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Tibetan Buddhist Texts

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The Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of the Bible is the Kangyur. Dealing with the historical Buddha, it consists of 108 volumes, each with about a 1000 pages. Thirteen of the volumes deal with monastic discipline and conduct. There are an additional 208 volumes of commentary (the Tengyur).

Tibetan prayer books and manuscripts are written on bark paper pressed between lacquered silk and bound in silk brocade. The inscriptions are often written in Sanskrit and the pages are printed with woodblocks. Some volumes weigh 50 pounds. Before bark paper was introduced, Tibetans wrote on the smooth shoulder bones of a goats.

Many monks spend a good portion of their time printing Buddhist texts and hanging the paper on trees to dry. Often, the monks don't know what the prints say. Homeowners like to buy inscription to hang over their doors to keep thieves and demons away.

Among the 200,000 hardwood printing blocks at the Balong Lamasery in Sichuan are texts on astronomy, geography, music, medicine and Buddhist classics. Balong also contains the world's only copy of the history of Indian Buddhism.

Texts are still printed the traditional way at the Dege Printing House in Dege, Sichuan. Built between 1729 and 1750, this three-story wooden structure stores 80 percent of the Tibetan literary culture, and produces a wide range texts for monasteries, libraries, study centers and Tibetan colleges, which people from all over Tibet come to pick up. More than 210,000 hand-craved wooden blocks, some of which were carved in the 16th century, are stored there. The Dege Printing House is regarded as a sacred site. Pilgrims seek it out and walk clockwise around it with prayer wheels in their hand.

About 100 monks work there. All the work is done by hand. There are no machines or even electric lighting. Blocks made in the 17th and 18th century are still used to make texts that have as many as 30,050 pages ( making four copies of this text takes three weeks). Describing the work done at the Monastery, Peter Hessler wrote in the New York Times, "One of the workers spreads the bright red ink on a wood block while the other presses the paper. They work quickly, printing a page every four seconds."

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