Silk Road phrasebooks

Phrasebooks still seem to sell quite well, judging by their presence on bookshop shelves. If translation apps do eventually make them redundant, it will be the end of a tradition that goes back a long way. The Central Asian manuscript collections provide plenty of evidence that phrasebooks were popular with travellers on the Silk Road in the first millennium AD.

One Tibetan-Chinese phrasebook (found in Or.8210/S.1000 and S.2736) was obviously compiled for merchants. The phrasebook gives the Tibetan word, followed by the Chinese equivalent, all in the Tibetan script. Thus it was clearly written for travellers who knew the Tibetan language but little or nothing of Chinese. In this phrasebook, the names of goods including food, clothes, tools, weapons and armour predominate.

Or.8210/S.2736Also here are words and phrases helpful to visitors to a strange town looking for food and a bed for night, and moving on to the next destination. The phrasebook is also there for travellers who encounter problems such as illness, being robbed, or being accused of being a thief, including the essential (but perhaps not very effective) “what have I done wrong!?” Probably more useful is the translation of the title of the Tibetan emperor and other high officials in the Tibetan empire. There is also a Chinese translation of the word bonpo, in case you need the help of a ritual specialist. The author of the phrasebook had a sense of humour: the last phrase he included is “shut up!” Sometimes even an intrepid traveller needs a bit of peace and quiet.

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IOL Khot 140

It wasn’t just merchants who had to haggle at the market. Another manuscript, IOL Khot 140, is a list of goods for a Khotanese monastery in the 10th century. On the list are: coats of silk and wool, trousers, undergarments, shoes, blankets, a camel-skin pouch, a silver cup, incense and more. It is nice to think of the monks all heading off to market with this list, but the document is signed by the “receiver” (nāsākä), the Revered Ratnavṛkṣa, plus witnesses, which suggests that this is more of a receipt for an order than a shopping list. Considering the phrasebook we just looked at, it’s interesting that in this list a few items are glossed in Tibetan, suggesting that Tibetan might have become the lingua franca of the marketplace in Dunhuang by the 10th century.

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Pelliot chinois 5538

Back to phrasebooks, but staying with Khotanese, Pelliot chinois 5538 is a scroll with a series of phrases in Sanskrit and Khotanese, on the general theme of pilgrimage. Some of the phrases form conversations, like this:

And where are you going now?
I am going to China.
What business do you have in China?
I’m going to see the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī.
When are you coming back?
I’m going to China, then I’ll return.

The conversations also cover practical matters:

Do you have any provisions for the road?
I do not like my provisions.
I’ll go with one or two horses.

We don’t know whether this particular scroll (which also dates from the late 10th century) was actually used as a phrasebook – it might have just been copied out as an exercise – but most of the phrases in it are relevant to the needs of a Buddhist pilgrim travelling from India to China. The phrasebook also has some revealing snippets of conversation that suggest another interest for travellers. After some phrases regarding the arrival of a Tibetan teacher, the conversation goes in this direction:

He is dear to many women.
He goes about a lot.
He makes love.

Which suggests that gossip was another popular activity among Silk Route travellers!

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Pelliot chinois 2782

Not all Tibetan teachers were held in such low esteem by the Khotanese, as another multilingual manuscript shows (Pelliot 2782 – pictured at the top of this post). This is a letter, or a copy of a letter, written to a Tibetan lama. It’s written in the Khotanese script, as you can see in the image above, but the language turns out to be Tibetan. Presumably the writer knew Tibetan as a spoken language, but could only write the Khotanese script. Luckily for us, the Tibetan was reconstructed by Ryotai Kaneko, and published by H.W. Bailey, with an English translation. Since Bailey’s translation of the Tibetan was not very accurate, I’ve retranslated it here.

To the great teacher, the eyes of the Buddha, who sees lowly ones like us with the eyes of wisdom. Although we do not share a language, and we are not skilled in the Tibetan language of the lords of the dharma, the local rulers, please do not break your commitments. This is
addressed to the great master. I respectfully enquire whether you are well, and in particular whether your precious and noble body has become fatigued. We humble ones have ridden to see the face of the Noble Mañjuśrī and are returning to [the land of] Śākya[muni], the god of
gods. May we be permitted to come and make an offering to all who have seen the face of Mañjuśrī?

The letter begins with the usual polite conventions (in fact, these take up the majority of the letter) before getting to the point, a request to visit this teacher and make an offering. Like the monk whose conversations appear in the Khotanese-Sanskrit phrasebook, the writer of this letter has travelled East to visit Wutaishan, and is on his or her way back to Khotan (yes, the Khotanese did consider themselves to belong to the land of Śākyamuni).

