Saturday, February 25, 2006

DANG and Sentence Endings

We are finally at the end of the first part of the sentence in the commentary on the opening lines of chapter nine in Bodhisattva Way of Life. Commentary sentences tend to be long, and here's a surprise, it even continues, but before we go ahead, let's look at the last word here, dang.

This is a binding word, you could think of it translated as and, or a comma. It also binds together two parts, as in chu dang me, water and fire. Note that there are no commas in Tibetan, the ending shad, that long vertical stroke, it not really a dot, or a comma. It just indicates that a specific section ends. A double shad is used to indicate the end of bigger sections, such as a whole chapter.

In many case when translating to English, it's Ok to translate the section up to the dang, and continue with a new sentence with the next section. In the contemporary English culture, short sentences are preferred over very long ones.

So the dang at the end is indicating that the complete sentence is not yet there. There's more to follow. However, we have enough material to translate the first part of the commentary section. We have gone through the words, so next is a matter of rearranging and regrouping it all so it looks good in English.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


We are slowly going through the first sentence in the commentary about the opening lines of the wisdom chapter in Master Shantideva's Bodhisattva Way of Life. Soon we have the first sentence's words analyzed, and we could start analyzing the actual sentence itself. Two more sets!

Anyway, the la particle needs something on the right side to bind it to the left side, and this is 'chad pa. 'chad pa means explanation. The verb is actually 'chad, to teach, expound, explain. Note that there is another interpretation with the word 'chad, to be cut or broken, including a variation of 'chad pa that means cut into pieces or being separate.

Here again one needs to look at the context, we are dealing with a commentary, so there's a notion of explanations and teachings. So here 'chad pa is indeed about the explanation that is bound via la to the left side.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


OK, next we have the very common la particle again. la is a so called dative-locative particle. The quick word to substitute for getting something in is to or as for. Remember the rule that particles bind something coming from the right with something on the left side. Sometimes they even bind something on the left side that is a whole sentence, so you need to be careful when translating very long sentences. In this case this first commentary sentence will shortly end with a verb and a connection word, so stay tuned.

Note that la also means mountain pass, like the infamous Thorung La pass in case you have ever done the Annapurna trek in Nepal, and got stuck on this pass where there seems to be a constant snow storm, that in combination with altitude weakness and badly peeled apples, oh well. Anyway, you could easily see from the context if la is a particle (very common) or la the mountain pass (less common).

la is also the letter. Speaking of the alphabet, sometimes you see the expression a li ka li, this is referring to the Sanskrit vowels and consonants, especially in tantric meditations.

Friday, February 17, 2006


tsam is another very common word, used at the end of a noun, for example. It means just, only, merely. It's a way to narrow down a definition so it just covers one topic, or one noun.

In this case, in the commentary it says zhi gnas tsam, zhi gnas was Shamatha, or single-pointed concentration, calm abiding.

So here it means that we are just dealing with the eight chapter dealing with single-pointed concentration.

Just to show other examples where you could see tsam (it's a very common word in commentaries):

sems tsam - mind only, yes, this is the known Tibetan word for the Cittamatra, Mind-Only school.
zla ba tsam - just about a month, zla ba is month, also means moon, so you see the connection to the lunar calendar
tshig tsam - mere words, tshig means word

Thursday, February 16, 2006


So far we have figured out that the eight chapter has something interested related to the definition of the earlier branches. And it is bshad pa'i zhi gnas.

bshad pa means explanation or teaching, here teaching is more appropriate. Note that there's a genitive particle at the end of bshad pa, or bshad pa'i, so the right side is tied to the left, it's a teaching of zhi gnas.

So what's zhi gnas? This is a very important meditation term, calm abiding, or Shamatha in Sanskrit. This is where the meditator could single-pointedly focus on an object for hours without any disturbances.

zhi actually means peace, and gnas means to stay or abide, so this is like 'staying in peace.'

So far we have learned from the commentary that all the earlier branches could refer to the eight chapter in Bodhisattva Way of Life that deals with the meditation, single-pointed concentration.

