TIBETAN LITERATURE AND CULTURE

TIBETAN CULTURE

20080229-King gesar3 stpry purdue.jpg
King Gesar, the subject
of many stories and dramas
Tibet has its own language, culture, customs, alphabet, legends, music, government, calendar and religion. Traditionally, art, culture, religion and everyday life have been inextricably intertwined in Tibetan Buddhism.Tibetan culture has gone underground to a large extent under Chinese occupation and is arguably more alive outside of Tibet in places like Ladakh, Bhutan and Sikkim. Tibetan scholars that want to study their classical literature often have to do so with Chinese translations.

Many traditional Tibetan arts---such as religious paintings, sculpture, carved altars, religious texts, altar implements, statues with precious metals inlaid with gems, appliqued temples hangings, operatic costumes, religious performances, religious music, and religious singing---are forms of religious worship, many of them carried out by monks at monasteries.

Well-known Tibetan intellectuals include Jamyang Kyo, a writer and researcher that was arrested in April 2008 and taken away from her office in a state-owned television station in Xining in Qinghai Province; and Jamyang Kti, a well-known singer and television presenter who has written extensively about women’s rights. Among the Tibetans that gained some notoriety in the West were Chogyam Trunga, the guru of the beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

The Chinese artist Zhang Huan, who visited Tibet in 2005, told the New York Times the trip irrevocably altered his Zhang’s thinking and his art making. “One day in Lhasa, I got up at 4 a.m. and went to the Jokhang Temple, the biggest one in Tibet, and I saw men and women already lining up for miles,” Mr. Zhang said. He said he was amazed by the sight of pilgrims crawling to the site in the middle of traffic, in a seeming clash between modernity and ancient tradition. “I have been to the most famous museums in the world, and I have never seen a sight as striking as this,” he said. [Source: Barbara Pollack, New York Times, September 12, 2013]

Tibetan Cultural Sites: Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; Tibet Online on Culture tibet.org/Culture ; dharma-haven.org ; Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Mystical Arts of Tibet mysticalartsoftibet.org ; Tibetan and Himalayan Library thlib.org ; Literature and Film: Asian Classics Input Project asianclassics.org ; Folk Tales crosby-lundin.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ;Tibet on Film 1921-84 michaelorgan.org.au ; Tibet on Film 1984- 2005 michaelorgan.org ; Tibet Film Index michaelorgan.org ; Links in this Website: LITERATURE, FILM AND THE MEDIA IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; MUSIC, DANCE AND THEATER IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; SPORTS, RECREATION AND PETS IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN ART Factsanddetails.com/China

Good Websites and Sources on Tibet: Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) www.tibet.com ; Chinese Government Tibet website eng.tibet.cn/ Wikipedia Wikipedia Tibetan Resources phayul.com ; Open Directory dmoz.org/Regional/Asia/China/Tibet/ ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) snowlionpub.com ; Photos Tibet Photo Gallery Tibet Gallery Terra Nomada Terra Nomada ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; Tibetan Studies and Tibet Research: Tibetan Resources on The Web (Columbia University C.V. Starr East Asian Library ) columbia.edu ; Tibetan and Himalayan Library thlib.org Digital Himalaya ; digitalhimalaya.com ; Tibetan Studies Maps WWW Virtual Library ciolek.com/WWWVL-TibetanStudies ; Center for Research of Tibet case.edu ; Center for Advanced Tibetan Studies amnyemachen.org ; Tibetan Studies resources blog tibetan-studies-resources.blogspot.com ; News, Electronic Journals ciolek.com/WWWVLPages

Stereotypes About Tibet

Tibet has one of the world’s most romanticized cultures. Elliot Sperling of Indiana University's Tibetan Studies Program told PRI"There is a tendency among many people who are interested in Tibet to see Tibet as frozen in this sort of idealistic Buddhist, or even folk, kind of culture. But all culture is dynamic." [Source: Matthew Bell, PRI, February 11, 2014]

