Sub-project Tibetan Studies

The Manuscript Collections of the Ancient Tantras (rNying ma rgyud 'bum):
An Examination of Variance

Principal investigator: Prof Dr Harunaga Isaacson

Research associate: Dr Orna Almogi


This sub-project will focus on the para-canonical collection known as the rNying ma rgyud 'bum or the 'Collection of the Ancient Tantras' of the rNying-ma school of Tibetan Buddhism. At least seven versions of the collection are available to date. These editions are of different sizes, ranging from 26 to 46 volumes. The objective of this sub-project is to study the variations exhibited in the various versions of the collection with regard to their length, the number and identity of the individual works contained in them, and their arrangement. This will be done on two levels. Firstly, comparing the various collections by creating a concordance which will include a comparison of the individual works: recording variations in their titles and colophons, and differences in their size, content, and placement within the overall arrangement of the collection. Secondly, investigating the doctrinal, social, economic, political and cultural aspects of the formation of the collection; the production of the various versions; and the various roles and functions assignable to the collection. All of this will involve studying and comparing the circumstances in which each of these collections was produced and given final shape. Particular attention will be given to collections that are not available to date (including older collections that may be considered as forerunners) and to the historical development of the scheme according to which the collection is currently arranged. Moreover, the influence of the xylographic edition on the later transmission of the collection and other possible consequences of this change of medium will be examined. The investigation of the various roles and functions of the collection will include a study of the role of the collection as the main shaper of identity for the rNying-ma school and its function as a medium for preserving and transmitting knowledge and religious contents, and as a bestower of authenticity upon '(re)-discovered' hitherto unknown tantric texts.

Manuscript Culture in Tibet

The development of the Tibetan script (according to traditional sources sometime in the 7th century) and the scriptural tradition in Tibet is closely connected with the dissemination of Buddhism there. The copying of texts was regarded as highly meritorious, and thus often sponsored by various religious and political leaders. Since the development of the Tibetan script, thousands of texts, whether of Indian origin or autochthonous, have been written down on Tibetan soil and subsequently reproduced and transmitted. For many centuries this was primarily in the form of manuscripts, be they simple copies in black ink on white paper or special illuminated editions written in gold or other precious materials. With the rapid growth of the number of manuscripts, the need to catalogue or at least systematically record them also grew, and this usually meant classifying the texts according to contents and style. The earliest such record known to us goes back to the 9th century. With the growing number of circulating texts, there also arose the wish to systematically compile them. As texts were repeatedly copied, some of which had been translated (or at least revised) more than once, the compilers were confronted with the existence of several (often different) copies of one and the same work. During the first major attempt to compile what later came to be known as the Tibetan Buddhist canon, an enterprise which took place in the bKa'-gdams-pa monastery of sNar-thang sometime in the first half of the 14th century, all traceable copies were collected and then compiled, clearly without any effort to collate them and without any attempt to exclude certain versions from the collection. However, Tibetan scholars soon realised the need to compare and collate various existing versions, leave out doublets and exclude texts believed to be spurious. Over a period of more than one thousand years, Tibetans developed and refined the arts of compiling, collating, editing, recording and reproducing manuscript collections. This process took place particularly in connection with the production of numerous copies of the Buddhist canon, but soon spread to the corpus of autochthonous works, whose number now grew considerably. By the mid-20th century, the number of manuscripts and xylographs in Tibetan language, be they of single works or of collections of various sizes, had grown enormously, and despite the immense destruction that a great part of these material has undergone, thousands of manuscripts and xylographs are still available.