Tibet’s Libraries

Tibetan scriptures in the Sera Monastery, Lhasa

For most of Tibet’s history, monasteries have been the center of society. There were not only religious and political centers but were also schools. Anyone who was literate was educated in a monastery. It is no surprise then that the monasteries housed the libraries of Tibet. In fact, even today in Tibet and other Tibetan areas of China, those who who can read and write Tibetan were most likely educated in a monastery as written Tibetan is usually not taught in regular government schools.

These libraries not only housed printed books, but also the metal plates, and woodblocks used to print books. The Sera Monastery outside Lhasa still uses these ancient plates to print the scriptures used in monasteries today.

Library of plates in the Sera Monastery

The metal plates are framed in wood

Rows and rows of plates, floor to ceiling

A typical plate

These particular plates are used to print loose-leaf scriptures that are commonly used in monasteries. They consist of long strips of paper with text written the long ways across the page. Below is a poor quality photo of these books for sale, under a glass case.

Completed scriptures ready for sale

Typically a senior monk will recite scriptures using these long loose-leaf texts, and young monks in training will chant them after him. The photos below are from the Pachu Monastery (built in 1418) in Gyantse. They are not that great as the room was very dark. The senior monk sat cross-legged on an elevated stand with the scriptures open in front of him. A group of six young monks, between the ages of 14 and 18 years old, would chant the lines after him. They did not have scriptures in front of them; they had to rely on listening and repeating what they heard. They were a lively bunch of boys. When they took a break, I had a nice time chatting with them.

Senior monk reciting scriptures

Young monks taking a break from chanting scriptures

The printing room in the Sera Monastery also produced bound books of Tibetan scripture, history, science and other books. They were for sale right there in the printing room.

Tibetan books for sale at the Sera Monastery

In nearly all the main prayer halls of the monasteries I visited, Tibetan scriptures in bound books were placed at each monk’s station. They were usually well worn.

Well worn book of scripture on top of monk’s robes

Most monasteries have libraries of printed books wrapped in silk fabric and stacked on wooden shelves. These books were usually not behind glass or anything and anyone could reach out and touch them.

A large collection of books in the Pachu Monastery

Close up of the books wrapped in silk

The library at the small Chiu Gompa Monastery in Western Tibet

As a bibliophile I was fascinated with these collections of books. Being so close to them was a great thrill, even though, out to respect, we did not handle them. Unfortunately I do not read Tibetan, but I still found myself wanting to acquire some of these beautiful books. At a street stall near Barkor Square in Lhasa I found a woman selling the long loose-leaf scriptures. I bought a volume from her wrapped and tied in a saffron cloth. I had no way of knowing what I was buying so I asked her to pick a popular volume for me. She said it dealt with health.

I cringe to think how many libraries and books were destroyed during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. It is not like you can easily replace them. I know that many of the original plates were hidden during this time, so that books that were destroyed could be reprinted.

When I was doing some linguistic research in Yunnan Province (2010) and Tibet (2012), I learned that many Tibetans could not read or write Tibetan. In most government schools, Tibetan may be used as the medium of instruction, but they are not taught how to read and write Tibetan; they are taught how to read and write Chinese. Those who were literate in Tibetan were most likely trained in a monastery school. In the past, before the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1953, it was the practice for families that had more than one son, to send one of them to the local monastery to be educated. Many of these boys stayed and became monks. The literary tradition in Tibet was closely tied to religion and monasteries. Today it is mostly monks and nuns that can read and write Tibetan, though in some areas others are attempting to learn written Tibetan as well. However, this can be dangerous as these kinds of schools are frowned upon by the Chinese.

 

 

 

 

Conversation with a Monk

Butter lamps (candles) found inside all Tibetan Buddhist monasteries

Back in May when I was in Tibet we visited quite a few Buddhist monasteries. I have always loved temples and monasteries as they are such a nice contrast to the hustle and bustle of life outside, especially those in China proper. They are quiet and peaceful. I have always been drawn to monks as well. I’m interested in their stories, why they decided to become monks, and if they enjoy what they do.

While in the Pochu Monastery in Gyantze I had an interesting discussion with the monk pictured below. He allowed me to photograph him with my iPhone.

