Spirituality & Printing in Tibet

Making art has always felt spiritual to me, as if it were a religion. But there is a place in Tibet, Derge Parkhang (founded in 1729), where the art and craft are inseparable from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Various communities in this mountainous region live in various valleys, but this particular one features a huge structure, a temple that contains over 200,000 woodcuts, all carved with the teachings of Buddha. It is not just a shrine where visitors make pilgrimages and do prostrations, and a monastary training young monks, but an active printshop that continues to print old Buddhist texts and to carve and print new ones today.

The Derge Parkhang (Sutra Printing House)
in the county seat of Derge,
Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Region, Sichuan
(photo courtesy of Dowdey/Meador)

In a recent informal talk in a lovely old Victorian house in Berkeley, California, Patrick Dowdey, a professor of East Asian Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan, as well as the curator of the Freeman Center for East Asian Studies, showed slides and videos of Derge Parkhang and explained the life and the printing and binding processes there. A couple of his videos from his trips to Tibet are below, and you can find more at his YouTube channel

Ten editions are printed every year. When I asked if they carved new blocks because the old ones wouldn't print anymore, Patrick said that they print new texts all the time. I was fascinated to hear that teachings were left "when they'd be needed" in the sky and under rocks so there would be "continuing revelation." The teachings would be passed on to a living lama in the form of dreams and he would transcribe them. That explained why there were so many blocks from over the centuries. I'm still mulling over the idea of invisible texts left in the sky…

How do the writings get made into books? First, certain young men who are trained in a standardized calligraphy copy the new teaching with ink onto paper. The paper is glued to a block and water is applied. The paper only sticks where the ink was and the remainder of the paper washes away. The block is handed off to the rough cutter, who carves the major areas, then to the fine cutter, who cleans it up beautifully. Patrick told us that the "Tibetans have the greatest knives." By using knives they've made themselves I imagine that they have a connection to the final piece as well. Both sides of the blocks are carved. While they work, if they listen to anything, they listen to Buddhist chants. A long but meditative process.

The man in the foreground is writing out the text of a book in standard calligraphy. 
The paper will be pasted to a board and used as a guide for cutting. 
The men outside are cutting boards. 
(photo courtesy of Dowdey/Meador)

Commercial paper is imported from inner China, which Patrick told us was higher quality, and better than the handmade paper made in the area: smoother and more receptive to ink. Handmade paper, made by the women (who only print images, not the teachings of Buddha), is "too chunky," he said. The book paper is dampened and sits overnight, then delivered to the printers in the morning, stacked and draped over the shoulders of young boys. 

Printing is done by hand, with a slanted board straddled between two people. The inker has a block of felt dipped in ink. They use commercial black ink for most texts; when the ink is washed from the block, it is saved and sold for medicinal and ritual purposes. They also use red ink, cinnabar (which unfortunately contains mercury), which supposedly "increases the [teaching's?] efficacy by eight times." The printer places the paper on the inked block and runs a roller over it. In Patrick's video, it looks like a dance.

Several more steps to binding involve: collating the sheets; threading a ribbon through each bundled book; stacking the books floor to ceiling in a vice; trimming the edges with a really big knife; painting the edges with red ink; then separating them and tying them up individually.

Here is a second video by Patrick the shows how they are stored and sold in the shop. The main supporters and buyers of the texts are Han Buddhists, foreign Buddhists, and the local people, in that order. 

Throughout the presentation I had not seen any women involved in the printing or binding. In the above video you might note that two women are balancing a log between them on their shoulders. Patrick remarked that, "The women do the heavy lifting." Tibet is heavily forested, so timber is plentiful. The woodblocks are "treated with butter" before they are stored, and the entire community of Derge Parkhang is made of wood and has survived "three crises" that might have involved burning it to the ground. Inside the temple is a shrine with a painting of the Green Tara, the female Buddha of "enlightened activity" who is considered to give protection.

Production Manager Dame and Dr. Padma'tsho from
the Southwest University for Nationalities
talking on a balcony over the courtyard at the Parkhang

(photo courtesy of Dowdey/Meador)

More information about the history and the people are in a book called Pearls of the Snowlands: Buddhist Printing from the Derge Parkhang that Patrick Dowdey wrote with Clif Meador (teacher and Director of Interdisciplinary MFA in Book and Paper at Columbia College Chicago and who has made artist books inspired by his travels). You can preview a few pages of the catalogue at the lulu site. It is thorough and has wonderful portraits of the people who live and work there as well as the craft processes and the exquisite and highly decorated buildings. It is also available online and free through the digital archive. The book was created to accompany an exhibit they curated both at the Fowler Museum at University of California, Los Angeles and at Columbia College Chicago in 2009. They are currently looking for a San Francisco bay area venue for the show.

The printery is closed October - April every year since there is no electricity. Even though most of the people have only a grade school education, they continue the printing tradition and have always fiercely protected the books and woodblocks housed there. Their beliefs, their craft, and their culture are integrated and bound together into daily life.