Sunday, May 29, 2011

Future of Learning in the Himalayas

Patan Durbar, Nepal

“That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.”

- Entry for ‘Education’ from Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary.

Tibetan intellectuals are passionate about promoting education. Practically every person in the Himalayan world that has managed to receive a higher level of education is guaranteed to be concerned with the educational possibilities of people back home. I’ve seen this to be true so many times both inside Tibet and in neighboring countries with Tibetan populations. Inside Tibet, especially, they are bound to support schools taught in Tibetan-language medium, or at least those offering classes at suitable levels of Tibetan literacy. Until a few years ago a large number of Tibetan parents, including Party cadres in Lhasa, were willing to risk sending their children over the Himalayas to Dharamsala, to the Tibetan Children's Village in particular, as their only hope for the children receiving an education with real Tibetan content. The alternative? Culturally alienated Sinified children. These days not only is it more and more strongly forbidden to send the children to Dharamsala, it has also become much more difficult and dangerous with the increasingly strict border controls. Now it is all the more vital that Tibetan medium education be promoted in Tibet. And moves by the PRC authorities in recent years have been going in very discouraging directions.

In Nepal, at large, education is a huge concern. I remember 20 years ago they used to say that the number of Nepalese  unable to read stood at 70%. Now I understand it’s more like 50%, which seems to me like a woefully inadequate improvement, especially given the requirement of reading for most reasonably good occupations available in the early 21st century. Still poor after all these years, this gradually developing democracy has been preoccupied for the last decade with a Maoist insurgency. Now they, the Maoists, have been brought into the government, and if for this reason only there would be hope of more positive developments. Still, the fighting against them took so much energy and resources away from much-needed infrastructural improvements that these days Nepal can only produce half as much electricity as it needs (explaining those daily hours of “load shedding”),* and public education is so abominable that nobody wants their children to waste their time with it. Part of the problem with education in Nepal is just that so many parents are too poor to allow their children to spend much if any time on it. Their earning power, although small, is more important. Child labor can still be seen everywhere these days, especially in the metalworking shops. Forbidding child labor won’t help much to get at the root of the complex of problems. Education would seem to come much closer.**
(*By way of contrast, nearby Bhutan has plenty of extra hydroelectric power, and makes much profit diverting the excess to the Indian grid. The dams and generators were, I believe, largely built with Indian financing.  **Don’t be too surprised if I say that education can also be a source of certain kinds problems. For example: It’s well known that successful rural education programs promote migration to urban areas leading to increased unemployment, housing problems...)
I’m still trying to remember ever once meeting a learned Ladakhi who didn’t have a hand in building or managing one or more schools. I haven’t been in Ladakh myself, although I’ve visited neighboring valleys just south of it. I haven’t been to Bhutan, either. Of course I’d love to go. Who wouldn’t?

So this is what I have in mind. I’ve found out about two schools, one in Nepal and one in Ladakh, both of them intent on instilling Buddhist values, both run by intelligent, idealistic and trustworthy people, and both much in need of help. Actually, the Ladakhi school, which I haven’t seen, appears to be in much sadder shape financially than the one I visited in Kathmandu.* Its classes are taught mainly in Ladakhi-Tibetan (there are classes in Hindi, Urdu and English), while the Kathmandu school, like very many private schools there, is taught in English medium. If you also feel the concern and see the need to act, I’d like to ask you to conspire with me, not only with the idea to help them out financially if possible, but also to visit the schools and try to find out more about their conditions and needs and then, of course, to spread the news to a few other people so that more can get done.
(*Both schools already have well established physical buildings and have been in existence for some decades by now.)
All you have to do is send a comment in the comment box below. I won’t publish your comment (I screen comments... they never go up automatically). But if you will send me an email contact, I will write back with the details of what I know about one or both schools and we will form an informal email group that will share information and ideas about how we can help these children in a more private way, without any fanfare and without a penny wasted on overhead or administration (I won’t be handling anyone’s money for them). I’d especially like to hear from you if you are planning to travel to Ladakh or Nepal in the near future. Helping is important, but it’s also important to do it in a smart way.

§  §  §

An open door at Oxford?

If you are interested in supporting an organization that builds new schools in the Himalayan region (meaning primarily eastern Tibet and Nepal), I’m particularly impressed by what Karuna-Shechen has been doing, especially their support for Bamboo Schools in Nepal (read this story). Of course there are other school support organizations at work.

I recommend this page at Cultural Survival website.

Catriona Bass has written up some solid research on the state[s] of education inside Tibet during the late 20th century. If you are seriously interested in the topic, try her book Education in Tibet: Policy and Practice since 1950, TIN and Zed Books (London 1998).

