The Lama's student


THE LAMA TEACHERS OF ALEXANDER CSOMA DE KÕRÖS AND THE "ALEXANDER-BOOKS"


A monk at Csoma's tombstone

When Csoma decided to complete the dictionary of the Tibetan language and a summary of Tibetan sacred scriptures, he was not aware of the magnitude of the task. Since he had high recommendations, he was permitted to take up his residence in the monastery of Zangla in Zanskar district, which belonged to Ladak, the Western Tibetan Kingdom. His Tibetan teacher was a very educated and politically influential lama, Sangye Püntsog. Sangye Püntsog was the personal consultant of the Ladaki king, and he was also the king's physician. Here are the words Csoma wrote about Sangye Püntsog:
"The lama is well versed in all the Tibetian writing styles, he knows the grammar of his native language and his knowledge extends into the fields of mathematics, poetry, rhetorics and dialectics. His specialities are medicine, astrology and astronomy. Some twenty years ago he spent six years on study trips all over Tibet, Tashi Lhunpo, Lhasa, Bhutan and Nepal. He understands every part of his religion and he has an overall knowledge of various topics mentioned in Tibetan books, he knows Tibetan customs, he knows the fineries of Tibetan conversation and politeness as practiced by the aristocracy, he knows about economy and agriculture, he knows the aristocratic language, which is also used for writing the sacred books, he knows how to use honorific language when addressing his superiors and in addition, the lama has extended knowledge of the history and geography of the countries around Tibet. He is fifty two years old, he does not live in the monastery since he has been married to the widow of the raja of Zangla for the past twelve years." Sangye Püntsog is a member of the Drugpa order, which follows tantric traditions and allows marriage for its followers. What Csoma needed first in order to explore the vast litareture of an unknown culture, was a general orientation. Therefore he asked Sangye Püntsog and two other lamas to write short summaries of the major areas of lamaist literature.
The summaries he asked for were completed during his sixteen month stay in Zangla. These summaries were named later as "Alexander-Books" by Western scholars of Tibetan religion, who used Csoma's surname for naming these writings.

Sangye Püntsog wrote three pieces for Csoma, the first one is a description of Tibetan medicine and the second is study of chronology. The third has a short poem, a four liner, defining the content of the work:

"This is grammar, poetry, metrics and the essence of many things,
A short summary deserving no praise,
When I wrote this I thought of neither profit nor fame.
I just wrote this with no profound analysis in mind."

The text has five chapters summarising the Tibetan works on the history of language and literature.

Künga Chöleg, Csoma's other teacher was the abbot of Dzongkhul monastery of the Drugpa order. This was the monastery where Sangye Püntsog did his studies. Künga Chöleg wrote six chapters for Csoma on the following topics: Buddhist cosmology, description of cosmic time periods, the essence of Buddhist teaching, the life of the Buddha, teaching on the gradual path to liberation, etc. The collected works of Künga Chöleg became very popular among Tibetans.

The third author of the Alexander books was Tsültrim Gyatso. We know very little of him, most probably he belonged to the Gelukpa order and he was a very highly educated religious teacher. The title of the book he wrote to Csoma: "The ship sailing into the vast ocean of profound teachings." The actual topic of this work was the history of sciences with special attention to logic. In addition the work described the various systems of philosophy known in Tibet.

Csoma made good use of the Alexander- books in his later works. He even translated and published a book on medicine written by Sangye Püntsog. Today the Alexander-books can be found at Budapest in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Science. The books were donated to the Academy in 1885 by Duka Tivadar, a Hungarian doctor working for the British.


BUDDHIST MONASTERIES IN ZANSKAR, WEST-TIBET
where Alexander Csoma de Kõrös studied Tibetan language and buddhism under guidance of learned lamas


ZANGLA


Zangla

The once glorious royal palace is in ruins with the exeption of the monastery building. While staying in Zangla Alexander Csoma de Kõrös lived in this multistoried, Tibetan style, flatroof building. Rows of weather worn chortens and walls marked with "OM MANI PADME HUNG", the sacred mantra lead up to the building.
In the discrepit interior one can easily find the room of Alexander Csoma de Kõrös. It is a little room, blackened by smoke which opens from a large hall. The tiny room is marked by a tablet with an inscription written by Baktay Ervin, who found the room in 1923 following the information received from the people living in the village. At the time of his visit there were many village people who still knew the name Csoma, or at least heard about it. The room itself is not bigger than ten square meter and the door is so low, about 130 cm, that one has to bend low to enter. To many visitors the bowing one's head when entering the room takes on the significance of a symbolic salutation in front of the greatness of Kõrösi Csoma. During the cold winter months Csoma was compelled to work without fire because the room didn' t have a chimney (following Tibetan custom) and Csoma would not have been able to work in the dense black smoke. Lama Sangye Püntsog, the Tibetan teacher, recommended to Csoma by Moorcroft owned a house in the village. Kõrösi Csoma arrived to Zangla on June the 26. 1823 and stayed through October 22. 1824


PHUKTAL


Phuktal

Phuktal is one of the most beautiful monasteries of Western Tibet. It offers a beautiful sight at the bend of the Sanspo river. A long row of chortens marks the path leading to the main entrance. The white-washed buildings nest on huge rock walls. The building mass of the monastery forms a giant staircase on the rocks above the Sanspo river. If we go to the roof of the building and look down the valley, we have the sensation the river flowing underneath of the building. The magnificent Phuktal monastery built on red rocks above the turbulent Sanspo river haloed by the deep blue Himalaya sky is an ideal place for meditation and for experiencing the greatness and harmony of nature.
Initially in the 11th century the monastery and the main shrine was built around a cave. There are small water basins in the cave, with the water always staying on the same level. The locals believe the water in the basins have healing power. Today the monastery belongs to the Yellow Hat (Gelukpa) order of Tibetan Buddhism. Kõrösi Csoma stayed in this monastery from Nov.10. 1825 until October of 1826. During this period he spent some of his time in Tetha, the village of Lama Sangye Püntsog.


KANAM


Lamayuru

The third trip lead Csoma to Kanam through the Sutlej valley. The reason Csoma chose Kanam as his destination was the complete collection of the Kangyur and Tengyur, the Tibean Buddhist Kanon owned by the monastery. In Kanam, Csoma and Szangye Püntsog, his teacher were far away from Zanskar, Sangye Püntsog's home, friends, family and business affairs, thus Csoma had the opportunity for a sustained period of undisturbed quiet study with his teacher. It was unlike Phuktal where the lama's busy affairs divided his attention. It was in Kanam where Csoma became convinced that the lama is a great teacher and a real master of Buddhist teachings. The three years time Csoma spent in Kanam, was his most productive period. He completed his Tibetan Grammar and Dictionary, a manuscript for the dictionary of Buddhist terminology and other scholarly pieces. Csoma stayed in the monastery of Kanam from August 1827 through October 1830.