The wonderful Orgyan Ling Manuscript Kanjur

Tibetans, especially Nyingmapas, recount numerous legends of ‘Hidden Lands’ (sbas yul). These are places of refuge where the Dharma can be safeguarded in times of political danger and religious persecution, when temples are vandalised and religious books burned. Such ‘Hidden Lands’ are often characterised as obscure valleys in the remote Himalayas to the south of Tibet.

Although remote enough, Himalayan, and to the south, I can see why the Orgyan Ling temple in the Mon Tawang region in modern day Arunachal Pradesh might not have any such legends attached to it. It was not nearly obscure enough, and it ended up being sacked by a hostile army, with its many Nyingmapa treasures destroyed or carried away. Yet despite this rather serious setback, I would like to suggest that albeit in a rather tortuous way and perhaps inadvertently, it did nevertheless achieve one of the prime purposes ascribed to a ‘Hidden Land’. My reasons for proposing this have nothing to do with mystical revelations from Guru Rinpoche nor signs from the dakinis, but derive instead from the prosaic practice of philology. Orgyan Ling temple succeeded in preserving intact for posterity an important and famous Nyingma tantra in a considerably purer and more complete form than anywhere else in Tibet. Not only that, but it also preserved a number of other very rare Nyingma tantras not so far found anywhere else in the Tibetan cultural world.

Orgyan Ling was founded in the late 15th century by Orgyan Zangpo, the younger brother of the famous Bhutanese terton Pema Lingpa (1450-1521). In 1683, Orgyan Ling subsequently became the birthplace of Orgyan Zangpo’s famous descendent, the Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyamtso (1683-1706).  Thus it was that in 1699, the Fifth Dalai Lama’s regent, the great Desi Sangye Gyatso, greatly extended Orgyan Ling’s buildings and commissioned new volumes for its library.  So despite its remote situation at the very edge of the Tibetan cultural sphere, its galactic network of family and personal connections enabled Orgyan Ling’s library to acquire some very fine books indeed, including a copy of the Ancient Tantra Collection (rNying ma’i rgyud ‘bum), and two Kanjur manuscripts.

The older of the Kanjurs was made in silver and gold, and both Kanjurs contained a quota of sixty Nyingma tantras freely intermingled with their Sarma tantras. This number greatly exceeds the merely twenty-four squeezed into the carefully segregated doxographical ghetto that had been reserved for them by Situ Gewai Lodro (1309-1364) in his Tshalpa Kanjur catalogue. Yet the Thempangma Kanjur traditions don’t have any Nyingma Tantra section at all. Orgyan Ling was evidently such a Nyingma stronghold that even its Kanjurs unashamedly sported unusually large numbers of Nyingma tantras, unsegregated from the Sarma tantras. We can only dream about what its long lost Ancient Tantra Collection might once have contained.

But fame is a two-edged sword which can prove fatal to any Himalayan valley’s chances of successfully qualifying as a ‘Hidden Land’. Not content with merely deposing him in Lhasa, after his death Tsangyang Gyamtso’s Mongolian enemies extended their sectarian vendetta to his birthplace, sacking the monastery of Orgyan Ling around 1714 in the course of a campaign against Bhutan.

Fortunately however, a quantity of the monastery’s surviving valuable books and artifacts were transferred to the Geluk establishment of Ganden Namgyal Lhatse in Tawang, even though the gold and silver Kanjur was partially destroyed, and the Ancient Tantra Collection disappeared.

Among the volumes transferred to Ganden Namgyal Lhatse was the Kanjur manuscript commissioned by the Desi Sangye Gyatso in 1699, beautifully calligraphed by master scribes especially hired from the E region of Central Tibet. Fortunately, this Kanjur still survives, together with its full complement of sixty Nyingma tantras. But it is not its master calligraphy that concerns us (although that is certainly impressive), nor its fine thick paper: rather, it is the presumably lost exemplars from which the master scribe must have made his copy, and the textual traditions they represented.

Over the last few years, Cathy and I have been engaged in making a critical edition of an important Nyingma tantra called the  ‘Phags pa thabs kyi zhags pa padma ‘phreng gi don bsdus pa, which one might translate as A Noble Noose of Methods, the Lotus Garland Synopsis (hereafter abbreviated as Thabs zhags). In addition, we have simultaneously edited its commentary.

The Thabs zhags is a magnificent example of Mahāyoga literature, often juxtaposed with the Guhyagarbha in classic doxographies, and its commentary is one of the few remaining genuinely early word-for-word commentaries on a Mahāyoga tantra. While we don’t adhere to the unrealistically perfectionist dogma that every text in existence must be exhaustively critically edited as a matter of principle, as academic scholars we do share the perception of numerous learned Tibetan lamas of the past and the present, that a certain proportion of texts in the popular editions of the Tibetan canon can end up in rather bad shape, and are ideally in need of critical editing. It is specifically these damaged texts that we seek to restore.

