Seriously Dodgy Street Tattooing in Chengdu


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Update: August 20, 2012

Fig 1 - Making a selection.

This is a short post for those who fear that tattooing has been permanently co-opted by urban hipsters and sorority girls. A post for those who long for the days when getting a tattoo was a right of passage involving risking your life (or at least your health) by venturing into the darker corners of town. Fear not old-school aficionados: life-threatening tattooing still exists in the back alleys of your favorite Chinese city.

Near Chengdu’s north railway station, there is an epic wholesale market where everything from pantyhose to endangered animal parts is available on the street. Near the gate, several people had laid large sheets of flash on the ground (see fig 1). Passersby could then select their new tattoo from among these images. But where was the work itself being done? Fortunately, a courageous young Chinese man had decided on getting a rather ornate tattoo on his hand, and so I asked if I could tag along and take some pictures.

Fig 2 - Yes, this man is getting a tattoo in a dingy alley.

I had assumed that we would be lead off to an apartment studio somewhere, but instead we simply turned the corner into a small alley, and everyone squatted down in the muck (see fig 2). Not exactly a sterile environment. To his credit, the tattooist (I can’t quite bring myself to call him a tattoo artist) did use a new, disposable needle. But the machine and tubes that he used looked like they had not been cleaned in years.[1] The tattooist insisted several times that everything was “very clean”. Most definitely not true. About this time I realized the crazy foreigner taking pictures (that would be me) had drawn a bit of a crowd. Time to go. So I took one more picture of the tattoo, with the outline completed (see fig 3) and got the hell out of dodge. It’s also worth noting that this was this man’s first tattoo, and he decided to get it on his hand. In traditional western tattooing, the hands and face have always been pretty much off limits, as those are the only parts of your body you can’t cover up with clothes. In addition to the various communicable diseases this guy probably got, he’s also going to be stuck with a horrible tattoo, in full view of everyone, for the rest of his life. So if that sounds like your cup of tea, or if you’re just nostalgic for old-school back-alley scab-vending, now you know where to go.

Fig 3 - The completed outline. The box behind him contains the tattooist's supplies. His own personal disease transmission kit.

For the record, not all the tattooing being done in Chengdu is grim. In fact, I’ve seen some surprisingly good work being done, and if I can find the time, I’ll post about that as well.



For those of you wondering if you really can catch some kind of horrible disease from dirty street tattooing, check out the picture at right.


[1]A tattoo machine consists of needles moving in and out of a tube – kind of like a mechanical pencil. It doesn’t do much good to have clean needles if your tubes are nasty. In this case he was also getting his ink directly from the bottle, mixing this guy’s blood in with the rest of the ink and getting the whole thing set for the next customer.

Herding Yaks off Cliffs


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Herding Yaks in Khumbu

The story goes something like this: killing is bad, and no one wants the karma of intentionally killing an animal. But you gotta eat, and that means meat. So what’s a poor Tibetan herder to do? It’s simple, really. You take your yaks out to graze, and lead them close to some high cliffs. If all goes well, one of them will lose its footing and fall. You get the meat, and since the yak died ‘accidentally’ you gets a clean conscience to boot. I’ve heard this story on a couple of occasions, and have always wondered if it is true, or if it might fall into that amorphous category we call urban (rural?) legend.[1]

Recently I came across a reference that would seem to provide an answer: urban legend it is. Mari Albert Johan van Menen (1877-1943) was a Dutch Theosophist, avid reader of Tibetan texts, longtime resident of Darjeeling, and eventually General Secretary of the famed Asiatic Society of Bengal. In the nineteen twenties he convinced three of his Tibetan friends and research partners to write autobiographies. Thanks to the efforts of Peter Richards, translations were finally published in 1998, in Tibetan Lives: Three Himalayan Autobiographies.[2] There is a wealth of interesting material in these texts, but for now I’m interested in a quote on page 100. There, Karma Sudhön Paul recalls that:

A European once told me he had read that Tibetans never killed animals. He added that, if any meat was needed, they would drive one or two yaks up a mountainside, shout at them from behind. Because this frightened the animals they fell, meeting their death in an abyss. The yaks could now be eaten – no sin was committed because they had killed themselves. However, I never came across this practice and never met a Tibetan who had.

