Whether in a place where a
volume of the sutra is kept, or in a temple, or in a grove,
or under a tree, or in a
monastery, or in a lay
devotee’s house, in a palace
or a mountain, in a valley or
in the wilderness, in all these
places you must erect a caitya
...and make offerings.
The Lotus Sutra1
When Buddha Sakyamuni (c. 563-483 B.C.) preached his message of love and compassion, knowledge in India was transmitted largely by the spoken rather than written word. By the birth of Christ, however, when the important Mahayana sutras, such as the Lotus Sutra from which the passage above is quoted, were composed, Buddhists had not only become aware of the necessity of writing down their scriptures, but the books themselves had become objects of veneration. Like the lews, Muslims, and Sikhs, the Buddhists, too, along with the Hindus and Jains, accord a divine status to the books that contain the sacred words of their faith. Time and again the Mahayana sutras emphasize the spiritual value of worshiping the book itself. From about the time of Christ books have not only played a significant role in the religious life of a pious Buddhist, but they have also served as the principal instrument in transmitting the religion from India to most countries of Asia east of Iran. No Buddhist book, however, enjoys the preeminence that the Bible does among Christians or the Koran among Muslims.
Buddhists were particularly sagacious and steadfast in making the faith accessible to peoples who did not read Pali and Sanskrit, the two principal Indian languages in which the Buddhist scriptures are written. Although the original Sanskrit and Pali texts always retained their sanctity in the countries where Buddhism prevailed, most Buddhists in China, Japan, Tibet, or Cambodia, or elsewhere, could not read the original texts. While every Muslim must learn Arabic in order to study the Koran, a Buddhist speaking Sogdian, Chinese, or
Tibetan can read the sacred literature in his own language. The Buddhists were particularly assiduous in transmitting their faith to other countries and in translating their scriptures into other languages. Monasteries in Central Asia, China, and Tibet were veritable factories for translating books from the Indian languages, and often entire workshops were established and maintained by the state to translate and catalogue the texts.2
Mahayana texts make it abundantly clear that the commissioning of manuscripts and their copying are among the most meritorious acts that a Buddhist can perform. While many major monasteries had their own sutra halls or libraries, others had storehouses for the sutras. The seventh-century Chinese scholar Yijing tells us about one of his teachers, “The sight of the hall of the sutras. decked and adorned by him. was something like the sky above the Vulture Peak ( a sacred Buddhist site in Bihar where the Buddha preached many of his sermons ), showering down the Four Flowers ( Four Noble Truths ).”3 Although professional scribes were often employed, the monks themselves most often copied the texts. Speaking of another of his Zen masters, Yijing writes:
Afterwards when he was engaged in copying the Saddharmapundarika (the ‘Lotus of the Good Law’] he compared the styles of the famous handwritings (of old), and chose the best of all (in copying). Breathing out the impure air, and keeping scents in his mouth, he was in the habit of purifying himself by washing and bathing. Suddenly there once appeared miraculously on this Sutra a relic of the Buddha. When the copy of the Sutra was finished, the title on each scroll was impressed in golden letters, which were beautiful by the side of the silver hooks of the scroll. He deposited them in the jewelled cases, which, being in themselves bright, added to the brilliancy of the gemmed rollers. The then ruling emperor came to T’ai Shan, and learning the news, asked the owner to present the copy to the imperial household to be used in worship.4
No other passage from an ancient text so succinctly and yet so completely summarizes both the process of copying and illuminating books and the religious significance attached to them.
