Thonmi Sambhota’s vision
No one enjoys physical confinement, whether it is in a prison, a refugee camp, a hospital, or one’s own house like the lockdowns most of us are experiencing.
I recently had a chance to pick up and read The Consolation Of Philosophy by the 5th-century Roman scholar Boethius and interestingly found solace in his writings. When imprisoned shortly before his execution, engulfed by sorrow and face wetted in tears, he suddenly saw a female figure standing next to him. To his surprise, it was Philosophy who came down to scold him. And the story goes on.
A similar story, told by a Tibetan lama with whom I briefly studied in Taipei and possibly passed down for many generations in monastic oral tradition, centres around the invention of the Tibetan writing system by Thonmi Sambhota. Having survived and returned from a trip in India and created the preliminary alphabets for the Tibetan phonemes, he was still not satisfied. A few problems remained. Tibetan, although grammatically simpler, was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sanskrit and the vernacular Prakrit. He was troubled by the lack of representation of few phonological elements in the contemporary Tibetan language and could not draw inspiration from the Brahmic scripts. Wrought with mental distress, he took refuge in a hermitage and confined himself to a solitary retreat. With a firm determination, he had decided not to leave unless he found an answer to the problems. One night, while entering a deep meditative state in the cave, a very bright being with a human figure suddenly appeared in front of him. Full of brilliant light and effulgence, the non-human being handed over the missing pieces of the puzzle and instructed him to complete the set of alphabets with additional characters.
Then the figure disappeared into the darkness.
The manifestation (and perception on Thonmi Sambhota’s part) of what I think can be best described as the nirmanakaya of Prajna, though transient in nature, completely changed the course of Tibetan history. The story is markedly different from that of the invention of the Chinese writing system by Cangjie — no millets rained down from heaven, nor did ghosts cry in the wild. Instead, the holy figure helped extend the pre-existing logic of the writing system into completion. So the legend is at the same time supernatural and logical. Like the goddess Philosophy that Boethius encountered and the written dialogic record itself that kindled the pursuit of reasoning in the Western civilisation, it was the light of Prajna in that dark Himalayan cave that was passed on for the benefit of an endless number of sentient beings, first in Tibet, then back in India and the rest of the world.
Both stories are sources of enlightenment for us to relish in this time devoid of reasons and hopes.