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Discerning the Words of a Master: Textual criticism and scholarship in the digital age

On Tuesday, September 4th, 2012, Daniel A. Hirshberg, a postdoctoral fellow in Tibetan Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, gave a lecture at the Indiana Memorial Union entitled, “Drawing Honey from Historiography: Analyzing the Oldest Extant Manuscript of the Oldest Extant History of Buddhism in Tibet.” In his talk, Dr. Hirshberg discussed the process of authorship of the important text, Flower Nectar, the Essence of Honey (Tib. Chos ’byung me tog snying po sbrang rtsi’i bcud), attributed to the first of the great Buddhist treasure revealers, Nyang rel Nyima Özer (1124-1192). Until now, the complexities of this important text have been little understood.

Dr. Hirshberg’s meticulous analysis comparing three distinct manuscripts of the same document revealed its multiple layers as a text authored by many hands. He highlighted the importance of comparing all available editions of a text to see the contours of the original document and the process of its transmission.

“You can see that a lot of changes occur to these manuscripts over time, and some of them are not necessarily doctrinal or historical in nature.”

Dr. Hirshberg critically analyzed textual clues such as redundant text, handwriting, calligraphic styles, pagination, as well as inconsistencies in voice, writing styles, choices of inclusion of certain figures, and chronological (or anachronistic) order of events. Through his painstakingly detailed work, Dr. Hirshberg identified discrete sections of the text that could be seen as coming from different sources and compilers.

While the essence of the text of Flower Nectar is taken from Nyang rel’s own account of Padmasambhava and Tibetan emperor, Tri Song-détsen, other sections woven onto the text, such as an addendum, several colophons, and a chronicle of later teachings, appear to be the work of others. Adding more complexity, the process of successive copying and compilation added further layers of obscurity, often erasing distinctive marks and signs that would signal a shift in the text.

While one could be easily moved to interpret such a text as disingenuous, Dr. Hirshberg interpreted it as one compiled by tradency, a literary approach he borrows from Biblical scholars.

“Tradency as a method of textual composition functions by stringing together various excerpts, often without citation, and the attribution of whole works to more famous and enlightened forebears was a patently unproblematic and accepted practice in Tibet.”

“It need not carry the negative connotations of plagiarism, misattribution or even disingenuity, but may signify the deliberate transmission of knowledge from what are considered to be authentic sources.”

Taking his analysis in sum, Dr. Hirshberg concluded that he believed Flower Nectar was composed by Nyang rel’s disciples within a generation of his death and underwent a rapid succession of revisions afterwards.

A lively discussion followed his talk regarding the potential role for digital technologies to revolutionize the way the work of textual criticism is carried out. Professor Christopher Atwood drew upon his own work with Mongol texts.

“You know there’s nothing in there that’s original—nothing. All of this could be found somewhere else if you just had the time to find it.”

Professor Atwood went on to imagine the possibilities that could be opened up by new technologies, such as software that could automatically collate digitized materials and map out portions of overlapping texts. Dr. Hirshberg expressed a similar mind.

“We’re so close now. We really are. The Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center is in the process of developing Optical Character Recognition software for Tibetan…and the one thing I really wanted to mention was Juxta collation software. Apparently, getting it to work fully with Tibetan script won’t be that difficult. So hopefully within the next year, you’ll be able to use inputted XML documents in Tibetan, put them into Juxta collation software, which is now launched online, and be able to do that type of automatic collation and see where the texts overlap and where they don’t…. So we’re getting so close to that type of work.”

However, Professor Elliot Sperling offered a voice of caution.

“Dan Martin has a post called, The End of Tibetan Studies. People going into Tibetan Studies…they’ll just press a button and they’ll get everything.”

Dr. Hirshberg concurred with a reminder about the continuing importance of traditional research.

“I do think that no matter what happens, what we’ll be able to do…there is nothing like spending time with a text—that’s the bottom line.”

The lecture was attended by students, faculty, and staff from various IU departments such as Central Eurasian Studies, Religious Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Anthropology, and East Asian Studies. The talk was part of the Tibetan Studies Student Association Lecture Series and was sponsored by the Central Eurasian Studies Department, the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, and the Indiana University Student Association.