Teachers, Students, and Notes

Manuscripts are interesting things. Well, I think so, and over the last year one of the main purposes of this website has been to make this point. Printed books can be objects of beauty, but more often they are just the means by which we get the text itself. And we know that a printed book is one of several hundred, or thousand, or ten thousand almost identical copies. Every manuscript, by contrast, is unique. A manuscript can contain anything from hastily scribbled notes to a fine copy of a revered scriptural text. Every manuscript is different from every other, differing in the circumstances of its creation and in the idiosyncrasies of its creator.

Although each of the Tibetan Dunhuang manuscripts is unique, we can put them in some sort of order, arranging them so that at one end of the scale we have the thousands of carefully copied and corrected sūtras which were the products of organized scriptoria working during the Tibetan imperial period. Here variations are at a minimum and have been eradicated as much as possible in the editorial process…

In the middle of the scale are the manuscripts that have been copied carefully, but outside of the scriptorium and usually without revisions. Most of these would have been for personal use, and contain texts like short treatises, prayers and rituals. Handwritings are individual and sometimes quite stylish….

At the other end of the scale there are  manuscripts that are much more scruffy. The individual letters are poorly formed, as if by children, and the spelling varies quite noticeably more than in most of the Tibetan Dunhuang manuscripts….

The initial temptation is to leave this last type of manuscript well alone, and spend one’s time with more beautiful specimens. However, forced to confront them in my cataloguing work, I had to think about why these people wrote Tibetan so very badly. One possibility is that these weren’t Tibetans, that they had only just learned Tibetan in order to be able to write and understand Tibetan Buddhist prayers and practices.

Another possibility – one that doesn’t exclude the first – is that these manuscripts came out of teaching situations. Most of us will be familiar with taking down notes from some kind of lecture or talk, and with the fact that some people are better note-takers than others. A student might be particulary quick with a pen, and copy nearly every word, or only manage only the most general sort of summary. Taking notes is still important in a variety of teaching situations, including Buddhist ones. But it was even more important before the widespread use of printing made textbooks available. In a manuscript culture, the only textbooks students would own were the ones they wrote themselves.

*  *  *

Dunhuang, the source of our manuscripts, was in its heyday one of the great centres of Buddhist practice, art, scholarship and translation. Situated on the edges of the Chinese and Tibetan cultural spheres, and at the eastern end of the Silk Route, it received a huge cultural input. From the eighth to the tenth centuries, Dunhuang was home to Buddhist communities of Chinese, Tibetan, Khotanese and Turkic monks.  There was also a steady flow of eminent teachers passing through Dunhuang. Chinese Buddhists would stay awhile as they began their pilgrimages to India, and Indians and Tibetans would stop off on their way into China.

For example, in the Stein collection we have a kind of passport (IOL Tib J 754) for a Chinese monk who was on a pilgrimage to visit Nālandā in India. The manuscript contains a series of letters of introduction written in Tibetan, apparently in the tenth century. The Chinese monk passed through the Tibetan areas southeast of Dunhuang before arriving there.  We also have a long scroll (Pelliot tibétain 849) that ends with an account of the journey from India to China – via Tibet – of an Indian teacher called Devaputra. The scroll also contains some written notes perhaps taken by a Tibetan student of this Devaputra.

Another fascinating manuscript is a phrasebook with a series of bilingual conversations in Khotanese and Sanskrit (Pelliot 5386). Among these conversations are some that speak of pilgrims coming from Khotan and India to see the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī in China.  Another conversation mentions the arrival of a travelling Tibetan teacher. Most interestingly, one of the phrasebook’s dialogues contains a series of questions that goes something like this:

Student: “What kind of books do you have?”

Teacher: “Sūtra, Abhidharma, Vinaya, Vajrayāna. Which would you like?”

Student: “I’d like Vajrayāna. Please teach it!”

This little dialogue, as well as others from the phrasebook, give us a sense of a place where Buddhist texts and teachings are frequently passed back and forth. The scruffier Dunhuang manuscripts mentioned above might just be some of the notes of the students who received these teachings.

