TORONTO — The volumes resemble barrel slats -- about 3 feet long and 6 inches wide. The paper, edges rounded, looks like the skimpiest gossamer but in some cases is surprisingly sturdy, even silky to the touch. The unbound, dog-eared pages are filled with faded black Tibetan script bursting with insight about religion, philosophy, poetry and enlightenment.
Some are so fragile, they cannot even be displayed.
They are obviously very old, and they radiate wisdom. So it's little wonder that a complete set is so sought after.
These are the Tiger Valley Sacred Texts, part of the literary and religious canon of the Taklung Kagyu lineage, one of the five principal spiritual traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.
To date, only 22 of the original 65 volumes have been found. Experts agree that 15 or so are probably lost forever. That means about 30 volumes are still out there -- and there's now a determined effort to find them.
"This is nothing short of saving one of Tibet's most important lineages from extinction. These texts are the repository of an entire culture, unlike anything [else] in the world," said Timothy Feher, who heads an international campaign to raise $425,000 Canadian ($306,000 U.S.) to recover, repair, digitize, republish, translate and distribute the texts.
Launched in Toronto last month, the global effort has the blessing of the Seventh Phakchok Rinpoche, head of the Taklung Kagyu lineage, said to be the most fragile of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions.
The 22-year-old lama, who had traveled from his home in Nepal, presided over a solemn ceremony that blessed the effort to find the volumes, some of which date to the 13th century.
The project has been endorsed by the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of all Tibetan Buddhists, who is scheduled to visit Toronto next spring.
Like other Buddhist texts, the Tiger Valley volumes convey the practice and rituals relating to the Buddhist concepts of kindness, compassion, mindfulness and peace. As organizers of the campaign say, 1,200 years of Taklung Kagyu literature reveal the continued importance of these ideas.
But those behind the sleuthing effort warn that, without the missing volumes, an age-old tradition may die.
When Chinese communists invaded Tibet in 1959, the main seat of the Taklung Kagyu lineage, the famed 800-year-old Riwoche monastery in the eastern town of Kham, was razed and its 1,000 monks and nuns killed or imprisoned. The monastery's 100,000-volume library was destroyed, but not before several books of the sacred texts were spirited out, most likely to India, Nepal or Bhutan.
Officials say recovery efforts began in the 1980s, when Beijing relaxed travel restrictions in and out of Tibet. Plans call for the volumes already recovered to be reprinted and distributed to Buddhist temples, monasteries and universities worldwide.
Feher said the campaign has drawn interest from some of the world's foremost scholars of Tibetan Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism.
The spiritual leader of Toronto's Riwoche Tibetan Buddhist Temple, Khenpo ("Abbot") Sonam Rinpoche, was one of the few survivors of the communist pillage of 1959. As a young monk, he escaped torture and imprisonment and today is known as a leading dharma scholar and transmitter of the lineage. He came to Canada in 1988.
He leads the international initiative to recover and edit the sacred texts -- appropriately, since he is the one who has found the 22 extant volumes in various villages in Tibet and Nepal.
Sonam Rinpoche believes the missing texts are probably still in monasteries in the region. But some could have made their way to the Chinese black market.
Editing and correction of damaged texts is expected to take until 2006. The hand-copying of a text by a qualified lama can take two years.
Employing more modern methods, monks at the Sheshen monastery in Nepal will then use computers to transcribe the texts into digital format. The data entry will take two years.
Plans call for 500 copies to be reprinted in their traditional format, known as Poti. In 2008, the newly published volumes are to make their way to monasteries, universities, temples and libraries. An English translation is also due in 2008.
So what is in these mystical tomes? Apart from expositions on dharma (the philosophy of Buddhism), there is a volume on secret teachings handed down only by oral tradition until the 19th century; commentaries on Dzogchen meditation, said to be the highest level of Tibetan Buddhist practice; rituals for the dead and dying; and a large collection of prayers, meditations and esoteric teachings.
Titles of some of the texts include "An Umbrella of Surprising Clouds" and "Downpour of Brilliant Light."
Through an interpreter, the young lama explained that the texts had been printed on handmade paper using the woodblock method of transferring ink to the page. Completed volumes were sandwiched between wooden covers stamped in rich gold or silver lettering. Today, the volumes, and more recent hand copies that are themselves hundreds of years old, are wrapped in crimson or saffron-colored cloth for storage.
"They are very old, but very beautiful," he said.