Tibetan Manuscript Pages

Canonic Texts
by Lewis R. Lancaster

One of the most important texts in Mahayana Buddhism is the Astusahasrika Prajnalparamita Sutra (The Perfection of Wisdom Eight Thousand Lines). It is considered to be the earliest of the Prajnu Paramita texts and the oldest form of a Mahayana sutra. The Chinese had a copy of the Sanskrit text in the middle of the second century and made a translation in 179. The text was translated into Tibetan many centuries later by the missionary monks Shakyasena and Jnanasiddhi from Northern India with the help of Dharmatashila. The use of the text in rituals is widespread, and it is still the case that most Tibetan and Mongolian monasteries will house a set of the Prajnaparamita, which they call Yum, or mother. This term came to be used because the sutra itself says that it is the "mother" of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Copies of the Sanskrit form of the Asta are preserved among the Newari Buddhists in Nepal, and there the recitation of the text is an important ritual of the religious community. It is not surprising to find numerous copies of this particular text and even to find it preserved on gold. The recitation, of the text was considered to be an essential part of certain ceremonies, and its importance was highlighted by the production of beautiful manuscript copies with illustrations. As late as the tenth century in the Pala dynasty in India, special copies of the Asta were made; some of the best examples can be found in the British Museum. Damtsik Dorje (1781--1855) recorded the recitation method of the Astasahasrilza Prajnaparamita Sutra as a part of his collected works. It was just this recitation method that would have been taught to novice monks during the time that Zanabazar was training in Lhasa.

Translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Tibetan started in the seventh century and continued until the thirteenth. It was this corpus of Tibetan texts that would eventually be used to make the Mongolian version of the Buddhist canon. After the translation, the major texts in the Tibetan canon were continually being edited, corrected, and revised. Thus it is difficult to establish the exact date for any reading found in the Tibetan version; the work of many hands has produced a composite, and it is nearly impossible to determine the date various sections were written for any of the Buddhist documents. For several centuries after the translation projects, manuscript copies of the canonic texts were made by scribal monks in major monasteries. As we know the Tibetan Buddhist- canon today, the work of making a complete copy would have been formidable. Divided into two sections, the Kanjur and the Tanjur, the canon grew, until by the eighteenth cencury it had more than 4,500 different texts.

Printing, rather than relying on handwritten copies, of the Buddhist canon originated in China, and the first attempt to put the entire Chinese version or printing blocks was done in the tenth century under the aegis of the Northern Song. At the woodworking center in Cheng·du, 130,000 blocks were carved in the process of creating a set of reverse image xylographs. Although other groups in East Asia folloed the<lead of China and produccd printing blocks for the Buddhist canon, the Tibetans seem to have followed the Indian model and relied more on manuscripts that print for the preservation and dissemination of texts This changed in the eighteenth century, when the first block-print edition was Prepared by the Manchu court in Beijing. The blocks were completed in 1724 and are known as the Beijing Edition. Soon, some of the large monasteries made their own editions: Narthang, Derge, and Choni, and in this century a new edition from Lhasa was printed.

In the first half of the seventeenth century, monks in Mongolia made the first major translation of the Kanjur. Completed by 1629, this portion of the canon numbered 108 volumes, following the Tibetan list of texts. For more than a century this was the basic material available for the study of 

Traditional Buddhism in Mongolia. The lack of a translation of the Tanjur was a source of concern. These treatises contained the commentarial texts which were a primary tool for monastic training in Tibet. The Qianlong emperor, who reigned from 1736 to 1795, appointed a group in 174I to make a new official word list matching Tibetan and Mongolian words for the Buddhist vocabulary. The head of the team was the Jangjya Khutuktu Rolpay Dorje (1717-1786) and the resulting document, given the Tibetan title Day yig mkha pa'i 'bhyun-gnas, served as a guide for the translation of the Tanjur into Mongolian. The Tanjur has the same year of completion as the Dag yig, and it also mirrored the Tibetan in having 225 volumes. When the full canon was finally in Mongolian, it was put onto printing blocks and a standard edition was established.

The early manuscript copies of the translations, from the middle of the seventeenth century, were put on paper using wooden or reed pens. This was the primary method of writing used by the Tibetans in Central Asia, unlike the Chinese, who used brushes for most of their important secular and religious copy work.

When texts were printed or copied in China, the format was determined by the standard paper sizes, which were strictly controlled by government regulations. Since paper was used au a medium of trade, it was necessary to have the size of every sheet standardised. Tibetans did not have such restrictions, and they made paper in a variety of sizes and formats. For the Buddhist texts, the sheets were long and narrow keeping the form of the palm-leaf manuscripts that were used in India. The sheets of paper were stacked and bound with cord, again much like a sheaf of palm leaves. The Chinese pasted the sheets together and rolled them into a scroll, later adopting accordion-folded sheets, which were easier to store and read. Tibetan paper was heavy and soft and would not easily have been rolled. Thus the volumes of the Tibetan canon are distinct from the rest of the Buddhist canons of East Asia, and this style of stacked sheets came to be reflected in the Mongolian copies. Having this format for the books of the canon, the Tibetans and Mongolians made covers that were placed on the top and bottom of the leaves. Since the covers were made of wood or metal, they became objects for artisans to decorate. Elaborate carvings appear on some of the outer sides of the covers and paintings and special scripts on the inner portion.

Essay from Mongolia: The Legacy  of  Chinggis Khan,
published by the Asian Art Museum of  San Francisco, 1995.

Lewis R. Lancaster
Department of East Asian Languages
University of California, Berkeley

Group in Buddhist Studies
Ph.d. Program  U.C. Berkeley

Electronic Buddhist Text Initiative

Editor of:
Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative

Recent publications:
edited with Chai-shin Yu

edited by Kikon Suh and Chai-shin Yu
Including article:
"The Buddhist Canon in the Koryo Period" by LRL


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