For Your Ears Only

teachingIn the beginning was the word. And the word was spoken… The teachings of the Buddha, as is well known, were not at first written down, but were preserved and passed on in oral form for several centuries. Even later, once the Buddhist canon became truly literary, newer — or, as the tradition has it, newly discovered — works, such as the Mahāyāna sūtras and, later still, the tantras, continued to be represented as records of oral teaching, prefaced with the famous statement: “Thus have I heard…” (evaṃ mayā śrutam…)

In Tibet, Buddhist literature abounds with texts deriving from the spoken. Consider, for example, such categories (or genres) as zhal gdams, gdams ngag, man ngag, zhal lung or zhal chems, where the oral associations are clear from the terms themselves. The collected works of important teachers in Tibet, too, are known as collected speech bka’ ‘bum or gsung ‘bum — (with speech in the honorific) rather than collected writings. (And let’s not forget that writings were themselves very often dictated to a scribe rather than penned by the actual author). Even the vast literature associated with the various treasure (gter ma) cycles — which is itself contrasted with the Kama (bka’ ma) or ‘Word’ in the Nyingma School — is said to contain the speech of Guru Padmasambhava.

In addition to the genres listed above, Tibetan Buddhism also features entire collections of teachings classed as oral (or aural), so-called ‘whispered transmissions’ (snyan brgyud). In its broadest sense, this category includes even Mind Training, which, according to the histories, was initially taught in secret and taught openly only from the time of Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje (1101–1175).[1] Other examples are the Dakpo Nyengyü, Rechung Nyengyü, Orgyen Nyengyü and Thangtong Nyengyü. And in Bön there is the well-known Zhangzhung Nyengyü. Included within these collections are various forms of instruction once considered especially secret.

When such esoteric instructions belong to an exclusively oral or whispered lineage, their transmission can be restricted to those deemed qualified to receive them. Orality therefore affords some measure of protection and control, ensuring that secrets don’t fall into the wrong hands (or ears). The act of writing compromises this security, to some extent, because a text can be seen and copied in a way that words spoken privately cannot (or, rather, could not, prior to the invention of microphones and recording devices). Yet breaches of trust still occurred. One example concerns the Dzogchen teacher, Nyoshul Lungtok Tenpé Nyima (1829–1901/2), who once sent a text of secret instructions to his disciple, Nyala Rangrik Dorje (1847–1903). The text was accompanied by an instruction specifying that it should be destroyed after reading — and indeed it was, but not before the messenger had surreptitiously made a copy for himself, thanks to which the text survives to this day.[2] On another occasion, Nyoshul Lungtok actually gave permission for the secret, whispered instructions on Dzogchen to be written down, as is related in the autobiography of his most illustrious disciple, Khenpo Ngawang Palzang (1879–1941):

The teacher (Nyoshul Lungtok) asked whether I had memorised the words. “For now,” I said, “But I can’t say whether I will forget them in future.” And so I requested his permission to take notes. “What’s that?” he said, “Don’t you understand what is meant by ‘The oral transmission is not to be set down in writing’?” Then, after a while, he said, “Well, if you’re worried that you might forget things, there’s no fault in writing notes on the root verses. The great Omniscient One (Longchenpa) wrote down secret, previously unwritten cycles, such as the Trilogy of Oral Transmission from the Lama Yangtik and Instruction on the Secret, Unwritten Oral Transmission of Zabmo Yangtik. The likes of you and I should not presume to imitate such acts, of course. But, while it is regrettable to set down in writing this instruction from the oral transmission, it would be equally regrettable were it to disappear.[3]

Thus, it was out of concern for the preservation of the lineage that this particular oral transmission was transcribed. First came the notes; then, later on, several texts composed on the basis of these notes, all of which remain restricted even now in their written form, classed as kagyama (bka’ rgya ma), or ‘sealed’ with secrecy.

It could be argued that the transition from spoken to written form affects the very nature of instructions. Unwritten instructions, held only in the mind of a teacher, are readily adaptable to a given situation, even if they are based on a particular structure; they can be improvised, you might say — simplified or extended, for example, according to the time available, or to suit the particular capacity and inclinations of a student. But whenever such instructions are written down, they lose some of this flexibility, as they are addressed to an ideal or generic reader. Teaching from a text is always a form of commentary, or exegesis, which lacks the spontaneity of extemporary speech. Instructions can still be adapted, but texts, rather like musical scores, impose constraints.

