Silk Road phrasebooks

Phrasebooks still seem to sell quite well, judging by their presence on bookshop shelves. If translation apps do eventually make them redundant, it will be the end of a tradition that goes back a long way. The Central Asian manuscript collections provide plenty of evidence that phrasebooks were popular with travellers on the Silk Road in the first millennium AD.

One Tibetan-Chinese phrasebook (found in Or.8210/S.1000 and S.2736) was obviously compiled for merchants. The phrasebook gives the Tibetan word, followed by the Chinese equivalent, all in the Tibetan script. Thus it was clearly written for travellers who knew the Tibetan language but little or nothing of Chinese. In this phrasebook, the names of goods including food, clothes, tools, weapons and armour predominate.

Or.8210/S.2736Also here are words and phrases helpful to visitors to a strange town looking for food and a bed for night, and moving on to the next destination. The phrasebook is also there for travellers who encounter problems such as illness, being robbed, or being accused of being a thief, including the essential (but perhaps not very effective) “what have I done wrong!?” Probably more useful is the translation of the title of the Tibetan emperor and other high officials in the Tibetan empire. There is also a Chinese translation of the word bonpo, in case you need the help of a ritual specialist. The author of the phrasebook had a sense of humour: the last phrase he included is “shut up!” Sometimes even an intrepid traveller needs a bit of peace and quiet.

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IOL Khot 140

It wasn’t just merchants who had to haggle at the market. Another manuscript, IOL Khot 140, is a list of goods for a Khotanese monastery in the 10th century. On the list are: coats of silk and wool, trousers, undergarments, shoes, blankets, a camel-skin pouch, a silver cup, incense and more. It is nice to think of the monks all heading off to market with this list, but the document is signed by the “receiver” (nāsākä), the Revered Ratnavṛkṣa, plus witnesses, which suggests that this is more of a receipt for an order than a shopping list. Considering the phrasebook we just looked at, it’s interesting that in this list a few items are glossed in Tibetan, suggesting that Tibetan might have become the lingua franca of the marketplace in Dunhuang by the 10th century.

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Pelliot chinois 5538

Back to phrasebooks, but staying with Khotanese, Pelliot chinois 5538 is a scroll with a series of phrases in Sanskrit and Khotanese, on the general theme of pilgrimage. Some of the phrases form conversations, like this:

And where are you going now?
I am going to China.
What business do you have in China?
I’m going to see the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī.
When are you coming back?
I’m going to China, then I’ll return.

The conversations also cover practical matters:

Do you have any provisions for the road?
I do not like my provisions.
I’ll go with one or two horses.

We don’t know whether this particular scroll (which also dates from the late 10th century) was actually used as a phrasebook – it might have just been copied out as an exercise – but most of the phrases in it are relevant to the needs of a Buddhist pilgrim travelling from India to China. The phrasebook also has some revealing snippets of conversation that suggest another interest for travellers. After some phrases regarding the arrival of a Tibetan teacher, the conversation goes in this direction:

He is dear to many women.
He goes about a lot.
He makes love.

Which suggests that gossip was another popular activity among Silk Route travellers!

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Pelliot chinois 2782

Not all Tibetan teachers were held in such low esteem by the Khotanese, as another multilingual manuscript shows (Pelliot 2782 – pictured at the top of this post). This is a letter, or a copy of a letter, written to a Tibetan lama. It’s written in the Khotanese script, as you can see in the image above, but the language turns out to be Tibetan. Presumably the writer knew Tibetan as a spoken language, but could only write the Khotanese script. Luckily for us, the Tibetan was reconstructed by Ryotai Kaneko, and published by H.W. Bailey, with an English translation. Since Bailey’s translation of the Tibetan was not very accurate, I’ve retranslated it here.

To the great teacher, the eyes of the Buddha, who sees lowly ones like us with the eyes of wisdom. Although we do not share a language, and we are not skilled in the Tibetan language of the lords of the dharma, the local rulers, please do not break your commitments. This is
addressed to the great master. I respectfully enquire whether you are well, and in particular whether your precious and noble body has become fatigued. We humble ones have ridden to see the face of the Noble Mañjuśrī and are returning to [the land of] Śākya[muni], the god of
gods. May we be permitted to come and make an offering to all who have seen the face of Mañjuśrī?

The letter begins with the usual polite conventions (in fact, these take up the majority of the letter) before getting to the point, a request to visit this teacher and make an offering. Like the monk whose conversations appear in the Khotanese-Sanskrit phrasebook, the writer of this letter has travelled East to visit Wutaishan, and is on his or her way back to Khotan (yes, the Khotanese did consider themselves to belong to the land of Śākyamuni).