Monk in the Pochu Monastery in Gyantze

I had chatted with him briefly in the main prayer/meditation hall. I had asked him about some prayer beads that were in a glass case. We just exchanged a few words. A bit later as I was walking toward the door to leave, he approached me and softly touched my shoulder. I turned and he asked me if I had a few minutes to talk. It is a great blessing to be able to speak Chinese and talk with these people, even though Chinese is not their native language. Unfortunately my Tibetan skills are very rudimentary, and consist of a few phrases. He led me across the hall to the low padded benches where the monks sit in prayer, meditation, and chanting.

We sat on the low bench in the left of the photo. The benches are covered in wool carpets.

We sat down facing each other; then he asked me a question that totally took me by surprise. He said,

“There is a cell phone brand called Apple. Have you ever heard of it?”

I almost laughed. He said they are made here in China and they are very popular but also very expensive. I told him that I had heard of them and that they are very popular in the US as well and that Apple is an American company. I pulled out my iPhone and showed it to him. Then he pulled an iPhone from inside his burgundy robes and showed me his. I was not surprised that a monk had a cell phone as I had seen many monks talking on cell phones. I was surprised about his interest particularly in iPhones. He asked how much they cost in the US. Then he told me that they cost about 5000 yuan in China, which is about $800 US dollars. I was pretty surprised. I asked him if he liked his iPhone. He replied nonchalantly,

“It’s okay, I guess. But there isn’t much to do with it.”

Most of a monks income comes from their families and donations from others. I suspect someone probably gave him the phone.

I asked him about himself. He was 28 years old and had been at Pochu Monastery for the past 13 years. The monastery was built in 1418. He came from a small village about an hour outside Gyantze. One of his older brothers was also a monk and an older sister was a nun. His other brother was at home working the farm growing barley. He had another sister that lived in Lhasa. I asked him why he decided to become a monk. He told me that even as a young child he had always been attracted to the monasteries and temples in the area. He felt something different, something peaceful in these sacred places. His parents sensed this and encouraged him to become a monk. It is common for Tibetan families to have at least one family member become a monk or nun. It brings great merit and honor to a family. He said he enjoyed being a monk and had no intention of ever leaving. Another monk joined us and we chatted a bit longer. Their Chinese was not great, but good enough to communicate.

All Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have a prayer hall where all the monks can gather for instruction from the abbot, chant scriptures, pray, and meditate. The prayer hall at the Pochu Monastery was quite large. It consisted of rows of low padded benches where monks would sit crossed legged. At each of the these stations was their formal robes, a distinct gold colored hat shaped like a banana, their book of scripture, and a wooden bowl used at meal times. Below are a few photos from inside the prayer hall. These halls can be quite dark, but my Nikon P300 with it’s f/1.8 lens (on the wide end) did an okay job in these dim places, though they are not the greatest photos. The fastest lens I had on my Nikon D90 was a Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5. This was not quite fast enough to get clear shots inside most monasteries. As usual, click on any photo for a larger and better view.

The main prayer hall.

Inside the prayer hall

Tools fo the trade—robes, scriptures, and a wooden bowl

Well-worn Tibetan Buddhist scriptures

Prostrating pilgrim in the main prayer hall.

Buddha figures at Pochu Monastery

In another smaller hall I met a group of teenaged monks chanting their scriptures under the direction of an older monk who was leading the group. When they took a break, they were very animated and I had a fun time teasing them. They asked where I was from and when I responded that I was an American, one of the boys pointed to another sitting next to him and said he was an American too. I looked at him and said,

“Really? He looks more like a Canadian.” Pointing to another I said, “And he looks like a German, and he a Frenchman.”

They were roaring with laughter.

Teenaged monks chanting scriptures in a smaller hall.

An older monk was leading them in their chanting with these leaves of scripture. Tibetan Buddhist scriptures are often loose-leaf like this.

Entrance to the main prayer hall at Pochu Monastery

Pochu Monastery buildings

Prayer flag pole and buildings

Pilgrims circumambulating the temple grounds

Pilgrim spinning her prayer wheel

Pilgrims exiting one of the prayer halls

The ancient Gyantze fortress rising above the city.