Blood writing in Buddhist scrolls
Among the thousands of manuscripts uncovered from a walled up library cave at Dunhuang, northwest China, at the turn of the twentieth century, were a group of Buddhist scrolls copied by a man in his eighties. The texts are all linked by a similar colophons, identifying the old man as the scribe and documenting his advancing years. One of the scrolls, S.5451, today held at the British Library, shows the man at 83 years old demonstrating his piety by copying out a Buddhist scripture in his own hand, using ink mixed with his own blood. The colophon reads:
Copied by an old man of 83, who pricked his own hand to draw blood [to write with], on the 2nd of the 2nd month of 'bingyin', the 3rd year of Tianyou (27 February, 906).
These documents illustrate a widespread belief in Buddhist cultures that by copying, or commissioning a copy of a Buddhist sutra, individuals would demonstrate their piety and devotion to the Dharma, or Buddhist doctrine, and in so doing accrue merit for their passage to the next life.
Not only was it believed that by replicating the words or image of the Buddha one could demonstrate and build on one’s own piety but also that doing so might improve the karmic lot of one’s relatives or loved ones, alive or already passed. To this end, wealthy donors and patrons commissioned artists and craftsmen to decorate caves, create elaborate murals, and copy out Buddhist scriptures. More modest individuals achieved similar ends by spreading the word via the oral traditions of storytelling and music, or by copying out scriptures in their own hand. The most pious sometimes gave their own blood to do so, as a particularly demonstrative and efficacious means of accruing religious merit.
The practice of blood-writing seen in this scroll seems to have been uncommon in other Buddhist cultures; while in China it actually predated the appearance of Buddhism. Acts of self-mortification also extended to more extreme practices of self-mutilation such as the amputation of fingers, and even self-immolation (burning oneself alive) as a means of demonstrating devotion and piety. The example shown in our scroll S.5451 is not common among the Dunhuang manuscripts held at the British Library but it demonstrates an important phenomenon among pious Chinese Buddhists, which continued through to the seventeenth century.
Education & Training Coordinator, The International Dunhuang Project
James Baskind, Mortification Practices in the Obaku School, Essays on East Asian Religion and Culture, Edited by Christian Wittern and Shi Lishan, Kyoto 2007