So there we have it, a well-travelled Tibetan, writing in the mid nineteen twenties, who claims that this story is bunk. Not quite enough to completely dismiss such stories, but better than anything else I’ve got. Fortunately, Karma Sudhön Paul gives us a clue about where this story might have come from. The unnamed European said he had read about this. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Tibet was largely inaccessible and, to European eyes, shrouded in mystery. Needless to say, may of the books about Tibet that were circulating at the time had only a tenuous connection to reality. So perhaps it was one of these authors, trying to reconcile Tibetans’ love of meat with a nineteenth century view of Buddhism as fundamentally pacifistic and docile, who came up with this story, which has since be retold often enough to pass into the realm of urban legend? Or perhaps not, but stranger things have happened.

Do you know which book this story might have come from? Or do you have any evidence that this might be a real practice after all? Let me know in the comments section below.


[1]For more information (and graphic photos) about actual Tibetan slaughtering practices, see: Goldstein, Melvyn C., and Cynthia M. Beall. Nomads of Western Tibet: The Survival of a Way of Life. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), especially pages 96-99. Somewhat incredibly, the whole book appears to be available from google books.

For a recent appeal by Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö, one of the foremost lamas in Kham today, to make those practices more humane, see: tshul khrims blo ’gros. “dus su bab pa’i gtam lugs gnyis gsal ba’i me long [Timely Advice: the Mirror Illuminating the Two Systems].” In dpal bla rung gi mkhan po tshul khrims blo ’gros kyi gsung ’bum bzhugs so. Vol. 2. (ya chen o rgyan bsam gtan gling, [2004]). This latter text might be hard to find, but should be available through Inter-Library Loan.

[2]Richardus, Peter, ed. Tibetan lives: Three Himalayan Autobiographies. Richmond: Curzon, 1998. Preview available on Google Books.

Trash Collection at Yachen Gar


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Fig. 1: Trash Truck at Yachen Gar, June 2010

I have recently moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where my wife Eliza has started at job teaching at Wofford College. One of the remarkable things about my new town is the trash collection: everyone uses the same trash can, and then a truck with a robotic arm comes by, picks up the can, and dumps the contents into the truck. No trash collectors involved, other than the person driving the truck.

Fig. 2: Houses at Yachen Gar

Other people may be more familiar with this type of trash collection, but I have only seen it in one other place: the late Khenpo A-khyuk‘s encampment at Yachen Gar, in remote Kham (see fig. 1). As those who have been to Tibet recently can attest, trash is a major issue. When Eliza and I visited Dzogchen Monastery in 2007, trash cans were overflowing, the hillsides were covered with refuse, and there was a huge pile of assorted garbage just outside the town. I get the impression that Tibetan culture simply has not yet figured out how to deal with all of the potato chip wrappers, beer bottles and cheap clothes that have accompanied it’s rapid introduction to modernity over the last few decades.

Fig. 3: Getting the Can on the Truck

Yachen Gar is a new religious center, about six hours away from Kardzé on in one direction and Pelyül in the other.[1] It has grown rapidly since its founding in 1980, and when I visited in June of 2010 there were several thousand residents. Each of these monks and nuns are responsible for their own housing and food, and the facility is composed almost entirely of homemade shacks (see fig. 2). Not the kind of place you would expect to find cutting edge trash collection. And yet there was this blue and white truck, making it’s way down the major streets, with two women putting the matching blue trash cans in position, and the truck doing the rest. Truly remarkable. This is not to say that the trash situation at Yachen Gar has been taken care of entirely (I watched one nun throw an old plastic washbasin in the river), but these trucks were a remarkable sight, and a sign that things are moving in the right direction.


Pitching in to build a colossal Mani Wall. Every one of those stones is inscribed, and the whole collection could easily cover a football field to a depth of several meters.

[1]Yachen Gar is one of the most remarkable religious institutions in Tibet today. Like Khenpo Jikmé Püntsok‘s more famous institute at Serta, it was founded by a charismatic tertön in the period just after Deng Xiaoping allowed religious practice. Since then it has grown to be one of the most active and vital teaching centers in the Tibetan world–both inside the PRC and among the exile communities. Sadly, the founder, Khenpo A-khyuk, passed away in July. This is a huge loss, not just for Yachen Gar, but for Tibetan Buddhism and the Nyingma tradition throughout Kham. It remains to be seen how this will affect Yachen Gar on a daily basis. I will be traveling through the region in the coming year, and will post whatever thoughts come to mind, though I will leave a thorough analysis of the coming transition to others. For more info on Khenpo A-khyuk and Yachen Gar, please read Antonio Terrone’s excellent article, “Householders and Monks: A Study of Treasure Revealers and their Role in Religious Revival in Contemporary Eastern Tibet.”, found in Buddhism Beyond the Monastery: Tantric Practices and their Performers in Tibet and the Himalayas, published in 2009 by Brill. You may have to use inter-library loan to get this, as Brill has priced it at a whopping $136.