I find something really heartening about this evidence of human beings’ ability to cross the barriers of language. OK, so maybe it was often just to buy blankets. Still I suspect that the linguistic efforts of the merchants paved the way for the communication of other things, including Buddhism. Once that has happened did the kings and emperors with their big translation projects get involved, and get the credit. That’s why its nice to have these accidentally preserved phrasebooks and multilingual lists and letters, scraps of evidence of unsung linguistic adventurers.

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Further reading

Bailey, H.W. 1964. ‘Śrī Viśa Śūra and the Ta-uang’. Asia Major (New Series) 11.1: 17–26.

Bailey, H.W. 1973. “Taklamakan Miscellany.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 36.2: 224–227. JSTOR.

KUMAMOTO Hiroshi. 1988. ‘Saiiki ryokōsha yō Sansukuritto-Kōtango kaiwa renshūchō’ 西域旅行者用サンスクリット=コ一タン語 會話練習帳. Seinan Ajia Kenkyū 西南アジア研究 28: 53–82.

Sam van Schaik. “Red Faced Barbarians, Benign Despots and Drunken Masters: Khotan as a Mirror to Tibet.” PDF here.

van Schaik, Sam and Imre Galambos, Manuscripts and Travellers: The Sino-Tibetan Documents of a Tenth-Century Buddhist Pilgrim. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012.

Thomas, F.W. and Giles, Lionel. 1948. ‘A Tibeto-Chinese Word-and-Phrase Book’. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 12.2–3: 753–769. JSTOR

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This is an expanded version of a post I wrote on the IDP blog.

New Publication: The naming of Tibetan religion


Just out — the first number of a new online journal, the Journal of the International Association for Bon Research, in which is an article I wrote on the puzzling subject of Bon in early Tibet. The puzzle is whether the Tibetans followed a religion which they called “Bon”, or whether this is just something that we attribute to them with the benefit of hindsight. In the article I do three things:

(1) I look at the Dunhuang manuscript IOL Tib J 1746, in which a Buddhist author criticizes the non-Buddhist Tibetan religion. But at no point does he call it “Bon”, instead referring to “the bad religion” (chos ngan pa) or “the little religion” (chos chung ngu). For example: “Those who are attached to the little religion propitiate the deities and the sky, and if even a single good thing occurs, they say that they don’t need the excellent religion.” This manuscript is among the earlier Dunhuang manuscripts (mid-9th century) and the text it contains may well be earlier than that.

(2) I look at the wood slips dug out of the Tibetan fort of Miran in the Lop Nor desert, dating from the early to mid-9th century. Some of these are records of funerals and other rituals. Among the officiants of these rituals mentioned in the woodslips, we find people identified as “Bonpo”. Thus a “Bonpo” seems to have been a type of ritualist, and not the only type, as the wood slips also mention ritualists called Ku Shen (sku gshen). This of course is not the same as there being a Bon religion per se.

(3) Finally I look at some later Dunhuang manuscripts containing texts criticizing funerary rituals, where we do find reference to Bon as a religion. Specifically, from Or.8210/S.12243 we have the statement: “In the past, Tibetan interment was practised according to the Bon religion.” So some Buddhist authors were beginning to talk about a Bon religion, though probably only with reference to funerary rituals.

I conclusion, I suggest that the idea of a non-Buddhist Tibetan religion as an entity came from the Buddhist missionaries in Tibet, in their criticism of Tibetan beliefs and rituals. It was the Buddhists who brought together this variety of Tibetan rituals and beliefs as an entity that can be identified, named and discussed. Some of the ritualists involved in these non-Buddhist practices were known as “Bonpo” and later Buddhist polemicists increasingly used this term for non-Buddhist ritual in general (though usually specifically for funeral rituals). Though I don’t go this far in the article, I would suggest that what happens after the tenth century is that this generalized use of the term Bonpo is reclaimed from the Buddhist polemicists by those who are reconfiguring the old rituals in a Buddhist-inspired framework, gradually evolving into what we mean nowadays by “the Bonpo school”.

The article is here, and the whole journal, with lots of other interesting articles, is freely available online here.

The Earliest Evidence of Bonpo Rituals?

A record of a ritual to a local deity, found in Miran (IOL Tib J 255)

The four-sided, pointed stick pictured above was found in the desert fortress of Miran by Aurel Stein in 1907. Along with the most of Stein’s acquisitions, it was then sent to London, where it was placed in the India Office Library, to be ignored by almost everyone except the librarian FW Thomas, who attempted to read the Tibetan writing on all of its four sides, and published his translation in his Tibetan Literary Texts and Documents in the 1950s.

The stick is all that remains of a ritual performance, which is recorded in Tibetan writing on each of its four sides. The writing tells us that this was a ritual for a local deity (yul lha) carried out by a team of ritual specialists including a bon po. Like the other documents from Miran, it dates from the time when the fort was an outpost of the Tibetan empire, which began to fall apart in the middle of the 9th century. This stick probably dates from a few years (perhaps a few decades) before that collapse.

