April 24, 2014


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 ’jugin 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 a wild speculation. 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).

No comments:

Post a Comment