*  *  *

1. Burnett, Charles. 1998. “Give him the White Cow: Notes and Note-Taking in the Universities in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries,” History of Universities 14: 1-30.
2. Sam van Schaik. 2007. “Oral Teachings and Written Texts: Transmission and Transformation in Dunhuang” in Contributions to the Cultural History of Early Tibet, ed. Matthew T. Kapstein & Brandon Dotson. Leiden: EJ Brill. 183–208.

36 thoughts on “Teachers, Students, and Notes

  1. You’re right about the manuscripts being beautiful! But I can also think of parallels from the work I’ve had to read on the Paris book trade that catered to the growing number of students at the University there. There are student-scribbled chap-books of this kind of level known in this work, as well as earlier teaching books with student glosses in (such as “oh stupid grammar!”). Would some comparative references be any use?

  2. Dear Jonathan,

    Thanks for coming to this site, so far from medieval Europe (well, geographically far but temporally quite close). I think, as you’re suggesting, there are many similarities between manuscript cultures, however geographically separated they may be. I know nothing of the Paris book-trade (though I coincidentally ordered my first book from amazon.fr this morning).

    And yes, I would like to see some comparative references very much. Charles Burnett was kind enough to give me a copy of his very nice article on note-taking a couple of years ago (I omitted it from the references above – a mistake I’ve now rectified). Any other references would be appreciated. If you post them here they might be of interest to other non-medievalists as well…

    The approach I took to these manuscripts, to try to prove that they were notes written from an oral source, was to look for ‘errors of hearing’, i.e. homonyms. Since then, a European paleography pointed out that this wasn’t sufficient, since scribes copying from a written source essentially ‘memorize’ short segments of the text as they go along, mentally repeating them back to themselves as they write—and this is also a source of homophonic error.

    I haven’t seen any published discussion of this issue though. Do you know of any?

  3. Dear Early,

    Isn’t it also true that Hellenist scholarship knows of scribal practices in which one person reads the mother-text out loud while a second person writes it down. I’ve occasionally thought that something like this has sometimes been done in Tibet, too. Not that I have ever found any explicit testimony that it did happen. (But some Tibetan ‘compositions’ were surely dictated by their authors.)

    One reason the Greeks used this method was in order to make multiple copies all at once. One person would read while several scribes each made their own copy.

    My two senses.


  4. I just like to mention the specific genre of Tibetan literature referred to as zin bris = “lecture notes”.

    Ahhh, codicology, one of the more important white spots on the map of Tibetan studies.



  5. Hullo again, and my apologies for the slow response. My beginning to read this blog you owe to some anthropology blog carnival, probably Four Stone Hearth, but my continuing to read you owe to the interest of your subject and the clarity with which you put it forward…

    Anyway, nuff flattery, references. The key book, and a good read too despite its subject, is Christopher de Hamel, Glossed Books of the Bible and the Origins of the Paris Book Trade (Woodbridge 1984). I’m sure there must have been other things I read back then, but that’s the only obvious thing on the reading list that relates to the topic. There’s shedloads of bibliography out there but mostly a bit wider than this. For the web-based enthusiast there’s a useful and reliable introduction here, and on the actual subject there’s this in The Art Bulletin which is locked away in JSTOR, but that might still be helpful. The de Hamel book is still the big friendly giant (though only about 250 pages as I recall).

  6. Thanks for the references. Every time I look into the vast literature on European manuscripts I feel rather overwhelmed, so it’s nice to have a few choice picks.

    And I’d like to return compliments to your website. There’s a lot of interesting stuff there, not least your thoughts about history and its (mis)uses.

  7. Dear Dab,

    I haven’t found references to copying texts through dictation in Tibet either. Though there may be some evidence of just such a practice in the copying of official documents during the Tibetan Empire.

