Secrets of the Cave I: “Sacred Waste”

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.

*  *  *

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 Keischnik 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.

*  *  *

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.

*  *  *


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)

*  *  *


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.

*  *  *

A final note…

If I seem to have missed things out in this discussion, that’s because it’s the first in a series. Next up, II: The Cave Library, and III: The Cave of Monk Wu…

12 thoughts on “Secrets of the Cave I: “Sacred Waste”

  1. Hi Sam!

    What about concealment under threat of destruction? In times of social unrest, invasion or whatnot, books and other things might be walled up for their own protection. Not that I’m opposed to the relic deposit idea, not at all. Just that this protective motive should also be considered among the others. Didn’t a similar thing, albeit in a different time frame, happen with the books described in Amy Heller’s new Serindia book (not that I’ve seen let alone read it yet)? And wasn’t the motive one of protecting them? If it doesn’t look like ‘sacred waste,’ chances are it’s a ‘holy treasure’ – if you ask me. But perhaps I’m jumping the gun and you were planning this for your next installment?

    Nice having you back all rested up (hee hee).

    Yours, D-

  2. Hi D-

    Well, Pelliot and many others have argued that the cave was sealed to protect the manuscripts from destruction at the hands of non-Buddhist invaders. The trouble is, there’s not a shred of direct evidence to back this up. But if you don’t mind, I’ll wait to discuss this in a later post (and there won’t be as big a gap as there was between the last two posts, I promise). Not that this is a bad idea, and it surely was the case with some manuscript caches. Salomon calls it “dharma insurance” in his article cited here.


  3. Hi Sam,
    might there have been more than one “layer” of deposits in the cave, at different times and for perhaps different reasons? If that were the case, it would tie in with the presence of a text like PT 837 (as you know, one of the several rDo rje sems dpa’ zhus lan manuscripts) which was found “with repairs to its top scroll rod, which is the original one, indicating that it was carefully kept and highly valued”(Takahashi in “Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang”, p.97, referencing Ueyama)
    But you’re probably going to deal with such points in your next posts, anyway, so don’t mind me !

  4. Hi Karen,
    You are almost certainly right that the manuscripts were not all put in the cave at the same time. It’s quite likely that the manuscripts belong to Hongbian (the monk who commissioned the cave) were placed there shortly after his death in the 850s. On the other hand, we know that manuscripts were put in as late as the early 11th century. So that’s a century and a half of depositing manusctipts. Quite enough time for there to be different reasons for doing it. (And yes, I do intend to get back to that point later!)

    It is often bemoaned by scholars that we have no record of the original state of the cave. By the time Stein got there, the monk who had discovered it had already moved the contents around, given some of the manuscripts away, and probably put some in that he had picked up from the other caves, which he was in the process of restoring. So – a mess, unfortunately, which is one of the reasons why there is still no agreement about why the manuscripts were put in the cave, and why it was sealed.


  5. Dear S,

    I still have the distinct feeling the ‘sacral deposit’ idea doesn’t fit, while the protection/preservation motive is more probable.

    Here’s why. (I’ll try to keep it short and simple.)

    In Tibetan Buddhism the word for ‘sacral deposit’ is rten-gzhug, which means ‘inserting [into] supports’ with supports meaning supports of the Buddha’s Body, Speech and Mind (I like to translate ‘support’ as icon). I believe rten-gzhug is a shortened version for “rten-la gzungs gzhug,” insertion of dharanis into supports.

    The question that might be asked here is, Is the object\structure into which these books were inserted a holy object, a rten? Generally dharani (i.e. relic or relic-like text) insertions are only done for Body and Mind supports, which basically means images and stupas (not that things can’t be inserted into books or Speech supports, just that it’s more challenging for obvious reasons).

    In brief, I don’t see the motive for a ‘sacral deposit’ if there isn’t a stupa or image that they are being deposited into as sacralizing objects.

    Were dharani insertions done in imperial times? someone might ask.

    Well, one indication might be the dharani on a life-wood (srog shing) that was once inside an image from the time of ‘Bro Khri-gsum-rje at the imperial Kwa-chu Temple depicted in Robert Vitali’s book Early Temples of Central Tibet, plate 15 on p. 8.

    I’m quite sure dharani insertions were taking place in Indian Buddhism before its arrival in Tibet, although I won’t go into this today.

    In short, if they were just put in a cave or even a cave temple, they weren’t sacral deposits, regardless of how holy they might have been, or not, in their own right (and I don’t think those Old Tibetan contracts were ever meant to be holy).

