Magazine article Humanities

Tracing the Buddhist Path

Magazine article Humanities

Tracing the Buddhist Path

Article excerpt

TRANSLATlONS OF THE OLDEST EXISTING BUDDHIST (writings are changing how scholars believe the religion developed.

Nineteen-hundred-year-old manuscripts from the Gandhara region offer a rare glimpse of the religion as it expanded from its native India around the first century C.E. Written in the language called Gandhari, the texts are adding a new dimension to the Buddhist canons of ancient Sanskrit and the living traditions of Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan. A team of linguists and historians at the University of Washington are reconstructing these texts in an NEH-supported project with the British Library.

What the translations reveal is akin to discovering that the world is round, at least in the world of Buddhist studies. Tradition purports that Buddhist texts form a single line of development from the Buddha: as the religion spread, the Buddha's teachings were heard by disciples, then retold word for word, generation by generation.

"The Gandhari texts indicate that this is not quite accurate," explains Collette Cox, an expert on early Buddhism for the project. "We now have a multiplicity of different versions of the teachings from a very early period, which indicates that there may have been much more acceptance among Buddhists of presenting the teachings in their own way.

"It's like Greek philosophy if we only knew Plato through Socrates, and we didn't know any other Greek philosophers," continues Cox. "This is filling in a lot of gaps and adding complexity, making our tasks as scholars much more difficult, but also making our scholarly work much closer to what may have actually happened historically."

Buddhism originated in India around the fifth century B.C.H., when Siddhartha, the Buddha, developed his belief system. Although Buddhism in India had essentially disappeared by 1200 C.E., varying strains of the faith survive today in Sri Lanka, South Korea, Nepal, and other Asian countries. The big question, says Cox, is "how did it get from point A to point B?"

Scholars have long speculated Gandhara, located in northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, to be the area from which Buddhism flowed into east and central Asia beginning around 100 C.E. Temples and shrines date back to the period and the region was near the Silk Road, providing the opportunity to travel and proselytize. But this theory was unsubstantiated because there was scant written evidence of Buddhists in the area.

"If you look at the map of Asia and study the trade routes and the history and so forth, you see the likelihood that Gandhara was the funneling point from which Buddhism came out of India, went up into central Asia," says Richard Salomon, the project's director and head linguist. "And this time of the earliest manuscripts-first, second century C.E.-is when you first start seeing the presence of Buddhism in China. We think Buddhist monks went to China as missionaries, and probably went through Gandhara and carried manuscripts very similar to ones that we're looking at now."

This long-standing theory is closer to being proven because of these new manuscripts, says Cox. "Even though this hypothesis has been around for a while, we had absolutely no information about what Buddhism was like in that area. Until recently, we had archaeological remains and inscriptions but only one text. It was sort of like a black hole.... These documents actually connect Indian Buddhism to East Asian Buddhism."

Similarities are found in titles and content, and some Gandhari words appear in a transformed fashion in Chinese. "Sometimes names are translated literally in the Chinese texts," says Cox, "but at other times they are translated using Chinese characters to mimic the pronunciation of the original language. In the cases of these translations, these transliterations suggest the original texts were written in the lndic dialect of Gandhari."

Unlike religions such as Islam or Judaism, in which language is critical to the scripture, the Buddha said that monks should speak to the people in their own language. …

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