July 05, 2018

On the Etymology of “Me ma mur”

The Tibetan rendering of kukūla, the name of one of the four peripheral (hot) hells (nye ’khor gyi dmyal ba), is me ma mur. We also know that saṃsāra is occasionally compared to a me ma mur gyi ’obs (“infernal pit of hot embers/ashes”) and dug sbrul gyi tshang (“basket of poisonous snakes”). My concern here is the etymology of me ma mur. It is clear that this word belongs to the category of Tibetan nouns that have the structure “X ma Y” (i.e. “neither X nor Y but in a way both X and Y”). We know the value of X here and thus the word me ma mur would mean “neither fire nor mur.” But what is mur? bTsan-lha’s brDa dkrol gser gyi me long (s.v. me ma mur) does not help us to understand the etymology. The Tshig mdzod chen mo (s.v. mdag ma), however, understands me ma mur as me ma thal (“neither fire nor ash”). It makes perfect sense. But do we know mur in the sense of “ash”? I do not. bTsan-lha records a word mur thom me, which is explained as mi gsal bar gyur pa (“which has become inconspicuous”). Perhaps mur in me ma mur should be understood as “inconspicuous” or “dormant” as opposed to “conspicuous” or “active.” Thus me ma mur may be understood as “neither [conspicuous] flame (me) nor inconspicuous (i.e. extinguished) [fire] (mur).” Does the meaning of me ma mur (“neither [conspicuous] flame nor inconspicuous [fire]”) incidentally reflect an idea that is reminiscent of the old Vedic notion that fire, when extinguished, does not really cease to exist but somehow becomes inconspicuous?

July 02, 2018

On the Etymology of “bdud rtsi”

Here I am again with a speculation. This time, it is about the etymology of the word bdud rtsi (amṛta). I am not aware of speculations by anyone else. When we think of the words bdud (māra/mṛtyu) and bdud rtsi (amṛta), we notice that former is something bad and the latter something good, although the only difference between the two words is rtsi. So what do bdud and rtsi mean? I do not know any other word that contains the syllable bdud. I also do not know if there are other words that are cognate with the word bdud. Of course, we know words such as dud (in dud ’gro “animal”) and ’dud pa (“to bow down” or “to respect”) which seem to be certainly linked with each other, and also words such as mdud pa (“knot”), sdud pa “to gather,” “to abbreviate,” but how is bdud, if at all, is related with these words? By the way, I looked up OTDO and some meanings of bdud are not clear to me. I do not know any instance where bdud is used as a verb. But I wonder if bdud once had the verbal meaning of “to succumb” (i.e. both in the sense of (a) “yield, give in, give way, submit, surrender, capitulate, cave in; be overcome by, be overwhelmed by, be conquered by, be beaten by” and  (b) “die from, die of, pass away as a result of, be a fatality of”). If we can consider this a possibility, then we could also consider that dud’dud (cf. gdud), sdudmdud (cf. mthud and ’thud) and bdud to be all cognates with each other and as having the basic and shared meaning of “to bend” or “to bow.”  In the case of dud or ’dud, the meaning “to bend” or “to bow” seems self-evident. What about sdud? Even here, the act of “gathering” or “abbreviating” seems to suggest the semantic nuance of “bending or forcing or bringing certain things to come together.” What about mdud (as in mdud pa mdud “to tie a knot” or “to form a knot”)? It is clear that forming a knot with a rope necessarily implies “bending the rope” so as to form a certain loop and shape. And finally bdud should then mean to “bow down” (i.e. capitulate to) factors, events, or processes over which one has no autonomy. Consider the idea of the four kinds of bdud (māra) found in Buddhism. In short, bdud (as a noun) should thus mean all those forces or factors to which one inevitably and invariably bdud (“succumbs”).
Now what about rtsi? The meaning of rtsi seems relatively clear. Consider other Tibetan words such as sbrang rtsi (“nectar” or “honey”), tshon rtsi (“color pigment”), dkar rtsi (“white paint/glue”), rdo rtsi (“glaze for porcelain”), bkrag rtsi (“glaze”), snum rtsi (“oily substance”), and so on. So it seems that rtsi is to be understood in the sense of some kind of “sticky substance” and each kind may have its own specific function. The phrase rtsis zin pa (“to be suffused by”) should be understood in the same context. But more specifically bTsan-lha’s brDa dkrol gser gyi me long (s.v. rtsi) gives two meanings of the word, namely, (a) “to be beneficial” (phan pa [= sman pa]) and (b) “wind” (rlung). Perhaps the latter meaning presupposes the former. That is, for example, “oxygen” (as a kind of rlung) is of course “beneficial” for sustaining life. The words phan pa and sman pa (as verbs) seem to be synonymous. That which is “beneficial” is also “medicinal.”
In sum, etymologically bdud rtsi seems to mean “a kind of sticky substance (rtsi) or a medicinal substance (rtsi) which serves as a kind of remedy, panacea or elixir against forces or factors to which one inevitably and invariably succumbs (bdud).”

