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No one’s—and everyone’s, it turns out.
Long-lost scrolls shed some surprising light.
Two thousand years ago, Buddhist monks rolled up sutras written on birch bark, stuffed them into earthen pots, and buried them in a desert. We don’t know why. They might have been disposing of sacred trash. Maybe they were consecrating a stupa. If they meant to leave a gift for future members of the Buddhist community—a wisdom time capsule, so to speak—they succeeded; and they could never have imagined how great that gift would turn out to be.
Fragments of those manuscripts, recently surfaced, are today stoking a revolution in scholars’ understanding of early Buddhist history, shattering false premises that have shaped Buddhism’s development for millennia and undermining the historical bases for Buddhist sectarianism. As the implications of these findings ripple out from academia into the Buddhist community, they may well blow away outdated, parochial barriers between traditions and help bring Buddhism into line with the pluralistic climate of our times.
Sometime probably around 1994, looters unearthed 29 birch bark scrolls somewhere in eastern Afghanistan or northwest Pakistan, an area once known as Gandhara—a Buddhist cultural hotspot during the early Christian era. The scrolls appeared on the antiquities market in Peshawar, having weathered the same turbulent political climate that would lead to the Taliban’s demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The British Library acquired them in 1994.
The scrolls arrived rolled up, flattened, folded, and disintegrating. Curators carefully unpacked and examined them. They found the script indecipherable, the language unusual. Suspecting that they might in fact be written in the forgotten language of Gandhari, they immediately sent a photograph to Richard Salomon, a professor of Sanskrit and Buddhist studies at the University of Washington, one of a handful of early Buddhist language experts worldwide who could read Gandhari.
The news soon came that the birch bark scrolls were the oldest Buddhist manuscripts known. (Now called the British Library Collection, these scrolls are in the process of being translated by the Early Buddhist Manuscript Project, a team of scholars under Salomon’s direction.) The initial find was followed by several others throughout the following decade. Today there are at least five collections worldwide, comprising roughly a hundred texts and several hundred text fragments dating from the first century B.C.E. to the third century C.E. The Gandharan collections are not only the oldest extant Buddhist manuscripts but also the oldest surviving manuscripts of South Asia, period. They reach back into an era when the oral tradition of Buddhism probably first began to be written down.
Preliminary inventories and initial translations reveal that many texts are Gandhari versions of previously known Buddhist material, but most are new—including never-before-seen Abhidharma (Buddhist philosophy) treatises and commentaries, and stories set in contemporary Gandhara. The collections contain the earliest known Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) texts and the earliest textual references to the Mahayana school, both first century C.E. Taken together, these scrolls and scroll fragments are a stunning find: an entirely new strand of Buddhist literature.
According to experts in Gandhari, the new material is unlikely to reveal earth-shattering facts about the Buddha. And don’t expect big surprises in terms of new doctrine either— no fifth noble truth is likely to be found. But the discovery of a new member in the Buddhist canonical family has profound implications for practitioners. It settles the principal justification for long-standing sibling rivalries among Buddhist traditions, and it does so not by revealing a winner but by upending the cornerstone—a false paradigm of history—on which such rivalries are based.
Buddhist tradition maintains that after his awakening, the Buddha taught for some 45 years throughout eastern India. Among his disciples were a few, including his attendant Ananda, who had highly trained memories and could repeat his words verbatim. It is said that after the Buddha’s death, his disciples gathered at what we now call the First Council, and these memorizers recited what they had heard. Then all the monks repeated it, and the single and definitive record of the “words of the Buddha” [buddhavacana] was established. Thus was the Buddhist canon born.
Or was it?
Every school of Buddhism stakes its authority, and indeed its very identity, on its historical connection to this original first canon. Buddhists of all traditions have imagined that our texts tumble from the First Council into our own hands whole and complete—pristine—unshaped by human agency in their journey through time. This sense of the past is deeply ingrained and compelling. If our texts don’t faithfully preserve the actual words of the Buddha in this way, we might think, how could they be reliable? Isn’t that what we base our faith on?
But as we’re about to see, history works otherwise. And having a view more in line with the facts here frees us from chauvinist views and gives us grounds for respecting differences between and within diverse Buddhist schools. As for undermining our basis for faith, not to worry. To get in line with the facts, we’re not going to abandon Manjushri’s sword of wisdom. We’re going to use it.
I first heard about the Gandharan manuscripts while living in Germany in 2009, when I attended a lecture on early Buddhism by Professor Salomon, who was visiting from Seattle. The complex details of the talk he delivered left me mystified— at that point the technicalities of early Indian philology stood as a dense forest I hadn’t yet entered. But I was curious about those scrolls. I wanted to understand what this new literary tradition meant for Buddhist practitioners like me.
While searching online, I found a 2006 talk by Salomon in which he first unveiled for a general audience the importance of translators’ findings. Toward the end of that talk, my attention became riveted. As Salomon was explaining, scholars had traditionally expected that if they traced the various branches of the tree of Buddhist textual history back far enough, they would arrive at the single ancestral root. To illustrate this model, he pointed to a chart projected on the screen behind him. The chart showed the Gandhari canon as the potential missing link along an evolutionary ladder—the hypothetical antecedent of all other Buddhist canons. “This is how someone who began to study this [Gandharan] material might have thought the pattern worked.”
As scholars scrutinized the Gandhari texts, however, they saw that history didn’t work that way at all, Salomon said. It was a mistake to assume that the foundation of Buddhist textual tradition was singular, that if you followed the genealogical branches back far enough into the past they would eventually converge. Traced back in time, the genealogical branches diverged and intertwined in such complex relationships that the model of a tree broke down completely. The picture looked more like a tangled bush, he reported.
Here is where I clicked Rewind: these newly found manuscripts, he declared, strike the coup de grâce to a traditional conception of Buddhism’s past that has been disintegrating for decades. It is now clear that none of the existing Buddhist collections of early Indian scriptures—not the Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, nor even the Gandhari—“can be privileged as the most authentic or original words of the Buddha.”
It is odd how matters enacted on the wide stage of history can sometimes present themselves immediately in the close corners of personal life. I am a Mahayana practitioner; my partner practices in the Theravada tradition. The challenge of accommodating differences in the Buddhist family is an occasional cloud that hovers over our dinner table. What Salomon was saying seemed to indicate a new way of viewing and working with sectarian clashes at whatever level they might occur.