Saturday, April 15, 2017

Book Arts, Consecration and Letters

Since the subject is holy books, and the ritual methods for making books holy, let’s first think about books and briefly look into some of the relevant terms for them. Then we’ll prepare the way for exploring some thousand-year-old evidence about book production, consecration and related issues. All of the consecration texts we plan to examine date to pre-Mongol times, at least, and the most basic ones were revealed by Shenchen Luga in 1017 CE, exactly one millennium before now. So today we will take a glance at his life, say something about consecration and letters and what the two of them have to do with each other. First, some etymologies.

What were and are the Tibetan words for books? The Tibetan translators of Indic literature always seem to translate Sanskrit pustaka (the final -ka is somewhat optional) as glegs-bam. But it appears that the Sanskrit word pustaka was also borrowed via a Middle Indic form pothi into written Tibetan (po-ti), until modern times when it appears in the single-syllable form pod. Well, at least that is how I see it at the moment, although it does require more research and reflection. I translate glegs-bam as “the Volume” with a capital ‘v’, in order to underscore its status as a sacred object. The modern term is dpe-cha, with apparent meaning partial example or the like. I have no idea where that comes from. Another modern word, the one most likely to be used for regular Euro-format books, is deb, shortened from deb-ther, a Mongol-era borrowing (Greek diphtherâthat is related to the English word diphtheria.

Nota bene!  None of these words occur in the searchable body of texts among the Dunhuang documents, although bam-po does, and bam-po means a fascicle, perhaps in the sense of a stitched or glued bundle of paper as found in China. Or maybe the bam-po was a Tibetan invention, I’m not sure of it. It seems it was a term used for inventory in the early Tibetan scriptorium, and that could be enough to explain why Tibetan translated scriptures in the Kanjur often tell you when a bam-po has come to an end, or give a “bam-po count” for the entire scripture. This bam-po count did not exist in India (see the van der Kuijp article). 

An example of a South Asian palm-leaf book,
complete with the two binding cords running through each leaf.

While not the very first, certainly one of the first and, as time would prove, the most widely influential of the treasure revealers for Bon tradition as a whole was Shenchen Luga (d. 1035 CE).* It is recorded in what I regard as the most reliable of the early accounts that, after his scriptural findings in 1017 CE, he kept silent for a period of one twelve-year cycle about the texts and their content. In the same source we learn how one named Sbrags-sto Ku-ra had built a chorten and invited a physician named Zhang to consecrate it. During the course of the consecration (zhal-sro), Shenchen raised a question about what a chörten of Dharma Body might be, insisting that there is nothing about a chörten that could apply to Dharma Body. After this debate, signaling his debut as a teacher, he gradually over the coming years let his excavated scriptures be copied by others. Among his first followers was one named Cog-lha G.yu-skyid, who asked to see them all. He made a special request to make his own copy of the Khams chen scripture, and in fact constructed two copies, one for Shenchen and one for himself. The one for himself was called the Red Hundred-Thousand ('Bum dmar), and the one he made for the Great Shen was called the Royal Hundred-Thousand with Hardened Leather Book [Boards] (Bla 'bum bse gleg[s] can). The last-mentioned is the one that the Venerable Tenzin Namdak once told me that he had seen with his own eyes when he was still living in Tibet, prior to his escape.
(*Shenchen Luga I go on to call the "Great Shen," translating the first part of his name Gshen-chen Klu-dga'. Shen is the clan name. Sometimes he is called Gshen-sgur, with reference to a postural anomaly of his due to some sort of accident. We might conceivably translate this as Hunchback of the Shen Clan.)
The Great Shen. Notice the stack of books behind him to his right.
Tucked into his sash, the phurpa, too, connects with his scripture discovery.

A set of consecration texts is always included in the lists of the Great Shen’s scriptural findings, and we will say more about them.  A text that I would regard as a more problematic one, on the life of the Great Shen's disciple Zhuyé Legpo (ཞུ་ཡས་ལེགས་པོ་ 1002-1081), has its own elaborate story about how the first copies of the scriptures were made by him soon after their discovery. In this version, the intent to make copies of the scriptures was there even before they were excavated. The Great Shen speaks to him in verse:

The teachings that belong to you
are currently under the ground.
In order to extract them from the soil
I need a load of axes and picks.
I need thirteen able-bodied men.
I need six loads of paper and ink.
I need a hundred scribes to copy them out.