When exactly the Buddhists began to embellish their books with ornamental lettering, rubrics, and pictures is not known. Early in the fifth century the Chinese pilgrim Faxian drew pictures of divinities during his sojourn in India. These were very likely simple iconographic drawings, and if sketched on books, as was done by Nepali Buddhists much later, then such drawings may have inspired others to enrich their books with pictures. Although a considerable quantity of manuscripts has survived in the dry and arid climate of Central Asia, no illuminated example can be dated much earlier than the seventh or eighth century.5 It is probable, however, that the tradition originated in Central Asia where Buddhists mingled with Manichaeans and Nestorian Christians. While the illuminated books of neither sect predate those of the Buddhists, very likely both religious groups adorned their sacred books earlier than did the Buddhists. Certainly by the fourth century Christians had inherited the Greco-Roman and Egyptian traditions of illustrating books written on parchment and papyrus. According to the Chinese tradition in one of his former births the Buddha had “agreed to write the text with a pencil made from one of his bones on paper made from his skin and with blood for ink.”6 While parchment was used in eastern Iran, it is unlikely that Buddhists in India would have used any form of animal skin on which to write their sacred texts.
By the fourth century Christians in Asia Minor and Europe were illuminating their manuscripts, and by the sixth century Christians in Syria and Mesopotamia, as well as Iran, were supporting the many flourishing centers of illuminated book production.7 Further, Buddhists may have even earlier seen Greco-Roman illustrated books in Gandhara and Bactria. In any event, present evidence indicates that by the eighth or ninth century Buddhists in Central Asia were enthusiastically illuminating texts, whether copied as books or scrolls and written in Indian scripts or Chinese. In the Indian subcontinent only a few book covers from this period have survived. Although Buddhists in eastern India may have added pictures or sketches to their books as early as the fifth century, no illuminated manuscript from the region or from Nepal can be dated earlier than the tenth century.
Chapter 1 of this study presents a survey of the origins of the book in India in general and of its significance for the Buddhists in particular. According to Mahayana Buddhist texts the principal reason Indian Buddhists were eager to write down the texts was to ensure their survival as well as transmission. The needs of foreigners, especially Central Asians and Chinese in the early centuries of the Christian era, also contributed to the propagation of the faith by the written as well as spoken word. The chapter also discusses the postcolophon statements, which provide some information about the donors and scribes involved in the preparation of a book and the reasons why a book was commissioned. Unfortunately, almost nothing is known of the illuminators, even though by the eleventh century the presentation of copies of illuminated books had become quite popular in eastern India.8
Because Buddhism virtually disappeared from India after the thirteenth century, most Indian Buddhist manuscripts have survived either in Nepal or Tibet. Furthermore, since Buddhists in both countries were closely associated with the important east Indian monasteries of the Pala period (c. 750- 1200), most surviving illuminated manuscripts were produced in that region. It would be wrong to presume that Buddhists in other parts of India, such as Orissa, the coastal regions of southern India, or Gujarat, did not copy books or illuminate them, although such documents have not survived. Certainly Kashmir and the adjoining regions in the northwest of the subcontinent must also have had a vigorous tradition, and the slender evidence from the region is discussed here. In addition, attempts have been made to distinguish regional stylistic variations between Bihar and Bengal (today West Bengal and Bangladesh, considered here as undivided Bengal). Hitherto, most scholars writing on the subject have made little or no effort to clearly distinguish the painting styles that flourished at the same time in Nepal, Bihar, and Bengal.9 Although to some extent such stylistic distinctions based on geographical boundaries are arbitrary, nevertheless notable differences in the modes of expression in these three regions must now be recognized. The tradition of illuminating manuscripts in India naturally decayed with the disappearance of Buddhism in the country during the thirteenth century, although a few fifteenth-century examples from Bihar indicate that the faith continued to have some followers.
While in India most early manuscripts were written either on birch bark (in the northwest of the subcontinent) or palm- leaf, in Nepal palm leaf remained the popular material until about the fourteenth century.10 Since palms are not native to Nepal, one must assume that their use was introduced from India. The earliest dated illuminated manuscript in Nepal was prepared in 1015. Thereafter, manuscripts continued to be illuminated in Nepal well into the early twentieth century, so that one can study the history of this form of Nepali art contin-uously for nine centuries. Not only were both palm leaf and paper popular materials in Nepal, but the thematic repertoire encountered in Nepali manuscripts and their covers is more varied than that in Indian Buddhist manuscripts. The Nepalis were also fond of encasing their wood book covers with richly adorned metal plaques, a practice unknown in India, although it must be remembered that few early Indian book covers have survived.