But there's more in the commentary!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


OK, let's take an easy part now, the next word in the sentence is nas, or le'u bryad pa nas. nas means from. So this means from the eight chapter.

Note that there are two particles indicating from, nas and las. The difference is that nas is very specific, it is from the eight chapter, las is more indirect, kun las - from all directions.

Note also the generic particle rule that is shown over and over again, the particle points backwards, the words that will come next will point backwards via nas to the eight chapter.

Monday, February 13, 2006


Next in the first sentence of the commentary is le'u bryad pa. We looked at le'u before, this is chapter. The word le'u is also interesting, as it's one of the few words where you have two vowels. Unlike Sanskrit, Tibetan has very short vowels, seldom long ones, or two vowels next to each other. The words are very short, one, two or three syllables, and seldom four syllables or more. In addition Tibetans speak very fast, so it's indeed a challenge to learn spoken Tibetan.

brgyad is eight, with the pa at the end after brgyad it becomes something like 'the eight'. So the commentary is talking about the eight chapter, the one before this ninth (wisdom) chapter (le'u dgu pa). So let's look next at what the eight chapter - le'u brgyad pa -- is about when the sentence in the commentary continues.

But so far we have decoded that the branches might have something to do with the eight chapter...

Sunday, February 12, 2006


Ok, we will now start with the commentary text. This will take a while as the sentences are longer, and there are direct and indirect references we need to address.

The first part should be familiar from the root text: yan lag 'di dag, these branches.

Next is ces pa; there are many ways how to translate this common expression, so it is said, so it says, like that. In this case ces pa is pointing at the branches, how this expressed, or explained. So we are dealing with what yan lag 'di dag really means.

ces actually means thus, so, it's a ways to end an explanation, like an end quotation mark. There are no quotation marks in Tibetan, so specific keywords are used to indicate where a quote starts, and where it ends.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Complete Introduction to Chapter Nine of Bodhisattva Way Of Life

This is the opening lines in the ninth chapter of Master Shantideva's Bodhisattva Way of Life. You've seen the partial and the full translation before, but here's another translation of this verse.

The Able One has taught all these branches
For the sake of the Wisdom

This points out the importance of the Perfection of Wisdom, it is the tool that will perfect the other five perfections.

Now, how this is interpreted, especially what is meant with 'all these branches', is the next step. Root texts such as this one is short and to the point, and there's a need to further elucidate the meaning. There are many cases where even the author of the root text has written an auto-commentary based on the text.

Looking at this from a higher point of view, all the teachings about the Perfection of Wisdom are in the Sutras, but to understand those you need to read about it in the commentaries by Indian masters. To understand such commentaries you need a second level of a commentary, in the Tibetan tradition by a Tibetan master who further explains this. We will use Khedrub Je's commentary on Bodhisattva Way of Life to see how he explains this verse. At the same time you get a taste of how to read and translate commentary texts.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


This is the last part of the second line, du sungs. du is a particle, a sub-ordination particle, it has wide use, but think of it as organizing something on the right side to the left side. In this case it's a verb that is organizing something on the left side.

The verb is gsungs, and is there a verb you see a lot in texts, this is it. gsungs means taught, or said. It's used a lot in commentaries to end a quotation of a teacher, and the quotation ends with gsungs. Note again how the verb is usually at the end of the sentence.

So, roughly the second line is: The Able one taught for the purpose of Discriminating Awareness.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Next on the second verse is shes rab don. We talked about shes rab before, in Sanskrit prajna, this is the wisdom understanding emptiness, or as Alexander Berzin translated this, discriminating awareness. This later term is very interesting, as it hints at a state of awareness that knows how things really are. This is important, as conceptuality, thinking of subjects and objects, is grasping to things, and pure awareness that still discriminates is the end goal. This is an awareness that is very much active, but it does not grasp to subjects and objects, or to the act of grasping itself.

don is a real workhorse of a word, you could click on the link and see at dharmadictionary all the terms. Here let's use either purpose, or meaning. Those two are good starting candidates when translating don. So we have the purpose of discriminating awareness, or the meaning of wisdom. The ninth chapter in Bodhisattva Way of Life is indeed the shes rab le'u, Wisdom chapter, le'u is chapter, so it's appropriate that the opening lines provide the starting point for this chapter.

