The Tibetan manuscripts from the sealed cave in Dunhuang are still the earliest that we have (along with those from the Tibetan forts in the Taklamakan desert). So, some readers might be surprised to hear that there is absolutely no agreement about why they were put in the cave, and why it was sealed up. Our failure to answer these questions remains deeply problematic. How much can we say for sure about these sources for Tibetan culture and history if we don’t know these basic facts about the reasons they have survived to this day?
Marc Aurel Stein was the first archeologist to reach the caves and gain access to the manuscripts. (He did not however, discover them; that honour goes to the Chinese monk Wang Yuanlu.) In his immense reports of his expedition, Serindia, he speculates about why the manuscripts were placed in Cave 17 (the number he gave the manuscript cave). He suggested that they were essentially discarded manuscripts, which nobody needed anymore, but could not be destroyed because of their sacred, Buddhist content. They were, in his influential phrase, “sacred waste”.
This idea was widely accepted by Dunhuang scholars like Akira Fujieda, and many still argue for it. In China it has a name: feiqi shuo, the “waste theory.” I’ve always found it a bit unsatisfactory as an explanation. For one thing, it doesn’t easily explain all the non-religious manuscripts in the cave, or the many beautiful and complete manuscripts (and paintings too). It seems a bit naive about the complexities of material culture. And most of all, this apparently pragmatic explanation doesn’t really engage with Buddhist ritual practice.
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Actually, Stein himself had a more nuanced view (he usually did). In Serindia he mentioned that some of the bundles of manuscripts looked as if they had been picked up and deposited in the cave as a religious (or as he put it, “superstitious”) act. This touches on a truth that the phrase “sacred waste” does not — that the act of depositing manuscripts can itself be a religious act. But what kind of religious act might lie behind depositing manuscripts in a cave?
As well as scraps and fragments, the cave contains hundreds of complete copies of the same sutra.We know that many of these were copied for patrons, from a single copy of the Lotus Sutra for a nun mourning the loss of her mother, to hundreds of copies of the Sutra of Aparamitayus to ensure the long life of the Tibetan emperor. Apart from the merit generated by the writing of these manuscripts, they had no other use. Placing them in the cave was the final act in a ritual process. This has been put nicely by John Kieschnick in his book on Buddhism and material culture:
In this context, the prodigious store of copies of the Diamond Sutra at Dunhuang, virtually identical in content and originally belonging to only a few monastic libraries, begins to make sense: for the most part these are “receipts” for merit-giving transactions, rather than scriptures that were read.
This also explains the presence of Buddhist paintings, many of them in good condition, in the cave. The pictures of donors that are often found at the bottom of these paintings show that they too were commissioned, painted, and finally deposited, in the process of creating and dedicating merit.
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Now, what if all the Buddhist manuscripts deposited in the cave (not just the sutras explicitly copied to generate merit) had a ritual function? This struck me a few years ago when I read Richard Salomon’s thoughts on the oldest Buddhist manuscripts in the world: the Kharosthi scrolls.
It can be safely assumed that the manuscripts in question, regardless of their specific character or condition, were understood and treated as relics. The status of their written representations of the words of the Buddha as dharma-relics, functionally equivalent to bodily relics of the Buddha or other Buddhist venerables, is widely acknowledged in the Buddhist tradition. Thus, the essential motivation for interring manuscripts is obvious; it was a form of relic dedication.
Of course, the Kharosthi manuscripts are not the Dunhuang manuscripts (as far as we can tell, the former seem to have been buried in the foundations of a monastery). Still, this way of looking at the Dunhuang manuscripts makes me doubtful of the highly pragmatic explanations of the “sacred waste” theory, like Akira Fujieda’s idea that the manuscripts were disposed of once printing was introduced to Dunhuang. Or Fang Guangchang’s theory that they were taken out of local monasteries after a large-scale inventory project.
So, if the phrase “sacred waste” brings to mind some kind of fancy landfill site, understanding the manuscripts as relics might bring us closer to the world of the Buddhist monks of Dunhuang. If the manuscripts were “functionally equivalent” to the body of the Buddha, every time someone deposited a manuscript in the cave it was a ritual act, pregnant with symbolism, and operating in the system of merit creation and dedication. Even if we don’t chuck out the waste theory, this seems worth keeping in mind.
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Fang Guangchang. 1988. “Dunhuang yishu zhong de fojiao zhuzuo” 敦煌遺書中的佛教著作. Wenshi zhishi 1988.10: 87-90.
Fujieda Akira. 1966. “The Tun-huang Manuscripts: A General Description, Part I.” In Zimbun: Memoirs of the Research Institute for Humanistic Studies, Kyoto University 9 (1966):1-32.
Fujieda Akira. 1969. “The Tun-huang Manuscripts: A General Description, Part II.” In Zimbun: Memoirs of the Research Institute for Humanistic Studies, Kyoto University 10 (1969):17-39.
John Kieschnik. 2003. The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. (quote on p.170)
Richard Salomon. 2009. “Why did the Gandhāran Buddhists bury their manuscripts?” In Stephen C. Berwitz, Juliane Schober and Claudia Brown (eds), Buddhist Manuscript Cultures: Knowledge, Ritual and Art. London and New York: Routledge. 19–34. (quote on p.30)
M.A. Stein. 1921. Serindia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China. 5 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (quote on p.820)
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1. Bundles of scrolls from the cave, photographed by Stein. (c) British Library, Photo 392/27(589).
2. A painting of Avalokiteśvara, one of the high-quality and undamaged paintings put into the cave in the 10th century. (c) British Museum (Stein Collection) 1919,0101,0.2.
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A final note…