Printing the Ancient Way Keeps Buddhist Texts Alive in Tibet

This from the New York Times by Edward Wong.                             点击查看本文中文版

DERGE, China — The dozen or so Tibetan men wearing aprons sat in pairs in low chairs, facing each other. Each pair bent over a thin rectangular wooden block and worked by sunlight streaming into the second-story room open to a courtyard.

Their hands moved quickly. Over and over they went through the same motions, several times each minute: One man slathered red or black ink on the block, which was carved with Tibetan words and religious images. Then his partner placed a thin piece of white paper atop the block and, bending even lower, ran a roller over it. Seconds later, he whipped off the paper and put it aside to dry.

That bending was an act of prostration to the Buddha, said Pema Chujen, a Tibetan woman who was leading a group of ethnic Han visitors around the monastery. I stood at the back of the tour, having walked into the monastery during a two-week road trip across this part of Tibet.

“They are like this every day,” she said. “This is just the faith in their hearts. Of course, it’s good to make offerings to the Buddha using a lot of money, but it’s more faithful to make offerings using your body, mouth and mind.”

So went a typical afternoon in one of the most revered institutions in the Tibetan world, the Parkhang printing lamasery in the mountainous heart of the Kham region. On Chinese maps, it is in the far west of Sichuan Province, across the Cho La, a vertiginous pass at 16,600 feet.

The press, in the town of Derge, dates to 1729 and draws pilgrims from across the Tibetan plateau to the three-story monastery, its walls painted scarlet and its roof adorned with golden Buddhist icons.

The printing press is the embodiment of a hallowed tradition and is one site where the Tibetan language is being preserved, despite the lack of government support for immersive Tibetan-language education on the plateau. It has more than 320,000 wooden printing blocks that are on average more than 260 years old, said Ms. Pema, a volunteer who cleans the monastery’s objects and guides visitors.

The monastery also houses collections of sutras, including 830 classic scriptures and copies of more than 70 percent of ancient Tibetan manuscripts, she said. The founder of the monastery, Chokyi Tenpa Tsering, embraced works from the range of Tibetan Buddhist schools.

“He was very open minded, like the ocean containing water from all rivers,” she said.

Besides trying to preserve the old blocks, the printing house has been making new ones since the 1980s. A decade from now, it is expected to have 400,000 blocks, Ms. Pema said.

The printing blocks are constructed from red birchwood in 13 steps. At an early stage, the raw pieces of wood have to be soaked in feces for a half-year. Those that do not crack or break during this period are then made into printing blocks, Ms. Pema said. Craftsmen apply an herbal solution that repels rats and insects.

The printing operations employ about 60 people. The men have been here for two decades on average, despite low pay, Ms. Pema said. Each day, they print about 2,500 pieces of paper, on both sides, to be collected as sutras and distributed across the Tibetan plateau.

At its height, the press employed more than 500 people, and almost all were monks from the neighbouring Gonchen Monastery. These days, the printers are laypeople.

The monastery is a warren of hallways and rooms. On the third floor, a few men sat with wooden boards in a small, dark room. Here they made simple thangkas, large hangings with Buddhist iconography.

Clipped to a string were thangkas showing popular aspects of the pantheon: the seated Sakyamuni Buddha, the fingers of one hand touching the earth; Medicine Buddha, holding a bowl; Mahakala, the fierce protector deity that appears in paintings as a blue, multiarmed, fanged demon.

In one corner of the room, an abbot sat discussing a text with one of the printers.

A few feet away, a tall Tibetan man in a black Arc’teryx jacket pointed out items in the room to a friend. He was Chime Dorje, a prominent doctor and advocate of traditional medicine who ran a clinic in the town centre.

He said the monks here had once operated a clinic. Now he and others were the inheritors of the tradition. Like the printing process here, the practise of Tibetan medicine had managed to survive the Mao era and the advent of a quasi-market economy.

“There were myths that Tibetan medicine contained a large amount of mercury and lead, but actually its ingredients are just normal,” he told me. “Some theoretical studies have also proven that Tibetan medicine is scientific.”

Outside, pilgrims walked around the building to complete a kora, or holy circuit. Old women spun hand-held prayer wheels and hobbled along with walking sticks. The monastery was one of three pilgrimage sites in the Tibetan world, each representing the body, mouth and mind of the Buddha, Ms. Pema said.