On the five stereotypes that shape views of Tibet, Chan Koonchung, a Chinese writer heo has written about Tibet, wrote: 1) The romantic stereotype –Tibet as Shangri La, an exotic, timeless touristy region of simple, peaceful folks. 2) The spiritual stereotype – Tibet as the spiritual Buddhist holy land. Tibetan Buddhist gurus have many followers in other parts of China. 3) The patronising stereotype – Tibet is pre-modern, China is modern. The Communist Party liberated Tibet from medieval backwardness. Tibet depends on aid from the Chinese state. China’s affirmative action policies are beneficial to the Tibetans, maybe too generously so. 4) The statist stereotype – Tibet has always been a part of China from time immemorial. Foreign imperialists are always there trying to encourage Tibetan separatists to divide the Chinese motherland.

5) The victim stereotype – Tibetan culture is under threat, all because of the Chinese rule: non-Tibetan migrants, ‘Han-ification’, assimilation policies, bureaucratic nepotism and state violence. But traditional culture is also changing inside Tibet because many Tibetans want modernisation and welcome economic growth. Many Tibetan families urge their children to learn Chinese and young Tibetans love hybridised popular culture. (Though, of course, I am not unsympathetic to this victim stereotyping because Tibetans are now indeed a minority culture under stress.)

History of Tibetan Culture and Arts

Tibetan art and culture is closely linked with religion. Early Tibetan art and culture was closely bound up with the aboriginal Bon religion, while later art and culture has been closely associated with Tibetan Buddhism. Bon was the main aboriginal religion of the ancient Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. It is said to have originated in the 5th century B.C. with Shenrab Miwoche, the prince of Zhang-zhung kingdom in western Tibet. Around the first century A.D. the religion began to spread eastward until it became widely practiced in the Tsang region and Lhasa region. Bon is still practiced today. It embraces pantheism and beliefs that “everything has a soul”. Bon deities include supernatural powers of mountains, rivers, lakes, seas, the sun, the moon, stars, wind, rain, thunder, lightening, birds, and beasts, as many as one can enumerate. These deities govern the birth, ageing, sickness, death, events and fortunes of people, who can not predict and control their own destinies because people have been created by the deities. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

In the 7th century A.D., Buddhism was introduced to Tibet on a large scale and Bon lost its dominance in the mid 8th century. Tibetan Buddihism has been ramified into four major sects: Nyingma Sect, Kadam Sect, Sakya Sect, Kagyu Sect and Gulug. These sects have had significant and extensive impacts on the political, economic and cultural life of Tibet and its progression through different period of time. Buddha is the sovereign of the realm of Tibetan Buddhism, and is the most frequently occurred figure in Tibetan art works as well. The major subject matters of Tibetan arts include Buddha, Bodhisattvas and a Variety of Deities, the mandala, the Gurus and Dharma Kings, the biographic Stories and Jataka Stories of Sakyamuni.

Tibetan Literature

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Tibetan storyteller
Tibetan literature includes religious texts, works of history, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, fiction and poetry. Much of it is connected with Buddhism. Little of it has been translated to English and even if it was it probably be of little interest to people other than scholars.Because so many Tibetans have traditionally been illiterate, folk tales, histories and legends have traditionally been passed on orally from generation to generation. Guru Rinpoche figures prominently in many of these old tales.Works that have been translated into English include The Tibetan Book of the Dead (See Religion); The Life of Milarepa, an autobiography by Tibet’s most beloved ascetic; The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, a description of the path to enlightenment by one of Milarepa’s disciples.