So what we have seems to be a record of the actual performance of a ritual dating back to the time of the Tibetan empire. I think this must be by far the earliest reliable documentary evidence of the actual ritual activities of people identifying themselves as bon po.

Why is this interesting? There has been a debate going on in Tibetological circles for some time about the early non-Buddhist Tibetan religion, which was probably not known as Bon but was practised by ritualists known as bon po. The relationship between this early complex of ritual practices and the religion known as Bonpo (now accepted as one of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism) is complicated. Modern scholarship has cast doubt on the accounts of the Bonpo tradition about its own history, transmitted in texts which generally date from after the 10th century. Those attempting to understand the nature of the early non-Buddhist Tibetan religion have often turned to the Dunhuang manuscripts as an alternative source of evidence (I wrote more about this a while ago in this post).

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A fresco from one of the stupas near the Miran fort, predating the Tibetan occupation by several centuries

There are quite a few manuscripts from Dunhuang about non-Buddhist ritual practices like funerals, divination and healing. I could write much more about them, but to show why the wooden dockets from Miran are so interesting, I’ll just say why the Dunhuang sources are somewhat unsatisfactory. First, as the Dunhuang cave seems to have been sealed in the early 11th century, these manuscripts may not date from much earlier than the transmitted texts of the Bonpo tradition, weakening claims by scholars that they are the more authentic sources. Second, the Dunhuang manuscripts are literary sources (though probably derived from oral traditions), mostly narratives or paradigms which would have presumably have supported ritual practice, but are not evidence for what people were actually doing.

On the other hand, the dockets from Miran can be dated, with some confidence, to the 9th century, and probably to Tibet’s imperial era. As records of actual ritual events, they let us know that this was not a merely a literary tradition, but a living practice. And unlike the literary texts, they are firmly local, telling us who the officiants of the ritual were, why the ritual was carried out, and the local deities to whom the ritual was addressed. The offer us the chance to see the activities of the bon po (as well as other ritual officiants like gshen), “on the ground.”

The remains of the Tibetan fort at Miran (Tib. Nob cung)

So, what kinds of rituals were being performed for the Tibetan military officials of the Miran fort? Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few records of funerals (see for example IOL Tib N 330). It is difficult to work out exactly what happened in the course of these rituals (despite Thomas’s valiant attempts at translation). It looks to me like the main aim of the funeral was to guide the “mental principle” (thugs) of the deceased to the right level (gral). One of the practices accompanying this seems to be a libation offering: most of the funeral records specify a precise number of spoonfuls (yams) of a sacred beverage (skyems) to be offered.  Reference to a “beverage offering” (skyems gsol) in the Old Tibetan Annals suggests that some form of this practice goes back to the 7th century or earlier.

But it is only in another kind of ritual, the supplication of local deities, that we find the four-sided pointed sticks like the one at the top of this post. I don’t know the reason for the stick’s being carved into this shape, and any ideas would be welcomed (could it represent an arrow, for example?). The ritual supplications are directed to a variety of deities, including the local deities (yul lha), and minor spirits like sman and g.yang. In these rituals, the main officiant is called lha bon po, that term lha presumably indicating his special role towards deities. The other officiant is the gshen, and it is interesting to see that it was the norm, rather than the exception, for these two types of ritualist to work together.

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There’s much more to be said about these ritual dockets, but I’ll conclude with a thought about the people who produced them. Clearly they were the soldiers and officials manning the outposts of the Tibetan empire in Central Asia. In two cases, we have the names of the people who either officiated or commissioned the ritual, and they both have the high official rank of blon. So it seems that well after the official adoption of Buddhism as the Tibetan state religion, the practice of non-Buddhist rituals was common (perhaps even standard) among the Tibetan ruling class. In a sense, this shouldn’t surprise us. Perhaps more surprising is that one of the dockets (IOL Tib N 279) mentions the presence of 21 Buddhist monks (dge ‘dun) at a funeral ritual.  It is difficult to say from this source whether these monks were carrying out the role normally performed by the bon po or were just in attendance at a (non-Buddhist) funeral for a deceased member of their sangha. Either scenario is intriguing.

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I have written an article on these and other early sources on non-Buddhist Tibetan ritual practice, provisionally titled “The Naming of Tibetan Religion: Bon and Chos in the Imperial Period,”which  will come out at some point in the near-ish future, and I’ll post a notification when it does.

FW Thomas’s translations can be found in the section “Government and Social Conditions” of his Tibetan Literary Texts and Documents concerning Chinese Turkestan, Part II: Documents, Royal Asiatic Society, London, 1951.

For some interesting discussion of the term bon in the early period, and the dates of the Dunhuang sources, see Henk Blezer, “Ston pa gshen rab: Six Marriages and Many More Funerals.” Revue d’Études Tibétaines 15 (2008): 421–479. PDF available right here.