So far in the second verse we have meaning of wisdom by the Sage (Buddha), thub pas shes rab don. Next we need a particle and an ending verb, and then we could translate the whole second line.

Monday, February 06, 2006


The second verse starts with thub pas, it's actually the word thub pa, with the ending s being a particle, an agent. thub pa is a very famous word, in Sanskrit muni (part of Shakyamuni), it means sage, conqueror, Victor, the Capable one, Able one. It's a name for Buddha.

Another variation of this is thub pa chen po, mahamuni, you could sometimes see this in mantras, such as in the Shakyamuni mantra. chen po, or in Sanskrit maha, means big. A variation of this word used in English is mega, it has it's roots in the same original word as wherefrom maha originated.

The ending s is a particle, if the word ends with a vowel, s is added in the case of the agent particle. Think of it here as the word by, this particle will bind what is on the left side with what we will shortly see on the right side. Think of this part just now as: by the Sage.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Learning the Tibetan Alphabet

I have not really covered how to write Tibetan letters. There are tools (see earlier postings) where you could type in Wylie and the output is Tibetan letters.

If you search the web there are also many wonderful sites that show how to draw and pronounce the Tibetan letters.

One main reason I left this out is that we could spend a very long time going through the letters and pronunciation, and for a while there's not a sense of progress, even if there is. But by going directly for words and sentences you get the big picture, and the hope is that you see that recognizing and translating sentences is not so hard (it gets hard later, and then it's easy again).

However, it's really important that you learn how to read the letters, it should not take that long if you spend some time learning them. A couple of tricks:

  • Use a big notebook and just draw the same letters, over and over again, after a while the brain has the pattern programmed into your mind, so you see them clearly.
  • Just be brave and look at Tibetan texts over and over, first it looks strange, but after a while you start to see the letters, words, and other patterns. It's a big win if you start recognizing letters and single words, and then it accelerates from that point forward.
  • Take a couple of words and learn to write them, see them in your mind, and go over them from time to time (I used to write Tibetan words on a big whiteboard at work, and co-workers always were fascinated about the strange letters).
  • Learning famous short statements from the texts also help, write them down over and over again.
Unlike other Asian languages, the Tibetan language has syllable-based letters (not pictograms), and also you could somehow read it from beginning to end (see other postings about the issues), so there's less of a learning curve.

PS: This was the 100:th posting, so it was indeed appropriate to talk about the Tibetan letters.


This is the whole first sentence. The last words are thams cad ni. We have talked about these words before, but it does not hurt to repeat words. thams cad means everything, all, the entire. For example, thams cad mkhyen pa means all-knowing, mkhyen pa means to know. This is an honorific title for a Buddha.

Going back to the earlier words, thams cad points at yan lag 'di dag, all those branches.

We have also talked about ni before, it's an emphatic particle, joining a left side statement with something to follow later, in this case in the next line. Sometimes you could translate ni as 'this is', 'as for', or something similar, or just leave it out, and bind together the sentence using other English constructs.

As this is verse, seven-syllable one, sometimes ni and other words are used as a filler, it's not always needed, but thanks to the flexibility of the Tibetan language it is OK to sometimes add words (such as multiple words defining plural), or omitting them (it is assume that that noun is plural) in order to get the same amount of syllables. The amount is important, as then the verses could be used with singing, or easy memorization -- hmm, there should be one more word so the verse is complete...

Saturday, February 04, 2006


Next in the first line is 'di dag, we had 'di before, it means this, de means that. Those two words are easy to remember, as they somewhat resemble English.

dag here is a pluralizing particle, indicating 'di is being plural, so 'di dag means these, similarly de dag means those.

The start of the verse was yan lag, branches, components, parts, so yan lag 'di dag means these branches. Note the reverse order compared with English, first you have a subject, and then attributes related to the subject.

