July 03, 2016

བམ་པ། བམ། བམ་པོ། གླེགས་བམ།

Our world is already reeling under the weight of conceptual constructions and thus there is not much point in adding one more conceptual construction. Nonetheless, I wish to add one speculation here. This concerns the word bam po. Over the decades, several prominent scholars have reflected on the term. The latest one is by van der Kuijp (i.e. Leonard W. J. van der Kuijp, “Some Remarks on the Meaning and Use of the Tibetan Word bam po.” Journal of Tibetology (Bod rig pa’i dus deb) 5, 2010, pp. 115–132). As usual, his contribution is rich and loaded with fascinating material and information. There is nothing much to add really. My interest, however, is a minor one, namely, the syllable bam. The question is whether bam in the sense of a “corpse,” bam in bam po, and bam in glegs bam are in any way related or they happen to be simply coincidentally identical. And what about the verb bam pa “to undergo fermentation” (as in the case of  cheese)? Perhaps “to rot” would be too strong a rendering of bam pa. We shall disregard bam (as an interrogative or alternative particle after the preceding b postscript, e.g. thub bam). Supposing that bam is not a loanword, could it be that bam in the sense of a “corpse” is somehow connected with the verb bam pa “to decay”? That is, a corporeal body that is destined to eventually bam (“decay”) is a bam (“corpse”)? It is a bit macabre, but when we think of bam in the sense of a “corpse,” let us imagine a body wrapped up in white sheet of cotton cloth and tied with straps or strings, somewhat like an Egyptian mummy. To be noted is that in Tibetan, phung po can not only mean skandha (in an Abhidharmic sense) but also “corpse.” I have not seen “corpse” referred to as *bam po but theoretically both *bam po (or bam) and phung po can refer to a “corpse.” Practically, however, bam po is used only in the sense discussed by van der Kuijp. Leaving aside the question of what quantity of text or manuscript is indicated by the unit of bam po, I wish to concentrate on the question of how the word bam po came to be used as a textual or manuscriptural unit or mass. The Chos ’byung gi yi ge zhib mo (i.e. one version of the sBa/rBa/dBa’ bzhed) contains an expression bam po re la shog dril re byas nas (p. 205.1). This seems to offer a small but an important clue and it also supports our previous understanding that bam po refers to a “scroll.” That is, the amount of text contained in a reasonable size of a scroll of manuscript is called a bam po. The possible variation in the size of the scroll would explain why the size of a bam po, too, can be variable. Tibetans may have adopted the tradition of keeping manuscripts in the form of scrolls from non-Indic traditions (e.g. Central Asia or China) and this might also explain why bam po may not have an Indic origin. But how is bam po related with glegs bam? My supposition is that bam in bam po and bam in glegs bam were initially related and that both referred to a textual or manuscriptural unit. The word bam in the both case may mean a “portion” or a “chunk.” The size of one bam po or one shog dril and one glegs bam can but need not to be equal. The key differences between a bam po of shog dril and a glegs bam can be said to lie in the form and format of the physical medium (i.e. paper or cloth or palm leaf) and also their origin. A shog dril is a single long sheet of paper or cloth manuscript rolled up as one scroll, whereas a glegs bam is a pile of loose folios held together with strings (as in palm-leaf manuscripts in India) or bound between two slabs of wooden boards (glegs shing) and bound with a binding strap (glegs thag). The tradition of glegs bam (pustaka) must be Indic in its origin. The relative chronology of the introduction of shog dril tradition and glegs bam tradition is unclear to me. Possibly, after the two traditions have been introduced, they could have persisted for sometime parallel, but after the introduction of the xylograph tradition, the shog dril tradition gradually receded. If to return to my initial question, what is the commonality in a “scroll,” “corpse,” and “volume”? Perhaps it is the meaning of “bundle” expressed by the syllable bam. One can try to visualise a “bundle” consisting of a scroll, a bundle of corpse (like a mummy), and bundle or volume of a bound Tibetan book, and see if we can see some component of similarity. In my view, they are all “bundles.” One last point here. I suggested above that in addition to the Abhidharmic phung po (“aggregate”), Tibetans also used phung po in the sense of a “corpse,” which is also called bam (thought never *bam po). In other words, phung po not only refers to (a) physical-psychical “bundle” (i.e. skandha) but also to (b) a “bundle” of lifeless body (i.e. a corpse). Similarly, I wish to speculate that bam po (analogous to phung po) not only refers to (a) “bundle” of lifeless body (i.e. a corpse), though admittedly only called bam, but also a “bundle,” in the sense of a textual or manuscriptural unit. The punch-line here is whether skandha in India, too, has this Double entendre. Apparently it does! That is, in addition to its usual Abhidharmic technical meaning of physical-psychical “bundle,” skandha (or khaṇḍa) can also have the meaning of “piece, part, fragment, portion” and “a chapter, section (of a book, system, etc.).” In such a context, khaṇḍa is rendered into Tibetan as dum bu (“part” or “piece”). Thus, at least ad sensum, both skandha (or khaṇḍa) in Sanskrit and phung po (or dum bu = bam po) in Tibetan can refer to a unit or portion of texts or manuscripts. All of these, as usual, is pure speculation.


  1. Dear D, Can't you do away with the Xit messages? This is why I turned on the "captcha" function at Tibeto-logic, even if it makes commenting a lot more difficult.
    One thing about bam[-po]. I'm sure it's connected with the (active, intentional) verbal form sbam[s]-pa that has the meaning 'to bind, to tie.' So in the forms 'bam and bam I'd take it to mean something that is tied up, a bundle. In the case of books there may be no Euro-style binding, yet there is a tying up or binding going on! It may be hard to find this word, but the Btsan-lha dictionary has it. I'd sooner connect the book with this, or with 'to swell' (sbom), than to rotting ('bam). True, books can rot, but that's not something to inspire a name for them, is it? Sorry I won't see you very soon. Take care and have fun. Yours, D