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.

July 14, 2016

ཤོག་བུའི་ངེས་ཚིག །

Has anyone ever thought of the etymology of the Tibetan word for paper? I have a suspicion, no one and never before. But recently, like a bolt from the blue, I think I had a flash of insight! No, I do not claim to be a “treasure revealer” (gter bton/ston). The Tibetan word for paper is shog bu or shog gu, and of course, one can come across numerous disyllabic words with shog either as the first syllable (e.g. shog ser) or shog as the second syllable (e.g. bod shog). But what could be the etymology of shog bu or shog gu? First, let us put aside bu and gu, which are certainly diminutive particles. But what about shog? I think shog expresses the “rustling sound” made by the movement of dry paper. This would sound particularly sound if we consider the older Tibetan word for paper, namely, shog shog. That shog shog is an old word for shog bu has been made clear, for example, by rGyal-mo-’brug-pa in his Shog bzo’i lag len (163.7–8).

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.

June 29, 2016


In a big conference, one often misses some interesting papers just because one cannot multiply oneself. One of the many papers I missed in the recent IATS conference in Bergen (Norway) is a paper on Tibetan linguistics by a Tibetan scholar in Tibetan language. I think it was the paper by Chung Tshering. So I asked Lopen Lungtaen (Royal University of Bhutan), who happened to attend his talk, for some important points he made. Here is what I learnt. In Tibetan language, the first syllable of many disyllabic names of kinship is a, for example, a pha (“father”), a ma (“mother”), a zhang (“maternal uncle”), a khu (“paternal uncle”), and so on. Have we, however, asked ourselves what a in these words mean? You may have and even found an explanation, but I have not. According to the paper, I am told, a is an honorific (zhe sa) element. Thus, khu bo, for example is a normal form, whereas a khu is an honorific form. This has been an eye-opener for me! This might also explain why names of family members younger than oneself can hardly be construed with an (e.g. in gcung po and sring mo) because one normally does not employ zhe sa for those junior to or younger than oneself. But this position need not presuppose that all disyllabic words with a as the first syllable are honorific forms. Nor would it imply that honorific forms must necessarily have an a as the first syllable. But having said that, many non-Tibetic languages, too, have a or i as the first syllable. Consider, for example, a ba (“father”) and i ma (“mother”) in Hebrew. I thus personally speculate that vowels in such cases are vocative particles (’bod sgra). In this connection, one should by all means consider words such kye ma and e ma, where ma is clearly “mother” and kye and e are vocative particles.    

June 16, 2016

Lokāyatika = འཇིག་རྟེན་རྒྱང་འཕེན་པ།

Although Tibetan rendering of Lokāyatika is often spelled as ’Jig-rten-rgyang-phan-pa (e.g. TSD, s.v. mi bsten), the correct spelling seems to be ’Jig-rten-rgyang-’phen-pa (as recorded, for example, in the Tshig mdzod chen mo (s.v. ’jig rten rgyang ’phen pa). This is because Tibetan translators seem to have taken for granted that āyatika in lokāyatika is derived from āyati, that is, in the sense of “stretching,” “extending,” or “extension” (MW, s.v. āyati). Thus ’jig rten rgyang ’phen pa is to be probably interpreted as “one whose [philosophical] extensional scope (rgyang ’phen) is [confined to this material] world (’jig rten).” That is, why a lokāyatika can be called a “materialist.”

