Did Vairocana have lice?

According to Pasang Wangdu and Hildegaard Diemberger’s translation of the dBa’ bzhed[1]  Pa gor Vairocana, the great translator and Buddhist culture hero of Imperial-period Tibet, might have been absolutely crawling with the repulsive little creatures. There is a passage in the dBa’ bzhed which Wangdu and Diemberger found too obscure to translate, thus leaving some words of the original Tibetan within their English translation, with a footnote tentatively suggesting the elusive meaning could possibly be that Pa gor Vairocana’s beard was infested with lice.

The context  is the Zas gtad kyi lo rgyus, a famous appendage at the end of the dBa’ bzhed that narrates a lively debate between various groups of Tibetans about how to conduct the funeral ceremonies of the recently deceased Emperor, the great Khri Srong lde btsan himself. Some, described in the text as Bonpos,  argued for the time honoured bang so funeral, the ritual interment of the deceased Emperor within a vast tumulus filled with grave goods which would become the focal point of ritual in future years, a magnificent and elaborate system of burial that had by then already defined a great part Tibetan ceremonial life for some hundreds of years. But since such a tumulus burial entailed animal sacrifice, others, described in the text as Buddhists, strenuously disagreed: they preferred funerary rites based on such Buddhist systems as the Sarvadurgatipariśodhana and Uṣṇīṣa.

The passage that suggested lice to Wangdu and Diemberger occurs near the beginning of the story. Arriving at the debate in good time, the proponents of Bon had taken up all the rows of seats (gral), leaving no place for the late-coming Buddhist champions, headed by Vairocana. The Buddhists were facing a serious humiliation: in this important debate, they did not even have a suitably dignified seat at the table, so to speak (it seems the hierarchical arrangements of the gral were as significant indicators of status then as now).  It is at this point that Vairocana intervenes. He stood himself behind the opposing minister seated at the head of the row to the right, thus inducing the hapless minister to glance behind him;  and this is what the minister saw [the Tibetan continues as follows]:

bai ro tsa na’i smra ra’i gseb na khro chung nyungs dkar tsam shig shig snang  ba dang/ shin tu skrag nas kog gis langs pa’i shul du bai ro tsa nas bzhugs pas ban de la g.yas gral shor/ [26v7-27r1]

Wangdu and Diemberger attempted the passage as follows:

“[he] saw khro chung nyung dkar crawling around in the beard of Vairocana, and got up with a start. He was immediately replaced with Vairocana, and lost the whole right row.” (p. 96) A footnote is added, suggesting khro chung nyung dkar might indicate lice, as follows (note 381, page 96): “khro chung nyung dkar seem to indicate some peculiar seeds. Nyung dkar is in Tibet a not very common vegetable species from the seeds of which oil is obtained. Khro may stand for khra in which case it would indicate a multicoloured gathering. Perhaps the minister was scared by these seeds looking like parasites. Possibly this expression is a euphemism for nits (in which case khro = sro) and nyung dkar could be a polite form for shig, i.e. louse (in Mustang the polite form for louse is lug).”

As one can see, this is a very highly convoluted argument, based on the opinion that the words khro chung nyung dkar do not exist in the lexicon, and so must be interpreted. It also requires one to accept a number of other quite complex admitted speculations.

