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At the beginning of a session devoted to studying Tibetan, it is good to focus our attention on what it is that impels us to study. In all the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism we are taught that the commitment to show all beings the way to achieve the state of complete and perfect enlightenment is the highest motivation. So at the beginning of a study session we can reconfirm our resolve to achieve Buddhahood ourselves so that we may then extend this opportunity to all beings. This is a way of speaking about the term bodhichitta, the aspiration to awakening, the intention to accomplish enlightenment as the means to further the welfare of all beings. Reaffirming our bodhisattva commitment in this way at the beginning of a study session transforms what could be a dry, academic endeavor into meritorious activity for the benefit of ourselves and all beings.
In the last article, I reviewed our goal of learning to read the Tibetan script and use the Tibetan-English dictionary as being a journey of seven stages. We are now at the fourth of the stages: the subscripts – those letters that can be written beneath other letters. There are four of these letters: YA, RA, LA, and WA. When they are subscribed we call them YA-TA, RA-TA, LA-TA, AND WAZUR. In the last article I presented the LA-TM. Now I will talk about two other subscripts, the Wazurs and the YATAs. If you are following along with the manual of this course, Introduction to Tibetan Language, the subscripts are presented on pages 7 and 8. …
We could say that learning to read the script is to studying Tibetan what completing the preliminary practices is to practicing the Dharma. Learning to read the Tibetan script, however, usually takes a person just forty or fifty hours. And along with learning the script, one learns some fundamentals of the grammar, some basic vocabulary, and how to use the dictionary. This is the subject of this series of articles.
With this column we will complete the fourth of the seven stages on the journey of learning to read Tibetan: the subscripts. We will look briefly at how words are put together to form phrases.
Figure 1 re-introduces our paradigm word. It is made up of the seven elements, the learning of which comprises the seven stages of learning to read. It is a word pronounced droop and means “accomplished or finished.” Looking at droop, we see the root, the vowel, and the superscript – all elements we have presented in previous articles. We also see the subscribed RA, which we will now discuss. …
By David Curtis
Our journey learning to read the Tibetan script continues. We will have reached this preliminary goal when we have learned the seven elements that are the possible building blocks of any Tibetan word or syllable. These elements are the root, suffix, second suffix, vowel, subscript, prefix, and superscript. In previous articles, we have presented the roots, the vowels, the superscripts, the subscripts and the prefixes. Five of the seven elements are thus completed. Now, on to the sixth element – the suffixes! In this article we will also look at the rules for finding the root of any syllable.
Ten of the thirty consonants can also be suffixes. The Tibetan term for suffix is jen juke. It is comprised of the two terms jey meaning “after” and juke meaning “enter.” (When put together, these two syllables come to be pronounced jen juke following a pronunciation rule explained in the last article.) Suffixes are those consonants that can occur after the root letter of a syllable. The ten suffixes are GA, NGA, DA, NA, BA, MA, AH, RA, LA, and SA (see Figure 1). Six of the ten operate in a very straightforward manner and affect the pronunciation of the syllable to which they are attached in very much the same way as a final consonant on an English word does. The remaining four suffixes cause special pronunciation changes to the vowel of the syllable, and we will discuss them in a subsequent article. …
Nestled in the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana is a unique organization. Sporting goods stores, bars, taxidermy shops, gas stations – Montanans expect to find these things. But a business grounded in knowledge gained from an in-depth study of Tibetan Buddhist traditions and focused on teaching Classical Tibetan to Western students? This falls a bit outside the realm of the expected.
By Erin Keskeny
Yet Montana is a good home in many ways for the Tibetan Language Institute (TLI). The mountain landscape mirrors that of Tibet, and the tranquility is conducive to study. Right outside the door of the office wild turkeys gobble in response to every rumble of a summer thunderstorm; hummingbirds mine the blossoms that surround the office in the spring and summer.
TLI’s beginnings were in a very different environment. In 1993, shortly after completing his traditional three-year retreat at Dakshang Kagyu Ling, Kalu Rinpoche’s flagship center in France, David Curtis began teaching private students in Los Angeles. This seemed a natural direction for him, given his desire to help Western students deepen their relationship with the Dharma. David has written:
The Tibetan language is beautiful, powerful, and interesting in its own right. But what’s more, knowledge of Tibetan can contribute significantly to one’s Dharma study and practice. In fact, to study Tibetan is to practice the Dharma. The texts were written and translated by realized masters who were also great literary masters, and their sole motivation was to liberate beings. Looking into the specialized language they created to convey the innermost essence of the Buddha’s teaching can be profoundly inspirational. …
By James Blumenthal
The past few years has been an exciting time for scholars, historians, and practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism as dozens of forgotten and lost Buddhist manuscripts have been newly discovered in Tibet. The majority of the texts were discovered at Drepung monastery, outside of Lhasa, and at the Potala Palace, though there have been smaller groups of texts found elsewhere in the Tibet. The single greatest accumulation is the group of several hundred Kadam texts dating from the eleventh to early fourteenth centuries that have been compiled and published in two sets of thirty pecha volumes (with another set of thirty due later this year). These include lojong (mind training) texts, commentaries on a wide variety of Buddhist philosophical topics from Madhyamaka to pramana (valid knowledge) to Buddha nature, and on cosmology, psychology and monastic ethics. In addition to these Kadam texts from the early followers of Atisha, a small but important find of Gelug and Sakya texts were also discovered in the Potala Palace.