A large amount of ancient scripts, woodblock, metal and stone carvings have been preserved in the Tibetan areas. Some have been made using ancient block printing techniques. Others were written in Sanskrit on loose leaves. In addition to two well-known collections of Buddhist scriptures known as the Kanjur and the Tanjur, Tibetan literary works include prosody, epics, novels, operas, biographies, poetry, stories and fables and works on philosophy, history, geography, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. Classics works of Tibetan literature include “Thirty Rules of Tibetan Grammar,” the four-part “Ancient Encyclopedia of Tibetan Medicine,” “Feast of the Wise,” the King Gesser Epic (regarded by some as world's longest epic poem ), the legendary-biographical novels “Milarib” and “Boluonai,” “The Sakya Maxims” and “The Love Songs of Cangyang Gyacuo (the Sixth Dalai Lama).” [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

In their book “Tibetan Literature,” Wei Wu and Yufang Geng wrote: “The severe conditions that often imperil survival on the towering Tibetan Plateau have helped for it unique culture, along with its close ties with the Central Plains. Tibetan literature not only reflect the life, thoughts, and esthetics of different levels at various phases in Tibetan history, but also provides an important reference for the study of the Tibetan language and origin of words, social history, religion and belief, morality and behavior, the spiritual world, as well as local conditions and customs. The developing process of Tibetan literature appears to have the following characteristics: [Source: Tibetan Literature by Wei Wu and Yufang Geng. 2005 ^*^]

“1) Strong Temporal Background: Tibetan folklore and authorial literature provide living pictures of Tibetan life and development at various stages in history. The literature of history, biography and drama was especially outstanding. A General Record of Tibetan Kings and A Feast of Scholars are supreme examples of history-themed literary works, and the Biography of Milha Raba leads in biographical literature. The dramatic eight major Tibetan opera items are still popular today. ^*^

“2) Folklore and Authorial Literature Promoted Each Other: The folklore and authorial literature were the two necessary wings of Tibetan literature. Among the folklore, the great epic Biography of King Gesar was known publicly as the culmination of Tibetan literature and a masterpiece among world literary works. It was also a encyclopedia for researching Tibetan social life, national history, economic culture, class relations, national intercourse, ideology, morality, customs and habits, as well as religion and belief.^*^

“3) Art, History and Philosophy Proceed Side by Side: Over quite a long period, Tibet had no the concept of literature in today's sense of the word, so it had relatively few pure literary works. These were generally a fusion of history and philosophy, such as the Biographies of Tubo Kings found in Dunbhuang, the historical works like Records of Bamya Monastery, Collected Works of Manyi, Five Volumes of Biography, biographical works like Biography of Marba, Biography of Riqoinba, Biography of Riqoinba, Biography of Tongdong Gyibo, Biography of Pholhanas, and gnomic verses like Sagya's Mottoes, Sayings of Gedain, Mottoes on Water and Trees and How the King Cultivates His Personal Virtues. These deeply influential works handed down from ancient times were not pure literature in the literal sense, but were recorded in Tibetan literary history due to their literary grace, splendid rhetoric, lively plots and their mix deal of folk songs, proverbs and folk stories related to the seeking of Tao (The Way). ^*^

“4) Close Relation With Religion: Given the long history of Tibetan Buddhism and the implementation of a combined religious and temporal administrative system, in addition to some writers either being religious followers or even eminent monks, Tibetan literature, especially authorial literary works, contains a strong religious imprint. Some works were originally drawn from Buddhist tales. Iron certificate bearing golden words in Pagba script, reading: “Relying on the imperial edict issued by the emperor and blessed with the strength bestowed by the Heaven, the certificate holder would punish whoever disobeys”. This is a certificate the Yuan emperor issued to leader of the Sagya Sect.” ^*^

Tibetan Buddhist Texts, See Religion

Books: Davidson, Ronald M. (2005). Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the rebirth of Tibetan culture. New York, NY [u.a.]: Columbia Univ. Press; Karmay, Samten G. The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet. Mandala Publishing: 1998; Kornman, Robin. "The Influence of the Epic of King Gesar on Chogyam Trungpa," in Recalling Chogyam Trungpa, edit. Fabrice Midal

Preservation of Tibetan Literature

“The value of Tibetan literature is two things,” David Germano, a professor of Tibetan studies at the University of Virginia, told the New York Times. “First of all, it’s one of the four great languages in which the Buddhist canon was preserved.” (The others are Chinese, Sanskrit and Pali, an extinct language of India.) “In addition to the scriptural canon,” he said, “there were histories, stories, autobiography, poetry, ritual writing, narrative, epics---pretty much any kind of literary output you could imagine. So the second value of the Tibetan canon is it’s one of the greatest in the world.”

