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Pu-tön’s Advice on publishing Buddhist texts by Alpo Ratia
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Following the Muslim conquest of northern India in the 12th century Buddhism ceased to function as an organized religion there. By that time thousands of texts from India had been carried over the Himalayas and were being translated into the Tibetan language . Soon Tibetan scholars set about assessing, systematizing and developing further the Indian heritage in fields such as philosophy , ethics, psychology, medicine, astronomy , administration, poetics, arts and crafts. This engagement yielded not only a rich literature and original syntheses with major Central Asian inputs, but also lineages of enlightened masters and the beginnings of a new Tibetan cultural model, which eventually spread to neighbouring lands, southern Siberia , and even the lower Volga .
By the beginning of the 14th-century ‘Central Tibet ’ (Ü-Tsang , written dBus gTsang ) became in effect the inheritor, repository and continuator of late Indian Buddhismscriptures , commentaries, and treatises were already available in Tibetan versions. It was at this historical juncture that the encyclopaedic Tibetan scholar and luminary Pu-tön Rinchen Trup (Bu ston Rin chen grub, 1290 – 1364) entered the stage and carried out his lifework. Great analytic and systematising capacity, coupled with extraordinary industriousness and spiritual attainments, enabled him to play key roles in the transmission of Indian scriptures , in the fashioning of the Tibetan Canon . Thousands of and in scribal publishing.
Pu-tön was born amid auspicious signs in 1290 near a hermitage in the lower Shab Valley of West-Central Tibet Tsang ). His father was a respected Nyingma lama , so in his childhood environment Pu-tön mainly imbibed traditions of the ‘Ancient Ones ’ (rNying ma pa-s ). Later he was increasingly drawn to traditions of the Modern gSar ma pa ) orders and lesser sects. In 1307 Pu-tön was ordained a novice monk at the Jyamchen chö-de (Byams chen chos sde) monastery of the Tro-phu-Kagyü (Khro phu bKa’ brgyud) sect, where he received most of his monastic training. After full ordination as a monk (gelong ) in 1312, he also began to teach there.
Meanwhile Pu-tön spent four years on and off studying at the monastery called ‘Isle of Salvation’ (Thar pa gling). These sojourns were of pivotal importance for his future lifework. Studying under Nyima Gyältsen (Nyi ma rGyal mtshan), Pu-tön not only mastered Sanskrit and other Indian languages, but also the Kalacakra-tantra’s Six-limb yoga. Through this he is said to have attained great Enlightenment . Pu-tön’s teacher Nyima Gyältsen was both a master translator and retired abbot from the famous monastery of Narthang belonging to the Kadampa (bKa’ gdams pa) order. Less than one decade earlier the first authoritative, massive collection of Buddhist texts in Tibetan language had been compiled there. That was the Old Narthang Edition of the bipartite Tibetan Canon (KanjurTenjur; bKa’ ‘gyur & bsTan ‘gyur). Kanjurs contain Words of the Buddha or Buddhist scriptures , while Tenjurs are typically comprised of commentaries and traditional scientific treatises.
Pu-tön’s own career as abbot began in 1320. The Mongol ruler (khagan ) of China Temur Öljeitu had earlier appointed Tibetan nobleman Dakpa Gyältsen (Grags pa rGyal mtshan) to be lord-ruler of one of Tibet’s most prosperous districts, that of Zha-lu in Tsang . After the abbot of Zha-lu’s principal monastery died, Dakpa Gyältsen had a prophetic dream according to which Pu-tön would be the ideal successor. In 1320 Pu-tön arrived and took up the abbacy of the ‘Glorious Small-Hat Monastery’ (dPal ldan Zhwa lu dgon), with its 200 or so monk-inmates. He quickly learned the specialties of the Zha-lu sect. Here his activity took four principal forms: spiritual practice, artistic construction, teaching, writing and publishing. Pu-tön’s fame, brilliance and industriousness together with patronage and the arrival of students and scholars from near and far enabled him to develop Zha-lu into a great ‘academic monastery’ (shedra ) for philosophy and esoterics. Zha-lu also became one of Tibet’s leading monastic publishing centres.
The 14th century was a period of great cultural ferment, efflorescence, competition, and even dissonance in Tibet . Through his widespread contacts, editorial work and scholarship Pu-tön was exposed to all major religio-philosophical schools of thought and practices then prevailing in Central Tibet. As a conservative modernizer with scholarly and personal attainments of a rare order he was able to make manifold, positive contributions towards the preservation and harmonization of authentic traditions. Many of Pu-tön’s judgements and solutions remain authoritative or at the least as respected points of reference for Tibetan Buddhists of all schools. Even when superseded in the course of time, they have served historically as noteworthy catalysts.
