Jeff Wallman - 19th October 2021

Text as Temple

The Dharani Preservation Project with Asian Legacy Library and Nagarjuna Institute of Buddhist Studies

This Fall, in collaboration with Kathmandu-based Nagarjuna Institute of Buddhist Studies (NIBS), ALL launches a groundbreaking project to preserve thousands of manuscript pages of Sanskrit Buddhist literature known as dharani. Sometimes translated as “spells,” these brief texts are understood by diverse Buddhist communities across vast spans of time and geography to have been taught by Shakyamuni Buddha for two key purposes: first, to provide protection against worldly misfortune and calamity, and second, to distill the essence of the Buddhist teachings, the Dharma. 

Recitation of the Prajnaparamita, Golden Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo: Edward Sczudlo 

Under the guidance of NIBS managing director Milan Shakya and University of the West (UWest) assistant professor Miroj Shakya, NIBS scholars will gather the handwritten documents—some hundreds of years old—from around the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal for photographing and producing a detailed descriptive catalog. NIBS associates will then begin the painstaking process of transcribing the texts from the ornate scripts of the original Sanskrit. The fruit of these labors will be annotated e-texts in ALL’s searchable database, each alongside an image of its page in the beautifully illustrated manuscript.

A beautiful example of Newari Ranjana script from the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript found in Nepal. Photo: courtesy of the Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen, Denmark

The meaning of dharani is complex and context-sensitive. Dharani literature is one of the least-studied of the Buddhist scriptural traditions, in spite of the importance of practices related to it going back at least two millennia across the full geographic spread of Buddhist traditions in Asia, from India to China and Japan, and from Korea to the Philippines. This is particularly the case among the Newar people of Nepal, where manuscripts of these little studied works in the original Sanskrit still abound.

Dharani in practice

As in East Asia, many Newar Buddhist practices involve dharani spells contained in texts centered on the incantation itself, its origins, its benefits, and instructions for its use. One such dharani scripture already digitized and transcribed by the Dharani Project is the Grahamatrika (“Mother of Planets”), a text that also enjoyed great popularity in North India, Central Asia, and far Western China. The scripture begins with the Buddha located in the mythical city Adakavati, surrounded by an assembly of magical beings and bodhisattvas, together with the planets and other astral beings. The Bodhisattva Vajrapani asks the Buddha how beings might be protected from negative influences from the planets. The Buddha then teaches the recitation of a dharani for each of the planets and the construction of a planetary model (mandala), and finally the prayer (mantra) of the Mother of Planets.

Grahamatrika manuscript preserved by the ALL Dharani Project. Photo: Asha Archives, Kathmandu, Nepal

This practice of Grahamatrika, structured around ritual appeasement of the planets, is engaged by Newari Buddhists in Nepal for the purpose of world peace, prosperity, and well-being, much as the Medicine Buddha is practiced today in China.

Performance of the Grahamatrika ceremony in Kathmandu with Newari priest, Deepak Bajracharya. Photo: Edward Sczudlo

Like Mahayana Buddhist sutras which are central to Newar Buddhist spiritual life, dharani texts themselves are objects of reverence and worship. In the first centuries of the first millennium, with the historical Buddha physically gone from the world for nearly 500 years, teachings—the Dharma—increasingly came to be seen as the Buddha’s ongoing physical presence in the world. For certain communities, this would give rise to one of the Mahayana’s most distinctive features: devotional practices directed at the scripture as an object. This “cult of the book” is uniquely practiced down to the present day in Nepal’s Newar Buddhist communities. The enduring importance of dharani in Nepal is best understood, therefore, not as an anomaly of Newar culture but rather as a universal feature of Buddhist spirituality that is especially well illustrated in Nepal.

Significance of the project

The ALL-NIBS Dharani Project is important on several levels. Locally, this preservation effort holds vital significance for the Newar Buddhist culture of the Kathmandu Valley, for which dharani texts—as objects of worship and as manuals of ritual instruction—sit as the very heart of sacred and social life.

