By National Palace Museum

The Decorative Beauty of the Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon

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Introduction

The Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon: Imperial Manuscript Copy in Gold Ink or the Kangxi Manuscript Kangyur in Tibetan Script compiled during the reign of Emperor Kangxi in the Qing dynasty, and simply referred to as the Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon, is one of most renowned cultural relics at the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum. Kangyur, literally meaning “the translation of the Buddha’s words”, is a Tibetan Buddhist canon that consists of scriptures of sūtra and vinaya (monastic codes). The Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon was compiled under the commission of the grandmother of Emperor Kangxi (1669), Grand Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, who devoted herself to the project. The Tibetan Buddhist text took two years to complete, all sorts difficulties in personnel and financial resources had to be overcome before it was finally finished in the 8th year of the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1669). It is the most magnificent of the many Kangyur manuscripts transcribed during the Qing dynasty and also the one that receives the most attention.

Tripitaka in Tibetan / Tripitaka in Manchu (AD 1644-AD 1911) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The Artistry of the Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon

The Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon was originally stored in the Cining Palace in Beijing’s Forbidden City. The earliest mention of this work appears in the imperial collection catalogue, First Edition of the Palace Collection of Religious works (Juan 24), which notes: “The Grand Empress Dowager (Xiaozhuang, 1613-1688, the grandmother of Emperor Kangxi) commanded the compilation of a set of the Longzangjing (Dragon Canon) to be written in the script of the West Region in gold ink on Ciqing (midnight blue) paper with inlaid jewelry. The manuscripts are housed in a total of 108 cases, amounting to more than 50,000 sutra leaves in total, and contains 1057 texts covering six divisions, namely Rgyud (Esoteric Teachings, twenty-four volumes), Sher phyin (Perfection of Wisdom, twenty-four volumes), Dkon brtsegs (Collected Mahayama Sutras, six volumes), Phal chen (Flower-Garland, six volumes), Mdo sna tshogs (Collected Sutras, thirty-two volumes), Gand Vdul ba (Monastic Discipline, sixteen volumes).

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (1669) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

This is the full view of one volume of the Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon. Each page size is 33 cm in width, 87.5 cm in length. Each volume contains 300 to 500 leaves, and weighs around 50 kilograms.

The front side of the outer cover plank is inscribed with the six-syllable Avalokitesvara mantra.

Transliterations of Sanskrit mantras are written on the reverse side of the outer cover plank.

The Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon is written in gold-embossed ink on leaves of unique Tibetan Blue 'Ciqing' Paper (mthing shog gser yig).

The inner front and back protective cover planks are decorated with seven polychrome painted Buddhist miniatures and inlaid with jewelry, covered by protective curtains embroidered in five colors—red, blue, green, white, and yellow.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (blue paper leaves) (1669) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Ciqing Paper (Mthing shog)

Ciqing (midnight-blue) paper, ‘porcelain-blue paper’ is made by having plants ferment to produce indigo, which then is spread out and used to dye sheets of paper a deep blue. The color of the paper becomes similar to that of Xuande blue-and-white porcelain, resulting in its name.

This processed paper was extensively used during the Ming and Qing Dynasties to produce Buddhist texts and reflects a sense of tranquil and solemn dignity.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (blue paper leaves) (1669) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The middle of these leaves features a black element named 'yangnaojian', or 'goat brain stationary', which is "...as black as lacquer and as shiny as a mirror."

Shen Chu (1735-1799) of the Qing dynasty mentioned this material in his 'Notes on the Western Regions'. He wrote, "Goat brain and soot from the top part of a flue are mixed together and left to age for an extended period of time in the cellar. The material is put on paper and stone rollers are applied, resulting in the stationary. Gold ink on the paper does not deteriorate over time, nor is it affected by insects."

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (binding process), Anonymous, 1669, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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The Binding of the Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon

The sutra leaves are protected by the inner cover planks.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (binding process), Anonymous, 1669, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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A piece of silk khata is placed on the wrapped manuscript, then wrapped by three cloths: a piece of plain yellow silk, a piece of yellow wadded cloth, and then a double-layered yellow satin woven with flower patterns.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (binding), Anonymous, 1669, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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After bundling by a seven-toned wadded bundling strap...

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (binding), Anonymous, 1669, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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...the whole set is further sandwiched by two outer protective cover planks...

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (binding process), Anonymous, 1669, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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...then bound by a five-toned bundling strap...

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (binding), Anonymous, 1669, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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...and finally wrapped with a yellow wadded quilt!