Still, from a traditional viewpoint, the greatest loss to come from writing, and especially from copying and distributing previously secret material, is what we might term spiritual deflation. “Divulging secrets reduces the value of the pith instructions,”[4] wrote Ju Mipham Rinpoche, in a text called The Old Sage’s Honest Talk: On the Need for the Pith Instructions to Remain Secret. Secrecy creates mystery, reinforcing the notion of the sacred. For something to be considered sacred, it must be extraordinary, removed from the day-to-day, and therefore, in a sense, restricted —“set apart and forbidden,” in the words of Émile Durkheim. When what is sacred becomes more accessible — as it inevitably does whenever texts are written down — this reduces its sacredness. As Mipham Rinpoche puts it: “When everybody knows, who will be considered an expert? On an island of gold, gold itself is of little value.”[5]

Perhaps this explains why even teachings represented as extraordinarily powerful and beneficial can still be restricted, with the transmission limited to only a few worthy recipients at a time. To give just one example, Longchenpa specifies in his commentary to the All-Creating Monarch that while the text should be kept secret from the uninitiated and unqualified, even teaching it to more than five qualified students at a time will bring punishment from the ḍākiṇīs.[6] (Incidentally, the text is now available in English without restriction).

In the battle to prevent spiritual deflation, as once-secret instructions are translated, published and made ever more accessible, teachers — Mipham’s experts — may adopt new strategies in their efforts to stabilise and retain the value of spiritual gold. But, in this, they are also competing against advances in technology and a general drive towards openness of knowledge and freedom of information: developments which only serve to reinforce the lessons of Tibetan Buddhist history, i.e., that secrets are hard to keep, and that the written word is, by its nature, difficult to control or suppress.

Even as some teachers try to limit the translation and publication of particularly esoteric instructions, there are others who take a more liberal view, and there are also scholars who operate outside the tradition. Moreover, modern books are usually conceived as objects that facilitate independent study, altering the nature of transmission through their introductions, footnotes and the like, as Jay Garfield has pointed out.

Reading an instruction will never quite match the experience of hearing it spoken (or whispered) in a special environment, just as listening to recorded music will never compare to attending a live performance. When attempts to maintain secrecy fail, the challenge for the tradition is to create situations that feel — and are, in fact — precious and rare, even if the information being conveyed is no longer as uncommon or as restricted as once it was.

It is also worth remembering that listening is only the first step in a process of assimilation or deeper integration, which also requires contemplation and meditation. A written text can certainly help with this, especially at the earlier stages, but there is always a risk that its apparent durability might encourage procrastination, or that its very materiality might make the simple fact of possessing it feel like a substitute for actual learning.[5] In fact, these points apply equally to audio recordings, so what is at issue here is not so much a dichotomy between the aural and the written, as one between the live and the recorded. And, as with music, while the live performance is ephemeral, the ability to perform is based on many years of dedicated training. In answer to Mipham Rinpoche’s question, then, perhaps it is this genuine mastery of the instructions — rather than any superficial knowledge of, or familiarity with, them — which truly determines who is an expert. Whether such spiritual virtuosity can retain its value in the modern world, however, remains to be heard.


1. <shameless plug> Which is why To Dispel the Misery of the World (Wisdom Publications, 2012) is subtitled Whispered Teachings of the Bodhisattvas </shameless plug>
2. This story is recounted in Thondup 1996, 225.
3. mKhan po ngag chung gi rnam thar 75: tshig rnams yid la e ’jags gsungs da lta yid la ’jags kyang phyin chad brjed e ’gro mi shes pas zin bris zhig btab na zhus pas ci zer/ snyan brgyud dpe la ma bkod gsungs pa de ma go’am gsungs/ bar zhig na da brjed kyis dogs na rtsa tshig tsam zin bris su btab kyang skyon med/ gsang ba yi ge med pa’i skor rnams kun mkhyen chen pos yi ger btab pa bla ma yang tig gi snyan brgyud skor gsum dang/ zab mo yang tig gi gsang ba yi ge med pa’i snyan brgyud kyi khrid rnams yin kyang da ’u bu gnyis kyis de ’dra’i lad mo mi ’ong yang/ snyan brgyud kyi khrid ’di bshad du’ang phangs nub tu’ang phangs gsungs byung bas…
4. Mi pham 2007, 675: gsang ba ‘chal na man ngag rin thang chung/
5. Mi pham 2007, 681: kun gyis shes na mkhas par su zhig rtsi/ gser gyi gling na gser nyid rin thang chung/
6. Byang chub kyi sems kun byed rgyal po’i don khrid: snod min la gsang zhing snod ldan la yang lnga las mang na mkha’ ‘gro’i bka’ chad byung bas rab tu gsang ngo/
5. Cf. Umberto Eco on the “alibi of photocopies” in How to Write a Thesis, MIT Press, 2015, 125: “A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labor he exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them.” A broader version of this principle might be termed the alibi of books, particularly when some effort or expense went into acquiring them.


Dri med ‘od zer, Byang chub kyi sems kun byed rgyal po’i don khrid in Kun mkhyen klong chen rab ’byams kyi gsung ’bum. 26 vols. Peking: Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2009, vol. 22: 504–532.

mKhan po ngag chung gi rnam thar. Chengdu: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2000.