Pu-tön was a principal lineage-holder and the leading Sarmapa commentator on the two classes of ‘Supreme Yoga Tantra ’ (Anuttara Tantra ) and Union Tantra (Yoga Tantra) . Pu-tön was together with the Nyingma master Longchen (Klong chen Tshul khrims Blo gros) and the Jonangpa master Dolpopa (Dol po pa Shes rab rGyal mtshan) one of the greatest scholars of 14th century Tibet . Partly because of his abbatial successor Dratshadpa’s (sGra tshad pa) inclination towards the once-paramount Sakyapa (Sa skya pa) order, some later writers have exaggerated Pu-stön’s relations with the Sakyapas . However, by the time of his death in 1364, Pu-tön’s religio-philosophical orientations had broadened greatly, and the rituals, which he had developed, together formed the basis of a new monastic ‘Pu tradition’ (Bu lugs). Representatives of Tibet’s largest order, the Gelukpas (dGe lugs pa-s) tend also to claim the illustrious Pu-tön as an ancestor of their lineage.
Pu-tön Rinchen Trup left a tremendous legacy for posterity in the form of his literary works. Pu-tön was an encyclopaedic writer, and his literary production of circa 230 texts is one of the most influential collections to have survived from Tibet . His original works deal with Canonical texts, commentarial, meditative and ritualistic traditions, or they address other contemporary Tibetan needs. He traced the historical lines of transmission of a great many tantras in order to ensure their authenticity, and he systematically classified Tantra cycles and arranged their texts. Pu-tön was also the 14th century’s pre-eminent translator (lo tsa ba) and Canonical redactor. He singly translated at least 15 Canonical texts in their entirety, and also co-translated or revised over a dozen additional texts. Pu-tön History of Buddhism. Here he classifies texts according to their subject matter, aim, intellectual value and soteriological efficacy. presents a useful overview of the Canonical literature in the first part of his famous
Pu-tön’s greatest literary achievement was his redaction in 1334 – 1335 of the Zha-lu Tenjur (Zhwa lu bsTan ‘gyur) Canon Edition. This massive collection of 227 volumes of Buddhist commentaries and treatises was an extensively revised version of the Old Narthang Tenjur . Under Pu-tön’s direction, thousands of texts ultimately originating from India were collected, sifted through, compared and studied. His editorial staff sought to delete duplicate and spurious texts, while hundreds of further texts from elsewhere in Central Tibet were added. The editorial and scribal staff together with servants must have numbered in the hundreds. A few copies of the prestigious Zha-lu Tenjur were apparently made and sent to other Tibetan monasteries . Consequently the Zha-lu Tenjur became an intermediary link from which later standard Tenjur Canon editions stem. The original Edition unfortunately seems to have been lost during the 20th century in the turbulence of China’s Cultural Revolution .
Our present paper centres upon one of Pu-tön’s minor writings, named here in short “Pu-tön’s Advice on publishing Buddhist texts”. The actual title is much longer: “Entreaty to the Stewards of the Dharma, Spiritual Friends, and Accomplished Scholars Who Produce Great Shastras” (bsTan bcos chen po bzhengs pa’i chos gnyer ba dge ba’i bshes gnyen rnams dang yon tan mkhan rnams kyi snyan du gsol ba). Pu-tön probably dictated it during the 1330s in connection with his redaction of the Zha-lu Tenjur . Incidentally according to the biography written by Dra-tshadpa (Ruegg 1959: 123-124), Pu-tön was able to dictate his own writings instantly and without hesitation to his scribes. Now this earnestly meant collective letter principally addresses his patrons, monastic administrators and chief scribes. The text is written in classical Tibetan , but also includes some archaic or Tsang dialect words missing in dictionaries. Although the “Advice” letter is in unpolished prose and is somewhat zealous and peremptory in tone, it also contains several nice deferential flourishes and similes. Here purport is definitely more important than style. An English translation of “Pu-tön’s Advice on publishing Buddhist texts” is found below in the Appendix.
Pu-tön’s Advice deals on the surface level with mundane subject matter – how to publish Buddhist texts. Moreover, it provides us with a window for viewing the publishing culture and practical methods followed for centuries in Central Asia . Some background details are omitted, because well known by his intended audience in 14th-century Tibet . Hence, we add several observations at this point: Available historical records suggest that for hundreds of years monastic establishments carried out all major hand-publishing projects in Tibet. Especially on the Tibetan Plateau scribal activities were restricted by severe climatic conditions to milder seasons when ink would flow and not freeze. Moreover, in deference to their Indian origins the texts produced and used in the Tibetan cultural area remained even till the 20th century overwhelmingly in the format of oblong, loose-leaf manuscripts and ‘spineless books’ (dpe cha, pothi). One obvious advantage of broad-lined pothis over narrow formatted western books is greater ease in following meditative liturgies (pujas).
From Pu-tön’s Advice we can infer the ideal 14th-century publishing scenario: A major hand-publishing project requires first of all library holdings and individual, authentic texts for copying, furthermore honourable patrons providing sufficient funding, a responsible establishment (e.g. a monastery or religious foundation) with an appropriate venue (e.g. a scriptorium or other separate work quarters), a sufficiently large staff making it possible to have both an administrative hierarchy (to oversee, direct and coordinate the project) and a division of labour among monastics and laity including various specialists, e.g.: directors, administrators, editors, translators, collators, text reciters, scribes, copyists, proof-readers, paper makers, engravers, etc. The general tenor of Pu-tön’s Advice is relevant still in the 21st century despite advanced mechanical and electronic means, which can streamline parts of the publishing process. Of course, other problems (e.g. materialism, distractions, dearth of specialists and funds) are liable to beset us and the feasibility of publishing projects more today than was the case in a traditional Buddhist society.
