December 20, 2011


snying rje

Some of the Tibetan words are so common that nobody thinks about their etymologies, even when these are so obvious. Let us consider the Tibetan word snying rje for compassion, which means “lord of hearts.” This etymology has been pointed out by dGe-chos, where he paraphrases the term as snying gi rje. See the dGe chos gsung ’bum (vol. 5, p. 77). He also notes that shes rab and snying rje have been loan translations from the Sanskrit: ’di dag legs sbyar las bsgyur ba ’dug. While it is clear in the case of shes rab (i.e. from prajñā), I doubt if it is the case with snying rje. See Steinkellner’s comment in Bsteh 2000: 481 “Im Tibetischen wird karuṇā mit snying rje übersetzt, was so viel heist wie ‘Herrscher des Herzens.’” According to dGe-bshes Thub-bstan-ngag-dbang, as reported by his student, Christoff Spitz, snying rje can be etymologised as “exchange of one’s heart (with someone).” I, however, doubt if this has indeed been the etymology. It is true that in modern Tibetan snying rje can also be used as a verb  (heteronomous) such as in the sentence: nga (khong la) snying rje gi ’dug “I empathise (with him).”


  1. Well, my teacher Geshe Thubten explained rje in snying rje as "rje ba" - "to exchange". In that case rnying rje could literally mean "exchanging one's heart" in the sense of putting your heart in the place of the other person's heart; feeling the other's feelings, similar to the praxis of bdag gzhan myam brje, - "equalizing and exchanging self and other".

    Alternatively, maybe rje ba could also be understood as "moving", in the sense of changing they state of your heart? rnying rje would then mean "heart-moving", as in rnying rje bo - "beautiful" in the sense of something moving your heart, or as in the colloquial expression "rnying rje!" that Tibetans love to say if they see or hear something very touching, moving.

    But that's pure guess ...

  2. Dear Christof,

    Thank you for your comments and interests. dGe-bshes-lags's speculative etymologization is indeed very interesting. But I do not think that rje in snying is a verb (from rje ba) but a noun as in mKhas-grub-rje, rDo-rje, etc. I do not, however, know the meaning of rje as "moving." Even in modern Tibetan, I think snying rje still means a kind of sympathy and emptahy. Of course, in contrast to sdang ba which tends to "turn away from its object" (yul las ldog pa), chags pa and snying rje "incline towards their objects" (yul la g.yo ba).
    But thanks again. Please keep on giving your comments.

  3. Dear Christoff,

    A small update. As you can see, I added the speculative etymology offered by dGe-bshes-lags, which is a noble suggestion. But I did not consider "heart-moving" for now.

    Best wishes,


  4. Perhaps the two explanations can be brought together, if one accepts that the verb rje '(ex)change', 'alter' etc. and the noun rje 'lord', 'ruler' ('the one who [ex]changes/alters [things]'?) are etymologically related.