Mi pham, Man ngag gsang dgos pa’i tshul brjod pa drang srong rgan po’i bden gtam in Mi pham gsung ‘bum, 32 vols. Chengdu: Gangs can rig gzhung dpe rnying myur skyobs lhan tshogs, 2007, vol. 32: 674–684

Smith, E. Gene. Among Tibetan Texts: History & Literature of the Himalayan Plateau. Boston: Wisdom Publications. 2001.

Tulku Thondup. Masters of Meditation and Miracles: The Longchen Nyingthig Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Shambhala. 1996.

6 thoughts on “For Your Ears Only

  1. Stefan Mang

    Wonderful, thank you :-). I don’t know if this is particularly relevant to your post, I did some research on the conception of language and speech in India. In this respect I find André Padoux book “Vac: The Concept of the Word in Selected Hindu Tantras” is very exciting :-)… Thus words, when spoken, have the power to affect and alternate circumstances and thus could speech could be described as a ‘dynamic energy’. However, when written down they were often considered to be ‘dead letters’ with no power. This may tie in with the idea, that certain instructions, only when being taught to us by a qualified teacher, can actually affect us :-).

    This is what I wrote (sorry pasting it killed my footnotes):
    Word, Speech and Language (Skt. vāc) in India is fundamentally seen as holy or sacred. This idea particularly arose and was emphasized by the Vedas which were believed to be a divine revelation. The Ṛgveda tells that Ṛṣis (Eng. seers or sages), as a result of their insight into divine, heard the Vedas as a natural reverberation of the truth. What they heard and committed to writing constitutes the Vedas. The Vedas are thus referred to as Śruti, ‘what was heard’. It is believed that anyone who will understand the truth will be able to hear its natural reverberation, the Vedas. Speech is thus seen as a manifestation and representation of the truth. From the time of the Vedas word and speech was regarded as André Padoux says, ‘revealing the divine presence within the cosmos, as the force that creates, maintains, and upholds the universe’. As a result, Sanskrit, the language in which the Vedas were written was regarded as divine in nature. This idea was developed to the point that studying and understanding the Sanskrit grammar was believed to enable a person to unravel the mysteries of the universe and to access the divine truth. Bartṛhari, a famous linguistic philosopher of the 5th century, states in the Vākyapadīya: “Words are the sole guide to the truths about the behavior of objects, and there is no understanding of the truth about words without grammar. A gateway to liberation, a cure to the blemishes of speech, purifier of all (other) disciplines, it shines as being applied to them.” Speech was thus regarded as having the ability to connect individuals with the truth as well as serve as a means for liberation. Its inherent power though, was believed to become only evoked when recited whether verbally or mentally. When written however it was often regarded as powerless and thus referred to as ‘dead-letters’. Indians often regarded words and thought or consciousness as the same. Particularly Bartṛhari further developed this idea and explains that word and thought arise together, because thoughts express themselves in words and do not arise before or after a word. This explains why both verbal and mental recitations of syllables, words or sentences are regarded to be equally powerful. What becomes apparent is that Indians had a very active conception of language. Speech first used by the gods to create the universe was seen as a force by which actions are accomplished. Speech could thus be best described as creative dynamic energy that can be used by anyone to accomplish their desired aims.


    1. Adam Post author

      Thanks, Stefan! That’s certainly relevant to the post. Now, I find myself wondering whether there is some connection here to the concept of lung as reading transmission, possibly as a continuation of this idea that spoken words have the power of being alive and animated, whereas written words are, in a sense, dead.

  2. thedirkgmailcom

    Great post! Some quick reflections:

    1) Given the import of the oral and social aspects of these traditions, isn’t it somewhat… ironic? even, regrettable? … that Tibetan language instruction is generally so hyper-focused on textuality?

    2) As Stefan’s comment (and your response) allude to, recitation ‘revives’ texts—what we call ‘reading’ is, in a very real sense, an oral skill. Letters, after all, represent sounds. They represent spoken words. (After all, we can “write a speech”). ‘Writing’ is so very much speaking that we do things like quote something we’ve reading by ‘saying,’ as Stefan does, “as André Padoux SAYS.” Neuroscientific research has shown that even when we read ‘silently,’ we are actually activating the same brain regions AND the muscles used for physical speech in measurable ways—in other words, our comprehension of language is always mediated by voice. It’s why children learn to read by ‘sounding things out;’ it’s why children with a better oral vocabulary learn to read faster; and it’s why being able to read fluidly, out loud, is the best indicator of reading comprehension.

    Finally, I’d just like to say thank you for posting on this oft-overlooked topic. I think it has some very important implications for the field at large and (in my opinion) especially in how we think about ‘reading’ in a Tibetan language educational context.

    1. Adam Post author

      Thank you. Yes, it is certainly regrettable that the oral and social dimensions are not given due attention. And thank you for the second point; this is developing into a fascinating postscript — or, perhaps I should say, epilogue.

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