Richness of Buddhist Texts in Shan Manuscripts A report

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					     Jotika Khur-yearn: Richness of Buddhist Texts in Shan Manuscripts. Shan Buddhism & Culture Conference, SOAS, London. 8-9 Dec. 2007.

                     Richness of Buddhist Texts in Shan Manuscripts:
       A report of work in progress on the Seven Shan Versions of Satipatthaana Sutta

                                                [Incomplete: do not quote]

                                                                                       Jotika Khur-yearn, PhD Candidate
                                                                                            SOAS, University of London
         For centuries the tradition of producing manuscripts has been an important custom
among Shan communities. Shan manuscripts can be found everywhere all over the Shan State, in
temples as well as in peoples houses. There are very few Shan houses where you do not find
         The texts of Shan manuscripts are on a variety of subjects starting from charming,
romantic and heroic performances to Jataka stories, meditation and histories, sometime on
particular events such as the ceremony of ordination, anniversary of a temple, New Year, and so
on. Also, not uncommon in Shan literature is that there are different versions by different authors
under the same topic. For instance, I have discovered that at least there are seven different
versions of the famous Mahasatipathana Sutta, the Buddha s instruction on mindfulness
meditation. They were written by different scholars at different times. I shall elaborate more later.
         Almost all of the authors of Shan manuscripts employ the old system of Shan writing,
which the modern Shan generation can hardly read or understand. This has become a problem
since the Shan have modernised their writing some fifty years ago. Another problem is that the
tradition of producing manuscripts has been in decline while most of the existing manuscripts in
Shan State are in danger of disappearing.
         In this paper, I shall first discuss the traditional Shan way of making manuscripts,
followed by a discussion of major collections of Shan manuscripts outside the Shan State.
Secondly, I shall discuss the preliminary findings of seven versions of the Satipatthana Sutta as
found in Shan manuscripts. Thirdly, I shall talk about the threat to the tradition of Shan Buddhist
texts in manuscript. I shall conclude this paper with an evaluation of Shan manuscripts and a
proposal on planning for the preservation of Shan manuscripts.

     Jotika Khur-yearn: Richness of Buddhist Texts in Shan Manuscripts. Shan Buddhism & Culture Conference, SOAS, London. 8-9 Dec. 2007.

The making of Shan Manuscripts
        Almost all Shan manuscripts are written on local hand-made paper, with hand-made pens
and ink. The hand-made paper is called ce-saa, which is traditionally made from the bark of the

saa tree. The saa tree is not only useful for making paper but also essential for making ropes. The
advantage of ce-saa paper is that it is very durable and can last for hundreds of years. It is also
unattractive for insects, such that they rarely eat or destroy the manuscripts.
         Although ce-saa is the main material for making manuscripts, palm leaf and pieces of
cloth are also used for some texts, for instance, traditional birth certificate and horoscopes. Palm
leaf is not used for writing longer texts because, when compare with ce-sa, the size of a palm leaf
is small and not big enough for Shan poetic texts. The Shan texts are written in large letter size, as
they are prepared for reading aloud to an audience.
         The traditional Shan hand-made pen is called kam-kut, the fern pen , which is made
from a fern plant, like the stylus or the quills made of swan s feathers in Europe. As with quills,
the writers dip the nib in a small pot of ink repeatedly, and must also re-sharpen the point by
trimming the nib.
         The traditional Shan ink is made of soot from the wood smoke. In a Shan house, there is
a hearth or fireplace for cooking, and the roof of a Shan house, particularly above the fireplace, is
usually full of soot. Shan writers take the soot and combine it with the animal bile, which
produces a black and sticky ink. The animal bile, which is also useful for medicine, is usually
collected by hunters, so it is available usually in the markets.
         Regarding the form of manuscripts made from ce-saa, there are two types. One is called
pap kien, an indigenous book made up of single sheets sown at the upper edge, usually rolled up
in a wrapper and fastened by wrapping with a long cord. Another type is called pap tup, a folding
book or leporello. For the pap top, the covers are usually rubbed and strengthened with lacquer,
and some are ornamented with gold-leaf and decorated with floral designs and jewellery. Usually
texts in pap kien style are older in age then those in pap top style; and the pap tup style is widely
used until today. 1

 For further details of Shan manuscript production, see Barend Jan Terwiel, 2003: The Shan
Manuscripts, pp. 17-26.

    Jotika Khur-yearn: Richness of Buddhist Texts in Shan Manuscripts. Shan Buddhism & Culture Conference, SOAS, London. 8-9 Dec. 2007.

