Base of sixth century temple found in Stung Treng province

Officials in Stung Treng province have discovered the foundation of a sixth century temple during a survey in a biodiversity conservation corridor in Borei O’Svay Senchey district.

The foundation and an ancient pond nearby were found on Tuesday during a joint survey carried out by the provincial environment and culture and fine arts departments in Ou Svay commune’s Rithy Senchey village.

Eng Phearong, director of the Stung Treng provincial environment department, said yesterday preliminary research showed the temple was built in the sixth century, as the foundation was made up of large bricks.

“We still do not know the name of the temple, as we have just discovered it,” he said. “Experts will do a detailed study to find the name, size and height of the temple.”

“The area will be designated as a heritage conservation site,” Mr Phearong added.

He said the foundation was 10 metres long and 20 metres wide and is in a fragile condition and was partially hidden by undergrowth.

Som Thon, head of the Cultural Heritage Bureau of the provincial culture and fine arts department, said that yesterday it is the seventh ancient temple that has been recently found by officials in the area.

He said that according to the ministry’s policy, when a new ancient temple is found 30 metres to 300 meters of the surroundings would be designated as a conservation area.

Angkor Wat May Owe Its Existence to an Engineering Catastrophe

By Joshua Rapp Learn

The collapse of a reservoir in a remote and mysterious city could have helped Angkor gain supremacy

The empire controlled much of mainland Southeast Asia by the beginning of the 10th century A.D., but unclear rules of succession combined with a complicated web of royal family intermarriages led to a crisis. Jayavarman IV, a grandson of a previous king, contested the rule of the leaders in Angkor, the traditional seat of power. In the 920s, he set up a new capital at Koh Ker, about 75 miles to the northeast. Koh Ker flourished until 944 when Jayavarman IV’s son and successor was killed, and the next Khmer king moved the capital back to Angkor.

“It’s a very interesting period in Angkorian history where it looks like you’ve got serious competition for rulership,” says Miriam Stark, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

Without this turmoil at the new capital and a move back to Angkor, the grand treasures of Southeast Asia—such as the astounding Angkor Wat and jungle-eaten Ta Prohm—may never have been built in subsequent centuries. Now, a new study published recently in the journal Geoarchaeology shows that there was more than political intrigue at play. A water reservoir critical for large-scale agriculture in the Koh Ker area collapsed around the time the capital moved back to Angkor.

“It provides clues as to what’s going on in the empire during that time,” says Sarah Klassen, director of the Koh Ker Archaeological Project, and a post-doctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

After the Flood

Compared to widely studied societies such as the ancient Egyptians or the Maya, relatively little is known about the Khmer Empire. What scholars have learned about the royal lineage of the empire, which lasted from the beginning of the 9th century A.D. to the empire’s gradual decline starting in the 14th century, mostly comes from inscriptions on temple structures. In recent years, archaeologists like Klassen have begun using new techniques and technologies to learn more about this powerful kingdom.

Klassen and her colleagues completed LiDAR (light detection and ranging) surveys in 2012 at both Koh Ker and Angkor to map aboveground ruins, including an area near a large Khmer reservoir where a chute would have let excess water discharge downstream towards a river. Archaeologists had previously identified a dike and saw that it had broken down at some point. In 2015, they excavated part of this chute area, then returned in 2016 with ground-penetrating radar, which showed that the blocks built to limit the outflow of water had eroded.
A reservoir at modern-day Angkor Wat
A reservoir at modern-day Angkor Wat (Joshua Rapp Learn)

“There were extreme flows of water leading into the dike, and the chute wasn’t large enough to handle that and the whole thing broke,” Klassen says. The researchers believe all this happened in a single event that also wiped out a spillway and would have caused downstream flooding. Klassen speculates that such a flow of water may have damaged the agricultural land downstream.

While the team can’t be sure of the exact date, she says that the water system was likely built under the reign of Jayavarman IV. The evidence suggests the system may have collapsed as early as during the first or second rainy season after the reservoir was filled. “That would have been right around the time when political control was shifting back to Angkor,” Klassen says.

Her team can’t say whether the collapse happened before the move—suggesting it contributed to the collapse of Koh Ker as a capital —or after, meaning it may have been caused by a lack of attention or upkeep after the Khmer power players left town. Stark, who was not involved in Klassen’s study, argues that ultimately the timeline may not matter. What’s important, she says, is that rulers at Koh Ker probably could have fixed the problem if they had the will or the engineers to do so.

“What happened is people walked away,” she says. “What happened is they stopped making workarounds.”

