Tibetan can be a confusing language – not least because it isn’t really one language at all. There’s still no standardized form of either written or spoken Tibetan, even if there have been attempts to produce them, and when it comes to the spoken language there are many, many registers and regional variations of both grammar, syntax, pronunciation and vocabulary. Tibetan language(s) is/are also notoriously filled with homophones and homonyms – like French, many Tibetan dialects have a lot of ‘silent’ or almost silent letters, and words that are spelled quite differently on paper may sound very similar to each other depending on one’s regional accent. The same word, either in its written or spoken incarnation, may have various meanings, depending on the context. The following story demonstrates just how dangerous language ambiguity can be. It relies for its punchline on the confusion between two words in Tibetan with very similar pronunciation: བརྒྱ ༼spelled brgya, pronounced ‘gya’༽ and རྒྱ ༼spelled rgya, and pronounced ‘gya’༽. Bgya means ‘one hundred’, whereas in the context of the story rgya means ‘whiskers’ or ‘beard’. To further complicate things, rgya can alternatively also be: a generalizing term for a category of wild animal; extent or size; a covering of some kind; a seal or sign (both in the sense of a stamp, or in the esoteric tantric sense of a ritual sign or tantric sex consort); a net; a ritual exclamation repeated at the end of scriptures that have been revealed through visions meaning, “It is sealed!” i.e. the contents may not be read and/or comprehended by the uninitiated; and an abbreviated prefix that depending on the context refers to the food, language, country etc of either India or China.
The following story involves a dop-dop, a word which itself has variant spellings in Tibetan. Dop-dop served as a kind of monastic security in the large scale monasteries of pre-occupied Tibet. Big and tough, they would pad their robes, carry sticks and other weapons, and wear menacing make-up (I found a picture of a dop-dop through Google which you can see here, but there weren’t a lot of details for the photo that I could find – if anyone knows anything more please let me know!). Dop-dops served as security-guards, bouncers, lamas’ body guards and disciplinarians, although their role and status was different to the position of the high-ranking disciplinarian or gekö, དགེ་སྐོས, the senior monk charged with maintaining moral discipline. Dop-dop were often selected from those young recruits who had little aptitude for study, ritual practice or discipline, and their other talents were channelled into work that was useful for the monastery. They were often allowed certain concessions when it came to monastic codes of conduct. Still, though they could be treated as something of a bogeyman or joke, not all dop-dop were mere brutes, and especially fierce or skilled dop-dop could become respected and famous.
Anyway, this story goes out to all language learners and enthusiasts everywhere who know all too well how one’s choice of words can create or transform one’s reality.
GETTING GYA AND GYA WRONG
By Tsewang Tamdin
Once, a dop-dop from one of the great Gelukpa monasteries in Lhasa absconded from his monastery at night and went down into the city to play mahjong. But since the dop-dop lost all of the money that he had brought gambling in the mahjong house, he had to return to his monastic college that night. On the road coming back he met a magical power-bestowing demon and the two of them wrestled each other for the whole night. When morning gradually started to arrive and light up the sky without either of them having been defeated, the demon declared: “Accept defeat and free me now, and I will grant you whatever you desire.” The dop-dop, suddenly remembering that he had lost 100 silver do-tse (དངུལ་རྡོ་ཚད་བརྒྱ, equivalent to 5000 srang) while gambling, said: “I want 100 silver do-tse”. “Ok!” the demon cried and immediately disappeared. Thinking that the demon had tricked him, the dop-dop then returned to his dorm. When he got there he saw that 100 silver do-tse worth of coins had been placed in a pile on his table. News of this amazing occurrence that had happened spread everywhere. A few days later, another monk did what the dop-dop had done, and sure enough, he met the demon and ended up fighting with it. Just like before, the demon said, “Let me go now and I will give you whatever you want.” Excitedly, the monk blurted out, “I want hundred, hundred!” (ང་ལ་རྒྱ་དགོས་རྒྱ – unlike the dop-dop he failed to give a direct object that the qualifier ‘100’ could be attached to). As soon as the words came out of his mouth the demon scratched him with its metal claws and disappeared. When the monk got back to his dorm, however, since he had blurted out རྒྱ, ‘whiskers’ in place of རྡོ་ཚད་བརྒྱ་ ‘one hundred do-tse’, he got nothing but a bunch of downy whiskers sprouting from his right cheek.
From མཚར་གཏམ (‘Amazing/Funny Anecdotes’), pp. 262-263, edited by Kalsang Khedup, 2009, 1st Ed. published in 2004 by the Tibetan Exile Administration’s Department of Education
* Melvyn C. Goldstein published a piece of research about dob dob (aka ldab ldob) in 1964, which has been something of a go-to on the topic for decades. If you’d like to go to it, and read some more about dob dob, you can find the article here.
For more English-language info on geko and their role in Tibetan exile monasteries, linguistic anthropologist Michael Lempert provides a close analysis of monastic disciplinarian’s style of speech and performance of discipline and public reproach in his book ‘Discipline and Debate: The Language of Violence in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery’ (2012). Other anecdotes can be found in Georges Dreyfus’ autobiographical study of Gelukpa style monastic education, ‘The Sound of Two Hands Clapping’ (2003).
* This old New Yorker piece offers a similar, if somewhat more protracted take on the hard-of-hearing wish-granting spirit.