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A Newly Acquired Tibetan Kanjur: The Dragon Tripitaka

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(The following is a post by Susan Meinheit, Reference Specialist for Tibet, Asian Division)

A very attractive task it is to pursue the gradual growth of the Kanjur and Tanjur through the course of many centuries, and to establish the chronology of the translations.

(Berthold Laufer, “Notices of Books,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Oct. 1914)

Kanjur: “Dragon Tripitaka = Long zang jing: Tibetan language edition.” Illumination 1. Asian Division. Photo by Tien Doan.

A recent acquisition has added a new resource for this task to the Library’s Tibetan collection. The “Dragon Tripitaka” is an elaborate reproduction of a rare manuscript edition of the Kanjur (Bka’ ‘gyur in Tibetan), the canonical texts of Tibetan Buddhism. The original was hand-copied in gold ink on dark blue paper, in 1669 for presentation to the Qing Emperor, Kangxi (reigned 1661-1722). This reproduction was produced by the National Palace Museum, Taipei, which holds the original. It is complete in 111 volumes, 100,000 pages, including an index. Two separate volumes feature 756 beautifully painted illustrations of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Dharmapalas, patriarchs, and arhats, which adorn the first and last folios of each volume. This set, one of only 210 printed, was acquired in October 2015 as an Asian Division’s special yearend purchase.

Kanjur: “Dragon Tripitaka = Long zang jing: Tibetan language edition.” Illumination 1. Asian Division. Photo by Tien Doan.

The original gold manuscript was created in 108 traditional Tibetan volumes, with folios measuring 87.5 centimeters by 33 cm. It is divided into categories as: Rgyud (Tantra, 24 volumes), Shes-phyin (Perfection of Wisdom, 24 volumes), Dkon-brtsegs (Heap of Jewels Sutras, 6 volumes), Phal-chen (Flower Ornament Sutras, 6 volumes), Mdo-sna-tshogs (Sutras, 32 volumes) and ‘Dul-ba (Discipline, 16 volumes). The use of gold ink for producing Tibetan Buddhist texts was quite common and reflects the reverence in which such books are held. They are considered to be sacred objects worthy of the finest materials and workmanship.

Kanjur: “Dragon Tripitaka = Long zang jing: Tibetan language edition,” volume 25 (shes-phyin ra). Photo by Tien Doan.

The Tibetan canon consists of two parts, Kanjur (Bka’ ‘gyur), the words of the Buddha, and Tanjur (Bstan ‘gyur), commentaries written by Indian and Tibetan scholars. The Kanjur contains texts translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan, and is especially valued due to the precision of the translation, which allows the reconstruction of lost original texts of early Indian Buddhism. These texts, translated into Tibetan beginning in the 7th century, were first assembled into comprehensive manuscript collections in Tibet in the 14th century, resulting in the “old Narthang” edition (Narthang was a monastery in central Tibet). After that, scholars generally recognize two main transmission lineages, the them spangs ma, sometimes called the Western transmission, and the tshal pa or Eastern transmissions, both of which were based on the old Narthang manuscript. The Tibetan canon was never a fixed compilation, but rather varied based on different arrangements and inclusions of texts. This is why textual criticism is a major focus of study of the various editions, and the words of Laufer, one of the early contributors to the Library’s Tibetan collection, still hold relevance today. New discoveries are still being made of previously unknown editions, which can sometimes call into question actual transmission lines.

The Peking editions, to which the “Dragon Tripitaka” belongs, represent the tshal pa transmission, which began with the Yongle edition of 1410, the first wood-block (xylograph) edition. In 1605, a second Peking xylograph, the Wanli edition, was produced using the same blocks. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), the Kangxi emperor produced a slightly revised Peking edition, 1684-1692, from newly carved blocks. So the “Dragon Tripitaka” of 1669 was produced before the revised edition and we might assume that it was copied from the 1605 edition, as manuscript Kanjurs were often copied from the nearest printed set. But further study is needed to learn the history of this particular manuscript: who prepared it, where, how long did it take to complete, is it a direct copy, and are there any inconsistencies?

Other representatives of the tshal pa transmission are also in the Asian Division’s Tibetan rare book collection. This includes a reproduction of the 1737 Peking edition held in Otani University (Kyoto, Japan). This edition had been revised with new material based on the Derge edition. Another Peking edition is represented by a digital copy held by the National Library of Mongolia, although recent research indicates that it also has elements of both transmissions. The “Dragon Tripitaka” seems, then, to represent the earlier un-revised tshal pa transmission.

Another representative of this transmission is the Choni (Co ne) edition, which was acquired for the Library from Joseph Rock in 1928, and printed from the original 18th century blocks. In terms of structure of texts, the Choni is said to most resemble the Peking xylographs, with a few variations. The Library’s Choni edition has been digitized from a microfilm and digital images are available onsite only.

The Western transmission, the them spangs ma, evolved in Tibet, with a manuscript created in Gyantse in 1431, also based on the 14th century old Narthang manuscript. This lineage is represented in the Asian Division’s collections by a digital copy of the Ulan Bator manuscript of 1671, in 111 volumes on seven DVDs acquired several years ago. Also in the collection is a reprinted representative of this tradition in the edition of Stog Palace, Ladakh.

Several 18th century Kanjurs are considered to have elements of both transmissions, and are represented in the Library’s collection by an original print of the Derge Kanjur (1733), and reprint editions of both Derge, and Urga (1908-1910). Derge Printing House was established in 1729 in eastern Tibet, now northern Sichuan Province, China. It was one of the most famous of Tibet’s many printing monasteries. Urga is the historic name for Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where this edition was produced.

Writing this I am reminded of the veritable wealth of Kanjurs available in our Tibetan collection. Other than the delight at viewing such a fine example of the Tibetan manuscript production and beautiful illustrations of the “Dragon Tripitaka,” there are questions which can only be answered by a thorough examination of the texts and colophons, and comparison with other editions. Scholars of Tibetan canonical transmission and the art of the Tibetan book will now have an additional resource for the pursuit of Laufer’s “attractive task.”

The “Dragon Tripitaka,” cataloged as “Kanjur: Long zang jing, Tibetan language edition,” is classified as rare material and its usage is governed by the policy described here.

Kanjur: “Dragon Tripitaka = Long zang jing: Tibetan language edition.” Illumination 1. Asian Division. Photo by Tien Doan.

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Comments (4)

  1. Lovely work. Thank you for the informative description!

  2. I too have enjoyed spending some time looking at the incredibly beautiful and intricate drawings and editions of these samples Tibetan manuscripts.

    I encourage others to be sure to spend some time reviewing the artwork and commentaries that go with them

    You will find it well worth your time. Even if Tibetan literature was not your original goal. There is so much to be learned from spending a short time reading and enjoying these pages.

  3. I can’t figure out how to send the comment. All I see is “Add a Comment” and “Clear”. There is no “Send”

  4. Lovely! Thank you, Susan!

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