I find something really heartening about this evidence of human beings’ ability to cross the barriers of language. OK, so maybe it was often just to buy blankets. Still I suspect that the linguistic efforts of the merchants paved the way for the communication of other things, including Buddhism. Once that has happened did the kings and emperors with their big translation projects get involved, and get the credit. That’s why its nice to have these accidentally preserved phrasebooks and multilingual lists and letters, scraps of evidence of unsung linguistic adventurers.

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Further reading

Bailey, H.W. 1964. ‘Śrī Viśa Śūra and the Ta-uang’. Asia Major (New Series) 11.1: 17–26.

Bailey, H.W. 1973. “Taklamakan Miscellany.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 36.2: 224–227. JSTOR.

KUMAMOTO Hiroshi. 1988. ‘Saiiki ryokōsha yō Sansukuritto-Kōtango kaiwa renshūchō’ 西域旅行者用サンスクリット=コ一タン語 會話練習帳. Seinan Ajia Kenkyū 西南アジア研究 28: 53–82.

Sam van Schaik. “Red Faced Barbarians, Benign Despots and Drunken Masters: Khotan as a Mirror to Tibet.” PDF here.

van Schaik, Sam and Imre Galambos, Manuscripts and Travellers: The Sino-Tibetan Documents of a Tenth-Century Buddhist Pilgrim. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012.

Thomas, F.W. and Giles, Lionel. 1948. ‘A Tibeto-Chinese Word-and-Phrase Book’. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 12.2–3: 753–769. JSTOR

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This is an expanded version of a post I wrote on the IDP blog.

The Original Bodhicaryāvatāra

Shantideva The Bodhicaryāvatāra or “Way of the Bodhisattva” as it is often translated, is one of the most read texts in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.* This is hardly surprising, as it’s author Śāntideva managed the feat of encapsulating the vast expanses of Mahāyāna Buddhism in a single elegantly and often movingly written text. What is surprising is that the text as it has been passed down in the Tibetan tradition, and as it is read in translation today, is not the earliest version, and is quite different from it. We know this largely thanks to the excellent work of Akira Saito, which is undeservedly difficult to get hold of. During the 90s Saito worked on four Dunhuang manuscripts of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, showing how the early version that they contained differed quite radically from the familiar later version. Here I’ll summarize his conclusions and add some of my own thoughts. The four manuscripts are actually three:


(1) A complete copy comprising IOL Tib J 628 and Pelliot tibétain 794.


(2) A copy with several missing pages, now representing about 60% of the text (IOL Tib J 629).


 (3) A copy of the last chapter, on the dedication of merit (IOL Tib J 630).

So, what are the differences between this Dunhuang version of the Bodhicaryāvatāra and the one that was passed down through the centuries in Tibet and is still being taught today? Most strikingly, it is significantly shorter, containing roughly 700 verses instead of 1,000. Also, chapters 2 and 3 of the longer version are combined together, so that the Dunhuang version has nine chapters instead of ten. Most of the missing verses come in the chapters on meditation and wisdom, perhaps the most read and discussed chapters in the Bodhicaryāvatāra. Further confirmation that the Dunhuang Bodhicaryāvatāra was the earlier version is found in the early 9th-century library catalogue, the Ldan dkar ma, which records the existence of this text, with 600 verses (Saito suggests that it is given as 600 rather than 700 because the verses were estimated at 300 verses per volume, and the text was in two volumes). Saito’s close study of the differences in the wisdom chapter lead him to conclude that the familiar longer version of the Bodhicaryāvatāra is “an enlarged version” of the Dunhuang manuscript version, with many verses added on criticism of other systems of thought, including that of a supreme deity (Īśvara) and the metaphysics of the Sāṃkhya. On the other hand, some of the verses on non-self have been cut from the older version.

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 The existence of different versions of the Bodhicaryāvatāra was known in Tibet. Buton was aware that a shorter version was listed in early library catalogues like the Ldan dkar ma, and he wrote:

Though this [Bodhicaryāvatāra] is described the three great catalogues as comprising 600 verses, it actually has 1,000. Many state that this [Bodhicaryāvatāra] is not the same as the one with nine chapters said to be written by Akṣayamati. However, apart from the difference arising from separating the chapter on the confession of sins, and differences in the earlier and later translations, I would say that they are the same [text].