The reference to skyems gsol in the Old Tibetan Annals is in the year 682-3. See the translation at p.94 of Brandon Dotson’s The Old Tibetan Annals: An Annotated Translation of Tibet’s First History. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2009. The Tibetan text of the Annals and many early ritual texts from Dunhuang are freely available over at OTDO.

I also recommend having a look at Vincent Bellezza’s translation of a narrative on the “golden libation” (gser skems) recently found in the Gathang stupa.

Finally, for all other matters bibliographic see Dan Martin’s extensive online Bon bibliography.

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Afterthought on the date of the Miran documents

While we know that Dunhuang was swept away from the Tibetans in the year 848, the exact date of the fall of Miran is unknown. In The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia (p.172), Christopher Beckwith states that Miran remained in Tibetan hands into the 850s, but then “passed out of the historian’s ken”. It seems likely to me that this passing out of history was accompanied by the swift decline of the fort as a functional part of the Tibetan empire. Without the imperial support network that kept these outposts going (of which we know quite a lot from many of the other wooden documents from Miran), it is not likely that they could have continued to function for very long. Their Tibetan inhabitants would then have returned to Tibet proper, or to the nearest cities with large Tibetophone populations, like Liangzhou. In their language and palaeography, the ritual dockets belong among the military documents that form the bulk of the Miran manuscripts, and thus I think should be considered a part of the culture of imperial Tibet, even if their exact terminus ad quem is not known.

Buddhism and Bon IV: What is bon anyway?


In previous Buddhism and Bon posts I’ve tried to say something about the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet by looking at the way certain key terms were used in the manuscripts (though of course I’m not the first to have done this). Recently I’ve been puzzling over another ancient manuscript which nobody seems to have noticed before, and which has propelled me towards that most key of key terms, “bon” itself.

When you read books on Tibet, you often come across statements that the Bon religion existed in Tibet before Buddhism arrived, and that afterwards there were various struggles between Buddhism and Bon. But the fact is it’s not at all clear that there was a religion in Tibet called “Bon” before the 11th century.

This may sound like an academic’s quibble, but it’s not. We”ve got to be careful about the words we use. Words like “Bon” are big, sometimes vague, and often misused. Imagine becoming so fond of the word “precipitation” that you forget that there’s a difference between rain and snow. The early religious practices of the Tibetans are not the same as the religion called Bon that we begin to see from the 11th century onwards.*

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The two scholars who have made the most detailed studies of the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet based on the Dunhuang manuscripts are the great Samten Karmay and the late, great Rolf Stein. There are of course many many more who have written about Bon, most of whom can be found in the mega-bibliography in Unearthing Bon Treasures by Dan Martin (who is also great). Karmay and Stein have quite different views on one question: was the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet an organized religion that went by the name of Bon, or not? Karmay argues that it was, Stein that it wasn’t.

The word bon definitely does appear in a few Dunhuang manuscripts. (As Dan Martin says in the same book: “One is impressed by how little there is to work with, although this in no way minimizes the importance of the question.”) For Stein, the word bon in these manuscripts refers to a ritual or a priest. For Karmay, it refers to a religious system or community. Though both make a good case, it seems to me that the question has not been settled yet, and perhaps can’t be settled, when so many puzzle pieces have gone astray.

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So without further ado let me introduce the “new” manuscript (Or.8210/S.12243). It’s actually two pieces of paper stitched together with string, very worn and greasy-looking, and obviously much handled. Both pieces of paper contain incomplete texts, so I wonder if this manuscript functioned as a personal amulet before it was deposited in the Dunhuang cave. One of the pieces of paper has a sādhana for the deity Vajrasattva, while the other is the one that interests me.

It’s a discussion, and apparently a criticism, of the pre-Buddhist funeral rituals in Tibet, something I wrote speculatively about a little while ago here. The manuscript is pretty difficult to read. In fact, I had to ask the IDP photographer for an infrared image before even making the attempt. And even with the infrared image to hand, the little text is fiendishly difficult to translate, for me at least. Still, it’s clear that it belongs to the genre of Buddhist polemics against non-Buddhist rituals, like the much better known Pelliot tibétain 239 (also the source of the appealing little tiger below).

Now, the author of this little tract says at one point: “Previously in Tibet, interment was practised according to the Bon religion.” What I’ve translated as “Bon religion” is bon chos in Tibetan. This might look a bit odd, as we’re accustomed to seeing chos being translated as dharma and meaning Buddhism. But actually chos has a far wider range of meanings, and often in the Dunhuang manuscripts indicates a general set of beliefs and practices. Another Dunhuang manuscript talks about the non-Buddhist beliefs as chos chung ngu, “the little religion”.