Is this memorable rendering, of lice in Vairocana’s beard startling a Bon po minister, accurate? It seems, alas for those who have come to love it, not. As Cathy has been reminding us for some time now, the words khro chung nyungs dkar tsam refer to something altogether less amusing, less repulsive, and more awe-inspiring, something as familiar to specialists in certain kinds of tantrism as the term ‘front-side bus’ might be to computer manufacturers, but equally obscure and misleading to anyone else. Nevertheless it nowadays only takes a quick look at the THDL or Rangjung Yeshe Dictionaries under khro chung to get a clue: khro chung nyung dkar is in one of these dictionaries usefully if tersely signposted as: “small wrathful ones; yungs dkar – nyung dkar – Mustard seeds.”  In fact, the ‘wrathful ones as small as mustard seeds’ of the Zas gtad kyi lo rgyus are a well known category notably in Mahāyoga wrathful deity systems, and indicate the emanation of vast hosts of tiny spark-like wrathful forms from the hair pores or the skin to create an awesome display. Deities or great yogis are described as doing this. In rituals, the emanation of such tiny deities is often indicated by the casting of mustard seeds (mustard seeds are commonplace in Tibetan ritual), and hence they are sometimes termed khro chung and identified with nyung dkar,  which conveys both their tiny size (as small as mustard seeds), and their ritual analogue (the throwing of mustard seeds during a ritual). These tiny wrathful forms are attested in Dunhuang texts such as IOLTibJ401, in numerous later medieval traditions such as the great Sakya Phurpa cycles, and in numerous contemporary texts such as Dudjom Rinpoche’s treasures. They have been a continuous well established feature of Mahāyoga from Dunhuang times until the present. Hence in a book we published in 2008, Early Tibetan Documents on Phur pa from Dunhuang,  we re-translated this passage from the Zas gtad kyi lo rgyus as follows:

“Amongst Vairocana’s whiskers, miniature wrathful [deities] the size of mustard seeds were appearing and amassing and, they so much terrified [his opponent that he] abruptly arose, leaving Vairocana behind, who sat down, so the right row was lost to the Buddhist monks” (p. 50).

Finally, apparent parallels to this ancient story seems to occur in other literature, including the ‘Dra ‘bag chen mo, the most famous traditional biography of Vairocana. Ani Jinba Palmo’s translation (The Great Image, page 219) mentions Vairocana arriving late at an Imperial funeral, and emitting fierce sparks, to the awe of the other attendees (no lice!). I have not yet located the original Tibetan wording.  The late Khetsun Zangpo Rinpoche’s Biographical Dictionary of Tibet also has an account of Vairocana’s life, which became a basis of A. W. Hanson-Barber’s PhD on Vairocana, and there too we find Vairocana arriving rather abruptly at the Emperor’s funeral with his student gYu sgra snying po, emitting an awesome display of sparks—clearly a version of the same story, and although Khetsun Zangpo naturally makes clear references to the ‘Dra ‘bag throughout his text, some variations in detail indicates he might in fact have drawn this section from a different source, or a different version of the ‘Dra ‘bag (A. W. Hanson-Barber, Madison-Wisconsin 1984, Life and Teachings of Vairochana, page 89).

Is this the end of the line for Vairocana’s mythical lice? I’m reasonably confident it is in the minds of Wangdu and Diemberger, who were never much convinced by the lice idea in the first place, and who, as first-class scholars, are entirely likely to be delighted by Vairocana’s belated liberation from an eternity of itching [in fact, Hilde recently emailed us, with the words “Thankyou for getting a more plausible solution to this obscure passage..”]. But I doubt its the end of the story elsewhere: the idea of Vairocana’s lice is simply too funny, too quaint, and too downright memorable, to die quietly.  Once unleashed on the global imagination, I estimate it has many decades, maybe even several centuries, to run. If there’s one thing any English language reader remembers about the dBa’ bzhed, its likely to be Vairocana’s lice.


Finally, for any hard-core nerds who might be mad enough to read our foolish blog, here are some examples of khro chung from the ritual literature:

[1] This first passage is from Dudjom Rinpoche’s gNam lcags spu gri bsnyen yig, found in the section commenting on the Command (bka’ bsgo ba), which is at the beginning of the ritual.


But, in case there are some evil beings who do not obey, and who remain, from the body, speech and mind of yourself, the heruka, innumerable wrathful deities emanate, carrying various kinds of weapons.  They roar out the destructive mantra [oṃ sumbhani etc.] with vajra laughter like thunder, and they stab with their weapons.


They manifest (various wrathful) postures with the thought of shaking up the three worlds, and the obstacles cross over the many worldly realms, and are expelled outside the great iron mountains.