While quite detailed and dramatic, this story does not sit well together with the other account that has the Great Shen doling out scriptural texts one or several at a time over a lengthy period, which is one of several reasons for my reservations. But disregarding them for now, our text goes on to say that sixty-five scribes worked for three months and five days.  Their work was checked over three times, resulting in eighty-six volumes of scripture.

In 1038, following the same source, Zhuyé had a vision at the site of an ancient temple Zo-bo Khyung-slags that inspired him to build there.  When the new temple was completed, he invited seven teachers to the consecration. Among them, despite the chronological impossibility, was the Great Shen himself, who would have already died in 1035. Even more strangely, the guest list included the Bengali teacher Atiśa, who would only arrive in Tibet in 1042. Atiśa performed a special ritual called Stong gsum snang srid g.yen bcos, which we might translate Mending Divisiveness in the Phenomenal Triple-Thousand [Universe].  It appears it was at that same meeting when Atiśa gave him names for his son Skyid-po as well as his future grandson Jo-thog.

My main point to make here is just that while consecration rituals are found among the Great Shen's textual discoveries, they are also important in the associated narratives.

It has been over 30 years since I first noticed some remarkable connections between these consecration texts of the Great Shen and the consecration text of Atiśa. Most impressive is the fact that in both we find the chorten topped by a Birdhorn (བྱ་རུ་ - bya-ru) finial, and in both the Birdhorns are said to symbolize wisdom and means. It is most surprising to find Birdhorns in a non-Bon text, and I know of no other case of bya-ru being used in them with the same meaning, let alone the same symbolic associations.

Now a few observations about consecration and its literature in Tibet, and first of all some basic terminology: Our Bon texts generally prefer the term zhal-bsro in place of the more familiar rab-gnasZhal-[b]sro literally means face warming, but I think heart warming is a more communicative rendering. We will not find this vocabulary difference so surprising when we learn that zhal-bsro is the form known in Old Tibetan texts and inscriptions from the imperial period, while rab-gnas is not locatable in them. Another related Bon term is nang-rdzong, used for the pre-consecration rite of depositing holy items that is usually called rten-gzhug or gzungs-gzhug.*

*So there are certain peculiarities like these to be found in the Bon literature. If we survey the literature on consecration in pre-Mongol Tibet, what we find are perhaps four lengthy manuals or sets of manuals, apart from those of Bon. Of these, the Rong-zom-pa and Atiśa manuals date to around mid-11th century, while the Sakya master Grags-pa-rgyal-mtshan's dates to the late 12th. We should also mention that there are a number of less lengthy manuals by Kagyü masters of the late 12th century. Among those just mentioned the most substantial are Phag-mo-gru-pa's. In terms of sheer volume, the Great Shen surpassed them all.

Here you see the title and opening words of an appendix to Ven. Tenzin Namdak's 1984 treatise on the arts, meaning primarily religions icons. He starts with an interesting passage from the Gzi-brjid, and for the moment I only want to point to the first words even if there are many other things of interest there: As you see, it mentions the dang-thogshad and tsheg as being counted among the 30 magic letters. This idea that the punctuation marks are part of a set of letters is something shared with the consecration literature. In that literature, we find somewhat peculiar terms for talking about these common Tibetan punctuation marks, as you see below. The word dang-thog, the most special one, seems to be used only in Bon texts.

I used the fancy version of the shad punctuation mark here, although the plain one is the one ordinarily used to divide up [1] members of a series of things, [2] clauses or [3] sentences.

The tsheg point divides the language into syllabic units. Tibetan has a monosyllabic writing system, but it is not a monosyllabic language.  The language tends to be bisyllabic (or trisyllabic) rather than monosyllabic.

It will be clarified in coming blogs how for these Bon consecration texts even the most minute bit of a holy book contains a full share of its holiness, and this goes for not just individual letters, but punctuation marks as well. In fact, as we will see before too long, each letter and punctuation mark merits its own individual micro-rite of consecration. Each letter is honored and celebrated as a holy object in its own right. Oh my, what is this leading into?

