Secrets of the Cave III: The Cave of Monk Wu

Once upon a time, there was a monk called Hongbian. He was Chinese, but he grew up in a city ruled by the Tibetan empire. So, like everybody else in the city, he wore Tibetan clothes, and learned to read and write the Tibetan language. Because he was from the wealthy Wu family, he quickly rose in the ranks, eventually becoming one of the most senior monks in Dunhuang. This brought him in contact with orders that came from the emperor of Tibet himself.

More than once, the Tibetan emperor commanded that the city of Dunhuang should make hundreds of copies of Buddhist sutras in Tibetan. The copying of these sutras was a massive undertaking, almost turning the whole city into a scriptorium — on which, see my previous posts here. Hundreds of (mostly Chinese) scribes copied the sacred Tibetan syllables onto loose-leaf pecha pages and scrolls. The result was a series of monumental volumes of the Perfection of Wisdom sutra, and many hundreds of scrolls of the Sutra of Aparamitayus (the manuscript Pelliot tibetain 999 links Hongbian to the latter).

Many of these mass-produced sutras still exist today, because quite a few of them were placed in the Dunhuang cave. In an exciting new development, scholars investigating the recently opened libraries of Central Tibetan monasteries (including Drepung) have found more volumes of the same sutras, which seem to have been shipped there from Dunhuang. We know this because the colophons contain the names of the same Dunhuang-based scribal teams.

So Hongbian’s home was one of the major scriptoria of the Tibetan Empire. He was still there when the Tibetan rulers were kicked out of Dunhuang in 848. A few years later, he rose to the eminent position of the head of the Buddhist sangha in the whole of Hexi (basically modern Gansu province). Around the same time, he (and other wealthy relatives) paid for the excavation of a large cave shrine in the Dunhuang cave site. It was actually the third cave that he had commissioned, and all three now formed three stories of a cave temple.

This large new cave (now known as Cave 16) contained a small antechamber (Cave 17). It might have been a meditation retreat. Perhaps it was just for the storage of supplies. In any case, after Hongbian’s death in 862, it was converted into a memorial shrine with a statue of the revered monk in meditation, perhaps with his ashes beneath the statue. An inscribed stone recording his achievements was also placed in the cave. Over the next hundred years, Cave 17 later came to be filled to bursting with manuscripts, and Hongbian’s statue was taken out and put in the cave above.

*  *  *

Going over this story of how Cave 17 came into being, it is surprising how little it features in the explanations for the manuscript hoard that we have looked at so far. This might be (as Yoshiro Imaeda suggested in a recent article) because the Tibetan aspect of the cave has been neglected. This might be because Dunhuang has been dominated by Sinologists, derspite the fact that the Tibetan manuscripts are nearly as numerous as the Chinese.

What about those massive volumes of Tibetan Perfection of Wisdom sutras found in the cave? These have been of so little interest to Chinese scholars in the 20th century that most of them remain in the stores of the Dunhuang city museum, only recently coming to the attention of a new generation of Chinese and Tibetan scholars. Yet they might be the key to understanding the manuscript hoard. And what about the collection of letters (in Tibetan) addressed to Hongbian? These represent Hongbian’s official responsibilities, and they may have been interred in the cave at the same time as the statue and stone inscription, or some years later. Here’s a detail from a letter addressed to “Khenpo Hongpen”:

So, were the first batch of manuscripts placed in the cave those that belonged to Hongbian himself? These could have been the ‘seed’ for future deposits of manuscripts, until the function of the cave gradually changed into a repository for manuscripts. Perhaps another early batch of manuscripts was deposited after the death of another famous figure from Dunhuang, the Lotsapa* (translator) Chodrup, whose Chinese name was Facheng, and whose family (like Hongbian’s) was Wu. This monk was a contemporary of Hongbian, who also worked during the last decades of Tibetan rule in Dunhuang, translating Chinese texts into Tibetan at the order of the Tibetan emperor. He was also involved in the mass-production of Tibetan Perfection of Wisdom sutras, as a senior editor. In the Dunhuang cave, we find nice copies of Chodrup’s finished translations as well as working notes that may even be in his own handwriting.

Is this a pattern? First Hongbian’s manuscripts are deposited, then a few years later those of his relative Facheng/Chodrup. And then, on the same model, the manuscripts and paintings collected by other monks, once they had passed away. I don’t want to overstate this, but even the pious monk Daozhen (who we talked about in the last post) might be part of this pattern. If Daozhen’s personal manuscript collection was interred after his death, this would also account for the evidence that Rong used for his idea that the cave represented the collection of a single monastery.