The host of wrathful emanations are reabsorbed back (into yourself as the Great Glorious One), and then meditate that above, below, and in all directions, and from every hair pore of your skin, they again emanate, facing outwards, and pervading everywhere.  With a really fearsome cacophony, they roar forth the destructive sound of hūṃ.

(note:) With the destructive mantra recitation, music and bdellium incense, the vajra master casts mustard seeds (“thun rdzas”, power substances) at the obstacles, which symbolise the miniature wrathful deities.  

[2] The Sa skya Phur chen example is mentioned in our book. The Sa skya Phur chen (15v.4) speaks of the twenty-one thousand (body) hairs of oneself as the deity, filled with miniature Vajrakumāras.  In this example, it is in the main deity visualisation.  It is also included, word-for-word, in the short Sa skya Phur pa practice, the Nges don thig le of the Sa skya Throne-holder, Ngag dbang Kun dga’ blo gros (1729-1783):


All my own skandhas, dhātus, āyatanas, twenty-one thousand hairs, and thirty-five million pores of the skin are entirely* filled with Vajrakumāras like myself, leaving no gaps in between.

*The Kun dga’ blo gros Vol. Ga edition omits, rab tu, entirely.  (Note that the Sa skya Phur chen, f.15v.5, also omits it, but there is of course no need for the text to follow the Sa skya Phur chen exactly, and a copyist’ familiarity with the Sa skya Phur chen might have been responsible for such a scribal omission.)

[1] Pasang Wangdu and Hildegaard Diemberger. dBa’ bzhed. The Royal Narrative Concerning the Bringing of the Buddha’s Doctrine to Tibet. Verlag der Österreischischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Wien, 2000.

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27 Responses to Did Vairocana have lice?

  1. Dan says:

    Hi R,
    Nice blogging today. How are things going over there? One lexical point. It seems to me that the shig-shig is in an ideal position in the sentence to serve as an adverbial, and could be one. It resembles the quadrisyllable shag-gi shig-gi, ‘falling apart, loosely packed’ and I have a feeling the shig-shig may bear some similar meaning. The large Goldstein has an entry for shig-shig, “moving over” (not a verb, it may be verbalized by adding -byed). I also have an unfortunately lost reference to a lexicon that reads, “(poet.) ripple ripple. (Amdo) proliferation, crowding.” In the strange ways these quadrisyllabic phrases seem to work, shag-gi shig-gi could be the ‘same’ word as shig-shig. (Comparable to tshab-bi tshub-bi, ~ tshub-tshub; shab-bi shub-bi, ~ shub-shub, and other such.)
    Any thoughts on this?

    • Rob Mayer says:

      Hi Dan, thanks for this. Yes, we agree with your reference to ‘proliferation’ or ‘crowding’. Basically though, its all about seeing those words khro chung nyungs dkar tsam in that context, which is equivalent to seeing the following: ‘There were delays in sending the digital movies to Eleanor because we did not have a spare hard drive’. Nowadays, we just know ‘hard drive’ means computer apparatus. Some day in the future, a baffled archeologist might speculate if we were talking about a difficult road journey. If you know Mahāyoga terms and categories, the the words khro chung nyungs dkar tsam are instantly recognisable. If you don’t know Mahāyoga terms, they are quite impossible to guess. At least, in mentioning Mahāyoga, I am not aware of this sparkling thing in Yogatantra, but then I have not looked for it there, so it’s not surprising I am not aware of it. But there is at least a possible merkmal that this bit of the dBa’ bzhed was redacted in an era when Mahāyoga was around – unless someone can point out to us the emitting of khro chung in yogatantra, which would make the passage possibly older. BTW, I found a probable permutation of this same episode in the ‘Dra ‘bag chen mo, where Vairocana also arrives late at a royal funeral, and dramatically emits sparks (no lice!). Same story in Hanson-Barber’s thesis: Vairocana and Yudra arrive late at the Emperor’s funeral, making an awesome display of sparks emanate from their bodies. Khro chung are not infrequently described in this way.

