Book Covers as Art

I was going through some of my books the other day, and was struck by how beautiful (or just interesting) some of the covers are.  So I thought I’d share.  No analysis, just some eye candy.

(click on the images for closeups and captions)

Got a favorite Tibet-related book cover?  Send a photo in the comments.

Who Wrote “The Words of My Perfect Teacher”?

Possible photo of Patrül.[4]

The Words of My Perfect Teacher (tib: ཀུན་བཟན་བླ་མའི་བཞལ་ལུང།) is one of the most famous and popular works to emerge from nineteenth century Kham. It was written by Patrül Rinpoché in the late 1840s or even 1850.[1] Patrül, however, does not take credit for authoring this text, insisting that all he did was to reproduce what his teacher, Jigmé Gyelwé Nyügu, had taught (hence the work’s title: The Words of My Perfect Teacher). Such attribution in Tibetan works can often feel like something of a trope, an attempt to gather legitimacy by associating the work with a famous forebear. Thus, both Tibetans and westerners usually refer to “Patrül’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher,” rather than “Jigmé Gyelwé Nyügu’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher.”

In this case, however, I wonder if Patrül was actually telling the truth, and if we should speak of the ideas in The Words of My Perfect Teacher as Jigmé Gyelwé Nyügu’s, only nominally filtered through Patrül. In suggesting this, I’m thinking primarily of this work’s strident denunciations of meat eating:

At the time a sheep or other animal is to be slaughtered, it first has inconceivable terror as it is taken from the flock. Blood blisters form wherever it is seized. Then it is flipped upside down, its limbs are bound with cord and its muzzle is tied.[2] The in and out flow of the breath is cut off, and it experiences the terrible suffering of death. If it requires a little time to die, the evil butcher beats it, calling out angrily, ‘This one won’t die!’. … Anyone who can eat such things is a true demon![3]

One would think that the author of this passage (and the many other anti-meat passages in The Words of My Perfect Teacher was probably a vegetarian. And yet, there is no indication in the third Dodrubchen’s Biography of Patrül that Patrül ever adopted vegetarianism (though he is credited with preventing nomads from offering meat to lamas during rituals). Further, I have found nothing in Patrül’s other writing to indicate that he was particularly opposed to meat. The Words of My Perfect Teacher, it seems, stands alone in this regard.

Jigmé Gyelwé Nyügu, on the other hand, was a vegetarian (or at least was remembered as one). In his own Autobiography, Khenpo Ngakchung claims that Jigmé Gyelwé Nyügu became vegetarian during an early retreat at Mt Tsari, and never touched meat again. Being vegetarian was not unheard of in pre-modern Tibet, but it was not easy and took a certain measure of dedication. Presumably, those who adopted the diet did so out of strong convictions, of the type that could produce an emotionally laden diatribe like the one above. So perhaps we should take Patrül Rinpoché at his word when he claims that The Words of My Perfect Teacher should be attributed to his perfect teacher, rather than to himself.

[1] These dates are my own calculation: In his Short Biography of Patrül Rinpoché, Dodrubchen 03, Jigmé Tenpé Nyima writes that Patrül wrote this text while in retreat at Dzokchen monastery. In the next line, Dodrubchen says that Patrül left Dzokchen to see Shabkar, who, unfortunately, died before the two could meet (I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting.) Hence, my suggestion that The Words of My Perfect Teacher was written just prior to Shabkar’s death in 1851. If I’m wrong, please let me know!

[2] Refers to a popular method of slaughtering where the animal is suffocated by binding a cord around its muzzle. The meat produced by this method, still rich with blood, is said to be particularly tasty.

[3] དཔལ་སྤྲུལ་རིན་པོ་ཆེ། ༼ཀུན་བཟན་བླ་མའི་བཞལ་ལུང།༽ in དཔལ་སྤྲུལ་གསུང་འབུམ། དེབ༼ཉ (སི་ཁྲོན:སི་ཁྲོན་དཔེ་ཚོགས་པ། དང་སི་ཁྲོན་མི་རིགས་དཔེ་སྐྲུན་ཁང། 2009) 314-315.
See also: Patrül Rinpoché: The Words of My Perfect Teacher Padmakara, trans. (Boston: Shambhala, 1998) 203.

[4]I saw an old (pre-1950) print of this photo in Kham recently, with Patrül’s name written underneath, though that certainly does not confirm the photo beyond doubt. According to Rigpa Wiki (where I got this photo) Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoché thought that it was actually one of Patrül’s incarnations. There can’t have been too many cameras in Kham prior to Patrül’s death in 1887.

Herding Yaks off Cliffs

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.

Samuel Turner, the Daeb Raja and Tibetan Vegetarianism

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.

John Bunyan, Missionaries to Tibet and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama

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!

*   *   *   *   *

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!

Tibet Explorers Attacked by Devil Worshipers!