Apart from the Chinese, the Tibetans were the most assiduous translators of the sacred books of Buddhism. As in Nepal, one can also study the history of this art form in Tibet continuously for nine hundred years, beginning with the eleventh century. If the Central Asian material is included, then that history can be dated even earlier. Curiously, however, no Tibetan scholar has written an account of the history of the book in Tibet, illustrated or not.11 Indeed, the material is so rich that an entire book can be written on the subject, and the review here should be regarded as providing a framework for future studies.
Although Tibetans began importing books, scholars, and translators, along with the religion and the script, from India as early as the seventh century, the earliest surviving illuminated books from Tibet proper cannot be dated before the eleventh century. While the first imported books from India must have been written on both birch bark and palm leaf, it seems that the Tibetans preferred to use paper, which was popular in Central Asia and China. Tibet’s prolonged occupation of Central Asia in the eighth and ninth centuries must have influenced their decision, apart from the fact that paper from China, as well as that produced locally, was both cheaper and more readily available than imported birch bark or palm leaf. Nevertheless, they adhered to the format of the Indian book, even if they increased the size of the page considerably. As in most other Buddhist countries, except China, the vertical format and codex were never popular.
Even if they were faithful to the Indo-Nepali tradition and familiar with the Central Asian and Chinese books and scrolls, the Tibetans developed an independent tradition of book illu-mination. In addition, being open to more influences, Tibetan book illuminations reflect a wider variety of styles and iconographic conventions. During the early centuries, while west Tibetan artists were strongly influenced by the now-lost Kashmiri tradition of painting, in the central region the predominant style was based upon models from eastern India. A dozen surviving illuminated pages of an eleventh century manuscript recovered from the ancient kingdom of Guge in western Tibet are of fundamental importance for the study of both Tibetan and Kashmiri book illumination. They are unique for iconographic reasons as well. While the early book illuminations of southern and central Tibet were stylistically related to the east Indian tradition, the Tibetans do not seem to have followed the conventional iconographic program encountered in Pala and Nepali manuscripts. Such and other differences discussed at greater length in Chapter 4, as well as the greater emphasis placed by the Tibetans upon ornamental lettering and embellishment of the title page and rubrics,clearly demonstrate the originality and creative vitality of the Tibet-an tradition.
Of the countries of Southeast Asia only Burma and Thailand have preserved the tradition of illuminated books. Although Buddhism once flourished in the Malaysian peninsula and lava, Buddhist books from these regions have not survived. In fact, Islam is today the predominant religion in these countries. Buddhism also survived in Cambodia and Laos, but little or nothing is known of their manuscripts. For that matter, while discussions of book illuminations are included in some art histories of Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma, no co-herent account of the history of the book, whether illuminated or not, in these regions has yet been written.12
Most surviving illuminated books from Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand belong to the last two centuries, although the tradition probably goes back much further.13 Unlike in the northern countries, the prevalent form of Buddhism in these three countries is Theravada. Thus, no Mahayana book was copied or illustrated, and, by and large, the lives of Buddha Sakyamuni and the jataka tales narrating his previous lives form the principal subjects. Sri Lanka remained the most conservative of the three in continuing the tradition of writing the texts on palm leaf; in Burma and Thailand paper was the principal material. While Sri Lankan Buddhists used a wider 12 variety of materials for their book covers, the Burmese were the most inventive in employing materials other than paper for the book itself. They were also particularly fond of embellishing the page with gold, silver, mother-of-pearl, and lacquer. Ornamental lettering and rubrics are also more common 13. in Burmese books than they are in those from Sri Lanka or Thailand. Apart from the life of the Buddha and the jatakas, each country also preferred to illuminate certain books more
often than others. While the Sri Lankan tradition is quite stylistically distinct, the Burmese and Thai illuminations share some elements and conventions in common, although the Thais were somewhat more imaginative. Their books also were much larger, and often the illustrations achieve a monumentality, especially when they extend over several pages, making these pictures among the most exciting in the entire history of Buddhist book illuminations.
