Buddhist doctrine places emphasis on the impermanence of all worldly things – including books and manuscripts.
lama writing However, manuscripts and printed books are one way of ensuring accurate and uninterrupted transmission of the doctrine. Paradoxically, the custodians of this doctrine, many of them monk-librarians, must also be concerned with issues of permanence as they seek to ensure the preservation of texts. Texts written on stone, on palm-leaves, and on daphne-bark paper have all proved to be remarkably durable – the earliest Buddhist texts in the Cambridge University Library date back to the 10th century. The advantages, in terms of speed accessibility and dissemination, of new media such as microfilms and digitisation have to be set against their capacity to survive across the centuries, a capacity that is as yet unknown and untested. Here digitisation presents special problems due to its reliance on electrical power and it being subject to rapid changes in format and technology. If the floppy disks of the 80’s are no longer readable today, will our new digital archives still be readable in 50 years from now? Rather than replacing one technology with another the best solution appears to be to mix media, to exploit the advantages of each, and to be aware of their respective shortcomings.
• Today publishers and libraries make increasing use of digital media while Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and other major religions use the internet to communicate with bodies of faithful scattered across the globe. Monastery libraries in Tibet are also using digital technology to catalogue their holdings and to reconstitute, in virtual form, whole runs of precious works that were fragmented in times of political upheaval. Like them, the Tibetan - Mongolian Rare Books and Manuscripts project has made extensive use of microfilms, Xml catalogues, digital scans, and the internet. Indeed, it is a product of such media.
• Digital media have many advantages over the older materials and techniques used to store, catalogue, and disseminate the written word. They are smaller and more compact; more easily stored and searched; and can be used to disseminate copies of texts to a much wider audience, faster, more cheaply and without damage to the originals. But compared to more traditional media, the familiar printed books in Western libraries or the woodblock-printed books wrapped in textile coverings that are characteristic of the Tibetan Buddhist world, these new digital alternatives to old techniques also raise some burning questions. Can they resist unauthorised tampering? Will they last? What happens when the intimate links between body, gesture, voice and text are broken and replaced by keyboard and flickering screen? And what happens to old power structures and claims to special esoteric knowledge when everyone has free access to written materials and can read what they like?
clothed texts
woodblocks carving
young lamas woodblock
Clockwise from top left:  a) Tantric priest copying a text with bamboo pen and charcoal ink; b) Books and woven book wrappings Orgyen Choling, Bhutan (As books are like persons they too may be clothed in elaborately decorated textiles); c) Young man carving a woodblock at Ganden Monastery, Tibet; d) carved woodblock; e) Monks arranging the library at Gangtey Monastery, Bhutan; f) Young monks reading printed religious texts at Pema Lingpa temple, Bhutan; g) Rack of sixteenth-century woodblocks at Trakar Taso Monastery, one of the early printing houses in Tibet
Words in motion
Exhib home
Images and text created in the framework of the AHRC funded Tibetan-Mongolian Rare Books and Manuscripts Project

gcolor="#000000">T<span class="header1"> TEXTUAL TRANSFORMATIONS: </span></td>
</tr>MIASU 2009
last updated 13.3.2009