September 05, 2013


Ink and paper have been a rare commodity in the Tibetan cultural sphere. dPal-sprul (sPros bral sgra dbyangs, p. 63) makes a brief reference to it in a letter: 

rgan po’i mig rtul blo rig rgud cing ||
snag shog sogs kyi ’byor pa dkon pas ||
gang thugs dgyes pa’i ’phrin yig dka’ yang ||
dam pa’i dka’ gsung gcog par ma nus ||

The expression snag shog is to be understood as copulative compound (dvaṃdva: zlas dbye ba), and hence as “ink and paper.” 

In a traditional Tibetan or Bhutanese society, paper is always associated with something noble, something venerable. This is obviously because people knew paper only in the context of writing sacred scriptures, treatises, and letters. Paper is something that you see on altars or in closed boxes. The awe and respect for paper seems to be greater for that generation of people who could not get a formal modern secular education. For school children who grow up with paper, notably, with white smooth paper, seeing paper is not a big deal. But for those children who had hardly any access to paper, particularly, white smooth machine-manufactured paper, the sight of such paper alone would induce in them a sense of awe and respect. 

Once in Mysore, a monk-friend of mine, who has not received any secular formal school education, came to my monkish cell. He caught sight of a roll of toilet paper that I had hesitantly bought for emergency cases. Toilet paper then in India was not at all common, particularly not among the monkish milieu. He innocently asked me what that roll of white soft paper was for. With a sheepish grin and a sense of guilt, I explained to him. He was shocked! He could not believe how people could use such fine beautiful white paper for one of the ignoblest acts! Holding the roll in his hand and studying it carefully, he sighed: “What a waste!” The idea of “toilet paper” made no sense to him!

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