A Newari girl makes an offering for a recitation at the Golden Temple. Photo: Edward Sczudlo

More broadly, Nepal’s dharani inheritance is an invaluable resource for the study of the history of ideas and culture across time and space. This is especially true of the historical movement of Buddhism from South Asia and the Himalayas to China, Korea, and Japan, where ritual practices based on dharani have flourished.

Finally, and most importantly, with respect to the pursuit of wisdom and human flourishing, dharani along with their associated practices provide untapped insight into the construction and maintenance of sacred objects and spaces for thousands of years across Buddhist Asia. It remains important and compelling for all who would seek to transform themselves and their world according to spiritual principles of kindness and caring for others. If dharani is indeed a “spell” that works to bring about wellbeing, we would do well to seek to understand the ecology of practices necessary for its effectiveness.

History of the collaboration with NIBS

NIBS was founded in 1980 in Lalitpur, Kathmandu by the late Min Bahadur Shakya, a great preservationist of Mahayana Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts and Indo-Tibetan Buddhist scholar of that era. NIBS has since become a prominent center housed in a four-story building in the heart of the Lalitpur district – a strategic location among three universities. NIBS also holds one of the most extensive libraries of Mahayana Buddhist texts in Nepal. The two sons, Dr. Miroj and Milan Shakya continue their father’s legacy, collaborating today with several western organizations such as the Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon project, UWest, Buddhist Digital Research Center and Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative, University of California, Berkeley.

Kiran Shakya, Dr. John Campbell, and Dr. Miroj Shakya in front of the NIBS building in 2019. Photo: Asian Legacy Library

ALL first met Dr. Miroj Shakya in 2017 with the hopes of finding important Sanskrit manuscripts in Nepal, the most important Sanskrit manuscripts still existing on our planet. Time was of the essence since the devastation of the 2015 earthquake left a fragile state of affairs. A beautiful connection began between Dr. Shakya and the ALL team, with a trip in 2018 to NIBS. We recognized the incredible opportunity to work together in order to best preserve Nepal’s manuscripts. We realized the importance of ALL having a base in Nepal as the cost of living there would allow us to afford to train and offer good wages to workers, as well as to be located where we can actively search for these precious manuscripts, and work directly with collectors and libraries.

The two brothers opened the doors for ALL to meet important libraries such as the Asha Archives and local manuscript collectors. Our relationship with the Asha Archives is proving to be important, as we have discovered many exciting manuscripts that we are currently inputting.

Dr. Miroj Shakya, Dr.John Campbell, and Vimala Sperber at the Asha Archives, 2019. Photo: Edward Sczudlo

We also helped renovate the NIBS building for our transcription and scanning projects and sponsored a class to train students in ancient Newari language scripts.  We proudly produced our first graduating class in 2019. 

NIBS ancient script graduating class of 2019 with teacher Kiran Shakya. Photo: Edward Sczudlo

From this class we hired the teacher, Kiran Shakya, an expert in ancient Newari script, to oversee the transcription project. Several of the female students were hired as transcribers. Our staff have been working with us for two years, even through the pandemic, and are so appreciative of their jobs preserving their own heritage. Many Nepali are very poor and unable to support their families, especially during this time, so we are grateful to also contribute in this way.

We have since expanded our project at NIBS, renovating a classroom and several work stations, purchasing several computers and scanning equipment.  

Dr. John Campbell demonstrates for the transcribers at one of the newly renovated workstations at NIBS, 2019. Photo: Edward Sczudlo
A transcriber works at a newly renovated work station at NIBS, 2019. Photo: Edward Sczudlo

Starting September 1st, ALL began renting the top floor of the NIBS building which has just finished its renovation. Even through the pandemic last year, everyone worked very hard and did a great job. We are so proud of our NIBS team, which has now become a model for our future transcription centers. Very soon we will need help in order to purchase more equipment, as well as train and hire workers for the historic launch of our Dharani Preservation Project.

The NIBS family sends their love and gratitude! Photo: Photo: Edward Sczudlo

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