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (Gold-embroidered yellow satin featuring coiled dragons ) (1669) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Gold-Embroidered Yellow Satin Featuring Coiled Dragons with Patterns of Ruyi, Clouds, and Flowers

This 'Gold-Embroidered Yellow Satin', also known as Zhuanghua satin, was originally sewn between the 'yellow satin with flower patterns' and the 'plain yellow wrapping silk'. The Zhuanghua satin boasts a striking coiled dragon design. It has four colorful strands of beard and facial hair jutting out and its neck winds above its head, creating spaces that are teardrop shaped. Protruding white horns run down the spine, the base of which is linked to its lush eyebrows. Also, light embroidery outlines the dragon’s cheeks.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (Inner back cover plank) (1669) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

An Introduction to the Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon’s Iconography

The Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon was the most impressive Kangyur manuscript produced during the Qing dynasty. In addition to its exquisite binding and golden script written on midnight-blue leaves, it is also lavishly decorated with Buddhist images and symbols, such as the magnificent Buddhist miniatures on the protective cover planks and the Eight Auspicious Symbols repeatedly depicted on the manuscript, giving the profound Buddhist scripture an unparalleled forceful presence.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (Inner cover planks) (1669) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The Images and Symbols on the Protective Sutra Boards

Underneath the protective curtains on the front cover plank of each volume of the Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon is a black tablet on which three gold-scripted lines are written in relief. The first line is Sanskrit written in Rañjanā script, followed by a second line which transliterates the Sanskrit into Tibetan, and finally a third line in Tibetan translation. The first two lines are, “Namo Buddhāya. Namo Dharmāya. Namo Saṅghāya.” The final third line states, “Pay homage to the Three Jewels.” The whole passage expresses the idea of taking refuge to the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Saṅgha. The mantra should be chanted before the sutra is read so that the mind can focus.

There are two shrine-doors on both the left and right sides of the veneration text-featuring two painted miniatures either of Buddha or of a Bodhisattva. The composition of the back cover plank is roughly similar, but with five miniatures. Therefore, one volume has seven miniatures, so the 108 volumes have a total of 756 pictorial representations. The miniatures are labeled by their names-the Manchu version of the name is written inside a red rectangular vertical box to the bottom right of the miniature, while the Tibetan name is written inside a similar box, but to the lower left of the miniature. The names are written in gold-ink and executed in standard style.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (Images of holy Buddhist figures) (1669) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The miniatures in the Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon fall into the following five categories.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (Images of holy Buddhist figures-Śākyamuni), Anonymous, 1669, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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Buddhas

Vajrasattva, Śākyamuni, Vairocana, Amitābha, Amoghasiddhi, and others.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (Images of holy Buddhist figures-Vajrapāni), Anonymous, 1669, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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Bodhisattvas

Mañjuśrī, Vajrapāni, Avalokiteśvara, and others.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (Images of holy Buddhist figures-Vaiśravaṇa), Anonymous, 1669, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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Dharma Protectors

Acala, Ucchuṣma, Nairātmya, Śrīdevī, Śatakratu, Vaiśravaṇa, Uttara-Phalgunī, and others.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (Images of holy Buddhist figures-Vasubandhu), Anonymous, 1669, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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Indian Buddhist Masters

Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga, Vasubandu, and others.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (Images of holy Buddhist figures-Mahākāśyapa), Anonymous, 1669, From the collection of: National Palace Museum
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Śrāvakas and Arhats

Śāriputra, Maudgalyayana, Mahākāśyapa, Vanavāsin, and others.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (Inner front cover plank) (1669) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The miniatures belonging to higher ranks–such as Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Indian Buddhist Masters, and Śrāvakas and Arhats–are painted on the front cover planks.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (Inner back cover plank) (1669) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The back cover planks are reserved for the lower-ranked Dharma Protectors.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (Inner cover board-Namcu Wangdan) (1669) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

On the reverse side of the inner front cover plank, there are three “Namcu Wangdan” (one with ten powers) symbols residing on the eight-pedaled lotus seats, representing the ultimate teachings of the Kalacakra practice in Tibetan Buddhism. Ten flying dragons are depicted in gold ink at the surrounding frames.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (Inner back cover plank) (1669) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

On the reverse side of the inner back cover plank, there are three sets of the crossed-vajra. The crossed-vajra is composed of four three-pronged vajra, pointing to the four directions. It represents mental absorption, which is the unmovable basis of the Mandala.

Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon (Eight Auspicious Symbols) (1669) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The Eight Auspicious Symbols

The Eight Auspicious Symbols that symbolize good luck and carry specific meanings in the Buddhist faith are repeatedly depicted on the manuscripts, such as the five-colored curtains and the sides of the sutra leaves.

Tibetan Dragon Sutra (The Eight Auspicious Symbols) (1669) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

The Precious Umbrella eliminates the five poisons of all beings.

The Golden Fish dispels ignorance while granting wisdom.

The Vase of Treasure filled with all kinds of nectar satisfies the wishes of all living creatures.

The Lotus Flower purifies all beings and shows them the way of the Buddha.

The Right-coiled White Conch Shell sounds the Buddha’s teachings all over the world.

The Endless Auspiciousness Knot symbolizes the infinite wisdom of Buddha.

The Victory Banner proclaims triumph over evil and the wrong path.

The Dharma Wheel symbolizes the eternal cycle of Buddha’s teachings.

The Tibetan Dragon Buddhist Canon—NPM Collection DocumentaryNational Palace Museum

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