February 06, 2013


This speculation, regardless of its plausibility, is devoted to Yael! Yael draws attention to a peculiar usage of the word shan by dPal-sprul in his account of the ordeal that Thogs-med underwent for the sake of directly encountering Maitreya, the future Buddha. The pertinent line reads: yang lam kha zhig na brag ri chen po dgung la reg pa zhig gi drung na mi zhig gis bya sgro zhig chu nang du shan nas brag de la byab cing ’dug. Yael assumes that the meaning of shan in the given context could be something like “dipped.” But what could be its etymology?

Honestly, I have no idea about the etymology of shan in any given context and so I have no choice but to speculate. For that, I would like to consider several words (that contain the syllable shan), the meanings of which seem more or less clear. I shall, however, exclude shan pa (or gshan pa) “butcher” or “hangman,” which seems to be cognates with gshed ma (“executioner” or “hangman”). See Jäschke 1881: s.vv. shan pa gshed ma.

For the present purpose, I would like to consider five (groups of) words containing shan. First, we have a group of words in which shan clearly means an “(iron) hoop” as in lcags shan (or lcags shan brgyab), or, “(metal) rim” as in sga shan (“(metal) rim/fringe of a saddle”), or, “(silver inner) lining” (dngul shan) of a bowl as in dngul gyi kha shandngul shan ma (i.e. dngul shan g.yogs pa’i phor pa), and dngul shan brgyab. Here shan seems to mean a kind of “binding,” and shan brgyab “to bind or encircle with or as with hoops.” Second, what about shan in shan sbyar (e.g. skad gnyis shan sbyar)? Perhaps shan sbyar ba (as a verb) means “to bind or join (e.g.  two semi-cylindrical parts) by means of hoops.” Interestingly shan sbyar ba is very much similar to lto sbyar ba (used, for instance, by Mi-pham in his commentary on the Madhyamakālaṃkāra). Second, what about shan in shan ’byed (i.e. dkar nag shan ’byed) and la shan dbye ba? It seems to be the opposite of shan sbyar ba, and thus means “split or separate” and “to differentiate/distinguish.”  That is, as if taking the components of a barrel asunder by dismantling its metal hoops. Fourth, what about shan in shan zhugs pa? We know that in this context shan means “influence,” and perhaps etymologically “influence” means something that infiltrates (zhugs) into something (i.e. a barrel) through the gaps in between its metal hoops. Fifth, why is a boat called gru shan (cf. gru shan pagru shan gtong mkhan “boatman”)? Perhaps, gru shan is a “watertight vassel.” In all of these, shan seems to have something to do with “tightening” (also “water-tightening”) or “toughening.”

Finally, what could shan in bya sgro zhig chu nang du shan nas really mean? Perhaps here, too, the process of soaking or dipping in water presupposes a process of “tightening” or “toughening”? In the case of wooden barrels encircled with iron hoops, soaking in water may surely have a “tightening” effect. Perhaps it was believed that soaking or dipping feather in water made it more stiff and hence more effective in chiseling away a mountain towering in the sky? I wish I knew!


  1. Lieber D!

    I did find a verb in the so-called "Verbinator 2000" which has this entry:

    Present: shan DS. Past: shan [DS].Future: shan [DS].Transitive: DS.Meaning: To plate (articles) with flattened metal DS.

    I'm not sure if "plating with flattened metal" illuminates some obscure metallurgical process or another. I mean, generally things are plated with metals by being dipped into that metal, aren't they? This may support Y's idea that it has to do with dipping, although I'm not ready to gamble on the truth of it like Yudhisthira (G.yul-ngor-brtan-pa) did.

  2. Dear Dan,

    Hope you are not too cold up there! Thanks for pointing out to Nathan Hill’s work, which provides brDa yig gsar bsgrigs as his source. I do not think that ”to plate” (here) is to be understood as involving a metallurgical process (such as in gold/silver plating) but simply putting thin metal sheet as in (phor pa) dngul shan ma. The brDa yig gsar bsgrigs seems to merely presuppose the meaning of shan suggested by dngul shan brgyab, and so on. But why would one shan the feather before one “pats” (byab) the mountain? Another question: Is the reading shan at all correct? Could there be a faint possibility that shan is a misreading of shad?

    So much now.


  3. I just know you were referring to "petting" the mountain with the feather. Or did you really mean "patting"?

    Would the wet feather have greater power to erode the rock than the dry one? I'll have to ask a geologist friend.

  4. Dear Dan,

    Actually I did mean “pat” and it was my translation of byab. I have understood byab in the sense of “touch quickly and gently,” not, however, with the flat of the hand but with something like a stick, say a ”magic wang.” The form byabs occurs in Rong-zom-pa’s Sangs rgyas kyi sa chen mo and Orna translates it as “tapped,” that is, “to tap” in the sense of “to strike (something) against something else with a quick light blow or blows.” See Almogi 2009: 399 (text) & 259 (translation).

    Yes, Yael and I also discussed why would one “wet” the feather (as an instrument) in the first place. Let us consider the example “he wet a finger and flicked through the pages.” Why would one do that? Commonsensibly to get the necessarily friction, right? Or, one way “to whet” (i.e. sharpen) an instrument is “to wet” it.


    Take care.


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