds. Until then, I guess we can give the quest a short rest.

Some literature:

The blog called “The Last Yak,” entry dated November 3, 2010: How do You Spell Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ Anyway?

Yael Bentor, Consecration of Images and Stûpas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, Brill (Leiden 1996).

Tsuguhito Takeuchi, Glegs tshas: Writing Boards of Chinese Scribes in Tibetan-Ruled Dunhuang, contained in: Brandon Dotson, Kazushi Iwao and Tsuguhito Takeuchi, eds., Scribes, Texts, and Rituals in Early Tibet and Dunhuang, Reichert Verlag (Wiesbaden 2012), pp. 101-109, 150-153. 

A hare on a bell?  A highly curious modern sculpture to be seen in Yerevan, at the cascades.
Could this be a clue in favor of Hulegu?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Translator Trip-Ups 1 - Script

With a sense of hope to a degree justifiable, we may think that these oddities, the things that can and do trip up even some of our best translators of Tibetan texts, are a disappearing phenomenon. After all, when they make sense they are no longer odd. The stumbling block becomes a stepping stone that helps us rather than hindering as it had been doing. I’ve divided up my examples of oddities into 3 types: [1] oddities of script or letter. [2] oddities of spelling. [3] word oddities. Along the way you may notice some odd examples that remain ambiguous which type they belong to. And beyond these three, there are still more types we will not intentionally address, like oddities of grammar, syntax, ideas... After all, an oddity is an oddity no matter which classification we place it under. Oddity is itself an odd concept. True, our recognition of oddities as such may be subjective, but we definitely know them when we see them. And oddities can be puzzlers, puzzlers that can at times prove to be even more challenging, frustrating and fun than riddles are. I hope you will see what I mean.

And please do remember this is a group-participation blog. I expect input from you if you have an idea how to make any improvements in its content. This is *not* a record of my successes. There are still some hard nuts to crack in case you want to try your hands and heads at them. And my proposed solutions may not prove to be correct, or entirely correct. Esoteric? Sure, but does the word always have to have that negative ring to it? I hope that even non-Tibetologists will keep reading, to get a sense of what translators need to do, how far they have to go. Know that it can be a struggle.  Worthwhile, but also a struggle.

Most of my examples of script oddities come from “book cursive” and may also have to do with the abbreviation practices that are found most often in cursive manuscripts. I know that numerous Tibeto-logicians, specifically the ones who are not native speakers, spend their entire careers without ever even trying to pass “The Cursive Test.”  Thirty-five years ago while I was working with the Laufer Collection of the Chicago Field Museum when it was on loan to I.U., I was in the difficult position of needing to catalog cursive texts, most of them belonging to the Bon school. To begin with I was largely self-taught in this area, and there was a lot of trial and error. I came across some supremely discouraging examples of cursive abbreviations, with four-syllable names collapsed into one syllable for example. I thought of them as fully analogous to train wrecks. or was the train wreck me? Nobody ventured to help me with them. Even traditionally learned geshés were left scratching their heads. It was a truly disheartening situation, with sparks of light here and there but not much hope of any fuller illumination.

The classic work on cursive is one by Bacot published in 1912, and it is still useful. I made use of it myself when I was first trying to learn cursive. If you are interested, I could also recommend some modern Tibetan-language treatments that have all appeared since those bitter-sweet days I spent with the Laufer texts.

Here you see some of the most extreme examples Bacot gave in his article. I only encountered a few somewhat similar ones when I was working with the Bon texts. Quite unusual and odd beyond all doubt, you see there are pile-ups of the same vowel, in almost every case an odd number of seven or nine vowels. This reflects an Indic kāvya idea to use nothing but ‘a’s or ‘i’s or ‘o’s in a verse or line of verse. Such verses are known for example in poetic works of Tsongkhapa, who received some kāvya training as a young man. The vowel pile-ups are mostly encountered in verses for chanting, in the repeated lines or refrains. If you have the prayer memorized it jogs your memory just enough... In their contexts, they are not nearly as impenetrable as they may seem after Bacot extracted them.

Just below the lime-green splotch in the full page above and the detail coming up below, you can see an example of an extreme abbreviation practice in a Bon text from the canon.* I’m still not sure how to correctly read it, although fairly sure about the second syllable, the one that looks like a backward ‘na’ (we’ll see what that is in a moment), not so with the first.
(*This means the 192-volume one kept in Oslo that was catalogued. You can see the volume and folio numbers scrawled in the right-hand margin. I’ve shown the odd script to some of the best people in Bon and Tibetan studies, and they expressed puzzlement and nothing more.)

Here you see a close-up of the bizarre ligatures. We will leave it for now and look at similar examples.