For some insight into the state of Nepalese educational institutions, both public and private, look here.

People sometimes succeed by chance,
yet no one would think of them as wise.
When the worm is finished with its meal,
if letters appear it's still no scribe.

ma dpyad pa las don grub pa //
byung yang mdzangs par su zhig brtsi //
srin bu dag gis zos pa'i rjes //
yi ger byung yang yig mkhan min //  


Sa-skya Legs-bshad, ch. 3, v. 27

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Been Serving Leniently, Have You?

Fixing the Peacock Pedestal at Swayambhu Nath
'Phags-pa Shing-kun, Spring 2011)

I spent some time in Nepal at the IBA this Spring reading through a Sakya commentary on the famous 12th-century work, the Mind Training in Seven Topics (Blo-sbyong Don-bdun-ma) by Chekhawa (Mchad-kha-ba). Of course, being that old, the root text is full of those outdated ‘old vocabulary’ items that Tibetans call da-nying (brda’-rnying), which may at times make the reading a little difficult, even if it was quite simple language for people living then. But one line in particular has often been translated so badly it is hard to even begin...  “Do not serve the central object leniently.”

Here’s the line in Wylie:

gzhung bzang po ma bsten /

Now the same in real Tibetan letters:


The main sticking point here is the expression gzhung bzang-po, not found in many dictionaries.* You might want to understand the gzhung to mean a governing center, a capital city, a main textbook for a particular subject, or the like. But when you say that a person has a good gzhung you are referring to her or his long-term character in conjunction with behavior, I think something very like what we mean by integrity in English. In modern Tibetan gzhung bzang seems to be a near-equivalent to gzhung drang, which might mean an ‘honest core,’ which again suggests the English word integrity. Some more recent translators of the Seven Topics have opted for loyalty, which might also work. Others translate as consistency or sense of duty (I’ll have to look more into this and think about it some more; I’m not pretending to cover the whole range of possible translation choices). These other translations aren’t necessarily less right, let alone wrong. I’m not sure enough to pass judgment on them. But yes, choosing one over the other does make a difference in the meaning. 
(*Try the Dag yig gsar bsgrigs [reprinted at least eleven times since 1989], part 5 of the entry for gzhung on pp. 680-681, where gzhung is defined as mi'i rang gshis dang kun spyod kyi ming ste : mi gzhung bzang / khrel gzhung can / mi gzhung drang zhes pa lta bu.)
What I am sure of is that not serving the central object leniently is very, very misleading. To then go on and make a commentary on the English as if it made any sense at all, is wrong on an even deeper level. It simply compounds the error. But then for later translators to simply copy it, or pretend to improve on it by shifting the wording toward a meaning they prefer, is mind-bendingly deceptive for both the translator and the translation consumer. Both we the translators and they the consumers deserve better. 

To translate the commentary passage written by the famous Khampa scholar Ngagga (or Ngogga):

gzhung bzang po ma bsten / zhes pa ni / pha rol pos rang la gnod par byas pa 'khon du bzung nas 'khon 'dzin de las nam yang mi ldog pa / dper na 'jig rten pa'i mi gzhung bzang po can des dus tshod ji tsam song yang rang la ltos pa mi brjed pa dang 'dra bas 'khon 'dzin spangs la ma bsten pa / gnod pa'i lan du slar yang phan 'dogs pa'i bsam sbyor dang ldan par bya'o //
“When the opposing party has done something to injure you that resulted in your holding a grudge against them there is no way you will ever get out of the feuding that will result from it. To give an example, a worldly person who is regarded as one with integrity, no matter how much time has gone by, will never forget his obligations. Therefore give up feuding and don’t make use of it. Rather, in response to injury you must time and again react with good plans about how you can help the other person.”

I imagine that most persons who have sadly found themselves seriously under-exposed to the logic of Lojong won't understand the more subtle point of this commentary, but rather imagine they see a contradiction in it, ‘How can the person of integrity who repays good deeds be used as an example that applies to a person who holds a grudge?’

It’s saying that the person who has harmed you has done you a great favor that needs to be repaid if you are (in fact) a person of good character, and not just what this-world-lings regard as a person of good character. (If you didn’t follow the reasoning here, try reading the commentary again more slowly, or explore its context.)

