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The Tibetan Buddhist Canon is one of the three most important canons of Buddhist literature in the world, and hence one of its most important bodies of religious literature. Generally consisting of more than 5,250 texts and 230,000 folio sides, the canon exists in over twenty unique print and manuscript editions. These texts, written in India, Central Asia, China, and elsewhere between the second century BCE and the seventeenth century CE and translated into Tibetan between the eighth and seventeenth centuries, cover an astonishing variety of subjects. The Tibetan Buddhist Canon consists of two parts: the Kangyur (bka’ ’gyur, texts ascribed to the historical Buddha and other Buddhas) and the Tengyur (bstan ’gyur, exegetical treatises mostly composed by Indians). Together they are the primary canonical authority for Tibetan Buddhism. The texts they contain have served as the basis for thirteen hundred years of indigenous Tibetan literary activity which extensively cites and analyzes them.
The Kangyur and Tengyur represent one of the three principal canonical collections of classical Buddhist literature in the world: the Tibetan canon (Kangyur/Tengyur), the Chinese canon, and the Pali canon. The Tibetan canon is arguably the most complete of all three versions, and represents in many cases the sole surviving versions of Indian scriptures (in translation). The canon thus forms one of the two or three most important tools for understanding the nature and history of both Indian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism, including exoteric and esoteric philosophy and ritual, ethics, literature, social practice, institutional history, narrative history, and much else. As such it is of crucial importance for Buddhist Studies across Asia, Tibetan Studies, and Asian Literary studies. It is without doubt the single most important preservation and access issue we face for Tibetan literature, and one of the top priorities in the study of Asian literature.
The Tibetan Buddhist Canon developed over time as Buddhist texts from India and other areas were translated into Tibetan. There were two main periods of translation activity in Tibet. The first began in the seventh century and came to an end in 842 CE with the collapse of the Tibetan Empire. The second period began in the late tenth century and extended into the fourteenth century, though this activity had begun to trail off since the twelfth century due to the Muslim invasions of India and the resulting decline of Buddhism there. Cataloging efforts were undertaken early on, as illustrated by the Denkarma (ldan dkar ma) catalog of 812 CE. As for defined collections of texts, groups of texts of a similar genre appear to have begun circulating as multiple, open-ended collections. The composition of these collections would depend on the vagaries of the texts available in different areas and could be continually expanded as additional texts became available. By the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the concept of a Kangyur and Tengyur had developed that led to what is traditionally viewed as the first Kangyur and Tengyur and their related catalogs, which were produced at the Nartang Monastery. These have all been lost. They were created by bringing together texts and ad hoc groups of texts from various monasteries and then arranging the resulting mass of texts into some order.