    As for compositions being dictated by their authors – have you read José Cabezón’s fascinating article “Authorship and Literary Production in Classical Buddhist Tibet”? He cites several colophons that describe just this. Here is my favourite one (pp.242-3):

    This “Lion’s Roar of Scripture and Reasoning: A Response to the Arguments of sGra pa Shes rab rin chen pa” [was composed] in the temple of the great Dharma College of bKra shis lhun po by the Buddhist monk, the advocate of reasoning, Blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan … The scribe was the master of ten treatises, the holder of the piṭaka and the three trainings, sNying stobs rgya mtsho. Afterwards, the text was completed by the scribe rJe drung Blo bzang dbang rgyal, a Sa skya novice of excellent analytical [abilities], who inserted some scriptures and reasoning in the interstices, and so forth … May Blo bzang bstan ‘dzin’s and bKras shis rab brtan’s virtue [as a result of] establishing the blocks purify all their sins and obscurations, and in all of their rebirths cause them to be cared for by the glorious, holy master.

    The number of people involved in the composition is quite an eye-opener. (i) the ‘author’ who presumably gave one or more lectures on this subject; (ii) the scribe who wrote down these talks, and presumably cleaned them up into a more literary style; (iii) another scribe who added further arguments and scriptural citations to the text; and finally (iv) two people responsible for carving the woodblocks for the printed version – less directly involved in shaping the text, they may still have done some editorial work.

  8. I don’t think that the mere fact of a scribe being mentioned should be taken as sufficient evidence for the written text resulting from dictation or lecturing. A scribe might simply be a monk with expertise in producing manuscripts–and a proper handwriting. He may have worked from scattered written notes given to him the author. The colophon you cite could have even included yet another individual: the proof-reader (zhus dag pa), but possibly the second scribe mentioned may have fulfilled this role.
    I don’t have access to the article. What is the Tibetan for “establishing” the blocks, is it gtan la phab? This is a difficult term, translated in various ways (“establish”, “structure”, “edit” etc.). I never thought it might refer to the act of block-carving, but in your example it apparently does.

  9. Dear Junglo,
    You have a point. Cabezon also argues that a major temple (gtsug lag khang) like bKra shis lhun po must have been a place for teaching, chanting and other activities of the monastic community, and therefore more likely to be suitable for a series of lectures than for writing a treatise. Given the importance of oral teaching and debate in Tibetan monasteries, and especially in Gelugpa scholasticism (a point made in George Dreyfus’ The Sound of Two Hands Clapping) it seems quite likely that the text in question began as an oral teaching. Though that doesn’t exclude the possibility that the scribe(s) worked with written notes as well. I should say that Cabezon’s main argument is the multiplicity of authorship in these texts, not that they have an oral source. Looking back at the colophons of Jigme Lingpa’s texts that I have worked with, I think we have a rather different case, of visionary inspiration followed by writing in solitude. But that’s another story!

  10. By the way, the article is found in the book “Changing Minds” a festschrift for Jeffrey Hopkins, edited by Guy Newland (Snow Lion). And unfortunately the Tibetan for the colophons is not included. But I would think you are right in your guessing the Tibetan behind “establish”. And I think it might cover the whole process of editing, writing the manuscript that is the basis for the blocks, and carving the blocks themselves.

  11. Dear E.T.,
    Thanks. Just another thought: If all those texts mentioning scribes in their colophons (it is not at all rare) were based on oral teachings or dictation, then there should be masses of scribal errors caused by homophones. While errors of this kind regularly occur even in copied texts, I feel (and that’s really not more than a feeling) that there should be many more! But Hu knows, maybe Dab?

    All best,


  12. Sorry, Junglo,

    Dab doesn’t know. Although it’s true that Taglung Tangpa, during the around 6 years he spent with his teacher Pagmo Drupa (before the latter died in 1170), served as his scribe. They say he always took notes, tho’ his memory was so good he didn’t have to. When you look at early Kagyupa teachers, it is often clear (yes, not always) that very few ‘works’ would be in their collected works if it weren’t for students acting as scribes. I think it’s true of Jigten Gonpo’s works for example.

