Buddhism and Bön II: What is tsuglag?

Songtsen GampoOne of the most important, yet most difficult to define concepts in pre-Buddhist Tibet is tsuglag (gtsug lag). In the early texts it has a variety of meanings, which were aptly summarized by Rolf Stein:

Il désigne une sagesse, un art, une science, un savoir-faire (et les écrits qui en parlent).

Thus wisdom, art, science, and indeed savoir-faire all coalesce in the tsuglag. It can be found as a personal characteristic of the ancient rulers of Tibet (such as Songtsen Gampo, pictured here), where it signifies the wisdom exercised in rulership. It is also used as a name for non-Buddhist ritual techniques (or ‘sciences’). Later on the word tsuglag became attached to Buddhism (just as the word chos gradually changed from signifying religion in general to Buddhism in particular). Thus one very common name for a Buddhist temple: tsuglakhang (gtsug lag khang), a “house of tsuglag.”

The manuscript shown below (IOL Tib J 339) is a prayer, a series of homages to the Buddha, the dharma, the sangha, and other noble objects. In the verse pictured here, the dharma is called “the supreme tsuglag”. The detailed commentary written in a tiny hand underneath this line goes on to distinguish between right and wrong forms of tsuglag. Right tsuglag is of course Buddhism itself, which is defined here in terms of teaching (bstan pa), accomplishment (bsgrub pa) and the path (lam).

Gtsug lag

The definition of wrong tsuglag is a bit more interesting, as it reveals the systems (of ‘science’) which were considered to be in competition with Buddhism at the time. The first kind of wrong tsuglag mentioned is called “the king of Chinese tsuglag” (rgya nag gi gtsug lag gi rgyal po). The exact system that is being referred to here is unclear but it is worth noting that Chinese astrologers equated the Pole Star with the emperor.

Then the author of the commentary tells us that there is wrong tsuglag “even within Tibet”. This includes studying the portents of the days (gnyi bzhur blta ba), probably a divination system for deciding whether particular days are favourable for certain activities–a very popular form of divination throughout Tibetan history. Another kind of wrong tsuglag is the gab tse, a word still used by Tibetans to refer to astrological charts. And the last form of wrong tsuglag is li zhi, which is unfamiliar to me but certainly looks like a Tibetan transliteration of a Chinese term—it might be worth investigating a link with the neo-Confucian li (理) and qi (氣).

Another manuscript, which I will discuss soon, shows that advanced forms of Chinese divination based on astrological tables were translated into Tibetan and apparently practised in Dunhuang by the 10th century. In fact Dunhuang and the surrounding area may well have been the entry-point for many elements of Chinese culture into the Tibetan cultural sphere.

1. Hahn, Michael. 1997. “A propos the term gtsug-lag”. Helmut Krasser, Michael T. Much, Ernst Steinkellner, Helmut Tauscher (eds.) Proceedings of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies. Wien: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1997. 341-348.
2. Macdonald, Ariane. 1971. “Une lecture des Pelliot Tibétain 1286, 1287, 1038, 1047 et 1290. Essai sur la formation et l’emploi des mythes politiques dan la religion royale de Sroṅ-bcan sgam-po”. Études Tibétaines, 190-391.
3. Stein, R.A. 1985. “Tibetica Antiqua III, À Propos du mot gcug-lag et de la religion indigène”. Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême Orient, 74, 83-133.

Also in this series
Buddhism and Bon I: the religion of the gods
Buddhism and Bon III: what is yungdrung?

5 thoughts on “Buddhism and Bön II: What is tsuglag?

  1. The mention of li zhiin the text is very interesting, and I think you are right that it is a transliteration of a Chinese term, although there is no way that Tibetan zhi could represent Chinese qi 氣.

    It immediately struck me that li zhi must be a transliteration of the Chinese word li ri 曆日 “astrological almanac”, which is a common term for almanacs during this period. For example, the title of the almanac for the year 978 on the recto of Or.8210/S.612 is Da Song Guo guanben kanding daben liri 大宋國官本勘定大本曆日. The Yuan dynasty (13th century) spelling of li ri 曆日 in the Phags-pa script is li zhi, which is a perfect match with li zhi in your manuscript. However, this would imply a relatively late date for the manuscript, as prior to the Yuan dynasty the pronunciation of 日 in standard Chinese would have had a final -t.

  2. Thanks for that very interesting comment. I think you must be right about li ri 曆日. It fits the context perfectly. I would not rush to revise the date of this manuscript (and thus the closing of the Dunhuang cave) though. I have been working on a Dunhuang manuscript with Tibetan written in Chinese script (dated to the 960s), in which some pronunciations of the Chinese characters are surprising, and some are indeed what would be expected in the Yuan period. (This by the way isn’t my opinion but that of the two Sinologists I’ve been working with on the manuscript.) So perhaps we need to refine the idea of ‘standard Chinese’ to deal with these regional manuscript sources? Since I don’t read Chinese, I only offer this as a humble suggestion!

  3. I agree entirely with what you say about dating. The fact that the Tibetan reading in the manuscript accords with Yuan dynasty Chinese pronunciation does not mean that the manuscript must date to the Yuan dynasty. The problem is that “standard” Chinese during the Tang and Song dynasties was based on a southern dialect, but when the Mongols conquered China they promoted a northern, proto-Mandarin dialect as the national standard, so it sometimes appears from Chinese phonetic sources as if the language everyone spoke suddenly changed. Of course that is not the case, and the Yuan dynasty proto-Mandarin dialect must have been around before it gained prominence during the 13th century, just that we know little about it before this time. It seems quite plausible that the proto-Mandarin dialect of the Yuan dynasty would have been spoken in the area of Dunhuang prior to the 13th century (i.e. during the Song dynasty), which would explain why the Tibetan author transliterated Chinese the way he did, although I would be suprised if this dialect went back as far as the Tang dynasty. It would certainly be an interesting area of further study.

    What is the manuscript with Tibetan written in Chinese characters that you are working on? It is just the sort of thing that would interst me.

  4. Very interesting. This would also be a possible route into dating some of the manuscripts. I suspected in any case that this particular manuscript (IOL Tib J 339) was no earlier than the 10th century, and it may of course be as late as the early 11th century.

    The manuscript with Tibetan written in Chinese characters is IOL Tib J 754. The manuscript contains a series of Tibetan letters of passage written for a Chinese pilgrim, and the pilgrim’s own notes recording Tibetan names in Chinese characters. I have nearly finished a long article on this manuscript (co-authored with Imre Galambos).

  5. I’m inclined to agree with Mr. West in what “li zhi” may have been if it is a Chinese borrowing. But with the proviso that it may not have been Chinese at all. Pre-Yuan Chinese was CVC even in the northwestern dialects, as well as having much softening of the vowels since that time. In many phonological aspects, the influx of Mongols created Mandarin.

    But I’m only a poor Daoist, not a scholar. My question is if “king of the Chinese tsuglag” may refer to Daoism? Was there ever a time of formal Daoist introduction to Tibet as there was in Mongolia? I can imagine very well Quanzhen missions to Lhasa…

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