Tibet Explorers Attacked by Devil Worshipers

Over the last few months I have put up a series of posts discussing the portrayal of Tibet in popular western media. For the most part, these sources talked about Tibet as a land of mystical enchantment, filled with gentle monks and high-minded sorcerers. Lest you think that western portrayals of Tibet are all oohs and aahs, however, I here present a couple of selections from a short article found in an 1898 coffee table book called Revelations of the Grandest Century. As always, I came across this while researching something totally different. Funny how that happens.

In the first picture, at right, we find a band of masked hoodlums shooting at a gallant and daring group of British explorers. Poor old chaps. Between their painted faces and fiendish masks, these bushwhacking Tibetans clearly deserve the epithet ‘devil worshipers.’

Lamaist Priests Torturing Mr. Landor
Next, we have an image of one Mr. Landor, stoically undergoing torture on the rack at the hands of a bunch of Tibetan lamas (I have no idea where they came up with the beards and turbans). Now while it would be tempting to chalk this up to a fanciful imagination, it is actually a true story. Henry Savage-Landor did, in fact, try to sneak into Tibet in the late nineteenth century. For all his trouble, however, he earned nothing but torture and deportation. His 1898 account of this trip, Into the Forbidden Land, captivated Europe, and will be the subject of a future blog post. (Download it free from Google Books!) For now, I will just leave you with these two wonderful images, traces of the dark side of the western fascination with Tibet.

The Comics Connection II: Dr Strange Goes to Tibet (and Greenwich Village too)

When I wrote about Batman’s tögal practice (click here for that post), several people wrote to tell me about Dr Strange, a Marvel Comics character from the sixties who also studied esoteric practices in Tibet. So I ordered it up through inter-library loan and waited. For a while. Finally, a copy of The Essential Doctor Strange arrived, having come all the way from Fairbanks, Alaska. This is, I think, the farthest distance from which I’ve ever received an inter-library loan book. Now that the book has arrived, however, I must confess to being a little disappointed. The plots are, well, a little strange, even by comic book standards. But no matter, Dr Strange has studied in Tibet, and that makes him interesting to me.

Dr Strange is a master of black magic, but he uses the dark arts to protect mankind, warding off villains such as Baron Mordo and Nightmare (a character who bears a striking resemblance to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman). He learned these skills studying at the feet of The Ancient One, at a hermitage deep in the mountains of Tibet. If it weren’t for the repeated references to Tibet, however, it would be impossible to tell where these classes take place. Neither the setting nor the practices these figures engage in bear any resemblance to anything you might actually find in Tibet. Even the mystic writing in Dr Strange’s books is just some odd circles. At least when The Green Lama chants his mantras, the artists take the trouble to get the script right (I’ll be posting about the Green Lama just as soon as inter-library loan gets the book to me). For Stan Lee, Doctor Strange’s main author, Tibet seems to be nothing more than an exotic location in which an American hero can learn about black magic. Not much new here.

But Tibet is not the only place mentioned repeatedly in the Dr Strange comics. The other is Greenwich Village, New York City. This is where Dr Strange himself resides (at least, when he’s not traveling through other dimensions in a ethereal body). Dr Strange’s house also bears a certain resemblance to The Ancient One’s Tibetan hermitage, particularly in its odd spider web windows. The implication seems to be that Greenwich Village is the new Tibet, home of oddball mystics and the occult. Dr Strange was first published in 1963, and at that time Greenwich Village must have seemed remote and exotic to many Americans. It had beatniks, Bob Dylan and LSD. What better place to imagine as the American abode for the mysteries of Tibet?

The Comics Connection I: Batman does Tögal!

As we know, Batman is a man of many talents. Among his lesser know skills is a mastery of esoteric Tibetan meditation practices. Yes, Batman does tögal. His mastery of this technique is revealed in the R.I.P. series of comics, where he uses tögal to experience death, overcoming his last shred of fear. Pretty neat. For those of you who are unfamiliar with tögal (tib: ཐོད་རྒལ།), it is a Dzokchen practice where a practitioner allows their pure nature to shine forth in the form of luminous Buddha images. Rather than being intentionally visualized, these forms appear spontaneously to a practitioner’s visual consciousness. Last time I checked (and I’m hardly an expert on this), tögal is not usually presented as a rehearsal for dying.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we dismiss the Dark Knight as an impostor, we should take a look at how he describes the practice he’s doing. In Robin 175, we learn that the tögal ritual Batman performs (and it is consistently called a ritual, rather than a practice, but let’s not get hung up on semantics) involves staying shut in a Nepali cave for forty-nine days. The goal, we are told, is to simulate death and rebirth. This does not give us much to go on, even though tögal can be performed in a sealed and darkened room, and forty-nine days is the traditional length for the period between death and re-birth.

For more detail, we need to turn to the opening pages of Batman 681. Here we find Bruce Wayne relaying his tögal experiences to a monk. “As I lay in the darkness,” he says, “I began to experience vivid hallucinations of the past and present, even the future. But then I came to the end of even that. I found myself in a place that’s not a place.” “In tögal,” the monk replies, “the initiate learns what the dead know. The self is peeled back to its black, radiant core.”

