Lost treasures of Tibet
Sep. 29, 2003. 02:10 PM

Worldwide effort under way to recover, reprint and distribute missing volumes of the Tiger Valley Sacred Texts

Some of the volumes resemble barrel slats — about a metre long and six inches wide. Other smaller tracts are beginning to show mould.

The paper, edges rounded, looks like the skimpiest gossamer, but is surprisingly sturdy, even silky to the touch. The unbound, dog-eared pages are filled with faded black Tibetan script bursting with wisdom on religion, philosophy, poetry and enlightenment. Others are so fragile, they cannot even be displayed. They are obviously very old and they radiate sanctity. So it's little wonder that a complete set is so sought after.

These are the Tiger Valley Sacred Texts, part of the literary and religious canon of the Taklung Kagyu lineage, a sub-school of one of the four principal spiritual traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

To date, only 22 of the original 65 volumes have been found. Experts agree 15 or so are probably lost forever. That means about 30 volumes are still out there — and there's now a determined effort to find them.

"This is nothing short of saving one of Tibet's most important lineages from extinction. These texts are the repository of an entire culture unlike anything in the world," says Timothy Feher, who chairs an international campaign to raise $425,000 to recover, repair, digitize, republish, translate and distribute the texts.

Launched in Toronto last month, the global effort has the blessing of His Holiness, the Seventh Phakchok Rinpoche, head of the Taklung Kagyu lineage, said to be the most fragile of the Tibetan Buddhist schools.

The 22-year-old lama, who travelled to Toronto from his home in Nepal, presided over a solemn ceremony that blessed the effort to find the volumes, some of which date back to the 13th century A.D.

The project has also been endorsed by the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of all Tibetan Buddhists, who just completed a trip to the U.S. and is scheduled to visit Toronto next spring.

Like other Buddhist texts, the Tiger Valley volumes convey the practice and rituals relating to the religion's central concepts of kindness, compassion, mindfulness and peace.

As organizers of the campaign note, the Kagyu school is also called the Sacred Word lineage and it represents 1,200 years of unbroken transmission of wisdom that remains relevant to this day.

But those behind the sleuthing effort warn that without the missing volumes, an age-old tradition may die.

When Chinese communists invaded Tibet in 1950, the main seat of the Taklung Kagyu school, the famed 800-year-old Riwoche monastery in the eastern town of Kham, was razed and its 1,000 monks and nuns killed or imprisoned. The monastery's, 100,000-book library was destroyed, but not before several volumes of the sacred texts were spirited out, most likely to India, Nepal or Bhutan.

Officials say recovery efforts began in the 1980s, when Beijing relaxed travel restrictions in and out of Tibet. Plans call for the volumes already recovered to be reprinted and distributed to Buddhist temples, monasteries, and universities around the world.

Feher says the campaign has already drawn interest from some of the world's foremost scholars of Tibetan Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism.

Khenpo ("Abbot") Sonam Rinpoche, spiritual leader of the luminous Riwoche Tibetan Buddhist Temple on Heintzman St., was one of the few survivors of the communist pillage of 1950 and an uprising that led to the flight of the Dalai Lama nine years later. As a young monk, he escaped torture and imprisonment and today is known as a leading dharma scholar and transmitter of the lineage.

He came to Canada in 1988, serving for a time in the Northwest Territories, before settling in Toronto. He now heads the international initiative to recover and edit the sacred texts — appropriate, given he's the one who has found the 22 extant volumes, in various villages in Tibet and Nepal.

Sonam Rinpoche believes the missing texts are probably still stashed in monasteries in the region. But he fears some could also have made their way to the Chinese black market, which is said to traffic in sacred texts just like these.

The rescue effort is ambitious. A business plan outlined in a four-page colour brochure sets out a careful timeline, beginning with travel to the region to hunt for the lost treasures.

Editing and correction of damaged texts is expected to take until 2006. A hand-copied text by a qualified lama can take up to two years.

Employing more modern methods, monks at the Shechen monastery in Nepal will then use computers to transcribe the texts into digital format. The data entry will take two years.

Plans call for 500 copies to be reprinted in their traditional format, known at Poti. In 2008, the newly published volumes are to make their ways to monasteries, universities, temples and libraries to educate the next generation of lamas.

An English translation is due in 2008, with a book of English commentaries to be composed by Sonam Rinpoche.

So what's in these spiritual treasures? Apart from expositions on dharma (the philosophy of Buddhism), there's a volume on secret teachings handed down only by oral tradition until the 19th century; numerous commentaries on Dzogchen meditation, said to be the highest level of Tibetan Buddhist practice; rituals for the dead and dying; and a large collection of prayers, meditations and esoteric teachings. Some of the titles are "An Umbrella of Surprising Clouds," "Downpour of Brilliant Light," and "Treasury of the Glorious Qualities of Intelligence."

Through an interpreter, the serene young lama, whose given name is Tendzin Jigmey Drakpa, explained that the texts were printed on handmade paper using the woodblock method of transferring ink to the page.

Completed volumes were sandwiched between wooden covers stamped in rich gold or silver lettering. Today, the volumes, and more recent hand-copies that are themselves hundreds of years old, are wrapped in crimson or saffron-coloured cloth for storage.

His Holiness smiled and added, "they are very old, but very beautiful."

For more information on the sacred texts, contact Timothy Feher at Trailpoets@aol.com or call the Riwoche Tibetan Buddhist Temple at 416-766-7964.

Ron Csillag is a Toronto writer specializing in religion. He can be reached at csillag@rogers.com.