The canon was imperiled after China invaded and occupied Tibet in the 1950s. Though fleeing refugees managed to smuggle some books out, the Chinese destroyed a great many others.”With the close of the Cultural Revolution, you essentially lost much of the Tibetan Buddhist literature,” Professor Germano said. “It was lost to the war; it was lost to the destruction of the monasteries, libraries and collections of books in Tibet that were systematically sought out and burned during the Cultural Revolution.”

E. Gene Smith, a Utah native who died in 2010, amassed the largest collection of Tibetan books outside Tibet and put much of it online through the Tibetan Buddhism Resource Center, which he founded. Beginning I earnest when worked for the Library of Congress in India, according to New York Times, he “acquired as many Tibetan books as he could for the library, seeking out Tibetan refugees in India, Nepal and Bhutan and earning their trust. Most of the books he collected were either hand-lettered manuscripts or had been printed in the traditional manner, using carved wood blocks. (Tibet had no printing presses.) Often, a book he obtained was the only known copy in the world.”

Robert Thurman, of Columbia University studied to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk after he ended a marriage to an heiress after deciding that he didn’t want to spend his life, as he told the Times, “drinking Champagne and staring at Rouaults.” He friendship with the Dalai Lama dates back to the 1960s when they met in India.

Tibetan Folklore

In their book “Tibetan Literature,” Wei Wu and Yufang Geng wrote: Tibetan authorial literary writing has enjoyed a long history, with abundant works, unique style, skillful practice, a profound base and wide influence, based on its strong roots in folklore. There were a lot of authorial works that took the reference of folklore, for instance, the Songs of Milha Raba based on Tibetan folk songs, A General Record of Tibetan Kings, Annotated Book on Tibetan Kings and A Feast of Scholars injected with such fables as how the macaque became human, as well as the stories about Princess Wencheng and Princess Jincheng, the tale of building the Jokhang Monastery, etc; the Love Songs of Cangyang Gyaico and the eight major Tibetan opera items handed down through the generations Prince Norsang, Princess Wencheng, Girl Namsa, Baima Wenba, Denyu Toinzhu, Zholwa Sangmo, Sugyi Nyima and Trimai Gundain adopted all materials from historical tales, folk tales and sutras. [Source: Tibetan Literature by Wei Wu and Yufang Geng. 2005 ^*^]

“Famous old Tibetan folk stories include: “The Song of Siba Butchering Cows, the Biographies of Tsampo Kings, the Story of Songtsan Gambo Greeting Princess Wencheng, as well as the rare Tibetan literary works unearthed at Dunhuang, the Records of the Banya Monastery, etc., were mythic stories of the important figures” in and issues in primitive and later feudal society. The works reflecting the days when several kingdoms thrived. The birth of a number of works handed down from ancient times, including the Collected Works of Manyi and the Five Volumes of Biography that mainly described the social history and culture of the Tubo Kingdom; the Songs of Milha Raba that focused on Buddhist teachings; the Sagya's Mottoes targeted at learning, pursuit of politics and the ways getting along with others; and especially the Biography of King Gesar, the epic ballad about a national hero, helped Tibetan literature to spring into full flower.” ^*^