  2. Christian Wedemeyer says:

    First, I find out from PDSz that Vajrapāṇi didn’t pass gas, now this. What next? 😉

    • Rob Mayer says:

      Ah, now I recall. Might this mark the historic beginnings of one of those odd Oxford traditions, like the inter-collegiate tortoise races, or sitting on persons shoulders to sing for Nelson Mandela’s release at the end of Wadham bops? In this case, the tradition is the restoration of personal dignity to famous Buddhist personages whose name begins with ‘V’. The next step might be to argue that Vimalamitra should not in fact be associated with urine in the sand. http://earlytibet.com/2008/01/08/early-dzogchen-i/

  3. Dan says:

    But what about Vimalamitra. He had a very clear V name, but nevertheless got thrown in the lice pit. Or was he? Hmmm. Perhaps the Oxfordians will come to his rescue, too?

  4. Dan says:

    Of course I meant Vairocana, but I’m always confounding those V names. Like in this quote:
    The Lotus-Born has many of the repetitive and surreal qualities of myth or folktale, sometimes with a note of (perhaps unintentional) humor. When the master Vairochana is exiled from the king’s realm to an outlying district, the people are suspicious of him:

    “A sophist from Tibet has come,” they said, and threw him into a lice pit. After that he was cast into a frog pit but he remained unharmed. They took him out and proclaimed him a holy personage.

    • Rob Mayer says:

      There you are, it just proves our point. There were no lice or frogs on Vairocana, let alone flies. To assert he did have lice would in the light of this story subvert his reputation as a holy personage: is this a sign that Pawang and Hilde are under the sinister influence of reincarnated anti-Buddhist Imperial ministers?
      But to be serious, although this is a completely different part of the Vairocana life story and has no direct bearing on the narrative of his arrival at the funeral emitting sparks which is the topic of my blog, the association of Vairocana with lice in any context becomes interesting. Although I do not agree that the dBa’ bzhed passage in question can support Wangdu and Diemberger’s tentative suggestion as it stands, given the far simpler and more obvious translation of khro chung that is available, there might nevertheless be some backstory with which it resonates and of which they were aware, thus influencing their admitted guess. In the passage you quote, we find the curious idea of villages maintaining both lice and frog pits as receptacles for suspect visitors. Can you give us the Tibetan?

  5. Dan says:

    Try here and also this book, at p. 181.

    In these biographical contexts the lice are very surely intended, and so are the frogs. I don’t have the Tibetan handy to tell you what the Tibetan words are. Can the Great Mask’s author be faulted for anti-Vairocanism? Who would that be? G.yu-sgra-snying-po? Anyway, I’m not sure I can agree with you that the point of lice was not having them. So many other saints did have them. It was the spiritual fortitude demonstrated by suffering from them that was the mark of sainthood. Not their absence. I think we should debate this important issue further.


    • Rob Mayer says:

      Indeed, Dan, there are life stories when saints lovingly care for their lice etc. If I recall, someone, maybe Janet Gyatso, presented one in translation. Yet here it says ‘threw him into a lice pit…….but he remained unharmed’, so that the implication is quite possibly otherwise. Of course, one can interpret ‘unharmed’ differently: it might mean he remained free of lice even though he was in the mysterious lice pit, or it might mean he got covered in them but did not mind. But the fact is, even Wangdu and Diemberger themselves did not accept the lice in beard theory with any degree of happiness, so why should I when a much more obvious translation exists? This lice and frog story is interesting, but if it is also from the Great Mask, then one must remark that it does not have the arriving late at an imperial funeral element which the other Great Mask sparks story has in common with the dBa’ bzhed. As a friend of mine Nicola Hernadi pointed out, people were not shocked so much by lice in pre-modern Europe, and I guess Tibet ditto. I think the emanation of the khro chung, as the dBa’bzhed says so straightforwardly, is a more likely method for Vairocana to overawe Bon po ministers in this story. The lice interpretation is supported only by Wangdu and Diemberger’s convoluted argument in their footnote that the text reading khro chung should be emended in a complex way, and could not really say khro chung at all, simply because they believed khro chung is an incoherent meaningless term in itself, which did not exist in the lexicon. Since they had never heard of the term khro chung, they speculate it might be a scribal error for sro and so on and on. I will put in their entire footnote in the blog above, so you can see how very convoluted it is. As a textual critic, I see continuing to stick to the lice theory even though we now know that khro chung is both a real term in the lexicon and utterly appropriate to the context, as a massive over-application of lectio difficilior, and I cannot possibly condone it.
      The Great Mask’s author is of course very pro-Vairocana, as one would expect!
      Can you shed more light on the frog and lice concept? What is behind it? Are they in this context associated with certain classes of deities or demons?