So I think it’s right to translate bon chos here as “the Bon religion” and say that yes, the author of this work did consider “Bon” a set of beliefs and practices (a “religion” if you will) centred on death and funerals. But  having made that slightly bold assertion I will quickly step back and remind you that this text was written by a Buddhist as a polemic against these Bon rites (he also says: “Even the ritual narratives of the Bonpos of Tibet don’t agree with each other.”) Remember too that the Dunhuang cave was sealed at the beginning of the 11th century, and this manuscript may have been popped in just before the sealing; in which case, it would represent a rather late view of the early religion.

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The conclusion I’d like to draw is that at least some Buddhists, by the end of the 10th century and perhaps earlier, thought of the funeral rituals practised in earlier times by Tibetan ritual specialists as a religion called Bon. I suspect that this was not quite the same thing that Tibetans meant when they said “Bon” after the 10th century. As usual, I welcome the thoughts of those better qualified than myself. Below they will find the relevant Tibetan text and my unsatisfactory translation.


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See also

Buddhism and Bon I: the religion of the gods
Buddhism and Bon II: what is tsuglag?
Buddhism and Bon III:What is yungdrung?

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A complete edition and description of this manuscript (Or.8210/S.12243) will appear in the near future in the catalogue of Tibetan manuscripts in the British Library’s Or.8210/S. sequence (which, because this is the number of Chinese manuscripts, have previously gone unnoticed), edited by Tsuguhito Takeuchi, Kazushi Iwao and myself. Here’s the recto side of the leaf that’s stitched on to the Vajrasattva text:

rjes bcad cing dpyad na // mdad shid bon [cho]su bgyid//gzhung brtags na/ sngon cad bod kyi mdad (‘do la) bon chosu bgyis pa / thogs su (las) byung / shid btang na/ gnon gshin sman cing legs par ‘gyur ba’i gtan tshIgs ci mchis pa rjes bcad de nyid bcu ba brtags na/:/ bod kyi bon po rnams kyi smrang yang myI ‘thun te/ p[h]on gsas dang p[h]ang gi rabs las nI / pha ste [. . .] ba zhig/ bgres ste dgung du gshegs pa/ [. . .]

The text is full of technical terms that are found elsewhere in Dunhuang manuscripts, Bon ritual manuals and medical texts. One of the main problems with my translation is that it implies diagnosis and medical treatment of a corpse, which suggests that some of the terms are not quite what they seem here…

“…When eradicating (rjes bcad) and diagnosing (dpyad), interment (mdad) and entombment (shid) are performed according to the Bon religion. When we examine the texts, [it is clear that] previously in Tibet interment was performed according to the Bon religion. After some time had elapsed, the [corpse] was entombed. The instructions for the medical treatment (sman) and beautification (legs par ‘gyur) of the corpse can be examined in the ten rituals (de nyid bcu) for eradication. Even the ritual narratives of the Tibetan Bonpos are not in agreement. In the rituals of the sacred string and the spindle, the father and … grow old and pass away to the heavens….”

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* note The Tibetans, both Bonpo and Buddhist, do appreciate the difference between the pre- and post- 11th century religions, and refer to these by different names (though always as forms of “Bon”).

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Vincent Bellezza. 2008. Zhang-zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet. Vienna: OAW. (I haven’t seen this work yet, but I’m assured that it is very good and highly relevant to the topic of early Tibetan funerary rites.)

Samten Karmay. 1998 (1983). “Early Evidence for the Existence of Bon as a Religion in the Royal Period”. The Arrow and the Spindle I. Kathmandu: Mandala. pp.157-168

Per Kvaerne. 1985. Tibet – Bon Religion: A Death Ritual of the Tibetan Bonpos. Leiden: Brill.

Dan Martin. 2001. Unearthing Bon Treasures. Leiden: Brill. (The quote above is from p.219, n.17.)

R.A. Stein. 2003 (1988). “The Indigenous Religion and the Bon-po in the Dunhuang Manuscripts”. In The History of Tibet I. London and New York: Routledge. pp.584–614. (This is a translation of the French article “Tibetica Antiqua V: La Religion Indigène et les Bon-po dans les Manuscrits de Touen-Houang”, BEFEO 77: 27-56.)

R.A. Stein. 1970. “Un document ancien relatif aux rites funeraires des bon-po tibétaines”. Journal Asiatique 258: 155-185.

What happens between death and the tomb?

The funerals of the ancient Tibetan kings (the tsenpos) were solemn ritual affairs involving a range of specialist priests and lasting months or even years. At the end of the whole process, the tsenpo was buried in a huge mausoleum made of packed earth. It is not very clear exactly what happened during the long period between the tsenpo’s death and his interral in the tomb. But there is a crucial passage in one of the stories in the Old Tibetan Chronicle from Dunhuang, which tells of how the first funeral ceremony for the Tibetan tsenpos came about.

