Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sources of Tibetan Tradition

For over fifty years Columbia University Press has been issuing a number of source books as part of its Introduction to Asian Civilizations series. To date sixteen volumes have been published covering India, China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and now Tibet. According to the publisher’s notice:

The most comprehensive collection of Tibetan works in a Western language, this volume illuminates the complex historical, intellectual, and social development of Tibetan civilization from its earliest beginnings to the modern period. Including more than 180 representative writings, Sources of Tibetan Tradition spans Tibet’s vast geography and long history, presenting for the first time a diversity of works by religious and political leaders; scholastic philosophers and contemplative hermits; monks and nuns; poets and artists; and aristocrats and commoners. The selected readings reflect the profound role of Buddhist sources in shaping Tibetan culture while illustrating other major areas of knowledge. Thematically varied, they address history and historiography; political and social theory; law; medicine; divination; rhetoric; aesthetic theory; narrative; travel and geography; folksong; and philosophical and religious learning, all in relation to the unique trajectories of Tibetan civil and scholarly discourse. The editors begin each chapter with a survey of broader social and cultural contexts and introduce each translated text with a concise explanation. Concluding with writings that extend into the early twentieth century, this volume offers an expansive encounter with Tibet’s exceptional intellectual heritage.

True to its blurb the book covers a wide array of writings produced in Tibet over the centuries covering aspects of Tibetan culture. Even at 800 pages, Sources of Tibetan Tradition can only supply snippets of texts and the majority of material seems to slant to the secular. So what is left out? Obviously lots of oral material. Prayers. Guides to Shambhala that were so popular. And of course, anything from Mme. Blavatsky. No Book of the Golden Precepts. And certainly no Book of Dzyan. The inclusion of a chapter on Writings attributed to come from Tibetan Sources would have made an interesting addition.

A concluding section on “Early Twentieth-Century Tibetan Encounters with the West” gives Tibetan impressions on encounters outside the country. The work of Gendün Chöpel, (1903-1951), described as “one of the most important intellectuals of the twentieth century, renowned as a scholar, translator, historian, essayist, poet, and painter,” is duly noted. Omitted is reference to his writings about Blavatsky, one of the few Tibetan accounts we have of her. Luckily this material has been published in the journal Theosophical History Volume VII/2, April 1998, pp. 84-88, as “A Tibetan Description of HPB” by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

Edited by Kurtis R. Schaeffer, Matthew T. Kapstein, and Gray Tuttle, Sources of Tibetan Tradition covers a period from the seventh to the early twentieth century, has a useful chronology of key events, a number of maps, and is available in paper ($40.00 / £27.50) and hard cover ($120.00 / £83.00).

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