  6. Dan says:

    Dear R,

    I have a hunch you may be on to something really really big! Come to think of it, a frog pit is a very weird thing to find yourself in. Imagine how irritating all that croaking and hopping would get to be after awhile. Well, OK, lice pit would make sense as an epithet for a prison or dungeon. Typhus is famous for spreading in prisons, thanks to the lice that tend to abound in them.* But frog pit? I was contemplating the frog pit when I came across my own vocabulary notes that follow:

    •SBAL DU OT = dong du. Blaṅ 300.4. = dod du. Lcang-skya. dong du / btson dong du bskyur sogs. Dalai Lama VII, Yig.
    •SBAL DU BCUG PA mngal spyod dam dong ‘jug. Btsan-lha.

    Sbal is supposed to be an obsolete Tibetan word corresponding to dong, ‘pit.’

    Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Was someone trying to read Shakespeare without the footnotes?

    Now, back to the louse pit!

    *Read the awful accounts of shig-nad in H. Diemberger’s book on the Dorje Phagmo, p. 198, or M. Akester’s translation of Tubten Khetsun’s Memories of Life in Lhasa under Chinese Rule, p. 74.

    Yours, D.

  7. Dan says:

    Dear R,

    I looked into it a little bit. The Sba-bzhed seems to have him in neither a frog nor a louse pit, although it does mention his banishment after the Sino-Indian debate. The ca. 1260’s Khepa Deu history (1st ed.), at p. 334, has words of praise for Vairocana that include this line, covering one of his eleven perfections:

    sbal dong dang shig dong kun gyis ma tshugs pas bzod pa thob par yang dag /

    I guess I could translate this, “All those frog pits and lice pits did nothing to him,
    so in terms of his accomplishment of patience (longsuffering/endurance) he is perfect.”

    What does Nyangral’s history say? Is this one of the Olympic competitions?


    • Rob Mayer says:

      Hanson-Barber’s thesis has snake pit and leech pit. But these ordeals or trials narratives within the life story are not the same section at all as the imperial funeral narrative I was originally blogging on, and in the imperial funeral narrative, the story is indeed consistent across several sources that sparks or khro chung were emitted (not lice).

  8. Dan says:

    Answered my own question. Look at Meisezahl’s facsimile of the Nyangral, and there at his Tafel 235.1.3 (fol. 348 recto,line 3 if you prefer), right after Bai-ro-tsa-na gets banished toi Tsha-ba-rong:

    shigi dong du sgyur [~shig gi dong du skyur]

    They plopped him into a pit of lice.

    No mention of the frogs, it seems.

    Of course, I’m right now thinking ‘pit of lice’ could, just as much as the shorter form shig-dong, be just another word for dungeon…

    • Rob Mayer says:

      Dan, are you suggesting that these are just ways of saying deep dungeon, and don’t actually signify frogs or lice? In a way, it would be a more intuitive reading. The idea of someone’s corvee obligation being the maintenance of the local village frog and lice pits is somehow counterintuitive. But the existence of a local gaol or dungeon makes much more sense!

      • Dan says:

        That’s what I’m thinking, but ask me again tomorrow! sbal-dong looks like it just means ‘pit pit,’ and shig-dong, ‘louse pit.’ Both would just mean a foul and windowless prison with no accessible bathing facilities. Any objections? I’m not saying that dungeons couldn’t have literal lice, quite the contrary.