To be continued...

§  §  §

Sources of external justification (or whatever):

Leonard W.J. van der Kuijp, “Some Remarks on the Meaning and Use of the Tibetan Word bam po,” Bod Rig-pa'i Dus-deb, no. 5 (2009), pp. 114-132. This is the latest on the subject, although earlier articles by Ernst Steinkellner and Helmut Eimer have weighed in on this weighty issue. I should note that the Negi Tibetan-Sanskrit dictionary, p. 3716, does have two examples of the word bam-po used to translate two different Sanskrit words, but in both examples the meaning is  a bundle  of something that has nothing to do with books. Look at this Old Tibetan text, and be sure that both Chinese and Tibetan books could have bam-po counts. The oldest Tibetan word for holy book known to me, from somewhere around, let's say, the time of Emperor Ral-pa-can, is Dar-ma, a Tibetan borrowing of Sanskrit Dharma. It isn’t very well known, I suppose, but one of the frequent meanings of the word Dharma in Great Vehicle Buddhist scriptures is scripture or scriptural volume. For more evidence of this, see Hugh Richardson's chapter, “The Dharma that Came Down from Heaven,” contained in his book High Peaks, Pure Earth, Serindia (London 1998), pp. 74-81. I’d suggest a more accurate reading of the title would be The Single-Fascicle Holy Book that Fell from the Sky (གནམ་བབས་ཀྱི་དར་མ་བམ་པོ་གཅིག་གོ).

China during the Sung Dynasty employed a technique called butterfly binding, making use of adhesives rather than stitching. For a brief outline of the types of binding used in Chinese history, look here.

I would like to point to some very recent book-length studies that I personally have found most interesting and useful for thinking about Tibetan book culture, although they are very different from each other. Here you see the covers of two books that present a contrast, what perhaps we could call a scientific vs. a literary approach. In my view they nicely complement each other, so I warmly recommend them both.

We might regard the two books you see below as compositions by modern Tibetans. The first is much recommended to everyone who reads Tibetan in case you can find it. It is practically an encyclopedia of Tibetan book culture. The second written by Kongtrul a little over a century ago is relevant for its section on the book arts, but the whole translation by Gyurmé Dorje is in itself a thing of wonder... an awesome work of translation art.

Afternote (April 16, 2017):

Perhaps the modern Hebrew word daf meaning page or paper, is related through borrowings to Tibetan deb?  The Sumerian word that could be the progenitor of them all is dub.  See the etymological musings here.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Introduction to Tibetan Book Arts

The Tibetan world has an amazingly impressive book culture, truly different from what you find elsewhere.* I could think of no better way to illustrate it than with a few slides borrowed from His Holiness the Karmapa's own Flickr-stream for the 2017 Kagyü Mönlam. This annual event is held in Bodhgaya, at the site of the Buddha's Enlightenment. (*A note in advance:  What you will find in this and in a few planned future blogs are rewritten sections of a presentation recently given at an academic workshop on manuscripts. They share some of their subject matter with the article that will eventually be published, but should not be confused with the article.) 

Today will just be a brief verbal and visual introduction to Tibetan usages of books. We will emphasize understanding how books are situated among the holy items capable of being consecrated. The photos surely help with this. 

In the first picture you see monks (nuns and laypeople also participated) reading aloud. They are not reading in unison the same passage. Each one has his or her own set of pages from one scripture or another. The words of the Buddha blend together to become a uniform roaring sound soaring up into space. I suppose this is one major point in the reading ritual, since anyway most of the symbols of Buddha word are loud or roaring sounds that carry for a great distance, like the lion's roar or the beat of a drum, or the piercing tones of a bell or gong. I suppose each participant is understanding their own bit of text in their own way, but really, even given that intelligibility has its place, it isn’t given much space in this ritual-devotional context. If you want to start understanding what is going on here, forget your classes in reading comprehension and prepare to enter into a different reading economy.

