Thursday, August 25, 2016

REVIEW of The Archaeology of Tibetan Books by Agniezka Heiman-Wazny

The Archaeology of Tibetan Books
by Agniezka Helman-Wazny
Brill's Tibetan Studies Library;Volume 36, 2014
Brill, Leiden/Boston, 298 pages

ISSN 1568 6183










Generally, people consider the material culture of old Tibet prior to 1959 as backwards compared to what we would call the developed world. However, one aspect of Tibetan culture for millennia far surpassing any other culture is it's vibrant and, I might add, living culture of mind which has come to light upon the diaspora of knowledge holders coming to the West and the enormous cornucopia of literature in the Tibetan language revealed in its political upheaval and published now in many languages. As most historians would agree, the meeting of Tibetan culture with the West is as relevant as the vast richness of Hellenic culture meeting European for the first time. How these influences will shape future cultures is still a work in progress. Those of us who are practitioners of Dzogchen,  are indebted to Tibetan culture as the container for preserving precious wisdom Teachings.

Like the Inuit of Greenland with their hundreds of designations for Snow (being their most present artifact), Tibetan language has an extraordinary range of vocabulary in the hundreds, maybe thousands to do with mind. I'm no scholar here in linguistics or Tibetan culture but with the explosion in translated publications from the Tibetan into World languages, we can see the vast scope of learning preserved in perhaps the harshest environment on earth. As most of the educated world has come to accept, Tibetan culture despite its limited material culture and widespread illiteracy nonetheless had a highly sophisticated body of literature.

With this culture of mind, of course, there are books and libraries, and then the technology of books, paper, printing, inks, craft and artistry to execute these from the earliest manuscripts found in Dunhuang in the first century C.E. through the centuries.

The synopsis from the publisher writes:


In The Archaeology of Tibetan Books, Agnieszka Helman-Wa┼╝ny explores the varieties of artistic expression, materials, and tools that have shaped Tibetan books over the millennia. Digging into the history of the bookmaking craft, the author approaches these ancient texts primarily through the lens of their artistry, while simultaneously showing them as physical objects embedded in pragmatic, economic, and social frameworks. She provides analysis of several significant Tibetan books—which usually carry Buddhist teachings—including a selection of manuscripts from Dunhuang from the 1st millennium C.E., examples of illuminated manuscripts from Western and Central Tibet dating from the 15th century, and fragments of printed Tibetan Kanjur from as early as 1410. This detailed study of bookmaking sheds new light on the books' philosophical meanings.
Now, here is where I get very enthusiastic about this particular publication on the archaeology of books.. Having studied in my youth for a certificate in analytical field archaeology at the University of Massachusetts with  aspiration for an academic career in anthropology, I came to respect the science of analytical archaeology where the minute details of archaeological remains contain potential to illuminate the broader strokes of meaning—much like the poetical view that a grain of sand contains a whole universe, as poet William Blake expressed it:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

The main idea here is that in order to understand culture with little physical remains and artifacts, studying the traces of natural elements could still reveal a base of important knowledge about the habitats and behavior of people. When you think of it, it is something amazing that one can tell so much about a culture even from soil analysis, weather patterns, pollen deposits, etc.

The other topics covered in this publication which greatly interested me was the evidence of innovative 
book structures beyond the traditional pecha style of Tibetan books we are used to seeing. It  was a  marvelous revelation to witness where traditional models met with individual expressions of artist creativity. I am not surprised because knowing many Master of Tibetan Buddhism without fail most are highly artistic in original ways not just traditional arts/craft. 





Papermaking in Tibet is fairly well-documented. One of the unique qualities of Tibetan papers prior to the 1950's was the wide spread use of fibers (Daphne and Edgeworthia species) which had the properties to repel insects-- hence the longevity of Tibetan books.  Heiman-Wazny thoroughly explores these along with 


MORE TO COME on Paper technologies..........

Jacqueline Gens
August 2016










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