Tibetan prayer books and manuscripts are written on bark paper pressed between lacquered silk and bound in silk brocade. The inscriptions are often written in Sanskrit and the pages are printed with woodblocks. Some volumes weigh more that 20 kilograms. Before bark paper was introduced, Tibetans wrote on the smooth shoulder bones of a goats. The repository of Buddhist texts in a temple is also known as a "temple library."

Many monks spend a good portion of their time printing Buddhist texts and hanging the paper on trees to dry. Often, the monks don't know what the prints say. Homeowners like to buy inscription to hang over their doors to keep thieves and demons away. Among the 200,000 hardwood printing blocks at the Balong Lamasery in Sichuan are ones used to make texts on astronomy, geography, music, medicine and Buddhist classics. Balong also contains the world's only copy of the history of Indian Buddhism.

Texts are still printed the traditional way at the Dege Printing House in Dege, Sichuan. Built between 1729 and 1750, this three-story wooden structure stores 80 percent of the Tibetan literary culture, and produces a wide range texts for monasteries, libraries, study centers and Tibetan colleges, which people from all over Tibet come to pick up. More than 210,000 hand-craved wooden blocks, some of which were carved in the 16th century, are stored there. The Dege Printing House is regarded as a sacred site. Pilgrims seek it out and walk clockwise around it with prayer wheels in their hand.

About 100 monks work there. All the work is done by hand. There are no machines or even electric lighting. Blocks made in the 17th and 18th century are still used to make texts that have as many as 30,050 pages ( making four copies of this text takes three weeks). Describing the work done at the Monastery, Peter Hessler wrote in the New York Times, "One of the workers spreads the bright red ink on a wood block while the other presses the paper. They work quickly, printing a page every four seconds."

Tibetan Buddhist Canon: Kangyur and Tengyur

The Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of the Bible is the Kangyur (Tibetan Dragon Canon). Dealing with the historical Buddha, it consists of 108 volumes, each with about a 1000 pages. Thirteen of the volumes deal with monastic discipline and conduct. There are an additional 208 volumes of commentary (the Tengyur).

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: The Tibetan Buddhist Canon is a collection of sacred Buddhist texts in Tibetan Buddhism. Considered as the Dharma Jewel, one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, it is made up of the Kangyur and the Tengyur. The Kangyur, or "translated words," consists of teachings supposed to have been spoken by the Buddha himself, while the Tengyur, or "translated treatises," is a collection of writings and commentaries on the Buddhist teachings collected in the Kangyur. Thus, the Kangyur is also known as the "primary canon," and the Tengyur the "secondary canon." [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

Throughout history, the transcription and printing of the Tibetan Buddhist Canon has mainly focused on the Kangyur, with the Kangxi Kangyur being one such example. The Kangxi Kangyur, a collection totaling 1,057 Buddhist classics, consists of the tantras of Vajrayāna and the sūtras of Sūtrayāna, and is divided into six sections: Tantra (Esoteric Teachings), Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom), Ratnakū a (Heaps of Jewels), Avata saka (Flower Ornament), Sūtra (Miscellaneous Sūtras), and Vinaya (Monastic Discipline). The six sections are equivalent to the sūtra-pi aka (collected sermons) and the vinaya-pi aka (collected rules) of the Chinese Buddhist Canon.

In addition to oral transmission by monks, written translation of classic texts was also instrumental in the propagation of Buddhism. Translations of Buddhist scriptures into the Tibetan language started in the 7th century, and while most translations worked from the original Sanskrit texts, about twenty classics in the Kangyur were rendered from Chinese translations, including the Mahayana Mahāparinirvā a Sūtra and the Lankāvatāra-sūtra

