Every Friday afternoon at the University of Washington a group of scholars and students gather their laptops, electronic tablets, projectors, and infrared images of ancient birch bark scrolls and hike up to a windowless room on the mezzanine floor of Gowen Hall for some not so old-fashioned detective work. The objective of their sleuthing is to coax a little meaning from the most ancient Buddhist manuscripts known to still exist. An image of one piece of one side of a birch bark scroll (the original buried in the vaults of the British Library) is projected on the wall and the group attempts to decipher the small scribblings of an ancient scribe.

Here is an image of the Paleography of the script, provided by Timothy Lenz:

The Karoshthi script

The Karoshthi script

and here are some pictures of the fragments themselves:




One of the most fascinating things I learned while attending a “Klub meeting” was that they have now identified six Mahāyāna text fragments among these most ancient scrolls, which will perhaps forever change the way scholars view Mahāyāna history. The paper will be published soon and I will be sure to note it here on the blog when it does.

The birch bark scrolls the Karoṣṭhi Klub works with come from the original collection of 24 manuscripts found in what is now Afghanistan and brought to the British Library. The Early Buddhist Manuscript Project, headed by Dr. Salomon and Dr. Cox since the early ’90s, now encompases 76 manuscripts, counting those from the sister project in Berlin. The actual scrolls appear to originate between the 3rd century BCE and second century CE, with a few possibly from as late as the 4th century CE. The scripts found in them are derived from Aramaic and it is believed that the manuscripts are actually second generation copies of older manuscripts from Indic peoples in the area. Along with a small group of dedicated scholar-translators each working on specific texts, the group meets to look at some of the more difficult or debated pieces of birch bark to decide which barely visible splotches of ink accord with which Karoṣṭhi consonants. When I visited the Klub with Karl Brunnhölzl, the group looked at Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese versions of the sutra they were trying to decipher. In this case, they were able to locate later versions of the text represented in the birch bark scrolls in several languages, apparently due to the help of Japanese scholars who produced critical editions of the earliest available versions of the text in Sanskrit and Tibetan. The project and the club are an amazing example of international support and cooperation between scholars of all kinds. Currently one of the graduate students in the program is a Chinese nun who helped decipher the classical Chinese text in order to contribute to the attempts at inferring how to read the broken areas of the earliest manuscript.  Karl was there that day to give input on reading the Tibetan, but usually they lack a Tibetan specialist as the once great Tibetan studies program at UW no longer exists.

The physical scrolls can be several meters long, the Dammapada figuring somewhere beyond five meters, but most are no longer than two. After so many hundreds of years the scrolls are often preserved in many pieces, with the parts on the outer most roll of the scroll being the most damaged and the hardest to read. The writing can be found sometimes on both sides of the multi-layered brown, pastry-like scrolls and this can, at times, also make for difficult reading. However, infrared images were taken of many of the scrolls, which allows the scholars to sometimes decipher the scribe’s ancient hand in the most distressed birch bark. Despite all these difficulties seven of the manuscripts have been edited and analyzed and first readings have been made of most of the texts. The full text of all the manuscripts are present in an online searchable database and the Ghandari Dictionary Project is in full swing.

Early Abhidharma Text in translation:

Dr. Collett Cox, a specialist in Abhidharma literature and Sarvastivada Buddhism, is currently working on British Library Fragment 28, an Abhidharma text with no parallel in any other language and an unclear relationship to any possible source text. It appears to be a very early example of a polemical text, a snapshot of the development of Buddhist philosophy, with a structure similar to Kathāvatthu (ca. 2nd-1st c. BCE), although it is in prose and does not contain a list of topics. Some context of the discussion in the text seems to resemble the Abhidharmakośa. So far Dr. Cox has seen that one of the main threads of discussion running throughout the text is an argument about the existence of past and future events. The author sets up an opponent who claims the existence of “factors” (dharmas) in past and future times and uses prasaṅga to show the absurdity of such a claim. Hopefully it will not be too many more decades before we learn more about her findings. Because of the lack of support always a problem with such university projects, there has been little time for translation and apparently Dr. Cox has been working on this particular fragment for many a year.

In my short time with this wonderfully eclectic group I was amazed at the work they do and the technology that has allowed them to do it. These are the most ancient Buddhist texts left in the world and it is really amazing to see the devotion such a small group of scholars has shown towards the project of studying and translating them. However, no attempt has yet been made to make some translations available to a wider public, as the several books published so far are linguistic and paleographic studies meant for specialists eyes. Despite lack of funding, I am told that they do hope to compile a collection of translations of earliest sutras for a book sometime in the near(er) future. If they are able to publish it, I would think that many Buddhists around the world would be interested in the contents of these earliest versions of sutras and other texts.

If anyone has any questions or interest in learning more about this project, let me know: Marcus@tsadra.org

One Response to “The Karoṣṭhi Klub at The University of Washington”

  • Hi Marcus. Did you know that the Kharosthi alphabet began with a ra pa ca na ? Those syllables are also the first syllables of some fourty sentences from a Prajnaparamita Sutra, the most famous of which is the “mantra” Om akaro mukham sarvadharmanam etc.

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