The Thabs zhags and its commentary are among such damaged texts. The commentary survives in three different Tenjur editions, yet in all three instances, around a third of its text has become completely lost: for example, everything between Chapter Six and the end of Chapter 10 has disappeared, and there are other significant losses of text too.

In most of its more popular canonical versions, the root tantra has only slightly less serious problems. These more popular versions derive either from the Tshalpa branches of the Kanjur (which here must includes the Derge Ancient Tantra Collection, since it borrowed the relevant woodblocks from the Derge Kanjur), or from the Bhutanese Ancient Tantra Collection manuscripts. Yet they reveal a pattern of confusion: the respective renderings of the final section of the very long Chapter 11, for example, are so radically different in the Tshalpa Kanjur and Bhutanese recensions, that to the untrained eye it seems hard to credit that they are reproducing the same text at all.

To remedy this situation, we assembled twenty one different witnesses from every conceivable source, and began to try to piece together the evidence.

The commentary was reasonably easy to fix. Whilst the transmitted tradition of the Tenjur was irrevocably damaged, ‘new’ evidence in the form of a partially complete 10th century Dunhuang manuscript was discovered in the early 20th century and brought to London by Sir Aurel Stein. This enabled us to restore the text to its complete form, almost certainly for the first time in several centuries, since, by great good fortune, those parts missing in the Tenjur were preserved in the Dunhuang manuscript, while those parts missing in the Dunhuang manuscript were preserved in the Tenjur. It became a simple matter of splicing.

The root text proved more complex, but nevertheless exhaustive collation and stemmatic analysis permitted us a clear result. It became evident that the currently three most popular versions – those of the Tshalpa Kanjurs, of the Derge Ancient Tantra Collection, and of the Mtshams brag Ancient Tantra Collection from Bhutan – represented two distinct attempts to reconstruct the root text from out of the commentary. At some stage in its long history, the root text must have been lost in the main centres of Nyingma learning, perhaps during one of those periodic persecutions of the Nyingmapas that made them want to retire to the ‘Hidden Lands’ in the first place.  Two different attempts were then made to recover the root text by extracting its verses out of the word-by-word commentary, one attempt witnessed in the Tshalpa Kanjurs and the Derge Ancient Tantra Collection, and the other attempt witnessed in the Bhutanese Ancient  Tantra Collection manuscripts of Mtshams brag, Sgra med rtse, Sgang steng-A and Sgang steng-B.

Once we had the full commentary available to us together with the evidence from our twenty one witnesses, it became unfortunately evident that neither of these brave attempts at reconstruction had been entirely successful. Both in their different ways and at different junctures mistakenly introduced commentarial passages into the root text, whilst also excluding passages of root text through the mistaken assumption that they were commentary. Nor did they agree in their errors – hence for example their radically different interpretations of Chapter 11.

But this is where the ‘Hidden Land’ principle comes into play. While these famous mainstream texts of the Tshalpa Kanjur, the Derge Ancient Tantra Collection, and the Bhutanese Ancient Tantra Collection were uniformly confused about what was root text and what was commentary, all around that great geographical arc that comprises the southern Himalayan fringe of the Tibetan cultural zone, in sometimes obscure and ignored local monasteries, versions of the text survived that derived not from one or another attempt to reconstruct the root text from the commentary, but directly, from the original root text itself. In the forgotten ruins of an old library in Hemis, along the Nepalese borders, and even in far-off Bathang in the North-East of Tibet, ancient versions of the text, or their direct copies, survived. It was through studying these that we were able to restore the text to its original boundaries, differentiating root text from commentary with clarity and ease. Applying stemmatics to all the witnesses together, we were also able restore many other original readings.

But the last word belongs to the excellent Orgyan Ling manuscript. It can only be consulted in one place, in the library of the Central University for Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, and microfilm is not easily available. Hence we did not get to see it at all until a provisional version of our edition was already complete. To our delight and astonishment, it agreed with our stemmatic reconstruction at every significant juncture. Not only that, but its superior scribe from E had even eliminated spelling errors and many other small problems, just as our laborious edition had attempted to do. We found ourselves face to face with a beautifully calligraphed late 17th century version of the text that was virtually identical in all important respects to the one we had so painstakingly reconstructed over the previous three years. The only differences were that the Orgyan Ling manuscript preserved a few more archaic spellings than we saw fit, and its scribe had fallen for one minor slip of the pen when describing a mudra.