Samuel Turner, the Daeb Raja and Tibetan Vegetarianism


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When foreign observers comment on the Tibetan diet, they usually remark on the large quantities of meat being consumed. It was somewhat surprising, therefore, to come across the following passage in the ‘Tibet’ volume of Frederick Schoberl’s 1824 encyclopedia, The World in Miniature: “Hence we may infer that all sorts of animal food are forbidden to the religious, who abstain also from every kind of strong liquors.” In 1824, at least one English encyclopedist believed that all Tibetan monks were vegetarians. Schoberl himself had never been to Tibet (or most of the other places he wrote about), but, remarkably for this time period, he cites his sources.

An Engraving from the 1800 edition of Turner's Embassy to the Court of The Teshoo Lama

In this case, Schoberl is drawing from Samuel Turner’s epic Embassy to the Court of the Teshoo Lama (available free on Google Books). Turner was the second British diplomat to visit Tibet, making a trip to visit the Panchen Lama at Tashilhunpo in 1783 (‘Teshoo Lama’ = ‘Lama from Tashilhunpo’ = ‘Panchen Lama’). The first British diplomat, the celebrated George Bogle, died before he could publish an account of his trip, making Turner’s work, published in 1800 and reprinted in 1806, the most significant work on Tibet available to Schoberl.

On the way to Tibet, Turner stopped over in Bhutan, where he hung out with a lama-official he calls the Daeb Raja. Turner’s ‘Daeb Raja’ is, presumably, the Deb Raja, also known as the Druk Desi (འབྲུག་སྡེ་སྲིད།), the secular half of the Bhutan’s ruling partnership. A quick look at Wikipedia lets us know that the Druk Desi at the time of Turner’s visit was Jikmé Senggé (འཇིགས་མེད་སེང་གེ།), who ruled from 1776 to 1788. It is from Turner’s account of his meeting with this individual that Schoberl gets his ideas about Tibetan Buddhist vegetarianism. Turner quotes the Daeb Raja as follows:

“My food consists of the very simplest articles, grain, roots of the earth, and fruits. I never eat of any thing that has had breath, for then I should be the indirect cause of putting an end to the existence of animal life, which, by our religion, is forbidden.”

Jikmé Senggé’s refusal to eat meat on religious grounds is a pretty remarkable thing. While vegetarians were by no means unknown to Tibetan Buddhists of this time, they were few and far between. Which leads to the obvious question: was Jikmé Senggé alone in his vegetarianism, or was there a broader movement afoot in Bhutan at this time? Alas, I have no answer. I’ve looked through the usual compliment of online biographies, bibliographies and finding aids, but have come up empty. In fact, I write this post with the hope that someone reading it will know more about Bhutanese history than I do, and might be able to point me towards some other sources for Jikmé Singyé or other Bhutanese vegetarians of this time.

Until further information emerges, I will simply leave the reader to reflect on the remarkable coincidences that allowed a seemingly chance encounter between Turner and this vegetarian monk-official to cause a British encyclopedist (and who knows how many others of his generation) to believe that all Tibetan monks were vegetarian.

The Comics Connection III: The Green Lama (and I don’t mean Milarepa)


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click to enlarge

A while back I wrote a couple of posts about how Batman and Dr Strange both received their training among the magical monks of Tibet. Once they each returned stateside, however, their Tibet connections become a footnote; a quaint piece of backstory, but not much more. Not so for The Green Lama, who not only studied in Tibet, but who wraps his whole identity around the place. When he gets in trouble, he chants Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ, and the power of that mantra resonates with a monastery in Tibet and transforms him into a unstoppable crime-fighting force (image 1). Needless to say, this is a fairly unprecedented use of the mantra of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion (click here for some previous posts featuring authentic uses of the maṇi). On the upside, they did get the Tibetan spelling of the mantra right, which is no small feat for 1945 (see the center panel in image 1). Besides his unconventional use of the maṇi, he has a Tibetan servant named Tsarong who calls him 'tulku' and he even works the term 'lama' into his crime-fighting name. Surely this must be the most Tibet-centric superhero ever.

click to enlarge

Ok, so he’s wrapped himself in all this Tibetan imagery. But what about all the violence? When he first returns to the US after ten years in Tibet, The Green Lama wants to teach Americans to meditate. He is barely off the ship, however, before he witnesses a murder and becomes convinced that Americans are not ready to meditate. So instead he becomes a superhero, punching out bad guys’ lights left and right. this may not accord with our notions of peaceful Buddhists, but I can’t help feel it resonates with some of the ideas surrounding Tibetan protector deities, or the legends about figures such as Gesar. So maybe we’re not so far off here…. I have no idea what kind of research The Green Lama’s writers did, but it would be really neat to know if these resonances were intentional, or purely coincidence.

