The University of Washington – Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project:

Rediscovering the Worlds’ Oldest Buddhist Manuscripts

I. Origin of the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project

The Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project (EBMP) was constituted in 1996 to study a collection of Buddhist manuscripts dating from the first century a.d. which had recently been discovered in Afghanistan and acquired by the British Library. The British Library contacted Professor Richard Salomon of the University of Washington’s Department of Asian Languages and Literature requesting that he supervise the study and publication of these unique documents, and shortly thereafter an agreement was signed between the library and the university, establishing the EBMP with Professor Salomon as director of the project and Professor Collett Cox as assistant director. Subsequently, a contract was drawn up between the EBMP and the University of Washington Press for the publication of the results of the research in a new series entitled “Gandhāran Buddhist Manuscripts.” To date, six volumes in this series have been published by EBMP research scholars, with a seventh to be issued shortly.

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II. Development of the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project

Preliminary studies of the British Library manuscripts, as detailed in the EBMP’s first volume, Richard Salomon’s Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhāra, revealed that the twenty-eight birch-bark scrolls in the British Library collection contained a wide variety of Buddhist texts written in the Kharoṣṭhī script and the Gāndhārī language, the ancient vernacular of northwestern India. The texts were dated to the first century a.d. on the basis of linguistic evidence and historical references in the manuscripts. This means that they were the earliest surviving manuscripts of any Buddhist texts, dating from a time very shortly after the Indian Buddhists first began to set their scriptures down in writing.

Since the discovery of the first collection of Gandhāran Buddhist manuscripts, four more groups of similar documents have been found, and all of them are being studied by the EBMP and affiliated research groups. This work is bringing to light a forgotten Buddhist culture of the Gandhāra region of northwestern India and eastern Afghanistan. Although Gandhāran Buddhism itself died out in later centuries, it played a crucial role in the historical development of Buddhism, not only in its Indian homeland but also throughout Asia. For it was from Gandhāra that Buddhism began to spread beyond India into Central and East Asia, to become the world religion that we know today. In fact, the first Buddhist books to travel outside of India must have been Gandhāran birch bark scrolls very similar to the ones the EBMP is now studying.

Some of the most recent discoveries have offered two major surprises. First, two of the newest manuscripts were subjected to radiocarbon (C14) testing and yielded dates in the first century b.c., even earlier than had been expected. Second, six specimens of Mahāyāna texts such as the Prajñā-pāramitā and Akṣobhyavyūha-sūtra have been recently identified, testifying for the first time to the presence of the Mahāyāna at an early period in Gandhāra.

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III. The Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project Today

The EBMP currently consists of a research group located in Seattle under the direction of Professors Salomon and Cox together with two post-doctoral researchers (T. Lenz and S. Baums), several graduate students, and collaborators in other parts of the USA as well as in Australia, Germany, and Japan. Project members are engaged in two main activities. The first is the ongoing publication of scholarly editions and annotated translations in the Gandhāran Buddhist Texts (GBT) series; currently, one volume is in the press and three more are well on the way to completion. The second priority is the on-line Gāndhārī Dictionary Project (http://www.ebmp.org/a_dictionary.php), which is producing the first dictionary of the Gāndhārī language, compiled according to the most up-to-date digital technology combined with rigorous linguistic scholarship.

The books published by the EBMP to date are listed below. In addition, a large number of articles and other scholarly and popular articles have been published by EBMP researchers; these are listed in the Bibliography of Gāndhārī Studies on our website (http://www.ebmp.org/a_bibliography.php).

Preliminary survey volume (1999): Richard Salomon, Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhāra: The British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragments.

GBT 1 (2000): Richard Salomon, A Gāndhārī Version of the Rhinoceros Sūtra: British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragment 5B.

GBT 2 (2001): Mark Allon, Three Gāndhārī EkottarikāgamaType Sūtras: British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragments 12 and 14.

GBT 3 (2003): Timothy Lenz, A New Version of the Gāndhārī Dharmapada and a Collection of PreviousBirth Stories: British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragments.

GBT 4 (2007): Andrew Glass, Four Gāndhārī Saṃyuktāgama Sūtras: Senior Kharoṣṭhī Fragment 5.

GBT 5 (2008): Two Gāndhārī Manuscripts of the Songs of Lake Anavatapta (Anavataptagāthā): British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragment 1 and Senior Scroll 14.

GBT 6 (forthcoming in 2010): Timothy Lenz, Gandhāran Avadanas: British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragments 1, 2, 3, and 21, and Miscellaneous Fragments A-Z.

