"By the Power of the Perfection of Wisdom": The "Sutra-Rotation" Liturgy of the Mahaprajnaparamita at Dunhuang.

Author:Ding, Yi
Position:Dunhuang, China - Report


In terms of sheer volume, the majority of Dunhuang manuscripts comprise copies of four sutras, (1) the Lotus Sutra, translated by Kumarajiva, (1) (2) the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (Skt. * Mahaprajnaparamita-sutra, hereafter Great Perfection) in Chinese, (2) (3) the Perfection of Wisdom in One Hundred Thousand Lines (Skt. Satasahasrika Prajnaparamita, hereafter Hundred Thousand) in Tibetan, (3) (4) the Mahayana Sutra of Buddha Unlimited Life (Skt. Aparimitayur nama mahayanasutra; Tib. Tshe dpag du myed pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po'i mdo; hereafter Unlimited Life) in both Tibetan and Chinese. (4) If we set aside the Lotus Sutra, whose production at Dunhuang on its own deserves a separate in-depth study, the last three sutras form a distinct group whose production was "commissioned for the Tibetan emperor Khri Gtsug lde brtsan (r. 815-841) from the 820s to the 840s." (5)

Hirai Shun'ei calculates that at least 1,987 Chinese-style scrolls of the Great Perfection found their way to different museums or collections. (6) For the Hundred Thousand, Sam van Schaik estimates that there are about 14,000 large-format pothi leaves and less than 600 scrolls. (7) For the Tibetan Unlimited Life, in addition to more than 550 scrolls left in China, (8) there are about 1,345 shelfmarks that include copies or fragments of copies of this Tibetan sutra held in the British Library, (9) and 1,951 in the Bibliotheque nationale de France. (10) For the Chinese Unlimited Life, the total number of the scrolls approximates 1,000. (11)

What were the main functions of these imperially commissioned sutra copies? Brandon Dotson puts it in Buddhist terms: "the Sutras were a gift for the Tibetan emperor, meant to generate wisdom and merit so that the emperor, and all beings, might attain enlightenment by seeing, hearing, and worshipping them." (12) To be more specific, these items were not produced as a physical gift for the emperor or a type of local tribute, since the lode of manuscripts did not become the emperor's private possession and were kept in the custody of local institutions; the actual "gift" (yon) was in fact an abstract one, that is to say, the merit (Skt. punya) generated through the production of sutra copies. (13) It is in this sense that PT 999 claims that "the Chinese and Tibetan versions of the Unlimited Life were copied in Shacu [Shazhou [phrase omitted], i.e., Dunhuang] as a 'merit gift' [sku yon] for the son of the gods Khri gtsugs lde brtsan." (14) The physical sutra copies were the byproduct of a process that transformed local resources into an abstract "merit gift," which became part of the sponsor's private "merit-field." (15)

More elusive than the question of who made these sutras and why is the question of how these enormous, unwieldy scriptures were utilized after copies had been made. Based on the recent discovery of a Dunhuang Hundred Thousand copy stored in the sGrol dkar Monastery in Lho kha, Tibet, (16) and the administrative document ITJ 1254 that mentions the transportation of a set of Hundred Thousand from Dunhuang to Guazhou [phrase omitted], (17) Iwao Kazushi proposes that "the purpose of copying the MP [Great Perfection] and the SP [Hundred Thousand] was to distribute them to other places." (18) Iwao's claim here does not necessarily contradict what Dotson observes, since the post-production function of an object can be different from the initial purpose of its production. The fact that the Hundred Thousand copies produced at Dunhuang were subject to long-distance distribution points to their possible post-production reuse. A Japanese parallel of long-distance distribution of sutra copies, which took place in 728 CE and involved a public performance of sutra-recitation, also points in this direction. (19)

PT 999, an administrative document with five vermilion seals, (20) gives us a further hint as to how these copies were used. According to its account, 135 scrolls (bam po) of the Chinese Unlimited Life and 480 scrolls of the Tibetan Unlimited Life, which had initially been produced as a merit gift for the Tibetan emperor Khri gTsug lde brtsan, were now to be taken out from the sutra-deposit (dar ma'i bdzod) at the Longxing monastery [phrase omitted] (Tib. Lung hung si) for the sake of an offering feast (mchod stori) that included 2,700 households, an event that was about to take place on the eighth day of the seventh lunar month in 844 CE. (21) "The two sanghas [i.e., the monks and nuns] of Shacu [i.e., Dunhuang] will dedicate [these sutra copies] as a merit gift for prince 'Od srung, son of queen Than, and as a gift [for] the households in the Shacu region and hold an offering feast." (22) As the document claims, the merit generated by the sutra distribution and the large-scale offering feast would be in part dedicated to the prince and his queen mother by the priests. Still, is it possible that the copies were also used by the participants of the offering feast for a mass chanting ritual? Unfortunately, PT 999 does not explicitly mention it. In fact, we have not found any other Tibetan document that explicitly mentions a mass chanting ritual of the Unlimited Life, Hundred Thousand, or Great Perfection at Dunhuang.

