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Tue Jan 21, 2020, 11:16 PM

How the Gandharan Manuscripts Change Buddhist History


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.
So, What Do the Manuscripts Say?

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:

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Reply How the Gandharan Manuscripts Change Buddhist History (Original post)
WhiteTara Jan 2020 OP
Mike 03 Jan 2020 #1
WhiteTara Jan 2020 #2

Response to WhiteTara (Original post)

Wed Jan 29, 2020, 09:13 AM

1. Fascinating article!

Thanks for sharing this.

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Response to Mike 03 (Reply #1)

Wed Jan 29, 2020, 12:21 PM

2. Isn't it?

I'm taking this to my Tibetan teacher and ask him about this too.

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