Respect: A Playful Word

Allow me to be a Tibetan wordsmith for a while. If I have a good command of Tibetan language, the credit must go to my father. He was my first Tibetan teacher who helped hone my linguistic skills from a tender age. My Tibetan language skills thus surpassed my peers and even students in higher grades when I was in Tibet. Through my extensive studies of Tibetan, I have been able to lay down a robust foundation of the language. Indeed, language is much more than simply grammar, syntax, and a means of verbal communication – it is often influenced by relative powers, unconscious emotions, and instinctual behaviors in various times and places. Thus, to be playful with language provides us a space in finding the subtle meaning and nuanced usage of the language. This ultimately gives us freedom.

Here I will discuss the word ‘respect’ and its meaning in Tibetan. Both brtsi bkur (བརྩི་བཀུར།) and gus zhabs (གུས་ཞབས།) are associated with the meaning of respect, but there are many other words carrying similar concepts. However, it would be intriguing to explore the possible meanings of these two words beyond their dictionary definitions.

Now let us look more closely at the word brtsi bkur (བརྩི་བཀུར།) first. Brtsi (བརྩི།) could have several meanings such as ‘to count’, ‘respect’, ‘consider’, ‘accept’ and ‘to be tactful’. Brtsi (བརྩི།) is not alone, gtsi (གཙི།) and gtsigs (གཙིགས།) also bear common meanings of brtsi (བརྩི།) in some context. Speaking of which, it would be interesting to bring (གཙུག)་gtsug (peak or top of the head) into this category, for (གཙུག་ཏུ་བཀུར།) gtsug tu bkur (respecting the top of the head or carrying something above the head) is able to convey the same idea of ‘respect’.

However, the meaning of brtsi bkur (བརྩི་བཀུར།) could be clearer if we pay closer attention towards the meaning of bkur (བཀུར) and its relative meanings from the neighboring words. Bkur (བཀུར།) means ‘to acknowledge’, or ‘to put something above’ in general, but bkug (བཀུག) and ‘khur (འཁུར།) would turn to make the meanings more subtle and beautiful if we strip them down.  Bkug (བཀུག) is ‘to bend’, ‘attract’, ‘summon’, ‘transform” and ‘khur (འཁུར།) means ‘to carry’, ‘obligate’, and ‘accept tasks’.

If the meaning of brtsi (བརྩི།) could move closer to gtsug (གཙུག) and of bkur (བཀུར།) to bkug (བཀུག) and ‘khur (འཁུར།), I assert that brtsi bkur (བརྩི་བཀུར།) could have new concepts of ‘to carry something above the head’ or ‘to respect the head’. I am merely trying to be playful with words.

As mentioned earlier, gus zhabs (གུས་ཞབས།) also carries the same idea of respect. However, (གུས།) gus (to respect), (སྒུག) sgug (to wait), and sgur (སྒུར།) (to bow down) all generate similar meaning. Therefore, sgug (སྒུག) and sgur (སྒུར) provide us a little clarity in understanding gu (གུས།).  zhabs (ཞབས།) means ‘feet’ or ‘lower part of something’. gus zhabs (གུས་ཞབས།) thus could mean “respecting the feet” in Tibetan, not simply respect, per se.

On these terms, we may assume that the word gus zhabs (གུས་ཞབས།) has cultural influence from the Hindi or Sanskrit word Ashirvad (आशीर्वाद). Ashirvad is a respectful salutation that Indians practice by touching their elders’ feet to receive blessings. However, this is speculation at best.

In essence, brtsi bkur (བརྩི་བཀུར) could mean “respecting the head” and gus zhabs (གུས་ཞབས།) could mean “respecting the feet”. What could be the significance of the head and feet in Tibetan culture? If we perpetually base the meanings on dictionary definitions, we would not be able to grasp the subtlety, nuance, and flexibility of the language. So, let us be light and frolicsome with Tibetan language and appreciate its richness and versatility.


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