Lojong is sustained, and even made to thrive, under negative circumstances (rkyen ngan). Its serious practitioners (not those who proudly proclaim themselves practitioners) are beholden to the people who contribute to their attempts to realize non-self, since the bad things done to them serve as expedients on the Path to Enlightenment (lam 'khyer).*
(*One response often heard from the incredulous this-world-ling who first hears about Lojong is, ‘Impossible! This is just inviting people to walk on you!’ While in a sense true, bear in mind that Lojong practitioners are not supposed to let other people know they are practicing it, so it isn't as if they are tempting fate and saying, ‘Go ahead. Come and get me. Give it your best shot!’  Also, they aren’t masochists who seek ego gratification from provoking their own suffering. Everyday life presents ample opportunities. I doubt the truth of this requires much reflection.)
Now when we look back at the root verse and read, perhaps in a new way, the line “Don't make use of a good character,” we are forced to rethink it.

It’s actually telling you not to hold grudges, isn’t it?

There is no contradiction. Still, your understanding heads in one direction, then the other, and back again...  Perhaps the theory that translation is impossible is attempting to prove itself true. Perhaps its very falsehood proves its truth?

Sun setting above Nagarjun Hill
(Glang-ru Lung-bstan-pa)

Here is one of the coolest and most fun Tibetan Buddhism websites ever. No joke! One student told me about it, but it was too difficult for me to access in Nepal. It allows you to instantly compare seven different translations of the Seven Point Mind Training. Go here and try it for yourself. If you want to go directly to this particular line, try pressing here once or twice. Once there, wave your mouse over the seven boxed letters next to the following words "Do not serve the central object leniently." By doing this you will quickly see seven different translations for the line flash in front of your eyes one right after the other. Now try it with some of the other lines and see how consistent (or not) the translations are with each other. One thing you might discover to your amazement is that often people seem to have worked on the English translations that have already been done in the past rather than approaching the Tibetan freshly. This is a shame. But I suppose we are all guilty of it in some degree since our ‘readings’ of the Tibetan texts may be consciously or unconsciously affected by our past readings of translations. I know it has happened to me.

Khenpo Appey (Mkhan-po A-pad Rin-po-che), Blo syong don bdun ma'i bka' khrid, a pamphlet published in Nepal in 45 pages, distributed free of charge, with the date given in the Tibetan Royal era year of 2137, which would correspond to 2010 CE.  On p. 25, you may read what he has to say about our line:

gzhung bzang po ma bsten / ces dper na mi gshis ka bzang po zhig yin na rang la phan btags pa de ga dus yin kyang mi brjed pa sems la nyar sdod kyi red / de bzhin du gnod pa byas pa de 'khon du bzung nas ga dus yang ma brjed par sems kyi nang du nyar sdod kyi red / de lta bu gzhung yun ring du ma bzung zhes pa'i don red //

Khenpo Ngagga (Mkhan-po Ngag-dga’ — the colophon names him as Mkhyen-rab-blo-ldan), Blo sbyong don bdun ma'i rtsa ba'i 'bru 'grel skal bzang rkang drug rol ba'i pad tshal, an unpublished pamphlet based on a computer printout (this might have appeared in a Manduwala 1985 publication that I haven’t seen yet). The author and the late Ven. Khenpo Appey were contemporaries, well known to each other, both being disciples of Ajam Rinpoche.

Chekhawa’s work is certainly to be counted in the handful of Tibetan texts that might be described as most translated, together with the Love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama. Practically every last Tibetan Buddhologist has tried their hand at it, although not quite every attempt resulted in a major Snow Lion or Wisdom publication. I think the interest could be explained in several ways. One is that it is a very popular teaching text employed by Tibetan Buddhist teachers wherever they might be and regardless of their tradition. Another is just the high level of psychological insight it displays, something you appreciate more and more each time you go back to it. How can a text so simply (in its times) and abruptly stated contain such sophisticated understandings of the ways the human mind works? By being so old it defies evolution and makes us consider the possibility that here, at least, intelligent design has been at work.

Note: I used this font converter page to make the unicode Tibetan script out of Wylie input. You can use it, too, especially if Wylie creates obstacles for your reading comprehension.

One alternative text that I located in the Blo sbyong brgya rtsa has the different reading gzhung bzang mi bsten, which I'm tempted to translate — ‘Not all that literally!’ you may object — as ‘Good character (or integrity) isn’t going to cut it.’

Of late Tibetan Buddhists have begun to catch the fever of Translation Studies, which has long been playing in various academic realms. This goes along with huge plans, recently evolving onto a grandiose scale, to translate the entirety of the Tibetan-language Kanjur and Tanjur collections into English, on which we’ll talk some other time, OK?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Love and Loveliness in Lalitpur

Guru Rinpoche

I very recently had the pleasure of visiting what has to be one of the most aesthetically awe-inspiring museums in all of South Asia. I should have gotten a copy of the museum catalog, but it was rather pricey and I didn’t have enough NRS in my wallet at the time. Of course you have to pay for entrance to the museum itself, as well as purchase a tourism admission ticket to the Patan Durbar where the museum is located, and then you really must sit in their very nice garden restaurant (I recommend the saag) and rest up after a few hours of going flat-footed and bleary-eyed in the museum...

