The Kangyur

  • Tib.: བཀའ་འགྱུར།

First published 2010. Last updated 6th Jun 2024.

The collected scriptures: the Tibetan translations of the Indian texts that are considered to be the words of the Buddha.

The Kangyur and its divisions

The Kangyur is the principal collection of the Buddhist scriptures in Tibetan. It contains some 900 works in over 100 volumes, all translations into Tibetan of the Indian texts considered to record the words of the Buddha (while its sister collection, the Tengyur, contains translations of the treatises composed by the great Indian Buddhist masters and scholars).

Most Kangyurs (see below) are divided into sections or divisions containing scriptures of different kinds. Their order may differ, but broadly comprise Vinaya (Discipline), Sūtra (Discourses), and Tantra, sometimes with an additional collection of Dhāraṇī (Incantations). The Sūtra section often comprises several separate divisions, which have here been grouped together for clarity under one heading, Discourses, but can be seen as subdivisions within it.

The order of the sections and texts here follows that of the Degé Kangyur, and the individual texts have been numbered according to the widely used Tōhoku catalog, which also follows the order of the Degé Kangyur and Tengyur (Ui, H. et al. eds. A Complete Catalogue of the Tibetan Buddhist Canons. 1934: Sendai, Japan. Tōhoku Imperial University.)


The word Kangyur (bka’ ’gyur) literally means “the Word” (bka’) “translated” (’gyur). Translation of the scriptures brought to Tibet began in earnest in the late 8th or early 9th centuries during the reign of King Trisong Detsen, and continued under his successors Senalek and Ralpachen. Translation in this initial imperial period was a highly organized, state-sponsored project, carried out by learned Indian masters (paṇḍita) working with trained Tibetan translators (lotsāwa) under the supervision of a chief editor (zhu chen).

This prolific “early propagation” (snga dar) period saw the translation of a large majority of the sūtra works now found in the Kangyur, and the tantras of the early propagation that are now collected in the Nyingma Gyubum (rnying ma’i rgyud ’bum). It was brought to an end by the 9th century persecutions of King Langdarma, but a second wave of translation activity accompanied the period of the “later propagation” (phyi dar) starting in the 10th century, and texts brought from India (particularly tantras) continued to be translated for several hundred years.

Early descriptive inventories such as the early 9th century Denkarma (ldan kar ma) and Pangthangma (’phang thang ma, probably a decade or two later) record the titles and other details of the translated texts held in particular libraries, and systematized them into categories. Different collections of sūtras (mdo mangs), tantras (rgyud ’bum) and other categories of texts existed in many monasteries, but the Kangyur itself, as a deliberately compiled and edited collection, only gradually took form and was never formally closed to the addition of newly translated texts. Even today, there is no single, authoritative version of the Kangyur. It is perhaps more accurate to speak of “Kangyurs,” for the extant versions, while broadly similar in their content, differ considerably in their detail and in the ordering and classification of the texts.

Some scholars hold that most Kangyurs can be traced back to work done in the early 14th century at the Kadampa monastery of Narthang (snar thang) near Shigatsé, where Chomden Rigpai Raltri (bcom ldan rig pa’i ral gri) and his disciple Üpa Losal Sangye Bum (dbus pa blo gsal sangs rgyas ’bum) collected and copied the best available copies of texts from many monastery libraries in the region. It may have been on the basis of this collection that two distinct (though later intertwined) lineages or traditions of Kangyurs evolved. One of these started with an edited version of the Kangyur produced at the monastery of Tshal Gungthang in 1347-1351, and is known as the Tshalpa (tshal pa) Kangyur tradition. The other tradition is called the Thempangma (them spangs ma), from a manuscript so named that was produced at Gyantsé (rgyal rtse) in 1431 from sources in the locality; it may have had its roots in another edited and rearranged version developed by the great scholar Butön Rinchen Drup (bu ston rin chen grub, 1290-1364) and his followers at the monastery of Zhalu (zha lu) in the mid 14th century and later at Gyantsé, too, although there is direct evidence only of Butön’s work on the Tengyur. Butön had earlier (in 1322 or 1323) compiled a list of translated texts (both Buddha-word and treatises) arranged according to a taxonomy of his own devising, and his choice of texts and classification scheme had some influence on many Kangyurs of both traditions.

New Kangyurs were compiled, edited, and copied or printed through the centuries in different places all over the Tibetan cultural area, often as a meritorious action sponsored by a local ruler as well as an opportunity for editorial re-arrangement and improvement. The way the two main traditions of Kangyurs influenced each other in these versions was complex and involved not only the versions and variants of the texts they contain but also‍—independently‍—their classification and the structure of their divisions.

However, with several caveats, it can be said that the manuscript Kangyurs known (usually from their present location) as the Ulan Bator (1671), London (c.1712), Stok Palace (stog pho brang, 1729), and Tokyo (1858-1878), are closest to the Thempangma tradition, while the Tshalpa tradition is reflected in the xylograph Kangyurs of Yongle (made in Beijing in 1410, the first printed Kangyur) and its “Peking” successor printings the Wanli (1605), Kangxi (several between 1684 and 1720), and Qianlong (1737); the Lithang (1609-1614) and Coné (1721-1731), also xylographs; and the Berlin manuscript (1680).

Almost all of these Kangyurs contained at least some elements of the other tradition, and several of the Kangyurs most used today are conflations to an even greater degree (in various differing ways) of the two traditions. These include the Narthang (1730-1732), Degé (1733), Urga (1908-1910), and Lhasa (or zhol, 1934) xylographs.

Outlying, local Kangyurs have come to light in recent decades (e.g. the Phuktrak, Newark Batang, and Tapho manuscripts) whose contents may reflect earlier stages of the independent circulation of collections of translated texts.