King Gesar: Tibet’s Great Heroic Epic

King Gesar is a heroic epic created by the Tibetans from a collection of ancient legends, myths, verses, proverbs and various other folk cultures of Tibet. Originating via folk oral traditions, King Gesar was passed down from generation to generation orally in a combination of song and narration. Thought to have be written down in the 11th century, "Biography of King Gesa'er" is a called "Jiawugesa'ertena" or "Gesa'er'azhong" in Tibetan, and is widely read over Tibetan regions, including Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan, and the Tu and Naxi region. There are at least 70 versions of it, with some having over one million lines.[Source: Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org <>; Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]]

The Tibetan epic was formed between around 200 B.C. or 300 B.C. and A.D. 600. In the later years, some folk balladeers continued to pass on the story orally; this enriched the plots and embellished the languages. The story had gradually become near perfect and very popular in the early 12th Century. The epic began to be compiled mainly by the monks of Nyingmapa (Red Sect of Tibetan Buddhism) in about the 11th Century, and were mainly hand-written books. <>

So far, King Gesar has been collected in more than 120 volumes, with more than one million verses (over 20 million words) -- 25 times the length of the Western classic, Homer's Iliad. The epic has been translated into the languages of other Chinese nationalities as well as English, French, Russian, German, Indian and other foreign languages. It has now become a subject on study and is even discussed as a topic in the international seminar. King Gesar’s story has been the the subject of stage operas and serial TV dramas..<> ~

In Tibetan-inhabited areas Gesar was known as the king of the ancient Tibetan kingdom of the Ling. The great hero and his brave army are kept alive in the rich, imaginative retellings of the epic. From early times, the epic was passed on orally by Tibetan minstrels and singing actors known as "Zhongken". Today, a small number of inscribed woodblocks of the epic can be found in Lhasa, Xigaze and Dege County in Sichuan Province; a few handwritten copies are also dispersed among some families. The Potala Palace contains a statue of Gesar, which still attracts pilgrims on a daily basis. Gesar's deeds were recorded in the Kangba region more than anywhere else, and handwritten and printed versions of Gesar from Dege are considered the most authoritative works. People still argue that the village of Ngaxu in Northern Dege County was the birthplace of Gesar. [Source: chinaculture.org, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China >>>]

Gesar's image and story are immortalized in carvings, paintings, murals, woodcuts, embroideries, songs, dances and plays. The epic is not only an outstanding literary work, it also has very high academic value. It is useful for studying ancient Tibetan society, and is very important in studying understanding Tibetan culture. Tibet has a research institute specializing in the study of the epic, whose research projects are listed as key State projects. Since 1979, the institute has collected more than 180 different song and narration versions of the epic, 55 woodblock and mimeographed editions and has recorded 70 performances of the epic on more than 3,000 recording tapes. Since liberation, China's related research institutes have been working on this monumental portion of world literature by gathering, sorting, collecting, studying and publishing the material on a large scale. >>>

The epic describes that Gesar as an incarnation of a god able to summon wind and rain and as a male lion king known for his impressive strength. The epic not only narrates the heroic achievements of Gesar but also describes ancient wars and the complicated relationship among nationalities and the tortuous uniting process of the Tibetan people. The epic tells the story how the hero, King Gesar, conquers all the devils and brings happiness to the people with his perseverance and magic strength. The epic also expresses the theme of the people's wish for justice and bliss. The background of the story spans from the three periods of ancient Tibet: Clanship in the late Prehistoric Times, the Slavery Period, and Serfdom in the Feudal Society. The epic is really an encyclopedia of the social and historical changes, relationships among classes and nationalities, ethnical cultures and customs of Tibet. >>>

King Gesar: the Character

King Gesar of the Ling Kingdom was born in the 11th century as the son of the supreme god Indira. As a boy, he was very mischievous, but divine by nature and full of supernatural powers. His greatest enemy was his uncle -- a cowardly, vain and pretentious man who hoped to rule the country. Although the hero and his mother were banished, Gesar's exile enabled him to nurture his hidden strengths. He emerged victorious in a horse race to become king of the nation. King Gesar then began conquering the "kingdoms of demons" -- the Jiang and Hor (northern Mongolian people) kingdoms. The war between the Ling and Hor kingdoms constituted one of the central parts of the story. It began with a beautiful girl, Qomu, who was King Gesar's queen. [Source:chinaculture.org, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China >>>]

