The Survival of Darga Parkhang Chenmo

The Dérgé Parkhang Chenmo (Derge Printing Press) in Dérgé County of Kham Region, Tibet, survived through from the beginning the Chinese occupation of Tibet in late 1950s to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the reconstruction drive in the late 1980’s. The great printing house at Dérgé Gönchen was founded by king Tenpa Tséring in mid-18th century and was a grand project where over 270,000 printing blocks were stored, including the Buddhist canons like Kanjur and it’s commentaries Tenjur. With the new blocks being carved recently, the total number might be well over 300,000. Dérgé Parkhang Chenmo was successfully restored around 1989 and presently there are over 300 monks working to print Tibetan Buddhist scriptures from wooden blocks on regular basis. It came as a blessing in disguise that the Chinese Government let this institution of high cultural importance survive the turbulent years of their occupation of Tibet.

I had an opportunity to meet Pewar Rinpoché from Dérgé County, who recently came to attend the enthronement ceremony of the Tharig Rinpoché in Kathmandu, Nepal. Pewar Rinpoché of Pewar Monastery in Kham was born in Dzongshöl near Pelyul, and recognised as an incarnation by Dzongsar Khyentsé Rinpoché. He is a humble ordinary-looking monk but is a master Tibetan yogi. He is one of persons who protected and ensured the survival of the Dérgé Parkhang during its chaotic times under China. According to Rinpoche, in 1959 the Chinese Government launched many campaigns and forced lay people and monks in the destruction of many monasteries. However, the great Dérgé Gönchen Monastery with printing press was, by a freak luck, protected by order of the central government.

Pewar Rinpoché was imprisoned in 1958 and released three years later, after which he was made the caretaker of the monastery. When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, the main temple (Tsuklag-khang) at the Gönchen was sacked. However, the printing press was left alone except for some minor vandalism. At the start of the Cultural Revolution, a monk physician, Ngawang Sherab, from Nangchen was living there and during the night he bolted the doors from inside to prevent thieves. The printing blocks were in demand as firewood and because they were dry they burned very well. Pewar Rinpoché and Ngawang Sherab nailed wooden planks across the doors and windows from the inside. There were many government offices around the Gönchen who were planning to divide the wooden blocks for firewood. During that time the Chinese officials were divided into two radical factions called Tsunpun and Yöyö and constant infighting ensued. In this chaos the printing press was spared.

Meanwhile, a group of well-meaning people, including Pewar Rinpoché, discussed ways to move the blocks to a safe place. They particularly thought of saving one complete set of the Kanjur, which could be used as a master copy in future.”There was a stack of twenty four printed sets, and we got one of them out,” he said. He then wrote a letter to a very respected Shékar Lama, who lived in a remote upper end of a valley, asking him what were the most important things they should to save. He replied that the blocks for printing Mantras and Dharanis which were used to put inside statues, and the printing blocks of ’Seven Treasuries’ which was Dzokchen teachings of the Longchenpa. However, he told them to be aware. They further discussed the matter. So every night each of them discreetly carried away blocks to a safe place found by Palden and Konchok Gyeltsen. One evening they brought one of the former supervisors who knew his way around.

However, when he started shining his electric torch inside the press the Chinese officials thought thieves had got in and raised alarm. They managed to escape and aborted the plan for the time being. Around that time Chief Bapa Yaling Dorjé was the head of Dérgé County. “He was announced that the central government reiterated anyone not to harm the printing press. I don’t know exactly what went on but that was what he said later. I am sure he would not have lied about it,” Pewar Rinpoché said.

Pewar Rinpoché with the help of some other monks and a layman named Sonam Dorjé were able to rescue and hide many thangka paintings, including 700 miniature thangkas in particular a series of thirteen very precious old thangkas of 35 Buddhas of confession. Later, when Panchen Rinpoché secured official permission for the restoration of the Gönchen Monastery in the early 1980s,he returned all the thangkas they had saved to the new custodians. As for the printing press apart from the printing blocks, many of the books were lost, including the manuscripts of Situ Chökye Jungné and a copy of the Kanjur written in gold.

In the 1960s government officials used to take the silk book wrappers and threw away the books. In 1986 Panchen Rinpoché made visited Kham during which Pewar Rinpoché served as his attendant. The following year Pewar visited India and USA. He then went to Beijing to see Panchen Rinpoché who told him to be a teacher at the school he established. When he returned to Dérgé, Lo Gyentsen who was the county leader showed him big cracks in the walls and the mural were crumbling. The leader said that the building should be replaced, after which meeting was held attended by many Communist Party Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC). All of them agreed that the old building was in bad shape, should be demolished, and replaced with a modern structure.

However, Pewar Rinpoché said that the printing press was a sacred building for people. Ordinary people did not wish to see it destroyed and many monks and people were saying said that if it survived the Cultural Revolution, it should not be pulled down now. In the end the county leaders concluded that the people and delegates of the Buddhist Association have agreed to demolish the Parkhang. He then went to Beijing and informed Panchen Rinpoché about the meeting and the decision. Incidentally the National Peoples Congress was in session, and the following year the central government informed that the Parkhang should not be touched without approval from the United Work Front.

A history book of the printing press with the scorpion seal of Dérgé King on each page reads, “the great Ngor Lama Palden Chökyong laid out the ground plan of the building and four senior monks holding Dorjé layed cornerstones as auspicious. It was consecrated by the throne holders of each of the five royal monasteries in Dérgé i.e. Shéchen, Dzokchen, Ka-tok, Pelyul and Gönchen and subsequently by many outstanding masters, especially Jamyang Khyentsé, Jamgön Kongtrül and Chokgyor Lingpa. Like a thick-walled hilltop watchtower it had withstood the assaults of humans and the elements for ages and remained standing.”

Published September 2006


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