Tibetan Grammar - 'la don' particles

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WORK IN PROGRESS: the grammar articles are being edited for wiki publication. During editing, the content might be incomplete, out of sequence or even misleading. In the verb section the approach to explain Tibetan verbs is changed to that of the "three thematic relations: Theme, Location, and Agent" - there will be discrepancies to the other grammar section until they are matched with it
2017 - The treatment of the la don particles will be (in time) changed into that of three different particles - which they are.

Articles on Tibetan Grammar
1. Introduction
2. Formation of the Tibetan Syllable
3. Formation of the Tibetan Word
4. First case: ming tsam
5. agentive particle
6. Connective Particle
7. La don particles
8. La don particles—Notes
9. Originative case
10. Verbs
11. Verbs—Notes
12. Syntactic particles

by Stefan J. Gueffroy[1] [fka Eckel]

The la don Particles

This section contains Tibetan script. Without proper Tibetan rendering support configured, you may see other symbols instead of Tibetan script.
Case Particles
Second Case: Objective Case, ལས་སུ་བྱ་བའི་སྒྲ་ སུ་, རུ་, ཏུ་, དུ་, ན་, ར་, ལ་
Fourth Case: Purposive Case, དགོས་ཆེད་ཀྱི་སྒྲ་ སུ་, རུ་, ཏུ་, དུ་, ན་, ར་, ལ་
Seventh Case: Locative Case, རྟེན་གནས་ཀྱི་སྒྲ་ སུ་, རུ་, ཏུ་, དུ་, ན་, ར་, ལ་

Each of these three Tibetan cases refer to the same set of seven particles. These are the la don particles ལ་ན་སུ་རུ་ཏུ་དུ་ར་. The la don particles are in essence three particles ལ་, ན་ and སུ་རུ་ཏུ་དུ་ར་(which are the five different spellings of one particle) which have overlapping usages within these three cases.

There is no connection between the fact that the la don are actually three different particles and the fact that Tibetan place them together into three cases coming from Sanskrit i.e. Objective Case ལས་སུ་བྱ་བའི་སྒྲ་, Purposive Case དགོས་ཆེད་ཀྱི་སྒྲ་, Locative Case རྟེན་གནས་ཀྱི་སྒྲ་.
It is simply a coincidence that there are three Tibetan particles-combined as the la don-that have overlapping functions which are similar to those found in the three Sanskrit cases.

This is not in any way to disregard the feats of the great Tibetan grammarians and must not and by no means be understood as a lack of appreciation of their marvelous works. Please refer to Nicolas Tournadre in "The Classical Tibetan cases and their transcategoriality, From sacred grammar to modern linguistics"[2] for a presentation on the particular value, importance and uniqueness of the Tibetan grammar literature.

three different case marking particle combined into one group applied to three different cases taken form Sanskrit


   la don
Objective Case ལས་སུ་བྱ་བའི་སྒྲ་

Purposive Case དགོས་ཆེད་ཀྱི་སྒྲ་

Locative Case རྟེན་གནས་ཀྱི་སྒྲ་

The three different particles of the la don are not identical in their function.[3] And though they might at times presented as generally to be at least nominal equivalent in their function, practically this equivalence does not appear.
Because of their overlapping usage and the Tibetan way of combining them as la don these three particles are treated here together. (An exclusive or predominate usage of the particles for a given function will be pointed out.)

Overview of the Functions

Note: not all functions are included in the overview

  སུ་རུ་ཏུ་དུ་ར་ ལ་ ན་
functions within a clause location in space and time location in space and time location in space and time;
adverbs of time
  recipient, purpose,
direction of the action of a verb
qualifier of identity,
qualifier of equivalence
identity of transformation    
verb - verb connection,
verb - adjective connection
substitute for associative particle དང་    
coordination of clauses adverbial / simultaneity simultaneity: "while", "and",
"while (this is that is not)"
conditional and temporal
"if", "when"

Independent of Verb Type

Location in Space

Place of Activity

Objective case, Tib. ལས་སུ་བྱ་བའི་སྒྲ་

Buddha          India      Dharma taught
The Buddha taught the Dharma in India.


field water irrigate
to irrigate the field

Location in Time

Locative case

that time
at that time

he time long Lhasa stayed
He stayed a long time in Lhasa.

time     circumstance   all            death   only meditate
At all times and circumstances meditate only on death.
Adverb of Time with ན་

from སྔ་མ་: "in the past, before, past time, earlier"

earlier, previously
previously nonexistent

time former now until
from former times to now

Note: also སྔར་ "in the past, preceding, former, before", with a frozen la don (see: "frozen particles")

past  to be acquainted  friend
the friend [one] is acquainted with from the past


farmer pl.        the crop  ripen     water irrigate
The farmers irrigate for the ripening of the crop.