click to enlarge

Other than its Tibet connection, perhaps the most striking thing about this comic series is the explicit anti-racism stance it takes. The Green Lama was published from 1944-1946, and in one issue, The Green Lama picks up a racist soldier and carries him to Nazi Germany, where he sees the impact of racism and learns the error of his ways. In another issue, The Green Lama travels to Texas in order to expose and shame an anti-semite. To be fair, the writers of this comic clearly supported the war effort, and their characterization of German and, particularly, Japanese soldiers is anything but sympathetic. Still, arguing against racism so strongly seems pretty remarkable for this time. If anyone reading this has studied pop culture of this period, please feel free to add your two cents in the comments box below. I’d be really curious to know how common this was.

So there you have it: the most Tibet-centric comic superhero of all time. As always, we can see the same old stereotypes of Tibet as a land of mysterious enchantments and power, and, as always, the hero is a caucasian male and actual Tibetans are relegated to minor roles. Still, the fact that a comic like this could appear in the forties, and assume that young readers would already be familiar with terms like ‘lama’ and ‘tulku’ speaks to a pretty remarkable level of knowledge and interest in Tibet at the time.


If you want to read more about The Green Lama, the entire run is contained in the following two books:

  • The Complete Green Lama: Featuring the Art of Mac Raboy. Vol. 1. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Archives, 2008.
  • The Complete Green Lama: Featuring the Art of Mac Raboy. Vol. 2. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Archives, 2008.
  • John Bunyan, Missionaries to Tibet and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama


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    Figure 1: Title Page

    Most of us who think about Tibetan history are aware of the longstanding activities of missionaries in that country. From António de Andrade‘s mission in the early seventeenth century through today, missionaries have long sought a foothold in Tibet. And sometimes they leave a relic behind to remind us of their dedicated and industrious efforts to spread the gospel. Case in point: my new copy of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress translated into Tibetan by by the Revered Evan Mackenzie, F.R.G.S. and published in London by the Religious Text Society, sometime before 1931 (more on the dating of the text later). Translating from Tibetan is a difficult task, but translating into Tibetan is something else again, and the Rev. Mackenzie deserves credit for this difficult work. I also can’t help but feel that Bunyan’s epic allegory is an interesting choice for translation in this context. Offhand, I can’t think of any Tibetan works that rely on the same type of extended allegory (I’m sure my ignorance will soon be corrected by an alert reader out there somewhere). At the same time, some of the images, such as a man burdened by his past, or the idea of treading a religious path, resonate with Tibetan religious notions, so perhaps it is a good selection.


    Figure 2: Frontispiece

    The book itself is well made, printed on good paper, and includes several wonderful illustration (interestingly, the figures are dressed in Indian garb, and some show captions in Devanagari. Perhaps they were cribbed from a Hindi edition?). Clearly, the Religious Text Society cared about what they were doing and invested the time and money in turning out a good product. As for the translator, I have been able to find out very little about him. The only reference I have found, in fact, is a brief note of thanks printed in Adventures and Travels in Tibet, a 1901 account of missionary travel, where he is listed as residing in Kalimpong, India (thank you, Google Books). The Kalimpong connection is interesting, as it was also the home of the Tibetan Christian G. Tharchin’s Tibet Mirror, the first regular Tibetan language newspaper, published from 1925-1961. The literary arts, it seems, were flourishing among the Kalimpong missionaries and their converts.


    Figure 3: A Typescript translation of a letter from the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. My copy of this text included two such letters, with identical text, but, alas, not the original letter in Tibetan.

    As far as the impact of the work, I have no idea if it was ever widely distributed in Tibet, but it does seem that at least one Tibetan, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, received a copy. The volume I bought on ebay contains two separate typewriter-typed translations of a letter from the Great Thirteenth, dated the tenth day of the tenth month of the iron-sheep year (1931; this is how I know the book must have been published prior to 1931). In the letter, the Dalai Lama thanks the Religious Tract Society for sending him a copy, though, as he points out, “it is difficult for us who accept and spread the doctrine of those who wear the Yellow Hat to accept and live that religion” (see image 3 for the rest of the letter). So not only did the Tibetan missionary community have the linguistic ability to make the translation and the economic ability to have it published nicely, they also had the connections to get a copy into the hands of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. That seems pretty impressive to me. Or perhaps not, perhaps these contacts were fairly routine. So I don’t know if this little textual relic actually tells us anything new about the history of missionary activity in Tibet. Perhaps it does, but more likely not. In any case, its pretty neat.

