The Gandharan Buddhist manuscripts are leading scholars to rethink the origins of Mahayana Buddhism. Richard Salomon looks at what we can learn from the recently-unearthed texts.
More than twenty years have passed since twenty-eight fragile birch bark scrolls, now known to be the oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts in the world, came to light. Dating back to as early as the first century BCE, the scrolls – originating in the ancient kingdom of Gandhara, which once straddled the border between present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan – predate the earliest Pali manuscripts by several centuries. Since that initial discovery, hundreds of similar manuscripts and fragments have been recovered, all from the same region.
Buddhist academics in several countries in North America, Europe, and Asia have engaged in arduous study of the Gandharan manuscripts, the contents of which have been the subject of eight books and innumerable articles. But what does the discovery of these relics mean for Buddhist practitioners? Are they merely a matter of academic interest, or do they have the potential to shift our understanding of the original message of the Buddha in some fundamental way? Will they compel us to abandon or modify long-cherished Buddhist ideas and practice or present us with previously unimagined revelations about the Buddha’s message? The short answer to such questions is no – but also yes.
A fifth noble truth?
Once, during a question-and-answer session following a lecture I had given on the scrolls at the British Library in London, a member of the audience asked whether I had found in them “a fifth noble truth.” That is, was there anything that radically contradicted or fundamentally changed Buddhism as we know it? I answered in the negative – the doctrines presented in the manuscripts I had studied to that point were more or less in line with those of traditional Buddhism, specifically as understood within the Theravada sect.
Imagine my surprise, then, when some years later I found in one of the British Library manuscripts the following mind-blowing statement: “A fifth noble truth exists.” Even more shocking were the assertions in the surrounding passage: “The self exists; a sixth aggregate exists; a thirteenth sense-sphere exists; a nineteenth element exists; a fifth noble truth exists.” Was this some sort of bizarro version of Buddhism that denied the fundamental precepts of the dharma as we know it? When taken in the context of the surrounding text, though, it becomes clear this is not the case. The scroll containing these shocking claims was a polemic Abhidhamma treatise framed as a formal debate between the unnamed writer and an opponent representing the Sarvastivadin school. The long-defunct sect held that, with reference to the workings of karma, “everything exists at all times,” a premise the writer attempted to discredit, showing how this fundamental principle implied the existence of things any Buddhist should agree do not really exist. The “fifth noble truth,” then, was nothing but a rhetorical trick, not the message of some hitherto unknown radical dissident.
What the manuscript says
The doctrines espoused by the Gandharan manuscripts are, on the whole, consistent with non-Mahayana Buddhism, which survives today in the Theravada school of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, but which in ancient times was represented by eighteen separate schools. We find among the Gandharan translations versions of material familiar from the fundamental sutra compilations – known in Sanskrit as the agama sutras and in Pali as the nikaya collections – common to all Buddhist schools. Notable examples include the “Sutra on The Fruits of Striving” Pali Samannaphala Sutta and the “Sutra of Chanting Together” – Sangiti Sutta, found in the Pali Digha Nikaya – and the “Sutra of the Floating Log” – Darukkhandha Sutta from the Samyutta Nikaya. Other well-known texts include the “Rhinoceros Horn Sutra” and the “Songs of Lake Anavatapta,” extant in several Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan versions. The following is a translation from the Gandhari version of the “Not Yours Sutra,” which is also paralleled in the Samyutta Nikaya:
The Buddha said: “Monks, abandon what is not yours. Abandoning it will lead to benefit and happiness. Now, what is it that is not yours? Form is not yours; abandon it. Abandoning it will lead to benefit and happiness. Sensation, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness are not yours; abandon them. Abandoning them will lead to benefit and happiness.
“Here is an example: suppose someone were to cut down the grass, wood, branches, leaves, and foliage here in the Jeta forest, or were to take it away or burn it, or do whatever he wished with it. What do you think? Would you think, ‘That person is cutting us, or taking us away, or burning us, or doing whatever he wished with us’?”
The monks answered, “Of course not, Venerable Sir.”
“And why is that?”
“Because this forest, Venerable Sir, is not ourselves; nor does it belong to us.”
“In just the same way, abandon what is not yours. Abandoning it will lead to benefit and happiness. In just the same way, form is not yours; abandon it. Abandoning it will lead to benefit and happiness. Sensation, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness are not yours; abandon them. Abandoning them will lead to benefit and happiness.”
Thus spoke the Lord.
