Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

A Letter to the Editors of the Buddhist Canon in Fourteenth-Century Tibet: The Yig Mkhan Rnams la Gdams Pa of Bu Ston Rin Chen Grub

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

A Letter to the Editors of the Buddhist Canon in Fourteenth-Century Tibet: The Yig Mkhan Rnams la Gdams Pa of Bu Ston Rin Chen Grub

Article excerpt

In the summer of 1364, at the monastery of Zhwa lu in midwestern Tibet, Bu ston Rin chen grub, scholar, artist, teacher, abbot, and zealous collector of manuscripts containing the word of the Buddha, died at the age of seventy-four. (1) During the elaborate rituals of homage and mourning, the Bka' 'gyur, that part of the Tibetan Buddhist canon which contains the Buddha's word in translation, was recited three times. There could have been no more appropriate act of devotion toward Bu ston, for he had dedicated a large part of his life to the compilation and production of Buddhist canonical collections and had designed the temple at Zhwa lu Monastery in which the Bka' 'gyur was housed. (2) While his physical remains were distributed as relics throughout Tibet, India, China, and Nepal, the physical manifestations of his religiously motivated scholarly efforts were eventually to spread as far (farther even) in the form of the Tibetan Buddhist canons.

Bu ston's love of learning and his desire to propagate the teachings of the Buddha and the Buddhist masters through textual scholarship--just one facet of his contributions to the spread of Buddhist culture in Tibet--are discussed by his biographer and close disciple Sgra tshad pa Rin chen rnam rgyal (1318-88) in A Handful of Flowers. Sgra tshad pa repeatedly stresses his master's passion for and expertise in such matters. We are told that at the age of four or five, he learned to read perfectly the Tibetan printed script under the tutelage of his mother, not by using a speller as it seems was the norm, but through copying out and there-upon immediately reciting the Atajna Sutra. (3) The five-year-old Bu ston then strove to learn the cursive script, and was so distraught when he could not do so that his patron deity, Manjughosa, showed him favor and blessed him with the ability to read this version of the Tibetan script. (4)

Sgra tshad pa elaborates on the theme of textual learning and scholarship in Bu ston's life in a number of ways. He evokes visions of a scholar at work in the center of his entourage: "Even surrounded by all the scribes and creating many different types of translations and compositions. [Bu ston] dictated without faltering so that the hand of each [scribe] was not empty." (5) In particular, he focuses on the increasing importance of editorial activities for Bu ston. In 1332 Bu ston was called upon in a vision by the Sa skya pa master, Rje bstun Grags pa rgyal mtshan (1147-1216). Grags pa rgyal mtshan urged Bu ston not only to compose commentaries on the sutras and tantras, but also to edit: "Edit the word of the Buddha and the treatises in general, and the tantras in particular. Earlier I thought to edit my own works, but I did not finish. Now you must edit them." (6) Bu ston took his Sa skya pa ancestor's injunction to heart, placing editorial work at the center of his scholarly activities.

Sgra tshad pa later praises his master's work as a mature scholar in his fifties, writing: "Through translation and editorial work he has grown the magnificent life-giving tree, the foundation of the Buddhist teachings." (7) Indeed, references to books, editing, translating, and textual scholarship abound not only in Bu ston's life story by Sgra tshad pa, but in songs of praise by later Tibetans as well. Writing in 1485, Sakya mchog Idan (1428-1507) praises Bu ston for editing the words of the Buddha anew, and for setting the Himalayas ablaze with the light of the Buddha's kindness by producing canonical volumes. (8)

Just three years prior to his death, Bu ston exhorted his close student, Sgra tshad pa, to take up the editorial revision of several of his own manuscripts, with a concern that the work he had initiated at Zhwa lu Monastery continue, and, it sounds, with an almost manic concern that his reputation as a textual scholar not be tarnished after his death. Sgra tshad pa relates how, in a short-tempered mood, his mentor issued these words of warning to him:

  My own collection of manuscripts--the grammatical and tantric
  works--must be brought to completion, [for] if I should die, when
  scholars and peers look at them they will say, "These manuscripts of
  his were not even edited once! … 
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