The vital passage appears in the story of Drigum Tsenpo, the first of the royal line not to pulled back up to heaven on a sky cord. In the story, the tsenpo’s body has remained on earth and, to add insult to injury, been kidnapped by a spirit. The spirit demands a child as a ransom for the body of the tsenpo. When a child fitting the purpose is found, the child’s mother makes certain demands that set the precedent for the funeral rituals of the tsenpos for all futurity:

When he asked the mother, “What do you want in recompense for her?” the mother answered: “I want nothing but this: that in all future when a bTsan-po, who has withdrawn as a ruler, dies, a top-knot of the hair should be bound like a braid, the surface (ngo, of the body) should be anointed with vermilion (mtshal), the body should be lacerated and scratched, incision should be made into the corpse of the bTsan-po, and it should be taken away from men that it may decay. Food should be eaten and drunk. Will you do like that, or will you not do like that?” Thus she spoke. (Haarh 1969: 405)

Now, Haarh’s work is a tour de force, but I have some doubts about his translation here. And since one often sees it repeated in accounts of the funerals of the tsenpos, it seems worth having another look at it. Since it’s such an important passage, I don’t want to be dogmatic here. I will just suggest an alternative way of reading the text.

The piercing of the tsenpo’s corpse is mentioned in the Old Tibetan Annals for the tsenpo Dusong (in 778/9) and the regent Tri Malo (712/3). As Haarh says, this probably refers to an embalming treatment of the corpse. But there seem to be no references to cutting off the tsenpo’s hair, anointing his face with vermilion and lacerating his body. And another reason to think the mother is not talking about the tsenpo here is that ordinary words for face and body (ngo and lus) are used, rather than honorific ones (zhal and sku). I also think that it’s logical to translate this passage so that the mother starts to talk about the treatment of the corpse when she specifically says “the corpse of the tsenpo” and not before that.

So, here’s a different way of reading this crucial passage:

When he asked the mother, “What do you want in recompense for her?” the mother said: “I want nothing but this: that forever to come when a noble tsenpo dies, [the mourners] cut off their topknots, anoint their faces with vermilion, and lacerate their bodies. The corpse of the tsenpo is to be pierced, and taken away to the people. The food is to be eaten and drunk. Will you do it like that?”

If it is the mourners who cut off their hair, paint their faces and cut their bodies, and not the tsenpo, that means we need to revise our ideas of the funeral practices of the early Tibetans a little. What interests me most is the way this reading of the text brings the funeral rituals of the tsenpos closer to those of other Eurasian cultures – for example, the Scythians. We know quite a lot about the funerals of the Scythian kings because Herodotus wrote about them in the 5th century BC. Here’s what he wrote:

The tombs of their kings are in the land of the Gerrhi, who dwell at the point where the Borysthenes is first navigable. Here, when the king dies, they dig a grave, which is square in shape, and of great size. When it is ready, they take the king’s corpse, and, having opened the belly, and cleaned out the inside, fill the cavity with a preparation of chopped cypress, frankincense, parsley-seed, and anise-seed, after which they sew up the opening, enclose the body in wax, and, placing it on a wagon, carry it about through all the different tribes. On this procession each tribe, when it receives the corpse, imitates the example which is first set by the Royal Scythians; every man chops off a piece of his ear, crops his hair close, and makes a cut all round his arm, lacerates his forehead and his nose, and thrusts an arrow through his left hand.*

And as a commentator on Herodotus recently wrote: “The magnificent funerals of the Scythian kings have several parallels among Eurasian nomads of every age…” Indeed, restricting ourselves to the practices of cutting off the hair and self-laceration among mourners, we can easily pick out the following further examples. It was reported that at the funeral of Attila the Hun, mourners cut off their hair and made deep cuts in their faces. They kept the body in a ceremonial tent for a time before being buried. The Xiongnu (a nomadic empire that ruled northern China for a while in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD) buried their kings in large tombs, and plaits of hair have been found in some of those that have been excavated. The Khazars (around in the 7th-11th centuries) buried their dead in mausoleums near rivers, and at the funerals they beat drums, whistled and lacerated their faces. And so on

What we see again and again is the mourners cutting off their hair and lacerating their faces and bodies. This seems to me to be quite persuasive circumstantial evidence for rereading the Old Tibetan Chronicle in the same way. It also shows just how much the religion of the early Tibetan clans preserved the culture of their nomadic ancestors from the northern steppes. Other aspects of the tsenpo’s funerals which I haven’t mentioned here are also found among Eurasian nomadic peoples – like the long period elapsing between death and burial; the sacrifice of animals, especially white ones, and especially horses; and the killing and entombment of the king’s retainers.

I think all this helps us to see the early Tibetan religion (at least the myths and rituals surrounding the tsenpos) in the wider Eurasian cultural matrix shared by Scythians, Huns, Khazars, Turks, Mongols, and many more people of nomadic origin. If course that was only one part of the rich cultural heritage that characterized Tibet’s pre-Buddhist religion, but thanks to the success of the tsenpos, a particularly important part.

