Tenpa Tsering

A large library of Tibetan wood blocks for printing all lined up in many rows.

King Tenpa Tsering (1678-1738), lived in Derge, Eastern Tibet in the era of the 8th Tai Situ, Chökyi Jungney (1700-1774). “He was one of the greatest patrons of Buddhism,” says Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. “Patrons are important even if they are often forgotten. They may not always appear to practice so diligently but they are essential.” Rinpoche recommends that we take a look at the legacy left by this great Tibetan king.

King Tenpa Tsering built the main temple at the Pewar Monastery in Derge, which houses a very fine set of Buddhist murals and paintings. But his most important patronage was of printing important texts. Together with the 8th Tai Situ, he established the Derge Printing Press which produced over half a million wood block prints of unprecedented fine quality. “In the interest of making his legacy long-lasting he promised to pay the wood carvers as much gold as could be filled into the grooves of their work,” says Rinpoche. “Clever isn’t it? Of course, they would carve the scriptures as deep as they could.” And therefore the original blocks withstood time.

Furthering this legacy, Gene Smith, a renowned expert on Tibetan literature, and his US based Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC), recently released digitally scanned versions of the Derge editions of the Buddhist canon, the Kangyur and the classic commentaries, the Tengyur. The 103 volume Kangyur is a collection of all the Lord Buddha’s teachings in all his various manifestations. The Tengyur consists of 213 volumes of commentaries by great masters. Originally only six copies were made by the Derge press and they were instantly revered as treasures. Only special vermillion ink was allowed to touch the blocks. They were circulated only to selected monasteries, hermitages, and temples of Tibet and Mongolia and important families. On the TBRC web site credit is given to the work of the Derge Printing Press for preserving these teachings. “It was because of these treasuries of Buddhist wisdom that the Mahayana tradition survived through many centuries from the time that the translations began in the 8th century.” The TBRC web site contains much more interesting information about how the parphud or “first fruit printings” were kept safe and eventually brought to the digital age.

“These collections, in particular the Derge Kangyur would not have come into being without the patronage of great kings,” says Rinpoche. The Tengyur was completed under the patronage of the next ruler of Derge, Lachen Puntsog Tenpa, under the editorship of Tsultrim Rinchen (1697-1774). This release of the digital set of the Derge Kangyur marks TBRC’s commitment to sustaining, preserving and making available the rich heritage of the Tibetan people. In the near future, TBRC intends to issue the post-parphud additions to the Derge Kangyur as well as a searchable digital index with the accompanying Derge Tangyur.

One of the guiding principles of Khyentse Foundation is to complement and support institutions and individuals with like goals, namely fostering the study and practice of Buddhism. In a sense, Gene Smith is continuing the work of the Tai Situ and the Foundation is following in King Tenpa Tsering’s footsteps as a patron of such work. The Foundation is delighted to grant its support to Gene Smith and TBRC as part of its Publication Fund efforts and encourages others to do so as well.