    If you happen to know anything about the Reverend Evan Mackenzie, have a similar text sitting around, or have any other information on early twentieth century missionaries to Tibet, please leave a comment!

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    And now a quick note about my new ‘Liebster Award’ (that would be German for ‘favorite’).  Apparently, this is an award to recognize and bring attention to good, small-time blogs.  Each recipient is nominated by a peer in the blogging community and in turn is supposed to nominate three other blogs.  My award comes courtesy of Dan Martin, of Tibeto-Logic fame.  The whole system has a vaguely ponzi-scheme feel to it, but it is certainly gratifying to receive encouragement from someone of Dan’s caliber. In the interest of not exacerbating the pyramidal tendencies of this particular phenomenon, I’m going to restrict myself to nominating two blogs, rather than three to five. They are Sam van Schaik’s excellent Early Tibet and Robert Mayer and Cathy Cantwell’s equally excellent kīlī kīlaya. So, for whatever my endorsement is worth, please enjoy these sites, and encourage them to write more!

    How do You Spell Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ Anyway?


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    Figure 1: Maṇi on a hill near Tau with a subscribed a-chung.

    A while ago I wrote a post about the proliferation of giant hillside renditions of oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ, the mantra of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion and mythical patron of all things Tibetan. This mantra, known simply as the maṇi, is one of the most pervasive practices of Tibetan Buddhism, being inscribed on stones, rendered across hillsides and recited by millions of Tibetans daily. One early Jesuit missionary, ignorant of Buddhism but struck by the pervasiveness of the maṇi mantra, reported that the Tibetans worshiped the god ‘Manipe’.[1] Despite the pervasive presence of the maṇi in Tibetan religiosity, however, there does not seem to be consensus on how it should be spelled.

    Figure 2: A pool table converted to a maṇi plaque near Katok Monastery. No a-chung.

    An observant reader may have noticed that the hillside maṇi pictured in my earlier post has a small a-chung (འ) underneath the oṃ (ཨཱོཾ; see figure 1). Most renditions of the maṇi that you see around Tibet, however, lack this subscribed a-chung (ཨོཾ; see figure 2). This tells us a couple of things. First off, the fact that all of those hillside maṇis I saw last summer uniformly included the same quirky spelling probably means they are all the work of one industrious person or group. Secondly, either that person or group is just plain wrong, or there are multiple traditions floating around for how to spell one of Tibet’s most important cultural touchstones. And that’s kind of neat, and definitely worth looking into.

    Given that the maṇi is a Sanskrit phrase rendered in Tibetan script, the obvious first stop for someone trying to resolve this riddle is to figure out how the syllable should be written in Sanskrit. While I, unfortunately, don’t read Sanskrit, I do know several people who do, and I’ve spent the last few weeks grilling them about how one should properly write the syllable oṃ in the language of the gods. (the next bit is kind of technical, and I’ve probably got it wrong anyway, so if you’re in a rush feel free to skip to the conclusion) When rendering Sanskrit in Tibetan script, a subscribed a-chung like the ones we see here is used to turn a short vowel into a long vowel. So, for instance, the short ‘a’ (ཨ; अ in Devanagari, the most common Sanskrit srcipt) becomes the long ‘ā’ (ཨཱ; आ) with the addition of a subscribed a-chung. Sanskrit, however, does not have a short ‘o’, so an a-chung is not needed to create the long syllable ‘ō’ (ཨོ; ओ). Instead, adding the a-chung to ‘o’ gives us ‘au’ (ཨཱོ; औ). So, without the a-chung, we have the syllable ‘oṃ’ (ཨོཾ; ओं) and with the a-chung we have the syllable ‘auṃ’ (ཨཱོཾ; औं). As for which is the correct spelling, I am told that in general practice the syllable is usually rendered ‘oṃ’. This is the familiar glyph ॐ, and would seem to favor those versions of the maṇi that lack the subscribed a-chung. On the other hand, the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, an early Indian scripture that deals entirely with this sacred syllable, is less straightforward. In its opening line, the syllable is spelled ‘oṃ’, but a few lines later the constituent phonemes are identified as ‘a’, ‘u’ and ‘ṃ’.[2] Finally, Wikipedia, that great arbiter of all knowledge, spells it ‘auṃ’. So, even in the Sanskrit, we have multiple ways of spelling the syllable oṃ. Or is it auṃ?