Another major difference between the two versions, which Buton mentions, is the name of the author, which in the colophon to the complete Dunhuang manuscript (IOL Tib J 629) is not Śāntideva but Akṣayamati. Saito quotes from two sources that suggest this was an alternative honorary name for Śāntideva. Here’s that colophon: ITJ629 colophon

Note also that this colophon gives the names of two translators, an Indian, perhaps Sarvajñādeva (Sa ra bad nya de ba) and a Tibetan, Bande Paltseg. If we look at the colophon of the longer version of the text, we can see that this is the first stage of its translation history:

The Indian master Sarvajñādeva and the Tibetan translator Paltseg edited and finalized [a translation] based on a text from Kashmir. After that, the Indian master Dharmaśrībhadra, the great translator Rinchen Zangpo, and Shakya Lodro completed an amended translation by combining a text and its commentary from central India. Furthermore, in a later period, the Indian master Sumatikītri and the monk translator Loden Sherab completed a correctly amended translation, which was excellent.

Thus there is a gap of some two centuries between the work of the first translation team in the late 8th century and the second in the early 11th century. It is not surprising that a significantly different manuscript version was in circulation by the time Rinchen Zangpo was travelling in India in search of books to translate. (Incidentally, the surviving Sanskrit versions of the Bodhicaryāvatāra are all the longer version.)

Writing much later still, in the 17th century, the Tibetan scholar Tāranātha claimed that there were three versions of the Bodhicaryāvatāra: a version from eastern India in 700 verses, and two different versions from Kashmir and central India in 1,000 verses. Tāranātha then tells a story of two monks being sent to Śāntideva to ask which was the correct version, to which the author replied that it was the one found in central India. The same story is told by Buton in his history of Buddhism. These look very much like post facto justifications that the version already accepted in the Tibetan tradition was indeed the correct version.

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I’m  inclined to agree with Saito in his assessment that the version found in  Dunhuang is earlier, and the longer ones that were passed down through the Tibetan tradition were based on Indian manuscripts that had been supplemented with new verses between the 8th and 11th centuries. Since the first translation was done quite soon after the time of Śāntideva himself (who lived in the 8th century) the shorter version may represent something close to what the author first circulated. The popularity of the text in India meant that it would have been copied multiple times, and that it could have been adapted to the needs of the people using it, resulting in multiple variously expanded versions circulating in India. As we saw, in the longer version there is new material in the chapter on wisdom, disputing theists and metaphysical dualists, and this would have been useful in religious debates.

I’ve written a little bit in the past here on the concepts of “originality” and “authenticity” in Buddhist texts. It is difficult to hold on to the idea of an original and authentic text when one looks at the multiple versions on offer in printed and manuscript versions. In manuscript culture in particular, it is clear that texts were constantly trimmed, augmented and supplemented. Commentary added in interlinear notes might be inserted into the main text in a later copy. Whole sentences might disappear due to a copyist’s eye’s skipping too far down the page.

At one end of the spectrum there are the scriptural texts that are preserved as much as possible from the innate malleability of manuscript culture, as they represent the authority of the tradition, and are not actually used much. At the other end there are those works that are found to be useful in a variety of ways, spread far and wide, and are much changed in the process. The latter was surely the case with the Bodhicaryāvatāra in India. Later on in Tibet, as a prestigious text translated from the home of Buddhism, it became important to designate and preserve an original version. Though as we have seen, due to the quirks of history and politics, the version that came to be accepted as authentic in Tibet was probably further from the original form than the version that was forgotten.

Not that the shorter version is the “original” either. Unless a Sanskrit manuscript turns up, signed by Śāntideva himself, we’d better not worry about that. As for the “authentic” Tibetan version: if pressed I would go for the one that has been used with great success by generations of teachers and students.

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* The full title is Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, literally meaning something like “Engaging in the activity of a bodhisattva.”

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The above is based on the following works by Saito:

Akira SAITO. 1993. “A Study of Akṣayamati (=Śāntideva)’s Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra as Found in the Tibetan Manuscripts from Tun-huang. Report of the Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research published by Miye University, Japan.

Akira SAITO. 2000. “A Study of the Dūn-huáng Rescension of the  Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra.  Report of the Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research published by Miye University, Japan.

Saito’s conclusions were discussed in:

Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (trans.). 1996. Śantideva: The Bodhicaryāvatāra. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The image at the top is from a 19th-century painting: see here.

