January 23, 2019

Much Ado About chos bar and chos bar sa

Sometimes it is frustrating not to be able to clarify things that are seemingly simple and trivial. One such small thing is the Tibetan word chos bar or chos bar sa. To be sure, the word chos bar or chos bar sa does not seem to be recorded in any lexicon and no explanation can be found. Obviously authors of Tibetan works, in which these expressions occur, have taken for granted that its meaning or usage is understood. Prof. Katsumi Mimaki asked the other day if I knew what chos bar sa could mean. His point of departure is the following statement from the Deb ther sngon po: mkhas pa chen po ’jam pa’i dbyangs …re zhig chos bar sar ’dre rdzu byas nas slob dpon la bsdigs bskur bas | …. Prof. Mimaki now points out that Roerich has translated chos bar sar as “at the end of a class (evening)” and Harrison as “in the sacred courtyard (?)” (notably with a question mark). Seyfort Ruegg and Fukuda did not translate it at all. While Roerich’s translation is closer to our understanding of chos bar sar, which is clearly understood temporally rather than spatially, I think our understanding is certainly different. Below I shall venture to propose a hasty translation of my own.
            Thanks to the TBRC/BDRC, I was able to examine the contexts of various passages where the pertinent expression/s can be found. In the mean time, I posted an enquiry to the WeChat group of researchers who are being trained under the Academic Research Program Initiative (ARPI) of the Khyentse Center for Tibetan Buddhist Textual Scholarship (KC-TBTS) of the Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies, Universität Hamburg. I told the group that I have only a very vague idea of the expression but I did not want to influence them. mKhan-po bKra-shis-rdo-rje (or bKra-rdo), one of the ARPI pilots, promptly suggested chos gung seng (“teaching vacation”). I told the group that mKhan-po’s suggestion seems plausible but I shall study all the possible contexts and get back to them. mKhan-po’s suggestion is much better and more specific than mine. On the basis of a few expressions, my initial impression was that chos bar la phebs and grwa skor la phebs reveal a close affinity with each other not only syntactically but perhaps also semantically. But before I could delve into the matter further, I received mKhan-po bKra-rdo’s suggestion, and all I could do was to examine all possible cases and to see if mKhan-po’s suggestion can be confirmed. And yes, mKhan-po’s suggestion seems to be absolutely correct! This is a small but a significant case which demonstrates how knowledge-oriented scholars—be they be trained in a university in the modern system or in a traditional Tibetan Buddhist monastic seminary—can benefit from each other. In this case, I am sure Harrison, Seyfort Ruegg, Mimaki, and I can take the suggestion of mKhan-po bKra-rdo with a great deal of appreciation and gratitude. One of the visions of the ARPI project is to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western (I am aware of the difficulties entailing from the employment of the East–West dichotomy) scholars devoted to gaining a nuanced knowledge of (mainly Indo-Tibetan) Buddhist texts and ideas and move forward together with a single goal of maximizing the accuracy and reliability of knowledge about Buddhism.
          Let us return to the expression chos bar. Based on the TBRC/BDRC search, I list here a wide range of compounds or phrases: chos bar la phebs/byon/’gro/bzhugschos bar phebschos bar gtong/mdzadchos bar la ’grochos ’bar (la) bzhugschos bar gyi ringchos bar gyi mtshan mochos bar gyi tshechos bar yin pasphyogs phyogs su chos bar bskor baschos bar grol mtshamschos bar sachos bar sa mdzadchos bar mdzad pa’i gnas, and so on. Considering these instances, it becomes clear that it is a term used in the traditional Tibetan Buddhist seminaries, and the closest meaning and rendering of it that I can think of is “semester break” or “semester vacation” (German: Semesterferien = vorlesungsfreie Zeit), “outside of term-time,” and so forth. Perhaps one may translate it as (Tibetan Buddhist) “seminarial vacation.” The syllable chos is to be understood as “Dharmic teaching-and-learning” in an institutionalized Tibetan Buddhist monastic seminary. The syllable bar is clearly to be understood in the sense of bar seng or gung seng (“intermission,” “interlude,” and “recess”). How should we understand chos bar sa? It is contextually clear that we should understand chos bar sa as chos bar mdzad pa’i gnas (“a place/location where one spends one’s seminarial vacation”). In a non-seminarial context, it would have been something like a “vacation/holiday home/seat.”  And the phrase chos bar sa mdzad (mentioned above) is clearly meant in the sense of “[Someone] made [some place] a  seat of seminarial vacation.” What about expressions such as chos bar bteg/s/’debs which seem to be somewhat unclear and which might undermine our understanding? My feeling is that chos bar bteg/s/’debs seems to be simply a variant of chos bar la theg/s, which would be a central Tibetan dialectical preference for chos bar phebs/byon/’gro. Thanks to Prof. Mimaki for raising the question and thanks to mKhan-po bKra-rdo for his valuable insight!

’Gos-lo gZhon-nu-dpal, Deb sngon (vol. 1, p. 410.8–12): “Also the great scholar ’Jams-pa’i-dbyangs was his (i.e. Rig-ral’s) disciple. This being the case, [the former and latter are initially staying together]. Once (re zhig) in a vacation venue [or a place where they were spending their vacation] (chos bar sar), [however, ’Jams-pa’i-dbyangs] masqueraded himself as a demon and frightened the teacher (i.e. Rig-ral) as a result of which [he] was heavily rebuked, [namely,] to the extent that [he] could not stay [with the teacher] and thus stayed in Sa-skya [instead]. Consequently/Subsequently, he was invited by the Mongol [ruler] and became (or functioned as) the court chaplain of the Buyantu King” (mkhas pa chen po ’jam pa’i dbyangs kyang khong gi slob ma yin pa las re zhig chos bar sar ’dre rdzu byas nas slob dpon la bsdigs bskur bas | shin tu bka’ bkyon nas drung du ’dug dbang ma byung bas sa skyar bzhugs pas | hor gyis gdan drangs nas bhū yan du rgyal po’i mchod gnas mdzad |).

Roerich (or perhaps dGe-’dun-chos-’phel) seems to have understood chos bar as “interval” (between daily teaching sessions) rather than as “vacation.” This is not impossible especially because “interval” or “recess” is rather relative. But most of the instances seem to indicate not “daily break” or “sessional break” but rather “seasonal break.” It could be “summer break,” “spring break,” or “winter break.”

PS. Dr. Heimbel has also come to understand the expression in a way that supports our current understanding.

October 01, 2018

Etymology of the Tibetan Word for “Guest”


A guest in Tibetan is called a mgron po. But have we reflected why? The clue seems to lie in its orthographic variant ’gron po. But again we may like to know the etymology of ’gron po. The etymology seems to be obvious. We just have to cognize and recognize it. It is clearly derived from ’gro ba (“to go/travel”). But why ’gron? Well, one can observe the phenomenon of nominalizing a verb (including what I call an “adjectival verb”) by changing its postscript (rjes ’jug) to an n-postscript. One simple example should suffice. Take the verb skyi ba “to borrow” (e.g. money).  One can nominalize it to skyin pa, and hence it would mean something like “what one owes someone” and hence it would mean, for example, “money that one owes someone including the ensuing interest.” Thus a “traveller” is a ’gron po. We also have to remember that a “guest” is necessarily a “traveller.” We also know that prescripts (sngon ’jug)  and m are interchangeable although m-prescript seems to have become a standard and hence mgron. Nominalizing particle po makes the word mgron po clear that it refers to a “traveller” and a “guest.”

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).”