(The following is a post by Susan Meinheit, Mongolian and Tibetan reference specialist, Asian Division.)
On July 25, 2018, the Asian Division welcomed 11 students from the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School summer class, “The History and Culture of the Tibetan Book,” for a special one-day field trip to learn about the Tibetan collection. Students in the class included professors, librarians, graduate students, and printers hailing from the universities of Columbia, Stanford, Texas State, Towson, and the University of Toronto. Although Rare Book School classes have visited other divisions regularly, this was the first time that a course on Tibetan rare books had been offered. The purpose of the visit was to give students an opportunity to see, firsthand, unique examples illustrating the beauty and historical development of Tibetan books and learn about their role in the larger religious and intellectual culture of Tibet. The course was taught by Dr. Ben Nourse, Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies, University of Denver, and Dr. Kurtis Schaeffer, Professor of Religion, University of Virginia, two leading experts on the history of Tibetan books.
Over thirty rare books from the Tibetan collection were examined from various aspects: material construction, conservation issues, calligraphy, xylograph production (wood block printing) intellectual content, and artistic features. In Tibetan culture, books are considered sacred objects, which are respected for both their content and physical form alike. The production of ornate volumes is considered an act of merit and follows a tradition of fine craftsmanship. Traditional Tibetan books consist of loose folios, printed on both sides of oblong sheets of paper, tied between wooden covers, and wrapped in cloth.
One of the volumes viewed was an 18th-century Tibetan illuminated manuscript, “Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa stong phrag brgya pa” (Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in 100,000 Verses). The Library of Congress only has volume 11 (“da,” in Tibetan) of this large twelve-volume Buddhist work. The inscription on the book states that it was received as a gift from Joe Kwok Liang on July 18, 1933, but nothing further is known about the donor or its origin. Works pertaining to the “perfection of wisdom,” “shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa” in Tibetan or “prajñāpāramitā“ in Sanskrit, form a central theme in Tibetan Buddhist philosophical traditions, and describe an ideal state of mind, resulting from perfect compassion and wisdom, which penetrates beyond appearance to reality. They appear as the subject of many Buddhist philosophical works, or sutras, of varying length, with this sutra in 100,000 verses being the longest. The folios on each side of the volume have painted images of three jewels, traditional symbols representing the Buddha (the teacher), the Dharma (Buddhist teachings), and the Sangha (Buddhist community). The cover insert has five layers of silk representing the five transcendent Buddha families in the Tibetan tradition, each with its own color, wisdom and qualities. Intricate miniature paintings adorn the opening folios with images of two of the sixteen arhats (Buddhist saints), and two of the thirty-five Buddhas of confession, who are invoked in rituals to purify misdeeds. The Buddha on the left is Rgyal-ba mtshan-dpal yongs-sgrags with a gesture of fearlessness, and the Buddha on the right is Rgyal-ba dbang-po’i tog-gi rgyal-mtshan, holding a victory banner.
The class also looked at a xylograph edition of a shorter version of the sutra, “Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa brgyad stong pa” (Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses) from the famous 18th-century Derge printing house. Derge, founded in 1729 in eastern Tibet, houses over 270,000 carved wooden blocks used for printing texts on Buddhism, history, medicine and other subjects, as well as a very clearly defined edition of the Tibetan canon. This bilingual (Sanskrit-Tibetan) illustrated print edition was one of the first publications to come out of Derge. It is also one of the most artistically ambitious, featuring several full panel illustrations depicting the life of the Buddha.
Several of the volumes viewed were from the Rockhill Tibetan collection, the first Tibetan books acquired by the Library. From the Rockhill collection, an important item retrieved for the Rare Book School students was a text by ‘Bro-bar-ba ‘byams-pa Kun- dga’-rgya-mtsho (1655–?), “Rmi lam gyi don legs par bshad pa’i shel dkar me long” (Crystal Mirror of Dreams). This is the literary preface to his dictionary, “Dag yig chung ngu gdul bya’i snying mun sel byed nyi ma stong gi ‘od zer” (Light of the Rising Sun), written in 1718. This volume was selected as an example of the ornate style found in Beijing bi-lingual xylograph editions of the 18th century.
Commenting on the significance of the class’s visit to the Library of Congress, Professor Nourse noted that it was a rare opportunity for the class to see such beautiful examples of Tibetan book culture. “The Asian Division’s Tibetan collection is unparalleled in North America,” said Dr. Nourse. “It was an exceptional opportunity for our class to be able to view firsthand aspects of Tibetan book culture that we would not have been able to see otherwise. The trip brought to life the diversity of Tibetan books, from woodblock printing to musical scores, rare canonical collections, and illuminated manuscripts. You really cannot do justice to the magnificent artistry or sheer size of some of the manuscripts, such as the 18th-century ‘Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 Verses,’ without seeing them in person. There were certainly many ‘jaw-dropping’ moments of awe during our visit! The class also greatly appreciated the chance to talk with Susan Meinheit, Area Specialist for Tibet and Mongolia, about her wealth of experience managing, curating, and collecting Tibetan books for the Library of Congress. The trip was a highlight of the course and an unforgettable experience for many of us.”
The Asian Division’s Tibetan collection contains about 16,000 volumes of fully cataloged texts, which are searchable in the Library of Congress online catalog and available in the Asian Reading Room. The Tibetan rare book collection currently has about 4,300 volumes. These are only available for research following the Asian Division’s rare book policy. To inquire further about this collection or to schedule the necessary appointment in advance to access items in the Tibetan rare book collection, please contact the Asian Division through the Ask-a-Librarian online inquiry form.