Any study of Chinese book illustration must, of course, begin in Central Asia from where enormously large caches of manuscripts and scrolls were recovered in the early parts of this century. Much of this material has since been published in books on Central Asian art, although an independent, coherent account of the art of the book in Central Asia is yet to be written. Once again, while the books written in scripts derived from India largely follow the format of the Indian book even when paper was substituted for birch bark, the Chinese preferred the scroll format in which several separate sheets are joined together to form a long roll. The early Central Asian books are sparsely illuminated, generally with Buddha images (figs. 1-2) or simple decorative devices. The headpiece of the vertical scroll is sometimes adorned with animal or plant mo tifs of symbolic significance. By the eighth century or earlier, however, many books, such as the Lotus Sutra, began to be il-lustrated with rather simple compositions related to the text.
There seems little doubt that the Chinese invented the folding book in which the pages are attached to each other in such a fashion as to open and close like the bellow of a concertina. This is really a modification of the handscroll, which folded at regular intervals to conform roughly to the shape of the palm-leaf or birth-bark books. Thus, the Chinese not only adopted the bound book known as the codex from West Asia but also created the accordion-pleated book. Centuries later, variations of this form of book made from thickly layered paper were popular in both Nepal and Thailand, though curiously, not in Tibet.
The Chinese Buddhists were also responsible for dyeing their paper in black or indigo and then writing the sutras in gold or silver to create a brilliant effect. It should be noted that, by the ninth century, Moslems in Egypt and Africa were also writing the Koran in gold letters against a black surface. In any event, this combination remained popular not only in China but in Japan, Korea, and Tibet as well. The Nepalis, too, adopted the practice as early as the thirteenth century as did the Burmese who were perhaps the most inventive in combining diverse materials to vary the pages of their sutras.
The most significant contribution of the Chinese, not only to the history of Buddhist books but also to that of the book in general, was the invention of woodblock printing. Since the Mahayana sutras particularly recommend the copying and donation of books as pious acts, woodblock printing was a quicker and cheaper method to accumulate vast stores of merit as well as disseminate the teachings to greater numbers. After the tenth century, printed books often contained illustrations, usually of elaborate scenes of discourse as frontispieces and monographic drawings of images.
The Chinese also had their own preferences for books, the most popular being the Lotus Sutra. Other favourites include the Vajrachchhedika (The Diamond Sutra), VimaJa- kirtinirdesa (The Sutra Spoken by Vimalakirti), and Sutra of the Ten Kings of Hell, to name a few. There seems to be no relationship of any kind between the tradition of book illumination in China and that which developed in India or Nepal. This totally independent development of the art of the Buddhist may have contributed significantly to the emergence of a new style of Buddhist painting in Tibet around the sixteenth century in which landscape elements predominate.
Very little has been written on the art of the book in Korea, where Buddhism was introduced from China as early as the fourth century. Although Buddhism flourished in Korea during the Unified Silla period (668-935), the surviving evidence of illuminated sutras from this period is slim. In general, Korean Buddhists remained closely associated with monasteries in China and Japan, and it is therefore not always easy to distinguish between Korean, Chinese, and Japanese scrolls. Nevertheless, a brief review of the rather scanty evidence for Korean book illumination is provided in Chapter 6.
While in China Buddhism was openly persecuted on various occasions and in Korea it lost ground after Confucianism became the official religion of the Choson dynasty (1392- 1910), in Japan the religion has had a less turbulent and more felicitous history. Indeed, Japan has even preserved examples, although few in number, of original Indian palm-leaf manuscripts brought to the island-nation by Japanese monks visiting China. While the material for the study of the art of the illuminated sutras in Japan is more plentiful than in many other Buddhist countries, only a fraction of what the piety and industry of the Japanese Buddhists must have produced is now extant. Dependent largely on China for their religion, Japanese Buddhists generally followed Chinese tradition and conventions for their book production. As in China, the Lotus Sutra remained by far the most important early Buddhist text in Japan, but other books were also copied and illuminated. Chapter 7 examines the Japanese illuminations with a fresh eye and clearly distinguishes the many subtle ways in which Japanese illuminators deviated from their Chinese colleagues. As in other aspects of Japanese artistic expression, in book illuminations as well the Japanese artists introduced stylistic elements and aesthetic nuances that can be recognized as typically Japanese.