Major Collections of Shan Manuscripts outside the Shan State
         The major collections of Shan manuscripts outside the Shan State are found, as far as I
am concerned, in Thailand, UK and Germany. It is also possible to find old Shan manuscripts in
Assam in India and Yunnan province in China, where there have been Shan inhabitants for

          First, I would like to talk about the major collections of Shan manuscripts in Thailand.
There are thousands of Shan manuscripts scattered in different temple collections, particularly in
the Northern provinces, such as Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. I went to Thailand
three times between 2005 and 2007 to do fieldwork for my research. I visited four places where
Shan manuscripts are preserved. The first place is Wat Tiyasathan, a Shan temple in Mae Daeng
district, forty kilometres to the northwest of Chiang Mai, where over 200 Shan manuscripts are
preserved. I spent several days there, going through the manuscripts and taking notes. I have a
plan to publish a catalogue of these manuscripts in the near future. The second place is Wat
Papao, a Shan temple in the city of Chiang Mai, where over 500 Shan manuscripts are kept. When
I visited the temple in 2005, I was told by Venerable Intra, the head monk of the temple, that the
manuscripts there were being catalogued by a group of researcher. But, I have no updated
information as to how far the project has gone at the moment. The third place is the Fragile Palm
Leaves Foundation (FPLF), established and run by Prof. Peter Skilling, in Bangkok, where over
300 Shan manuscripts are kept. I spent three days there in January 2005, looking at the titles of
the manuscripts. The fourth place is Wat Pangmu, a Shan village temple, 8 kilometres to the north
of Maehongson city, where there are over 1,000 Shan manuscripts, catalogued in Thai by Chiang
Mai University (CMU) in the 1980s. A copy of the catalogue is kept at Wat Pang Mu, but
surprisingly no copy of it is not found at Chiang Mai University, despite several enquiries I made
at various departments at CMU. Moreover, there are two other temples, Wat Jong Klang and Wat
Pha Norn, in Maehongson city, where a considerable amount of Shan manuscripts are kept,
unfortunately I did not have chance to go through all of them in detail.
          There are many reasons for the presence of Shan manuscripts in Thailand. Firstly, Shan
communities have been in the country, particularly in northern Thailand for centuries. Secondly,
there are Shan refugees, who flee to Thailand because of endless civil war that has been going on
since the independence of Burma in 1948, and these refugees bring with them manuscripts, some
of which were donated to local temples, where they are well preserved, usually in hidden boxes in
the shrine room.

       Jotika Khur-yearn: Richness of Buddhist Texts in Shan Manuscripts. Shan Buddhism & Culture Conference, SOAS, London. 8-9 Dec. 2007.

          In UK, a great number of Shan manuscripts are in the collection of some famous
libraries, including the British library, the Cambridge University Library, the Bodleian Library of
the Oxford University, and the Brighton Library. Perhaps, the biggest collection of Shan
manuscripts is at the Scott Collection at the Cambridge University Library. These manuscripts
were brought by Sir James George Scott, who was Political Commissioner of the Shan States in
the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, just after the British annexed the Shan States as part of
Burma. There is a hand-list of Shan manuscripts in this collection, but a full catalogue is yet to be
          In Germany, there are over 300 Shan manuscripts and most of them are housed at the
Berlin Library and the Munchen [Munich] Library. They have been well catalogued by B. J.
Terwiel and his assistant, Chaichuen Khamdaengyodtai, and the catalogue was published in book
form in 2003.

Seven Versions of Mahasatipatthana Sutta in Shan Literature: Preliminary Findings and
their significance
         From what we have learnt from the existing manuscripts within our reach, the tradition of
mindfulness meditation practice seems to have been popular in the Shan Buddhist communities
for centuries. This is evident in a number of works on mindfulness meditation. So far, as I have
already mentioned earlier, seven different Shan versions of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta have been
discovered during my fieldwork for the last three years. Here, I shall describe them briefly.
         1. The Mahasatipatthana-sutta-nissaya, now housed at the Bodleian Library of
             Oxford University. The date and author of this manuscript are still not known.
             However, it is my contention that, of the six Shan versions of Satipatthana sutta, this
             version is the earliest one, possibly as early as the 18th century. There are 49 paper
             sheets (about A3 size) of this manuscript.
         2. The Mahasatipatthan of Sao Amartlong Moeng Nawng. It is one of the only two
             Shan manuscripts of Satipatthana sutta to have been printed in book form. The
             author was a minister at the court of Chaofa Mong Nong in central Shan State.
             Written in 1875, it was printed in book form, some ninety-three years later, in 1968.2
         3. The Mahasatipatthan-vatthu by Sao-sra Punnacara of Wan York (1912). In
             contrast to the previous two versions of MS, this version is not a nissaya translation.
             It is, instead, in plain Shan poetry language, referring to the stories about
    It was published by the Shan Pitaka Press of Taunggyi, Shan State.

