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The head of a Buddha statue. Credit: Richard / Adobe Stock. Inset: Fragments of a birch bark manuscript from ancient Gandhara. Credit: British Library (public domain)

Scholars Get Closer to Words of Buddha as They Unravel Oldest Buddhist Scrolls in the World

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The oldest Buddhist scrolls ever discovered were made on birch bark and spent two millennia folded in clay pots, in a cave, situated along the northern border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and now they’re bringing team of researchers “close, very close” to the words of Buddha.

In 1994, around 200 scrolls were discovered in clay pots in a cave on the Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the ancient kingdom of Gandhara , left behind by a culture which flourished between 100 BC and 200 AD.

“Gandhara was a vibrant crossroads of Indian, Iranian and Central Asian cultures,” writes The British Library . “At the peak of its influence, from about 100 BC to AD 200, it was perhaps the world's most important centre of Buddhism and was almost certainly the gateway through which Buddhism was transmitted from India to China and elsewhere, to become one of the world's great religions.”

The team of scientists is being led by Dr Mark Allon of the University of Sydney, which according to an article on ABC News “is digitising some of the 2,000-year-old manuscripts, which have only recently been unfurled.” Through this teams work the public will soon have online access to the writings to help them understand the ancient teachings.

Fragments of birch bark writings from ancient Gandhara. Credit: British Library

Fragments of birch bark writings from ancient Gandhara. Credit: British Library (public domain)

Dr Allon is one of only 20 people in the world who can read the ancient language and he told reporters that the scrolls are taking researchers “Way, way back… Closer to the Buddha.”

The scrolls are rolled up in a way which the scientists say “differentiates them from other artefacts in the area.” They are cigar-like and exceptionally fragile. So fragile in fact that if someone so much as breathed on them, they would crumble into powder, and Dr Allon explained that before being unfurled they are “exposed to moisture over several days” before the layers are slowly teased out.

The exceptionally fragile birch bark scrolls being studied

The exceptionally fragile birch bark scrolls being studied by Dr Mark Allon. Credit: Mark Allon

Interpreting Ancient Buddhist Communications

In 1994, the British Library acquired the scrolls and in 1996 the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project was founded at the  University of Washington , specifically according to their website “To promote the study, edition and publication of twenty‐seven unique birch‐bark scrolls, written in the Kharoṣṭhī script and the Gāndhārī language.”

In his younger years, Dr Allon learned “Sanskrit, Tibetan, some Chinese and Pali, the liturgical language of the Theravada Buddhist canon, practised in South-East Asia” and he told reporters that the scrolls “contain prayers, stories of the past lives of the Buddha, monastic training rules and philosophical discourses.”

In answering the important question “who made the scrolls”, Dr Allon believes it was “faithful nuns and monks” recording the Buddhist doctrine. And, the reason the team claim to be “close, very close” to the words of the Buddha has real substance, for according to the British Library , “There is evidence to suggest that these texts may belong to the Dharmaguptaka school, one of the eighteen or twenty early Buddhist schools said to have originated from the Mahīśāsakas.”

Fragment of birch bark writings from ancient Gandhara

Fragment of birch bark writings from ancient Gandhara. Credit: British Library (public domain)

A Traceable, Noble and Ancient Heritage 

William H. Swatos’ 1998  Encyclopedia of Religion and Society informs: “The Mahīśāsaka is one of the early Buddhist schools that is thought to date back to the legendary dispute in the Second Buddhist council and the Dharmaguptaka sect is thought to have branched out from the Mahīśāsaka sect at the beginning of the 1st century BCE.”

Traditions say the Second Council resulted in ‘the first schism’ in the assembly of the Sthavira nikāya and the Mahāsāṃghikas, although it is fiercely debated as to what the cause of this split was.

Then, in Dr. K. Sri Dhammanada’s paper What Buddhists Believe, we learn the “Second Buddhist council” occurred approximately “one hundred years after Gautama Buddha's  parinirvāṇa”, a word which means (“ nirvana-after-death”). This concept occurs after the death of the physical body of someone who had attained  nirvana during their lifetime.

With such a traceable, noble and ancient spiritual heritage, the scrolls are indeed as Dr Allon claims - “close, very close to the words of Buddha.”

Top image: The head of a Buddha statue. Credit: Richard / Adobe Stock. Inset: Fragments of a birch bark manuscript from ancient Gandhara. Credit: British Library (public domain)

By Ashley Cowie

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