August 24, 2016

སྐུ་ཚབ། ཞལ་སྐྱིན།

The very purpose of this blog has been to speculate about etymologies of Tibetan words. I haven’t done this for a while. So to prevent myself from drifting away from the initial goal, I am here again, speculating. This time it is the Tibetan words zhal skyin and sku tshab. If I may recall, my concern here is not their known dictionary meanings. To begin with, I must say these are pretty elegant words. The components zhal and sku suggest that the words are honorifics. Apropos, I wonder if I have already made this claim. If not, here it is. In my view, “honorific forms” (in Tibetan) are not to be equated or confused with “polite forms” (in German, for example). Normally human beings everywhere, I would assume, would prefer “polite content” to “polite form.” This is true also in Germany. But sometimes, “polite content” remains abstract and “polite form” seems relatively concrete. That is, we can, we believe, get away by being “impolite in content” but by being “polite in form.” The difference between the two is somewhat comparable to “being correct” and “being politically correct.” In German, the use of the verb siezen (i.e. to address someone formally with a Sie = Thou) and duzen (i.e. to address someone formally with a Du = You) is a good example. Here, too, it is safer to be “formally correct” than to be “correct.” But it seems formal correctness according to any given culture is important specially if one lives in that culture. But it seems to be quite safe so long as we encounter or interact with a person (formally or informally) with a basic sense of warmth and respect. Apologies for this needless deviation. Both zhal skyin and sku tshab mean something like “worthy representative.” We could understand sku tshab as literally meaning something like a “substitute/replacement of the body [of a worthy person missing/absent].” The component skyin in the word zhal skyin is actually from the verb skyi ba (“to borrow, to take a loan”). It has been nominalized to the form skyin pa or skyin ma, and it is the “loan” or “debt” that one owes the person from whom one has borrowed (e.g. money). In other words, skyin pa or skyin ma is the “substitute” or “replacement” for what one has borrowed. Thus zhal skyin literally means something like a “substitute/replacement of the face [of a worthy person missing/absent].” I think one’s virtuous master or teacher is said to be a zhal skyin of the Buddha. Historically, it seems significant because, as my German professor has once stated, a greater part of the development of Buddhist ideas can be explained as outcomes of attempts made by the Buddhists to psychologically compensate the physical loss of the historical Buddha.

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