        I’ve noticed dong used to mean ‘prison-dungeon’ in the Zhijé Collection, a ms. dating to ca. 1240, but it more often uses an archaic term khri-mon (khrim-mon, khri-mun) for ‘dungeon’ that was in use at least up until the time of Bu-ston’s biography.

        So, yes. I say ditch the pit meaning and just call it a prison-dungeon.

        • Rob Mayer says:

          We might learn something more from the actual architecture of local gaols in Tibet. Any ideas?

          • Dan says:

            About all I know from earlier times is that Padampa often makes reference to the western Tibetan king Tsedé (rTse-lDe)’s prisons of the late 11th century. His must have included metal chains (shackles of some kind? — see the lcags-sgrog below), otherwise how could the file help you get out? And apparently the dungeon was right there in his royal palace (as often happened in old Europe, too, didn’t it?).

            Like in this example where the word for file (seg-dar, seg-brdar etc.) is spelled se-gdar: rtse lde’i pho brang na se gdar lag na tshags byas nas / lcags sgrog myi chod pa’i btson cig mthong // se gdar gyi dgos pa gtor na gda’ gsung nas dgyes. Zhi-byed Coll. II 172.7.

            But this discussion takes us rather far afield from the lice (I hope).

  9. Ratna says:

    Not having lice (or any other of the 80,000 types of parasites) on one’s body is one of the signs of having attained the phase of summit (mūrdhan) on the path of preparation (prayogamārga), according to Abhisamayalaṃkāra IV-42. I don’t want to question the fortitude of those saintly lice-tolerating individuals but I’m afraid their sainthood would be under some question (if by sainthood one means being an Āryan on the path of seeing or above).
    (BTW, I recall a letter sent by one bKa’ gdams pa named Nam mkha’ ‘bum to Sa skya Paṇḍita, in which he asked, among other questions, (I’m paraphrasing from memory): “I’m having no lice on my body even though I definitely haven’t achieved the path of preparation — what’s that about? Could it be a bad sign?”. )

    • Rob Mayer says:

      Ratna, many thanks for this significant comment. There is also a passage in Janet Gyatso’s biography of Jigme Lingpa that might support your point in a more recent rNying ma context: after a particularly powerful moment of realisation achieved in a dream, Jigma Lingpa loses all his lice on waking (see her Apparitions of the Self, page 19.) From another angle, I recall a Kagyu yogin once recommending tummo as a way of staying free from lice. As so often in Tibetan religion, its not what one does, but the way that one does it. When one lama lovingly tends his lice, it shows his boundless compassion. When another can’t be harmed by them, it shows his attainment.

  10. Rob Mayer says:

    An idea has somewhere been picked up in my mind that a cheap if brutal way to build a prison would simply be to dig a deep hole in the ground, like a shallow well.

    But the main thing is, we seem to have freed Vairocana from lice, and the remedy was entirely in our own minds.

  11. Dan says:

    Well, R, you know. They say that the Black Hole* of Calcutta was neither black nor a hole, although 2 out of 3 isn’t all that bad. Wait, it’s Kolkata now, so that’s 3 our of 3, so that’s actually quite bad.

    Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld (one of my constant companions, since I’m so often in need of the words I find there… It’s kind of like the Hobson-Jobson, only for communicating with transients, thieves and various such low lifes), says that “the black hole” means the dungeon in a convict prison… a military lockup or guardroom… a place of confinement for punishment. Btw, Partridge also defines “louse cage” as a name for a hat, or more particularly a hat belonging to a tramp. He defines “Louse House” as the roundhouse, or cage, i.e., a lock-up or a prison. 2nd meaning: a cheap hotel. Indeed!

  12. DW von Bhutan says:

    Based on some the deliberations and comments made thus far, and based on own my reflection, I am tempted to suggest the following two (almost identical) alternative interpretations and translations:

    “In the folds (gseb) of Vairocana’s beard, appeared (snang) a glisteningly [white] ([dkar] shig shig) “miniature wrathful one” (khro chung) having the size of a white turnip (nyungs dkar tsam).”

