Textual Transformations: words in motion
trakar taso view lhasa circumanbulating blessing the fields mantra
text in prayer wheel

• If books are receptacles of the Buddha’s words, these words can be activated, released and made to speak by various means – not just by reading but also by being set in motion through prayer beads, prayer flags and various kinds of prayer wheels powered by wind, water, human hands or the hot air from burning butter lamps. The whirling drums of prayer wheels have a mantra written or embossed on the outside; inside are many metres of text on a scroll tightly rolled round a spindle inscribed with yet more words. Motion also comes from circumambulation as pilgrims carrying prayer-wheels and prayer beads walk clockwise round temples containing books, round mani walls with stones inscribed with mantras, and round books themselves. In each case the principle is one of reduplication and repetition – as many words, as many revolutions, and as many repetitions of the same text as possible. Logically CDs belong in the same class of rotating texts. They have the advantage of yet more text and even higher speeds, a point that has also crossed the minds of many in the Buddhist world.

• Consistent with these links between speaking words and moving bodies, books are also treated as persons. They are clothed in robes like Buddhist monks and receive the prostrations of pilgrims who touch them with their heads to receive blessings. In springtime books are also paraded through the valleys and invited to bless the land and crops. As repositories of sacred dharma, the words of the Buddha and other great teachers, books are identified with their persons, as much relics as reading material. Indeed, the Buddha himself is supposed to have declared: ‘I shall return in the degenerate age in the form of words’.

• One of the effects of printing in the West has been an increasing separation between body and text, speaking and reading, and a disjunction between writing as an integrated manual and intellectual craft and writing as abstract composition divorced from the manual work of type-setting or keyboard inputting. This separation was always less evident in the Tibetan Buddhist world where much of writing was concerned with recording the words of the Buddha and later commentators, where words are chanted as they are read, where the manual copying of texts was part of the training of many monks, and where the ongoing craft of woodblock carving produces a script that is close to the written word. However, with digitisation, these close links are threatened. As if to undo this increasing alienation, trainee Tibetan monks and nuns sitting in front of computer screens rock back and forth chanting the words of ancient texts as they input them, transforming them into digital format.

lama writing on flag
Clockwise from top left: a) Prayer flags and printing house, Trakar Taso monastery high on a mountainside in the Kyirong Valley, Tibet; b) As pilgrims circumambulate clockwise round the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, the Wheel of Dharma turns with the movement of their feet and bodies, with the rosaries and prayer wheels in their hands and with the prayer flags that flutter in the breeze; c) In Spring, books are paraded through the valleys and invited to bless the environment and protect from calamity, Gunsa, Eastern Nepal; d) Mantra carved on rock laying on roof of chapel at Trakar Taso Monastery, Tibet; e) A young lama adds personal astrological details to the standard texts of printed prayer flags, Arun Valley, Nepal; f) Monks at Nyemo monastery inserting a rolls of printed prayers into the shell of a prayer wheel
Permanance and impermanence
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