Infrared, prayers and booklets

IOL Tib J 76, last page

Here’s another manuscript darkened with age and made readable again with infrared photography. IOL Tib J 76 is a booklet (or codex, to give the technical name), with 64 pages measuring about 15 by 22 cm. I tend to think that this kind of darkening is a sign that a manuscript was well used during its lifetime before internment in the Dunhuang cave. The majority of the Dunhuang manuscripts do not look like this; by contrast, many look shockingly fresh, as if they were written weeks rather than centuries ago.

I find the ‘well-used’ theory particularly convincing in the case of this particular manuscript, because the booklet form lends itself to practical use. In contrast to the pothi and scroll form, it is easy to open the book to a particular page. For a monk or lay Buddhist carrying around a collection of frequently perused texts the advantage of this would be particularly clear.

IOL Tib J 76, infrared

This particular booklet does indeed seem to be a collection of such frequently used texts. The first 44 pages contain the Jinaputra-arthasiddhi sūtra, used perhaps for memorization, recitation, or both. The next text is The Butter Lamp Prayer (mar mye smon lam), a prayer recitated during the ceremonial lighting of butter lamps on a shrine, followed by the Hymn to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara Cintamāṇicakra, a popular hymn in Dunhuang, as I have mentioned elsewhere. Both texts would be useful in regular personal devotions and services rendered to others (for a fee).

More interesting still, the next two texts are teaching or study aids. The first is titled Knowledge of Worlds (Lokaprajñā), and is a kind of question-and-answer catechism. It’s contents are well summarized in the colophon:

A teaching, based on the important sutras of the dharma, on the characteristics of the three jewels, the good qualities and the path of liberation, on seeing the two truths, on actions and the ripening of actions, written merely to oppose what is not in concordance with the pure scriptures.

Following this is a Sanskrit-Tibetan dictionary of sorts, defining the Sanskrit terms tantra, mantra, vidyā, dhāraṇī and maṇḍala. Christina Scherrer-Schaub has identified this text as an extract from a translation manual (the Sgra sbyor bam po gnyis pa) composed in the reign of King Senaleg (799–815). Interestingly, only the tantric words have been copied here.

As for the back page, which has now been revealed in stunning infrared, it just contains the first page of the Jinaputra-arthasiddhi sūtra once again, perhaps for handwriting practice or to test memorization.

In any case, this is clearly just the kind of book that a monk or lay Buddhist might carry around, and keep in their home/monastic cell. The darkening of the cover is then probably due to frequent handling (with inevitably greasy hands) or being kept in a room smoky with cooking fire or incense.

1. Dietz, Siglinde. 1999. “Jig rten gyi lo rgyus bśad pa, ‘Die Kunde von der Welt.’ Ein katechetischer Text aus Tun-huang.” Helmut Eimer, Michael Hahn, Maria Schetelich and Peter Wyzlic (eds.) Studia Tibetica et Mongolica (Festschrift Manfred Taube). Swisttal Odendorf: Indica et Tibetica Verlag. 71-86.
2. Scherrer-Schaub, Cristina A. 2002. “Enacting Words. A Diplomatic Analysis of the Imperial Decrees (bkas bcad) and their Application in the sGra sbyor bam po gñis pa Tradition.” JIABS 25/1–2: 263–340.

3 thoughts on “Infrared, prayers and booklets

  1. Siglinde Dietz, ‘Jig rten gyi lo rgyus bśad pa, “Die Kunde von der Welt,” Ein katechetischer Text aus Tun-huang, contained in: Helmut Eimer, Michael Hahn, Maria Schetelich and Peter Wyzlic, eds., Studia Tibetica et Mongolica (Festschrift Manfred Taube), Indica et Tibetica Verlag (Swisttal Odendorf 1999), pp. 71-86.

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