Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Like a Yeti Catching Marmots - Preface

A Little Treasury of Tibetan Proverbs

Preface

It’s said that nothing defines a culture as distinctly as its language—and the element of language that best encapsulates a society’s values and beliefs is its proverbs.

The importance of proverbs in the social interaction of Tibetans is best expressed by one such proverb that says: “Honey is sweet to the mouth; proverb is music to the ear.” Many of these sayings, naturally glued to the tongues of many Tibetans, are terse and telling, poetic and pithy, and filled with wit and wisdom. These proverbs also reflect the culture of the Tibetan people, who live in Gang Jong, “the Land of Snows,” on the highest plateau of the world, and possess a distinctive language, culture, history, and way of life.

There is no doubt that the Tibetan proverbs originated with and developed alongside Tibetan civilization. The earliest written record of Tibetan proverbs can be traced to an ancient manuscript discovered in the Dunhuang caves, which contain scrolls from as long ago as the fourth century C. E. One Tibetan proverb on the scrolls there is this: “Don’t break a grateful man’s heart; don’t break the back of a divine horse.”

Many of the proverbs carry two meanings; one literal and the other metaphorical. For instance, “Going up with the steps of a louse, going down with the jump of a musk deer” literally means the pace will be slow while climbing up a mountain and the pace will be much quicker while walking down—but it also refers to the difficulty with which one builds spiritual merit and the comparative ease with which it can be wiped away. Structurally, some Tibetan proverbs are quite poetic and beautifully rhymed, some use simile, and others use personification, and some, like “White is easily blackened; long is easily broken,” use double analogy for powerful emphasis.

Until recently many aspects of Tibetan folk literature, though very popular, remained oral or unwritten as the majority of the Tibetan population was illiterate or uneducated—and thus many Tibetan proverbs were preserved only in the minds and stories of Tibetan elders. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to note that Tibet has actually produced the largest amount of literature, per capita, of any country in the world!

Tibetans have always prized a ready and comprehensive knowledge of proverbs so much that a man possessing such knowledge would be hired by others in his home town as legal representation in courtroom battles. Inside these ancient courts, the case was often won by the representative with the highest powers of persuasion—demonstrated through the skillful deployment of the appropriate proverbs.

My late mother, Dawa, was a treasure trove of Tibetan proverbs—and a wonderful storyteller as well. In our daily conversations she used one proverb after another to make a point or bring home some meaning or lesson, often after she had told me part of the great Tibetan epic tale about King Gesar. I learned many, many proverbs this way. Then, in 1994, I started actively collecting the Tibetan proverbs, noting each down whenever I read or heard one.

Except for a few, I have tried to select those Tibetan proverbs that are not only used in all the three provinces of Tibet but also in the Himalayan regions like Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Spiti, Zanskar, and Ladakh—while at the same time picking the ones likely to resonate in some universal way. When the proverb is more or less self-explanatory, I’ve let it stand on its own; for other proverbs, I’ve offered a brief gloss of the meaning or a comment, and in some cases—to point to certain universal themes—I’ve offered a parallel English-language saying. And in a number of cases, I’ve taken minor liberties with the English translation to improve readability.

My purpose in presenting this book is twofold: to introduce the wonderful folk wisdom of Tibet to non-Tibetans, and also to encourage and inspire younger Tibetans to acquaint themselves with this unique Tibetan art of expression.

In the process of working on this small book I would like to thank my daughter, Tenzin Dickyi, and my friend Laura Zimmerman for reading the manuscript and helping correct the English renderings of the proverbs.

I’m also grateful to Josh Bartok, senior editor at Wisdom Publications, for his development of the English explanations, and for his meticulous editing. And many thanks to Tim McNeill and Wisdom Publications for bringing out this book.

Pema Tsewang, Shastri

 

How to cite this document:
© Pema Tsewang Shastri, Like a Yeti Catching Marmots (Wisdom Publications, 2012)

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