Language Scattered, Treasures Revealed: Tibet’s First Millennium Manuscripts

A Most Fortuitous Find at Dunhuang, China (1900 C.E.)

Among its many accomplishments, the Pugyal empire of Tibet (ca. 7th–9th century C.E.) rivaled the great Tang dynasty and briefly set its own puppet emperor upon the throne of China. Even beyond its political and military exploits, the Pugyal empire is renowned for its literary production, as well as the distinctly Tibetan forms of Buddhism that arose as a direct result of it. Prior to the empire Tibet lacked a written language, but a script and grammar were designed and developed for the express purpose of translating the entire corpus of Tibet’s Indic Buddhist inheritance from Sanskrit––a vast and complex undertaking that stands as one of the most significant literary and linguistic achievements in the history of the world. Moreover, the majority of this work was completed within a hundred years. And yet as the Pugyal empire collapsed in the middle of the ninth century, its countless folios were stolen and scattered such that by the eleventh century, Tibetan historians already referred to the previous era as a “dark age,” virtually unilluminated by documentation of any sort. Stele inscriptions memorializing some great personages, events, and treaties weathered the fall, and thereby stood as testaments to a swiftly fragmented and soon forgotten history. And while the core translations that would become the foundation of the Tibetan Buddhist canon persisted, as did some controversial esoteric scriptures that would be excluded from it, many of the empire’s loose-leaf manuscripts were lost, never to be seen again––or so it seemed.

By the eleventh century, “treasure revealers” emerged claiming to recover ancient manuscripts and relics from secret caches as the hidden legacy of the imperium. Some of these early revealers were the direct descendants of influential clans that enjoyed wealth and power during the empire––who else might have collected and concealed these texts as Tibet descended into anarchy? And who better to inherit the clues that would lead to their recovery in later, safer centuries? As treasure recovery was popularized, normalized, and crystallized into a tradition, it swiftly came to rely on the rhetoric of visionary experience, magic, and mysticism to contextualize and legitimate its fortuitous recoveries. Rather than mundane excavations of old interred matériel, treasure revealers adapted the doctrines of reincarnation in particular, claiming imperial-era figures as their former lifetimes, with still-potent karmic connections to and even direct memory of these treasures, as well as the circumstances of their concealment. As the centuries progressed and, presumably, the availability of authentically old texts waned, many subsequent treasures became divorced from the tangible altogether: while they would eventually be committed to the page, immaterial treasures of enlightened intent could be downloaded from the limitless expanse of pure awareness, without direct reference to any actual text, whether old or new. Yet these were still forwarded as authentic relics of an empire now reimagined and remembered as a golden age of Tibetan Buddhism. To be sure, the imperial project of converting Tibet and its inhabitants to Buddhism was not without resistant factions and attendant complications, and this process of historical rehabilitation and elaboration occurred foremost via revealed treasure narratives that, among other objectives, established the origins of the treasure tradition.

Skeptics and critics swiftly emerged to challenge both the accuracy of such claims as well as the authenticity of these documents. For one, there was the issue of doctrinal orthodoxy where only those of demonstrable Indic pedigree were considered truly Buddhist, with the presentation of a Sanskrit original being the ‘gold standard.’ Given that India remained the only true source of Buddhism and Tibet was depicted (by Tibetans!) as a land of red-faced barbarians, the indigenous fabrication of apocrypha was anathema to more conservatively minded Tibetans of the later dissemination period (from the late 10th/early 11th century), most of whom were proponents of competing lineages imported from India more recently. Another issue was that some historical accounts of the empire did survive, and many contradicted treasure narratives recounting the same period. Treasures thereby introduced a wide range of discrepancies into the historical record. Devaluing the conventional, diachronic view of history for the synchrony of transcendent insight beyond past, present and future, treasure revealers and their sympathizers contended that their products were not merely fossilized products of the past but living relics of enlightened mind, encoding far deeper truths and containing profound relevance to the present. Such argumentation continues today, debating many of the same issues.

