Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Earliest birch tree Buddhist scrolls of Gandhara

Gandharan Scroll fragment
Gandharan Buddhist scroll, 1st century AD (British Library Or. 14915, 30v)

Gandharan Scrolls 
These scroll fragments, from an extraordinary collection of birch bark writings from ancient Gandhara (formerly part of India's western frontier, present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan) may represent the oldest surviving Buddhist texts (and also the oldest South Asian manuscripts) ever discovered.

What is Buddhism?
Buddhism is arguably more a philosophical outlook, or spiritual tradition, more than a "religion." [It is a path of practice, a set of instructions to seeing for oneself, to developing serenity and compassion, gaining liberating insight, and glimpsing nirvana.]
It does not believe in a supreme deity and does not look for a relationship between humanity and God. It centers on the search for enlightenment (bodhi) through the practice and development of virtue (sila), meditation, and wisdom, taking a "middle way" through life.
Compassion, and a regard for the interconnected nature of life, is central.
Buddhism dates back [at least] 2,600 years to when Siddhartha Gautama, or "the Buddha," achieved enlightenment under a sacred fig tree. There are two main surviving sects, Theravada [the Teaching of the historical Buddha's direct disciples, the Elder or theras] and Mahayana ["Great Vehicle"] Buddhism, and many smaller ones, splinter groups from Mahayana.

There are an estimated 300-500 million Buddhists worldwide [not counting more than 1 billion living in officially atheist China], including around 150,000 in Britain.
Who was Siddhartha Gautama?
The founder of Buddhism began his life in wealth and privilege. Siddhartha Gautama was born the son of an Indian king (territorial chieftain of the Shakya clan) in approximately 566 B.C. At his birth, a Brahmin prophet declared that he would become either a powerful king (chakra-vartin) or a great spiritual leader. Mindful of this prophecy, his father kept him ensconced in luxury in palaces, shielding him from the harsh reality of the world by surrounding him with distracting comfort: silken clothes, friends, precious jewels, and beautiful women.
Bamiyan, Afghanistan, near Kapil'/Kabul
Then one day, when he was 29, Siddhartha was overcome by curiosity (or one way or another was struck that life was not actually as he had perceiving it all his life). He dressed in disguise and slipped away from the palace. Beyond its walls he witnessed four sights that filled him with distress: a decrepit old person, a diseased person, a dead person, and a wandering ascetic. Seeing such misery, he renounced his birthright and made a strong determination to lead a life of physical austerity and spiritual uplift in order to find a way to end to human suffering (dukkha, disappointment).
Eventually he moderated this lifestyle of severe deprivation and found the "Middle Way" avoiding extremes of luxury and austerity. Sitting beneath a Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa), according to tradition, he achieved a profound understanding of the cycle of death and rebirth by emerging from profound absorption (jhana, dhyana) meditation then immediately practicing insight meditation (vipassana), contemplating the question, "Where does this present suffering (unsatisfactory state) have its origin?" He saw the links of causation called Dependent Origination, which led him to the realization that our state now has its causes and conditions in past karma, past lives, and present responses to the results of those actions. He saw his past lives, understood the causes of misery -- craving, aversion, and most of all delusion (wrong view, confusion, ignorance). The light of wisdom dawned on him. Through his great enlightenment, that of a supremely self-awakened buddha rather than a disciple, Siddhartha became the Buddha, the fully "Awakened One."
The Buddha taught for 45 years, providing his disciples and hearers with many sutras (discourses) and detailed explanations. The recitation of these formalized sutras -- traditional teachings or sermons first written in Buddhist Sanskrit -- is an important part of Buddhist devotional and practical observances.
What was Gandhara?
Gandhara was a great kingdom straddling the northeast portion of India (Maha Bharat, loosely affiliated janapadas or clan territories), present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was a rich and vibrant crossroads of Indian, Iranian (Aryan), and Central Asian cultures. At the peak of its influence, from about 100 BC to AD 200, it was perhaps the world's most important center of Buddhism (the site of the original Kapilavastu, Siddhartha's hometown, his father's capital, not far from modern Kabul in the vicinity of the Great Buddha statues of Bamiyan, according to Dr. Ranajit Pal), and was almost certainly the gateway through which Buddhism was transmitted from India to [Greece, Bactria, Sogdiana] China, Mongolia, Japan, and elsewhere, to become one of the world's three great (or universalist) religions.
  • [Note: a chakra-vartin is a world monarch, but here in a spiritual warrior sense rather than an ordinary warrior sense, highly esteemed by the Buddha's caste, the kshtriyas or warrior nobles. So in a sense the prediction at his birth came to pass, and his father's wish to have a son become ruler of the world in a mundane sense failed. But his father and a considerable portion of his clan benefited from the Buddha's teachings and gained ordination and enlightenment].
Photos of Band-e-Amir National Park, Bamyan
Band-e-Amir National Park, Bamiyan, Afghanistan (TripAdvisor)
What do the Gandharan scrolls say?
Archaeological evidence for Gandhara's Buddhist culture abounds, but until recently there has been little documentary evidence of its literary or religious canon.
The British Library acquired this collection of 13 scrolls, written in Kharosthi in 1994, which together represent a substantial proportion of the long-lost Gandharan Buddhist canon.
Texts so far identified range from technical to philosophical teachings to popular didactic verse, such as the "Rhinoceros Horn Sutra" and the "Song of Lake Anavatapta." 
[This could refer to Lake Band-e Amir near Bamiyan or Hamun-e Helmand near now earthquake-ravaged Sistan Balochistan (at the crossroads of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan), nearer Siddhartha's mother's original homeland, in the vicinity of modern Iran, according to Dr. Pal. But since Bamiyan, near the real Kapilavastu, is below the Himalayan foothills of the Hindu Kush mountain range, Lake Anavatapta could refer to any Himalayan body of water, such as those in Tibet.]

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