It is very refreshing to listen to the talk of gZam-gdong Rin-po-che posted on the youtube. One of the intriguing questions posed by him concerns the etymology of the Tibetan word dbu ma. The key question is: Why dbu ma and not dbus ma? Along with gZam-gdong Rin-po-che, one does feel that Tibetan translators must have had a reason for choosing the expression dbu ma. During that session, several scholars offered different kinds of explanations. The first explanation is that the component dbu in dbu ma is indeed the same dbu, namely, honorific of mgo (“head”). That is, madhyamaka is called dbu ma because it is the “head” or “crown” or “zenith” of the four Buddhist philosophical systems. The second explanation is that madhya is rendered into Tibetan as dbus and madhyama as dbu ma. The third explanation is that the primary postscript (rjes ’jug) s in dbus has been eventually dropped because it has no longer been reflected in the pronunciation. There were also other attempts at explanation. None of the explanations convinced gZam-gdong Rin-po-che. The first explanation, as gZam-gdong Rin-po-che pointed out, is an indigenous Tibetan interpretation. Apparently he is also not convinced of the second explanation mainly because the word dbu in Tibetan (apart from the case of dbu ma) does not have a known meaning of “middle.” The third explanation is not convincing because one may drop secondary postscript (yang ’jug) but one usually does not drop primary postscript (rjes ’jug). To add would be that it is not quite true that dbus ma and dbu ma would be phonetically indistinguishable (at least not according to all Tibetan regional dialects). Besides, even some of the earliest Tibetan sources seem to have only dbu ma and never dbus ma. A search for the word dbus ma in http://otdo.aa.tufs.ac.jp does not yield any result. In such a situation, I wish we had a comprehensive and reliable historical-etymological Tibetan dictionary. Just like gZam-gdong Rin-po-che, perhaps most of us are not convinced of the above attempted explanations. The fact that madhya is rendered as dbus and madhyama as dbu ma, though an important observation, still does not answer the question whether the word dbu in Tibetan ever meant “middle” (except of course in our case).
I shall attempt two wild speculations. The first one was made in 2014. The second was made yesterday (10.01.2018). Firstly, could it be that the Tibetan word dbu had another meaning which got faded away in course of time? The only word I can think of which contains dbu but one that does not mean “head” (honorific) is dbu ba (= lbu ba) “bubble.” Let us also consider: sbug ma (= nang gi nang) “inner chamber,” sbu gu (= sbug) “hollow/cavity,” ’bigs pa (verb) “to pierce,” dbugs (“breath”), and sbubs “interior space.” I do not know if you can sense anything common in all of these words. I, on my part, would like to think that these words are somehow connected with “an empty space inside,” let us say, a “space in the middle.” My speculation is that Tibetan translators indeed understood dbu ma in the sense of “innermost” or “middlemost” or “centermost” dimension of reality (like the centermost space in a room). Perhaps they intended to distinguish madhya (i.e. positive) from madhyama (i.e. superlative) by rendering the former as dbus and the latter as dbu ma. Finally the component ma in dbu ma might have been intended to express the feminine gender (of madhyamā pratipad) (as in the case of gzungs ma).
Secondly, my wife and I were able to call on Professor Seyfort Ruegg at his place in London. We spent several hours talking about all kinds of things. One of the topics was why Tibetans translated madhyamaka as dbu ma. It was important for him not to confuse madhyamaka with madhyamā pratipad. Of course, I consented. All Buddhist schools would maintain that they endorse and follow the madhyamā pratipad, and yet some would oppose the Madhyamaka philosophy. Go-ram-pa has made this point explicit already. He also wondered why madhyama has also been rendered as ’bring. I suggested that when madhyama referred to degree, mass, measurement (of space and time), and the like, Tibetans seem to have translated it as ’bring and bar ma. Cf. rab ’bring tha gsum, chung ’bring che gsum, thog tha bar gsum, etc. See, for example, the Tibetan translation of mṛdumadhyādhimātra. We asked many such questions without proposing any answers. But now, I wish to return to the question: why dbu ma and not dbus ma? I venture to make a new speculation again. But first, let us consider the Tibetan translation of madhyāha (“mid-day”) as nyi ma’i gung (Mahāvyutpatti, no. 8248). Here, madhya has been rendered as gung. What does gung really mean? I would like to think gung should mean something like “highest point, high point, crowning point, height, top, acme, peak, pinnacle, apex, apogee, vertex, tip, crown, crest, summit, climax, culmination, meridian.” That is, the sun at his highest point when it is right “over-head.” The key Tibetan word here is “head,” here honorifically rendered as dbu, and the key word here is also “meridian” which contains the word medius. The success and elegance of translating madhya as dbu ma is two-fold. It not only expresses “meridian” but also the “zenith.” To translate such a key philosophical term as bar ma or ’bring would have been neither accurate nor elegant nor flattering. We notice that my suggestion here is somehow in conformity with one of the suggestions given above. However, the idea of zenith or “crown” alone does not seem sufficient in explaining the word dbu ma. The idea of medius must be there. If we, thus, understand dbu ma in the sense of gung as in nyi ma gung (“meridian”), the etymology seems plausible. Thus dbu ma seems to have been intended to express the “mid-point” as well as the “highest point.”