    We do have to distinguish the purposeful dictation of a book and the taking down of notes from a lecture or set of lectures. I think both happened, but the 2nd most definitely did.


  13. For the gtan-la dbab-pa/phab-pa in colophons, the translator of this:


    uses the translation ‘finalize.’

    You could word-search the PDF for “finalize,” but here’s the most significant quote:

    “First, the translators, under the supervision of Kawa Paltsek, translated the text with the help of the Indian scholar, Sarvajnadeva. Then they edited the translation. This means they corrected it by having the Indian scholar once again explain the text to them. In this
    way they could finalize the text. The term ’finalize’ means that the translators came up with a translation they considered definitive.”

    I think this might be the most elegant and communicative translation, instead of the frequent “establish” (the text of the translation).

    I don’t think it has anything to do with woodblock carving (well, most definitely not in the time of Kawa Paltsek!).

  14. I depart for the eastern shores of this fair isle for a few weeks from today, so I won’t be able to continue this fascinating discussion for now. I’ll come back to it later, and please feel free to carry on without me…

  15. This discussion reminds me of a funny and instructive example from Kashmir (see Somdev Vasudeva’s Yoga of the Mālinīvijayottaratantra). The proof that at least one of the mss. were dictated is a ‘daṇḍa’ spelt out instead of a “|” (shad for Tibetanists). I’ve never seen this in Tibetan works, but then again, my readings are quite limited. Keep an eye out for ‘tsheg’ and ‘shad’ in the manuscripts :)



  16. I would find it surprising if the proposed “grading” of MSS advocated above really holds. It would be quite unusual, having no parallel in Indic or European MS cultures I am aware of. Is it really not the case that Tibetan MSS show the same kind of “grading” into formata, media and currens (to use the Latin terms for a kind of uttama, madhyama, adhama classification) according to the nature of the scribe? In European and Indic contexts it is the prettiest, most elegant and perfect MSS that are often the poorest witnesses for content: they were written by comparatively ignorant professional scribes. The “scruffiest”, currens (adhama) MSS frequently turn out to have been written by learned scholars, paṇḍitas, and are often vastly superior textual witnesses, with media MSS falling somewhere in between.

    On dictation there are some explicit statements. The Ṣaṭsāhasrasaṃhitā of the Kubjikā-cult of the Western transmission of Kaulism teaches a noisy ritualised dictation oricedure which might partly account for some textual corruptions in this particular tradition (3.29cd): tato maṅgalanirghoṣaiḥ pustakaṃ vācayet tataḥ

    Somadeva Vasudeva

  17. Hello Dab,

    Read more about the daṇḍa incident (thanks Peter) on p. xvii of Somdev’s book.

    Thanks for your suggestions concerning: gtan la phab. Yes, “finalize” seems like an appropriate word. It is also worthwhile noting that the gtan-la-phabbing people were always (at least in canonical works) identical to the translators. Which means that gtan-la-phabbing is certainly nothing block-carvers ever engaged in. Especially since there was no block-carving in Tibet when the term was coined, as you indicated. So, after all, I may have been wrong when suggesting that gtan la phab might be behind the “establishing” in José Cabezón’s example. But the matter is of very little importance. I am much more puzzled by a reading in a Dunhuang manuscript which I encountered today:

    (line 1) khro bo chen mo bcur dmyigs pa la rtsogs pa ni// [bsam] rgyud [phur] bu ‘i yon tan bzhon pa log pa
    (line 2) nI// de ltar khyab pas tshe ‘di la bgegs zhI ste// bsod nams kyi tshogs thob//

    And this in a MANUscript!! Might it not mean that the Tibetans had invented the typewriter long before E. Remington and Sons? Weird.

    Yours truely,


    P.S. A bottle of Gewürztraminer for whoe’er solves the riddle.

