Why we do what we do: Tengyur (བསྟན་འགྱུར་) refers to the translation of Buddhist treatises from Indian and other languages into classical Tibetan. Sitting alongside Kagyur (བཀའ་འགྱུར་) or the translation of the words of the Buddha, which I have already introduced. Tengyur forms an important part of the Himalayan Buddhist canon. The Tengyur collection is made up of some 225 enormous volumes of numerous treatises composed mostly by Indian masters as exegeses and commentaries on the Buddha’s teachings or Buddhist topics

The Compilation

The Kagyur and Tengyur compilations most likely started in early 9th century after the extensive project of translation of the Buddhist texts from mainly Indian languages into Tibetan in Samye monastery. A few lists of translations were prepared at that time although only one survives today. The Tibetan empire felt apart in the middle of the 9th century and major Buddhist literary activities stopped. However, when Tibet saw the revival of Buddhist activity in the beginning of the second millennium, many more Indian Buddhist treatises were translated into Tibetan. In the 14th century, some Tibetan scholars took the initiative to put together the translated treatises thus giving rise to the Tengyur collection we know of today. Early Tengyur collections were hand written manuscripts but in the 18th century, many printed editions of Tengyurs, including those of Derge, Narthang, Cone, Peking, Ganden and Lhasa were made. Today, there are also new modern typeset versions prepared in China and the US, and efforts are also being made to translate the texts from the Tengyur corpus.

The most popular Tengyur editions in Bhutan were the Narthang edition, due to the proximity of this printery to Bhutan, and the Derge edition, which came to be seen as the most authoritative version. Manuscripts Tengyur copies were created in Bhutan but most were lost to temple fires. The latest creation of Tengyur manuscripts in Bhutan took place during the reign of the 3rd Druk Gyalpo when a set was written in gold in Thimphu. This manuscript Tengyur is today housed in Tashichodzong and annually read at Changangkha temple.

The Composition

The size of Tengyur and the number of treatises vary from edition to edition as new translations are added to the collection but the Tengyur corpus roughly has some 225 volumes of over 4,000 texts and more than 150,000 pages on subjects ranging from philosophy, psychology, art of mind training, rituals, phenomenology, epistemology, logic, astrology, politics, arts and crafts, poetry, synonymy to language and grammar. They are organized using doctrinal categories and literary genres in the order of hymns, tantras, Perfection of Wisdom, Middle Way, sūtras, Mind Only, metaphysics, monastic discipline, rebirth tales, epistles, logic and epistemology, linguistics, medicine, statecraft, arts and technologies. The canon contains the classics of the Indian Buddhist tradition written by authors such as the great masters of Nalanda University. In terms of organization, the Tengyur of Peking, Ganden and Narthang fall in one group and those of Cone and Derge fall in another.

Just like Kagyur, Tengyur is a cherished property in Bhutan and produced through much care using the best materials. It is treasured in a temple shrine room and venerated by the devotees. People bow before it and receive blessings from it. Tengyur is also read to help people overcome illness and misfortunes and paraded across the valley to bless the land. Many texts from Tengyur also form the textbooks and references for monastic education. It is considered highly meritorious to create, commission, buy, own, carry, host, read and worship Tengyur as it represents the path to enlightenment.

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.


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