The moral of the story is this: we should not allow ourselves to become excessively swayed by the grand reputations and religious-political support invested in the few mainstream editions of the canons. Don’t forget the ‘Hidden Land’ principle, which tells us that just occasionally the most valuable editions can be located in the least expected places. This was something well understood by the great Tibetan critical editors of the past, men like Situ Panchen, Tsongkhapa or Kathok Rigdzin Tsewang Norbu, who became dissatisfied if they found reason to suspect that the standard canonical fare was deficient, and who left no stone unturned in seeking out rare witnesses in Sanskrit and Tibetan to complete their own critical editions.

This entry was posted in Mainly monthly postings. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The wonderful Orgyan Ling Manuscript Kanjur

  1. Dan says:

    Hi Rob,

    Very interesting blog today! It isn’t exactly your main point, of course, but I was intrigued by those word, “both Kanjurs contained a quota of sixty Nyingma tantras freely intermingled with their Sarma tantras.”

    I wonder that it (or they) had Old tantras interspersed with New. As I think you know… That was a characteristic of Nyang-ral’s collection put together in the early decades of the 13th century, and even in his time it seems to have caused some discussion. (I could dig up a reference, but I think you could do this just as well on your side). I wondered if you have anything more to say about this. What were the motives for this ‘interspersing’? Just the obvious one of the sponsors or compilers being extra-ordinarily liberal and open, or do you think there was something more sinister afoot? Were they indifferent? People who could care less about these categorical distinctions we might hold dear?

    Indifferently yours,

  2. Rob Mayer says:

    I did not recall that about Nyang ral’s NGB – thanks for mentioning it. Because its textual readings are basically the same as those from the other outlying areas of the Tibetan cultural zone, my initial hunch was that the texts at least were copied from old local exemplars, albeit by an expert scribe who could achieve an utterly perfect spell-check and grammar-check as he went along (the same operation took us months and months…). However the doxographical arrangement might have been different: it might, as you perhaps indirectly suggest, have followed an arrangement found in a dkar chag sent along by the Desi – and he might well have felt Nyang Ral’s doxography to have many merits. I think that ultimately the choice to have such an interspersing of New and Ancient tantras might have related to the ‘sinister indifference’ you suggest: these people had the temerity to believe that a rNying ma tantra is as good as a gSar ma one and they might as well all be put together. Maybe that attitude is part of what made the Mongolian fanatics mad and motivated them to sack the monastery.

  3. Dan says:

    Really, I don’t know about you, Rob, but I find it totally unacceptable that people would accept the tantra scriptures that belong to the other group as somehow valid. I’m sure the Desi Sanggyé Gyatso did, since he quotes from Nyingma tantras quite a lot in his huge book about the Fifth Dalai Lama’s funerary chorten. How is this sense of acceptance to be combatted? What will be next? Accepting other religions? Isn’t Buddhism a strictly circumscribed and thoroughly reasoned philosophy-religion with lots of rules about rejecting wrong people with their wrong ideas? Don’t they just bring it on themselves with their inaccurate versions of the true Dharma?

    Oh, here’s the reference to the NGB of Nyangrel Nyima Özer:

    chapter 10 from the biography of Nam-mkha’-dpal (composed by 3 of his own disciples), son of Nyang-ral, who was 23 (i.e. 22) when Nyang-ral died (otherwise, it’s difficult to give his date, since Nyang-ral’s own death-date is not completely settled), the chapter on the construction of the Speech Receptacle (found in Bka’ brgyad bde gshegs ‘dus pa’i chos skor “a reproduction of a ms. collection of texts from the revelations of Mnga’-bdag Nyang-ral Nyi-ma-‘od-zer. Reproduced from a collection from the library of Kyirong Lama Kunzang now preserved in the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives [Dalhousie 1977]. Vol. 1), pp. 55-59.

    There it says they (the sons of Nyangrel) didn’t pick sides in the Dharma and included inner & outer, old translation & new, and kama & terma. But some of the scribes would only copy new tantras and left the old ones alone, while some others scribed only the old tantras and left the new ones alone.

    Does any of that sound OK to you? How can we join those Mongolian hordes? Are they too exclusive to accept us?


    • Rob Mayer says:

      O, now I remember this Nyang ral passage. It came up in my PhD back in the 1990’s. And if I recall rightly, it was you who sent it to me then!

      Buddhism clearly fluctuates on these issues. I am wondering at the moment about Khu tsha zla ‘od, and Gu ru Chos dbang. They were both born in Lho brag, and both revealed gter ma for both Buddhism and Bon. It seems to me that maybe they felt free to practice both religions so long as they did not mix them up. Rather like being free to enjoy both burger and ice cream, so long as one does not mix them together in a single dish.