    Figure 3. Three maṇis in an old manuscript of the Maṇi Kabum. No a-chungs.

    Another way to look at this would be to consider historical and contemporary instances of the maṇi and see what percentage of them have an a-chung. Here, the balance clearly seems to tip in favor of oṃs without a-chungs. Sitting around on my computer, I have two scans of a Tibetan text known as the Maṇi Kabum.[4] As its name implies, this text is one of the most important Tibetan works on the maṇi ever composed (its title can be loosely translated as Collected Works on the Maṇi), so it seems like a good place to look. No a-chungs in either copy (See figure 3). Additionally, a few months ago I remember seeing a 13th century funerary slab from Mongolia with the maṇi on it with no a-chung.[3] So this spelling is attested at least that far back. Further, the images produced by searching google for ‘maṇi stone’ almost invariably lack a subscribed a-chung, which goes someway towards showing how widespread this spelling is. The epigraphical record, however, does not entirely favor the no a-chung camp.  Browsing the Tibeto-Logic blog a while back, I came across these images of the syllable oṃ from texts preserved in the Dunhuang caves (see figure 4).[5] These ancient doodles, at least a thousand years old, have large, clear, unmistakable subscribed a-chungs. Whatever happened later, at least we know that oṃ could be written with a subscribed a-chung a long time ago.

    Figure 4. Oṃs from Dunhuang, with subscribed a-chungs.

    We started out with a quandary: should the first syllable in the ever-present mantra oṃ maṇi padme hūm have an a-chung? We looked at the Sanskrit, and concluded that in general use the Sanskrit does not require an a-chung, but that there were notable instances indicating it should be there. Then we checked the epigraphical evidence, which overwhelmingly favored the anti a-chung element, except for that pesky Dunhuang scribble, which just happens to be the oldest version of the syllable I’ve seen. (No, I haven’t combed through the rest of the Dunhuang documents. Anyone interested in doing so can look through most of them at the International Dunhuang Project. Let me know what you find.) If it seems like we’re no closer to an answer than we were at the beginning, that’s probably correct. But, at least now we have some idea why we don’t know anything.

    Thanks to Karen Lang, Kurtis Schaeffer, Dominic DiZinno, Ben McClintic and Eva Natanya for their sanskritic insights.

    [1] Lopez, Donald S. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1999. p 117. If you read latin and prefer the original, check out pages 72 and 73 of Kircher, Athanasius. China Monumentis: Qua Sacris Quà Profanis Nec Non Variis Naturae [et] Artis Spectaculis Aliarumque Rerum Memorabilium Argumentis Illustrata. Meurs: Jacobum, 1667.

    [2] Olivelle, Patrick. The Early Upaniṣads: Annotated Text and Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. p. 473-477.

    [3] This was on loan to the UVA Art Museum, but the docent yelled at me for trying to take a picture, so I can’t produce any photographic evidence.

    [4] Those with access to TBRC can download the Punaka edition of the Maṇi Kabum, reference W19225.

    [5] These images are from Pelliot Tibetain 1230

    Antique Graffiti



    Click to Enlarge

    One of the joys of working at an old and well-preserved university are the little traces of the past that sometimes manage to survive the fires, renovations, new paint schemes and other hazards of time. A few of the buildings at UVA are almost two hundred years old, and some of their previous occupants have left their mark. The above pencil inscription is one of those traces, recalling a moment, the Spanish-American War of 1898 to be precise, when Cuba was a friend to the United States, and Spain a hated enemy (my, how times change). While this little remnant doesn’t necessarily add anything to our understanding of that time, it does remind us that history was lived by real people, with real emotional investment in the events of their time. Someone (probably a white man, UVA was all-male and segregated at the time) was invested enough in this war to take the time and trouble to write this note, and a hundred and twelve years later I can still read it. That’s pretty cool.

    I’ve been asked to keep the precise location of this particular graffito secret, but if you’re walking around UVA, or anywhere else for that matter, keep your eyes open, and see what you find.

    How to Build a Monastery


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    Every monastery I visited this summer had some sort of construction project going on. While not all of these were epic in scope, it was hard to escape the idea that Kham is experiencing a boom in monastic construction. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, including new wealth among Tibetans, interest in Tibetan Buddhism among the Han Chinese, tourism revenues, and so forth. That analysis, however, I will leave for others. What I’m more interested in here is the style in which this construction is performed. Basically, I observed two major construction models, ‘traditional’ and ‘concrete’.