One visitor, Sonam, said he saw more traditional dress in Derge than anywhere else in the region. He pointed to women circling the monastery with coral and turquoise stones entwined into braids in their hair. “They have money,” he said.

Chanting emanated from loudspeakers. In hills to the east of the monastery stood clusters of red three-story wooden homes, a traditional design around religious centres in Kham.

Even if the scene around the monastery evoked ancient customs, the town did not. Modern five-story buildings lined the valley walls along the river. Yellow construction cranes loomed above the skyline, a sight typical of cities big and small across China. At night, neon signs glowed.

Katia Buffetrille, a scholar of Tibet at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, said the sprawl of the town had surprised her when she visited last year. She had last come here three decades earlier.

The monastery was in bad shape in 1985, she said. But the printing press was functioning back then, years after the end of the destructive Cultural Revolution.

“The operations of the printing press are today similar to what they were in 1985,” Ms. Buffetrille said. “It’s amazing how many pages they print every day.”

“That can explain the bad quality of the printing sometimes,” she added.

But the traditions endure. On the afternoon I visited, in a monastic building uphill from the printing press, monks held a dharma ceremony, which they do every few weeks. One monk walked around a crowded courtyard sprinkling drops of water on worshippers. Others sat on a dais at the front, reading aloud from scriptures that had been printed by hand next door.

Good News but NOT the First

Now here’s a good one to end the year on. His Holiness the Dalai Lama awarded 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns with Geshema degrees yesterday at a ceremony at Drepung monastery in Mundgod, South India last Thursday, the 22nd of December. (Geshema is simply the feminine version of Geshe). 

According to the Tibetan government in exile the nuns are the first female monastics to complete the necessary training and examinations to earn the degree.

However, what about Venerable Kelsang Wangmo? In April 2011, His Holiness advised the renowned Institute for Buddhist Dialectical Studies (IBD) in Dharamsala, India, to confer the degree of “Geshe” to Venerable Kelsang Wangmo, a German nun (formerly Kerstin Brunnenbaum).

The Geshema degree is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, and could previously only be earned by men. In July, the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration announced that all 20 candidates for the degree had passed the examination process. The exams take a total of four years to complete, with one 12-day exam period per year each May that tests the knowledge gained in a 17-year course of study.

Aldershot Anti Dalai Lama Protest

I was literally just about to put finger to keyboard to write a short piece on the Dalai Lama’s “gig” at Glastonbury when I watched BBC South Today at lunchtime and saw the footage of the protesters at his Holiness’s visit to Aldershot.

The group protesting is in fact the International Shugden Community. This is where it gets complicated, and I do mean complicated which is possibly why the Beeb made absolutely NO attempt to explain what the protests were actually about.

In brief, the protesters are part of a fringe group that first emerged from the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism in the 17th century. Gelugpa is the school to which the Dalai Lama belongs.

The original group was part of a faction challenging the 5th Dalai Lama’s legitimacy and authority.
Among other things, they objected to the 5th Dalai Lama’s adopting practices of another school, called Nyingmapa, and they wanted to establish Gelugpa as the only legitimate school of Tibetan Buddhism (there are at least five others).

Today’s protesters are distinguished by their devotion to Dorje Shugden, an iconic deity whom they call

enlightened, an emanation of Manjusri Bodhisattva, and even a buddha. However, Dorje Shugden originally was a low-level tantric deity associated with the Sakya school. Until relatively recently, even within the Gelug school he was considered a “worldly” or unenlightened figure charged with the protection of Gelugpa.

(I have quoted the above from an excellent  article by Barbara O’Brien, read the rest HERE.)

“The protesters are from an extremist religious group that is aligned with the political agenda of the Chinese government in Tibet to undermine the Dalai Lama and enforce allegiance to the Chinese Communist party,” said Kate Saunders, the communications director of the International Campaign for Tibet.

Incidently, I was watching the South Today program as it featured an item on the reinstatement of the coast footpath from Totland to Colwell here in the West Wight. The sea wall and its promenade were severely damaged during a landslip in December 2012 leading to a local campaign for repairs.