June 12, 2016

Adhīśa = ཇོ་བོ་རྗེ།

What is nice about scientific approach (as opposed to rigid and religious dogmatic approach) is that enquirers can keep on correcting or enhancing our hitherto knowledge or hypotheses. Recently our esteemed colleagues Harunaga Isaacson and Francesco Sferra came up with a brilliant suggestion regarding the byname *Atiśa (or *Atīśa). Lest I distort their nuanced position, I plead the readers to read Isaacson & Sferra 2014: pp. 70–71, n. 51. Here is the full bibliographical detail: Harunaga Isaacson & Francesco Sferra, The Sekanirdeśa of Maitreyanātha (Advayavajra) with the Sekanirdeśapañjikā of Rāmapāla: Critical Edition of the Sanskrit and Tibetan Texts with English Translation and Reproduction of the MSS. With Contributions by Klaus-Dieter Mathes and Marco Passavanti. Naples: Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale,” 2014. To begin with, the byname *Atiśa (or *Atīśa), though very popular in Tibetan and secondary sources, is not attested in Sanskrit sources. Assuming that there indeed was a genuine Sanskrit byname of respect and recognition, Helmut Eimer has suggested that *Atiśa could have been a corrupted derivation from Atiśaya. Isaacson and Sferra, however, voice their doubts with the probability of the name *Atiśa and its derivation and speculated that the underlying epithet in Sanskrit (i.e. if it indeed existed) could have been Adhīśa, which, unlike Atiśaya, has the merit of being attested as a name and epithet. In addition, I wish to point out that also the pertinent byname in Tibetan “Jo-bo-rje” seems to support the Adhīśa hypothesis. In other words, it is very likely that Tibetan jo bo rje has been a rendering of the Sanskrit adhīśa. This would also precisely tally with the English rendering of adhīśa as “lord or master over (others)” (MWs.v.). The orthographic and phonetic imprecision or similarity between adhīśa and atīśa/atiśa could have easily caused the confusion between the two. The Tibetan rendering phul du byung ba (e.g. Tshig mdzod chen mos.v. a ti sha), like Helmut Eimer, of course, presupposes atiśaya. We shall have to see since when we start seeing the Tibetan rendering phul tu byung ba (as a byname). The only disadvantage is that, as pointed out by Isaacson and Sferra, it is not attested as a byname. Negi’s dictionary, too, does not seem to contain any entry phul tu byung ba in the sense of a byname. I think we should start using Adhīśa (instead of *Atīśa/*Atiśa).

June 02, 2016


Experts in historical linguistics or diachronic linguistics may have their own idea of the etymology of the Tibetan word for “kiss.” Here I wish to speculate about the possible etymology of the Tibetan word for “kiss” (as a philologist who uses Tibetan language and not as a linguist who theorizes Tibetan language). I do so at the encouragement of Dan Martin. First, it is clear that two common verbs can be traced in Tibetan language that mean “to kiss,” namely, (a) kha skyel ba, which simply means “to put [one’s] mouth [on someone else’s]” and explained as “to unite [one’s] lips with [those of] others” (gzhan dang mchu sbyor ba), and (b) ’o byed pa (“to kiss or to plant a kiss”). Of course, we can also find some other expressions such as kha sbyor ba “to unite mouths” (and contextually also “to embrace” (as in a coitus), kha gtugs pa (“to bring mouths into contact”), kha snol ba (perhaps “to cause the mouths to intersect”), and the like. Thus kha la ’o byed pa may be understood as “to kiss on the mouth” and kha la ’o gtugs pa (somewhat freely “to plant a kiss on the mouth”). Jäschke also records um rgyag pa in the sense of “to kiss.” Second, let us consider the Tibetan word for the noun “kiss.” It seems that the noun “kiss” is expressed by the Tibetan word ’o and its variants such as ’u and um. The orthographic discrepancy between ’o and ’u is easily explainable and hence it should not surprise us at all. It is like the orthographic discrepancy between O-rgyan and U-rgyan. No big deal! The component um in um rgyag pa is not easily explainable. Third, the question now is what should be the literal (or etymological) meaning of ’o’u or um. As wild as it might sound, I wish to make two points here. First, I speculate that ’o in the sense of “kiss” and ’o in ’o ma (“milk”) are somehow related. That is, the act of “kissing” and the act of “suckling” (without the accusative object) both describe an action that involves some kind of intimate emotion. When one “kisses,” one puts one’s lips on someone’s lips, for example, and when a baby “suckles,” it also puts its lips on its mother’s nipples. I thus also think that ma in ’o ma (“milk”) and in nu ma (“breasts”) should refer to “mother.” Second, I think that the Tibetan word for “kiss,” namely, ’o’u, or um, is not really an “onomatopoeic” or “onomatopoetic” word in the sense that it phonetically imitates, resembles or suggests the source of the sound that it describes, but rather that it tries to imitate and form a shape of the mouth that would be formed in an act of kissing.

May 15, 2016


I would have never thought that the Tibetan word khyim (“house”) has something to with the verb “to encircle.” William Woodville Rockhill (i.e. The Life of the Buddha and the Early History of His Order. Derived from Tibetan Works in the Bkah-Hgyur and Bstan-Hgyur. Followed by Notices on the Early History of Tibet and Khoten. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1884 [= 1907], p. 5, n. 1), has, however, precisely suggested that. That is, khyim has been probably derived from ’khyims pa, which means skor ba (Tshig mdzod chen mo, s.v.) “to encircle.” He also points out its connection with gṛha, the Sanskrit word for “house” or “home,” which is said to derived from its root grah (“to embrace”). We should also perhaps think of the English words “grab”  or “grasp” or “grip.” This, according to him, would lead us to suppose that khyim was coined only after the introduction of Buddhism. But should this be necessarily the case? I personally do not think so. I also see that khyim can be found in OTDO.

