Virtue of Text: The Tangible and Intangible of Tibetan Manuscripts

This is a guest post by Basia Nosek. Basia is the 2020-2021 Advanced Intern in Paper Conservation at the Library of Congress. Basia holds an M.A. and C.A.S. in Conservation with a specialization in works on paper from the Patricia H. and Richard E. Garman Art Conservation Department at SUNY Buffalo State College.

As an Advanced Paper Conservation Intern at the Conservation Division I’ve was able to work with a team of conservation and preservation specialists who care for vast collections of remarkable artifacts. A project early on in my internship involved an 18th century Tibetan manuscript titled Phags pa shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa rdo rje gcod pa (Diamond Sutra) (fig. 1). The Tibetan Collection at the Library of Congress was established in 1901, when William Woodville Rockhill (1854–1914), a United States Minister to China, gifted several hand written and printed manuscripts after traveling to Mongolia and Tibet. Since then, the Tibetan Collection has grown to 16,000 volumes and ranges from the 8th century CE to contemporary publications.

Figure 1. Phags pa shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa rdo rje gcod pa - Diamond Sutra #134 manuscript with metallic ink on blue-black paper (Image courtesy of Library of Congress Conservation Division).

Figure 1. Phags pa shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa rdo rje gcod pa – Diamond Sutra #134 manuscript with metallic ink on blue-black paper (Image courtesy of Library of Congress Conservation Division).

My understanding of Tibetan culture and material heritage was minimal before encountering the Sutra in the Paper Conservation Lab. The little knowledge I had was shaped by how Western institutions presented Tibetan traditions based on exotic colonial perspectives. The conservation treatment of the Diamond Sutra included consolidation, reconstruction of missing boards, and designing a housing. Although the combined treatment steps were not complex, understanding how the Sutra was made was essential to providing the most sympathetic treatment. For me, this research portion was vital as it helped me recognize the cultural importance of the manuscript.

Tibet lies between the Himalayan and Kunlun mountain ranges in Central Asia and the geography and environment have contributed to the use of unique materials in Tibetan manuscript production. Religious texts are sacred to the Tibetan people, as scriptures form part of the ritual objects conveying Buddhist teachings – books, icons, and relics represent speech, mind, and body.

In my research, I discovered the work of a scholar discussing the writings of Chökyi Drönma (c. 1422 – 1455) who was a Tibetan princess appointed the Samding Dorje Phagmo, the highest female incarnation of the Buddha in Tibet. In her diary, Chökyi Drönma personified manuscripts by addressing them with the pronouns use for a respected individual. The princess also described how once finding these scriptures covered in dust, she proceeded to clean the manuscripts while “adding the parts that were missing”. During this process Drönma also wrapped the them in cloth (nasa, na bza’) and strings (kurag, sku rags), a gesture that has been interpreted as offering a robe (na bza’) and belt (sku rags)’ to clothe the scriptures. It is believed that these actions led to the custom of celebrating manuscripts while instilling custodianship and preservation of books in Tibetan people. The accumulation of good deeds (or karma) was to be achieved by caring for books properly, while their destruction or neglect would lead to bad karma.

As conservators, we have a responsibility to examine cultural heritage objects holistically in order to properly care for them. During this project, I needed to recognize what intangible values the Diamond Sutra held, as well as understand the materials used to create the manuscript. Alessandro Boesi, James Canary, and Agnieszka Helman-Ważny are scholars who have traveled to the region and supplemented their research by learning from contemporary craftspeople of Tibet. Their work significantly enriched my understanding of materials used in the Sutra. Unlike in Europe, where well-worn rags composed of linen, hemp, and cotton were used to make paper, the root of a Stellera plant belonging to the Thymelaeaceae family has been used for papermaking in Tibet. The plant roots are harvested and immediately prepared for papermaking by the papermaker. After processing the plant fibers a wooden frame covered in cloth, known as a floating mold, is dipped in a large vat containing a slurry consisting of the processed fibers and water to create an even layer of pulp. Then the water is drained completely and the fiber-lined mold is dried outdoors. Due to the altitude, dry conditions and direct sunlight the sheets dry relatively fast. Once dry, the sheets are peeled from the mold and further prepared for the use in manuscripts.

One of the unique features of this Diamond Sutra manuscript is its glossy black paper. To create the thingshog, black paper manuscript, sheets of paper are laminated to create the leaves. This creates a thicker sheet that can withstand the application of the surface coating and subsequent preparations. The black color is a two-step process.  First, a light black carbon-based ink is applied over the surface of the sheet. Next, a more opaque black pigment is applied. This pigment is composed of soot, or lamp-black, collected from wicks of oil lamps burned at temples or from burned resinous pine wood that is combined with yak-hide glue. It is then diluted in water with addition of animal brain, from either yak, sheep or goat, and kneaded together by hand.  Finally, the pigment mixture is diluted again for application on the paper. After coloring, the sheets are dried and burnished with shells or stone beads. This process gives the paper a smooth and lustrous appearance. Evidence of burnishing is noticeable in axial specular illumination, where a single light source is placed next to the camera when capturing an image (fig. 2).