Besides these new versions of texts familiar from Buddhist canons in other languages, though, there are others – a great many of them – either never seen before, as in the case of the Abhidhamma debate mentioned above, or that appear in surprisingly different forms. Among the most interesting of these is a series of edifying legends presented in the form of laconic summaries casually jotted into the empty spaces of previously used scrolls. One of the most noteworthy is a brief and divergent version of the universally familiar story of Prince Vessantara – here called by his nickname, Sudashna – the paragon of generosity:
The story of the Bodhisattva’s previous life as Sudashna, to be told as an example: Since he was an all-giving king, he gave his mighty elephant to a brahman. The king also surrendered his chariot and gave away his children. Then Sakra, king of the gods, came from the sky and spoke this verse to him: “Truly this man is black, and black is the food that he eats.” The whole story is to be told at length.
This story is emblematic of the way the Gandharan texts are simultaneously like and unlike their parallel versions in the more familiar Buddhist canon. Strikingly, the full telling of the Vessantara story in the Pali jataka runs 115 pages, whereas the Gandhari version is boiled down to a four-line summary. This is an extreme example of the principle of expansion-and-contraction within Buddhist literature, according to which a narrator may, depending on the audience or other circumstances, string out his message to great length, abridge it, or even, as here, present it in the barest outline form. Here we see from the concluding notation, “The whole story is to be told at length,” that the scribe was jotting down the bare skeleton of his repertoire of tales by way of a memory prompt, presumably as preparation for a lesson or sermon.
But there is another surprising twist in this story. The verse Sakra speaks to Sudashna/Vessantara seems to be the wrong one – this verse appears in the Pali jataka stories not in the Jataka of Vessantara, but in that of Kanha. This is startling, and even somewhat unsettling, given how well known the Vessantara story is throughout the Buddhist world, all the more so because the verses are considered the essential core of the jataka stories, with the prose narrative deemed to be mere commentary. It would be tempting – but probably incorrect – to dismiss this anomaly as a memory error on the part of the scribe. It is unlikely the scribe would have misremembered an important passage from such a fundamental text. Rather, it seems we are dealing with an unexpected variant of the Vessantara story that circulated in Gandhara but did not survive into the canonical Buddhist literatures of later times. This situation is emblematic of the overall character of the rediscovered Buddhist literature of Gandhara: the broad textual framework and the main doctrinal principles are familiar, but the details are often different, sometimes subtly and sometimes, as here, dramatically so.
Other casual sketches scrawled into the spaces of earlier manuscripts involve not legends from the time of Buddha or from his previous lives but stories about notable figures who lived at the time of the scrolls’ creation. Among these are rulers of the kingdoms of the early centuries of the Common Era, previously known to us from their coins and inscriptions. These legends illuminate the historical context of the manuscripts themselves as well as the adoption of Buddhism by these foreign conquerors. A collection of fragments very recently discovered turned out to be a ledger of gifts to a monastery – a record of donations by the Kushana king Vima Kadphises, who ruled in the early second century CE. This is a spectacular discovery, revealing rare details of the relationship between secular powers and Buddhist institutions.
There have been many other surprises, as well. Sprinkled among the many dozens of texts are ten examples of Mahayana sutras – including ones well known in Sanskrit, Tibetan, or Chinese, such as the “Perfection of Wisdom Sutra” and the “Bodhisattva Basket Sutra” – as well as others previously unknown in any language. These texts are leading scholars to rethink the long-debated origins of Mahayana Buddhism, revealing Gandhara to have been a – though not necessarily the – center of early Mahayana. The texts have also called into question the widespread assumption that the Mahayana sutras were originally composed or set down in Sanskrit, rather than a regional dialect such as Gandhari. Even more significant are the circumstances of the discovery of these ten Mahayana sutras. In every case, they constituted part of larger groups of manuscripts, the majority of which were non-Mahayana texts. Thus, we’re left with the impression that Mahayana Buddhism in the early centuries of the Common Era was not institutionally, and perhaps not even doctrinally, distinct from what later came to be called the “Hinayana” or “Lesser Vehicle.” All indications are that the more traditional or conservative practices coexisted with Mahayana ideas, even within the same monastic communities.
What has been lost
The discovery of previously unknown texts also offers a hint of how much of the Buddhist literature that once existed has not come down to us. The fact that extensive remnants have come to light in Gandhara is no coincidence but rather a result of particular climatic and cultural factors. Gandhara lies beyond the central monsoon zone, whose extremes of heat and humidity prevent the long-term survival of organic materials such as birch bark or palm leaf. Additionally, the Buddhists of ancient Gandhara had a practice of ritually interring their manuscripts in clay pots or other containers in the precincts of their monasteries, further promoting their preservation. It was likely due to these incidental factors that the oldest known Buddhist manuscripts were found in Gandhara, and not because such manuscripts were unique to the region. Similar texts must have existed elsewhere – perhaps everywhere – in the Buddhist cultures of the Indian heartland, but there is virtually no chance such manuscripts would have survived the deleterious effects of the monsoon climate.
