Sunday, March 16, 2008

Discovery and preservation of ancient Tibetan Manuscripts

Discovery and Preservation of Ancient Tibetan Manuscripts

by Stephen Aldridge

See also: a May, 1999 field report from this project: A Look at Tibetan Books


The region in Central Asia popularly known as Tibet is a wide area consisting of the homelands of people belonging to many different cultures. As an area in which Tibetan is a primary spoken language this region covers Ladakh, parts of Nepal, Sikkim, Burma and Bhutan; Xinjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan in China. Tibet was an isolated culture for the most part until 1959. In that year, thousands of Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama and other leaders into exile in India and adjacent countries following disagreements on the nature of economic reforms that had been agreed on previously with China. The refugees brought with them their most valuable possessions if they were able to do so. Traditionally, highly valued items for Tibetans are usually connected to with deeply-held spiritual beliefs. Tibetans hold three things to be what are literally called the "rare-precious-three". These are the teacher, the Buddha, his teachings, and the community of lay and monastic followers of those teachings. Thus those seeking asylum outside of Tibet followed their precious teachers, took with them images of Buddhas and famous Buddhist teachers, books, and were a community of monks and lay people seeking refuge in another land together. The written and spoken word of the Buddha is what the Tibetans call cho. These teachings, also called, in Sanskrit, dharma, are the precious core of all Buddhist culture. It is no surprise that entire libraries were brought out of Tibet. Many collections of books were, of course, left behind.

Through the efforts of Gene Smith, working for the US Library of Congress, a majority of the books brought out by refugees were reprinted in the 60’s and 70’s under the Public Law 480 Program of the Library of Congress. Because of the destruction in the period of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet, it was believed that most of what was left of book collections in Tibet was destroyed. The fact that the publicized book-burning episodes occurred at a relatively few places near large population centers did not lessen the horror of the destruction. The campaign against the "Four Olds" included books, art, buildings, aristocratic homes, rock sculptures - anything that was considered tainted and part of the old, discredited culture. The destructive madness spread across China touching every segment of the population.

The changes in China since the late 70s and the relaxation of restrictions to religious expression allowed information on work in progress in Tibet and China to become known to scholars in the West for the first time. Work on compiling dictionaries, grammars, word lists and the like that had been started in the 50’s and miraculously saved from destruction during the early 70’s began to be published. Libraries that had been hauled away by the convoy load from major monastic centers of learning were being catalogued, indexed, microfilmed, with selected works reprinted in Western-book style.

As Tibet opened up to tourists in the 80’s, it slowly became apparent that a far greater number of sacred places of worship, temples, and monasteries than believed had been spared destruction. Some of this was due to geography - ruggedness of terrain and remoteness of location.

Since the mid-80s it has become known to some Tibetans in exile, those who have made visits back to their homeland, that there were still Tibetan books, ignored, sometimes forgotten about or hidden away from those who would have destroyed them. Work has been going on in Tibetan areas of China and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) to preserve these treasures.

A very special, unique opportunity presents itself to assist those Tibetans in the work of identifying, cataloguing, re-printing and otherwise preserving Tibetan libraries. The quantity of materials may be as large as, if not larger than, the texts reprinted under the PL 480 program. Because of the outstanding literary output of the Tibetans over the centuries, remarkable in human history when considering the quantity of books written compared to the entire population of Tibetans, it would be a cause of regret to let this precious opportunity to preserve a key, central element of Tibetan culture pass by.


The official line in Tibetan history is that King, Songtsen Gampo sent his minister, Thonmi, to India to seek an appropriate script upon which to base a Tibetan script and "alphabet." Thonmi, who led a group of monks on the journey, is credited with modifying the devanagari script in which Sanskrit is written to create the Tibetan script. It is now known that the foundations of the Tibetan script were already in use in Zhang-zhung, located in part of western Tibet. Early books were copied out by hand as were manuscripts in medieval European monasteries. Later, the technology for woodblock printing emerged. Texts would be carefully written in block letters on a sheet of paper. This paper would then be moistened and the dampened paper pressed face down on a block of wood. The reversed letters would then be carved out. Eventually block-printing of books became the norm. For reasons unknown, Tibetans never used movable type as did first the Chinese, and later, the Europeans. The drawbacks to block print technology were many: the need to cut large amounts of timber for the printing blocks; the pains-taking task of carving out the letters in the blocks which rapidly reduced the eyesight of the block carvers; and fire. The first wood-block print of the sacred collections of Buddhist texts in Tibetan was produced at Nanjing in China. Over the centuries many monasteries would develop the means to print the writings of the teachers who lived there. The major collections of texts, the Kangyur, believed to be the actual words of the historical Buddha, and the Tangyur, the commentaries and writings on Buddhist spiritual practices, were printed at Narthang, Lhasa, Derge, Beijing, Nanjing, Cone, Kumbum and elsewhere. Some of these collections have survived to this day or have been reprinted in new editions. Several new editions have appeared in India, Nepal, and Bhutan since 1965, with a new, high-quality edition printed on acid-free paper currently being printed in China.