Friday, February 03, 2006


First line of the ninth chapter in Master Shantideva's Bodhisattva Way of Life starts with the words yan lag. yan lag means branches, components, supplements, attributes. It's a way to group things together. Here the debate will be if the commentary that talks about refers to the earlier chapters in the text, or about the five perfections.

Another example where yan lag is used:

yan lag bdun pa - seven branches. bdun pa is the seven, bdun is seven, but you make it to a full word with the ending pa. So what are the seven branches: prostrating to the three jewels, confessing negative actions, making offerings, rejoicing in the virtue of others, requesting teachers to turn the wheel of dharma (teaching), requests teachers not to pass into pari-nirvana (i.e. creating the karma to see one's teachers around oneself), and dedicating one's merit to all sentient beings' welfare. This is also sometimes called the Seven-branch practice or the Seven-branch prayer.

It's good to learn this word, you will see it used in commentaries and explanations where there's a notion of parts, components, sections, and so on.

Next Going through a Text Commentary

Let's go through a famous quote, and a small mini-commentary around this quote. The ninth chapter in Master Shantideva's text has the interesting quotation about all the earlier material presented, and how it's related to this ninth wisdom chapter. Or, as translated by Alexander Berzin:

The Sage has spoken about all these branches
For the sake of discriminating awareness.

There has always been debate what this really means. We will look at Gyaltsab Je's commentary explaining this verse. Gyaltsab Je was one of the two main disciples of Je Tsongkhapa.

But first we will translate the root text. As many might have started from zero, we will go through each word once again -- does not hurt to repeat.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

More about Verbs and Sentence Structures

So it's very common that a noun starts and a verb ends the sentence in Tibetan, such as: bum pa yod- Pots do exist, bum pa - pot or vase. If there's an object or an adverbial, those are between the noun and the verb, as in: dmar po kha dog yin, red is a color, dmar po - red, kha dog - color.

Or, if there's a negation, this is at the end of the sentence, as in:
sangs rgyas nyon mongs med, Buddhas have no mental afflictions, sangs rgyas - Buddhas, nyon mongs - mental afflictions, med - not.

Another common variation is a sentence with an agent and a verb, where the verb is pointing to the agent via a particle, as in:
sangs rgyas kyis chos bstan, bstan -taught, chos - dharma, kyis - by, the particle, Buddhas taught dharma (or the doctrine). Note that there was no need to translate the kyis word as by.

Finally, if this is a complete sentence, the verb is ended with an ending of o based on the last letter. So if we want to be complete in the sentence above: sangs rgyas kyis chos bstan no,
Note that bstan ended with n, so the ending becomes no.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Honorific Word - Part 1

In Tibetan, and in the Tibetan culture, it is important to honor those that are considered being on a higher level than oneself. Examples of such relationships are between children and parents, students and teacher, disciple and guru, ordinary beings and enlightened beings, and so on.

Depending on the context, two separate words meaning the same are used back and forth in a dialogue, for example when a disciple is talking to his or her guru, and the other way around.

To express this honorific separation, there are many words that mean the same, but are used based on if the receiving side is of higher or lower level. For example, when talking about eyes, for a common person the word for eyes is mig, but for a higher being, the word is spyan. Now, Chenrezig is spelled out spyan ras gzigs, in Sanskrit Avalokitesvara. The meaning of this name is that is eyes, spyan, spyan ras is penetrating vision, and gzigs is to look. So the quick translation is "The one that sees everything." It's an ample name of a Buddha or bodhisattva who is constantly looking to help anyone out.

Another example is body, a normal body is lus, but when talking about the bodies of a Buddha (depending on the context they could be divided into two, three, or four), the body is sku, in Sanskrit kaya. Thus, the enjoyment body of a Buddha (the one that is in place just for high bodhisattvas to receive teachings) is longs sku, in Sanskrit sambhogakaya. longs is imperative of len pa, to receive , take, bring. At the first moment of Buddhahood this body is taken upon, and is not released until all sentient beings are enlightened.