New Publication: The naming of Tibetan religion


Just out — the first number of a new online journal, the Journal of the International Association for Bon Research, in which is an article I wrote on the puzzling subject of Bon in early Tibet. The puzzle is whether the Tibetans followed a religion which they called “Bon”, or whether this is just something that we attribute to them with the benefit of hindsight. In the article I do three things:

(1) I look at the Dunhuang manuscript IOL Tib J 1746, in which a Buddhist author criticizes the non-Buddhist Tibetan religion. But at no point does he call it “Bon”, instead referring to “the bad religion” (chos ngan pa) or “the little religion” (chos chung ngu). For example: “Those who are attached to the little religion propitiate the deities and the sky, and if even a single good thing occurs, they say that they don’t need the excellent religion.” This manuscript is among the earlier Dunhuang manuscripts (mid-9th century) and the text it contains may well be earlier than that.

(2) I look at the wood slips dug out of the Tibetan fort of Miran in the Lop Nor desert, dating from the early to mid-9th century. Some of these are records of funerals and other rituals. Among the officiants of these rituals mentioned in the woodslips, we find people identified as “Bonpo”. Thus a “Bonpo” seems to have been a type of ritualist, and not the only type, as the wood slips also mention ritualists called Ku Shen (sku gshen). This of course is not the same as there being a Bon religion per se.

(3) Finally I look at some later Dunhuang manuscripts containing texts criticizing funerary rituals, where we do find reference to Bon as a religion. Specifically, from Or.8210/S.12243 we have the statement: “In the past, Tibetan interment was practised according to the Bon religion.” So some Buddhist authors were beginning to talk about a Bon religion, though probably only with reference to funerary rituals.

I conclusion, I suggest that the idea of a non-Buddhist Tibetan religion as an entity came from the Buddhist missionaries in Tibet, in their criticism of Tibetan beliefs and rituals. It was the Buddhists who brought together this variety of Tibetan rituals and beliefs as an entity that can be identified, named and discussed. Some of the ritualists involved in these non-Buddhist practices were known as “Bonpo” and later Buddhist polemicists increasingly used this term for non-Buddhist ritual in general (though usually specifically for funeral rituals). Though I don’t go this far in the article, I would suggest that what happens after the tenth century is that this generalized use of the term Bonpo is reclaimed from the Buddhist polemicists by those who are reconfiguring the old rituals in a Buddhist-inspired framework, gradually evolving into what we mean nowadays by “the Bonpo school”.

The article is here, and the whole journal, with lots of other interesting articles, is freely available online here.

A Turk far away from home

Detail from IOL Tib J 1410

There is a sutra from the Dunhuang cave that is one of the few truly “illuminated” manuscripts from this collection; that is to say, it has small pictures of buddhas complementing the text.* As you can see from the image above, they have either been damaged, or perhaps were never completed. Anyway, these illuminations are not the most interesting thing about this manuscript. It is a copy of a Chinese sutra (the shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha) in Tibetan script. Apparently the scribe who wrote the manuscript knew spoken Chinese but not the written characters, so used the Tibetan alphabet instead.

But this was not a Tibetan. In a colophon, the scribe writes that he comes from the country of the Kyrgyz (Tibetan gir kis) though he now lives in Hexi, the province that contains Dunhuang. And another scribble on the back of the page states that though this sutra is written in TIbetan (thu pod), it was written by a Turk (‘brug). I must say I don’t understand the whole of the colophon, which seems to be a mixture of Tibetan, Turkic and Chinese words, but I detect the Turkic name Kahraman (khang re man). I could well be wrong, but let’s call him Kahraman.

Detail from IOL Tib J 1410

So why did Kahraman, born in the Kyrgyz lands, end up in Dunhuang? The Uighur Turkic empire ruled the northern steppes from the mid-8th to mid-9th century, until they were destroyed by their enemies, the Kyrgyz. From then onwards hundreds of Uighur Turks fled south across the mountains. Some settled in the Turfan region, where they established the kingdom of Qocho, and others ended up in Hexi, where they ousted the local Chinese rulers and set up a kingdom based in Ganzhou (modern Zhangye). Here, surrounded by Tibetan and Chinese Buddhists, many of the Turks learned to write in Chinese or Tibetan, and adopted Buddhism. The Uighur Turks are the ancestors of the modern Uighurs of Xinjiang province. Over the following century, the Uighurs gradually converted to Islam. However, the Uighurs of Hexi remained Buddhists, and today are considered a separate ethnic minority in China, known as the Yugur people.

