Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Introduction to Tibetan Book Arts

The Tibetan world has an amazingly impressive book culture, truly different from what you find elsewhere.* I could think of no better way to illustrate it than with a few slides borrowed from His Holiness the Karmapa's own Flickr-stream for the 2017 Kagyü Mönlam. This annual event is held in Bodhgaya, at the site of the Buddha's Enlightenment. (*A note in advance:  What you will find in this and in a few planned future blogs are rewritten sections of a presentation recently given at an academic workshop on manuscripts. They share some of their subject matter with the article that will eventually be published, but should not be confused with the article.) 

Today will just be a brief verbal and visual introduction to Tibetan usages of books. We will emphasize understanding how books are situated among the holy items capable of being consecrated. The photos surely help with this. 

In the first picture you see monks (nuns and laypeople also participated) reading aloud. They are not reading in unison the same passage. Each one has his or her own set of pages from one scripture or another. The words of the Buddha blend together to become a uniform roaring sound soaring up into space. I suppose this is one major point in the reading ritual, since anyway most of the symbols of Buddha word are loud or roaring sounds that carry for a great distance, like the lion's roar or the beat of a drum, or the piercing tones of a bell or gong. I suppose each participant is understanding their own bit of text in their own way, but really, even given that intelligibility has its place, it isn’t given much space in this ritual-devotional context. If you want to start understanding what is going on here, forget your classes in reading comprehension and prepare to enter into a different reading economy.

I chose photos to demonstrate how young and old participate in the ritual.  Many will
recognize this particular monk as a well-known Rinpoche of the Kagyü school.  
In Tibet in our times you can observe many manifestations of laypeople’s respect for Buddhaword when, for example they use their katag scarves to take dust from books laying on their temple shelves — not so much motivated to remove the dust from the books as to take some home with them. And you see that often the Kanjur shelves are raised up over a meter above the ground. I suppose the reason for this may be to keep them beyond the reach of moisture from the ground or creatures that might disturb them. But laypeople take advantage of this by walking under the bookshelves, in a bowing position, as a way of receiving the blessings of Buddhas’ pronouncements. 

The bases of a great deal of Tibetan Buddhism, not just lay devotionalism, but also the most lofty flights of mystical as well as rational visions and speculations, are found in the idea of the Body, Speech and Mind of the Buddha[s]. We approach the world, and religious practice, through our body-speech&mind complexes, with the Buddhist aim not to sit there as passive, forever-submissive devotées, but to aspire to and eventually accomplish the task of becoming the ultimate Body, Speech and Mind of the Buddha. We could say people are supposed to use methods that make use of their ordinary body (movements, gestures), speech (recitations, mantras) and mind (aspirations, meditations) to achieve Body, Speech and Mind. Until that happens Buddhists go on paying respects to their future Enlightenment by showing reverence to representations (or icons, or receptacles) of Enlightened Body, Speech and Mind. Enlightened Body is symbolized as any kind of two- or three-dimensional image or a divine form of aspiration: drawings, paintings, statues. Enlightened Speech is represented primarily by the holy Volume that contains enlightened utterances. Enlightened Mind is most often represented by the Chörten (Sanskrit Stûpa), understood as a memorial for the Enlightened Ones (other objects, like the Vajra, may also be placed in the class of Mind receptacles). 

All three types of icons, when they are complete in all their parts, can and ought to be consecrated before offerings begin to be made to them, and consecration is mainly about setting things apart for use in worship and in religio-spiritual practices of still other kinds. Tibetans (unlike some Indian Buddhists of a thousand years ago) normally do not perform consecrations for such things as wells and bridges. These rites Tibetans reserve for Body, Speech and Mind receptacles exclusively. In Tibet the following fact is abundantly clear: books in the form of Volumes belong to the broad category of holy objects every bit as much as Chörtens and Images.  (Not to neglect the building that contains them, the Temple, which is more likely to receive the more elaborate and lengthy consecration rituals.)

This monk carries on his shoulder, in a procession around the Mahâbodhi Temple, a wrapped Volume with flower offerings visible on top. Also visible here is the labeling flap. Under the three layers of contrastingly colored brocade you would likely find a flap of white gauze-like cloth with a short title and/or key-letter inked into it. Essential for keeping a working library, this is the Tibetan equivalent of a library call number.

When the procession is over, the Volumes need to be carefully reassembled and readied before they are returned to their places on the shelves. Here you see how one monk, with the help of another, wraps the book up in its clothing (the same word námza is used for clothing offered to sacred images). The clothing is in fact just one of a set of four or five objects that I would call binding elements, although each of these also serves a protective function against environmental hazards, something I’ll try to convince you of in some later blog. There are a lot of rules and tips for properly wrapping the cloth around the book that I won’t go into (see the demonstration video linked below). It’s generally deemed important to have the top of the book remain on top throughout the process, and there are ways to ensure this. That way the title page will be on top when the book is shelved. 