*  *  *

I don’t want to argue for a “funerary deposit” theory to displace the “sacred waste” and “monastic library” theories. After all, human life is organic and messy and rarely reducible to single explanations. Over 150 years, our cave went through several incarnations: storage closet (perhaps), funerary shrine, manuscript repository. The man who built the cave died, a statue of him was placed inside it, and then his letters and books, and those of other people too, and then so many manuscripts that his statue had to be taken upstairs. Other people, born long after the cave was first made, came and performed rituals there, and more manuscripts were deposited, until the cave was filled to the brim. And then it was closed, and then…

What I’m trying to say is, it’s probably better for us to think of this cave in terms of “multiple uses” rather than single, conclusive theories. But let’s always keep Hongbian in the picture. Nowadays, his statue has been put back in the cave, and he sits in meditation under the shade of the tree that was painted on the wall behind him over a thousand years ago. It seems right that Hongbian himself should also return to the centre of our discussion of the manuscripts in the cave.

*  *  *


This post could not have been written without this superb article by Yoshiro Imaeda, in which he does not put forward a new theory about the manuscript cave, but sensitively reviews what has been written in the past, especially in the light of the Tibetan manuscripts:

Yoshiro Imaeda. 2008. “The Provenance and Character of the Dunhuang Documents.” Memoirs of the Toyo Bunko 66: 81–102.

This article is also worth reading (and is available on JSTOR):

Ma Shichang. 1995. “Buddhist Cave-Temples and the Cao Family at Mogao Ku, Dunhuang.” World Archaeology 27.2: 303-317.

And for those who read Chinese:

Ma Shichang. 1978. “Guanyu Dunhuang cangjingdong de jige wenti” 關於敦煌藏經洞的幾個問題. Wenwu 12: 21-33, 20.

*  *  *


1. Hongbian’s statue, back in Cave 17.

2. Pelliot tibétain 1200, a letter addressed to Hongbian.

*  *  *


* The spelling of this mysterious word in the Dunhuang documents is usually lo tsa pa.

14 thoughts on “Secrets of the Cave III: The Cave of Monk Wu

  1. Hi Sam,

    As for the mysterious term lo tsa ba (lo tsa bā, lo tstsha ba etc., I believe it is now commonly accepted that this word derives from the Sanskrit lokacaksuṣ = “eye of the world”, a metaphor for sun. Cf. the Tibetan dictionaries which also gloss the term as ‘jig rten mig. If you take the four syllables of lokacaksuṣ, and drop the second and the fourth (a common method of Tibetan abbreviation [pad ma nor bu = pad nor etc.]), you’ll end up with lo ca. The Tibetans commonly used dental-affricates for transliterating Sanskrit palatals because that was how the latter were pronounced in Nepal and Kashmir. Hence lo ca became lo tsa to which then, it seems, a nominal particle was added: lo tsa ba



  2. Dear S,

    “scholars investigating the recently opened libraries of Central Tibetan monasteries (including Drepung) have found more volumes of the same sutras, which seem to have been shipped there from Dunhuang. We know this because the colophons contain the names of the same Dunhuang-based scribal teams.”

    Oh my! Dunhuang manuscripts got shipped to Lhasa WHEN? Is anything published about this yet?

    Yours from Chorten rinpoche,

  3. Dear Balusubramanian,

    Very many thanks for the explanation of lo tsā ba (etc.). I can’t really venture an opinion, as I haven’t looked into the question at all. Your explanation certainly makes sense from the point of view of the Sanskrit language and the Tibetan etymological tradition, but that tradition is not very reliable when we are looking for real etymologies. On the other hand, your explanation perfectly matches the orthography of the Dunhuang form lo tsa pa. I’d be interested in hearing anybody else’s thoughts on the matter.

    Best regards,

  4. Dear Chorten-la,

    I first heard about this from Pasang Wangdu, who had been looking at these Dunhuang Perfection of Wisdom manuscripts himself in Drepung in 2009. He gave a talk about it in the last IATS conference (I know, there was a lot going on). At the same panel Kazushi Iwao also talked about these manuscripts, and referred to three articles by Chinese scholars on similar Dunhuang manuscripts recently discovered at other Central Tibetan monasteries. I can copy his references here (without the Chinese characters I’m afraid):

    Ma De. “Habangjing, Mahaprajna-paramita-sutra, found in Tibet is a copy of Dunhuang manuscript.” Dunhuang Yanjiu, 2009/6: 79-83.