On the Name “dGe-lugs”

This is actually for a student of Professor Ulrike Rösler (from Oxford). The last time I met Ulrike in SOAS, she asked me if I know of any source that explains why dGe-lugs school of Tibetan Buddhism is called thus. One of her students, whose name I do not know, wanted to know. I had no concrete source at hand and so I said I did not know. Just the other day when I met Ulrike in Hamburg, I said I came across an explanation and that I would send her the reference. But today, I tried to trace the source back but did not find it. Not being able to relocate a lost reference and not being able to keep a promise gnaw one from within. But fortunately we have the TBRC (now BDRC) to turn to. A single search for the word dga’ lugs turns out to be fruitful. But to keep tract of my own findings which may eventually also benefit scholars such as Ulrike’s student, I thought I should record my thoughts and references in my blog.
In general it goes without saying that various Tibetan Buddhist schools and sub-schools came to be known on the basis of various criteria such as period, founder, doctrine, color of hats, place, and so on. The name “dGe-lugs” is derived from dGa’-ldan, the name of the monastic seat where Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang-grags-pa (1357–1419) mainly resided during the latter part of his life. By the way, the Tibetan dga’ ldan renders the Sanskrit tuṣita, a word that has been explained in the sGra sbyor bam po gnyis pa or Madhyavyutpatti (no. 370). What I learnt recently, however, from my Buddhologist friend Dr. Martin Delhey and Sanskritist friend Professor Harunaga Isaacson is that in Sanskrit tuṣita refers primarily to a class of celestial beings and not to the celestial realm in which they reside. In fact we did not find any Indian Buddhist sources that use tuṣita in the sense of a celestial realm. By contrast in Tibetan, one often tends to understand tuṣita primarily in the sense of a heavenly realm in the “sphere of [sexual] desire” (kāmadhātu: ’dod pa’i khams) where the future Buddha Maitreya is said to reside now. Note what Mi-pham rNam-rgyal-rgya-mtsho (1846–1912), mKhas ’jug (B, p. 231.14–15) states to this effect: dga’ ldan na byams pa bzhugs la | gzhan ’phrul dbang byed na bdud sdig can gnas pa’o ||. Of course, we can reconcile the primary usages of the word tuṣita in Sanskrit and Tibetan. We often notice in Sanskrit sources that the one and the same name can be used to refer to both a place and its people.
Let us return to the actual topic. Why dGe-lugs and not dGa’-lugs or dGa’-ldan-lugs? There seem to be plenty of sources on this. But perhaps it would suffice here to mention just one. See the following passage (rGyal-rong-ba Brag-bar-dpal-ldan, Bod rgyal mo rong gi lo rgyus rab gsal me long. [Markham]: Krung-go-mi-dmangs-chab-srid-gros-mol-tshogs-’du ’Bar-khams- rdzong-u-yon-lhan-khang, 2002, pp. 448.4–8): de yang dge lugs pa’am dga’ ldan pa zhes pa ni gdan sa’i ming gis btags pa ste | rje rin po ches ’brog ri bo dga’ ldan rnam par rgyal ba’i gling btab nas sku tshad smad der stan chags par bzhugs pa la brten nas | rje’i ring lugs la chos rje dga’ ldan pa’i lugs zhes ’bod pa byung | de tshig sna bsdus nas brjod pa’i tshe dga’ lugs pa zhes zer ba ma bde bas | dge lugs pa zhes ’bod pa rgyun chags pa yin no ||. Tsong-kha-pa founded a hermitage called the dGa’-ldan-rnam-par-rgyal-ba’i-gling and during his later part of his life, it was his main or permanent seat. His tradition came to be known as Chos-rje-dga’-ldan-pa’i-lugs. But the abbreviated form of the name (which one normally uses), that is, “dGa’-lugs-pa,” was felt (phonetically) inconvenient, and hence the name of the school came to known as “dGe-lugs-pa.” By the way, some dGe-lugs-pas in the West do not seem to like the name “Yellow-Hat” school somehow assuming that it is pejorative. But there is nothing pejorative in the name and the Tibetan tradition proudly characterizes the teaching of the dGe-lugs school as “the Doctrine of the Yellow-Hat Ones” (zhwa ser gyi bstan pa).