Nevertheless, treasure recovery came to be practiced as a mode of textual re/introduction and innovation by many of the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. As the centuries progressed, immaterial treasures of enlightened intent came to eclipse those that were immediately tangible, which came to be denigrated as “earth treasures” merely drawn from the impure ground. With this shift the primary function of early treasure recovery, to excavate authentically ancient materials from the imperium, was essentially retired. Until the 21st century, and thus for most of the history of Tibetan Studies as a discipline, most Western scholars generally accepted that all treasures were apocrypha, with their claims to ancient origins mere fabrications to be skeptically dismissed. Given that virtually no first-millennium manuscripts remained extant and available, comparative analysis of early treasure documents against imperial-era exemplars was simply not possible. Only recently have contemporary scholars begun to forward convincing evidence that at least some of the earliest revealers’ claims were true––that some new treasure collections made use of much old material, and so preserved authentic fragments of the empire. This is due solely to a most fortuitous find in 1900, over a thousand years after the fall of the empire, when a massive cache of manuscripts from that era and its aftermath was discovered near a Chinese city whose cosmopolitan grandeur and long-held economic and political relevance had largely been forgotten.

The history of Dunhuang, in present-day Gansu province, extends nearly as far into the past as the Chinese historical record itself. Settled as early as 2000 B.C.E., it occupies a verdant oasis that strikingly contrasts the stark sand dunes of the Gobi Desert surrounding it. Over the millennia the strategic importance of Dunhuang rarely escaped notice: occupying a vital crossroads at the confluence of the Silk Routes, it remained a prize for every dynasty that sought to establish itself in the region, and so repeatedly changed hands between the many kings vying for control of the wealth that flowed through it. In particular, Dunhuang served as a critical flashpoint in the seemingly endless rivalry between the sedentary Chinese Han and the hosts of nomadic Inner Asian invaders, whose cavalries repeatedly wreaked havoc upon them. Finally, after several thousand years, this rivalry seems to have reached its end game with the 20th-century rise of China as a nation-state and the modernization imposed within its fiercely fixed borders. The peoples, cultures, languages, traditions, and traditional livelihoods of its many Inner Asian “minorities” are now severely restricted within them.

Nevertheless, this shared history remains indelibly imprinted in the archaeological record of the region and symbolized even in the name of the city, as “Dunhuang” signifies the “Blazing Beacon” that would be lit to warn of an impending attack. Moreover, the Great Wall, whose strategic purpose was to stand as a breakwater against the waves of horse-backed onslaughts, extended there out of necessity. A list of those who controlled Dunhuang surveys the great powers in the intense rivalry between China and Inner Asia, from the Han and the Xiongnu in the second century BCE to the great conquest dynasties of the Mongol Yuan (ca. 1271–1368 CE) and Manchu Qing (1644–1912 CE), both of whom were Inner Asian peoples that ruled not only over Dunhuang but all of China. While the Pugyal empire of Tibet never sought control over the far east of the continent, in 783 the Tang dynasty was forced to forfeit its vast western territories and their vibrant economies, the great Silk Route cities of Kashgar, Khotan, Turfan, and Dunhuang. Thus demarking the northern limits of its power, Tibet controlled this region for much of the following century.

While Buddhism first found favor in Tibet under the 7th-century emperor, Songtsen Gampo (d. 650), and was declared the state religion in the 8th century under emperor Tri Songdetsen (742–c. 800), this is quite late compared to the rest of region. The natural defenses of Tibet’s topography, sealed by the soaring mountains of the Himalaya and protected by the low oxygen environment even at the dizzying altitudes of its passes, never mind the renowned ferocity of its peoples, restricted access to many travelers, traders, and proselytizers. Most stuck to the plains and roads around Tibet, and with them Buddhism bypassed the Tibetans for centuries, even as Indian and Chinese Buddhists engaged in a robust exchange from the first century C.E. Following the Silk Routes, the religion made its way to Dunhuang no later than the 4th century, when Buddhists first began to carve monastic cells, retreats, shrines, and libraries out of the living rock at a site known as Magao. It enjoyed the patronage of a succession of dynasties and developed into a major pilgrimage site for both monastics and laity. With such an influx of wealth came major commissions that meritoriously sponsored the decoration of cave interiors with fine sculptures and exquisite paintings of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and Buddhist motifs, many of which remain vivid to this day.

Thus, by the time Tibet came to control Dunhuang, Magao was a long-established and bustling Buddhist center. Standing at the intersection of so many dynasties, and with an endless stream of innumerable far-flung peregrinators passing through, many languages were represented there, but Chinese remained the dominant language of the region for much of its history. One mode by which Tibetans swiftly exerted their newfound power was by instituting Tibetan as the language of governance. The Tang dynasty continued its decline throughout this period, and although the Tibetan empire waned not long thereafter, for lack of stronger or more singular rivals, Tibetan language retained its status and persisted in the region even after the empire fractured and failed. Several distinct Inner Asian dynasties would rule the area thereafter, but Dunhuang had already passed its peak, and by the time the Mongols conquered all of China in the 13th century, sea routes to the south rendered the Silk Routes obsolete, and the region never regained its former glory.