    There may not be a “shred of direct evidence,” but that lack of direct evidence for the manuscripts being under threat of destruction at that particular point in history isn’t evidence against the idea that they might very often have been under threat of destruction. So I’m not sure I will accept your argument in favor of ‘sacral deposit’ unless you make a better one than you have offered so far.


  6. Dan,

    I’m wondering whether breaking this topic into three parts really works. These arguments beg the questions that I was going to look at in part 3, but since you’re asking, I won’t hold back now.

    First of all, I’m not here to put across the “explanation” that the manuscripts were left as sacral deposits. I was trying to put the old “sacred waste” theory in the light of more recent research on books as material culture in Buddhism. And this means, in part, taking the “waste” out of “sacred waste” (note that the converse is true of the Chinese “waste theory”).

    This doesn’t mean jumping to the conclusion that the manuscripts were sacred deposits exactly equivalent to the insertion of dharanis into stupas. The range of material in the cave makes that very unlikely (but I see now that my quote from Salomon might have suggested that).

    BUT — and here I jump to what I want to say in part 3 — the function of Cave 17 in the years after the death of the monk who had it made, Hongbian, was a funerary shrine, containing a statue, his ashes (inside the statue), a stele inscription, and (most likely) manuscripts and paintings belonging to him. Now, since the cave was so messed around with, we don’t know what was put in first, but we do know that several manuscripts in Tibetan and Chinese that were Hongbian’s personal property (e.g. letters addressed to him) are found there.

    So what we might have here are manuscripts deposited (like the statue and stele) in a funerary context. Now Hongbian was a member of the Wu family, and the their name is associated with the cave; the other famous monk from that family is our very own Go Chos grub (or Wu Facheng), and many manuscripts that seem to have been his (some perhaps, as Daishun Ueyama opined, in his very own hand) are also found in the cave. So it is possible that the funerary deposit of manuscripts from Wu family members continued in later years.

    It’s worth considering the striking fact (stated by Robert Sharf in a conference paper some years back) that the whole Dunhuang cave complex is best understood as a funerary site. The Buddhist practices associated with it are largely funerary practices.

    Again, I don’t want to argue for a “funerary depost” theory in order to kick out every other idea about the cave. As I said earlier (to Karen), in some 150 years there was time for the uses of the cave to change (indeed, the removal of Hongbian’s statue before it was sealed strongly suggests this).

    Next up, I’ll look at Rong Xinjiang’s theory that the manuscripts were the overflow of a particular monastic library. But I strongly recommend reading this article by Yoshiro Imaeda, on just what we have been talking about.


  7. Dear Sam,

    Alright, I’ll try to be more patient until you have gone on to cover the other possible motives. If the cave was acting as a kind of funerary monument to a holy person, then the books would have been relics of contact (or relics of the garb). So even sales contracts would have been, in that kind of context, sanctifying. No problem with that!


  8. In my experience with Tibetan Buddhist monks and lamas even today, some hold the view that the Tibetan written language itself is sacred. According to the culturally accepted history there, the script was developed for the express purpose of importing Dharma. They will ritually destroy (usually burn) any items with Tibetan letters on them religious or otherwise. Perhaps the Dunhuang ‘sacred waste’ was sequestered for this reason, or perhaps the person(s) sealing the material away were not literate.

  9. Dear Sam,

    We’ve never met, I think, but I thought I’d drop you a note and let you know I’m nominating Early Tibet for a ‘Liebster’ award. And what is this you ask? Frankly, I don’t really know. Apparently, its supposed to be something to recognize smaller blogs that do good work (not that I have any idea if your blog is ‘small’ or not. There’s something about 300 members being the cutoff, but whatever). You’re selected by another blogger, and then are supposed to nominate pick three to five other blogs in turn, in what seems to be an ongoing pyramid structure of seemingly chaotic dimensions. I had not heard about this until Dan Martin nominated my blog, but so far, neither fame nor fortune seem to be forthcoming. So feel free to totally disregard this, but I hope you enjoy knowing that there are at least a few of us who enjoy reading this.


  10. Dear Geoff,
    Many thanks!
    As you say, the award scheme is a bit strange, but I appreciate your kind comments. An even better result is that I now know your blog, which I had somehow missed. I’ve now read two fascinating posts and will go back to read the rest.
    Here’s to more inter-blog communication!

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