Sometimes it is frustrating not to be able to clarify things that are seemingly simple and trivial. One such small thing is the Tibetan word chos bar or chos bar sa. To be sure, the word chos bar or chos bar sa does not seem to be recorded in any lexicon and no explanation can be found. Obviously authors of Tibetan works, in which these expressions occur, have taken for granted that its meaning or usage is understood. Prof. Katsumi Mimaki asked the other day if I knew what chos bar sa could mean. His point of departure is the following statement from the Deb ther sngon po: mkhas pa chen po ’jam pa’i dbyangs …re zhig chos bar sar ’dre rdzu byas nas slob dpon la bsdigs bskur bas | …. Prof. Mimaki now points out that Roerich has translated chos bar sar as “at the end of a class (evening)” and Harrison as “in the sacred courtyard (?)” (notably with a question mark). Seyfort Ruegg and Fukuda did not translate it at all. While Roerich’s translation is closer to our understanding of chos bar sar, which is clearly understood temporally rather than spatially, I think our understanding is certainly different. Below I shall venture to propose a hasty translation of my own.
Thanks to the TBRC/BDRC, I was able to examine the contexts of various passages where the pertinent expression/s can be found. In the mean time, I posted an enquiry to the WeChat group of researchers who are being trained under the Academic Research Program Initiative (ARPI) of the Khyentse Center for Tibetan Buddhist Textual Scholarship (KC-TBTS) of the Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies, Universität Hamburg. I told the group that I have only a very vague idea of the expression but I did not want to influence them. mKhan-po bKra-shis-rdo-rje (or bKra-rdo), one of the ARPI pilots, promptly suggested chos gung seng (“teaching vacation”). I told the group that mKhan-po’s suggestion seems plausible but I shall study all the possible contexts and get back to them. mKhan-po’s suggestion is much better and more specific than mine. On the basis of a few expressions, my initial impression was that chos bar la phebs and grwa skor la phebs reveal a close affinity with each other not only syntactically but perhaps also semantically. But before I could delve into the matter further, I received mKhan-po bKra-rdo’s suggestion, and all I could do was to examine all possible cases and to see if mKhan-po’s suggestion can be confirmed. And yes, mKhan-po’s suggestion seems to be absolutely correct! This is a small but a significant case which demonstrates how knowledge-oriented scholars—be they be trained in a university in the modern system or in a traditional Tibetan Buddhist monastic seminary—can benefit from each other. In this case, I am sure Harrison, Seyfort Ruegg, Mimaki, and I can take the suggestion of mKhan-po bKra-rdo with a great deal of appreciation and gratitude. One of the visions of the ARPI project is to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western (I am aware of the difficulties entailing from the employment of the East–West dichotomy) scholars devoted to gaining a nuanced knowledge of (mainly Indo-Tibetan) Buddhist texts and ideas and move forward together with a single goal of maximizing the accuracy and reliability of knowledge about Buddhism.
Let us return to the expression chos bar. Based on the TBRC/BDRC search, I list here a wide range of compounds or phrases: chos bar la phebs/byon/’gro/bzhugs, chos bar phebs, chos bar gtong/mdzad, chos bar la ’gro, chos ’bar (la) bzhugs, chos bar gyi ring, chos bar gyi mtshan mo, chos bar gyi tshe, chos bar yin pas, phyogs phyogs su chos bar bskor bas, chos bar grol mtshams, chos bar sa, chos bar sa mdzad, chos bar mdzad pa’i gnas, and so on. Considering these instances, it becomes clear that it is a term used in the traditional Tibetan Buddhist seminaries, and the closest meaning and rendering of it that I can think of is “semester break” or “semester vacation” (German: Semesterferien = vorlesungsfreie Zeit), “outside of term-time,” and so forth. Perhaps one may translate it as (Tibetan Buddhist) “seminarial vacation.” The syllable chos is to be understood as “Dharmic teaching-and-learning” in an institutionalized Tibetan Buddhist monastic seminary. The syllable bar is clearly to be understood in the sense of bar seng or gung seng (“intermission,” “interlude,” and “recess”). How should we understand chos bar sa? It is contextually clear that we should understand chos bar sa as chos bar mdzad pa’i gnas (“a place/location where one spends one’s seminarial vacation”). In a non-seminarial context, it would have been something like a “vacation/holiday home/seat.” And the phrase chos bar sa mdzad (mentioned above) is clearly meant in the sense of “[Someone] made [some place] a seat of seminarial vacation.” What about expressions such as chos bar bteg/s/’debs which seem to be somewhat unclear and which might undermine our understanding? My feeling is that chos bar bteg/s/’debs seems to be simply a variant of chos bar la theg/s, which would be a central Tibetan dialectical preference for chos bar phebs/byon/’gro. Thanks to Prof. Mimaki for raising the question and thanks to mKhan-po bKra-rdo for his valuable insight!
’Gos-lo gZhon-nu-dpal, Deb sngon (vol. 1, p. 410.8–12): “Also the great scholar ’Jams-pa’i-dbyangs was his (i.e. Rig-ral’s) disciple. This being the case, [the former and latter are initially staying together]. Once (re zhig) in a vacation venue [or a place where they were spending their vacation] (chos bar sar), [however, ’Jams-pa’i-dbyangs] masqueraded himself as a demon and frightened the teacher (i.e. Rig-ral) as a result of which [he] was heavily rebuked, [namely,] to the extent that [he] could not stay [with the teacher] and thus stayed in Sa-skya [instead]. Consequently/Subsequently, he was invited by the Mongol [ruler] and became (or functioned as) the court chaplain of the Buyantu King” (mkhas pa chen po ’jam pa’i dbyangs kyang khong gi slob ma yin pa las re zhig chos bar sar ’dre rdzu byas nas slob dpon la bsdigs bskur bas | shin tu bka’ bkyon nas drung du ’dug dbang ma byung bas sa skyar bzhugs pas | hor gyis gdan drangs nas bhū yan du rgyal po’i mchod gnas mdzad |).
Roerich (or perhaps dGe-’dun-chos-’phel) seems to have understood chos bar as “interval” (between daily teaching sessions) rather than as “vacation.” This is not impossible especially because “interval” or “recess” is rather relative. But most of the instances seem to indicate not “daily break” or “sessional break” but rather “seasonal break.” It could be “summer break,” “spring break,” or “winter break.”
PS. Dr. Heimbel has also come to understand the expression in a way that supports our current understanding.