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Tibetan Proverbs and Sayings

Tibetan proverbs are influenced by the people's history and many common ways. Here are some 140 Tibetan proverbs.

Woman from Tibet
Tibetan woman in an Indian refugee camp


A beautiful lady may not work a lot (Mod).

A child without education is like a bird without wings.

A dog wrapped up in brocade will still smell.

A guest who speaks truthfully and a lord who has good intentions are rare gems..

A hat looks best on the head, and a flower looks best in the grass.

A hill of slate and a hill of grass are two different hills.

A little flattery is pleasing.

A nibbling rabbit can also die of overfeeding.

A person suffering from jaundice sees a white conch-shell as yellow.

A plain with one tree standing is a grief to a boundless forest.

A rich man: crowded by powerful wealth-seekers.

A sheep won't be released from a wolf's mouth.

A single thread doesn't make a cloth, a single tree doesn't make a forest.

A single tree does not make a forest.

An enemy with a smiling face might wreak lasting damage to one's life (Mod).

A son worse than his father is like blood swamped by water.

A sore in the mouth must heal in the mouth.

A statement without example is hard to follow; tea without salt is hard to swallow.

A sweet tongue is a great virtue. (Abr)

A thief accustomed to theft is a bad member of human society. (Mod).

A trustworthy donkey should be given a trustworthy load.

A useless order is sent back to the king; a useless bride is sent back to her mother's doorstep.

A wise man gathers more riches than a tyrant. *

A wise man's quick thought is not apart from knowledge.

A wise mother with a wise son: gold with turquoise inset.

Although garlic may be eaten in secrecy, its smell can be sniffed from afar.

Although the religious king be blessed with power, it is no compensation for his sins.

An empty sack cannot stand on its own.

An evil friend is like a maggot at the heart of a fruit: he does harm.

An evil son doesn't know when his parents died.

As dried manure shows itself off as gold, evildoers scorn good deeds that goodness does. (Mod).

Ask others for opinions but decide on your own.

At the site where the dance of auspiciousness is danced, don't dance the dance of ill omens.

Better knead leather than advise a heedless person.

Better than a fool's praise is a clever man's reproach.

Better than the young man's knowledge is the old man's experience.

Better the crop that feeds one's stomach than the crop that falls to frost.

Better to milk a cow than to kill it for beef.

Caution should betray no man (Mod).

Cure the illness that is not yet an illness. [Acupuncture shows a common way to go for it.]

Daybreak comes even if there's no cock to herald it.

Destructive emotions may hurt both me and others. (With Geshe Langri Thangpa)

Discipline must be endured by oneself before one sets others under it.

Do not praise without reason. (Abr)

Do not put the yak's load on the cow.

Do not send messages from far places. (Abr).

Don't trust a hungry man to watch your rice.

Each lama has his own teaching.

Even a profound king takes example from people.

Even children can discern love and cruelty.

Even for an honest leader justice is difficult.

Even poison can be turned to medicine if one is versed in the art of healing [Cf. homeopathic handling of poisons too.]

Even the lowly can comprehend; even a pony can wade.

Even the smallest task is hard to accomplish without effort.

Every word spoken is not a wise saying.

First, train in the preliminaries.

Frank words make listening easier.

Gain and victory to others, loss and defeat to oneself (Langri Tangpa). [A win-win case is different, though.]

Gold lies deep in the earth, yet its light shines bright in the sky.

Goodness speaks in a whisper, evil shouts.

Happiness must be secure.

Have the support of a joyful mind.

He who is seen too close and heard too often, loses the respect of others. [Halting familiarity may breed disrespect]

Honour a king in his own land; honour a wise man everywhere.

How to eat, dress and live are three things some parents teach (Mod).

However clever a man may be, without the aptitude for critical examination, he's like the lustre of buried gold.

However prosperous one be, one shouldn't spoil one's child.

If a problem cannot be solved with skill, then love and care will resolve it [hopefully].

If gold is poured in the donkey's ear, he will shake it out. If sand is poured in the donkey's ear, he will shake it out.

If it is here, it is everywhere. If it is not here, it is nowhere. [A philosophical tenet]

If peace reigns in the land, a nun can govern it.

If the soldiers are cowards, it does not matter how big the army is (Abr).