While the entire region was forcefully and decisively annexed back into China under the Qing as their “New Territories” (Xinjiang province) in the 18th century, the area remained relatively quiet and remote. Locals continued to worship at Magao, and so it was at the end of the 19th century that a Chinese Taoist priest named Wang Yuanlu (d. 1931) informally established himself as the abbot and caretaker of the cave complex. On June 25, 1900, as Wang went about his self-appointed tasks of cleaning the caves, sweeping out the sands that had accumulated, or perhaps even trying his hand at some restoration work, he discerned the outline of a small wooden door, concealed by plaster and painted over, along a corridor to one of the main caves. Breaking through the seal, Wang discovered a small cave stacked to the ceiling with piles upon piles of ancient materials. Though some samples were shown to local officials, there was little interest, and he was ordered to reseal the cave in 1904.

Word got out in the years thereafter, however, and a series of foreign expeditionary teams arrived at Magao to purchase selections of the cave’s contents from Wang. Sculptures and artefacts including texts in Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan, the Inner Asian languages of Sogdian, Khotanese, and Tangut, as well as Hebrew, among others, were hauled off to the libraries and universities of Britain (and India, its colony at the time), France, Russia, Denmark, and Japan for further study. In 1910 a large selection of the remaining Chinese manuscripts were brought to Peking. As analyses progressed in the years that followed, hypotheses were proposed with regard to the sealing of this library cave: was it merely a dumping ground for worn religious texts still considered sacred and thus inauspicious to destroy? While Buddhist texts make up the largest proportion of content overall, and the world’s oldest extant printed book, a xylograph of the Diamond Sutra from 868 CE, was preserved there, several other religions and philosophies are also represented, including Confucianism, Daoism, Manichaeism, Judaism, and Nestorian Christianity. The original librarian/s would have to have been boundlessly ecumenical, perhaps not atypical at such a vibrant crossroads, but this hypothesis would still belie the richly diverse range of content preserved within the cache. Far from containing scriptural material alone, preserved among the Dunhuang manuscripts are historical narratives and annals, folk songs and musical scores, financial contracts and receipts, medical manuals and scientific studies of mathematics and astronomy, dictionaries and even rules for a recreational game. Perhaps it was the personal library of one particular monk. Perhaps it was a storehouse for miscellaneous documents of the era, stacked haphazardly without any sense of organization. Perhaps it was sealed to preserve its contents from an invading army. In the end it must be conceded that the cave’s original purpose and the exact circumstances of its sealing will never be known.

While the recent history of the Dunhuang texts begins with the story of their sudden discovery and swiftly proceeds to their broad dispersion, which made systematic assessment and analysis very difficult for their first modern century, in the past two decades scholars from around the world have collaborated to recompile the entire collection in a single accessible source, the International Dunhuang Project. Among other activities, this extraordinary endeavor has sought to conserve and catalog all of the contents not only of Magao but of other Silk Route finds, and to digitally photograph, reproduce, and transliterate them as well. Researchers can now search the entire catalog and even term search much of its contents. Scholars have since concluded that the library cave at Magao contained over 40,000 hand-written manuscripts, printed texts, and paintings dating from the 5th century CE to the early 11th century, thereby strongly suggesting that the cave was sealed in that time or shortly thereafter, and likewise confirms that it had not been opened since. Among its diverse materials, forgotten for nearly a thousand years, this cave at Magao preserved the only 1st-millennium Tibetan texts in existence, illuminating a critical period in Tibetan history that had long been lost to time, and providing exemplars for comparative analysis for early treasure texts that emerged shortly thereafter. Due to the discovery of this cache, there is finally proof that at least some early treasures indeed embedded and preserved the fragments of empire within them, which had been so long in doubt. With this revelation among so many others, the priceless value of this find to the history of the region is unquestionable.

Daniel A. Hirshberg, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA, where he directs the Contemplative Studies program and serves as associate director of the Leidecker Center for Asian Studies. A specialist in Tibetan Buddhism and history, his first book, Remembering the Lotus-Born: Padmasambhava in the History of Tibet’s Golden Age, explores the earliest re/construction of Tibet’s most popular narrative, its conversion to Buddhism under the emperors, by means of Tibetan innovations in reincarnation theory, textual revelation, and historiography.