Referential Qualifier

A referential qualifier is marked by ལ་.

she child a born
A child was born to her.

I     you      evil     deeds not small
For me your evil deeds are not small.

Mahasattva          all             son   same    similar, like
Mahasattva was for everyone like their son.

image, reflection  woman   woman    to think
to think in regard to an image of a woman [that it is] a woman


A topical element can be marked by ལ་

regarding the first

first   own system  to define; to put
firstly, [in regard to] the presentation of our own position

་་་་༌། དེ་ལ་ཡིད་ཆེས་པའི་དད་པ་ནི།
       that      trust              faith
in regard to that, the trusting faith:


Only སུ་རུ་ཏུ་དུ་ར་

he          clear        explained
He explained clearly.

truth          exist
truly existent

quick, swift
quickly, swiftly

that like  be
to be like that


always, constantly, permanently

Qualifier of Identity / Equivalence

Only སུ་རུ་ཏུ་དུ་ར་

For a note about ambiguities see: Note on ambiguities.

human those big to appear
Those people appear as big.

household grave only  apprehend
to apprehend a household merely as a grave

one    many  appear
one appearing as many

Identity of Transformation

What something is transformed into is marked by སུ་རུ་ཏུ་དུ་ར་

learned      to become, change into
to become learned

god   became
became a god

pieces      cut
to cut (something) in to pieces

king           axe     head    pieces     split, shred
The king split the head into pieces with an axe.

Joining of Noun and Verb

With སུ་རུ་ཏུ་དུ་ར་

These may form new lexicalized2 words.

light    to emit, shine, to be bright
to emit light, to be bright

experiences to take
to practice

experiences to experience
to experience

2 To make or coin a new word or accept a new word into the lexicon of a language.

Verbs with la don

The topic here is the usage of the la don particles directly between a (nominalized) verb or a clause ending in a verb and another verb or adjective. e.g.: བླང་བར་རུང་. This usage quite often expresses an infinitive construction or gerund from an English point of view. (There are different approaches and opinions on how to treat this grammatically.)

For the usage between clauses see: Coordination.

See: Note on classifications for verbs with la don and Note on omissions.

Direct verb-verb relation

Only སུ་རུ་ཏུ་དུ་ར་

Verb and auxiliary verb
find    future auxiliary
(one) will find / obtain

king     protect  future / to come
the king will be protected

child born  past auxiliary even
even though the child was (already) born, ...

Modal Relation

Modality: covering expressions of how the world (situation, circumstances) might be and should be; this includes expressions of necessity, permissibility and probability, and negations of these.

See: Note on classifications for verbs with la don and Note on ambiguities for a further explanation of these relations and the reasons for the coming classifications and their names.

Expressing a Quality

epistemic status

soon     die     certain
because it is certain [that one] will die soon ...

Evaluative status

alone     go    need    (omitted བར་ between the two verbs)
(one) needs to go alone

as much take able that just take  appropriate
just as much as [one] is able to take on [it] is appropriate to take on

Expressing a Feature
to hear  pleasant
pleasant to hear

tame         easier   mind   like other not seen
....in regard to being easy to tame [I] have not seen anything like the mind
"In this world, if tamed and brought onto the path) there is nothing other (that will obey and) is as easy to be tamed like the mind."
to meet extremely difficult
extremely difficult to meet

Buddha       only       except        other       extremely understand difficult
Apart from for the Buddha, for all others [this] is extremely difficult to understand

Qualifier of an Intransitive Verb

Only སུ་རུ་ཏུ་དུ་ར་


see: Note on classifications for verbs with la don

speak   able
able to speak

Dharma do not to have time
to not have time to practice the Dharma

Place, time, purpose, etc.

alone     enemy  to fight  went
after he went alone to fight the enemy...