For today I’ll just end by saying that Tibetan ways of binding up books have changed in some interesting ways during the last millennium (and more). The book-boards, although they are and were always made in pairs, one above and one below, have today been reduced to thin cardboard-like objects identical in length and width with the pages they cover. In older days these would have been made of wood, which was important for other reasons than just stiffening the package (we’ll get to that eventually), and the wooden covers would have extended out beyond the paper stack. Today the title label is a separate object inserted into the cloth as it’s being wrapped around the book. In older days it was an inseparable part of the (often stiffened) front title page. Also, today the book-wrapper ends in a strap, sewn to one corner of the cloth. In older days (and even today in some cases) the strap was a separate object, often more like a belt with a buckle, that was used to tighten the loose folio pages between the two wooden boards.

§   §   §   §   §

Take a look somewhere else!

For more photos of the Kanjur Reading and Procession that formed part of this year's Kagyü Mönlam, look here. On the sounds that symbolize Buddha Word, look at this previous blog. The University of Michigan Museum of Art is at this moment putting on a show of remarkable examples of Tibetan book-boards (look here). The exhibit has the title “Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection,” and it runs only until April 2, 2017, so you had better hurry. For more examples of book-boards, go to this Himalayan Arts Resources page about them. If you need a tutorial about putting the clothing on books, try this 10-minute video. 

If you don’t master every detail all at once no need to be discouraged. Anyway, not every Tibetan is equally finicky about what must be done when putting on the clothing, and in fact I’ve noticed some important “tucking” motions are commonly overlooked, especially by those in a hurry. The important thing is not to allow yourself to get overly neurotic about it. It’s best to see how a number of people do it before you develop our own style, at the same time trying to understand why all these things are done to begin with. If something isn’t found to have good rationales, you really do not need to do it. My home Tibetan library includes a few hundred pecha volumes, and I admit, I could do a neater job of it with a little extra effort. Although some might think it odd, I even use pecha wrappers when I’m traveling with books bound in your typical Euro-style, as they can prevent damage. And relax, it’s no wonder if you sometimes think a third hand is required when you see that even experienced monks need a little help sometimes.

Some Euro-American types are overly used to using the words binding or bound to mean only things sewn up in signatures, but they need to be disabused of this notion. Tibetan (as well as Indian) books are nearly all in fact bound even when the pages are (supposedly, according to Eurocentrics) “loose.” Tibetans make use of what I call binding elements, like the cloth and the strap, and I’ll say more about them another time, even attempt to explain their rationales. I may even go into their history a bit by looking at some thousand-year-old sources that practically everyone has ignored until now, sources belonging to the Bon religion.

The Wikipedia entry for “pecha” is brief and not bad as far as it goes. Better if you read this page on Tibetan book production.

Although woodblock printing (xylography) isn’t exactly on topic here, you might be interested in a recently uploaded English translation of an essay by the recent Tibetan scholar Dungkar Rinpoche; the PDF is here.

- - -

For the Tibetan language lovers, learners and knowers, here is a set of vocabulary items used in this blog (if you are looking for a more complete and technical list, try this page at Dorji Wangchuk’s website, entry for June 1, 2013):

Bodhgaya → Dorjé Den རྡོ་རྗེ་གདན་
body → lü ལུས་
Body → Ku སྐུ་
Bön → Bön བོན་
book-board → legshing གླེགས་ཤིང་
book-strap → legtag གླེགས་ཐག
book-wrapper (clothing) → namza ན་བཟའ་ or peré དཔེ་རས་
Buddhaword → Ka བཀའ་
Chörten → Chörten མཆོད་རྟེན་
consecration → rabné རབ་གནས་
Dungkar Rinpoche → དུང་དཀར་རིན་པོ་ཆེ་
Kagyü Mönlam → བཀའ་བརྒྱུད་སྨོན་ལམ་
Kanjur → Kangyur བཀའ་འགྱུར་
katag → khadag ཁ་བཏགས་
labeling flap → dongdar གདོང་དར་
mind → yid ཡིད་
Mind → Tug ཐུགས་
pecha → དཔེ་ཆ་
receptacle → ten རྟེན་
speech → ngag ངག་
Speech → Sung གསུང་
Vajra → Dorjé རྡོ་རྗེ་
Volume → Legbam གླེགས་བམ་
woodblock print → par པར་

+ • + • + • + • + • +

Added on (March 22, 2017):

Just out: this New York Times story about the Derge Printery, one of the largest printeries that continues to produce traditional Tibetan books: Edward Wong, “Printing the Ancient Way Keeps Buddhist Texts Alive in Tibet.” One correction: It’s body, speech and mind, not ‘body, mouth and mind.’ I’ve seen this unfortunate translation elsewhere, especially in Zen translations from Japanese, but that doesn’t make it right.

Follow me on