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Buddhist text about the bodhisattva Manjushri, approx. 1000–1100

Buddhist text about the bodhisattva Manjushri, approx. 1000–1100

Buddhist text about the bodhisattva Manjushri, approx. 10001100. Tibet. Gold on indigo paper. Gift of Lobsang C. Tamang and Cynthia E. Berman, B86D5.

This Tibetan manuscript is one of the oldest objects in the museum’s Tibetan collection. It consists of twenty-two loose pages. The text is written in U-chen script, in pure gold ink, which has been applied on a ground of lapiz lazuli painted on indigo-dyed paper.

What is written in this text?
This is the Manjusri Nama Samgiti or “Chanting the Names of Manjushri” sutra, which is important to all the orders in Tibetan Buddhism. It is 160 verses long and inspired many lamas to write commentaries. Some verses from chapter 8 follow:

[27] Leader as best of great healers, supreme extractor of thorns; paradise tree with every single medicinal herb, great enemy of defilement-sickness.

[29] The sole great umbrella in the world, having the circle of love and compassion; glorious lotus lord of dance, great pervading lord with jewel umbrella.

[30] Great king of all Buddhas, maintaining the embodiment of all Buddhas; great yoga of all Buddhas, the instruction of all Buddhas.1

How did this ancient text come to San Francisco?
According to the donors this manuscript was given to the famous Indian teacher Atisa by a Tibetan named Rinchen Zangbo (9581055) of Western Tibet. Atisa left it at the Shalu Monastery, located southeast of Shigatse in southern Tibet. When China invaded Tibet in 1959, only two monks from Shalu escaped and they took the manuscript with them. In 1958 it was given to the donor, Mr. Tamang, who was a monk at the time. After he emigrated to the US, he donated the text to the Asian Art Museum so that it could be preserved and enjoyed by others.

What is the U-chen script?
The Tibetan language is spoken in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and in parts of northern India including Sikhism. There are two principle forms of Tibetan writing, U-chen and U-me. U-chen is a printed form used traditionally in carved wood blocks, and now for computer fonts. U-me scripts are cursive scripts used for official documents and personal letters. While U-chen has one basic form, there are a large variety of U-me scripts, some being very different and quite obscure. Although Tibetan belongs to the Tibeto- Burman language group, the U-chen script was modeled on a ancient Sanskritic alphabet known in sixthand seventh-century India. Tibetans developed their writing system, which is an alphabet like Hebrew and Roman script as opposed to a pictographic script like Chinese, in around the seventh century. It is said this was done in order to be able to translate Buddhist texts into Tibetan. The Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo (died 650 CE) sent a delegation to India led by Thonmi Sambhota. After studying the Indian writing system, Thonmi Sambhota adapted the script for Tibetan based on that Indian alphabet.

It consists of thirty basic letters, including the vowel a, and four extra vowel sounds on the Indian model for i, u, e, and o. Spoken Tibetan has changed over the centuries but the writing system has not, so written and spoken Tibetan are quite different. For example the word for “eight” is written as brgyad but is pronounced gyay, or the name of Tibet’s great Emperor Songtsen Gampo would be literally transliterated into written English as Srong-btsan-sgam-po. This presents a challenge to those who wish to speak Tibetan as a foreign language, but it is advantageous to scholars who want to read ancient texts. Once they learn to read Tibetan, they have access to Tibetan texts of any time period. Tibetan is a monosyllabic language, meaning that every syllable has a meaning. The extra letters, while not pronounced, are essential to distinguishing the meaning of the written word.2

Discussion Points/Teaching Suggestion:
Explore the written and spoken Tibetan language. Use travel guides on Tibet or search online: www.dharma-haven.org/tibetan/language.htm

1Alex Wayman, trans., Chanting the Names of Manjusri (Boston & London: Shambala, 1985): 945.

2 Snellgrove, David and Hugh Richardson. A Cultural History of Tibet. New York, Washington: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1968: 75.

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