If Kahraman was a Kyrgyz, he would be have been living under the rule of his tribe’s enemies, the Uighurs. I suppose this is possible, but perhaps he was not a Kyrgyz after all, but was just referring to his homeland as the land that is now ruled by the Kyrgyz.

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Kahraman seems to have had a grasp of some basic Buddhist principles. From the colophon we can see that he was familiar with the idea that copying sutras accrues merit, and that merit leads to good rebirths. His colophon lists a dozen or so Buddhist texts (mostly by their Chinese titles) that he has written, and then recited in a single day as an offering to “the buddha, the gods and nagas of the eight quarters, and the protectors of the four directions.” By the merit of this, he hopes that one day he will be able to return to his own country, and that after he dies, he will be born free of suffering, not in hell, and preferably in the god realms.

This sutra is a reminder that Tibetan was the lingua franca of Central Asia for a long time, and that it allowed people from various backgrounds to communicate with each other. It also allowed them to participate in a shared system of religious values and practices. Centuries later, the Gansu Uighurs had adopted Tibetan Buddhism (along with other aspects of Tibetan culture like sky burial) and were firmly settled in the region. It looks like Kahraman was a first-generation immigrant, adopting the new languages and customs, but still hoping to return home one day.

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A study of the manuscript IOL Tib J 1410 was published in 1927 by FW Thomas and GLM Clauson, mainly dealing with the Tibeto-Chinese phonology. Thomas’s reading of the colophon differs slightly from mine: F. W. Thomas and G. L. M. Clauson. 1927. “A Second Chinese Buddhist Text in Tibetan Characters.” J.R.A.S., April 1927, pp. 281-306, and Supplementary note, pp. 858-60.

On the Uighurs at Dunhuang, see:

Moriyasu Takao. 2000. “The Sha-chou Uighurs and the West Uighur Kingdom”. Acta Asiatica 78: 28-48.

Lilla Russell-Smith. 2005. Uygur Patronage at Dunhuang. Leiden: Brill.

And for the Uighur manuscript collections, a good summary of recent research is this online paper by Matsui Dai.

There is not much written on the Yugurs: Carl Gustav Mannerheim’s article published in 1911, “A Visit to the Sarö and Shera Yögurs” is still one of the best accounts. You can get a scan of it here.

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* Apparently the term “illuminated manuscript” can refer to manuscript embellished with decorations or colours other than black. Check out Michelle Brown’s excellent Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts (The British Library, 1994). An odd thing about the buddhas in this manuscript is that they are upside-down in relation to the text, something that has yet to be explained.

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IOL Tib J 1410 colophon:


@/:/ stag gi lo’i dbyar/ /gir kis yul du ha se to ab ‘ga den chung shi ‘gi/ /khang re man gyis/ the’u kyig shi chor lha ‘tso’i yid dam du bsngos te// [a] myi ‘da kyi bam po gcig dang/ par yang kyi bam po gcig [dang/] kwan im kyi bam po gcig dang/ ta sim kyi bam po gcig [dang/] phyogs bcu’i mtha yas bam po gcig dang/ /bkra shis bam po gcig dang/ /de ‘bur te ci’u bam po bcig dang/ / ‘da la ‘ji ci’u bam po gcig dang/ bzang po spyod pa smon lam dang/ /’thor bshags la stsogs te/ /gong nas smon pa ‘di rnams/ /yi dam du bris pa ‘di/ /gdugs gcig klag ching/ /sangs rgyas dang/ lha klu sde brgyad dang/ phyogs bzhi’i mgon po la mchod cing/ yi dam du bcas te/ /lha ‘tsho tshe lus la bsam pa thams cad grub ching yul du sngar phyin pa dang/ tshe slad ma la gar skyes kyang/ /sdug bsngal dang bral ching/ /na rag du myi rtung bar byin gyis skabs te/ lha yul du skye bar shog shig//


‘di yang de’i tshe/ thu pod yang ‘brug gis bris pa ‘o
gar song gar skyes kyang lha yul du skye bar smon no//

New Publication: Dating Early Tibetan Manuscripts

ka_typologyIt’s very hard to fix a date on most early Tibetan sources. Few of the manuscripts contain an explicit date, and there are often no clues implicit in the text either. Thus we end up placing these manuscripts in time spans that may be much wider than we would like. In the case of the Tibetan manuscripts from the sealed cave in Dunhuang, the range of possible dates begins with the Tibetan conquest of Dunhuang (786/7) and continuing to when the cave was sealed at the beginning of the eleventh century. Thus we have a span of, more or less, two centuries.

