Endangered Archives

EAP687: Digitisation of manuscripts held by the Tibetan Yungdrung Bön Library of Menri Monastery, Dolanji, India

Mr Edward Proctor, Duke University
2013 award - Major project
£35,011 for 6 months

Archival partner: Tibetan Yungdrung Bön Library

Project Overview

Continuing from the earlier pilot project EAP296, this project will digitise 62,854 pages of manuscripts and 479 hand-made initiation cards relating to Bön, the little-known pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, held by the Yungdrung Library of Menri Monastery in Dolanji (a remote, difficult to reach village in the Himalayan foothills of India). These unique materials were rescued from centuries-old Bön monasteries in Tibet before they were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-69), and Menri Monastery in North India now holds the largest collection of such materials in the world. They are essential to support the efforts of Bön monks and nuns to preserve their unique culture as well as the efforts of scholars elsewhere to understand not only the Bön religion but also the distinctive aspects of Tibetan Buddhism and the early cultural and intellectual history of Tibet and Central Asia.

A wide range of subject matter is covered by these manuscripts, including metaphysics, dialectics, logic, history, grammar, poetry, rules of monastic discipline, astronomy/astrology, medicine, divination, mantras, guidance in recognising the stages of inner progress, as well as numerous biographies of prominent teachers (most hagiographical in nature, but some with a degree of historical accuracy), musical scores, and practical instruction manuals for the creation and consecration of paintings, sculptures, mandalas, ritual offerings, reliquaries, amulets, and talismans.

The largest portion, however, are ritual texts, providing cycles of prayers devoted to various deities in their many manifestations, detailed descriptions of procedures conducive to spiritual experience (sādhanā), visualisations of symbolic self-dismemberment of the body and ego (chöd), as well as assorted religious ceremonies, particularly those focusing on the intermediate state (bardo) between death and rebirth and the transference of consciousness (phowa). The Bönpo take great pride in the fact that they have more - and more elaborate - rituals than do any of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. These texts contain detailed instructions for a panoply of rituals ranging from simple blessings that can be executed by a single monk in a few minutes to extremely elaborate multi-media ceremonies involving hundreds of participants and taking several weeks to perform.

The physical condition of the manuscripts varies considerably, from immaculate, intact volumes to tattered shards of individual pages. Those in ‘fair’ condition are generally somewhat worn from use and age, whilst ‘poor’ manuscripts have suffered significant damage from water, insects, rodents, extreme age, heavy use, or have been badly stained by spills from butter lamps or butter tea. Fortunately, in many cases it is largely the margins that have been most severely damaged, and the text remains legible. In others, however, considerable portions of the leaves are missing or substantial amounts of text have been rendered illegible.

H. H. Menri Trizin, the 33rd Abbot of Menri Monastery, expressed great interest in preserving and, especially, digitising the manuscripts and is fully supportive of this project. He is particularly eager to spread knowledge about his religion in the West where he feels that Bön has been unfairly overshadowed by popular and scholarly interest in Tibetan Buddhism. Some small beginnings in the publication of Bön texts have been made in Europe and America (as well as in China and Japan), but these have barely scratched the surface of the wealth of texts that exist. Where Bön manuscripts are held elsewhere in the world, the focus has been on collecting and making accessible the canonical scriptures (the Tengyur commentaries as well as the primary source Kanjur) - but little else. Such collections have not produced copies or catalogues of the non-canonical commentaries and other primary sources of a strictly religious nature nor of the enormous amount of additional Bön literature relating to virtually every field of human endeavour that is to be found in Menri Monastery.

Digital copies will be deposited in at least three locations: the Yungdrung Library itself; the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives in Dharamsala, India, (the premier library of primary sources for Tibetan studies in South Asia); and the British Library.

Project Outcome