May 13, 2016


Those of us dealing with Tibetan texts and ideas may have, at one point in time, wondered what the Tibetan word sngags literally means. In other words, what could be its etymology, should there be one. Ben Joffe recently wrote me asking if I have any thoughts on it. I wish to speculate here a little about the etymology of the Tibetan word sngags. For a moment let us forget about the etymology of mantra, often rendered as gsang sngags. Apropos the English translation of gsang sngags! In course of time, I happen to have developed some allergy to its translation “secret mantra.” Unless there is something like guhya preceding it, “secret mantra” seems to be a hyper-translation. Often the word gsang sngags is a rendering of mantra although for metrical reasons one might also encounter just sngags. Thus mantranyāna and mantranaya would be rendered respectively as sngags sngags kyi theg pa and sngags sngags kyi tshul. To be noted is that mantra (gsang sngags), dhāraṇī (gzungs sngags), and vidyā (rig sngags) may occur together as a set, in which case, I attempt to make a distinction by rendering them respectively as “magical formula,” “mnemonic formula,” and “cognitive formula.” We also encounter words such as mantrapada, dhāraṇīpada, and vidyāpada. Let us now turn to the Tibetan word sngags. We have a host of Tibetan words that seem to be based on the root ngag “speech/utterance.” First, we encounter several disyllabic words, where ngag appear as the second syllable. (a) We all know man ngag (for upadeśa). Its etymology seems to “medicinal/beneficial speech.” (b) We have snyan ngag (for kāvya). Its etymology “melodious/pleasing speech” may be self-explanatory. Some Tibetan scholars spell it as snyan dngags, which is said to be an archaic form of snyan ngag. (c) The word gdam/s ngag seems to literally mean “admonishing/counseling speech.” (d) The etymology of smre ngag seems to be “lamenting/wailing speech.” In all of these, it is clear that ngag means a certain kind of verbal articulation. Second, let us consider the verb mngag pa (its perfect form being mngags pa) “to commission, charge, delegate, send.” Also in modern or colloquial Tibetan, one would say that one has “ordered” (mngags) a plate of mo mo. Although its etymology may not be obvious, it seems that the act of “commissioning or ordering” is also a particular kind of “utterance” (ngag). One could theoretically order something or someone with one’s body or mind but the actual act of ordering is a verbal act and hence mngag is a special act or kind of ngag. Third, how about the Tibetan verb sngag/s pa (and its forms bsngag, bsngags, sngog) “to praise, eulogize, or extoll”? Here, too, one could express one’s praise with one’s body and mind but eulogy is primarily seen as verbal articulation and hence bsngags, too, is related with ngag. Third and finally, in which ever way one may decide to translate it, sngags (as in gsang sngags, gzungs sngags, and rig sngags) seems to have the primary meaning of a certain formula or spell, which has something to do with incantation, invocation, conjuration, or recitation. Therefore, sngags, too, seems to be a special kind of ngag. In short, sngags may be seen as a special kind of ngag in which a great deal of power and information has been encapsulated and encoded.

April 26, 2016

gser phye long mo gang?

Ms. Mengyan Li, my doctoral student, and I have encountered an expression gser phye long mo gang in the Phur pa chos ’byung she is studying. From the context it is absolutely clear that long mo must be a unit of measurement, that is, something like bre. This is, of course, assuming that there is no scribal or transmissional error. To be sure, there is no Varia lectio. The reading long mo in the sense of anklebone seems to make no sense. I think long mo gang cannot be equal to bre gang. gNyags was undergoing hard times then and he was not rich. We tried to look for this word elsewhere but it seems to be what is called a Hapax legomenon. I suspect that long mo gang should mean something like spar gang or khyor gang but there is no way that we can verify or falsify.