Water Is Power

Piphal Heng, a post-doctoral archaeology researcher at Northern Illinois University who studies Cambodia but who was not involved in Klassen’s study, says engineered water systems would have allowed Angkorian rulers to accumulate power through rice agriculture and extend their sway through neighboring states. Heng says it remains unclear whether Jayavarman IV’s rule competed with or cooperated with parallel rulers at Angkor. However, it appears that he had control of most of the empire while at Koh Ker. Klassen says the water management feature in Koh Ker would have been the largest in the Khmer Empire at the time, and Heng says this system shows how the new capital would have quickly set about establishing its power base.

Alison Carter, an assistant professor in anthropology who was also not involved in Klassen’s study but has worked with Stark and Heng, said in an email that Cambodia’s monsoon climate means that water availability shifts dramatically throughout the year, and much like today, the ancient Angkorians needed to learn how to manage water in large cities.

“What this study shows is that the people at Koh Ker hadn’t figured out this delicate balance,” she says of Klassen’s work. “In contrast, the people at Angkor seemed to have a better handle on the landscape and engineering needed to sustain a flourishing city there for several centuries.”
Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia, overgrown
Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia, overgrown (Joshua Rapp Learn)

Decline and Fall

The quick rise and fall of Koh Ker set of a series of events that culminated in the creation of Angkor Wat, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

Once Rajendravarman II moved the capital back to Angkor after the death of Jayavarman IV’s son Harshavarman II in 944, he set about expanding the empire and building temples in the Angkor area. The Khmer Empire grew throughout the next few centuries, with each successive king building more temples. Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century. Later, during the reign of one of the greatest kings, Jayavarman VII, Khmer people built Bayon, Ta Prohm and other temples in the area. They also built increasingly complex water management systems to control the monsoons and consolidate power.

But the empire’s decline in the 1400s may have been foreshadowed by Koh Ker’s demise. A period of extended drought in the late 1300s was followed by floods that may have overwhelmed the water infrastructure of the city, according to research conducted by a team including scientists from this Koh Ker study.

Tegan Hall, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Melbourne who has worked on Koh Ker (but who wasn’t involved in Klassen’s study), says in an email that while Angkorians tried to mitigate problems with their water system, eventually they could not keep up.

“The water infrastructure system at Angkor was enormous, highly interconnected (and interdependent) and very complex, and was ultimately ruined by a series of cascading failures in response to an increase in climate extremes,” she said.

Dhammakaya Sect is Building Bangkok’s Next Top Buddha

BANGKOK — A gigantic Buddha statue under construction in western Bangkok is set to become the city’s tallest Buddha figure when it is completed later this year.

The 69 meter tall statue – approximately the neck-craning height of a 20-storey building – is being built by followers of the Dhammakaya sect at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen. Sitting in meditation posture, the massive structure is made of gilded copper and cost about 100 million baht to build.

“The money came mostly from local donations,” Phra Kru Pisal Sangkaphinit, a temple spokesman, said in an interview.

During a recent visit, the statue’s upper body was nearly completed. Temple staff believes work will finish by July.

The statue is called Buddha Dhammakaya Dhepmongkol, or the Great Buddha in short. Once completed, it will rise over the current tallest Buddha figure in Bangkok, the 32-meter statue of Wat Indraviharn.

But the achievement will still stop short of rivalling the tallest Buddha statue in Thailand, which sits at 92 meters in Ang Thong province.

Wat Paknam is considered the birthplace of the Dhammakaya, a school of Buddhism popular among wealthy urbanites and politicians. The sect, which believes in purity of the body’s soul, has drawn controversies in recent years for its alleged emphasis on earthly riches.

Its former head abbot, 75-year-old Dhammajayo, is currently on the run from the authorities on charges related to money laundering.

NOMA Presents “Buddha and Shiva, Lotus and Dragon: Masterworks from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection at Asia Society”

NEW ORLEANS (press release) – The New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) presents Buddha and Shiva, Lotus and Dragon: Masterworks from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection at Asia Society, on view March 13 through June 7. Presenting nearly seventy of the finest examples of Asian art in the United States, Buddha and Shiva, Lotus and Dragon showcases the broad range of bronzes, ceramics, and metalwork assembled by John D. Rockefeller 3rd (1906–1978) and his wife Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller (1909–1992) between the 1940s and the 1970s. With highlights including Chinese vases, Indian Chola bronzes, and Southeast Asian sculptures, the collection reveals great achievements in Asian art spanning more than two millennia. Featuring works from across the Asian continent—Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, and Vietnam, the selection of masterpieces presented in Buddha and Shiva, Lotus and Dragon illuminates social and artistic histories from across Asia and underscores the visual arts’ capacity to encourage cross-cultural dialogue.

