Finding Texts

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Finding Tibetan Texts

Contributors: Jann Ronis.


This site is devoted to collecting tips and resources for locating resources on texts relevant to Tibet and the Himalayas, whether in THL, on the Web, in print resources, or elsewhere. If you want to find the Tibetan text entitled ngal gso skor gsum, an article in English about coronation rites in Nepal, or a Newari manuscript on death – where do you look? Several pages dedicated to distinct skills and resources needed for locating various types of texts are planned for this site. This is a community-driven project, so join the THL Tibetan Studies worksite by contacting us at <a class="safe-contact" href="javascript:linkTo_UnCryptMailto('nbjmup;uimAdpmmbc/jud/wjshjojb/fev');"><img src="/global/images/contact/contact-thl.gif" /></a>. Add a note or section, and don’t forget to add your name as a contributor.

Finding texts in:


This page contains tips on several important issues in the bibliography of Tibetan Buddhism. These include:

  • How to determine whether a particular title is still extant or not
  • Which range of resources are necessary for determining how many different editions there may be of a particular text
  • How to find which writings are ascribed to a particular author

Some of the skills and resources needed to do bibliographic research in non-canonical Tibetan-authored texts and textual collections overlap with those covered in the page on finding canonical texts. Overall, however, this work shares more in common with everyday bibliographic research using library catalogs. Nonetheless, Tibetan texts are not as well distributed and cataloged as western-language books and library catalogs are not in and of themselves sufficient resources for doing bibliographic research on Tibetan texts. Certain databases devoted exclusively to Tibetan literature are also indispensable for research in Tibetan primary sources. Both of these types of resources will be covered herein.

Searching Library Catalogs

The North American library with the best Tibetan collections and online database is the external link: Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Other publicly accessible online catalogs of Tibetan collections include external link: Virgo at the University of Virginia and Columbia University’s external link: CLIO.

The first point to cover when introducing the use of library catalogs to search Tibetan texts is the transliteration or romanization schemes used by these catalogs. The primary such scheme used in North American libraries is that developed by the American Library Association-Library of Congress (ALA-LOC). For a convenient two-page document covering their romanization scheme, point your browser to external link: For the most part this scheme corresponds to ETWS. The main differences between the two occur with the following for consonants. ETWS is represented on the left and ALA-LC on the right:

  • nga ṅa
  • nya ña
  • zha źa
  • sha śa

Moreover, in the ALA-LC system the different syllables of a word are conjoined with hyphens. Therefore mngon shes is found in (most) library catalogs as mṅon-śes. One caveat is in order; the library catalogs that use the ALA-LC romanization system also recognize letters without modifiers. If your keyboard cannot produce the acute, tilde, and dot above character modifiers used in ALA-LC, simply type in the bare consonant and the search engine should be able to read them. In other words, searching for mnon-ses works just as well as searching for mṅon-śes. Having figured out how Tibetan words are transliterated or “romanized” in library catalogs, we can move onto how to search for certain types of words in these same catalogs.

Library cataloging of Tibetan proper nouns – text titles and personal names – is not a precise science. Tibetan personal names, as with other non-western cultures, do not easily correspond to the first-name, last-name scheme that is the basis of author classification in the modern library. First of all, Tibetan names generally consist of two words, comprised of four syllables, neither of which can be given precedence as a “last name.” Library catalogers resolve this ambiguity by using hyphens to connect all four (or more) syllables together, after which the first letter of the entire string of syllables is capitalized and used to integrate the personal name into the alphabetical order of the general library database. However, many Tibetan authors also have titles as well as names, and these are treated very inconsistently by library catalogers. Sometimes the titles are put at the head of an author’s name and the first letter of the title serves to alphabeticize the author in the library’s catalog. And yet other times similar titles are treated like first names, subordinated to the primary name. Thus in the Library of Congress catalog you will find many authors whose titles are integral to their primary names, i.e., Mṅa’-ri Pan-chen Padma-dbaṅ-rgyal and Sa-chen Kun-dga’-sñiṅ-po; Yet in other instances similar titles are relegated to a first-name status, i.e., Bdud-‘dul-rdo-rje, Karma-pa and Mkhyen-rab-rgya-mtsho, ’Dul-’dzin. If these inconsistencies are interfering with your author searches, it is recommended that you do a keyword search for an author. Through this indirect approach your search is bound to yield at least one result that contains the desired author’s full name, which you can cut-and-paste into a new author search.

Text titles are treated even more inconsistently by library catalogs. For the most part, the syllables that make up the core title of the text are not connected by hyphens, but instead left as a string of individual syllables (as in EWTS). However, the proper nouns in a sub-title are often written as single words with all the syllables of each proper noun connected by hyphens. The following is example of this: Bka' thaṅ sde lṅa / Gu-ru U-rgyan-gliṅ-pas Yar-kluṅs-śel-gyi-brag-phug nas bton pa. As with the author name searches, if you are having trouble locating titles, try a keyword search on the title fragment that you have at hand.

A successful search will yield a bibliographic record with a call number. Most libraries in North America now use the Library of Congress call numbers for their Tibetan holdings. This was not always the case. The University of Virginia, for example, did not begin using LOC call numbers for Tibetan Books until 1996. If you need to check out a work from the Tibetan collection at the University of Virginia, be aware that if your initial search for the text was made on another library’s catalog you will need to do a final search for the title on UVA’s catalog in order to get the proper call number. The same may be true of other libraries as well.

