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.
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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.
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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.