A question which motivates much of the modern scholarly study of Buddhism, whether stated explicitly or left implicit, is: “How do we know, in an academic, historical sense, what Buddhism was really like in antiquity?” Historically-oriented scholars cannot simply rely on reading back from later or contemporary information in order to reconstruct ancient Buddhism, since changes in practice and doctrine are in the very nature of any religious tradition, and once established they tend to become thought of as original and ancient, even when they are not.
Therefore we must turn to other sources of information which can give more direct testimony as to the earlier phases of Buddhism, for example, to archaeological evidence. Especially useful are inscriptions, which often reveal otherwise unknown ancient practices and rituals, sometimes interestingly different from or even in contradiction with the doctrinal stances of the canonical texts. For example, the Tirath footprint inscription from the Swat Valley of modern Pakistan, dating from the first century B.C.E., labels a pair of footprints in a rock as “The footprints of the Buddha Sakyamuni” (bodhasa śakamunisa padani) ( fig.1). (Like the manuscripts which will be discussed in the second part of this article, this inscription was recorded in the local language of the north- western part of the Indian subcontinent, Gāndhārī, and in the Kharosthī script.) This illustrates the popularity at this relatively early period of the cult of Buddha’s footprints, and this practice is confirmed by another vital source of information, namely the descriptions of Indian Buddhism recorded in the records of Chinese pilgrims. The renowned Xuanzang, who travelled in Swat in the early seventh century C.E., described this very footprint, and was told that “according to their religious merit, people see it as longer or shorter.”
This report gives us an insight into popular beliefs and practices which the standard textual sources do not reveal to us.
But in the end, it is still the Buddhist texts themselves which are our most important and most abundant sources for understanding the roots and branches of Buddhism. Here I refer, first and foremost, to the canonical texts proper, that is, the so-called Tripitakas which were compiled and preserved by various Buddhist communities in various languages and with doctrinal orientations. Also of great importance are the secondary, paracanonical and non-canonical texts of the ancient Buddhists, especially the commentaries on the canonical texts, which show us how ancient Buddhists understood their scriptures.
But Buddhist literature is very vast, and equally diverse. Not only are each of the various canons enormous bodies of literature in themselves, but their contents can be very different. If we compare, for example, the contents of the Pali Tipitaka and the Tibetan Kanjur, we will find a great deal that is different and very little that is the same. Given the great diversity of Buddhist literatures and canons, how can a student of the history of Buddhism ever hope to recover a clear idea of the corpus of Buddhist scriptures which were read and studied by ancient Buddhists? The best way is through discoveries of ancient manuscripts, which are the central topic of this article. However, I must warn from the start that no scholar can realistically hope to find in manuscripts, no matter how old, the original words of the Buddha in an absolute sense; this for several reasons, but above all because Buddhist texts only began to be written down several centuries after the lifetime of the Buddha. The most we can hope for is to find specimens of buddhavacana from the earliest period at which they were set in writing, that is, probably, around the first century B.C.E. And the good news is that we now have many such specimens, some of which I will brie y introduce here.
But before addressing these recent discoveries, I would like to mention brie y two examples of previous discoveries of relatively early manuscripts which, during the past century, have drastically improved our understanding of the development of Buddhism in India and beyond. The first group is the so-called Turfan manuscripts, which were discovered in the early twentieth century in the ruins of ancient oases around the Takla Makan desert in modern Xinjiang (People’s Republic of China). Here were found huge numbers of manuscript fragments in Sanskrit, dating from the third to the seventh centuries A.D., which revealed large portions of the Sanskrit canon of the Sarvāstivāda school and brought to life a vast but previously unknown Buddhist culture in Central Asia with close links to Indian Buddhism on the one hand and with China and its emerging Buddhist culture on the other. Another major discovery of Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts near Gilgit in northern Pakistan in 1931 provided valuable testimony about the Sarvāstivādin Sanskrit canon as well as about Mahāyāna sūtra literature in northwestern India around the seventh century C.E.
These discoveries, among others, led scholars of Buddhism to rethink the priority of the Pali/Theravāda canon, which had been assumed by many of the pioneers of the modern historical-comparative study of Buddhism. Because the Pali canon was the only complete Buddhist canon surviving in an original Indian language, because it was carefully preserved by a strong living tradition in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and because it was the first Buddhist literature that came to the attention of modern European scholars, especially in the English-speaking world, it was originally assumed that it represented the original and authentic corpus of Buddhist texts. But in the course of the study of the Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts from northwestern India and Central Asia, as well as investigations of the Chinese and Tibetan translations of Indian Buddhist texts, it gradually became clear that another extensive Buddhist literature had once existed in Sanskrit, and that this literature had an equally valid a priori claim to authenticity and antiquity.
For example, the well-known “foundational” texts of.the Suttapitaka of the Pali canon, such as the Mahāpadāna-sutta, Sangīti-sutta, and the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta, were revealed to have existed in Sanskrit versions as well, which differed in detail from the corresponding Pali suttas but were essentially variant versions of the same text. Moreover, when the Sanskrit and Pali versions are compared objectively, no compelling reason emerges to privilege the one or the other as more original or authentic. Although the Sanskritic Buddhist cultures of northwestern India and Central Asia died out many centuries ago, so that their scriptures come down to us only in random sets of fragments, these literatures are in principle as valid and authentic as the complete and intact canons of the Pali tradition. In fact, in terms of the age of the actual manuscripts, some of these northern documents are many centuries older than the earliest known Pali manuscripts.
Part of articles in the DIRI Journal Volume 2
Written by Professor Richard Salomon (University of Washington)