    Paplung Monastery

    Palpung Monastery serves as a great example of the former. Palpung sits on a promontory overlooking the Bei Chu river, a tributary of the Dri Chu. It is a beautiful location, overlooking a wooded valley, and below high, grassy slopes. Miraculously, the main temple hall seems to have survived the Cultural Revolution fairly intact, even though most of the religious artwork and other artifacts were destroyed or removed. When I visited in June, there were several buildings under construction, mostly houses for resident monks (like many traditional monasteries, monks at Palpung reside in their own homes, rather than in collective dormitories). In each instance, the buildings were being constructed using the standard timber construction seen all over the area (see photo 1). With the exception of an electric saw for shaping the beams, there were no modern construction methods in evidence. Importantly, the construction work did not negatively interfere with the life of the monastery, and no one I spoke with seemed bothered by the activity.  (For more on the architecture, art and conservation measures at Palpung, visit the Palpung Architecture Project)

    Construction at Katok

    This contrasts with Katok Monastery, which typifies the ‘concrete’ construction style. At Katok, there were no less than three major construction projects going on simultaneously. Each of these buildings required large numbers of dump trucks, concrete mixers and workers. While I’m sure that the results will be impressive, the current situation can only be described as chaotic and dirty. In his Footprint Tibet guidebook, Gyurme Dorje extols the serenity of Katok monastery, saying, “Anyone viewing the majestic setting of Katok’s red and white buildings which cover the peaceful mountain top can appreciate why the concept of ‘sacred outlook’ or ‘pure visionary perception of the landscape’ is so significant here.”[1]

    Construction debris flowing down a hillside at Katok

    While this may have been true in the past, Katok monastery’s peaceful mountaintop is currently dominated by construction noise.  An entire hillside has been turned black by detritus poured out by a continuous stream of dump-trucks (see photo 3). Arriving here after the peace of Palpung, the activity, dirt and noise was quite a shock. Furthermore, I was not the only one who objected to all the activity: several of the monks I spoke with also expressed distaste at what was going on, even questioning the need for the new buildings at all.  Looking at the black debris on the hillside, one monk commented, “Nothing will grow there again.”  Like many monasteries, Katok does not have a clear hierarchical structure with a single head. Instead, different lamas are each responsible for their own sections of the monastery. In the case of Katok, this seems to have lead to competing construction projects, with little regard for the overall impact on the monastery or its environment.  To be fair, timber construction has its own environmental problems.  All those trees have to come from somewhere, and even in pre-modern times, deforestation was a real issue in Kham.  Still, the difference between the construction and its attendant environmental issues at Palpung and Katok is striking, and I can’t help but feel like there must be a better way to do this.

    Katok is not alone in choosing concrete over more traditional construction methods.  Almost every monastery I visited had some form of construction work going on, and most were employing concrete construction methods (Karndzé Nunnery is another notable exception. The new Chenrezik temple there was being built entirely with traditional stonework).  Of course, as a tourist, it is easy to praise the beauty of traditional construction and denigrate modern techniques. The monks who live in these monasteries, however, may appreciate the conveniences provided by modern construction (such as, say, basic plumbing). Nevertheless, it seems like something has been lost when an already significant monastery, like Katok, dedicates so much capital to a project, only to damage its own environment in the process.


    [1]Dorje, Gyurme. Footprint Tibet. 3rd ed. Footprint, 2004, p 494.

    Tibetan Tattoos



    Be sure to read Tashi Mannox’s comments and website for insight into some uses of tattoos in Tibetan medicine.

    I have often been surprised that Tibet does not have any significant tattoo traditions. (At least, I am not aware of any significant traditions, if anyone reading this knows of any, please enlighten me!) India, Tibet’s neighbor to the south, has a long-standing tradition of religious tattooing.[1] In the east, China has also practiced tattooing for millennia, both as an art form and as a criminal punishment.[2] More close in, many of the cultures that immediately border Tibet also have significant tattoo traditions, such as the female facial tattooing practiced by the Drung in NW Yunnan.[3] On the religious side, many Buddhist countries, such as Burma, Thailand and Japan, have very widespread traditions of religious, often protective tattooing.[4] Furthermore, Tibetans have developed a wide array of protective practices involving amulets, written mantras and images. Given Tibet’s proclivity towards such amulets, and given that the country is more or less surrounded by cultures with significant traditional tattooing practices, I find it very surprising that Tibet lacks (or seems to lack) a significant tattoo tradition of its own.