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Tibetan text

Pelliot tibétain 1287, ll.44-47: de blu na ji ‘dod ces ma la drIs na / ma na re gzhan myI ‘dod / nam nam zha zhar / btsan po rje dbyal zhig nongs na / thor to ‘phren mo ni bcings / ngo la mtshal gyis byugs / lus la ni bzhags / btsan po ‘i spur la nI ‘tshog / myI la ‘phrog lom / zas la nI za ‘thung / de ltar bya ‘am myi bya zhes mchi nas /

And another note…

I also have doubts about the latter part of Haarh’s translation, that is, the line (referring to the tsenpo’s corpse “and it should be taken away from men that it may decay.” In Tibetan, this is myI la ‘phrog phom. For a start, I’m pretty certain the last syllable is not phom. I’ve been pouring over the image (see left) and I think the most likely reading is lom, though I’m not sure what this could mean in the context. In any case, that’s not a pha. Haarh interpreted this phom as a form of ‘bam pa, “decay”. There being no reason to read phom, there’s no reason to think the text is talking about decay. Why should it, when the point of piercing the tsenpo’s corpse was embalmment?

It’s also interesting that the Tibetan has myi la, not myi las — that is, it is not clear that the corpse is to be taken “from” the people. The point of the long delay before burial among the Scythians, Ossetians and the Mongols was to bring the corpse to various clans so that they could make offerings and pay homage. Could we read this line then as “it should be taken to the people”? As Haarh pointed out (on pages 358-60), the Old Tibetan Annals mentions corpses being placed in a ring khang, which he interpreted as a Totenhaus, or “house of the dead.” But this doesn’t necessarily exclude the possibility that the tsenpo’s corpse — like those of Scythian and Mongol leaders — was also taken of a grand tour of the major clans first.

Suggestions are welcomed, as ever…

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See also
Buddhism and Bon I: the religion of the gods
The Red-Faced Men I: warriors with painted faces

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1. Asheri, David, Alan Lloyd and Aldo Corcella. 2007. A Commentary on Herodotus, Books I-IV. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2. Baldick, Julian. 2000. Animal and Shaman: Ancient Religions of Central Asia. London: I.B. Tauris.
3. Haarh, Erik. 1969. The Yar-lun Dynasty. Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gad’s Verlag.
4. Heller, Amy. 2003. “Archeology of Funeral Rituals as revealed by Tibetan tombs of the 8th to 9th century.” Transoxiana (Ērān ud Anērān Webfestschrift Marshak 2003). Click here.
5. Herodotus. (translated by George Rawlinson). 1885. The History of Herodotus, New York: D. Appleton and Company.

* You can see the Herodotus quote above in its proper context, which is Book 4 of the Histories, here.

1. Scythian tomb-ware, from the website of CAIS (see here).
2. Pelliot tibétain 1287 (The Old Tibetan Chronicles).

Buddhism and Bön III: what is yungdrung?

Those who translate Buddhist texts from Tibetan into English sometimes talk in nostalgic terms of our forbears who laboured to translate the vast corpus of Sanskrit Buddhist literature into Tibetan. In contrast to the chaotic scene today, where nobody can agree on a standard English word to translate any given Tibetan term, Tibetan translators worked under a top-down system in which royal edicts decreed the correct Tibetan word to be used for every Buddhist Sanskrit term. The result was the admirably coherent and consistent canons of Tibetan Buddhism, undoubtedly one of the wonders of the Buddhist world.

When we look at the Dunhuang manuscripts however, the situation seems rather less coherent, and a bit closer to the chaos of our times. The coherence of the Tibetan canons was the result of a process, centuries long, of rethinking translation practices, revising earlier translations, and weeding out dubious texts. This process is visible in all its messiness in the Dunhuang manuscripts, and one of the ways it reveals itself to us is the many different ways a single Tibetan word is used in Buddhist translations.

One of the problems for the early translators was what to do with certain important and powerful words that came from the pre-Buddhist culture of Tibet. In some ways it was clearly beneficial to use these words, so as to give them a new, Buddhist resonance. But they came with a lot of baggage. The same problems face translators nowadays when we contemplate using Christian words like ‘hell’ and ‘sin’ to translate Buddhist concepts.

One of the most powerful and resonant words in pre-Buddhist Tibet was yungdrung (g.yung drung). It was a the key terms for the old royal religion, the mythological backdrop to the kingly lineage of the Tibetan Empire. For example, the inscription of the tomb of Trisong Detsen has the line: “In accord with the eternal (yungdrung) customs (tsuglag), the Emperor and Divine Son Trisong Detsen was made the ruler of men.” I discussed how to translate that term tsuglag in an earlier post. Here, as you no doubt noticed, I have translated yungdrung here as “eternal”. Eternity seems to be the general meaning of yungdrung in the early religion. In addition, the word was associated with the ancient Indo-European swastika design, which in Tibet was the graphic symbol of the eternal.