The Hor king, also known as the "White Tent King," heard about her beauty and sent for her. When his request was refused, he sent troops to attack the Ling kingdom. After several battles, another girl was sent to the Hor king in the place of Qomu. But once the truth was uncovered, the battles resumed. The Ling capital, along with Queen Qomu, was finally captured by Hor troops. But King Gesar organized all his troops with the help of an important Hor general, captured the Hor capital, killed the White Tent King and rescued his queen. >>>

Plots of King Gesar - Tibetan Epic

The Tibetan heroic epic, King Gesar is set in the distant past, when the common Tibetan people were suffering from many natural disasters and vicious devils and living rather a miserable life. Demons and spirits ran wild. To deliver the people from their troubles, the merciful Avalokitesvara or Bodhisattva of Compassion, asked the Amitabha, the master of the western Pure Land, to dispatch a son of a heavenly deity, Toiba Gawa, who later came to be known as Gesar, to descend to the world and help the people. Since his birth, King Gesar had begun to exterminate the evils for Tibetans. [Source: chinaculture.org, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Gesar descended upon the earth and became king of the Tibetan people later. With his great abilities to defeat the demons and aid the poor and common people, Gesar was portrayed as a combination of god, dragon and a fierce spirit known as nyan in primitive Tibetan religion. He was endowed with special characteristics and marvelous powers and abilities, also suffering several trials. However, his invincible powers and protection from the God of Heaven helped him to survive and eventually defeat the demons.

Throughout his human life, Gesar labored to abolish the scourges that plagued the lives of the common people. At the age of five, he and his mother with a tribe 'Ling' moved to the banks of the Yellow River. When he was eight, they were joined by the members of the Ling tribe. At the age of 12, Gesar won a victory in a horseracing match and then became the leader of the tribe. Gesar then married Sengjam Zholmo and led expeditions against his enemies, defeating the northern demons that had invaded the Ling Kingdom.

In successive campaigns, Gesar defeated King Gurdkar of the Hor Kingdom, King Sadam of the Jiang Kingdom, King Shingkhri of Monyul, King Nor of Tangzig, King Chidan of Khachevigyu, King Toigui of the Zugu Kingdom and scores of other small tribes and minor kingdoms known as zongs in ancient Tibet. After he finished his glorious missions, King Gesar took his mother and his beautiful empress back to heaven, bringing the grand epic of his life to a dramatic close.

Tibetan Literature and China

In their book “Tibetan Literature,” Wei Wu and Yufang Geng wrote: “After the establishment of new China, especially in late 1978, when the Central Government introduced the reform and opening-up program, Tibetan literature achieved much; Tibetan and Chinese literary works developed equally, authorial literature and folk literature ran side by side, literary writing and criticism made simultaneous progress, and poetry, the novel, prose, drama, movies as well as quyi (Ghinese folk art forms including ballad singing, story telling, comic dialogues, clapper talk, cross talk, etc.) bloomed at the same time. The achievement of novel was especially eye-catching. [Source: Tibetan Literature by Wei Wu and Yufang Geng. 2005 ^*^]

“Tibet has been dealing with various ethnic groups in inland China and the surrounding areas in politics, economy and culture since ancient times. During the Tubo Kingdom in the 7th century A.D., the language scholar Tomi Sangbozha invented the Tibetan script according to the characteristics of Tibetan language, after investigating several kinds of Indian scripts. Soon after, some Tibetan scholars successfully translated Canons of Yao and Shun-Book of History, Military Strategy of the Warring States and some famous articles forming part of the scriptures of Han Chinese Buddhism into Tibetan script. ^*^