    “In the folds (gseb) of Vairocana’s beard, appeared (snang) a glisteningly [white] ([dkar] shig shig) “tiny wrathful ones” (khro chung) having the size of a mustard seeds (nyungs (i.e. here = yungs) dkar tsam).”

    I also take shig shig to be an adverb qualifying dkar (either ad sensum or perhaps dkar might have stood there, i.e. dkar shig shig, but dropped later. That is, the text might have read: nyungs dkar tsam dkar shig shig…. If the deities were so small like the mustard seeds, people would hardly see that they are wrathful ones and so there would not a cause for fear. I thus prefer “white turnip” possibility. “Lice,” one would assume, could have been at best a cause of some disgust but not of panic and even that sounds very unlikely.


    • Cathy Cantwell says:

      Dorji is probably not so familiar with the visualisations and rituals connected with mustard seeds which are ubiquitous in Tibetan Mahāyoga practice. There is no doubt that nyung dkar (or yungs dkar) here has its usual meaning of mustard seeds, and not turnip. The imagery is drawn on everywhere in the context of a precise visualisation of the smallest size, such as of a mantra seed syllable, described as, “tiny as a mustard seed” (yungs ‘bru tsam, e.g. Dudjom Collected Works Vol. Da: 102, two instances, gNam lcags spu gri bsnyen yig). We have exactly the same principle in the Sa skya Phur pa example cited in the blog, with innumerable deities filling all the pores of the skin. The size does not limit the potency, quite the contrary: the small visualisation concentrates and focuses the power. This brings us to the second aspect of the imagery: the destructive ritual symbolism, which can be concentrated into miniature power substances (thun rdzas) and weapons. During my fieldwork in Rewalsar, one monk drew a modern analogy: this is the Tibetan atomic weapon [as in tiny thing has vast power]. It is always mustard seeds which are primarily used for the ritual power substances to be cast at the obstacles at the outset of every ritual practice session. They are generally referred to in ritual instructions simply as yungs thun (mustard seed power substances, e.g. Dudjom Collected Works Vol. Da: 501, gNam lcags spu gri yo byad shoms zin). A small bowl of them will be placed on the Vajra Master’s table, ready for him to throw at the appropriate points in the ritual. The association of mustard with power substances is demonstrated also in expelling rites, where mustard weapons (yungs kar zor) featuring mustard flowers are an important part of the attack on the negative spirits. I enclose a diagram from my Ph.D work, an expelling ritual of the deity rDo rje Gro lod (Gro lod smad las, Dudjom Collected Works Vol. Ba: 311).

  13. DW von Bhutan says:

    Cathy may be right. Indeed I have not always kept track of the details of the visualisations and rituals. The use of mustard seeds and the notion of atom-size deities in such contexts are, however, well known. My primary concern has been been, however, not so much whether we interpret nyungs dkar as as “mustard seed,” which I also considered a possibility, or “white turnip” (which I said I preferred for some other reasons) but rather the syntax plus the use of tsam, which seems to be ignored by Wangdu and Diemberger. Moreover, shig shig, in my view, is still not properly account for and is standing there in isolation with no adjective to qualify. I hope that our reading khro chung is also correct. I still suspect that something is amiss in this sentence.

    One more point to add: In my view, the relationship between the words nyungs dkar (which does not seem to be attested elsewhere, cf. nyung ma & nyungs kar) and yungs (d)kar (the standard word for white mustard) is yet to be established. Are they really and simply interchangeable orthographic variants, as we seem to have taken for granted?

    I may modify slightly my translation of the pertinent subordinate clause as follows:

    “Upon seeing/appearing (snang ba dang) in the folds (gseb) of Vairocana’s beard, a glisteningly [white] ([dkar] shig shig) “tiny wrathful ones” (khro chung) having the size of a mustard seed (nyungs dkar tsam),” ….

    I am not yet committing myself to one or the other interpretation of nyungs dkar.