  18. Dear Dab comma

    Funnily enough, just after writing this post I discovered another example, this time in a ms. from Nepal (Matsunami 312, now available online). Here the attributes of a goddess are given: “she has three faces, four arms, her hair stands upright, etc.” Instead of ‘commas’ (this looks like a short daṇḍa) the scribe spelt out ‘ketu’ at least six times. This too could have happened only if the ms. was dictated. Scribes are often quite ignorant, but you can’t be that silly as to copy the text above as: “she has three faces comma four arms comma her hair stands upright comma etc period”

    best wishes comma


  19. Well comma if not stupid I’d think you’d have to be half sleeping exclamation point

    cheers comma

  20. well comma I think it’s rather sweet that a monk would write out every utterance period perhaps the lecturer comma doubting the scribes abilities comma wanted to be sure that the correct cadence was in the manuscript exclamation point and the monk being a faithful and punctilious scribe wrote down exactly what his parentheses or her parentheses teacher said period

  21. Nice to return to such a thriving discussion!

    I haven’t come across any cases of spelled-out punctuation in Tibetan texts either. But may I just speak up for the lowly scribes? We could consider the possibility that this was not a case of stupid or over-zealous scribes, but an established practice to ensure that the punctuation was properly recorded. Punctuation is probably the first thing to undergo transformation when texts are recorded from dictation. If you have the opportunity, look at the introduction to John Dagenais’ The Ethics of Reading in a Manuscript Culture (Princeton University Press, 1994), where he makes an eloquent case for seeing the scribe as a creative, rather than merely corrupting, force in the transmission of texts.

    Somadeva, many thanks for your interesting comment. It is also true among the Dunhuang manuscripts that manuscripts written in a hasty and cursive hand (I think the technical term is ‘tachygraphic’) are good textual witnesses. But I have been thinking that we can make a distinction between two kinds of ‘scruffy’ writing. On the one hand, there is the hasty writing of scholars, akin to the notoriously bad handwriting of doctors on their presecriptions. The difficulties of reading these hands are purely caused by their having been written at speed. This is the kind of writing you are thinking of, and in the post above, it is represented by the second image.

    On the other, there is the writing of those who are not well-versed in the script, which is like a young child’s writing. In the case of the Dunhuang manuscripts, it may be that Tibetan is not their first written or spoken language. When they write quickly, the handwriting degrades in a different way, becoming larger and more asymmetrical. This kind of writing might be quite common the Dunhuang manuscripts because of the multicultural nature of the area – with a number of languages and, more importantly, a number of scripts, having existed there together.

  22. I see, so this kind of “Tachygraphy” is perhaps comparable to some of the karmācārya’s copies of paddhatis (native Nevari speakers untrained in Skt. copying Skt. ritual manulas for personal use in abbreviated form). Their textcritical value is often dubious, if their variants were fully reported in an edition they would make up the bulk of the notes.

    But I think the term “tachygraphy” might not be precise enough, for there are famous (=something has been written about them) Kashmirian scribes of the 17th cent. who used (innovated?) true a tachygraphy Śāradā shorthand, and these are strikingly regular and beautiful. Ratnakaṇṭha (Ratta Razdan) allegedly had a regular habit of copying 600 śḷokas per day. I have seen his MSS and they abound in curious shorthand ligatures that can usually be guessed easily enough though.


  23. Yes, that does seem like a similar case.

    Generally I think we can say that accomplished scribes will adopt an already-existing cursive hand, and use accepted abbreviations, as well as sometimes making up their own. Some kind of cursive handwriting probably always develops shortly after the spread of the technology allows it — pen and ink being perhaps the best tools for fast, cursive writing. In the case of Tibetan, I would argue that the ‘headed’ (dbu can) style began to develop into the ‘headless’ (dbu med) style once writing with pen and ink became widespread. (By the way, what are the writing tools of Nevari and Kashmiri scribes you mention?)

    The semi-educated writers, on the other hand, will only have the basic letter forms, which in this case are the ‘headed’ letters, and when they attempt to write them fast, without the cursive forms in their repetoire, the results are quite different from the attractive tachygraphic writing of the better educated scribes.

