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Ancient Buddhist scriptures go digital as part of a project
Jigme Wangchuk, July 04, 2013
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 In 2003 in Bumthang, Kyabjé Drubwang Pema Norbu Rinpoche (1932–2009) of Thekchog Namdrol Shedrub Dargye Ling, also called Namdroling, in south India, was giving a month-long empowerment and teachings on Nyingthig Yabshi, a set of scriptures compiled by Longchen Rabjam Drimé Özer (1308–1364). Rinpoche was invited to give teachings at Kurje Lhakhang by Royal Grandmother Ashi Kesang Choden Wangchuck and Gangteng Tulku Rigzin Kunzang Pema Namgyal. It was raining and arcs of rainbows had appeared above the lhakhang. Thousands of devotees had gathered to receive the teaching and wang.

Empowerments and teachings that began in May concluded towards the middle of June. After the teaching, Rinpoche embarked on a journey west to Gangteng Sanga Choling Goemba in Phobjikha, Wangdue, where Rinpoche’s one-time umdze (chant leader) at Ngagyur Nyingma Institute some years ago, Gangteng Tulku, was the head lama. He still is. Rinpoche and a party of monks from Namdroling were accompanied by one of his illustrious Bhutanese students, Lopen Karma Phuntsho, who later earned a doctorate from University of Oxford in England.

Not long before arriving at Gangteng, Dr Robert Mayer, Research Lecturer and Research Officer of Oriental Institute at Wolfson College of University of Oxford, had asked Dr Karma Phuntsho to procure him copies of two vajrakilatantras from Gangteng monastery’s Nyingma Gyubum. Nyingma Gyubum is the collected tantras of the ancient Mahayoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga of nyingma. This highest category of Buddhist tantric teachings was first compiled by Tertön Ratna Lingpa and was published towards the end of the 18th century under the guidance of Jigme Lingpa in Derge in Kham, Tibet, under the patronage of the regent queen Tsewang Lhamo. By then, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal had unified Bhutan, and Drukpa Kagyud was gaining popularity as the dominant religion in the country.

It was a glorious morning at Gangteng. Dr Karma Phuntsho walked into the monastery’s library. And there he chanced upon a set of Nyingma Gyubum manuscripts. He requested GangtengTulku immediately to allow him to photograph the texts. Gangteng Tulku smiled and politely declined. That was the beginning of the many attempts he made to persuade Gangteng Tulku to grant him persimmon to take pictures of the manuscripts. Although he understood the virtues of documentation of such rare books and the subsequent use of the photos for academic study, says Dr Karma, he was equivocal about the overall benefit of such reproduction. But, after many weeks of persuading, he managed to win Lama’s confidence and gain his consent to document the Nyingma Gyubum collections.

Dr Karma took the pictures of the collection with Konica Minolta Dimage F200. The images were produced in JPEG format of roughly 1.20MB. Dr Robert Mayer later claimed the pictures were the best copies of Nyingma Gyubum ever produced. The success led Dr Karma Phuntsho to plan a major project to digitise the entire collection of manuscripts in Gangteng in November of 2004 through a fund The Lisbet Rausing Charitable Trust gave the British Library to start the Endangered Archives Programme. At the end of the project, he produced 1,400 gigabyte of data, 275,000 images of some 500 volumes of texts.

People do not consider poti (traditional scriptures) as literature. But they are important legacy that contains monastic principles, philosophy and values that inform our daily life, says Dr Karma Phuntsho.

Bhutanese believe that sacredness and the sanctity of the scriptures may be defiled if initiatives like photographing and documenting them for preservation are carried out and if they are made easily accessible to the wider readership. But, Bhutan has lost spiritual and intellectual heritage to fire and earthquake. The fire disaster of Pagar Lhakhang and Wandgue Dzong has led to the loss of enormous amount of literature and artefacts. Some more has been lost to the ravages of time.

This is why digitalising and archiving ancient texts and manuscript is necessary, says Dr Karma.

From Gangteng, he embarked on a project to document manuscripts in Drametse in Mongar, one of the seats of Pema Lingpa tradition in eastern Bhutan, and Ogyen Choling in Bumthang. By July 2007, the entire collection of manuscripts in Ogyen Choling, covering some 1,700 titles, had been photographed. Among them were 18 volumes of DorjiLingpa’s teachings. And from there, the team went on to document and digitalise temple libraries of Nephu, Tshendra, Thadra, Yagang, Prakhar, Sumthrang and Khodung.

Dr Karma Phuntsho’s office on the top floor of the three-storey house in Changangkha is small and bare. There is a colossal computer monitor and laminated pictures of his teachers on the wall. For the guests, there is a mattress on the floor. Dorji Gyeltshen, who leads the archiving work, sits on the mattress. Downstairs, three boys are staring at the monitor and trying to fix the colour. Images of texts have to be right. The images are from the temple libraries of Phajoding, Thujedra, Pumola, and Dodedra. It took the team 10 months to photograph the entire manuscripts from these libraries.

There is a hard drive on the table that contains over 12,000 volumes of manuscripts. The volumes in hard copy could easily fill the office’s two storeys.

The digitisation of the manuscript collections from Gangteng indicates that in its heyday, Gangteng was one of the major monastic centres in Bhutan with a strong tradition of textual production.

 

“It is very easy to do. Our efforts may be small, but outcome is quite significant,” says Dr Karma. Preserving ancient literature and monuments involves huge cost from educating the monks to installing state-of-the-art safety measures in the temples and private lhakhangs. A better option then is to make digital copies of the books. All that’s needed is a digital camera and some legwork. The copies of the documents are made freely available for educational and research purposes. Anyone can have access to the books.

 

So far, the team has completed documenting 27 temple libraries and two private lhakhangs in the country. All in all, the team has produced one million and seven hundred images of the manuscripts that are saved either in JPEG, RAW or TIF image formats. This amounts to four million pages. After every project, a copy each was submitted to the funding agencies, the National Library and Archives in Thimphu and to the book owners.

“We have offered more than 20 libraries to the National Library and Archives till date, one million images last year; some 16,953 Gigabyte worth of images,” says Dr Karma.

Shejuen, the team’s newly created research agency, will soon embark on documenting oral and written history of the country, neshey, lozey and folk knowledge. It will translate and transcribe them, make videos and upload them on its website for the people to access. The agency has engaged eleven people for the project.

“Our profit is that we will have taught people the importance of preserving the books. A day shall come when we will not have to go to them but they will come to us for digitalisation and documentation of their library,” says Dr Karma Phuntsho. “And we will have all our histories, traditions and heritage preserved for the future generations.”

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