Texts currently under preparation for publication include:

Mark Allon, Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhāra II: The Senior Collection

Stefan Baums, A Gāndhārī Commentary on Early Buddhist Verses: British Library Fragments 7, 9, 13 and 18.

Collett Cox, A Gāndhārī Abhidharma Text: British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragment 28.

Timothy Lenz, Gandhāran Avadanas II: British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragment 4.

Jason Neelis and Timothy Lenz, Gandhāran Avadanas III: British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragment 16.

Richard Salomon et al., Mahāyāna Sūtras in Gāndhārī in the Schøyen Collection: The Bodhisattvapiṭaka- and Sarvapuṇyasamuccaya-sūtras.

Richard Salomon, The Gāndhārī *Bahubuddha-sūtra: The Library of Congress Scroll.

Tien-chang Shih, A Gāndhārī Version of the Dārukkhanda-sutta: Senior scroll 19.

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IV. The future of the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project

The EBMP is structured as an open-ended project with no fixed date of completion. The number of manuscripts and related materials now available is well over one hundred and still growing, and each one requires detailed and time-consuming study by one or more dedicated scholars. The Gandhāran Buddhist Texts series will therefore be continued indefinitely, and may eventually run to twenty volumes or more. In addition to these scholarly volumes, collateral publications for other audiences are now planned: a textbook and a grammar of the Gāndhārī language for students and scholars in other fields, and one or more volumes of translations or anthologies of the texts for a broader Buddhist and lay audience. Our priority is to see that this new material, which is of revolutionary importance for the history of Buddhism, is on the one hand treated according to the highest standards of scholarship and on the other hand made available in a useful and readable form to the wider world of Buddhists and Buddhist studies.

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V. Funding history, Prospects, and Needs

The EBMP has been supported since its inception in 1996 by grants, gifts, and support in kind from the University of Washington, the Henry R. Luce Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In addition, donations from sympathetic individual supporters have been a major source of support, including one anonymous friend who has generously contributed annually since the inception of the project. These funds have covered the major costs of the project, mainly funding for post-doctoral researchers and graduate students, leave time for the faculty members, and general operating costs such as travel and equipment.

However, the directors of the EBMP are now concerned about the long-term funding prospects of the project. Much has been accomplished, but much more remains to be done, and despite the project’s strong record of publication and public dissemination, after thirteen years the danger of “donor fatigue” is beginning to loom. Two separate divisions of the National Endowment for the Humanities have supported the EBMP since 1999, far longer than it usually supports such projects, but we have concerns as to how long they will be able to continue to do so, especially in these times of financial stringency. Private donors, especially our generous anonymous supporter, are continuing to help, but have expressed concern about the need for additional sources of funding. The project directors are therefore urgently exploring other possible sources in order to at least continue this work at its current level, and hopefully even to expand it.

The principal needs of the EBMP are:

  • 1. Funding for graduate student fellowships: The long-term future of the project is ultimately dependent on recruiting new students who will carry on its work. While we have succeeded up to now in attracting and supporting excellent students such as T. Lenz, J. Neelis, A. Glass and S. Baums, we still are at a disadvantage in competing with better-endowed universities for top-grade applicants. Therefore, one or more fully-funded multi-year graduate fellowships is a high priority for the future success of the EBMP.
  • 2. Post-doctoral research positions: Since its inception, the EBMP has been able to annually fund at least one and often two full-time post-doctoral research scholars from various combinations of funding sources. These positions have been central to the project’s success to date, and many of the publications reflect the work of these individuals. However, we cannot expect permanent commitments from institutions and individuals who have already supported us generously for many years, and we are hoping to find alternative sources of funding for this central aspect of the project.
  • 3. Faculty leave time and support: Another key element in the EBMP’s success to date has been the leave time which it has provided for the lead investigators, Professors Salomon and Cox, to pursue their work on the manuscripts. This too has in the past been funded from a combination of grants and donations, and we anticipate the need for different sources in order to continue to be able to buy research time.
  • 4. Publication costs: The expenses involved in the publication of the volumes of the Gandhāran Buddhist Texts series are high and rising; currently, the preparation and printing of each volume costs approximately $10,000, which is paid almost entirely from project funds and is a serious strain on our finances. The establishment of a stable source of funding for future publications, ideally in the form of an endowment, is therefore another priority.
  • 5. Endowment: The ultimate goal of the EBMP is to establish a permanent endowment fund to support some or all of the four categories listed above on a stable basis in order to ensure the long-term continuation of the project. Moreover, the process of applying for grants and other funds has become a major drain on the time and energy of the project directors and other participants; the establishment of a secure endowment would enable them to focus entirely on the research work itself.

For further information, please visit our website at:

http://www.ebmp.org/

Dr. Richard Salomon

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