      People with less courage or insight obviously find that threatening.

      BTW, we stand no chance of being accepted by the Mongolian hordes. Not good enough on horseback, poor weapons skills, insufficient appetite for war.

  4. Dan H says:

    Thank you both for this interesting and entertaining discussion. Will certainly look forward to seeing your work on Thabs zhags, Rob; my mind already turns towards Bka’ brgyad even as I attempt to focus on Nyang ral’s historiography for my dissertation.

    To weigh in on Nyang ral’s interaction with other lineages, in wading through his biographies, it appears that he was less ecumenical than his son. Aside from the various lineages transmitted by Padampa Sangye, Nyang ral received and recovered the core cycles of what became renowned as Nyingma, and appears to have had little contact with Sarma. A contention could be made by citing the colophon to his Chos ‘byung: it states that Jigten Gonpo sponsored the text, but this statement – along with the coda and the section describing other lineages that precedes it – is from an extended version of the text. As discovered by Meisezahl, an earlier version ended with the section describing Atiśa, so while Nyang ral may have been interested in how Buddhism was revived, he had little concern for other lineages. He does not seem to be especially sectarian either, but the credit should go to Namkha pel who, in spending the resources accumulated by his famous father, attempted to be more ecumenical in their distribution (despite the scribes).

    • Rob Mayer says:

      Dan H, many thanks for this extremely interesting comment. It leaves me with no doubt that your forthcoming work on Nyang Ral’s biographies will be of huge value to our understanding! I look forward to it with happy anticipation.
      May I ask you, to what extent are the Nyingma Troma lineages descended from the transmission from Padampa to Nyang ral that you mention? And does Nyang ral have anything to say about Bon?

  5. Dan says:

    Dear Rob,
    Thanks for asking Dan H the very same question I was wanting to ask! Nyangral has to be one of the most intriguing of characters, I think.

  6. Dan H says:

    First, I have to thank Rob for filling me in on Troma (Khros ma), a gcod practice focused on Khrodakālī. Did not recognize it by name, but I am a little familiar with its current iteration because of the Gcod Monlam now held at the Mahabodhi every year (beautiful melody!).

    I have not seen any specific references to Khros ma in Nyang ral’s biographies. He does receive an unspecified gcod practice from one Lama Dzongpa of Tsang, and the Blue Annals (914) record Padampa as stating that this lama “belongs to the type of individuals of spontaneous development,” so he appears to have been impressed with his attainment. Rob also mentioned that Nyingmapas count a Nyang ral Khros ma as especially prestigious, but these days I am growing increasingly skeptical of such claims, at least in the Bka’ ma transmissions of his gter ma, so to speak.

    What gives me pause is the revitalization of “Nyang ral’s” transmissions that occurred through the activity of Terdak Lingpa in the seventeenth century. He received Guru Chöwang’s Bka’ brgyad from his father, but it seems that Nyang ral’s Bka’ brgyad may have died out already. Following some dreams and visions of Nyang ral himself, Terdak Lingpa recovered a number of Nyang ral yang gter, which I believe to comprise the only Nyang ral Bka’ brgyad cycles that are still (very rarely) transmitted today. Likewise for Guru Drakpo and Sangwe Khandro, two other famous cycles attributed to Nyang ral but that appear to have originated more recently at Mindroling. So there is a major issue here in that the oral transmissions of Nyang ral’s gter ma died out, and new yang gter were introduced in their place by Terdak Lingpa. While there were undoubtedly some historical connections between Nyang ral and Padampa’s lineages (meaning some even appear in both biographies, which is rare!), it may be unlikely that a Khros ma lineage extends back to him. In contrast, Nyang ral’s biographies detail specific lineages of Zhi byed or Pacification (Dri ma med pa lists three: So, Skam/Kaṃ, Rma, whereas Gsal ba’i me long only describes the last of them), all of which are corroborated in the Blue Annals, as are the teachers from whom Nyang ral received them.

    His biographies are also silent on Bon, and all of his treasure texts are listed as Chos in nature. One question I have, however, is how we should categorize his various ritual texts and materials. Some of these rites were Nyang ral’s bread and butter before he started finding gter, but are thread-crosses (mdos), for example, “Buddhist” in origin? Indic? Or are they adaptations from Bon? I remain intrigued by this question of where to draw the line between what is “Buddhist” and what is Bon (or perhaps just other/undefined?). Have yet to read Jake Dalton’s recent publication, but I wonder whether he addresses this issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *