Exploring the beauty of Tibetan script through Gendun Qunpei's calligraphy

Exploring the beauty of Tibetan script through Gendun Qunpei's calligraphy

"Chenrezig mantra stone carving"
Authored by the founder of Tibetan script, Thonmi Sambhota
Currently housed in Potala Palace in Lhasa


Tibetan script on the Sanjaya Temple stone stele
Known as "String of Pearls"(མུ་ཏིག་བསྟར་ལ་བརྒྱུས་པ)


Writing: The Road
Editor and proofreader: Jiang Bai


The notes of Gendun Qunpei


The first time I was deeply touched by the extraordinary beauty of calligraphy was at the Ganden Jangtse Monastery in Lhasa's Barkhor South Street. In the exhibition, I saw several handwritten notes left by Mr. Gandun Qunpei during his lifetime, with vivid red, blue, and black colored strokes that flowed like a river. Like an eagle spreading its wings, the words were alive and vibrant, as if they were written just yesterday. Even though I had not yet explored the spiritual treasures left by the master, just seeing his simple yet full of spirit calligraphy filled me with inspiration and moved me deeply.


The Gendun Qunpei Memorial Hall houses handwritten notes by Gendun Qunpei.
Image: A large road


Mr. Gen Dunqun is highly accomplished in the fields of Buddhist studies, literature, art, painting, and translation. His notes primarily focus on his observations and experiences during his time in Southeast Asia, as well as translations, letters, and other writings.


Just as in Chinese culture, regardless of learning any type of calligraphy font, the most basic requirement is first to be able to write a character squarely and neatly. After mastering the standard writing conventions, one can use this as a foundation to explore other styles and variations. Similarly, in Tibetan calligraphy tradition, one must first learn to write in the Uchen script well before attempting to experiment with other types of fonts.

A student's complete calligraphy journey in Tibet should last at least six years. However, in order to write fluent, aesthetically pleasing, and highly individualized texts that highlight creativity, training in skills and time investment is just one aspect. Most of the time, what is needed is outstanding insight and talent.

The written word carries the essence of a person's soul, their spirit immortalized through the recording of words.


"The Noble Sutra of Karmic Retribution" (translated by Kumarajiva from a Sanskrit scripture)
Tibet, early 16th century
Image: pinterest


The origin of Tibetan calligraphy


Calligraphy art is the most important part of Tibetan culture. I believe that anyone who first encounters Tibetan script will be amazed by its distinctive and unique style.

The Tibetan font is like an eagle soaring and dancing on the pages, carrying the spirit of freedom and wisdom, as well as the passion of the soul. The graceful strokes outline mysterious and beautiful patterns, exuding a sense of rhythm and motion, releasing endless charm that attracts viewers to gaze and decipher its secrets. As the eyes wander among the bold and free Tibetan font, the soul seems to resonate with the spirit it carries, dancing and vibrating together. Like a joyful and elegant dance, it is magnificent and colorful.


A Tibetan manuscript from the early 19th century containing prayers and religious rituals.
Image: AbeBooks


The origin of the Tibetan script as a written language can be traced back to the rule of Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century. There are various theories about the origin of the Tibetan script, with the most common belief being that Drogmi Lotsawa, a minister of Songtsen Gampo, created the Tibetan alphabet based on the Sanskrit script while studying Buddhist texts, phonetics, and calligraphy in India. His goal was to help the people of his homeland better understand Buddhist teachings. Drogmi Lotsawa wrote eight reference texts on this new written language, but unfortunately, only two survive today: "The Thirty Verses" and "The Sound and Script treatise". These texts are still required reading for scholars studying Tibetan grammar.

The great achievements of this famous Tibetan scholar are now credited with the preservation of Buddhist scriptures and the transmission of knowledge and wisdom found in the libraries of each monastery in Tibet.