“The stunning range of works selected by Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller represent a multitude of cultures across Asia, showcasing the diversity and complexity of the region,” said Susan Taylor, Montine McDaniel Freeman Director of NOMA. “It is a rare treat for this collection to travel outside its home at the Asia Society Museum in New York, and we are delighted to be able to bring the exquisite collection to New Orleans.”

When Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller began collecting Asian art in the years after World War II, they chose to prioritize classical masterpieces that represented the great technical skill and creative breadth of Asian artistic practice. In addition to investigating themes of Buddhist sculpture, Hindu sculpture, and ceramics and metalwork, the exhibition also examines the Rockefellers’ collecting and exhibition practices in an age when political and economic circumstances informed the reception and availability of Asian artworks in the United States. With an emphasis on beauty, ingenuity, and tradition, Buddha and Shiva, Lotus and Dragon manifests the dynamic ideas and philosophies that animate histories of Asian art and renews the Rockefellers’ vision of promoting cross-cultural understanding.

Buddha and Shiva, Lotus and Dragon: Masterworks from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection at Asia Society is co-organized by the American Federation of Arts and Asia Society. This project is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The installation at NOMA is sponsored by Dr. Siddharth K. Bhansali, Virginia Eason Weinmann, Judith Fos Burrus, Tim L. Fields, Dr. Nina Dhurandhar, Nuria Rowley, E. Alexandra Stafford and Raymond M. Rathle, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. John A. Batt, Jr., and Tom and Dian Winingder.


Buddha and Shiva, Lotus and Dragon: Masterworks from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection at Asia Society will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue by Adriana Proser, the John H. Foster Senior Curator of Traditional Asian Art at Asia Society.

Archeologists find ancient lion statue at Cambodia’s temple complex

PHNOM PENH, Feb. 4 (Xinhua) — Archeologists have unearthed a large ancient lion statue during an excavation at an ancient pond’s jetty in the Banteay Chhmar temple’s complex in northwest Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey province, a culture official said on Tuesday.

Prak Sovannara, the director-general of the culture ministry’s heritage department, said the larger-than-life lion statue was found by accident on Monday by a group of the ministry’s archeologists while digging the pond’s jetty.

“The guardian lion statue was made of sandstone and dates back to the late 12th or early 13th century,” he told Xinhua. “It was buried more than a meter under the ground and is still in good shape.”

Located in Banteay Meanchey province’s Thmar Puok district, the Banteay Chhmar temple was built in the late 12th or early 13th century during the reign of King Jayavarman VII.

Its outer gallery is carved with bas-reliefs depicting scenes of military engagements and daily life.

The temple is one of the several ancient sites that Cambodia has planned to nominate for the world heritage status at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

A 2,500-year-old Site Blessed by Buddha – Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara

Sri Lanka, a beautiful country renowned for its beaches, is also a historic country with many Buddhist sites. Among the most important temples in the largely Buddhist country is Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara. It is one of the holiest sites in all of Sri Lanka .
The Legends and History of Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara

According to Buddhist lore, the temple was blessed during the final visit of the Lord Buddha to Sri Lanka, which is believed to have been in 500 BC. This monument, therefore, dates back even further. It was possibly built during the age of Anuradhapura Kingdom whose state religion was Theravada Buddhism.

According to early records, the temple enshrined a gem-studded throne upon which the Buddha preached. During the subsequent centuries the temple flourished and became a major pilgrimage center for the Sinhalese majority.

In the 16 th century, Sri Lanka was consumed by civil war which provided an opportunity for the Portuguese to intervene. They confiscated much of the temple’s land and it fell into near ruin. Sources claim that they attacked the temple as part of their efforts to Christianize the island.

Later the Dutch came to control the area and by then the temple was almost dilapidated. In the 18 th century, King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe, the ruler of the kingdom of Kandy, attacked and destroyed many of the Dutch forts . He was a committed Buddhist and a great patron of monasteries and temples. He had Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara rebuilt in the 1750s.

The king’s long reign saw a revival in Buddhism in Sri Lanka. At this time the temple became associated with the political history of Sri Lanka and its rise and fall became synonymous with the fortunes of the nation. When Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) became part of the British Empire, the temple experienced another period of decline as it no longer had a royal patron, but in the first half of the 20 th century the temple was once again restored with the help of Helena Wijewardena, a member of a wealthy family who were active in the independence movement.

The temple was designated an Archaeological Protected Monument in 2008 and is the center of the important Buddhist celebration Duruthu Maha Perahera. Millions of locals and tourists visit the temple site every year.
The Wonders of Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara

The temple and other buildings cover an area of 10 acres, surrounded by a number of parks and gardens. The temple is built on a grand scale in a typical South Indian style, and also incorporates motifs from local Sinhalese culture.