The discovery of this incredible body of Buddhist literature represents perhaps the most important find of Buddhist texts since the unearthing of the Dunhuang manuscripts in the early twentieth century or the Gandharan manuscripts found in Afghanistan about twenty years ago. The publication of these texts offers the opportunity for deepening our knowledge of the historical development and the context out of which living traditions emerged creates the possibility of further enriching our understanding and experience of the traditions. Thus, this is an exciting and important discovery for many. …
By Lama David Curtis
In the previous eleven articles of this series we sketched the historical and cultural background of the Dharma coming to Tibet from India, and then specifically presented the seven-step process of learning to read the Tibetan script. All of the essentials of learning the script have been covered. In this article, I would like to present a few more details to complete the picture. The subjects covered in this article correspond to Appendices II and III of my manual, Introduction to Tibetan: Level I.
Exceptions with AH
I would first like to discuss some of the exceptions that can occur with the suffix AH. Here I am referring to the third letter in the sixth row, which Tibetans call “AH choong” or “little AH.” It is involved in several exceptions. I will just mention two important ones here. It is common to see All combined with gigu at the end of a word. If AH is the suffix of a syllable, the gigu is merely affixed on top of the AH. In words with no suffix, an AH in combination with gigu (which is pronounced “EE”) can be affixed to the end of the syllable. Examples of these two exceptions are seen in Figure 1. …
By Yael Bentor; Reviewed by Donna Lynn Brown
Having the right selection of books available at each stage of learning is a challenge faced by students of classical Tibetan that is not shared by most students of European languages. While progress has been made toward meeting the needs of Tibetan language students, gaps still exist. With A Classical Tibetan Reader: Selections from Renowned Works with Custom Glossaries, Dr. Yael Bentor, a senior lecturer in Indian and Tibetan Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, seeks to fill one of those gaps.
Dr. Bentor, who has taught classical Tibetan for 20 years, developed this textbook by compiling a series of short, enjoyable narratives alongside customized glossaries. This approach enables and encourages even beginners to read classical Tibetan, since the glossaries give each word’s meaning in the context of the narrative, which simplifies deciphering the story. Dr. Bentor herself teaches the alphabet and basic grammar before her students begin these readings, since a student cannot decode even the simplest sentence without them, but she does not teach grammar fully before plunging in. Instead, students learn grammar along with vocabulary as they work through the stories.
This method of instruction is more contextual and intuitive than that used when the full range of grammar is taught before introducing students to reading narratives. Learning styles vary, and for students who prefer to learn the finer points of “attributive syntax” and “the uses of declension” in the context of real Tibetan literature, rather than sentences in a grammar text, Dr. Bentor’s book provides a good balance of challenge and reward. It offers 12 readings of varying lengths, drawn from works that are already translated into English, and whose translations, while not appearing in this book, are easily available. Many of the readings will be familiar to Tibetan language students who have some background in Buddhism, such as short pieces from the life stories of Padmasambhava and Milarepa, and well-known Dharma teachings from Words of My Perfect Teacher like “The Faith of the Old Woman” and “Tuning the Vina.” Bentor’s teaching experience shows in her choice of stories that are fun to read and not overly difficult. She has avoided the complexities of philosophy and ritual, and stuck to selections from namthar [hagiography] and lam-rim that are ideal for novices. The book is not intended to go further, and Bentor recommends that students who complete it go on to the greater detail and subtlety found in readers based on philosophical texts. With one four-line exception, the book also contains no verse, a translation challenge that Bentor leaves for more advanced courses.
While made for the classroom, the Reader can be used outside of it by independent students, as long as they have a grammar text on hand, since Dr. Bentor’s book offers only the most minimal grammatical instruction. Given a good grammar text, though, those learning at home will likely find this reader first-rate. Even the intermediate student who wants to practice reading by spending some time with “ordinary” classical Tibetan, rather than philosophy or tantra, will benefit from this book. Indeed, for intermediate students who have studied grammar intensively but read relatively little, this textbook would be the ideal confidence-builder before tackling sadhanas or philosophical works. And for those able to read a little, this would be a good bedside book: not too serious, and with no need to consult a dictionary!
Dr. Bentor’s Reader is not intended to meet the language student’s every requirement. Rather, it fulfills a single need that has not, so far, been met very well: the need for enjoyable short narratives with matching glossaries that enable them to be deciphered even by novices. As such, it is a tremendously helpful tool for beginning, and even intermediate, students of classical Tibetan.
Donna Brown studies Tibetan language at Maitripa College in Portland, Oregon.
Published by Wisdom Publications
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