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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