In an article in a new collection, I have developed a typology of writing styles practiced during the Tibetan empire, as we find them in the sources that we know come from the imperial period. The styles are (i) epigraphic, the style of the pillar inscriptions; (ii) square, a style used in copies of imperially sanctioned texts from Central Tibet; (iii) sutra, the style of the scriptoriums where hundreds of copies of sutras were made for the Tibetan empire; (iv) official, the style of official scribes, including a headed and headless form; (v) monastic, the informal style used by monks in their own activities of note-taking, commentary etc. There are of course general categories and there is a lot of variation within each style, but each is linked to a particular social context, and so has its own coherent identity.

Now, since there are (as Tsuguhito Takeuchi has previously pointed out) significant differences in style in the manuscripts written after the fall of the Tibetan empire, we should be able to use this typology to help decide whether an undated manuscript was written during the time of the Tibetan empire, or later. So the second part of the article looks at the post-imperial styles, which are much more varied, as one would expect when the imperially standardised systems of teaching writing had broken down. But I don’t want to overstate the usefulness of paleography for dating; some people do make great claims for it, and if they don’t show their methods this makes paleography look like a magic trick. So the article ends with a cautionary note:

While recommending that others put this typology to the test, I would also urge that paleography is best used in conjunction with the other tools available to us. Paleographical evidence should be supported wherever possible by other levels of analysis: on the one hand, analysis of the physical nature of the manuscript, such as paper composition and book format; and on the other, textual analysis, including orthographic and linguistic features of the text. If several of these tools are used together, the case for dating can be made with some confidence.

You can download the full article from the Author page or here.

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And there are lots of other good articles in this volume:

Mark Aldenderfer,  Pre-Buddhist Era Phalliform Objects from Kyunglung, Far Western Tibet

Amy Heller, Preliminary Remarks on Painted Wooden Panels from Tibetan Tombs

Gertraud Taenzer, The ‘A zha Country under the Tibetans in the 8th and 9th Century: A Survey of Land Registration and Taxation Based on a Sequence of Three Manuscripts of the Stein Collection from Dunhuang

Zhu Lishuang, A Preliminary Survey of Administrative Divisions in Tibetan-Ruled Khotan   

Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim, Central Asian Mélange: Early Tibetan Medicine from Dunhuang

Brandon Dotson, The Princess and the Yak: The Hunt as Narrative Trope and Historical Reality in Early Tibet

Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer, Neither The Same Nor Different: the Bon Ka ba Nag po in Relation to Rnying ma Phur pa Texts

Tsuguhito Takeuchi, Glegs tshas: Writing Boards of Chinese Scribes in Tibetan-Ruled Dunhuang

Kazushi Iwao, On the Roll-Type Tibetan Śatasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā sūtra from Dunhuang 

Manuscripts under the microscope


What I like about working with manuscripts is that there are so many different ways to approach them. You can read the texts written on them (and sometimes that’s as far as you get) but you can also look at their shape and size, how they were put together, how the writing is laid out on the page (codicology) and the style of the writing itself (palaeography). You can get into their materiality, feel the rough and smooth sides of a page, their coarse and fine fibres, the subtle patterns of laid and chain lines. If you’re lucky, you can find out who wrote them, who owned them and how they were used, who repaired and re-used them, and so on.

I like to think this isn’t just the idle curiosity of somebody who’s spent too much time around books. While most studies of the early Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang and other Central Asian sites are focussed on the texts, there’s a lot more we can find out from the physicality of the thing itself. Sure, we can discover what a text is about by reading it and comparing it with other texts. But there are a lot of things we won’t know, like who made the manuscript, who used it, and what it was used for. If we can get some kind of answers to those questions about the manuscript, our understanding of the text will be enriched. Or to put it another way, if we want to know the meaning of a text, we should look at how it was used.

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A few years ago I started working with Agnieszka Helman-Wazny, a scientist specializing in the study of Tibetan and Central Asian paper. Agnieszka’s speciality is the microscopic analysis of paper fibres. She also looks at the patterns left on the paper by the process of making paper (such as the fine pattern of ‘laid lines’) and other aspects of the technology of papermaking. Gradually we developed a plan to bring the results of her analysis of the paper in the Tibetan manuscripts from Central Asia with the work I had done in the palaeography of the manuscripts, and of course the contents of the texts as well. We selected a group of fifty manuscripts, put everything we could find out about them into a table, and looked at the patterns that emerged.

