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Australian Scholar’s Major Contribution to
Buddhist History

By Graeme Lyall AM

Resulting from the imminent destruction by the Taliban, following the driving out of the Soviet occupying forces from Afghanistan, many antiquities found their way to markets of Peshawar in Pakistan. It was from here that three major manuscript collections of ancient Buddhist scripts in the Ghandari language, one of which was acquired by the British Museum, another was the Shoyen Collection, which was discovered in the Bamian region of Afghanistan and the Senior Collection which originated from ancient Ghandhara which covered Afghanistan and North West Pakistan.

These manuscripts were on birch bark and survived due to the dryness of those particular areas. A translation project, Early Buddhist Manuscript Project, was launched by the British Library/ University of Washington, based in Seattle, under Professor Saloman, in 1996. One of the major contributors to this project is Dr.Mark Allon of the University of Sydney.

Dr.Mark Allon

Dr.Mark Allon

Dr Allon studied Pali, Sanskrit, some Chinese, Tibetan and Ghandari at the Australian National  University in Canberra before leaving for Oxford University in the United Kingdom where he obtained his Ph.D., majoring in Pali. He returned to Australia in 2002, taking up a research scholarship in the Department of Archaeology on the Ghandhari manuscripts and is currently Lecturer, funded by the University Buddhist Education Foundation, of which Graeme Lyall is the Chairman, in Buddhist Studies and Pali, in the Department of Languages and Culture in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney,.

In 2006, Dr.Allon approached the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, ANSTO, to have these manuscripts, now commonly known as ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls of Buddhism’, carbon dated. Dr.Geraldine Jacobsen undertook the delicate chemistry required to prepare these scripts for dating. Dr.Jacobsen said that, as they had never tested birch bark before she needed to see that she got the chemistry right as, sometimes, samples don’t survive the pre-treatment stages. She added, “In the treatment, we had to remove any impurities that might have affected the date and, as we had no idea how the scrolls were handled or if any conservation attempts were made, we had to use a series of organic solvents, such as hexane, chloroform and methanol to remove grease or resins. This process was followed by washing with acid and alkaline solutions which remove other possible contaminents, including the solvents we used in the first step, as these would also affect the dating if they remained.”

The test sample indicated that the bark samples would survive the dating process in the nuclear accelerator. This process is known as accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS). This dating procedure indicated that the Senior Collection dates from between 130 and 250 CE and the Shoyen texts date between the 1st and 5th centuries in the Common Era.

Similarly to the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered between 1947 and 1956 in Qumran on the shore of the Dead Sea, the Buddhist scrolls were contained in jars, one of which was inscribed that it was a donation and was to be placed in a stupa. Another similarity is that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in Aramaic, the language reputedly later spoken by Jesus Christ and still spoken by the Mandaens from Iraq, and the script of the Ghandari Manuscripts is Kharoshti which was adapted from the Aramaic script, predominant in this region as the administrative language of the Achaemenid Empire which stretched from Persia to the Indian subcontinent until the time of Alexander the Great who conquered it in the 4th Century BCE.

Sample of Ghandari birchbark script

A segment of the birchbark Ghandari Manuscript

It may be argued that these manuscripts were a part of the antiquities of Afghanistan and were, in reality, stolen property, finding their way to the market in Peshawar has preserved them from possible destruction had they fallen into the hands of the Taliban. Actually, study of the Shoyen Scripts, which were housed in Norway, was shut down for a time due to such criticism as to their being stolen material. However, the Norwegian Ethics Committee maintained that scholars had an obligation to make this material available to the wider public in order to expand knowledge and understanding.

As most current Buddhist scripts, written in Pali and Sanskrit are of very recent origin, dating from as late as the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. However, Dr.Allon suggests that it is amazing that the texts preserved in Sri Lanka and these texts originating from ancient Ghandara, and both being in different languages, are so similar in their content. For example, Professor Richard Saloman, in his translation of the Rhinoceros Sutra, which appears in the scripts writes “Laying aside violence towards all beings, not harming even one amongst them, benevolent and sympathetic with a loving mind, one should wander alone like the rhinoceros.” And another verse, familiar to those familiar with the Dhammapada, states: “If one should not find a wise companion, a well behaved strong fellow, then like the king who has abandoned the realm that he had conquered, one should wander alone like the rhinoceros.” It demonstrates that the original teaching has withstood the test of time.

One Ghandari Manuscript, translated by Dr,Mark Allon, observes: “The Buddha’s teaching is easy to perform, but only by a wise man, not a fool.” Dr.Allon is a living embodiment of this sentiment.

Adams, Shar. Australian Efforts Uncovering Buddhist History, From ‘Epoch Times’, August 14th, 2007
Kelly, Sharon. ‘Dead Sea Scrolls of Buddhism’ – The Missing Link, Media Release in Velocity, from Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), Thursday, 9th March, 2006.
Kohn, Rachael. Interview with Mark Allon in The Buddhist Scrolls. Pt 2,  on “The Ark”, ABC Radio National, 24th June, 2007.

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