Books that one can find in Tibet today vary considerably in the quality of the block carving, spelling of words in a given text, and paper.

Many texts are written as notes taken during lectures by famous teachers. Sometimes texts are of inestimable value merely because of these interlinear notes made during a course of study of a given text.

Books are primarily written in the equivalent of block letters in English. Many older works or original manuscripts, not formally published using wood-block technology, are written in cursive script or even short-hand. The hand-written manuscripts are often the most challenging to those desiring to reprint the text using modern, Tibetan-text word-processing software. The challenge is in deciphering the handwriting of the author and editing the work for ease of use by the modern reader. This includes the task of preparing tables of contents, footnotes, and indices.


a) Support for the central foundation block of Tibetan culture: its literary culture

b) Support for the preservation of existing literary culture will encourage the creative endeavors of contemporary writers, poets, playwrights, and musicians. It will also help support the study of Tibetan language and culture in its own right.

c) A new base for researchers in Tibet

d) Goals of the project will be to publish indices of works - summaries of content of collections of Tibetan texts, establish the means to support native Tibetans through the sale of copies of selected works, library fees, Kham Aid Foundations benefactors, sponsorships, grants from interested groups and volunteer efforts.


Many of the well-educated and most highly trained Tibetans were part of the exodus of 1959. Circumstances and personal choice led many educated Tibetans to stay behind, to not join those seeking exile. It is very difficult to estimate the numbers of those who stayed behind. Many died of old age or the privations produced during the dark years of failed policies of land reform, the Cultural Revolution, and bad circumstances in general. It has also been difficult for erudite Tibetan scholars in Tibet to receive the recognition due them. Except for a handful of Western students who were in close contact with such teachers as the late Karmapa, the merits of teachers and students who stayed in Tibet were largely unknown. The attention shown to popular Buddhist teachers in the West has led to a situation where, only until recently, teachers in Tibet are often regarded as not even existing. However, the good news is that there has been a very active "renaissance" of spiritual activities in Tibetan parts of China for the last 10 years. Students from around the world are coming to study with several Buddhist and teachers of other traditions.

By combining the efforts of native Tibetan scholars living in the West with those in Kham, Amdo, and central Tibet, and adding the talents and resources of the students of these teachers and scholars from all parts of the world, a new approach to the preservation of Tibetan culture can be established.

Tibetan history can be traced thousands of years back. However, the written history only dates back to the 7th century when Songtsan Gampo, the 33rd Tibetan king, sent his minister Sambhota to India to study Sanskrit who on his return invented the present Tibetan script based on Sanskrit.
Tibet's history can be divided into four period:

1. The Tsanpo's Period
This period starts from Nyatri Tsanpo, the first of the Tsanpos, in 127 B.C (historians differ in view of the date, but this date is taken from the White Annales, a reliable book on Tibetan history) and ends in 842 A.D. at the death of Lang Dharma, the last of the Tsanpos, who was assassinated by a Buddhist monk owing to Lang Dharma's ruthless persecution of Buddhism. During this period some 42 Tsanpos had ruled over Tibet among which Songtsan Gampo's rule was considered as the zenith. Songtsan Gamoi was an outstanding ruler, he unified Tibet, changed his capital to Lhasa, sent Sambhota to India to study Sanskrit and promulaged a script for the Tibetan on the latter's arrival to Tibet, married Princess Wencheng of the tang Court and Pricess Bhrikuti Debi of Nepal, built the Potala and the temple and the temple of Jokhang

2. The period of Decentrailzation
This period began in 842 A.D. the year of Lang Dharma's assassination, and ended in about 1260 A.D, when Pagpa, the Abbot of Sakya monastery, became a vassal of Kublai Khan, the first Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. During this period a little is known in history except that Tibet became decentralized into a number of petty principalities.

3. The period of Sakya, Pagdu, and Karmapa's Rule
This period began with Sakya's rule over Tibet, followed first by Pagdu's rule in Lhaoka and then by Karmara's rule in the Tsang region (Shigatse). The sakya period was the time whten tbiet officially became an inseparable part of China.

This period lasted from 1260 A.D to 1642 A.D during which political powers centered in the three regions of Sakya, Pagdu, and tsang successively ruled over Tibet.

4. The period of the Gandan Podrang's Administration :
This period is the period in which the Dalai Lama ruled Tibet. It started in 1642 A.D. when the 5th Dalai Lama overtook the ruling power from the Tsang ruler. It basically ended in 1951 when Tibet was liberated and came to a complete end in 1959 when rebellion led by the Dalai Lama was pacified and the People's Government of the Tibet, Autonomous Region was set up.

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