Same as Qualifier of identity / equivalence

see: Note on ambiguities

illusion like not existing existing appear
like [an] illusion, not existing appears as existing

Verbal Clause as the Theme of a Verb

Only སུ་རུ་ཏུ་དུ་ར་

The theme of the verb can be a verb or a whole clause itself which is nominalized and marked by the la don. Verbs which have their theme (intransitive subject, transitive object) normally in མིང་ཙམ་ have in this case their object marked by the la don ར་.

In some of the following examples the usage of the la don can be interpreted in different ways. Yet in most examples the interpretation of a verbal clause as the theme looks less constructed then its alternative; see: Note on ambiguities.
With verbs of "perception and mental activity“

to take    to know
knowing to take; (he) knows to take

གང་ན་གདུལ་བྱ་ ཡོད་པ་དེའི་གནས་སུ་འགྲོ་བར་ཤེས་པ་རྫུ་འཕྲུལ་གྱི་ ཡུལ་ མངོན་པར་ཤེས་པ།
where one to be tamed exist that    place   go     know miraculous display place super knowledge
knowing to go to the place where ever those to be tamed are is the super knowledge [of knowing] the places for miraculous displays

happiness obtain     think
to think about obtaining happiness

Verbs like སེམས་པ་ "to think" can also have their object marked with the la don ལ་, giving it the meaning " to think about, to meditate on"; see: Patient (object) of a transitive verb and Verbs which change their meaning with different syntaxes.

copper-coloured mountain lotus light palace support and supported together    all    actually came
oneself   generated  samaya-sattva water water put    like    two    not   merge/dissolve  meditate/think
To visualize that the Copper-coloured Mountain, the Palace of Lotus Light, together with all the support and all the supported, actually came and merged indivisibly with the samaya-sattva generated by oneself, like water poured into water.

ferry-man  called  boatmen     oneself and boat entered  people and so on    all      together
river other side   go      want     like
[in regard to generating Bodhicitta] that which is called 'ferry-man' is like boatmen wanting themselves together with all the people etc. on the boat to go to the other side of the river

Verbs of "communication"

shunyata  meditated  negativity  cleaned  taught
[The Buddha] taught that by meditating on shunyata, negativities are purified.

ཞེས་པའི་འགྲེལ་པར། ་་་་་་་་བྱང་སྒྲ་མི་སྙན་ན་ཡོན་ཏན་རིན་ཆེན་བརྩེགས་དང༌། ཁམས་གསུམ་བདེ་རྒྱས་
commentary          north Unpleasant Sound qualities precious piled up and   realms three bliss expands
torch        stupa     two   to remain    explained
In the commentary on [the quote]....... [it is] explained [that] ...... in the northern continent "Unpleasant Sound" there are the two stupas "piled up [with] precious qualities" and "torch [that] expands the bliss [in] the three realms".

With verbs of "command, request and supplication" showing the purpose

you          shastra      this  teach  to request, supplicate
(I) supplicate you to teach this shastra.

monastic vows requested
[They] requested monastic vows.

Adverbial / Simultaneity (of Verb-Verb)

Only སུ་རུ་ཏུ་དུ་ར་

This usage occurs between two verbs. It can also coordinate a clause within a larger clause or one clause with an other clause (see Adverbial / simultaneity).

Dharma  not taught    stayed
(He) stayed, (in the manner of / while) not teaching the Dharma.

Sugatagarbha        beings      all         continuum   pervade  reside  even
even though the Sugatagarbha pervadingly resides in the continuum of all beings ...

གཞན་ཐམས་ཅད་ནི་ཐེག་དམན་ཉན་ཐོས་པ་ཁོ་ན་ཆེར་དར་  ཞིང་ད་ལྟའང་ མ་ནུབ་པར་བཞུགས་པ་ཡིན་ནོ།།
other   all            Hinayana  Shravaka  only great spread and  now even  not sink       remain
regarding all the other [places] the Hinayana alone spread widely and even now remains without declining (sinking)

With omission of the la don

(from the same text as the previous example)

Hinayana  great spread now  not sink  remain
[there] the Hinayana spread widely and even now remains without declining (sinking)


Adverbial / Simultaneity

This is similar to Adverbial / simultaneity (of verb-verb), but here the clause is not directly before the second verb. The meaning is again that of "simultaneity" or "adverbial".

