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Buddhist Beginnings on Birch Bark

The Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project

October 2016

After acquiring 29 fragments of ancient manuscripts on birch bark scrolls, the British Library turned to experts in the UW College of Arts & Sciences to decode and study them. The manuscripts, which date from around the first century BCE, are the oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts as well as the oldest manuscripts from South Asia.

The UW established the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project in 1996, with Asian languages and literature professors Richard Salomon and Collett Cox leading a team that has studied the manuscripts ever since, with support from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Dhammachai International Research Institute, and other sources. While some of the manuscripts are related to texts in other languages, many have no parallels in previously known Buddhist literatures. More recently discovered manuscripts have expanded the project’s scope to more than 75 scrolls and hundreds of smaller fragments.

“The significance of these manuscripts for Buddhist studies is potentially comparable to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls for Judaism,” says Salomon, the William P. and Ruth Gerberding University Professor. “These texts represent a substantial portion of the long-lost Gandhari Buddhist canon.”