Generally, the palm-leaf book is probably the narrowest book ever created by man. Because the leaf is rarely more than six centimeters high, the illuminations in these books are seldom larger than two centimeters square. Thus, they must be regarded as true miniatures, and one must admire the artists’ extraordinary skill in creating these tiny, but lively compositions. The wood covers of the palm-leaf books provided the artist with opportunities to create slightly larger compositions, and several strips of palm leaf were often joined together to make larger compositions. Palm leaf remained the preferred material in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka and was also once popular in Southeast Asia, although few early examples have survived.
As paper is much more versatile, those countries that adopted paper with enthusiasm could also introduce both greater variety and larger images to the tradition of illuminated books. Both the handscroll and folding book afforded artists in China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia with the opportunity to expand their repertoire, resort to large, complex com-positions, and introduce landscape elements. Such illuminations are often much larger in scale than the European book illuminations, although rarely as sumptuous. In some books of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Thailand, a single composition can fall over half a dozen pages, which, when opened together, assumes monumental proportions compared to palm-leaf miniatures. The Tibetans, however, remained faithful to the Indian originals for the shape of their manuscripts. But because they adopted paper, the size of a Tibetan book is considerably larger than a palm-leaf book, and, hence, the illustrations are two or three times larger. On the whole, the pictures in their books and covers remained of modest size compared to the East Asian handscroll format or Thai folding book. The Japanese were perhaps the most inventive in devising and combining various media and formats, as well as the picture and the text, to create a wide variety of sutra material. Apart from imaginatively juxtaposing words and pictures in the same composition, they also made ingenious use of such techniques as embroidery to write their texts and draw pictures. While the Japanese began copying the sutras from the Chinese in the eighth century without much deviation, by the Edo Period (1615-1868), the art of the Buddhist book in Japan moved away from the conventional toward highly original and fascinating forms that are admirable both for their eccentric concepts and visual aplomb.
The history of the Buddhist illuminated book is a fascinating subject that has received far less attention than it deserves. Although the art did not achieve the technical sophistication or aesthetic brilliance of the illuminated book in Christianity, the great variety of books produced in the various Buddhist societies of Asia testifies eloquently to the power of faith and in-genuity of the human mind. Long after the invention of printing, pious Buddhists in most countries where the religion flourished continued to copy and illuminate books. No other world religion has made use of such a variety of materials and techniques to transcribe and enrich their sacred books. The Buddhists also cherish a fundamentally different attitude than the Christian or the Muslim toward their sacred texts. The sutras were often copied not for personal use but for several other purposes. Both arduously and beautifully written and even illuminated, books were frequently deposited in stupas and images for one reason or another. The Buddhists firmly believe that such acts not only increase their personal merit but help preserve the faith for posterity as well as augment the efficacy of the monument or image. The Buddhist was never allowed to lose sight of the altruistic aim of commissioning and copying a book and was constantly encouraged literally to worship it. As the Buddha himself tells the god Sakka, or Indra:
But again, Kaus'ika, if someone has made a copy of the Perfection of Wisdom, and worships it, but does not learn, study and repeat it; and if someone else truly believes in the Perfection of Wisdom. . .copies it, and preserves and stores away the copy,—so that the good dharmas might last long, so that the guide of the Tathagatas might not be annihilated, so that the good dharma might not disappear, so that the Boddhisattvas, the great beings might continue to be assisted, since their guide will not fail—and finally, honours and worships this Perfection of Wisdom; then the latter begets the greater merit.15