If there is only one earring among seven daughters, there might be quarrels on festival days. (Mod)

If there's no form there's no shadow.

In this life, focus on achieving what is most meaningful.

In times of hardship don't play truant.

It is easier to put leather on the soles of one's feet than cover the world with leather.

It is hard work to be the mother of many pigs.

It is not faith that keeps the dog at the temple door.

It's better for close friends to know distance, and for close neighbours to have high walls.

It's better to plough a fertile field than to build a house on it.

Knowing just one word of wisdom is like knowing a hundred ordinary words

Let go of your dignity within your own family, maintain your dignity in the face of other tribes.

Looked at from afar, trouble may seem as large as a hill.

Man is born to die in the end. (Mod)

Man needs the wits to make suffering short-lived. (Mod).

Medicine that heals is not always sweet, caring words not always pleasant.

Most kings love flattery; rare is the king who listens to truth. (Mod).

No one can make an empty sack stand upright. (You cannot work month after month on an empty stomach).

Not everything that is cooked is fit food.

Observe these three points: 1. Practice regularly. 2. Seek not to waste time on non-essentials. 3. Refrain from rationalising your mistakes.

On the cliff of jealousy the tender shoots of merit may not grow (Mod).

Once a man knows courage, his physical size may be of less importance; but a boy under ten years is still a child (Mod).

One sort of art is the art of living an ordinary life in an extraordinary manner.

Pleasant conversation may be of some help also during times of sorrow (Opp).

Precepts taken to heart are the basis of upright lives and bad ones. [There are good and suitable precepts, and all the others.]

Rather than be the leader of a bad public be the servant of a good master.

Rather than build a monastery in the uplands, live without disputes in the lowlands.

Recognise, overcome, then transcend (Abr).

Speech (gtam) without illustration (dpe) is difficult to understand. A vessel without a handle is difficult to hold.

Speech never ends until it gets to its root. *

Statements that are short are easier to listen to.

The blacksmith thinks making butter is difficult; the butter-maker thinks casting iron is difficult.

The bowl may break, but its pattern lives in one's mind.

The glorious need no wooden chopsticks, as fingers will suffice (Mod).

The lone traveller's companion is his shadow.

The moth is killed by the flame; the greedy are killed by their avarice.

The parrot is put into a cage for its skill of speech; the other birds enjoy the freedom of the sky. (Abr).

The thief may possess the power of stealing, but the owner may possess mighty precaution. (Mod)

The times of struggle will sift the good from the bad friends.

The wise man's wealth lies in good deeds. (Abr)

The wise pursue wisdom, the dull follow in blind faith.

The wise understand; fools follow the reports of others.

The young pig being fattened in his sty will regard the act as kindness.

There are none so deaf as those who never heed advice.

Most deaths are only changes of worlds.

There is no dog with no love for blood.

There is a purpose in planting seeds in a field.

Thinking it might be good, you built a temple; it is at worst a place of rest for pigeons.

To correct your drinking habit, look at a drunkard's vice.

To deal with wealth constructively is a mark of a wealthy man (Mod).

To each man his own manner, to each plant its own growth.

To live in the human realm is to some to be heading hellwards. *

Trashi Hiunpo is still far away. [This is said when a journey's end is still afar.]

Travelling had better be a return to the essentials. (Mod)

Violently abused, even a kind, friendly person becomes an enemy.

Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

What he hasn't seen, outnumbers what he has.

What you cannot find in broad daylight, what hope do you have of finding it at night? *

When a bird drinks water he looks upwards.

When a dzo gets old, it's the slaughterhouse. [The dzo is a hybrid between the yak and domestic cattle]

When a field is owned by an unpleasant neighbour, one doesn't trespass even in harvested summer.

When a man ages he loses power.

When drinking water, think about the source.

When dying, what's the good of noodle soup?

Evil in a position of power is cruel to all.

When speaking, nobody was ever impeded by aphorisms.

When the circumstances are not examined before one speaks, even a clever man may be no better than a blundering fool (Mod).

When the goat is killed, the sheep shivers.

When the race is on a cliff face, a goat is faster than a horse.

Where there is a bad king, a proud fool and an evil wife, peace is to be got only by leaving that place.