Thonmi Sambhota Portrait
Image: tsemtulku


Tibetan fonts can be roughly divided into two types: Uchen (Ujin) and Ume (Umei) fonts. The two types of writing forms differ, resulting in different styles. Generally, Uchen fonts are more regular and clear, while Ume fonts are relatively more free and lively, showing distinctive personal characteristics. Uchen fonts are akin to printed fonts, while Ume fonts are more like handwritten ones. However, Tibetan fonts are not limited to these two forms. With the development and evolution of history, Tibetan calligraphy has gradually produced many schools, leading to more than dozens of different styles of font variations.


The Text Offered by Tönmi Sambhota (ཐོན་མིའི་ཡིག་ཕུད)
Tönmi Sambhota invented the Tibetan script and composed a eulogy for Songtsen Gampo.
This inscription is located at the Zunmucisri Temple in Lhasa.


In Tibetan traditional culture, the art of calligraphy has always been highly valued by both monks and lay people. Just like in traditional Han culture, a person who has touched brush and ink will be respected by others because of their temperament. In Tibetan culture, being able to write beautiful characters is enough to enhance a person's spiritual temperament and almost becomes the most basic criterion for a well-educated person.


A calligraphy artist is using gold ink to write "Ganzhuer"
Image: Renegade Hierophant


In the history of Tibetan scholars, mastery of the Ten Sciences is generally considered the highest achievement of their lifelong studies. Among these, proficiency in calligraphy is categorized as one of the Five Excellences. The importance of calligraphy can be seen in the minds of people. (Ming, branches of knowledge or sciences. The Ten Sciences is a classification system in Tibetan studies, with the Five Excellences being arts and crafts, medicine, phonetics, logic, and Buddhist studies; the Little Five Excellences include rhetoric, literary embellishment, prosody, drama, and astrology.)

If Buddhism holds an absolute importance in Tibetan culture, then calligraphy also plays a significant role in Tibetan culture. Many Tibetan calligraphies are derived from religious scriptures, and most Tibetan calligraphy artists have close connections to monasteries.


A collection of writings by a 16th century Gelug master from Tibet.Image: rubinmuseum


This work, wrapped in soft silk, includes a complete finely carved wooden cover. On the cover, there is a beautifully written calligraphy in golden ink. It is a classic representation of exquisite binding, showing the utmost respect and tribute to the wisdom of the master.


Wall panel


In traditional Tibetan culture, children initially rarely use paper for practicing writing, but instead use a special writing board called "qiangxing" in Chinese or "lengzhi" in Tibetan. Typically, a person would undergo special training on the writing board for almost two years before transitioning to writing on paper. It is believed that the history of using this writing board can be traced back at least several hundred years.

Compared to precious paper, a writing board can also be obtained. At the same time, teachers believe that through the arduous and lengthy writing training on the wooden board, the words written on paper will be more strong and beautiful, containing a powerful and robust spirit.


A little child practicing calligraphy

Image:A Little Adrift


The writing board can be said to be a shared memory of the older generation in Tibet. People who have had education experience, almost always use this special writing tool for writing practice during their early learning stage. Although the wooden board may look bulky and clumsy, it is an extremely economical, environmentally friendly, and convenient way to learn. Because the writing board with filled words can be cleaned with water, dried, and reused.

The learning tool that comes with the "wall panel" is a small cloth bag filled with white chalk. The white chalk in the bag is used to create standard writing lines on the writing board. After the older siblings in a family have finished using it, the writing board can be passed down to younger siblings to continue using. Looking back now, it is a warm and nostalgic memory.


A woman is learning how to write.



Writing practice is also a moral training.


Like many written languages in the world, Tibetan script is written horizontally from left to right. When teaching Mandarin Pinyin, a standard phonetic book is used, and writing must strictly follow the guidelines within several horizontal lines. Learning Tibetan script is similar, where students practice writing on a board by using a white chalked rope to create white lines, and then lightly pressing the rope to leave white marks on the board.