Kangyur of Emperor Kangxi

The Kangxi Emperor 1654 – 1722) was the third emperor of the Qing dynasty, and the second Qing emperor to rule over China. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Handwritten in gold-inked Tibetan script, 8th year of the Kangxi reign, Qing dynasty, the Tibetan Dragon Canon (or Kangxi Kangyur) marks the zenith of the art of book production in historical China. The manuscript is bound in the accordion style, which originated in the palm-leaf binding of ancient India. Each volume or case is made up of paper leaves with texts and protective accessories such as cover planks and wrappers. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

Consisting of six divisions, namely, Rgyud (esoteric teachings), Sher phyin (perfection of wisdom), Dkon brtsegs (collected Mahayana sutras), Phal chen (flower-garland), Mdo sna tshogs (collected sutras), and Vdul ba (monastic discipline) in a total of 1,057 units, the Dragon Sutra is a Tibetan translation of all “teachings” and “laws” by Sakyamuni himself, and known as the Bkav vgyur (Translation of the world) portion of the Tibetan Tripitaka. This voluminous collection of manuscripts in 108 cases was written in Tibetan script in gold ink on made-to-order cobalt-blue stationery. The front and back sutra boards are decorated with 756 color-painted Buddhas and inlaid with jewelry, covered by sutra screens embroidered in five colors — red, blue, green, white, and yellow — for protection.

The text of the Kangxi Kangyur is written in the Uchen script on indigo blue paper leaves. Each leaf is 87.5 centimeters long and 33 centimeters wide, with eight lines of elegantly transcribed texts on each of the two sides. Two small circles can be seen on the paper leaf, one either side; they represent the small holes for binding cords, threads, or wooden pegs to pass through. Such holes are commonly found in palm-leaf binding, but the circles in this collection are purely ornamental. Each page is framed with foliage patterns drawn in gold ink, and volume and page numbers are written on the front left-hand side. Each volume consists of around 300 to 500 leaves, the edges of which are decorated with hand-drawn gold-inked Eight Auspicious Symbols.

Buddhist images are the objects of worship and visualization. A total of 756 Tibetan Buddhist deities are painted on the front and back cover planks of the Kangxi Kangyur. All the paintings were rendered in accordance with the proportion, color, and style stipulated in the Zaoxiang Liangdujing (Sūtra of the Scale of Making Buddhist Statues). It is a supreme treasure of Tibetan Buddhist deities.These sacred images can be categorized into five groups: buddhas, bodhisattvas, dharma protectors, great masters, and arhats. Among them dharma protectors account for roughly 50 percent and female deities 25 percent. Be they peaceful deities or wrathful ones, they are the manifestation of skillful means to lead sentient beings to enlightenment. It is a distinctive characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism. This section shows the deity images on cover planks, gold and bronze statues, color-painted scrolls, and all the dharma instruments held by the deities, demonstrating the uniqueness of Tibetan Buddhist deities.

The six-volume Avata saka Section of the Kangxi Kangyur contains one category of classics. The full title of this section is the Dafangguangfo Huayenjing (Mahāvaipulya Buddhāvata saka Sūtra), and the Tibetan translation was produced in the mid-8th century by Indian scholars Jinamitra and Surendrabodhi in collaboration with the Tibetan translator Ye shes sde (ye shes sde). The translation consists of 130 (or 115) juan (fascicles) in 45 chapters; the first 44 chapters are roughly equivalent to the first 38 chapters of the 80-volume Mahāvaipulya Buddhāvata saka Sūtra in Chinese translation, and the 45th chapter is the Ga avyūha, which is the 39th chapter in the Chinese translation.

The scripture mainly describes the achievements of Buddha Vairocana and all the incredible activities of the Bodhisattvas on various stages, together with their retinues, pure-lands, and the ornaments of the pure-lands; it also explicates the concepts of the dharma realm of phenomena, the dharma realm of principle, the non-obstruction between phenomena and principle, and the non-mutual exclusivity of phenomena.

