The Tengyur (བསྟན་འགྱུར་) is a body of Buddhist treatises translated from Indian and other languages into classical Tibetan. Sitting alongside the Kagyur (བཀའ་འགྱུར་), which is the translation of the Buddha’s words, the Tengyur forms another important part of the Himalayan Buddhist canon. The Tengyur collection is made up of some 225 enormous volumes of treatises composed primarily by Indian masters as exegeses and commentaries on the Buddha’s teachings and/or Buddhist topics.
Compilations of the Kagyur and Tengyur most likely started in early 9th century, after Buddhist texts were translated from mainly Indian languages into Tibetan in a massive project that took place at Samye monastery. While a few lists of translations were prepared at that time, although only one survives today. The Tibetan empire fell apart in shortly thereafter in the middle of the 9th century, and major Buddhist literary activities stopped. However, when Tibet experienced a revival of Buddhist activity at 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 compile the translated treatises that became the Tengyur collection we know today. Early Tengyur collections were handwritten manuscripts, but in the 18th century many printed editions were made, including those of Dégé, Narthang, Cone, Peking, Ganden, and Lhasa. 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 are the Narthang edition, due to the proximity of this printery to Bhutan, and the Dégé edition, which came to be seen as the most authoritative version. Manuscripts of Tengyur copies were created in Bhutan but most have been lost to temple fires. The latest creation of Tengyur manuscripts in Bhutan took place during the reign of the 3rd King of Bhutan Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1929-1972; r. 1952-72) when a set was written in gold. This Tengyur is today housed in Thimphu’s Tashichodzong and read annually at Changangkha temple.
The size of the Tengyur and the number of its constituent treatises varies from edition to edition as new translations are added to the collection, but the overall Tengyur corpus numbers roughly 225 volumes of over 4000 texts and more than 150,000 pages. Its subjects range from philosophy, psychology, art of mind training, rituals, phenomenology, epistemology, logic, astrology, politics, arts and crafts, poetry, synonymy, language, and grammar. They are organized according to doctrinal categories and literary genres as 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 classics of the Indian Buddhist tradition written by authors including the great masters of Nalanda University. In terms of organisation, the Tengyur of Peking, Ganden, and Narthang fall in one group and those of Cone and Dégé fall in another.
Just like the Kagyur, the Tengyur is a cherished property in Bhutan and produced with much care and using the best materials. It is treasured in temple shrine rooms and venerated by devotees. People prostrate before it and receive blessings from it. The Tengyur is also read to help people overcome illness or other 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.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel as part of a series called “Why We Do What We Do.”