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Friday’s Snaphot … a pecha

September 7, 2012

I have thought long and hard regarding my Friday snapshot coming from Karma Guen.  Like RUL Special Collections the books here are special because of their subject matter. However since the European books are mostly post 20th century without fine bindings, illustrations or unique fonts they don’t at first glance appear ´special’

The pechas (Tibetan for book) on the other hand are special; brought from Tibet in difficult and dangerous situations.
Pechas are loose leaf books; with each rectangular page is laid on the other with a cover plate of wood or card either end to protect.  For further protection it is wrapped in cloth.
Their production was instrumental to the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet during the 11th century.  In the beginning of Indian Mahayana Buddhism it is said of the  Lotus Sutra ‘If a good man or woman shall receive  and keep, read and recite, explain or copy in writing a single phrase of the the scripture … that person is to be looked up to and exalted by all the worlds’.
In the Scripture of Ba it suggested that paper and ink are necessary materials for the founding of a monastery  in central Tibet.
This hand copying was a skill; seen as sign of intellect; being part of the intellectual culture not as a labourer.
Of course some scribes were better than others; it was reported that one such copier was able to write 100,000 lines in a single day.  On a smaller scale a student might copy a few pages for penance to his master.  Other books were copied for teaching needs or for funeral ceremonies.
In 1411 the first woodblock edition of the Kangyur (an early Buddhist text) was produced in Beijing; even though in Tibet works had been printed since the mid 12th century.  
Hand-copying was a costly and time consuming business; but it still continued after the development of printing because of its ‘spiritual’ invocations.  
It was noted that the Pakpa in 1274 had his edition of the Hevajra Tantra carved into blocks by Tibetan and Chinese craftsmen and no fewer than 1,000 prints were made.  This alone suggests that if Buddhist texts were going to distributed to a larger audience , printing was the way forward.  
The carving of the block was the most expensive part of the procedure. First a manuscript would be placed onto a blank woodblock so that the wet ink would make a mirror image on the block.  The reverse image would be carved to make a printable surface.  The finished block would be smeared with ink and the blank paper laid on top; and pressed with a roller.
This operation still needed the workforce of scribes as with any handwritten manuscript project as well as carvers and printers. 

This is very early handwritten manuscript

This is early printed text

Bibliography

The Culture of the book in Tibet by Kurtis R. Schaeffer,  Columbia University Press 2009.

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