Other Databases of Tibetan Texts and Authors

One of the best sources for bibliographic references and historical information about traditional Tibetan authors and their works is the online searchable database created and maintained by the external link: Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center. The database is unique for featuring detailed information about the contents of many multi-title collections, and for including cross-referenced biographical data about the authors. The Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center's collection is one of the most extensive and best catalogued collections of Tibetan language texts outside of Asia. Thus their searchable database is also a required resource for scholars because of the data it contains on rare texts that are not owned (or catalogued) by most public and academic libraries. Another unique feature of its database is that it contains information gathered from published indices of restricted collections in China and handlists of rare texts written by Tibetan scholars. Thus, the database is more than just the catalog of an individual collection, it is a virtually comprehensive database of Tibetan works – whether currently extant or not – from throughout the ages.

The Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center is also dedicated to creating digital copies of its entire holdings, and to making copies of these texts available to scholars and practitioners around the world, including Tibetan communities in Asia. Their website contains information on ordering these compact discs. They will also accept commissions to scan texts in their collection that they have not yet scanned but that a scholar may need on demand.

Another electronic bibliographic database of (primarily religious) Tibetan texts is the “Preliminary List of Manuscripts, Blockprints and Historical Documents Microfilmed by the NGMPP (Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project). Part 2: Tibetan Material.” This is the product of 30 years of expeditions throughout Nepal to microfilm texts in Nepal. The current version of the CD – Release 1 – contains approximately 13,000 records, many of which are one-of-a-kind manuscripts (unattested even by TBRC). The database is a stand-alone Microsoft Access file with many search and display options and a nicely laid-out print format. Best of all, microfiches of the text recorded in the database are available for order from the external link: NGMPP.

In its current state this page has ignored all of the great print indices of various individual Tibetan collections around the world, such as the indices of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharmasala. One reason for this omission is these have already been integrated into some of the databases mentioned above, especially TBRC. We intend to include on this page in the near future.

Tips on Searching Tibetan Canons

On this site you will find tips for finding texts in the Tibetan canons. Rather than an essay on the canons, per se, this page is designed to offer practical advice on using the abundant reference materials dedicated to them.

Here the term “Tibetan canon” refers to a collection of buddha-voiced texts that share at least some overlap with the canons of other Buddhist countries and/or extant Indic-language manuscripts. The Kangyur, Tengyur and the Collected Tantras of the Ancients are canons by these loose criteria. Moreover, the main Bön canonical collections are also included here because their structure is more parallel to the Buddhist canons than any of the other major collections of Tibetan religious texts (such as the Precious Treasury of Revealed Treasures, rin chen gter mdzod).

The main such canonical formations are:

  • Buddhist Kangyur (bka’ ’gyur, also rendered as “Kanjur”) and Tengyur (bstan ’gyur, also rendered as “Tenjur”). At the outset, it should be mentioned that the texts in these two canons are predominantly of Indic origin, but include some works translated from Chinese and Central Asian languages. There are thought to be two, maybe three, major lines of transmission of the texts that comprise these canons of translated materials. Moreover, there is not one definitive edition of either of these canons, but many regional editions (some more widely distributed or highly regarded than others); each belonging to one or another of the two major lines of transmission of these translations.The Buddhist Kangyur contains translations (’gyur) of the Buddha’s Word (bka’). The Kangyur is divided into three major divisions, Discipline (’dul ba; vinaya), Sutra (mdo, sutra), and Tantra (rgyud, tantra); the order of the first and last divisions varies from edition to edition. The latter two divisions are subdivided into sections classified by sūtra family or doxography. Thus the Sūtra division has fives subsections: Prajñāpāramitā texts (Tib. sher phyin), the Avataṃsaka Sūtra (phal chen), Ratnakūṭa texts (dkon brtsegs), Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra (myang 'das), and miscellaneous sūtras (mdo sna tshogs or mdo mang/s). The Tengyur contains translations (’gyur) of human-authored Buddhist treatises (bstan bcos) of primarily Indian origin, including many commentaries on texts found in the Kangyur. Most Tengyurs are comprised of over 200 volumes and are internally divided into sections on Tantra, Sūtra, and Discipline (in that order).
  • Bönpo Kangyur (bon bka’ ’gyur) and Tengyur (bstan/brten ’gyur). The Bön Kangyur has four sections: sūtras, Prajñāpāramitā, tantras, and “higher meditation.” The Bön Tengyur has four sections: internal, external, and secret.
  • The Collected Tantras of the Ancients (Nyingma Gyübum, rnying ma rgyud ’bum). This canonical collection of tantric materials has its origins in the sectarian controversies about scriptural authenticity that raged during the golden age of Buddhist canon formation in the fourteenth century. Some of its contents are clearly Indic origin, other are Tibetan adaptations of Indic originals, and others are obviously Tibetan compositions that have certain Tibetan characteristics As for a brief word about its redaction and publication, the most widely available edition of this canon is the eighteenth century edition from Degé comprised of 26 volumes.

These tips aim to answer the following questions, dealing with each canon in turn:

  1. How do I find the full title and bibliographic information for a Tibetan canonical text when I have only a title – keeping in mind that texts are often cited by abbreviated or alternate titles?
  2. Once I have (some amount of) bibliographic information on a text, how do I locate the actual text in one of the Tibetan canonical collections?
  3. How can I determine if there are extant Sanskrit and Chinese versions of certain texts in the Tibetan canons? And the reverse, If I have a canonical work in Sanskrit or Chinese, how do I determine the bibliographic information of the Tibetan translation? (This question is germane only to the Buddhist canons.)

Provided for unrestricted use by the external link: Tibetan and Himalayan Library