One of the most interesting results was this: those manuscripts that had been brought to Dunhuang from Tibet itself, were made in quite different ways from those that were made locally at Dunhuang. Though our sample was limited, this opens up the possibility of ‘fingerprinting’ a manuscript to find out where it was made.

It looks like the manuscripts made in Dunhuang and other Central Asian areas inhabited by the Tibetans during the 8th and 9th centuries were made with rag paper, which is probably mainly recycled textiles. The technical apparatus of papermaking was a mould made from a sieve made from bamboo or reeds arranged on a wooden frame, which leaves the tell-tale pattern of laid lines on the finished paper. The advantage of this kind of mould is that you can lift out the piece of paper and leave it to dry while you begin to make another one. On the other hand, in places like Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal, the method to this day is to use a wooden frame with a cloth backing stretched across it. With this kind of mould the paper cannot be removed until dry, so the paper dries on the frame. This is obviously a slower method, and the paper produced this way does not have the laid lines characteristic of the sieve method.

DaphneTwo manuscripts, letters that we already thought may have been originated from Tibet, did turn out to have been made on a woven mould. Also, they were not made of rag paper, like the locally produced Central Asian manuscripts, but paper made from the Daphne or Edgeworthia plants, which grow along the Himalayas. As well as these letters, a sutra manuscript written in the archaic ‘square style’ also turned out to be composed of Daphne fibres.

Then there are the big Perfection of Wisdom manuscripts that were brought to Dunhuang to be used as models by the local scribes who had been ordered by the Tibetan emperor to produce copies. The Perfection of Wisdom manuscripts made in Dunhuang are composed of rag paper made on a sieve mould, like other locally made manuscripts. But those that were brought in are composed of Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia) fibres and were made on a woven mould. Paper Mulberry is not native to Central Tibet, but it is found in Eastern Tibet, so perhaps these Perfection of Wisdom manuscripts were produced in the Eastern regions of the Tibetan Empire, before being brought to Dunhuang. This would give us a triangle of geographic locations to which we can assign the manuscripts: Central Asia, Central Tibet and Eastern Tibet.

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Though I can’t put the article in which we published our results on this site, I am going to make it briefly available for download here. Of course, the 50 manuscripts that we studied are a tiny proportion of the Central Asian manuscripts in Tibetan, so more work needs to be done to confirm what we have suggested. As well as using these results to pin down the geographical origin of early Tibetan manuscripts we can also say a bit more about what ‘Tibetan paper’ means in this early period. If we can begin to speak of a type of paper with specifically Tibetan characteristics, it is a paper composed of Daphne or Edgeworthia (from Central Tibet) or Paper Mulberry (from Eastern Tibet), made on a woven mould — a technology that continues to the present day.

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Helman-Wazny, Agnieszka and Sam van Schaik. 2013. “Witnesses for Tibetan Craftsmanship: Bringing Together Paper Analysis, Palaeography and Codicology in the Examination of the Earliest Tibetan Manuscripts.” Archaeometry 55.4: 707–741. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4754.2012.00687.x

Iwao, Kazushi (forthcoming). “On the Tibetan Śatasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā sūtra from Dunhuang.” In Scribes, texts, and rituals in early Tibet and Dunhuang (eds. B. Dotson, K. Iwao and T. Takeuchi). Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag.


1. Paper mulberry (Broussonetia sp.) fibres stained with Herzberg stain, found in IOL Tib J 1560.

2. A large-size ‘floating’ mould, constructed with a wooden frame and attached woven textile, placed in water (a stream) in Gyantse, c. 1910–1920. Photo 1112/2 (139), © The British Library

3. The flower of the Daphne plant.

4. Sheets of paper left to dry on individual moulds on the mountain slope near Tawang, Arunchal Pradesh, 1914. MSS Eur/F157 (324), © The British Library.

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Final Notes

Paper made from the Daphne and Edgeworthia species  is shog shing or dung lo ma in Tibetan. There is also a Tibetan paper made from the roots of both the Stellera chamaejasme species (re lcag pa in Tibetan) and, more seldom, Euphorbia fisheriana (re lcag gi rtsa ba in Tibetan). It has been suggested that re lcag pa is the “original” Tibetan paper. Though we did not find any of this paper in our study, finds from Tibet itself may help to confirm whether it was produced during the Tibetan imperial period or later. Also, it is hard not to oversimplify this complex research, and I had better clarify here (as we did in the article) that the rag paper in the Dunhuang manuscripts was also often made with the addition of Paper Mulberry and/or Hemp. Agnieszka Helman-Wazny’s continuing work on the Chinese manuscripts from Central Asia will no doubt add much more to our knowledge of Central Asian papermaking.

