January 21, 2014


Being inspired by reflections on the Tibetan word mkhas pa by Vanessa and Chris on the facebook, I wish to devote an entry on mkhas grub here. (I already created an entry for the word rtog ge ba, q.v. rtog ge rnam pa gnyis). To those of you who are new to my blog, I wish to state that this blog is meant purely for my personal reflection and speculation. It is a forum for revealing my ignorance so that I can learn a little from readers like yourselves. In this regard, readers like Dan Martin, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of anything related to Tibetan intellectual culture and intellectual history, have been offering incredibly valuable and beneficial (a word that I prefer to “profitable”) insights.

But now returning to mkhas pa, we all know that the Sanskrit paṇḍita has been rendered as mkhas pa. Important perhaps is to note that it is used both as (a) an adjective (although in Tibetan, I would rather prefer to say “verbal adjective” or “adjectival verb”) meaning “to be learned, wise, shrewd, clever, skillful in (as pointed out also by Vanessa), conversant with” (cf. MW, s.v. paṇḍita); and (b) as substantive and thus “a scholar, a learned man, teacher, philosopher” (also cf. MW, s.v.). We cannot afford to forget that several Sanskrit words (that are synonymous with paṇḍita and kuśala) are rendered into Tibetan by mkhas pa (see, for instance, Negi, s.v.). To sum up, it is somewhat like the English word “expert,” which can be used both as an adjective and as a substantive. But to this, I wish to add a third meaning (derived from the latter), which is often not obvious in Tibetan, namely, “expertise/expertness” (nomen abstractum). One of the challenges in reading Tibetan texts is telling the “concrete” from the “abstract” (especially if not marked with a nyid as in stong pa nyid). To illustrate this difficulty, I always give the example of ’gro ba. It can mean many things: “to go” (verb), “going” (a noun, in the sense of the act of going), “one who goes” (i.e. sentient being as in ’gro ba sems can thams cad), “where one goes to” (i.e. one’s destiny as in ’gro ba ris lnga/drug), and it might even mean “the path along which one goes” (i.e. way) and “means of going” (e.g. a vehicle). As Chris rightly emphasizes, knowing the context seems to be the key. Leaving aside the typology of translation, or, theories and practices of translation proposed by all kinds of experts, I personally feel that our main obligation as translators is to obtain as much as possible a nuanced, accurate, and representative picture of what our texts in the source language (in our case mostly those in Classical Tibetan) are trying to tell us and to convey those ideas contained therein in the target language, all the while being aware that all translations are hypotheses, and that there is always room for changes and improvements.

Now turning to mkhas pa with a rather more philosophical and historical note, the idea of the dichotomy of mkhas grub seems to be fascinating. Buddhist perceptions and conceptions of mkhas pa and grub pa (“an [spiritually/soterically] accomplished one”) might reveal a great deal about the Buddhist intellectual history, culture, philosophy, religion, society, and so forth. I imagine that the mkhas–grub dichotomy represents the two (x–y) poles or ends of the one and same scale of the Buddhist world: rationalism and devotionalism; intellectualism and mysticism/spiritualism; dharmānusārin/nyāyānusārin (chos kyi rjes ’brang or rigs pa’i rjes ’brang) and śraddhānusārin (dad pa’i rjes ’brang). There are Buddhists for whom prajñā plays a more paramount role; there are others for whom karuṇā/śraddhā plays a more predominant role. It is also a matter of theory-orientedness and praxis-orientedness. Ideally speaking, one should be both a mkhas pa and a grub pa, that is, mkhas grub gnyis ldan. In reality, however, many individuals who identify themselves as Buddhists might like to place themselves at a certain point on the scale, at least in terms of their affinity or personal predilection. 

While reflecting on the idea of mkhas pa, we may also consider (a) the idea of “infant” (bāla: byis pa), of which there are three kinds, (1) one opposed to an aged person (lo na rgan pa), and thus “one who is biologically infant,” (2) one opposed to a paṇḍita (“expert”) and hence a lay person or “intellectually/professionally infant,” and (3) one opposed to a Buddhist saint (ārya: ’phags pa) and thus all saṃsārians (i.e. those who are still bound by karmas and kleśas including the paṇḍitas who are pṛthagjanas) are “soteriologically infants.” (b) We may also consider the idea of what is known as “three kinds of pre-requisites/qualifications for composing a treatise” (bstan bcos rtsom pa’i rgyu gsum): rab chos nyid kyi bden pa mthong ba, ’bring yi dam gyi lha’i zhal gzigs pa, and tha ma rig pa’i gnas lnga la mkhas pa. Note that being a mkhas pa is considered to be the lowest kind of qualification. (c) Lastly, we might also consider the three types of slob dpon discussed by mKhan-po Kun-dpal in his commentary on the Bodhicaryāvatāra, and there too, a paṇḍita who is a pṛthagajana (of course when juxtaposed to a buddha and an arhan) is ranked the lowest.

What personally fascinates me is the constant tension that seems to exist between two x–y poles and the kind of attempts made by some to ease or release this tension. Those who are inclined to x are skeptical of y, and vice versa. The statement tshig la mkhas na mkhas pa ma yin te || mi g.yo’i don la khas la mkhas na mkhas pa yin || seems to redefine mkhas pa. Similarly, thos pa med pa’i sgom pa ’di || lag rdum brag pa ’dzeg pa ’dra || seems to be suggestive of such a tension. Also the issue of paṇ ḍi ta’i dpyad sgom and ku sa la’i ’jog sgom seems to be reveal the tension between x and y. The way Nāgārjuna and Asaṅga, Vasubandha and Asaṅga, or, Candrakīrti and Candragomin, has been projected in their hagiographies also seems to reveal the same kind of tension between x and y. But in the end the general public seems to be more sympathetic towards pole y. This is quite understandable. Those who represent or accentuate pole x may appear to cold, hypercritical (though not hypocritical), uncompromising, and deconstructive (though not destructive), whereas those who represent pole y may appear warm, compassionate, compromising, and constructive. Even those who identify themselves with the pole x would ultimately concede that the final goal of Buddhist teachings is to gain direct cognitive access to the true reality thereby making the final soteriological breakthrough, and that can only happen when direct insight (jñāna: ye shes) or discriminating insight (prajñā: shes rab) acquired through meditation is obtained. In other words, if one wishes to attain awakening (bodhi: byang chub), there is no alternative to meditative insight.

Now I must get back to other things that await my immediate attention, as it is stated: paṇ ḍi ta la bya ba gzhan yang yod do || “A paṇḍita has also other activities.”

1 comment:

  1. As somebody said... or I guess it was a book title, "After enlightenment, the laundry." I think we should do our work[s], stay out of the polemics if possible, and enjoy it. By it I mean both work and life. Not that I'm even able to distinguish which is which.