I chose photos to demonstrate how young and old participate in the ritual.  Many will
recognize this particular monk as a well-known Rinpoche of the Kagyü school.  
In Tibet in our times you can observe many manifestations of laypeople’s respect for Buddhaword when, for example they use their katag scarves to take dust from books laying on their temple shelves — not so much motivated to remove the dust from the books as to take some home with them. And you see that often the Kanjur shelves are raised up over a meter above the ground. I suppose the reason for this may be to keep them beyond the reach of moisture from the ground or creatures that might disturb them. But laypeople take advantage of this by walking under the bookshelves, in a bowing position, as a way of receiving the blessings of Buddhas’ pronouncements. 

The bases of a great deal of Tibetan Buddhism, not just lay devotionalism, but also the most lofty flights of mystical as well as rational visions and speculations, are found in the idea of the Body, Speech and Mind of the Buddha[s]. We approach the world, and religious practice, through our body-speech&mind complexes, with the Buddhist aim not to sit there as passive, forever-submissive devotées, but to aspire to and eventually accomplish the task of becoming the ultimate Body, Speech and Mind of the Buddha. We could say people are supposed to use methods that make use of their ordinary body (movements, gestures), speech (recitations, mantras) and mind (aspirations, meditations) to achieve Body, Speech and Mind. Until that happens Buddhists go on paying respects to their future Enlightenment by showing reverence to representations (or icons, or receptacles) of Enlightened Body, Speech and Mind. Enlightened Body is symbolized as any kind of two- or three-dimensional image or a divine form of aspiration: drawings, paintings, statues. Enlightened Speech is represented primarily by the holy Volume that contains enlightened utterances. Enlightened Mind is most often represented by the Chörten (Sanskrit Stûpa), understood as a memorial for the Enlightened Ones (other objects, like the Vajra, may also be placed in the class of Mind receptacles). 

All three types of icons, when they are complete in all their parts, can and ought to be consecrated before offerings begin to be made to them, and consecration is mainly about setting things apart for use in worship and in religio-spiritual practices of still other kinds. Tibetans (unlike some Indian Buddhists of a thousand years ago) normally do not perform consecrations for such things as wells and bridges. These rites Tibetans reserve for Body, Speech and Mind receptacles exclusively. In Tibet the following fact is abundantly clear: books in the form of Volumes belong to the broad category of holy objects every bit as much as Chörtens and Images.  (Not to neglect the building that contains them, the Temple, which is more likely to receive the more elaborate and lengthy consecration rituals.)

This monk carries on his shoulder, in a procession around the Mahâbodhi Temple, a wrapped Volume with flower offerings visible on top. Also visible here is the labeling flap. Under the three layers of contrastingly colored brocade you would likely find a flap of white gauze-like cloth with a short title and/or key-letter inked into it. Essential for keeping a working library, this is the Tibetan equivalent of a library call number.

When the procession is over, the Volumes need to be carefully reassembled and readied before they are returned to their places on the shelves. Here you see how one monk, with the help of another, wraps the book up in its clothing (the same word námza is used for clothing offered to sacred images). The clothing is in fact just one of a set of four or five objects that I would call binding elements, although each of these also serves a protective function against environmental hazards, something I’ll try to convince you of in some later blog. There are a lot of rules and tips for properly wrapping the cloth around the book that I won’t go into (see the demonstration video linked below). It’s generally deemed important to have the top of the book remain on top throughout the process, and there are ways to ensure this. That way the title page will be on top when the book is shelved. 

For today I’ll just end by saying that Tibetan ways of binding up books have changed in some interesting ways during the last millennium (and more). The book-boards, although they are and were always made in pairs, one above and one below, have today been reduced to thin cardboard-like objects identical in length and width with the pages they cover. In older days these would have been made of wood, which was important for other reasons than just stiffening the package (we’ll get to that eventually), and the wooden covers would have extended out beyond the paper stack. Today the title label is a separate object inserted into the cloth as it’s being wrapped around the book. In older days it was an inseparable part of the (often stiffened) front title page. Also, today the book-wrapper ends in a strap, sewn to one corner of the cloth. In older days (and even today in some cases) the strap was a separate object, often more like a belt with a buckle, that was used to tighten the loose folio pages between the two wooden boards.