Another good thing about this museum is that they allow photographs for noncommercial purposes like, for instance, this blog, where there are no commercial interests at all.

I don’t really have details to tell you about most of the artworks you will see here. Like I said, I didn’t purchase the museum catalog. The frontispiece shows what has to be one of the most pacific forms of Guru Rinpoche ever. Some know him as Padmasambhava. He looks positively serene and friendly for a change. Here’s a slightly different angle.

Another angle

The entrance to the museum

Erotic woodcarving (maithuna, "couple")

Another loving couple in wood

Notice that the man is getting a nice garland,* which means he’ll be getting something else that ought to be nice from this comely woman before too much time has elapsed. I’ll leave it to your imagination.  Did you notice where his right hand is located? 
*To employ the language of Leiden Prof. Jonathan Silk, he is getting ‘garlanded.’
Well, these erotic woodcarvings are next-to-nothing compared to the jaw-dropping scenes you can see among the temple struts of other temples in the Patan Durbar. They show every conceivable pose with every imaginable partner. So much so that it buggers the imagination. You heard me right. Tibetologist Tucci long ago made a picture book on the subject that libraries fortunate enough to have it keep under look and key for the eyes of librarians only.  Since I like to think of Tibeto-logic as a family-friendly blog, I’ll just give you one example that is preserved inside the museum itself, which is this one. Kids, if you need to know (which I sincerely doubt), this is how families are usually made, including most likely your own:

I'm not sure a caption is needed

A bizarre looking couple with only two knees
between the two of them
They look even odder sideways, don’t they?

The royal throne of the kings of Patan

As you probably know, kings no longer rule or even have a ceremonial role in Nepal (since 2008, around the time of the infamous shoe attack), and recently there have been moves to remove from circulation all the coins and currency notes that bear their images. (The royal images are mostly being replaced by images of high mountains, or maps of Nepal...) But here, inscribed on this golden royal throne, is one of the wildest things you can probably ever recall reading on a chair:
“May it be good. On Thursday, the eighth of the waxing moon of the lunar month Shravana, Nepal Era 787 (about August 8, 1666) His Majesty King Shrinivasa Malla was offered an alms bowl and a golden throne attached with Kadamba trees.  Anybody can hire this throne on payment of two rupees to the families of coppersmith and carpenter. Let it be auspicious.”
Well, I thought it was funny. It costs about 200 rupees - or was it more? - to get inside the museum, and it is strictly forbidden to sit on this particular chair. No, I didn’t try to test the patience of the museum guards. It was getting late. I needed to get back to the hard mattress in my unlit (not much electricity in Nepal these days) and cheap Thamel guesthouse before dark, and I still wanted to make a stop at the nearby so-called Golden Temple of Patan. On my way out, in the bookstore where I should have purchased the catalog, I happened to meet a famous Tibetological blogger. It’s not like you see them everywhere, really.  Well, definitely not all the time.

In the Patan Durbar


Here you can get some nice views of the exterior and the interior of the Patan Museum. Go here to see some eye-popping items from the museum's collection, and don't forget to try out the links at the bottom of the page.

Jonathan Silk, Garlanding as Sexual Invitation: Indian Buddhist Evidence, Indo-Iranian Journal, vol. 50 (2007), pp. 5-10. Perhaps you can get a PDF of it for free download if you belong to a subscribing institution... Here is the opening line for a teaser: “In Ancient India, the act of garlanding may indicate a sexual invitation, especially if the offering is from a woman to a man...”

Here’s the Rati-lila book by Tucci, as listed in WorldCat, if you want to check and make sure if your library will let you check it out or not. You can read it in German, French and Italian (not to mention Croatian). I doubt you’ll be looking at the words all that much, I really do.

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Note on the names of the cities: Tibetans call Lalitpur (or Patan) by the name Ye-rang, which must connect somehow to the Newar name for the place, which is Yala. Kathmandu Tibetans know as Yam-bu, while Newars call it Yen. Some say Kho-bom is a name for Kathmandu, but I think there has been some confusion with Kho-bom/Kho-khom, which is definitely a Tibetan name for Bhaktapur (or Bhatgaon, the third historically royal city of the Nepal Valley). Newars know Bhaktapur as Khwopa.  Tibetans have Bal-yul as their name for Nepal. I'm not sure what the explanation for this ought to be, but I imagine that the Tibetan Bal was drawn from the pal in Nepal (?).

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