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Deciphering an Ancient Buddhist Manuscript

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Somewhere in eastern Afghanistan, Taliban soldiers may well be sharing a cave with vessels containing Buddhist texts that were created 2,000 years ago. 

Maybe. But for now, one of the oldest and most important ancient Buddhist manuscripts is found on the UW campus. 

Manuscript

The saga began several months ago, when Richard Salomon, professor of Asian languages and literature, heard about a previously unknown ancient Buddhist manuscript belonging to a private collector in the United Kingdom.

This manuscript was of particular interest to Salomon because he directs the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project, which began in 1996 as a partnership with the British Library to analyze a scroll that came into the library’s possession. Salomon was able to demonstrate that the British Library scroll was among the oldest Buddhist manuscripts in existence, dating from the first or second century. Since that revelation, Salomon, along with professor Collett Cox and several graduate students, have been at work deciphering the letters on the scroll fragments and translating the text. 

Salomon and Cox were excited about acquiring a scroll for the UW that could complement the British Library holdings. From looking at portions of the scroll in a digitized form, they were sure it was from the same part of the world—near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan—and about the same time period as the pieces in the British Library. They brought the information to the UW Libraries staff. 

“We don’t have collections of this type, says Libraries Director Betsy Wilson, “and we don’t have expertise for conservation of birch bark. But after talking with Rich and Collett, we were convinced that from a scholarly perspective, this was something worth acquiring.” 

Wilson began making phone calls around campus to see if others would join the libraries in raising funds. “Each call I made was greeted with enthusiasm,” she recalls. “More than one person told me, ‘This is the most important humanities research going on at the University.’ “ Within four days, the necessary funds were raised from private sources at the UW and from some key individuals. 

As luck would have it, Wilson herself was about to travel to London on business and arranged to pick up the scroll. Normally, a special courier would be hired to transport such a treasure, at a cost of about $10,000.

With the scroll in Seattle the work began. Salomon and Cox were impressed with the condition of the manuscript. Still, it was far from intact. After all, it was written on birch bark 2,000 years ago. What they had were eight fragments from a much larger document. The fragments were not contiguous. But each piece that they analyzed seemed to deal with the same general topic. They soon realized that the manuscript was a commentary on suffering—by far the oldest ‘raw’ (unedited and not reworked) commentary on Buddhist teachings that has been discovered.

The task of deciphering and interpreting the text and its companion at the British Library will take decades. The Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project group meets at least once a week to discuss a portion of the text. They will read a line and see what words might be represented. The possible interpretations vary widely, and fitting the pieces together is like a giant puzzle. Does a particular line refer to sailors on a ship, or to women making bread? Some meetings will be very productive and the group will agree on the meaning of a line or two; other meetings are just frustrating. 

“We had one five-hour session discussing a blank space and what might belong there,” Cox recalls. While the work is tedious, the rewards for a scholar are great. “We have very little detailed evidence from this critical period in the history of early Buddhism,” Cox says. “From these texts we will learn a lot about monastic life and early Buddhist history. We’ll learn what elements of the tradition were considered important at that time, and how Buddhist teachers of that era saw the history of their religion.” 

There’s a great benefit in having the actual documents here and not working from digital images. “Sometimes,” explains Salomon, “we can take a close look at the scroll and fill in a portion of the text in a way that isn’t possible with a digital image.” 

In the small community of Buddhist scholars, Salomon knows that others would “give their right arm” to have a look at the scroll itself. “We got lucky,” he says. “This might have been snapped up by a private collection and disappeared from view and from scholarly access.” 

The team already has produced three volumes of analysis of the British Library texts as part of a series on Gandharan Buddhist Texts, published by University of Washington Press. Three other manuscripts are in preparation. But working on the UW manuscript is now the highest priority. 

One of the next steps will be to develop a plan for conservation and preservation of the manuscript. UW Libraries will be hiring an outside conservator with expertise in working with birch bark. Until this conservation work is completed, access to the manuscript will be extremely limited, as each movement of the pieces can cause new damage. The libraries will be raising additional funds for conservation. 

“This is not just another text,” says Cox. “It is of a completely different order of significance. It’s difficult to describe the magnitude of what we have here. When scholars complete their analysis of this material, it will be revolutionary in how we conceive of early Buddhist monastic life.”