WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: Kagyur is the most important canonical collection in Himalayan Buddhism. It literally means the translation of the pronouncements or words, i.e. the teachings of the Buddha including both the historical Buddha and other Buddhas featured in Buddhist scriptures.

World religions have different canons such as the Koran for Islam, Bible for Christianity and Torah for Judaism. Buddhism, however, doesn’t have a single book, which represents it as a canonical literature. According to Buddhist historians, after the Buddha’s demise, his words were compiled into the tripitaka or three baskets: the basket of vinaya or discipline, the basket of sūtras or discourses and the basket of abhidharma or analytical doctrines. The three baskets deal with discipline, meditation and wisdom as their topic. These three corpuses were passed down through his disciples and followers and as they formed different schools, they also created their own collection of three baskets.

The Pali canon we know today is what the Theravada school wrote down in the 1st century BCE. Around this time, the new altruistic movement of the Mahāyāna took place and many scriptures were added to the canons of some schools, which had many Mahāyāna followers. By the middle of the first millennium, the third main phase of Buddhism started with the rise of syncretic tantric tradition and many tantras, which were attributed to the Buddha also became well known.

When Buddhist scriptures were translated from Sanskrit and other languages into Classical Tibetan from the middle of the 7th century onwards through the massive translation projects in Tibet, the number and size of Buddhist scriptures became enormous. Attempts to catalogue the texts were already made as early as 812 and probably some efforts were also made to form compilations of the Buddha’s words, particularly when Buddhism revived in Tibet at the end of the 10th century after a serious decline for one and half centuries. However, it was in the beginning of the 14th century that the first proper kagyur collection was created at Narthang monastery in Tibet under the leadership of the famous scholar Chomdan Rigpai Raldi. The kagyur canonical collection has since spread across the Himalayan world, through the two main transmissions of the Tshalpa and Thempangma recensions.

The kagyur canons today range from 103 to 108 volumes containing some 5250 texts and 230,000 folios. There are seven known xylographic prints and numerous manuscript editions. In Bhutan, it is common to find the Derge, Narthang and Lhasa xylographic editions but there are numerous manuscript editions created here in Bhutan. It is normally divided into the sections of Gyud, Dulwa, Shephyin, Phalchen, Kontseg, Dodey, Zungdue and Duekhor.

As the kagyur canon represents the speech of the Buddha and the path to enlightenment, creating, buying, owning, hosting, carrying, worshipping and reading the kagyur is believed to be highly meritorious. Bhutanese people often annually read or sponsor the reading of the kagyur. The kagyur collection is sometimes paraded around the valley to bless the land. The kagyur also represents the corpus of high philosophy, ethics and knowledge which informs the Bhutanese religious traditions beside being sacred scriptures.

Dr Karma Phuntsho, is the founding director of Loden Foundation and author of The History of Bhutan


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