The technological level of hand publishing was very modest by today’s standards. Nevertheless, those limitations could partly be offset in line with Pu-tön’s ethos and counsel on procedures for maximising productivity and avoiding mistakes. Pu-tön reminded monastic administrators and their subordinates of publishing legislation (the so-called Issued Ordinances, i.e. the bKa’ bcad), and the expectations of higher authorities (e.g. Ministerial President rGyal ba bZang po) and of patrons (e.g. Zha-lu’s lord-ruler Dakpa Gyältsen). Moreover, he repeatedly impressed upon them the importance of Dharma publishing projects and the need for individuals to earnestly fulfil their respective responsibilities. Scribes were exhorted to listen attentively to dictation givers, and to record what they heard accurately, not making additions or deletions. Scribes and proof-readers were expected to ensure correct spelling of words in accordance with standard Tibetan orthography , and when necessary to consult special reference works (orthographical guides or dictionaries) on the so-called ‘Mantra orthography’ of Sanskrit and Prakrit loanwords. However, because of misprints even in reference works, Pu-tön emphasized the pressing need to independently analyse and arrive at correct spellings. Part of the problem no doubt lay in the innumerable homonyms in Tibetan, i.e. words pronounced the same, but spelled variously.
Incidentally, Pu-tön’s directive to scribes to write 115 – 120 ligatures per running line helps account for the standardised size of texts within long, unbound books (pothis). This important piece of bibliographical information has significantly facilitated the mathematical calculation and search for selected texts within handwritten and block-printed pothis. Of course, in modern times it has become easier to locate mechanically, electronically or digitally reprocessed texts within compendia. Now Tibetan-language literature published in paper form in the West and Japan (as well as literature stored in databases) is commonly supplied with fuller critical apparatuses (tables of content, indexes, bibliographical particulars, etc.) than was traditionally the case in Tibet and Central Asia.
Beyond the surface level of Pu-tön’s Advice on publishing lay more serious objectives. In order to ensure the continued good-will of higher authorities and patrons, obligations to them needed to be met well. The demand that scribal publishing of the Buddha’s Word and of other Canonical texts be kept within the preserve of religious establishments could benefit the latter economically. More fundamentally this helped ensure the preservation of authentic traditions. In 14th century Tibet not only were literacy, book learning, and scribal competency most commonly found at monasteries, but also carriers of text-related oral commentarial traditions and lineages of enlightened masters. Such traditions and lineages could ensure the continuing flow of empowerments and blessings. Individuals would benefit thereby, and the Buddhist establishment and Tibetan cultural area would flourish, if the underlying metaphysical foundations and their cognitive expressions remained sound.
Translation of Pu-tön’s “Advice on publishing Buddhist texts”
From the Tibetan bsTan bcos chen po bzhengs pa’i chos gnyer ba dge ba’i bshes gnyen rnams dang yon tan mkhan rnams kyi snyan du gsol ba, published in Lokesh Chandra’s facsimile edition of The Collected Works of Bu-ston ( = Sata Pitaka Series, vol. 66), New Delhi: IAIC, 1971, pp. 344 (line 5) – 346 (line 5 ).
- Bogaert, Hans van den (translated) 1996 A Handful of Flowers: A brief biography of Buton Rinpoche; Dharamsala: LTWA.
- Chandra, Lokesh (edited) 1971 The Collected Works of Bu-ston, Sata Pitaka Series, vol.66, New Delhi: IAIC.
- Grönbold, Gunter 1982 “Die Schrift- und Buchkultur Tibets”, - C.C. Müller & W. Raunig (editors), Der Weg zum Dach der Welt, Innsbruck: Pinguin.
- Kanakura, Yensho et alia (editors) 1953 A Catalogue of the Tohoku University Collection of Tibetan Works on Buddhism, Sendai: Tohoku University.
- Obermiller, Eugene (translated) 1931 History of Buddhism by Bu-ston, Part I: The Jewelry of Scripture, Heidelberg: Harrassowitz. 1932 History of Buddhism by Bu-ston, Part II [& III]: The History of Buddhism in India and Tibet, Heidelberg: Harrassowitz.
- Petech, Luciano 1990 Central Tibet and the Mongols, Roma: IsMEO
- Ratia, Alpo 2003 “Towards a History of Tibetan Learning”, - Acta Orientalia (Copenhagen), vol. 64. (2008 “Canon Redactor Bu ston’s Advice on Publishing” [An extensive study with Introduction, annotated Translation and annotated Text edition submitted for publication], - M. Läänemets (ed.), Studia Orientalia Tartuensis, Series Nova, vol.3)
- Roerich, George N. (translated) 1976 The Blue Annals, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass
- Ruegg, David Seyfort (translated) 1959 Life of Bu ston Rin po che, Roma: IsMEO
- Vitali, Roberto 1990 Early Temples of Central Tibet, London: Serindia
Author: Alpo Ratia