So, what did the early Buddhist writers and translators do with this term? Many of them just attached it to the word “dharma” (i.e. Buddhism), no doubt in an attempt to transfer its prestige from the earlier religion to Buddhism. Thus we see “the eternal dharma” (g.yung drung chos) in many Dunhuang manuscripts. Translators of Chinese Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan used it to translate nirvana. Translators of Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures used it to translate the Sanskrit samyak, meaning “correct” or “perfect”, as well as various Sanskrit terms meaning “eternal”. This messy scene begins to look more like the chaos that bedevils contemporary translation efforts..

Later standardizations of translation practice in Tibet fixed yungdrung as the translation of just one Sanskrit word, sanātana, meaning “eternal”. This Sanskrit word doesn’t appear very often in Buddhist texts, where the Sanskrit word nityā is prefered, and the latter was translated by a different Tibetan term (rtag pa). So yungdrung was almost written out of Buddhist translations, but its story doesn’t end there. From the 11th century it became a central concept of the later Bon tradition, so that the later Bon tradition itself came to be known as ‘Yungdrung Bon’. There is much more to tell, but the full realization of those developments comes later than the Dunhuang manuscripts, where yungdrung is still in the process of being redefined by the Buddhists.

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IOL Tib J 339 2rLet’s look at just one Dunhuang manuscript, in which the attempt to redefine yungdrung in the Buddhist context is unusually clear. The manuscript (IOL Tib J 339) is a the prayer with interlinear notes. One line of the prayer is an homage to “correct yungdrung” and the notes go on to spell out the difference between correct and incorrect yungdrung. I’ll translate the note here:

“Yungdrung” comprises correct yungdrung and incorrect yungdrung. Of these, incorrect yungdrung itself comprises the yungdrung of words and the yungdrung of substances. The yungdrung of words means all of the names drawn from yungdrung. The yungdrung of substances means the yungdrung of substances. Even if this yungdrung, it is still incorrect yungdrung.

Correct yungdrung means the following: when you remain as the Bhagavan Vairocana and his entourage of bodhisattvas, you take in the meaning of the unborn nature of phenomena. Then you are not endowed with birth or death. When the yungdrung of the lifespan is accepted as the [nature of] the deity, this is correct yungdrung.

The definition of incorrect yungdrung is strikingly unhelpful here: “the yungdrung of substances means the yungdrung of substances(!)”. Fortunately the definition of correct yungdrung is better. It means freedom from the constraints of birth and death, and is linked to the lifespan, so we could translate it either as “eternity” or, considering the emphasis on lifespan, “immortality”.

IOL Tib J 339 2rHere we see a Buddhist re-reading of immortality as the unborn nature of the meditation deity. ‘True’ immortality is not a long life, but the realization that transcends birth and death. I wonder if the incorrect yungdrung here refers to Chinese (especially Daoist) practices of securing long life or immortality, particularly the teachings (“the yungdrung of words”) and alchemical experiments (“yungdrung of substances”)? After all, in the previous post on this manuscript it emerged that the definition of incorrect tsuglag was aimed at Chinese practices of astrology.

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In any case, perhaps we translators can take heart. The coherence of the Tibetan corpus of translations was the end result of a process of centuries. Take a slice out of that process (like 9th-10th century Dunhuang) and it sometimes looks as messy as the contemporary scene.

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1. Karmay, Samten. ‘A General Introduction to the History and Doctrines of Bon.’ In The Arrow and the Spindle. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point. 104-156.
2. Stein, R.A. 1983. ‘Tibetica Antiqua I: Les deux vocabulaires des traductions indo-tibetaines et sino-tibetaines dans les manuscrits Touen-Houang.’ Bulletin de l’Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient LXXII: 149-236.

Tibetan text
* g.yung drung yang dag la’ gus par phyag ‘tshal lo *
[1] g.yung drung la yang <yang> dag pa’i g.yung dang yang dag pa ma yin ba’i g.yung drung ngo/ de la yang dag pa ma yIn pa’I g.yung drung la yang/ tshIg gi g.yung drung dang rdzas gi g.yung drung ngo/ tshig gi g.yung drung shes pya ba nI/ g.yung drung [2] las dra[ng]s pa’i mying thams cad la bya/ rdzas gi g.yung drung nI rdzas gi g.yung drung la bya’o/ de yang nI g.yung drung yIn na yang yang dag pa’i g.yung drung ma yIn/ de la g.yung drung yang yIn la/ yang dag pa <ma> yin ba nI/ [3] bcom ldan ‘das dpal rnam par snang mdzad ‘khor pyang chub sems dpa’ rnams kyis bskor cing bzhugs pa de ni chos rnams gyI chos skye ba myed pa’i don thugs su chud pas skye shi myi mnga’/ sku tshe g.yung drung [4] lha du bzhes nas/ g.yung +drung+ yang dag ces bya’o/

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

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?