Seeing, Touching, Holding, and Swallowing Tibetan Buddhist Texts


  • Cathy Cantwell Oriental Institute, University of Oxford



Buddhist texts, Buddhist ritual


The iconic dimension of holy books has drawn increasing scholarly attention in recent years (e.g. Iconic Books and Texts, James Watts, ed., London, Equinox, 2013). Asian Buddhism provides rich material for considering the ritualization of engagement with sacred texts. In Tibetan Buddhism, this aspect of book culture is perhaps especially pronounced (see, for instance, Schaeffer 2009, especially Chapter 6; Elliott, Diemberger and Clemente 2014). This paper explores the topic in relation to the engagement of the senses in Tibetan context, through seeing, touching, holding and tasting texts. It would seem that it is not the sensory experience in itself, but rather the physical experience of a transmission and incorporation of the sacred qualities from the books into the person which is emphasized in these practices. Parallels and contrasts with examples from elsewhere are mentioned, and there is some consideration of the breadth of the category of sacred books in the Tibetan context in which Dharma teachings may take many forms.

Author Biography

  • Cathy Cantwell, Oriental Institute, University of Oxford

    Dr Cathy Cantwell has been a member of the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, since 2002. She is President of the UK Association for Buddhist Studies (from 2015), and was a KHK Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Bochum (October 2015 - September 2016). Her work focuses on Tibetan and Himalayan tantric rituals of all periods from the 10th century CE, and especially the ritual texts and practices deriving from the “Early Transmissions” (snga 'gyur rnying ma). This work has included text critical and historical analysis, as well as ethnographic study of contemporary rituals. Her most recent book publications are, A Noble Noose of Methods, the Lotus Garland Synopsis: A Mahāyoga Tantra and its Commentary” (Vienna 2012, together with Robert Mayer), and “Buddhism: The Basics” (London 2010). She has recently jointly edited a Special Edition (with Robert Mayer, Jowita Kramer and Stefano Zacchetti) of the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies (Volume 36/37, 2015), entitled, Authors and Editors in the Literary Traditions of Asian Buddhism.


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Special Issue Articles

How to Cite

Cantwell, C. (2017). Seeing, Touching, Holding, and Swallowing Tibetan Buddhist Texts. Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts, Cultural Histories, and Contemporary Contexts, 8(1-2), 137-160.