Making the Kangxi Kangyur

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Not long after the Manchu entrance into China proper, the Grand Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang (1613-1688) asked her grandson the Kangxi emperor (1654-1722) to commission a transcription of the Kangyur in gold ink. The project started in the 9th month of the 6th year of his reign (1667), with more than 170 monks recruited to work on the transcription. It was completed in the 3rd month of his 8th reign year (1669). In the 12th month of that year the manuscripts were placed in the Cininggong Palace for worship. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

Costing over 400,000 silver taels, the collection comprises 108 cases of manuscripts forcefully and elegantly handwritten in saturated gold ink. The images on the cover planks are painted with vivid colors and exhibit a spiritual flair, and the wrappers for the paper leaves are made of the most refined materials with fine embroidery work, manifesting the culmination of the art of book production in China. Of the existing government-sponsored productions of Tibetan Buddhist canons, the Kangxi Kangyur is the earliest, the most voluminous, and the most extravagantly decorated.

Work on the Co-ne edition of the Kangyur started in the 60th year of the Kangxi reign (1721), In addition to the monks, hundreds of craftsmen were brought in to carve woodblocks. The project was finally completed ten years later, in the 4th month of the 9th year of Emperor Yongzheng's reign (1731). Following a grandiose inauguration ceremony, the more than 35,000 woodblocks were used for printing at the Co-ne Monastery. The Co-ne edition of the Kangyur is extremely rare. Only a limited number of copies were printed, and the original woodblocks were destroyed in 1928.

“According to the Archives of the Imperial Household Department, The team of bla ma monks, with a total of 117 members, was in charge of transcribing the scriptures, and the team of laymen, whose number unknown, was in charge of the distribution of materials, the daily life of the transcribers, and their security. During the drafting period, the bla ma monks were offered a meal and two tea breaks a day. During the time of transcribing, two meals and three tea breaks a day were permitted. The bla ma monks accomplished their duties with satisfying supplies that guaranteed the quality of the Dragon Sutra, which is evidenced in the extant work... with more than 50,000 leaves

According to a memorial on the estimated quantity of gold powder for transcribing the Bkav vgyur Sutra by the official Mishan (1633-1675, of the Fuca Hala clan) and others, “For 108 pieces of the front sutra boards, each requires 5 pieces of flying gold, and hence it totals 540 pieces. Every four leaves out of a total of 50,300 sutra leaves need three pieces of flying gold, so 37,725 pieces of flying gold are on demand. The grand total thus comes to 38,265 pieces of flying gold. Supposing every piece of flying gold costs nine taels and seven maces (approximately 357.93 grams) of silver, the requirement will be 371,175 taels and 5 maces (approximately 13,696,375.95 grams) of silver. The 756 Buddhas on the boards takes 1,782 taels (approximately 65,755.8 grams) of gold powder.” This report attests to the enormous cost spent on the project. The flying gold refers to extremely thin gold foil.

Kangxi Kangyur Accessories and Decorations

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: The Kangxi Kangyur's protective accessories comprise two layers of cover planks at the front and back, wrappers, and bundling straps. To demonstrate imperial grandeur and utmost respect for Buddhist classics, the accessories boasts the finest materials and refined embroidery work, and decorated with magnificent images and revered mantras. Made of solid lacquered wood, the outer cover planks on front and back are slightly bigger than the paper leaves, measuring approximately 92.1 centimeters wide, 36.6 centimeters long, and 5.3 centimeters thick each. The front side is curved, and the back flat. Both sides are decorated with incised inscriptions inlaid with gold. On the front side of the plank are Sanskrit inscriptions written in the stylized Rañjanā script. In the middle is written "o -ma i-padme-hū ," a six-syllable mantra, which is surrounded by a frame consisting of further inscriptions of mantras for the Five Dhyāni Buddhas, the Four Buddha-mothers, and the Three Protectors of the Dharma. On the back of the plank are five lines of Sanskrit mantras transcribed in Tibetan script, and the right and left sides of the plank are carved with the wish-fulfilling jewels and fierce monster faces (kīrtimukha) that compel all demons. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