April 23, 2016


It so happens occasionally that we do not notice what is obvious. This may be because we either take a thing for granted as known or we have not yet asked the question in the first place. Let us take the etymology of the Tibetan word rgyang grags. We know that it is a unit of distance, a kind of Indian league. But have we asked what the words rgyang and grags could mean? You may have and but I have not. Of course we could look for  explanations out there (e.g. in Abhidharma commentaries). One of the usefulness of bilingual (e.g. Sanskrit-Tibetan or Tibetan-Sanskrit) sources is that it often helps us to regain the meaning of a Tibetan word that we may have forgotten or the etymology of a Tibetan word that we may not know. The etymology of rgyang grags is a good example. The Tibetan word itself may not disclose its etymology to an unsuspecting or incurious reader. But if we consider the Sanskrit word for rgyang grags, that is, krośa, its etymology might become immediately obvious. The word krośa is primarily said to mean “a cry, yell, shriek, shout” (MW). By the way, also klośa means “calling out to” (MW) and it is interesting that not only Japanese people confuse or interchange r and l. Thus krośa as a unit of measurement is said to be “the range of the voice in calling.” With this background knowledge, the etymology of rgyang grags would become conceivable: “[range of] distance (rgyang) [within which] a calling (grags) [is audible].”

February 08, 2016


In our digital world and in our digital age, one would think that one can find almost everything with a click of a mouse. This is not always the case. Here is one example. bSam-gtan-rgya-mtsho cites a certain sMyu gu’i bstan bcos ’phrul gyi sgron me. The title means something like The Magical Lamp: A Treatise on Pen. Enticing indeed! What about its whereabouts? Who composed it? When? What could it deal with? How big could it be? There are only questions and no answers yet. A website on Tibetan calligraphy shed some slight light on the topic. We have heard of the legendary figure Khyung-po g.Yu-khri. He is known for a certain style of Tibetan dBu-can script. He was a calligrapher, a scribe (yig mkhan). The Thems-spangs-ma Golden bKa’ ’gyur is said to represent the Khyung-po-g.yu-khri-lugs. Now the interesting thing is he is said to have authored two works, namely, the Rin chen sgron bu and sMyu gu’i bstan bcos ’phrul gyi sgron me. The latter seems to be extant for it is cited by bSam-gtan-rgya-mtsho. But the identity of the author as well of the work and the authorship of these works (should they surface soon) can by no means be uncritically accepted.

January 24, 2016

རྡོ་རྗེ་གཤོག་པ། རིན་ཆེན་གཤོག་པ།

On November 16, 2015, Rob (i.e. Robert Mayer, the Vajrakīla expert) posted on the facebook: “Can anyone point me to seriously detailed explanations of the rNying-ma Heruka’s wings? Primary sources preferred, secondary sources also appreciated.” In the follow-up responses, he explains that he is “looking for Tibetan exegeses of the meaning of the Heruka’s wings.” He goes on to state that the “various commentaries we have read so far, don’t go into as much detail as I would like.” He obviously found some explanations albeit not in detail. None of the responses that Rob received seemed to have served his purpose. When I read the posts, I wished I could be of some help but I had not the faintest idea. To begin with, I was thinking of the wings of Vajrakīla and not of any kind of Heruka. I had also hoped to find some explanations in Vajrakīla sādhana literature but I had not the time to screen through them, not even fleetingly. Rob’s enquiry did make me pay some attention to Vajrakīla-related sources that could potentially contain some explanations of Heruka’s wings. Thus far I was not able to find any explanation of the wings let alone detailed ones. But just now I accidentally bumped into something very brief. The Phur pa ’dus pa’i rtsa ba’i rgyud (p. 262.6), an important Tantric scripture of the Vajrakīla cycle from Nyang-ral’s bKa’ brgyad bde bshegs ’dus pa cycle of revealed treasures, states: rdo rje gshog (emended from gshogs) pa ma lus zil gyis gnon ¦ rin chen gshog pa dgos ’dod re ba bskong ¦ (“The vajra wings [symbolize] the overpowering of all [negative forces/elements]. The ratna wings [symbolize] the fulfillment of [all] needs and wishes.” Bibliography: Nyang-ral Nyi-ma-’od-zer (revealed), Phur pa ’dus pa’i rtsa ba’i rgyud. In bKa’ brgyad bde bshegs ’dus pa’i chos skor. 4 vols. Dalhousie: Damchoe Sangpo, 1977–1978, vol. 2, pp. 257–309. Indeed it will be interesting to trace detailed explanations of the symbol of vajra wings of Vajrakīla, but this little explanation is for the time being better than no explanation (at least for me). It is also possible that are no detailed explanations out there for it would actually suffice to state in one sentence: “Vajraic wings stand for x.” This does not, of course, shed any clue to the historical development of the iconology and semeiology of the Heruka’s wings.