Sunday, March 26th, 2023 05:26:35

Understanding the written word

Updated: November 17, 2016 11:08 am

Nalanda University, near Patna, was, once upon a time, a large Buddhist monastery. It was a centre of learning from the 7th century B.C. to 1200 C.E. and is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. It flourished in the 5th and 6th centuries under the Gupta Empire and prospered till the 9th century. Scholars from Tibet, China, Korea and Central Asia visited Nalanda.  Xuanzang and Yijing, who visited from China, in the 7th century, wrote in a travelogue about the many books and related texts on Buddhism they studied at this location. They were so immersed in the study of this subject that they stayed on at Nalanda for a greater period than they had planned.  They were deeply engrossed because China had many books on Buddhism and these scholars visited Nalanda with the purpose of translating the texts into Chinese. Buddhism was studied and then perpetuated throughout Asia; Lamas or monks were important  links of Buddhism through the centuries. Buddhism in its singularity combined its resources in a remarkable manner, to produce a  myriad of scrolls and written texts of the Buddha’s  principles which were   transcended into interpretations by disciples. The writings were compiled into volumes to be divided into various sections and the matter did not end there; copies were made so centres or monasteries were, in time, to  receive this literature, to enable  future generations of Lamas and scholars  to  be taught literally by the written word, which originated from the Buddha’s teaching.To read in those libraries  were  at a Lama’s disposal, and to learn that a Lama must begin his career by the age of eight or nine, is all within the requirements of becoming a learned  Buddhist. Buddhism is neither a religion nor a philosophy. Buddha stated that “he taught the way things are.” He cautioned followers not to believe his teachings out of faith but to examine and understand  the truth of what he said. A  form  of wisdom  unfolds which has  continued, from its genesis, in 5 B.C.

The difference  in the Buddha’s thoughts  is because his teachings are a science, by his advising his followers to  test  his teaching rather than accepting his word. He had articulated that the key to Buddhism is more on understanding than faith. Wisdom, he asserts, should be developed with compassion, which can be attained by reading and sharing. It is essentially this precept which explains the importance of Lamas reading, reciting  and understanding Buddha’s  words, to enable them to integrate with with Buddha’s followers by virtue of the same principles: reading and sharing his teachings.

The larger monasteries of Tibet and Sikkim ensure that  they possess a copy of the great lamaic encyclopedias, the Kah-gyur, or “The Translated Commandments,” and the Tengyur, “The Translated doctrinal Commentaries” by reputed saints. All the treatises contained in the Kah-gyur and most of those in the Tengyur were translated from  Sanskrit of the later Buddhist Church in India and Kashmir; but the Tengyur also has later works. Translations were done by Indian Pundits, Tibetan translators and Chinese priests.

The common edition of the Kah-gyur is printed from ancient wooden blocks at Narthang, about six miles from Tashelhunpo, the capital of Western Tibet (Tsang) and head-quarters of the Panchhen ( Great Teacher) and incarnation of the mythical Buddha Amitabha; this common edition of the Kah-gyur fills 100 bulky volumes of about 1,000 pages within each volume. A later edition, printed at Eastern Tibet (Kham) contains the same matter as the earlier edition but is distributed in volumes so as to reach the mystic number of 108 volumes instead of 100 volumes in the common edition. The Tengyur contains some 225 volumes with treatises on Indian philosophy, grammar, logic, astrology and medicine.

To purchase so many volumes is expensive, so Pemiongchi (established in 1705 with  108 lamas) and Labrong(established in 1844 with  30 lamas) are the only monasteries in Sikkim which possess a complete set of both encyclopedias. However, several monasteries possess a full set of the Kah-gyur scriptures. The Kah-gyur is divided into three voluminous  sections: The Dulva or Discipline, in 13 volumes; The  Do, sermons of the Buddha in 66 volumes; The Sher-chin with its divisions, or, Transcendental Wisdom, in 21 volumes. Monasteries that cannot afford the full Kah-gyur possess parts of the Sher-Chin comprising 12 volumes of  “100,000” precepts of Transcendental Wisdom which is the main body of the Sher-Chin. Each monastery also possesses the legendary accounts of the great wizard saint of the Nyingmapa lamas, Lo-pon Rimbochhe who is believed to have visited Sikkim. The Manikbhum, a legendary history of Che-re-si, the patron god of Tibet and of the origin of the mystic sentence “Om Mani,” is a book often part of a lama’s personal collection. An important fact emerges here that these texts also contain prayers and hymns of deities and is not confined to Buddha alone.  “The Dolma” revered by Tibetans has been extolled in these books, with hymns in praise of the goddess: “Hail to thee whose face is shining, As a hundred harvest moons, Lit by the splendid light of- A full thousand fulgent stars!”

These volumes on Buddhism are indeed extensive, absorbing and enlightening to scholars. Buddha  explains how one candle can light a thousand and the candle which has lit the others has not diminished. He compares the same principle of sharing one’s happiness; by sharing happiness, he states, will not reduce it. A person wishing to read some of this literature will be interested to learn that The Sikkim Research Institute of Tibetology, Gangtok, is a centre of learning Buddhism and was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1958. In 1957 the Dalai Lama conferred his blessings on the institute. It contains some 30,000 books and volumes on Buddhism, including the Kah-gyur, and  is evocative of learning and sharing  wisdom of  a pristine era.

By Deepak Rikhye   

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