Before writing, draw a pink line on the writing board.
Image: CRIonline


Tibetan beginners' learning words are generally marked with five lines and six rows. With the deepening of learning and the mastery of writing skills, the number of lines will gradually decrease to one line, marking the final position of the text.


A writing board with a child writing on it.
Image: CRIonline


In the memories of the older generation, the process of practicing calligraphy was always filled with a sense of ritual. Students would sit cross-legged, sitting up straight, and each stroke of the character required careful attention and patience, as well as a significant amount of physical and mental effort. This kind of training in writing almost transcended the meaning of writing itself, often cultivating a kind of focus needed to complete a task, similar to the meditation training in religious beliefs. Through such rigorous training, children would benefit in their future endeavors by developing a sense of focus and dedication.

Before writing, teachers will remind children to clean the writing board thoroughly and make sure the lines are drawn straight, so that the words they write will look nice. In a way, handwriting training also becomes a moral training, containing valuable lessons in self-cultivation and good manners.


A calligraphy artist is writing.

Image: pinterest


In Tibetan tradition, writing is a highly sacred act, representing a dedication to passing on knowledge and wisdom through written words to those who eventually read them. This is a significant gesture, akin to accumulating merit. Therefore, writing is also a noble action filled with sincere and loving intentions.

Tibetan writing uses a special type of bamboo pen, which is often made from thin bamboo sticks (sometimes also using wood or bone). Unlike the pointed tip of pens used in Han writing, Tibetan bamboo pens are usually slanted and sharpened into a flat and wide shape, which gives Tibetan script its distinctively clear and bold features with varying thickness in strokes.


Tibetan writing, holding pen posture and types of pens
Image: Christopher Banigan


As a unique writing tool, bamboo pen has a long history of use in Tibetan areas. The making process of bamboo pen is detailed in the "Danjurer Jing - Craftsmanship Section". The ink used for writing, ordinary black ink is usually obtained through homemade methods. People prefer to use a more economical and convenient method, using burnt or fried grain seeds, willow branches or soy sauce mixed with water. If the final ink is relatively clear and thin, a little sugar can be added to make it more fine and viscous.

In addition to black ink, Tibetan calligraphy also uses colored inks made from gold, silver, and other mineral pigments, as well as precious Eight Treasures Ink made from various valuable materials. Calligraphy written with Eight Treasures Ink has high appreciation and collection value.


Production of mineral raw materials for writing ink
Image: Qinghai Tibetan Culture Museum


Revival and Inheritance


Just like any other beautiful tradition with a long history, the ability to resist the strong impact of modernization is gradually weakening. More and more children are getting used to purchasing convenient and affordable stationery from online stores, and the reliance on typing on computers is replacing the elegant and emotionally warm act of handwriting. The endless stream of new things is captivating and overwhelming, slowly drowning out the slow and relaxed way of life from the past.

However, it is not just in Tibet that the old is being replaced by the new, the slow by the fast is becoming a cruel reality. Traditional cultures on the verge of decline urgently need to be revived.


Child practicing calligraphy

Image: Bettmann


For thousands of years, Tibetan script has played a significant role in recording and passing down the wisdom and treasures of Tibet. Flowing through time like hot blood, Tibetan script has become the genetic code of Tibetan culture. Its role in the passing of time has elevated Tibetan script to a divine form of writing, planting seeds of infinite wisdom in the hearts of the people of the snowy region and nurturing their spirits with deep nourishment.


A calligraphy artist is writing.
Image: pinterest


Promoting the essence of traditional culture, let its magnificent parts be inherited and carried forward through conscious attention and protection. By learning traditional culture, the younger generations can truly perceive the care and respect that their ancestors had towards cultural arts, and understand the beautiful spiritual activities they once had. This is not only inheriting an aesthetic standard belonging to traditional culture, but also inheriting the spiritual strength of a nation.


The text on the Mani stone
Image: pinterest


Exploring the cultural heritage and history of Tibet


This article is translated from Sorang Wangqing's blog.

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