Who can say for sure that one will live to see tomorrow.

Who gets stuck in trivial prosperity will not attain great prosperity.

Work with these forces: Be intense and committed. Get used to doing and being what you want to do and to be. Cultivate white seeds, and not black ones. Turn wholly away from ego trips. [White seeds equal decent and good "fruit"]

You don't have to cut down a tree to get its fruit. [Partial]


Tibetan proverbs, proverbs of Tibet, Literature  

Chang, Garma C. C. The Practice of Zen. New York: Perennial/Harper, 1970.

Cüppers, Christoph, and Per K. Sørensen, comps., eds. A Collection of Tibetan Proverbs and Sayings: Gems of Tibetan Wisdom and Wit. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998. ⍽▢⍽ The foreword and introduction are in English, and the proverbs in Tibetan, without translations. At Google Books.

Evans-Wentz, Walter Y., ed. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1967. ⍽▢⍽ Some proverbs are included, although most of the scholarly content is on Tibetan yoga.

Gergan, Josef. A Thousand Tibetan Proverbs and Wise Sayings of Obscure Phrases. Oms. Walter Asboe. Kolkata, India: R. N. Bhattacharya, 2004. (First published by the Royal Asiatic Society, 1942 (and later in Kathmandu, Nepal: Tiwari's Pilgrims Book House, 1991 too). ⍽▢⍽ The book was first published in Tibetan and English in 1942. Brief explanations of several proverbs are added to them.

Heruka, Tsang Nyön. The Life of Marpa the Translator. Reprint ed. London: Shambala, 1995. ⍽▢⍽ With some excellent quotations.

Hyde-Chalmers, Fredrick and Audrey. Tibetan Folk Tales. Boston: Shambala, 2002 (1981). ⍽▢⍽ There are about twenty proverbs along with the tales.

Jamspal, Lozang, ed. Treasury of Good Sayings of Sa Skya Pandita the Eminent Tibetan Lama, 1182-1251: Development of Awareness and Conduct. Ladakh, India: Ladakhratnashridipika, 2003. ⍽▢⍽ Large parts of the book are in Tibetan and English. Here are many good examples of "wise sayings" for an appropriate Buddhist lifestyle.

Macdonald, David. "Tibetan Proverbs and 'Good Sayings'", in Folklore, Vol. 42, No. 1 (31 March, 1931), p. 82-85. ⍽▢⍽ A few of the pages contain Tibetan proverbs.

Pemba, Lhamo, coll, tr. Tibetan Proverbs. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1996. ⍽▢⍽ Here are several thousand Tibetan proverbs. Dalai Lama approves of the enterprise.

Pirie, Fernanda. "The Horse with Two Saddles: Tamxhwe in Modern Golok". Asian Highlands Perspectives 1 (2009), 213-35. ⍽▢⍽ Trettitre døme på munnleg formidla seiemåtar. Dei fleste er frå Golok-traktene (Qinghai) på den tibetanske høgsletta.

Sørensen, Per K., and Franz Xaver Erhard. An Inquiry into the Nature of Tibetan Proverbs. In the University of Vermont's Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship. Vol. 30:2013. ⍽▢⍽ Many tampés or proverbs from this article are included here. The authors try to establish what a tampé is. There are several definitions and givens (p. 283-92). They find that the fundamental sort of tampé is characterised by:

  • pithiness;
  • at least four syllables;
  • ranging from a single verse to 32 verses;
  • anonymous authorship: reference to the everyday life and lore of people;
  • containing worldly advice or commonsensical lore, and also didactic-edificatory and gnomic content. (cf. p. 292).
  • Illustrative comparisons are also stressed. (ibid.)
  • There are often underlying meanings masked by figurative language. (ibid)

"Proverbial sayings and expressions are extremely popular in Tibetan literature. However, in Tibetan scholarship there is no clear definition of the Tibetan proverb (p. 281)." "Proverbial expressions are one of the most stable components throughout languages, so also in Tibetan (ibid.)." "The genre of tampé shares many similarities with proverbs, nevertheless the emphasis is on the didactic-gnomic nature as well as the use of exempla and comparisons. However, in order to be able to decide whether a given tampé actually also qualifies as proverb further investigation remains necessary (p. 292)."

Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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