Understanding the manufacture of the paper and the pigments was important for me as I used this research to inform my treatment and preservation recommendations. In the case of the black coating, fat from brain tissue has an aesthetic effect on the sheet. However, over time some sheets show a separation of oil from brain fat that appears as a light cloudy stain called “bloom”. This naturally occurring chemical process occurs in presence fluctuating environmental conditions.

Figure 2. Phags pa shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa rdo rje gcod pa (Diamond Sutra manuscript) pictured in normal light illumination (a) and normal axial specular light illumination (b) where the striations from the burnishing are clearly visible (Images courtesy of Library of Congress Conservation Division).

Figure 2. Phags pa shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa rdo rje gcod pa (Diamond Sutra manuscript) pictured in normal light illumination (a) and normal axial specular light illumination (b) where the striations from the burnishing are clearly visible (Images courtesy of Library of Congress Conservation Division).

Following the thingshog preparation, calligraphers would write on the sheet by dipping a bamboo reed pen in ink. Chrysography, or writing in gold ink on a dark toned background, is another distinctive feature of the Diamond Sutra (fig. 3). Gold ink is a popular material used by the Tibetan manuscript calligraphers. Although the recipe is secret, oftentimes the gold ink is prepared by grinding sheets of fine gold leaf into smaller particles with additions of a binder. Once processed, it is stored in small batches and further diluted to make the ink. Adulteration of gold ink has been common due to its cost and often brass alloy powders have been used to mimic the gold. In the case of the Diamond Sutra, X-ray fluorescence analysis determined a mixture of copper and zinc was used for the ink.

Figure 3. Detail of the gold-colored ink on the manuscript (Images courtesy of Library of Congress Conservation Division).

Figure 3. Detail of the gold-colored ink on the manuscript (Images courtesy of Library of Congress Conservation Division).

Insights I gained from research and material study informed my treatment of the Sutra. Paying respect to the manuscript as a highly valued religious object for Tibetan Buddhism meant that my treatment was minimal – I focused on maintaining the integrity of the components and considering them as a unit. Areas of exposed fibers on the first three leaves abraded due to use were consolidated to protect them. The painted black surface and ink were in good condition and not at risk of flaking. However, to minimize the risk of abrasion smooth long-fiber kōzo paper was interleaved between the pages of the manuscript as a preventive measure. Originally, the Sutra would have had two loose wooden boards as covers; however, the text arrived to the Library with only one 20th century acidic cardboard as a support. I worked with Dan Paterson from the Book Conservation Section to make new covers in the traditional Tibetan style. Two pH-neutral boards were adhered together with a stiff glue to mimic the density of wooden boards. Of the two, I beveled the edges of where the top board had beveled-edges. When dry, the boards were covered with kōzo fiber paper toned brown. The text and new boards were then wrapped up in the silk textile and placed in a four-flap enclosure made of thin board. As the unwrapping of the Sutra is part of religious ritual the conservation staff and curator wanted to extend this significance to the housing, as well and I constructed a yellow and beige cloth-covered box to house the Diamond Sutra and all its component parts (fig. 4).

Figure 4. Phags pa shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa rdo rje gcod pa - Diamond Sutra #134 with (a) newly-made covering boards on either side, (b) wrapped in the original protective silk cloth, and (c) finally in a new hand-made box to provide additional protection (Images courtesy of Library of Congress Conservation Division).

Figure 4. Phags pa shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa rdo rje gcod pa – Diamond Sutra #134 with (a) newly-made covering boards on either side, (b) wrapped in the original protective silk cloth, and (c) finally in a new hand-made box to provide additional protection (Images courtesy of Library of Congress Conservation Division).

Some may ask why is it important for conservators to investigate the materials used to create a cultural artifact. Although learning and finding information through experts in the field of Tibetan book culture took time, it was well worth the effort as it led to an understanding of its present use and significance.  I have been immensely fortunate to work with and learn from the Diamond Sutra manuscript as it has led to an appreciation of Tibetan culture and traditional practices of manuscript making and preservation. I thank all the experts, both at the Library and outside, who openhandedly shared their experiences and insights with me to complete this project.

The Tibetan rare book collection is 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 Susan Meinheit, Mongolian and Tibetan reference specialist, Asian Division or the Ask-a-Librarian online inquiry form.

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