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Lecture by Brandon Dotson

October 27, 2017 @ 3:15 pm - 5:00 pm

Bundles of scrolls from the Stein Collection, courtesy Brandon Dotson.

A Strange Gift & Its Stranger Beneficiaries:
1,650 Sutras Copied for the Tibetan Emperor Conserved in the Stein Collection of the British Library


In 826 over one hundred mostly Chinese scribes and editors in Dunhuang’s temple scriptoria were ordered to produce thousands of copies of the Aparimitāyurnāma-Mahāyānasūtra in both Tibetan and Chinese. The assembling of the scrolls, the accounting of paper, the paying and punishing of scribes and editors, and the editors’ corrections to the scribes’ handiwork all form a part of this massive and unwieldy project that stretched over decades. Although the sutras were designated as a gift for the Tibetan emperor, it is unclear whether they were all completed before his death in 841, and whether he in fact received them.

Deposited in Cave 17 at some point before its sealing in the early 11th century, over a thousand of these sutras eventually fell into the hands of the British-Hungarian archeologist and explorer Marc Aurel Stein in 1907. From 1909 until the present day numerous conservators and curators in London have left their marks on the sutras in the form of site numbers, pressmarks, and foliation. Most dramatically, conservators transformed the format of the sutras from rolls into bound booklets for ease of storage. The physical evidence of the sutras themselves, from colophons to conservators’ notes, reveals a strangely inverted symmetry between the ninth-century production a gift for the emperor and twentieth-and-twenty-first century documentation of a gift from an explorer.

Brandon Dotson is an associate professor of Buddhist Studies at Georgetown University. He did his graduate training at Oxford University (2007), and has worked and taught at Oxford, the School of Oriental and African Studies, and Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich. He has worked extensively on Tibetan Dunhuang manuscripts, including Tibet’s first historical records, legal texts, and ritual texts. Dotson is currently researching early Tibetan dice divination in the context of the Buddhist assimilation of Tibetan rituals, cosmologies, and narratives from the 9th to the 11th centuries.

This talk is co-sponsored by the East Asia Center Fall Lecture Series.


October 27, 2017
3:15 pm - 5:00 pm
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Monroe Hall 110


Tibet Center
East Asia Center, University of Virginia