  24. Dear S.D.,

    You’re some deva (sorry, a slip of the pen). But didn’t writing on palmleaf require a stylus of some harder substance than reeds? Don’t the letters have to be incised and only afterward filled up with ink by rubbing? Does kalama also mean stylus? And is kalama with the meaning of ‘reed, pen’ really an old word? Doesn’t it come through Persian from Arabic/Greek or something? Just asking.


  25. P.S. Isn’t lekhana the old and truly Sanskrit word? And doesn’t it come from a root that means ‘to scratch’? So isn’t it true that to scribe is to scrape? And isn’t the inking optional, or at least secondary? Sorry, so many questions.


  26. In South India scratching seems to have been the norm. Ahmed Hassan Dani has a longish discussion on how this choice of writing implement influenced the development of the regional post-Gupta era scripts. Since palm-leaves were “scratched” in Southern India it became impossible to have horizontal top serifs (śirorekhā), hence the development of more cursive styles than in Northern India where reed pens were used.

    The term kalama is the preferred term used by medieval Kashmirians (see Kṣemendra’s Narmamālā), I am not sure what the most common term in Nepal was. I think there are quite a lot of terms relating to scribes, writing, and bureaucracy in general that are alleged to have Sassanid origins, divira “scribe” from di-bīr etc.

    The inking is done secondarily, and apparently needs to be repeated occasionally. If you ever visit the IFP/EFEO libary in Pondicherry (or a similarly well maintained MS library) one can still see this happen.There is also a fragrant oil that smells strongly of lemongrass that is used as an insecticide (or against mold) that is regularly painted on. It also seems to keep the palmleaves supple and smooth. In fact, I have wondered if it may be detrimental to them to just dump them in a controlled environment and forget about them as is done in most large libraries today.

    Without inking it can be very difficult to read MSS. Another thing, of the two types of palmleaf currently used in SOuth India, the shorter variety is of poorer quality and it’s use is allegedly a recent innovation. I forget the botanical names now and ma not in my office to check, I remember somebody mentioning that the shorter palmleaf producing trees are not indigenous plants, but 16th cent (??? no idea about the date anymore) imports.

    Somadeva Vasdeva

  27. PS: to carify: “it became impossible to have horizontal top serifs”. This is because a long succession of horizontal scratches at the same level would have split the palm leaf.

    Somadeva Vasdeva

  28. PS: to clarify: “it became impossible to have horizontal top serifs”. This is because a long succession of horizontal scratches at the same level would have split the palm leaf.

    Somadeva Vasdeva

  29. Writing by scratching seems to encourage one to write in short, straight lines as much as possible, so the early Roman cursive is not rounded (the characteristics I think of when I say ‘cursive’) but made up of short disconnected strokes. On the other hand, Indic writing styles are full of curved strokes. Is this due to the particular nature of the styluses and palm leaves used in India?

    P.S. I was once shown a computer program that electronically ‘inked’ digital images of uninked palm-leaf manuscripts.

  30. It is actually quite easy to produce curves with the iron styluses they use, I did some experimentation but the bizarre method of holding the stylus hindered my progress. What is also puzzling is the use of kuṭila/vartula/bhujiṃmol scripts in Nepal, where cursive top serifs were used although reed pens were also used. I cannot actually remember ever seeing “scratched” early Nepalese MSS, but perhaps they have some at the NGMCP. Otherwise, if Dani’s theory is correct, we would have to assume that this writing style was adapted from elsewhere. But it seems plausible to me that the development of cursive styles is motivated by the need to prevent splitting palm-leaves along the grain with horizontal top serifs.

  31. Thank you so much Vasu Deva, I guess you are a wealth god, meaning at least one with a wealth of knowledge if not actual wealth wealth, which makes your name a fitting one. I feel more enlightened now, but of course that may not be so hard to accomplish when the darkness of my ignorance is what you’ve got to work with.


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