Manuscript Cover, 12th century
Wood 7 1/2 in. x 26 in. (19.05 cm x 66.04 cm)
Promised gift of anonymous2008.34
The transmission of Buddhism from India to Tibet involved the translation of large numbers of religious texts, which included both the historical Buddha’s teachings and commentaries on those teachings. During the period of Buddhist transmission to Tibet beginning in the 8th century, books in India were made of talipot palm leaves (Corypha umbraculifera), the shape of which dictated a long, thin, horizontal format.
The Tibetans retained the horizontal format of the Indian palm leaf manuscript for their texts but used paper placed between wooden book covers. The top cover was usually carved with Buddhas, bodhisattvas, or other Buddhist symbols. One end of the long piece of wood was often carved as well, which helped to identify a manuscript among other manuscripts, much as the spine of a book does in a library. The earlier of the two covers illustrated here has a simple lotus pattern. In Buddhism, the lotus is a potent symbol that signifies one’s ability to rise above suffering. One end of the panel is carved with a Buddha seated between two lions, royal creatures long associated with Buddhism.
The three standing figures on the other manuscript cover are bodhisattvas, beings capable of enlightenment at this moment, but who have decided to forgo enlightenment in order to help others on their spiritual path. Though indistinguishable, they might represent the three powerful bodhisattvas: Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion; Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom; and Vajrapani, the bodhisattva of dynamic energy.