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!

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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?

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