First clause with negated verb

ཡོན་ཏན་དང་ལྡན་ན་སྐྱེ་བོ་ཀུན།     མ་བསྡུས་པར་ཡང་རང་ཉིད་འདུ།
good qualities possess person all     not gathered         one self gather
If (a person) possess good qualities everybody will gather (around them) of their own accord without being gathered (by someone).

butter lamp one    one   lit   if  former not  rely    latter not exist
if [one] lights one butter lamp from an another, without relying on the former the latter [does] not exist.

ཇི་ལྟར་ན་ལེགས་པར་གསུངས་པ་ཡིན་ཞེ་ན།  ་་་་༌།  རེས་འགའ་བ་མ་ཡིན་པར་རྒྱུན་དུ་གསུངས་པའི་ཕྱིར་དང༌།
how    well/excellent  taught      is               occasionally   not is     continuously taught   because and
If one were to asked in what way is [it] well taught. ...because [it] is not [just] occasionally but continuously taught, and ...

one           one  aggression not generate  self   earlier done   action bad mature know           forbearance  generate need
[They should] not generate aggression for one another but knowing that it is the maturation of their own past negative actions they should generate forbearance.

With a positive first clause

logic         scripture  fully demonstrate  ones  assertion  established
[With] fully demonstrating through logic and scriptures one's assertion is established.

The Temporal and Conditional ན་ After a Clause

Note: This is the most used function of ན་ vastly outnumbering all it's others usages[4].

Shravaka    sutra    see     Shravaka  faith
if / when [they] see the Shravaka-sutras, [they] will have faith in the Shravakas

The Coordinating ལ་ After a Clause

essence empty  nature    luminous
[its] essence is empty and / while [its] nature is luminous

word retain   meaning retain
to remember the words, [but] not to remember the meaning

་་་དགེ་འདུན་དཀོན་མཆོག་ལ་མོས་ཤིང་གུས་ལ་སེམས་དང་བའོ། །
  sangha       jewel       devotion respect   mind  clear / delighted, sincere
....[having] towards the Jewel of the Sangha devotion, respect and great faith

གལ་ཏེ་གཅིག་གམ་སྙམ་ན།   མ་ཡིན་ཏེ།   མཚན་ཉིད་མི་མཐུན་པའི་ཕྱིར་ཏེ།   ཕུང་པོ་ནི་མི་རྟག་པ་དང་
in case   one   ?      wonder    not  is  characteristic not in accord because      skandhas impermanent and
དུ་མ་སྤུངས་པ་དང་གཞན་དབང་ཅན་ཡིན་ལ།   བདག་ནི་རྟག་པ་དང་གཅིག་པུ་དང་རང་དབང་ཅན་དུ་འཛིན་པའི་ཕྱིར་རོ།   །
many gathered and  other-controlled  are la don  self  permanent and singular self-controlled     grasped because
If [one] were to wonder, [are the self and the skandhas] one? - [they] are not, because the [their] characteristics are not in accordance - while the skandhas are impermanent, a gathering of many and other-controlled, the self is grasped at as permanent, singular and self-controlled.

The same type of coordination occurs with adjectives.

clear     round     moon
the clear and round moon

ཐག་པ་སྲ་ལ་    གྲིམ་པ་ཞིག
rope   solid / hard  tight / firm
a solid and firm rope



inside, into
house    inside
inside the house, into the house
བར་དུ་   བར་ན་
in between


ཆེད་དུ་    དོན་དུ་    ཕྱིར་དུ་    སླད་དུ་
all four express: "for the purpose of, , in order to, for the sake of"

Second Pleonastic Particle ན་

from πλεονασμóς / pleonasmos "excess"

See also "two particles after another x.xx.x"

When ན་ stands as second particle after another particle (mostly agentive - reason), it doesn’t add any meaning (beside making it easier to spot that the agentive case is marking a reason).

cause that
because of / through that cause

ན་ for ཞེ་ན་

ན་ stands for ཞེ་ན་ after a clause where the clause is a question with an interrogative pronoun.

ཞེ་ན་ / ཅེ་ན་ / ཤེ་ན་ translated as "If one asks..." is short for ཅེས་སྨྲས་པ་ན་ "if one says ..." J.Rockwell Jr., pg. 145, 12.3
time     when  confused
If one were to ask: "Since when have [they] been confused?"

Dependent on Verb Type

For the usage of the la don with verbs that can have a verbal clause as the theme, see: Verbal clause as the theme of a verb.

Agentive Directed Verb

Commonly ལ་ (སུ་རུ་ཏུ་དུ་ར་ only as substitute for ལ་ .)