“In the early 13th century, the great Tibetan scholar Gonggar Gyaincain introduced into Tibet the Indian rhetorical masterpiece Mirror of Rhetoric. Later, on the strong call of Pagba, it was fully translated into Tibetan script. Hence, Tibetan scholars studied and applied it, popularizing the study of good articles and use of carefully considered rhetoric for a certain period of time. The successful works were the History of Kings and Ministers of the 5th Dalai Lama and the Youth Darma of Cering Wanggyia. ^*^

“After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, communication between the Tibetan races and other ethnic groups were increasing. The four famous classical Chinese novels, Water Margin, Three Kingdoms, A Pilgrimage to the West and A Dream of Red Mansions, were completely or partially translated into Tibetan. Other world-renowned works were also translated in succession. Meanwhile, Tibetan literary masterpieces, either classical or modern, were translated into Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Hungarian, Czech and other languages, which aroused great interest among readers of different races and nations, enabling Tibetan literature to make further progress. ^*^

Amassing Tibetan Texts Saved from the Cultural Revolution

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Decades ago, the thousands of Tibetan-language books now ensconced in a lavishly decorated library in southwest China might have ended up in a raging bonfire. During the tumultuous decade of the Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976, Red Guard zealots destroyed anything deemed “feudal.” But an American scholar, galvanized in part by those rampages, embarked on a mission to collect and preserve the remnants of Tibetan culture. The resulting trove of 12,000 works, many gathered from Tibetan refugees, recently ended a decades-long odyssey that brought them to a new library on the campus of the Southwest University for Nationalities here in Chengdu. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, February 15, 2014 ^/^]

“Despite Beijing’s tight control of Tibetan scholarship, the collection’s donor, E. Gene Smith, insisted that the books be shipped here from their temporary home in New York, because as he told friends, “they came from Asia, and Asia is where they belong.” Just to be safe, he created a backup digital copy of every text. Mr. Smith, a lapsed Mormon from Utah who spoke 32 languages and died in 2010, spent much of his life working for the Library of Congress. His interest in Tibetan literature was aroused by an encounter with a Buddhist lama, Deshung Rinpoche. After converting to Buddhism, Mr. Smith found his studies stymied by the paucity of Tibetan texts. He moved to India and began a 25-year quest to find Tibetan books, many of them smuggled out by refugees who had trekked over the Himalayas. ^/^

Using money from an American government program, he printed thousands of rare texts that were later distributed to libraries and scholars around the world. Mr. Smith invariably kept one copy of each print run, forming a collection that took over his Cambridge home and eventually filled two trailers. In 2007, to the dismay of several American universities that coveted the books, Mr. Smith bequeathed his collection to the Southwest University for Nationalities. But a few months later, after deadly ethnic rioting in Lhasa, university officials suspended the project. Officials eventually opened the center, creating the nation’s pre-eminent center for Tibetan literature. But they appear to be reluctant to promote it. During a recent visit, Tibetan students complained that the doors of the library were often locked, but they were thrilled about its existence.“This is our culture; this is our heritage,” Puchor, a student who like many Tibetans uses only one name, said after touring the library. “We need to learn about our patrimony and then protect it for future generations.” ^/^

“As news of the center’s existence has spread across China, the keepers of centuries-old books have flocked to the library with manuscripts that scholars thought had been lost or destroyed. Many had been hidden by Tibetan monks during the Cultural Revolution, when Buddhist monasteries, religious statues and sacred texts were systematically destroyed. In November 2013, robed monks from the Dongkar Monastery in western Sichuan arrived with a yellowing collection of 300-year-old texts that had never been published. Scrawled in cinnabar and black ink, the manuscripts, detailing the tantric rituals of Buddhist deities, were copies of 15th-century texts. The monks stayed for five weeks while archivists scanned 6,000 pages, then returned home carrying their beloved texts and a single CD-ROM of digital copies. They vowed to return with seven more volumes.” ^/^

Image Sources: Purdue University, Cosmic Harmony, the film Kundun

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015

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