Now we’ve got something to compare with traditional understandings of tögal. First off, we have visions. Check. So far so good. Then the visions stop. In traditional tögal, the final stage of the practice is when all of the visions collapse back in on themselves. Again, check. Finally, we learn that the point of the practice is to reveal the radiant core of the self. In traditional presentations, it is a person’s pure, radiant nature that is the source of tögal’s visionary experiences. So actually, we’re not too far off here. I don’t think many tögal practitioners would describe this radiant core as black, but then again this monk has just tried to murder Batman, so perhaps he was only referring to himself. Again then, check. If Bruce only stopped here, we could say that he actually does a halfway decent job of sticking to themes found in real-world tögal.

Instead, however, Bruce brings things back to death. A few pages later, he reveals to the monk why he undertook the tögal ritual, “I wanted to taste the flavor of death. I wanted to know that I had experienced every eventuality.” Again, we’re back to the idea that tögal somehow simulates the death and re-birth process. Now, to be fair, texts such as the Bardo Tödröl (popularly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a text which hails from the same practice tradition that gives us tögal) claim that after death, one experiences spontaneous visions of Buddhist deities. Further, these visions are projections of an individual’s radiant core, just as in tögal. So it might not be too far fetched to see tögal as something of a rehearsal for the events that occur during the death process.

Traditionally, however, tögal is not usually presented in this way. Instead, it is a practice for revealing the pure, radiant nature of everything someone experiences, with death being just one experience among many. This may not seem like much of a shift, but it goes to the heart of the practice. Tögal is a practice concerned with experiencing primordial purity in the present moment, rather than a means to prepare for a future event. For an accomplished practitioner of tögal, the death process should be just as radiant and pure as every other moment of their life. So, no, Batman doesn’t quite have his heart in the right place when he undertakes this practice.

Still, we have to give DC Comics’ writers some credit here. Despite not quite getting the overall intent of the practice, they came pretty close on lots of the details. Others they missed, such as the ‘Tibetan’ monastery that looks strikingly Japanese, or the cave that looks more like depictions of Jesus’ sepulcher than any Tibetan retreat cave I’ve ever seen. Clearly, however, someone on their staff was into researching obscure Tibetan practices, and we should applaud them for not just making things up, even if the final product is a little off.

Thanks to David Germano for bringing Batman’s tögal mastery to my attention.

Pulp Fiction in Tibet

As many of you know, I have a little thing for collecting old books, particularly those about Tibet. Mostly, this means books that are written by explorers or missionaries, and which can be rather stuffy and self-important. Recently, however, I’ve stumbled across a new type of Tibet-related book: pulp fiction. That’s right, cheap, crappy mystery novels set in the magical and mysterious land of Tibet!

So far, I’ve only come across three of these, but they’re all pretty juicy. The first was William Dixon Bell’s The Secret of Tibet, a piece of juvenile fiction that follows the adventures of two American aviators lost in ‘the sacred lamaseries of forbidden Tibet’. The duo discover a lost race, solve some mysteries, and generally have a good time. If this plot sounds familiar, it might be because James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, the piece of fiction that introduced the world to Shangri-la, also follows the adventures of some stranded aviators who discover a lost race. The Secret of Tibet was published five year’s after Lost Horizon, and a year after Frank Capra’s film adaptation. Nobody said that pulp fiction had to be original.

Next in the lineup is Clyde Clason’s The Man from Tibet. This 1939 mystery takes place in Chicago, but the plot is features a mysterious Tibetan manuscript, and an even more mysterious academic who deciphers it. Who knew academics could be so exciting? Lastly, we have Stuart in Tibet, a 1949 adventure by Neil Buckley. This novel chronicles the stories of a British agent who becomes involved in a dispute between the Tibetan and Chinese governments over rival candidates to succeed the recently deceased Dalai Lama.  Despite being a work of popular fiction, it displays a striking awareness of Tibetan political controversies, while simultaneously propagating Imperialists notions by having a western intelligence agent sort things out.[1]  The cover is great. We’ve got a dashing American in monk’s robes brandishing a gun, protecting the Dalai Lama, who is seen cowering in the background. What’s not to love?

So that’s it, a little bit about a couple of books I came across recently. If anyone reading this knows about any other books along these lines, feel free to let me know! And keep your eyes peeled for some updates to this post, as more of these gems come to light.


[1]Bishop, Peter. 2001. “Not Only a Shangri-la: Images of Tibet in Western Literature.” In Imagining Tibet, ed. Thierry Dodin and Heinz Räther, 201-221. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

This article has a good discussion of the vision of Tibet found in western fiction, even referring to Stuart in Tibet.

I’ll post more references here, as I come across them. Feel free to let me know about anything I’ve missed!