See the verb section for agentive directed verbs.

With intentional verbs of perception

he   she     looked
He looked at her.
he  she      looked
She looked at him.

Verbs of benefit / harm

body     illness      hit, strike
The body is struck by a disease.
Source: བོད་རྒྱ་ཚིག་མཛོད་ཆེན་མོ།

With verbs expressing mental activity

Verbs like སེམས་པ་ "to think" and སྒོམ་པ་ "to meditate, to cultivate" can have their theme (object) marked with the la don ལ་. If the theme (object) is a whole clause, the la don སུ་རུ་ཏུ་དུ་ར་ are used. (See Verbal clause as the theme of a verb.)

third    find difficult example contemplate
the third: to contemplate about the example of the difficulty of finding [a precious human birth]

cause examine
to examine the cause

Recipient (Indirect Object) of a Ditransitive Verb

A ditransitive verb is a verb that has both a theme (direct object) and a recipient (indirect object).

Mostly ལ་, sometimes སུ་རུ་ཏུ་དུ་ར་

Note: In Tibetan grammar (following the Sanskrit model) the recipient (indirect object) of a ditransitive verb, where the action brings no direct nor indirect benefit to it, and the recipient to which the action does bring direct or indirect benefit are considered to be in different cases ( both are marked by the la don). The former would be in the objective case ལས་སུ་བྱ་བའི་སྒྲ་, the latter the purposive case དགོས་ཆེད་ཀྱི་སྒྲ་.

former gone  heroes  tomb, reliquary  flower  garland   offer
Offering flower garlands to the tombs of the heroes of former times.

doctor  the ill   medicine give
The doctor gives medicine to the ill. (direct benefit)

accumulation complete order to jewel offerings offer
To offer offerings to the (three) jewels, in order to complete the accumulations. (indirect benefit)

Verbs of Motion: Destination

Objective case, Tib. ལས་སུ་བྱ་བའི་སྒྲ་

city     this     go
to go to this city

path       enter
setting out on the path

Qualifier / Complement of an Intransitive Verb

This is covered above by the usage of the la don particles for location in space and time, adverbial and so on.

For other usage together with verbs see Direct verb-verb relation and Qualifier of an intransitive verb.

hot cold two   together    not stay
The two, hot and cold, don’t remain together.

Verb of Dependence: qualifier—what it is Depended Upon la don

The la don ལ་ is being used most commonly.
result  cause and  conditions depend
Results depend on causes and conditions.

approach this adhere
adhering to this approach...

Attitude Verbs

That what the attitude is towards is marked by la don ལ་

In the བོད་རྒྱ་ཚིག་མཛོད་ཆེན་མོ་, those are ཐ་མི་དད་པ་-classified verbs.
hero        respect
respect towards the hero

hardship    what ever    not  afraid
not afraid of whatever hardship

Verbs of Necessity

  • qualifier—that what needs: la don, theme—that what is needed: ming tsam (no particle)
sprouts water need
Sprouts need water.

sheep  grass need
Sheep need grass.

Verbs of Living: Place of Living

locative case

he time long  Lhasa   stayed
He stayed in Lhasa for a long time.

Verbs of Existence: Place of Existence

locative case

Tibet bos grunniens exist
There are yaks in Tibet.


Tibetan    learned   many   are
There are many learned-ones among Tibetans.

Verb of Possession

locative case

  • Possessor: la don, what is owned: ming tsam (no particle)
I    bos grunniens have
I have yaks.

Verbs of Avoidance

  • That which is avoided:voriginative or la don or ming tsam
main road     keep away  worn away path  went
Avoiding the main road, he went on the derelict path.

Verbs Expressing "to Make Effort, to Engage"

  • What is the effort towards: la don
undertaking  to endeavor
to endeavor in the undertaking

la don as substitute for དང་ with verbs using དང་

compassion possess
to have compassion

clinging   to be freed from
to be freed from clinging


  1. recently adopted
  2. Nicolas Tournadre, University of Provence and CNRS, Lacito, The Classical Tibetan cases and their transcategoriality, From sacred grammar to modern linguistics, Himalayan Linguistics, Vol. 9(2): 87-125
  3. Nicolas Tournadre (ibid.) proposes Tibetan to have teen cases all together, three of those in regard to the different the la don: Dative ལ་ , Locative ན་ and Purposive དུ་.
  4. and is somewhat under-represented here