    So during my recent trip to Kham, I thought I would look and ask around, and see what I could come up with. What I did not find was any evidence of the long-term, traditional, religious tattooing that I thought should be present. Instead, I found many people with small, homemade tattoos, all of whom claimed that the tattoos held no special meaning. It was a little disappointing. Nevertheless, I will here put down some notes about what I did find, in the hopes that it will spark a conversation, and others will be able to add details that I have missed!

    Figure 1: A tattooed worker at the Dergé Printing House. Note the presence of vajras in the designs.

    First off, there are lots of tattoos running around the parts of Kham I visited (Dergé, Pelyül and Karndzé counties, with a trip to Serta thrown in for good measure). Both men and women, monastic and lay had them. The images themselves were often, but by no means exclusively religious (such as in figure 1). ‘Om’ (ཨོཾ) and ‘A’ (ཨ) syllables were common, as were swastikas (in this context, these are traditional Tibetan religious symbols with no relation to WWII) as well as secular designs (such as in figure 2). I also saw a particularly badly rendered eagle (the person had clearly tried to imitate a western tattoo image, without much success), a dragon or two, and numerous other designs. I did not, however, see any large scale tattooing (except for one large, well executed dragon I saw on a Chinese laborer). Instead, the designs were always small, monochromatic, and clearly hand-poked.

    Figure 2: A basic, but solidly rendered tattoo.

    In fact, all of the people I asked claimed to have done their own tattoo work. In other words, I didn’t come across any evidence of professional tattooers. Instead, most people seem to have done the work themselves, with a cluster of needles and some ink. Furthermore, everyone I spoke to claimed to have performed the operation in their early teens. As they described it, they would simply perform the tattoo one evening, and show up with it at school the next day. As for the reasons behind their tattoos, no-one I spoke with claimed that their images had any meaning beyond looking good. In fact, everyone I spoke with seemed somewhat embarassed by my questioning. I got the impression that these tattoos were adolescent adventures, later regretted by their owners.

    Perhaps the only exception to this description are the small tattooed dots that many people had on their foreheads. These dots were fairly ubiquitous, appearing on both men and women, monastic and lay. In fact, they were by far the most common, though not the only, female tattoos I encountered. When I asked about them, however, I was again told that people performed the opperations themselves, when they were young. One woman I spoke with claimed to have tattooed herself in this way when she was six years old. As for the reason behind the mark, I was again told only that it was for aesthetic, rather than religious or symbolic reasons. In fact, everyone I spoke with played down the importance of their forehead dots, as well as other tattoos.

    Given how widespread and common these tattoos are, it seems reasonable to think that they may have some broader cultural importance. If so, however, I could not discover it during in my few weeks in Kham (during which time I was mostly working on other projects). Hopefully someone will take the time to properly study this phenomena!

    Do you know something about Tibetan tattooing that I missed? Please let me know! You can e-mail me directly, or use the comment form below.


    [1] Although Indian religious tattooing is obvious to anyone who has spent time in India, and although I know I have seen some dramatic images in National Geographic, I’m not aware of any modern scholarly work on Indian religious tattoos. Likewise, a search of Jstor and Google Scholar comes up empty. They must be out there, but I’m afraid I’m not inclined to take any more time trying to find them.

    [2] For more details on traditional Chinese tattooing practices, see Ceresa, Marco. “Written on Skin and Flesh: The Pattern of Tattoo in China – Part One: Generalities.” In Studi in Onore di Lionello Lanciotti, edited by S.M. Carletti, M. Sacchetti, and P. Santanglo, 329-340. Napoli: Institute Universitario Orientale, 1996; Reed, Carrie E. Early Chinese Tattoo. Edited by Victor Mair. Sino-Platonic Papers 103. Philadelphia: Dept. of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Pennsylvania, 2000.

    [3] See Stéphane Gros’ forthcoming work: “Le trésor des femmes. Le tatouage facial féminin chez les Drung du Yunnan (Chine)” in B. Baptandier (éd.), Le Corps Composite.

    [4]For a good discussion of the practice in Thailand and Burma, see McCabe, Michael. Tattoos of Indochina: Magic, Devotion, & Protection. Schiffer Publishing, 2002. There are many books on Japanese tattooing, by many are long on pictures and short on text. Try: Buruma, Ian. Japanese Tattoo. Weatherhill, 1989; Kitamura, Takahiro, and Katie M. Kitamura. Tattoos of the Floating World: Ukiyo-E Motifs in Japanese Tattoo. KIT Publishers, 2003; McCabe, Michael. Japanese Tattooing Now!: Memory And Transition, Classic Horimono To The New One Point Style. Schiffer Publishing, 2004.


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