However, there are many Chinese documents pointing to the existence at Dunhuang of a type of chanting liturgy featuring the Great Perfection. The liturgical genre is termed "sutra-rotation" (zhuanjing [phrase omitted]), which theoretically can feature the chanting of any scripture(s). It is also referred to as "sutra-opening" (kaijing [phrase omitted]) or "sutra-dispersal" (sanjing [phrase omitted]) in Chinese sources. The practice of "Great Perfection-rotation"--the chanting of the longest Buddhist scripture--is my focus here (hereafter I use "Great Perfection-rotation" to refer to a sutra-rotation performance featuring the Great Perfection).

The Great Perfection-rotation events at Dunhuang gave rise to three different types of document in the Dunhuang corpus: (1) "sutra-lending registers" (fujingli [phrase omitted]), (2) "liturgical scripts for sutra-rotation" (zhu[alpha]njingwen [phrase omitted]; k[alpha]ijingwen [phrase omitted]; sanjingwen [phrase omitted] [phrase omitted]), and (3) miscellaneous administrative documents. Although several Chinese scholars have looked into Great Perfection-related documents from different perspectives, no one has attempted to reconstruct the Great Perfection-rotation liturgy by piecing together the related documents. (23) By examining how the three types of document worked with each other, this paper reconstructs the three distinct modules of the liturgy--a composite made up of Indian, Chinese, and Tibetan elements--and describes some of the socio-political factors that enabled the local adaptation. Also, by taking the content of the Great Perfection seriously, the paper attempts to answer the question why the Great Perfection mattered for the Tibetan empire and for Buddhists at Dunhuang.


The sutra-lending register at Dunhuang is a type of document used by a clerk to keep track of the manuscripts in a library. It usually consists of formulaic entries of "lending" (fu [phrase omitted]), with each entry indicating who has checked out what texts from the library or has returned what texts to the library. In the case of the Great Perfection-rotation, because the scripture was too voluminous for a single monastery to provide all the reciters needed and few monasteries possessed the entire 600 fascicles, most of the fascicles had to be lent out beforehand to the monastic reciters, who were drafted from different local monasteries.

Take WB32(3)1/1 as an example. It consists of seven sutra-lending registers, of which six are concerned with sutra-rotation and only one is concerned with individual loans of manuscripts. (24) The first register starts with a heading that specifies the date of the distribution and the pending ritual activity: "On the tenth day of the seventh month of 814, in order to 'rotate' the sutra for the Tibetan emperor, we lent out the Great Perfection [as follows]" [phrase omitted]. Following this heading are fourteen entries for the fourteen participating monasteries,

For Long (i.e., Longxing si [phrase omitted]), caskets nos. 1-4 consigned to Bi'an [phrase omitted].

For Lian (i.e., Liantai si [phrase omitted]), caskets nos. 51-53 consigned to Faguang '[phrase omitted].

For Qian (i.e., Qianyuan si [phrase omitted]), caskets nos. 5-7.

For En (i.e., Bao'en si [phrase omitted]), caskets nos. 8-10.

For Xiu (i.e., Lingxiu si [phrase omitted]), caskets nos. 11-14.

For Kai (i.e., Kaiyuan si [phrase omitted]), caskets nos. 15-17 consigned to Haicheng [phrase omitted]

For Yong (i.e., Yong'an si [phrase omitted]), caskets nos. 18-19.

For Guo (i.e., Anguo si [phrase omitted]), caskets nos. 20-22.

For Cheng (i.e., Dacheng si [phrase omitted]), caskets nos. 23-27; nos. 39 and 50 to Ranhu [phrase omitted]

For Jin (i.e., Jinguangming si [phrase omitted]), caskets nos. 28-30.

For Tu (i.e., Lingtu si [phrase omitted]), caskets nos. 32-32 and 43.

For Ku (i.e., the Mogao Grottoes), caskets nos. 45-47 consigned to Lingda [phrase omitted].

For Yong (i.e., Yong'an si [phrase omitted]), caskets nos. 18-19 and 48 consigned to Hui[?] [phrase omitted].

For Yun (i.e., Dayun si [phrase omitted]). caskets nos. 51-53 consigned to Fahui [phrase omitted]. (25)

In total, twenty caskets (nos. 33-42, 44, 49, 52, 54-60) are not accounted for in this list (a complete set of the Great Perfection is, as a rule, made of sixty caskets), while three caskets (nos. 51-53) are repeated. The gaps indicate that even an imperially sponsored sutra-rotation event at Dunhuang was normally not large-scale or well-funded enough for the reciters to finish chanting the entire 600 fascicles.

In Table 1, except for no. 19, the Great Perfection-rotation (or Hundred Thousand-rotation in one case) was sponsored by either the state...

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