Australian Efforts Uncovering Buddhist History
By Shar Adams, Epoch Times Australia, Aug 14, 2007
Sydney, Australia -- Researchers around the world are moving a little closer to understanding the early history of Buddhism with the help of Australian scholarship and science.
Carbon dating performed by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) has confirmed that ancient manuscripts that surfaced in Afghanistan in the 1990s are among the earliest Buddhist texts ever found and also the earliest Indian manuscripts.
Australian researcher Dr Mark Allon says ANSTO confirmed that two manuscripts from what is known as the Senior Collection, were compiled between 130AD and 240AD, and three manuscripts from the Schoyen Collection (named after its Norwegian discoverer), date between the first and fifth century AD.
Dr Allon, who is considered to be the first person to read some of the texts since they were written, said that prior Buddhists texts had been written in ancient Pali and Sanskrit language but the actual manuscripts were quite recent, as late as 17th, 18th, and mostly 19th Century,
"So here you have a manuscript witness to the story that goes back thousands of years before," he told the ABC.
The manuscripts are extremely important to an understanding of the history of Buddhism in the North-West of India, he said, particularly, as it was through this region that Buddhism was transmitted to Central Asia and China.
"They are the oldest extant Buddhist manuscripts. They open up a new field of studies, namely the study of Buddhist manuscripts and Buddhist literature from the North-West of the Indian subcontinent."
Buddha, who lived in the North-Eastern Bihar and Uttar Pradesh regions of India, died around 400BC and left no written texts. Sermons and stories of his enlightenment were initially passed through word of mouth, but were later written down in early languages of the Indian Gangetic Plains. Although these earlier writings and later commentaries did not last in their original form, they were rewritten in various language groups including Sanskrit and Pali to constitute a vast written tradition.
"Buddhism was originally an oral tradition, but little is known about how it developed from spoken word to written word," Dr Allon said. "So the discovery and date confirmation will give us a unique insight into the development of Buddhist literature." Dr Allon, a lecturer in the Department of Indian Subcontinental Studies at Sydney University, is part of an international team of scholars, the main group of which is based at the University of Washington in Seattle under Professor Richard Salomon.
Their field of study comprises three different collections of ancient Buddhist material – the British Library Collection which includes the Diamond Sutra, the oldest printed book to bear a date (868BC), found in China's Dunhuang Caves in the early 1900s by Hungarian explorer Sir Aurel Stein; the Schoyen Collection that surfaced in caves in the Bamiyan area of Afghanistan made famous more recently by the Taliban's destruction of its massive Buddhist carvings; and the Senior Collection which came from the ancient Gandhara region corresponding to the modern day Afghanistan and North-West Pakistan.
Dr Allon is one of the few scholars versed in Gandhari language which he says is related to Sanskrit and Pali, the language of present Buddhist texts in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma.
"It [Gandhari] is not the earliest language used," Dr Allon explained to The Epoch Times ." It is just that the manuscripts that were written in those languages have survived because of the climate, because of the dryness in that area."
"As monks moved into different areas they translated the texts into local languages so local Gandhari is the language that was current in North–West India at that early period from about the third century BC to the fourth century AD".
Dr Allon said the Buddhist manuscripts are also fundamental to understanding the transmission of Buddhism to China "since Buddhism came to China primarily through the North-West of India, through ancient Gandhara and many of the early Chinese translations of texts were probably in the Gandhari language".
While there have been many new insights into the transmission of Buddhism and the particular period in history that the manuscripts were written Dr Allon says what is most remarkable is the consistency of Buddhist teachings.
"It is often amazing when you think, here is a text preserved in Sri Lanka and a text preserved in ancient Gandhara, huge distance apart in different languages and yet they are so similar.
"It tests a degree of fidelity in the tradition," Dr Allon said.