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Monks and Mahāyoga

As you probably know, after the collapse of Tibetan imperial power towards the end of the 9th century, the lineage of monastic vows (the vinaya) died out in Central Tibet. During the ensuing dark period, if the traditional histories are to be believed, the lineage of the vows survived only in the far northeast of the Tibetan cultural area. Now if that is true, we might hope to see some corroborating evidence among the Dunhuang manuscripts — and I think we do. Several manuscripts that (judging by their handwriting) seem to be from the post-imperial period contain classic texts on the monks’ vows, such as the Vinaya-vāstu and the Prātimokṣa-sūtra (see for example IOL Tib J 1).

It seems likely that these manuscripts, like most manuscripts, were made to be used.  They are the kinds of extracts and summaries that would have been part of the ceremonies of taking and renewing of the monastic vows. Which is to say, they were probably written and used by Buddhist monks. These monks who were maintaining a monastic lineage which may well have died out in Central Tibet, but was very much alive here in the northeast, in places like the mountain retreat of Dantig, or the walled city of Tsongka.

If we accept that the Dunhuang manuscripts containing vinaya texts were used by Buddhist monks, then an interesting issue arises: were these monks also writing and making use of the many tantric manuscripts also to be found in the Dunhuang collections, including those Mahāyoga texts containing violent and sexual imagery? If they were, then the problems involved in monks practising tantric rituals must have come up here, before they were explicitly discussed by Atiśa, who famously addressed the issue a century later.

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I was thinking about this after looking at one of the biggest Mahāyoga manuscripts in the Dunhuang collections, a manuscript so big that it begins in the Pelliot collection in Paris (Pelliot tibétain 42), continues in the Stein collection in London (IOL Tib J 419) and ends back in Paris again (Pelliot tibétain 36). Clearly it had already broken into three parts before Stein and Pelliot arrived at the cave in Dunhuang. Put the three back together, and you get a major ritual, involving torma offerings, teachings, the visualization of mandalas, and a violent ritual of liberation (sgrol ba). The liberation ritual has recently been discussed in detail in Jacob Dalton, who describes it as “clearly the most violent text to emerge from the library cave at Dunhuang.” Surely not the kind of thing for monks?

Looking at the manuscript again recently, I noticed some text that had been added to the end of the ritual, either by a different scribe, or by the same scribe writing less carefully. This text turns out to be a summary of the vinaya, beginning like this:

The vinaya of the hearers is divided into eighteen different sects. Of these, the one that exists in Tibet is the system of the Mūlasarvāstivādins.

Fair enough — this agrees with what the Tibetan historians say, and indeed the fact that the massive Mūlasarvāstivādin vinaya is the version of the monastic vows that was preserved in the Tibetan canon. On the other hand, I think this is the first time I have seen the fact mentioned in a Dunhuang manuscript. The text goes on to enumerate the different classes of vows in the vinaya of the Mūlasarvastivādins. Maybe it was a kind of primer for new monks.

So why is this text written on the last pages of a major Mahāyoga ritual? Perhaps so that the monks performing the ritual should do it in the context of their Buddhist vows (and thus certainly not taking the violent and sexual imagery of the texts literally). Or as a rebuke to the text by a shocked monk: this is what Buddhism is about, not that! I don’t know, but I suspect the former is more likely than the latter. Everything we know about tantric Buddhism in India and Tibet suggests that it was thoroughly accepted in the monastic context. What remained uncertain and shifting was the exact nature of the relationship between the monastic vows and tantric practices, and issue that received much discussion later in Tibet in the “three vows” literature (these being the monastic vows, the bodhisattva vows and the tantric samaya vows). The juxtaposition of texts here suggests that similar negotations were already taking place in the northeast of Tibet in the tenth century.

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Jacob Dalton. 2011. The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ronald Davidson. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Carmen Meinert. 2006. “Between the Profane and the Sacred? On the Context of the Rite of ‘Liberation’ (sgrol ba).” In Michael Zimmermann (ed.), Buddhism and Violence. Lumbini: Lumbini International Research Institute. 99-130.

Sam van Schaik and Imre Galambos. 2012. Manuscripts and Travellers: The Sino-Tibetan Documents of a Tenth-Century Buddhist Pilgrim. Berlin: de Gruyter.