From the same volume of the Bon Kanjur:

Here the arrow points to an example of the use of something that appears as if it were (but actually isn’t) the number 3, a 3 with an extra slash at the bottom. In the context it’s a colophon that ends in a lineage, a lineage that ends in ego.

Above is a close-up of the same, and my own transcription, that should make it clearer. I guess Tibetanists will be able to see from the context, even those who may tend to be skeptical, that the odd character we see here stands for the Tibetan first-person reference, bdag, ‘myself.’ How did this odd thing come into being?

Then after being transmitted from one generation to the next, it now [was transmitted] to me.

The solution revealed: Although Bonpos may not entirely appreciate my saying so, I believe the true origins of this sign are in the Sanskrit avagraha. In Devanagari script the avagraha looks rather like a hook or an ‘s’ with a larger, more opened curve at the bottom - . Tibetanists are most likely to encounter it in sādhana texts where it in fact is used to indicate the elision of the initial ‘a’ in aham, meaning ‘I’ or ‘myself.’

Can you read this? In actual practice, the cursive shorthand version of the avagraha can look like a simple nya as in the word for fish. But what is the backward ‘na’ doing here, any idea?

Well, here you see the answer. It would have been good to give actual manuscript examples of this phrase, but unfortunately I was unable to come up with a clear one at this moment, so this time you will have to take my word for its existence. 

Here is an example from a medical history of the reversed ‘na’. At the same time we also get a chance to see yet another common trip-up, an abbreviation for the word that means palace.

Roughly translated:  [seated] upon a silk cushioned throne made of precious substances inside
the pillarless Pangtang Palace.  (I’m planning a blog on the medical history.)

There is no Tibetan word phrong, although I wonder how many people have stumbled over it thinking it is one, flipping through the pages of their Jaeschke and Das in utter frustration.

And finally here below is an example I simply cannot understand it with any assurance, so the responsibility is all yours. You can spot it in the exact center of the text (I've put a blue box around it in the shadow version), two syllables that make no sense to me.

I do have a guess about what the two syllables stand for, but only because of context, and not because it makes sense of the syllables. I’m tempted to read mtshams med, as in [mtshams med] pa’i las (karma with immediate consequence that comes from performing a particularly heinous crime), is the thing that could be expected here. I don’t see it, though, so unless you have something to add we had better just move on.

Here is yet another excellent oddity. Let me give a rough translation of the passage replacing the oddity with an “X.” ‘When engaged in erecting a scriptural volume, what are the X in inscribing the initial flourish (dang-thog)?’* There is no doubt that a “ya” with its own subscribed ‘ya’ is something that requires some explanation. Not to keep you in suspense:

Now that you think about it, as I hope you have, the ya + ya-btags doesn’t seem so odd after all. It just follows the pattern of the preceding sa + ya-btags and tha + ya-btags for Buddha’s Speech and Mind.** Therefore it stands for yon-tan, and means Qualities or Talents or Virtues (of the Buddha, in this case). Are you still with me? Hope so. We’re not done with oddities yet. Not by a long shot.

Please do join in the discussion by leaving a comment.

Coming up:  Odd spellings.


(*The dang-thog is a kind of punctuation mark, explained in an earlier blog. It looks more-or-less like this: 

(**Generally speaking, when used to make cursive abbreviations, the subscript ya can only take the place of a prescript or postscript ga, and there is no ga in yon-tan.*** But here we have an exception to that rule that works only because of an idea to continue the series. The abbreviation of phrin-las presents a special problem. Theoretically it could reduce to phris, but that would invite confusion with an existing word that means reduced or diminished, which is absolutely not a good way to think about Buddha Activity according to anyone I know.)
(***Although it is true enough that there is currently no ga in yon-tan, the second syllable was probably originally spelled gtan, and yon-gtan meant an abiding or always-present gift, hence a good quality or talent. The late Michael Hahn made this etymological argument. For an analogous word, note also the second syllable of nan-tan, meaning ‘persistence’... I still have a problem with this solution (if that is what it is), and that is that the subscript ya is commandeered to take the place of a ga prescript [primarily] or [secondarily] a postscript ga in the first syllable of the abbreviated form only, and anyway the first consonants of the second syllable are always simply dropped with nothing at all representing them, the only exception being the little flag in the case of tsa, tsha & dza.) 

§   §   § 

A final note:  This and two more blogs that will be posted before too long come from a presentation given at the translators' conference held at the University of Colorado in Boulder earlier this year. The illustrations found here were created on the basis of the slides that were shown there, although I’ve added a few new ones. I've also omitted materials not my own, submitted by the co-presenter or by members of the panel.

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