Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Culture of the Book in Tibet by Kurtis R. Schaeffer

book cover

The Culture of the Book in Tibet
by Kurtis R. Schaeffer

Hardback: 264 pages
Publisher: Columbia University Press
First Released: 2009

Publisher's Book Page

Source: Review copy from the publisher.

Back Cover Description:
The history of the book in Tibet involves more than literary trends and trade routes. Functioning as material, intellectual, and symbolic object, the book has been an instrumental tool in the construction of Tibetan power and authority, and its history opens a crucial window onto the cultural, intellectual, and economic life of an immensely influential Buddhist society.

Spanning the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Kurtis R. Schaeffer envisions the scholars and hermits, madmen and ministers, kings and queens who produced Tibet's massive canons. He describes how Tibetan scholars edited and printed works of religion, literature, art, and science and what this indicates about the interrelation of material and cultural practices. The Tibetan book is at once the embodiment of the Buddha's voice, a principal means of education, a source of tradition and authority, an economic product, a finely crafted aesthetic object, a medium of Buddhist written culture, and a symbol of the religion itself. Books stood at the center of debates on the role of libraries in religious institutions, the relative merits of oral and written teachings, and the economy of religion in Tibet.

A meticulous study that draws on more than 150 understudied Tibetan sources, The Culture of the Book in Tibet is the first volume to trace this singular history. Through a single object, Schaeffer accesses a greater understanding of the cultural and social history of the Tibetan plateau.

The Culture of the Book took a detailed look at book-making and the place of books in society in Tibet--a culture in which religious books are literally worshiped--during the 14th-18th centuries. While the books used in the examples were mainly Buddhist texts, the author only touched on Buddhist teachings as they related to the making, ownership, and value of the book. He covered several specific case studies where letters or texts were available which spoke about the process of making books (getting a patron, gathering materials, editing, translating, writing or cutting blocks and block printing the book, etc.) during the different centuries and in different areas of Tibet.

He also covered the social issues surrounding books, like how books were passed on after a person died, how donations were gathered to fund the expensive book-making project, and so on. The appendices contained the full text of a letter quoted in part in the book, a section explaining the contents of the Buddhist Canons for those of us who didn't know, and a chart showing the cost of making the Canon in his Degé example.

The wording used was formal but not technical, so it was easy to understand. I found the book interesting, though I felt at times like I would have gotten even more out of it if I was somewhat familiar with Tibetan Buddhism and the history during the time period covered. But maybe not. Overall, I'd recommend this book to anyone with an interest in how Tibetan Buddhism influenced book making in Tibet during the 14th-18th centuries.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
In the conclusion to one of his many works on esoteric Buddhist practice, Büton Rinchendrup, the great fourteenth-century scholar of Shalu monastery in west-central Tibet, recounts a story that one of his masters, Lama Pakpa O, had related to him. It was a cautionary tale about books. When Pakpa O was himself a student, his master, having grown quite old, had become unable to memorize teachings correctly. The master ordered Pakpa O to write down a certain text for him so he might read the work that now lay beyond his mnemonic abilities. Pakpa O had been explicitly ordered by another master never to write these teachings down, so this placed him in the difficult position of having to break one command in order to fulfill another. He resolved the dilemma by writing only an outline of the teachings for his aging mentor.

As Pakpa O related the tale, Büton asked that such a ban not be placed upon him, for he wished to compose a more extensive treatise on the practice. Pakpa O, seeing that he had not impressed upon his disciple the gravity of this ban on recording the teachings on paper, then offered a sort of commentary on the episode. "Writing down the instructions of an oral lineage," he began allegorically, "is like the king descending to the common people or wandering about a village. The negative consequences are manifold." And he listed the harmful costs: "The power and benefit of the instruction become vitiated. After the text exists, the practical instructions will not be sought after, and people will come to know the instruction only by obtaining the text. In the end it will become merely a reading transmission and thus the lineage of the real instruction will be severed."

Yet despite these concerns, Pakpa O consented to let Büton write "If [you] wish to do so, by all means do." But, he cautioned, "do not let the profound instructions become merely a reading transmission." The problem was not the act of putting the oral instructions down on paper, per se, but rather the danger that the transformation to a more permanent and portable communication medium might render direct master-disciple relationships unnecessary in the minds of those seeking instruction.

[From p. 142, a look at how things changed over time:]

At the beginning of a lengthy passage on the virtues of writing books [Shuchen] lists a set of ten scholarly practices that, as he says, "constitute the heart of the practice." As Shuchen himself relates, the following list is based upon the well-known work by Maitreya, Mahyantavibhaga. These practices are: 1) writing down texts of the holy teachings; 2) making offerings to books; 3) giving them to others; 4) hearing them being read by others; 5) reading them for oneself; 6) acquiring books; 7) explaining both the words and the meaning without error; 8) reciting them; 9) contemplating their meaning; and finally 10) meditating in accordance with what is explained in books. In contrast with the importance placed on orally transmitted teachings, often held in Tibetan literature to be integral to the authoritative transmission of Buddhist teachings, Shuchen uses this scripturally sanctioned outline for religious scholarly method as a support for the enterprise of printing.

1 comment:

Page said...

Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith: A Dialogue
Gianni Vattimo, Rene Girard, and Edited by Pierpaolo Antonello columbia university press

This book sounds very interesting. I'm a librarian and like reading about the history of books.

Page Inman