The discovery of some random fragments of the literature of Gandharan Buddhism from the beginning of the Common Era is significant in part because it enables us to triangulate with the Pali and partial Sanskrit canons and begin to see all three as merely the surviving fragments of a vast tapestry of local Buddhisms and Buddhist literatures. Even from the tattered remnants of this grand tapestry, we can discern common threads in the form of shared basic texts, particularly among the sutras recognised, at least in theory, as authoritative by all schools, which still form a common core of beliefs and principles.
But we also find differences – sometimes minor and technical, sometimes significant and surprising – among the texts of other genres, many of which seem to be locally composed materials: commentaries, scholastic treatises and debates, local stories, hymns of praise to the Buddha, and more, which together comprise as much as half of the Gandharan manuscript material. In short, we find a shared conceptual foundation on which the various regional and sectarian traditions have built their own superstructures. Some of the differences are merely formal, for example in their differing formulation and arrangement of the materials, while others are more substantial, as in the Gandharan reconception of the Vessantara story.
Multiple Buddhist canons
One of the clear messages these texts seem to have for contemporary practitioners is that it’s not helpful to think of Buddhism in terms of a contrast between a single original source and the implicitly inferior derivatives of that primal source. Rather, the complexity and variability of Buddhist teachings appear to have been built in from the very beginning. After all, one of the Buddha’s special qualities was said to be his intuitive ability to adapt his teachings to the capabilities and needs of the person or persons to whom he was speaking. On a linguistic level, the Buddha in the vinaya urged his followers to spread his message “in one’s own dialect.” India, from antiquity to this day, has always been a land of vast linguistic diversity. We should not assume, then, that the Buddha himself, or his contemporary followers, restricted themselves to a single language or dialect. The linguistic and textual diversity that characterises Buddhism existed from the very beginning. Thus, any search for the exact, true, original words of the Buddha is not only doomed to disappoint but misconceived from the start. It would make more sense to think in terms of multiple Buddhism existing virtually from the very beginning, perhaps even during the lifetime of the Buddha.
This is not, of course, how the various sectarian, regional, and linguistic traditions present themselves. Inevitably, they portray themselves as the sole – or at least the most authentic – keepers of the dharma. After all, in Buddhism, as in other realms, history is written by the victors, or at least by the survivors. The Buddhisms that have existed over the centuries loom large simply because they survived and flourished. They too embody the history of Buddhism, but from a wider perspective, they are each only one part out of many.
The Pali canon of the Theravada school looms especially large. In the popular conception, it is considered the true and original Buddhist canon, due to a confluence of favorable circumstances. The Theravada Pali canon is the only complete surviving Buddhist canon in an Indian language. It is the canon of one of the most vital surviving schools of Buddhism over a wide geographical area, and it was the canon and form of Buddhism that first became known to European scholars. But in the time since awareness of Buddhism spread around the world in the nineteenth century, the discovery of other schools and canons has drastically shifted this point of view. For example, it has been clear since the early twentieth century that there existed in northern India and Central Asia complete Buddhist canons in Sanskrit, representing the texts of the Sarvastivada and of the eighteen traditional schools. The discovery in the last two decades of extensive remnants of one or more canons in the Gandhari language has broadened the picture even further, requiring us to speak of multiple Buddhisms and multiple canons throughout the Indian Buddhist world.
Extrapolating from what we now have – a slightly larger fraction of the whole – we can begin to conceive of the vast variety and richness of the many Buddhisms, the immense intellectual and spiritual production that must have coexisted in early India. This – along with the vast treasures of technical and historical data they provide – is the greatest gift the Gandharan manuscripts grant us.
What’s a Buddhist to do?
Returning to the question of what, if anything, these discoveries mean for modern Buddhist practitioners, there are no answers that will appease everyone. Each individual practitioner must determine how to proceed for him or herself. On one hand, one can safely ignore the new material without missing anything essential to the theory or practice of Buddhism. On the other hand, Buddhists may wish to dip a toe – or even plunge headfirst – into these previously uncharted waters. Modern Buddhists may be inclined to see the diversity that characterised Buddhism throughout its history as an emblem of strength rather than cause for doubt or confusion, a source of richness rather than conflict. The insights that the Gandharan manuscripts provide into the wealth and variety of thought and belief during a formative stage of Buddhist history, and the perspective they provide on the overall question of what Buddhism is, offer personal enrichment for those who seek it out.
This article first appeared on Lion’s Roar.