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Engraving Tibetan sutras carves out happiness in the next life

FOR 14 years, pious engravers have been chiseling sutras into stone plates to build Tibet's tallest stone sutra pagoda. Engravers say their holy work will bring happiness in their next lives, write Yi Ling, Yan Yuanyuan and Dainzin Nyima

The sound of stone-engraving breaks the morning tranquility of Mount Chakpori, opposite to the Potala Palace, in Lhasa, where craftsmen are working to build the largest stone sutra pagoda in the Tibet Autonomous Region. It will be completed in June.

With a small mallet in one hand and a chisel in another, nine youngsters, sitting or squatting under a large tattered gray cloth shelter, are engraving lines of Tibetan sutra "Kangyur." Less than 20 meters ahead is the pagoda, in its 14 years of construction that embodies all their piety and faith in Buddha.

Tokdan Dawa Rinpoche, sponsor of the pagoda, is sitting, with his legs crossed, on a carpet near the simple workshop, chanting sutras. Throngs of devotees holding prayer wheels, bow to him and continue on the dusty path, heading for the pagoda to pray.

In ancient tradition, Tibetan Buddhists engrave scripture and Buddha images on stones to preserve the classics.

The engravers themselves, called duoduo in Tibetan, are believed to attain greater happiness in their next lives as the result of their toiling on scripture.

Building the stone pagoda sutra is the long-cherished dream of Tokdan Dawa Rinpoche, the 60-year-old abbot of the Ahjue Norling Monastery in southwestern Sichuan Province.

The aim is to carry forward both the traditional art of Tibetan stone-engraving and the power of Buddhism.

"Stone survives the times, with the essence of Tibetan Buddhism engraved on it," says Tokdan.

The abbot traveled around to solicit funds for the project and finally started to realize his dream on Mount Chakpori, This has been a traditional site for stone engraving since the reign of Songtsan Gambo, who introduced Buddhism to the plateau region more than 1,300 years ago.

"The sutras of different sects in Tibetan Buddhism share the same root of Kangyur, that's why I chose this," he say.

According to Tokdan, a full set of Kangyur sutra has 108 parts, each written on a book of 200 to 400 pages.

The engravers have finished inscribing the sutras and more than 1 million of stone slates are piled into a 13-floor pagoda more than 30 meters high.

The abbot is discerning about the stones. Those from the Kambu County nearby Lhasa finally won his heart.

The pale blue-gray stone slates about one centimeter thick, are first painted deep red before the engraving, so the words stand out in contrast.

A wooden top for the pagoda is expected to be in position in June, when the 50-meter-high pagoda will finally stand atop of Mount Chakpori.

The abbot has named the pagoda after the sutra inscribed on it, "Kangyur," and he plans to invite a respected lama to write a book about the pagoda, its origins and construction. His name and those of the engravers, however, will not appear in the printed text.

Engraving peace

More than 100 engravers, some from veteran stone-engraving families and some novices, volunteered to carve the inscriptions.

Most of them have worked on the site for five to six years though their pay for a whole-page Kangyur sutra is only 10 yuan (US$1.46).

Life is simple but strict for the devout engravers - no alcohol, no smoking and no illegal activities. Violators will be dropped from the team for insufficient "religious cultivation," says Tokdan.

They work by natural light alone and work from daybreak until it is too dark to see anything. Then they retire to wooden bungalows at the foot of the hill.

Over the 14 years of construction, there has been turnover. Now, only nine engravers still work there.

One of them is a shy 26-year-old woman named Zhoigar who sings Tibetan songs as she chisels away. Her lovely voice amid the stone hammering and chipping is a joy to her work mates.

Like the other engravers on this project, Zhoigar is not a Lhasa native, but comes from a farming family at Rinbung County of Xigaze. She works with her stone-engraver husband Gongbo Chagxi from Qinghai Province.

She came to Lhasa to work as a waitress at a Tibetan restaurant, but says the "dazzling, colorful life" in the prosperous plateau city cannot compare with the tranquility and peace she has found in engraving.

"Many of the people at my age long for modern bustling city life, but I prefer this simple and peaceful life as an engraver," says Zhoigar.

"My family is very supportive of my decision as they are devout Buddhists. Engraving sutras on stones is a better way to be close to Buddha," she says.

To demonstrate her piety, Zhoigar works without vacations and only returned to see her family four times since she joined the engraving team in the winter of 2000.

"My husband asked me to leave the restaurant to work here and became my first engraving teacher. Because of him, I can have such a good life now."

However, the beginning is always difficult.

As Zhoigar could not read, she just copied what she saw on the sutra book onto the stone.

"The characters were no more than magic patterns to me at that time," recalls Zhoigar. "I often hurt my hands with chisel and hammer, but the worst thing was that I wasted a lot of stone plates because of my early mistakes. That made me cry a lot."

After eight years, she has become a pro. Zhoigar now engraves an average of 20 slates a day, at a rate of one Tibetan letter a second. She also teaches newcomers.

"The more sutras I have engraved into the stones, the more Buddhist teachings I have engraved in my mind, which is far more important than how much money I have earned," says Zhoigar.

As the years of hard work draw to an end, Zhoigar feels emptiness as well as pride.

She and her husband plan to stay in Lhasa to look for more engraving work.

"I have mixed feelings about saying farewell here," she says. "As the pagoda grew, so did my understanding of life. Good deeds will be paid back with even better things."

She considers the birth of her daughter Gesang Como in 2003 a reward from Buddha for her piety. The little girl spends most of her time in the workshop, listening to the chisels; now she is old enough to go to kindergarten.

Zhoigar doesn't plan to pass her skill on to her daughter.

"I hope she is can go to college and become a doctor, instead of being a stone engraver, because this is too tiring," says her mother. "But if she wants to carve sutras, I will teach her."


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