    Xiong Wenbin and Zhang Jianlin. “Some Tibetan books collected at Northern Sakya Monastery [and] Phurba Lhakang, Southern Sakya Monastery, Tibet. Zhongguo Zangxue 2007/1: 92-105.

    Zhang Yanqing. “Analysis of the relationship between the sutras in Sgrol dkar temple and the Mahaprajna-paramita-sutra from Dunhuang,” Xizang Yanjiu 2010/2: 36-43.

    As for when – I would assume before the end of the Tibetan empire, though I suppose it is possible that the manuscripts were brought to Central Tibet in the early phyi dar to help re-establish the monasteries there…


  5. The lokacakṣuḥ solution sounds very ingenious, but I’m left wondering why Sanskrit mss. mentioning Tibetans do not contain this re-translation. The forms we have (if the transliterations can be trusted) are loccava-vajradhvaja (probably Shong ston Rdo rje rgyal mtshan) and cchyaka-lvaccāva (probably Chag lo Chos rje dpal) on a Catuḥstotravivaraṇa and Munimatālaṃkāra ms. respectively. Surely, if the names can be Sanskritized, what’s holding back the scribe from writing lokacakṣuḥ for locava (or whatever it is)?

  6. Dear P.

    It’s a good point, though given that a few centuries have elapsed between the arrival of the Tibetan term lo tsa pa and the transliterations in the texts you mention, the “original” Sanskrit could have been forgotten. I don’t suppose you see any clue to the origin of the term in these Sanskrit transliterations?


  7. None whatsoever, unfortunately. Has anyone ever explored the `Inner Asian’ trail for this word? Could it come from Khotanese or something like that?

  8. I think “real etymologies” is a very optimistic expression, or, I would say on a bad day, an expression of optimism without much conviction to back it up, regardless of which nationality is producing them.
    Not that I don’t find it amusing. The usual explanation of Lo-tsâ-ba is that it’s a Tibetan-style abbreviation of a Tibskrit spelling of Sanskrit Lokacākṣu, that means Eye of the World (or Eye of the People). I find that explanation quite interesting and plausible, even if it’s hard to explain how that all works out to any old man-in-the-street who hasn’t gone much into Indo-Tibetology. I do wonder why the expression wasn’t Mouth of the World, or Ear of the World, but anyway… There are more complicated spellings of the word, like Lotstshâ-ba for instance, that might demand some other Sanskritic term to account for it… I remember how in Naritasan Jamspal of New York went into this in some detail.

  9. Sorry, I hadn’t noticed Sz’s comment before I sent in my own. The form he gives, loccava, looks more like the lotstshâ-ba form you do often encounter in Tibetan. What isn’t clear to me yet is whether these (loccava and lvaccāva) are re-Sanskritizations of the Tibetan form, in which case it would be foolhardy to use them to document the ‘original’ Indic form, wouldn’t it? Any comment to that? Does loccava have a meaning in Sanskrit or some other Indic language (looks sort of like a Prakritic form, doesn’t it?).

  10. I took it from Sz’s comment that these were re-Sanskritizations and therefore useless from an etymological point of view. But interesting that the Indians of that time were apparently not aware of a genuine Sanskrit word behind the Tibetan one. Not that I want to put words into his mouth…


  11. sorry for the radio silence. yes, that’s what I meant to say, except that these are not re-Sanskritizations. the Indic scribe simply wrote down what he heard. what is strange is that if the Tibetan sponsor Vajradhvaja was bothered to Sanskritize his own name, why couldn’t he do the same for his title, if lokacakṣu is indeed the solution. also note the usage lotstsha byed (although I cannot state now with absolute certainty whether this is good and old usage).

  12. We all need a bit of radio silence now and then! I haven’t seen the form lotstsha byed but it seems to support the reading of the Dunhuang orthography lo tsa pa as the transliteration lo tsa followed by the Tibetan nominalizer pa (which is also what Balasubramanian was saying in the first comment). This still doesn’t get us any further on the question of whether lo tsa derives from lokacakṣu. It does seem — as you say — worth considering this an open question, and looking further afield for those two syllables, in Central Asian languages or even medieval Chinese.

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