    • Rob Mayer says:

      Dorji, I don’t think you are correct if you are suggesting nyungs dkar is not attested elsewhere than this page of the dBa’ bzhed: on the contrary, whether rightly or wrongly, it is in real life attested very widely. Maybe that’s why Dan Martin in his Tibetan Vocabulary seems to simply list it as a variant for yungs kar:

      YUNGS DKAR = nyungs dkar. white mustard. JD 216. SS 525.3. Varieties: dkar, dmar, nag. white mustard. Clifford, list. KP1 151.6. KP3 298.5. KP4 475.3. Skt. sarṣapa, a sort of mustard. Metaphoric usage in Jinpa, Mind Training 337.

      I am away on a field trip at the moment, working with some excellent Bon lamas on Bon sources (we are doing a comparative study of Bon and Buddhist Phur pa traditions), so I mainly have only Bon sources to hand right now, but here are some attestations of nyungs dkar used interchangeably (whether legitimately or otherwise) with nyungs kar:

      These from the Ka ba nag po, the famous Bon po gter ma of Khu tsha zla ‘od, upon which we are currently working. The following Bon Kanjur and Kathmandu collations are by myself, the Bon Tenjur collation is by J-L Achard:
      Chapter 23, Tenjur edition, page 105 l5: nyungs dkar. The Kathmandu edition (folio 32v) also gives nyungs dkar.
      Chapter 23 again: Tenjur edition, page 108.4 gives nyungs dkar, as does the Kathmandu edition (folio 33rl4) I happen to have this folio open before me as I type.
      Chapter 35, page 117 of the Kanjur edition, gives nyungs dkar nyungs nag, ditto in Kathmandu and Tenjur versions (the page in the Kanjur edition is also open before me, and I assure you, it reads nyungs dkar).
      Chapter 36: page 119 line 4: nyungs dkar nyungs nag; (ditto, the page is open before me)
      also Chapter 36: page 120, line 7 Again, ditto in Kathmandu and Tenjur versions, both times.
      Yet note that nyungs kar is also attested elsewhere in this Ka ba nag po text in some editions, at the same places. At a rough guess, in this particular text, nyungs dkar and nyungs kar probably occur an equal amount.

      Then, in J-L Achard’s catalogue of bDe chen gling pa’s gter ma, Bonpo Hidden Treasures, Brill 2004, I found on page page 60 the following: dBal phur ’bar ba nag po’i ’phrin las me ri ’khyil pa rin chen gter mdzod kyi rgyud las/ Nyungs dkar drag po thun gyi bzlog pa gnam lcags thog mda’.

      Then, J V Bellezza in his Spirit-Mediums, Sacred Mountains And Related Bon Textual Traditions In Upper Tibet: Calling Down The Gods, Brill 2005, page 455, has the following transcription from a Bon text, which he describes as “a Bon thun rite based on hurling mustard seeds to destroy enemies, called bSad las rin chen ’phreng ba’i smad las bzhugs so (New Collection of Bon bka’ rten, Ge khod sgrub skor, vol. 122 (smad-cha), nos. 439–453), nos. 450, ln. 4 to 451, ln. 5. No authorship is given in the text:
      nyungs dkar rnams ni khro bo’i thun / nyungs nag rnams ni khro mo’i thun/

      Then we find nyungs dkar listed on page 855 of the late great Prof. Henry Osmaston’s ‘Technical Zanskari Vocabularies of Agriculture and Pastoralism’, made within help of Punchok Dawa and Tashi Rabgyas, to mean mustard.

      Now I am neither arguing that nyungs dkar is classically correct, nor the opposite: I am merely pointing out that in practice it does occur very often indeed to mean the mustard seeds used in such rituals.

      As for shig shig: Dan Martin and ourselves tentatively agree on a meaning of ‘swarming’ – see comments above, or see the entry in Dan’s Tibetan Vocabulary; of course we might all three be wrong, but this interpretation of shig shig at least has the advantage of making excellent sense in the context.

      All best wishes, Rob

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