Saturday, February 8, 2014

Some Notes on the Phrase ཐུགས་དམ་བསྐང་ (thugs dam bskang)

The phrase “thugs dam bskang” is ubiquitous in Tibetan liturgies, especially in the practices known as bskang ba or bskang gso, which are addressed primarily to the yidam deities and dharmapālas, and has already been the subject of an interesting clarification by Ken McLeod. The various possible interpretations of the phrase mirror the ambiguity of the term bskang ba itself, which literally means “to fill” (being the equivalent of the Sanskrit paripūraṇa), but in this context it has the following senses:

1) To please (dgyes pa), satisfy (tshim pa) or gratify through offerings
2) To restore or replenish vows, either one’s own (rang gi dam tshig gso ba) or the those of the deity

Thus we commonly find “thugs dam bskang” translated either as “May you be satisfied (by this offering)!” or “May my commitments be restored (by this offering)!”

But should we read thugs dam as an abbreviation of thugs kyi dam tshig (or dam bca’), an honorific form of samaya? Or as thugs kyi dam pa, the most excellent or sublime of minds? Alak Zenkar Rinpoche insists the latter is correct.

From Pelliot tibétain 307

The phrase thugs dam bskang is undoubtedly old and is found in several tantras in the Nyingma canon (rnying ma rgyud bum), as well as in the Dunhuang materials. A variant of the phrase (thugs dam skongs na…) appears in the famous Pelliot tibétain 307, the text on the Seven Mothers (Skt. saptamātṛkā), which includes one of the earliest references to Padmasambhava. In his translation of this text, Dalton has rendered the phrase as “If their vows are kept…” However, given the context, it would seem more correct to say, “If they are satisfied…”

In Dalton’s transcription (2004: 771), the relevant section of Pelliot tibétain 307 reads as follows:

rdo rje kun grags ma/ sku mdog nag mo mang dgyes sam thugs dam skongs na na bza’ dar rma gsol/ rgyan gzhan la yang sna tshogs kyis brgyan pa/ gzugs mdzes shing sdug par ston / myi dgyes la thugs dam skongs na nag mo ral pa can tre’u la bcibs/ rkong la de mo zhes kyang bgyi/ ’di bdun gyi gtso mo lags//

Closer inspection of the actual text–available online through the wonderful International Dunhuang Project website–reveals that there is a negative particle ma, which Dalton omitted (perhaps taking it to be part of the syllable dam, but dam is actually written daM (དཾ་), and the ma is therefore clearly a separate syllable), so the correct transcription is : myi dgyes la thugs dam ma skongs na nag mo ral pa can tre’u la bcibs...

We thus have two parallel situations: one when Rdo rje kun grags ma is happy (dgyes) and satisfied (thugs dam skongs) [or, following Dalton, the vows are kept] and another when she is unhappy (myi dgyes) and dissatisfied (thugs dam ma skongs) [or the vows unkept].

Yet there is nothing in the text that might help us resolve our satisfaction/vows dilemma.

If we read thugs dam bskang as something like “May the noble mind (thugs kyi dam pa) be gratified!” then one text in particular does pose some difficulty. The confession rite known as Skong bshags rdo rje’i thol glu, which is part of the Klong chen snying thig, uses the phrase thugs dam bskang in relation to each of the nine successive vehicles (theg pa rim pa dgu) of the Nyingma system.

The section in question begins with the following stanza:

ka dag phyogs yan chen po’i dgongs pa la:
bgrang bya’i theg pa tha dad ma grub kyang:
kun rtog gdul bya’i khams dbang bsam pa’i phyir:
theg pa rim dgur shar ba’i thugs dam bskang:
We could perhaps translate the final line as: “May the minds in which the nine successive vehicles arose be satisfied!” But it is obviously difficult to imagine how the vehicles themselves could find satisfaction.

Yet there is another possibility. In his commentary to this verse, Pad ma kun bzang rang grol makes it clear that it is not the vehicles themselves that are being addressed, but the deities and gurus associated with them (theg pa de dag so so’i lha dang bla ma’i tshogs kyi thugs dam bskang). So perhaps this too lends support for the 'satisfaction' reading. I shall return to this topic in further posts in future.


Dalton, Jacob. “The Early Development of the Padmasambhava Legend in Tibet: A Study of IOL Tib J 644 and Pelliot tibétain 307” in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 124, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 2004), pp. 759–772