Thor bu - Curiosia Indo-Tibetica

Textual and visual odds and ends from India, Tibet, and around.

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Location: Kolozsvár/Cluj, Budapest, Oxford, ibi ubi

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Breviary of an astrologer-lama

Most manuscript bundles from Mongolia can charitably be described as chaotic. Three of these represent my personal collection - it took me about the same number of days to put them in order and I am still left with loose leaves and incomplete works. The silk wrapping has also changed content a number of times. Although none of these texts are of particular interest, nor are they excitingly rare, the content of one bundle - had it been preserved in its original state - would yield a tremendous amount of information to the careful bibliographer such as the personal choice of the owner, most often requested liturgies, even the most often read works by a particular monk - something easily inferred by the amount of dirt on the edges if the paper is not worn enough.

I somewhat pretentiously dubbed this manuscript as an 'astrological' breviary and assumed it belonged to a person responsible for divination. Since I am completely incompetent in Tibetan astrology, the scrupulous study will be left to the interested reader.

The title page presumably means 'phyogs bsgrigs' for phyogs, but this could equally refer to the auspicious and inauspicious 'directions' associated with the spar kha (Chin. ba gua) in the diagram stretching across 1b-2a, something a native of a given spar kha should either avoid or favour under certain conditions.

2b contains a simplified version of the dice-divination (sho mo 'debs) placed under the tutelage of Śrīdevī (Dpal ldan Lha mo) which is usually carried out with with three six-faced dice. Here only a single die is cast for a topic the outcome of which is predicted by the second 'register'. 3a-3b describes the positions assumed by a sa bdag, the Heavenly Dog, during different time-periods. The implications were probably well-known to the owner, this short list only serving as an aide-memoire. (Maybe I should read the Vaidūrya dkar po more often - this passage is still a bit obscure.) 4a and following continue in a similar fashion, such as favourable days to cure livestock (note that the camel stays at the head of the list), days to avoid the use of sharp knives (?; gri ngo for gri dngo), certain sūtras to be recited in correlation with the spar kha, the duodecimal animal-cycle correlated with the spar kha system as for days, and the concluding verse.

Blatant mistakes betray that the scribe was not intimately familiar with Tibetan: yas for yos, sprul for sbrul, pral for sprel, bshed for bshad, etc.; nor particularly careful: mjug for mgo (3a), bcos for bco (4a), etc. However, the illuminations seem to have been carried out tastefully.

[Manuscript from Mongolia, currently in my private collection; Russian paper; Measurements: 167x57mm; Ff. 5, ill. 1b-2a, 2b. First image: 1a, 2b, 3a, 4a, 5a; second image: 1b, 2a, 3b, 4b, 5b.]

Friday, August 25, 2006

A bit of nostalgia

Besides being a commercial site with exquisite items for sale, Geoffrey Flack's Fine Stamps & Postal History is a magnificient read for any historian, stamp collector, antique dealer or the average tibetanist like yours truly. It conveniently gathers (and offers for sale) the relevant philatelic literature for Tibet, houses high resolution images of banknotes, stamps (rare forgeries included), even letters of the Manchurian ambans to Nepal – and the list goes on and on. If you don't belong to any of the above categories, do not run away just yet. Stamps and other collectables from the Princely States of India, Nepal and the Himalayas, Thailand and South East Asia are a rare sight by any standard. I have spent at least an hour browsing through this site savouring that long-lost feeling of excitement a certain eight year old experienced when consulting a tattered Zumstein catalogue for stamps recently acquired from his uncle.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Whi. Tā. & Gr. Tā.

Blo bzang Dpal ldan Ye shes (the paṇ chen III ?) must have been a laconic man (and yet, the statement of authorship takes up a quarter of the first work). If it weren't for the shortest Prajñāpāramitā (the one consisting solely of the letter A), these two sādhanas might enter the contest "The shortest oeuvre in the Indo-Tibetan world" with good chances for the gold.

Abbreviated Sādhanas of White Tārā and Green Tārā. Manuscripts from Mongolia (19th century?), currently in my private collection. [Measurements will follow later.]

Can't finish something? Blame it on the ḍākinīs!

The strangest things seem to have happened to the great paṇḍita Smṛtijñānakīrti. According to the legends, first he was left stranded in the Northern Highlands (Byang thang) when his Tibetan guide had the nerve to die there and the great scholar of Sanskrit grammar and tantric rituals had to work for a nomad shepherd in order to stay alive. Eventually he made it to the monastery he was invited to (the good Tibetan monks there were probably shocked by his accent).

Then, he somehow managed to produce one of the most interesting colophons I have ever came across. Tōh. 1608 is a commentary to the Catuṣpīṭha and is attributed to one Dge ba'i go cha (*Kalyāṇavarman?) by that catalogue. However, we find this at the end of the commentary to the third chapter:

«de dag gdan gsum na sgrub pa po Dge ba'i go chas sems can la thugs rjes (D 43b1) dgongs nas mdzad de | gdan 'di ni gleng bzhi'i nang na mkha' 'gro ma rnams kyis ma gnang ngo zhes kyang zer | ṭī ka mdzad pa'i thad ka nas mkha' 'gro ma dang zhal mjal nas grub ste mi snang bar song ngo zhes kyang zer || phyi nas rgya gar gyi mkhan po Smṛtidznyānakīrtis bla ma'i (D 43b2) brgyud [em.; rgyud D] las thos pa ji bzhin du de ltar gdan bzhi pa'i gdan phyi ma'i ṭī ka 'di brtsams so ||»

In short, when Dge ba'i go cha finished his commentary thus far, he was either denied permission to continue by the ḍākinīs, or, he had obtained perfection in the propitiation of the same and became invisible. "Ḍākinīs ate my homework!" Anyway, Smṛti continued the work in accordance with the lessons heard from his masters. Co-authorship is not that common in the Buddhist tradition (as far as I know), hence this is interesting in itself, but there are some disturbing passages in the commentary which call for a more careful investigation.

For instance, in the second introductory verse (the dam bca' ba) we have: «dpal ldan Gdan bzhi'i rgyud chen la | gsang ba'i mdud pa (D 1b4) 'grol byed pa | rnam bshad de yis 'di bris te | Dge ba'i go chas zhus phyir ro ||» Apparently, Dge ba'i go cha is the petitioner rather than the author. Is this in fact Smṛti's verse? If so, how come he never really knew what became of his master (the colophon seems to suggest pious legends rather than personal contact with the author)?

Then, inside the commentary we sometimes find statements like "because this word begins with 'ra' in the language of India (i.e. Sanskrit)." It is very doubtful that one writing a commentary in Sanskrit would say such a thing. The only way out of this would be that Smṛti heavily annotated his translation and his glosses found their way into the main text later, possibly when the blockprints were carved.

On top of it all, judging from the pratīkas, both seem to have read a substantially different version of the Catuṣpīṭha! Promising results await him/her embarking on the study of this intricate system. At the moment I know of no such project.