The inner cover planks, one front and one rear, are lined with indigo blue paper and are of the same size as the paper leaves. The frame on the front side is adorned with ten lively pearl-holding golden dragons, and within the frame are three lotus thrones with the monogram from the Kālacakra tantra (rnam bcu dbang ldan). The rear plank is decorated slightly differently, and within the frame are three crossed vajra (rdo rje rgya gram). The back of the inner cover planks is covered with five layers of colorful curtains to protect the images on the planks. The five colors — yellow, red, green, blue, and white — symbolize the Five Dhyāni Buddhas: Ratnasa bhava to the south, Amitābha to the west, Amoghasiddhi to the north, Ak obhya to the east, and Vairocana in the center. The decorations on the curtains fall into two sets, with the yellow and red curtains adorned with Sanskrit and Tibetan mantras, and the green, blue, and white curtains adorned with the Eight Auspicious Symbols (bkra shis rtags brgyad). Beneath the curtains are multicolored Buddhist images. The front plank is decorated with two bodhisattvas and between them three lines of gold Sanskrit and Tibetan inscriptions in relief and the Salutation to the Triple Gem, while the rear plank is adorned with five dharma protectors.

All the wrappers are yellow-colored, and each volume of the Kangxi Kangyur is stored in the following order: paper leaves stacked by page number, the stack sandwiched between the front and the back inner cover planks then wrapped in plain silk, wadded cloth, and double-layered satin woven with flower patterns. The whole stack is then sandwiched between the outer cover planks, tied with the five-colored bundling strap, and finally wrapped in the wadded quilt.

Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “The Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center opened its library, with 12,000 works, at the Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu, China, in October 2014. Archivists plan to scan the texts digitally. Painted to resemble a lamasery, the library contains thousands of travelogues, biographies and medical treatises that bear only a passing resemblance to Western-style books. Most were printed using hand-carved wood blocks, and their unbound pages are contained between boards, then wrapped in brightly colored fabric. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, February 15, 2014 ^/^]

“The books are displayed horizontally behind glass doors, giving the reading rooms the feel of a museum. The texts are a treasure-trove for scholars seeking to trace the evolution of dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, from the origins of Buddhism in India in the fifth century B.C. to its flowering in Tibet, China and Mongolia. ^/^

“Leonard van der Kuijp, a professor of Tibetan and Himalayan studies at Harvard, said many of the newly discovered works were the only known versions. He said recent finds had yielded forgotten details about a wife of Kublai Khan, the 13th-century Mongolian ruler who founded the Yuan dynasty in China, and the journeys of a 19th-century Tibetan statesman who traveled from Lhasa to call on the Qing dynasty emperor in Beijing. “There is a magical trajectory in many of these works, which fill the gaps in Indian and Chinese intellectual history,” Professor van der Kuijp said. “It’s like a larger mosaic with missing pieces that are slowly being filled in.” ^/^

“Under ideal circumstances, the collection might have ended up in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, which is 1,200 miles from Chengdu, but government policies that require a permit for non-Chinese visitors and onerous restrictions on foreign journalists seeking to travel to the region would have interfered with Mr. Smith’s goal of making the books freely available to scholars from around the world. He chose the Southwest University for Nationalities because it drew a large number of ethnic Tibetans; while Chengdu’s population is overwhelmingly Han, it also has a significant Tibetan community. The city is also not far from traditionally Tibetan settlements to the north and west that dot the mountains rising toward the Tibetan plateau. As part of the arrangement, Mr. Smith’s institute, based in Cambridge, Mass., provides salaries for the four archivists who spend their days scanning and cataloging texts that can be read free online. They aim to digitize the world’s known treasury of Tibetan literature within a decade.” ^/^

Image Sources: Kalachakranet.org and Simha.com except Texts, Wason collection, and Wheel of Life, Library of Congress.

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4)\=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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