Wed, Mar 29, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Printing the ancient way keeps Buddhist texts alive in Tibet

The Derge Parkhang embodies a hallowed tradition that preserves the Tibetan language

By Edward Wong  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, DERGE, China

The Tibetan typography of Derge.

Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons and Mario Biondi

The dozen or so Tibetan men wearing aprons sat in pairs in low chairs, facing each other. Each pair bent over a thin rectangular wooden block and worked by sunlight streaming into the second-story room open to a courtyard.

Their hands moved quickly. Over and over they went through the same motions, several times each minute: One man slathered red or black ink on the block, which was carved with Tibetan words and religious images. Then his partner placed a thin piece of white paper atop the block and, bending even lower, ran a roller over it. Seconds later, he whipped off the paper and put it aside to dry.

That bending was an act of prostration to the Buddha, said Pema Chujen, a Tibetan woman who was leading a group of ethnic Han visitors around the monastery. I stood at the back of the tour, having walked in during a two-week road trip across this part of Tibet.

“They are like this every day,” she said. “This is just the faith in their hearts. Of course, it’s good to make offerings to the Buddha using a lot of money, but it’s more faithful to make offerings using your body, mouth and mind.”

So went a typical afternoon in one of the most revered institutions in the Tibetan world, the Derge Parkhang, or printing lamasery, in the mountainous heart of the Kham region. On Chinese maps, it is in the far west of Sichuan province, across the Cho La, a vertiginous pass at 16,600 feet.

The press, in the town of Derge, dates to 1729 and draws pilgrims from across the Tibetan plateau to the three-story monastery, its walls painted scarlet and its roof adorned with golden Buddhist icons.

The printing press is the embodiment of a hallowed tradition and is one site where the Tibetan language is being preserved, despite the lack of government support for immersive Tibetan-language education on the plateau. It has more than 320,000 wooden printing blocks that are on average more than 260 years old, said Pema, a volunteer who cleans the monastery’s objects and guides visitors.

The monastery also houses collections of sutras, including 830 classic scriptures and copies of more than 70 percent of ancient Tibetan manuscripts, she said. The founder of the monastery, Chokyi Tenpa Tsering, embraced works from the range of Tibetan Buddhist schools.

“He was very open-minded, like the ocean containing water from all rivers,” she said.

Besides trying to preserve the old blocks, the printing house has been making new ones since the 1980s. A decade from now, it is expected to have 400,000 blocks, Pema said.

The printing blocks are constructed from red birchwood in 13 steps. At an early stage, the raw pieces of wood have to be soaked in feces for a half-year. Those that do not crack or break during this period are then made into printing blocks, Pema said. Craftsmen apply an herbal solution that repels rats and insects.

The printing operations employ about 60 people. The men have been here for two decades on average, despite low pay, Pema said. Each day, they print about 2,500 pieces of paper, on both sides, to be collected as sutras and distributed across the Tibetan plateau.

At its height, the press employed more than 500 people, and almost all were monks from the neighboring Gonchen Monastery. These days, the printers are laypeople.

The monastery is a warren of hallways and rooms. On the third floor, a few men sat with wooden boards in a small, dark room. Here they made simple thangkas, large hangings with Buddhist iconography.

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