§   §   §   §   §

Take a look somewhere else!

For more photos of the Kanjur Reading and Procession that formed part of this year's Kagyü Mönlam, look here. On the sounds that symbolize Buddha Word, look at this previous blog. The University of Michigan Museum of Art is at this moment putting on a show of remarkable examples of Tibetan book-boards (look here). The exhibit has the title “Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection,” and it runs only until April 2, 2017, so you had better hurry. For more examples of book-boards, go to this Himalayan Arts Resources page about them. If you need a tutorial about putting the clothing on books, try this 10-minute video. 

If you don’t master every detail all at once no need to be discouraged. Anyway, not every Tibetan is equally finicky about what must be done when putting on the clothing, and in fact I’ve noticed some important “tucking” motions are commonly overlooked, especially by those in a hurry. The important thing is not to allow yourself to get overly neurotic about it. It’s best to see how a number of people do it before you develop our own style, at the same time trying to understand why all these things are done to begin with. If something isn’t found to have good rationales, you really do not need to do it. My home Tibetan library includes a few hundred pecha volumes, and I admit, I could do a neater job of it with a little extra effort. Although some might think it odd, I even use pecha wrappers when I’m traveling with books bound in your typical Euro-style, as they can prevent damage. And relax, it’s no wonder if you sometimes think a third hand is required when you see that even experienced monks need a little help sometimes.

Some Euro-American types are overly used to using the words binding or bound to mean only things sewn up in signatures, but they need to be disabused of this notion. Tibetan (as well as Indian) books are nearly all in fact bound even when the pages are (supposedly, according to Eurocentrics) “loose.” Tibetans make use of what I call binding elements, like the cloth and the strap, and I’ll say more about them another time, even attempt to explain their rationales. I may even go into their history a bit by looking at some thousand-year-old sources that practically everyone has ignored until now, sources belonging to the Bon religion.

The Wikipedia entry for “pecha” is brief and not bad as far as it goes. Better if you read this page on Tibetan book production, or enjoy the splendid photos in this PDF.

Although woodblock printing (xylography) isn’t exactly on topic here, you might be interested in a recently uploaded English translation of an essay by the recent Tibetan scholar Dungkar Rinpoche; the PDF is here.

- - -

For the Tibetan language lovers, learners and knowers, here is a set of vocabulary items used in this blog (if you are looking for a more complete and technical list, try this page at Dorji Wangchuk’s website, entry for June 1, 2013):

Bodhgaya → Dorjé Den རྡོ་རྗེ་གདན་
body → lü ལུས་
Body → Ku སྐུ་
Bön → Bön བོན་
book-board → legshing གླེགས་ཤིང་
book-strap → legtag གླེགས་ཐག
book-wrapper (clothing) → namza ན་བཟའ་ or peré དཔེ་རས་
Buddhaword → Ka བཀའ་
Chörten → Chörten མཆོད་རྟེན་
consecration → rabné རབ་གནས་
Dungkar Rinpoche → དུང་དཀར་རིན་པོ་ཆེ་
Kagyü Mönlam → བཀའ་བརྒྱུད་སྨོན་ལམ་
Kanjur → Kangyur བཀའ་འགྱུར་
katag → khadag ཁ་བཏགས་
labeling flap → dongdar གདོང་དར་
mind → yid ཡིད་
Mind → Tug ཐུགས་
pecha → དཔེ་ཆ་
receptacle → ten རྟེན་
speech → ngag ངག་
Speech → Sung གསུང་
Vajra → Dorjé རྡོ་རྗེ་
Volume → Legbam གླེགས་བམ་
woodblock print → par པར་

+ • + • + • + • + • +

Added on (March 22, 2017):

Just out: this New York Times story about the Derge Printery, one of the largest printeries that continues to produce traditional Tibetan books: Edward Wong, “Printing the Ancient Way Keeps Buddhist Texts Alive in Tibet.” One correction: It’s body, speech and mind, not ‘body, mouth and mind.’ I’ve seen this unfortunate translation elsewhere, especially in Zen translations from Japanese, but that doesn’t make it right.

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