     Jotika Khur-yearn: Richness of Buddhist Texts in Shan Manuscripts. Shan Buddhism & Culture Conference, SOAS, London. 8-9 Dec. 2007.

               mindfulness meditation in the earlier versions of the Mahasatipathana Sutta we have
               previously discussed.
         4.    The Satipathan, kept at Wat Tiya-sathan, Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
               (still yet to be studied in detail) It was written in 1900 CE and has 270 pages, with
               gold-gilded covers.
         5.    The Satipathan, kept at FPLF, Bangkok, Thailand. It was written in 1937 CE. The
               poetic style of this manuscript is similar to the MSs kept at the Bodleian Library,
               Oxford. There are 232 pages, with gold-gilded covers of floral arts.
         6.    The Mahasatipatthana-sutta- nissaya by the Shan Tipitaka Translation
               Committee (SPTC), 1957 (published in 1958). Unlike other versions, it was written
               in Shan prose. However, this style of writing has not been popular.
         7.    The Tai-khun (eastern Shan) version of Mahasatipatthana-sutta, housed at the
               Cambridge University Library (also to be studied).

         It is worth noting that only two of the seven versions have been published in modern
book form, while the other five versions are reserved in the form of hand written manuscripts.
This statistic indicates that most of Shan literature is preserved in the form of manuscripts. Hence,
only really popular works can survive long because the sponsors keep requesting the writers or
copyists to make copies of their favourite books only. The sponsors either donate their copy to the
monastery or keep it near the Buddha shrine in their houses.
         Another significance of the abovementioned Shan versions of MS texts is that five of
them were composed in poetry in poetic styles that are different from one another. As noted
moments earlier, the SPTC s Mahasatipatthana-sutta-nissaya (1957) is the only Shan version of
MS to be written in prose. The Tai-Khun (eastern Shan) version of the MS, kept at the Cambridge
University Library, also seems to be written in poetry.

A Threat to the Tradition
         The existence of a large collection of Shan manuscripts outside of Burma is indicative of
the political troubles and repression in Shan State. The only consolation is that these collections
are at least being preserved, which otherwise might be lost forever. Under the Burmese military
government s recent policy of relocating Shan villages since 1996, hundreds of thousands of Shan
villagers have been made homeless, and as you know, many have fled to Thailand. The villagers
were forced not only to abandon their houses but also their temples, which are the hearts of Shan

     Jotika Khur-yearn: Richness of Buddhist Texts in Shan Manuscripts. Shan Buddhism & Culture Conference, SOAS, London. 8-9 Dec. 2007.

communities and their cultural heritage. Many temples, where old Buddha images and
manuscripts were kept for hundreds of years, were burned down or destroyed by Burmese
soldiers. 3
         At the same time, the promotion or development of Shan culture such as the preservation
of Shan manuscript has never been encouraged or supported by the Burmese government. Shan
language and literature are not taught in government schools and universities. There is no
government plan or project for the promotion and preservation of Shan manuscripts and cultural
heritage. There are some Shan cultural groups and individual activists, who have been working
for the development and preservation of Shan language, culture and literature but there is neither
sufficient financial support nor trained staff to do the job. In fact, the majority of them do not
have even the freedom to do so.

          For centuries, the Shan manuscripts have been produced and preserved through tradition
and belief in Buddhism, a belief that the donation of a manuscript containing Buddhist texts is
one of the best ways to accumulate merit. However, so far, the unique culture and tradition of
practising Buddhism among Shan communities remain little studied. Shan manuscripts contain
texts on various subjects and are thus important resources for the study about the Shan people,
their life, history, culture and belief-systems. The disadvantage, however, is that there are not
many people nowadays who can read and understand the scripts of the manuscripts properly.
Moreover, there has been a threat to the preservation of Shan manuscripts from the political
conflict that has been going on in Shan State for the last fifty years.

    1. Khur-yearn, J., 2005-07: Notes taken during fieldwork in northern Thailand.
    2. SHRF, 1998: Dispossessed: Forced Relocation and Extrajudicial Killings in Shan State.
         Chiang Mai: The Shan Human Rights Foundation.
    3. Terwiel, B. J., 2003: Shan Manuscripts Part I. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

 For details of forced relocation, see Dispossessed: Forced Relocation and Extrajudicial Killings in
Shan State, published the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF), 1998.