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The temple has four main sections. The first is the Golden Buddha Image House, named after paintings from the life of the Buddha, including scenes from his reputed visit to Sri Lanka. They were painted by a local artist named Solias Mendis and are noted for their vivid colors. The second section is New Temple House, a restored building based on the former temple. The third is the King’s Image House and lastly, The Reclined Buddha Image House is named after a famous painting of the Enlightened One.

The main attraction is undoubtedly the striking 90 feet (27 m) high stupa, which dominates the site. This is a traditional Buddhist funerary monument and consists of a hemispherical base and a spire-like structure. It is painted a dazzling white. A pradakhshina, or path which circles the stupa, enables pilgrims to walk around it, which is an important Buddhist devotional practice.

A statue of Buddha at the Buddhist Kelaniya temple in Sri Lanka. (nilanewsom/ Adobe Stock)

Among the important monuments is a shrine dedicated to King Vibhishana who is mentioned in the Ramayana, the epic poem. A Bodhi tree (sacred fig tree), which is associated with the Buddha, a bell tower, a number of other shrines, and prayer halls adorn the site.
Visiting Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara

The temple is some 6 miles (9.6 km) from Colombo and there is plenty of public transport to the complex. Guided tours of the site are offered, although the temple is often crowded by devotees and best to avoid during major festivals. However, if you would like to immerse yourself in the culture of this fascinating country, it is possible to take part in some of the devotions.

By Ed Whelan

Ancient statue found carved in rock in Siem Reap

Siem Reap Provincial Environment Departmenttatue carved on a rock at the Phnom Kulen National Park in Siem Reap province’s Svay Loeu district.

Provincial Department of Environment director Sun Kong said yesterday the head portion of the broken statue was found by a resident on Saturday and the officials went to inspect the site on Sunday.

He added that the statue was made of sandstone during the sixth century and the body was broken into pieces, noting that officials found 13 pieces of the body nearby the site.

Mr Kong said: “According to the experts, this Makara animal statue is one that we have never seen before. It is approximately 2.14 metres in length and about 0.97 metres high. We have not yet moved the body parts or excavated the head from the site and have told park rangers in the area to guard it in order for officials from relevant ministries and institutions to come and study in detail about the site’s history and reconstruct the pieces.”

He noted that experts have not found a foundation of any temple at the site and believe it was just carved out on the rock.

Chhim Samrithy, 38, a craftsman from the province who discovered the statue, said yesterday he spotted it on Saturday while searching for bamboo. “I usually walk in the forest to look for some unique and sacred objects and suddenly spotted this rare statue,” he said. “After seeing it, I took environmental officials and archaeologists to the site and also helped to find some of the missing pieces of the statue.”

Long Kosal, Apsara Authority spokesman, said that the authorities’ archeologists visited the site yesterday and will conduct additional studies to add it to the records.

He said: “The Kulen National Park area is rich in ancient artefects, both above and below the ground. Therefore, I urge people, especially those living in the area, to avoid excavating or clearing archeological sites. If they find ancient objects, please report to the authorities for research to be done to preserve them for future generations.”

Buddha Pujaniya festival of world’s largest reclining Buddha image held

A Buddha Pujaniya festival of the world’s largest reclining Buddha image in the compound of Win Sein Tawya Monastery in Mawlamyine, Mon State, was held in conjunction with the 99th birthday anniversary of the late abbot of the monastery, the donor of the image, on January 19.

On the occasion, meals were fruits were offered to the Buddha image, the current monastery abbot and monks. Moreover, a new (Thingan) robe was offered to the remains of the Buddha image founder.

It has been 26 years since the birthday ceremony of the late venerable monk.

The event also includes a traditional boxing contest in which boxers from Myanmar, Thailand and Iran will be participating. Theatrical plays and music shows are also being held.

The declining Buddha image is 180 meters long and 30 meters high.

The image founder and Win Sein Tawya Monastery Abbot Abhidhaja Agga Maha Saddhama Jotika Dr Bhaddanta Kesara died of a heart attack on April 26, 2025.

How the Gandharan Manuscripts Change Buddhist History

The Gandharan Buddhist manuscripts are leading scholars to rethink the origins of Mahayana Buddhism. Richard Salomon explores the recently-unearthed texts are changing Buddhist history.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Muneichi Nitta, 2003, ACC No: 2003.593.1.

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:

The Buddha said: “Monks, abandon what is not yours. Abandoning it will lead to benefit and happiness. Now, what is it that is not yours? Form is not yours; abandon it. Abandoning it will lead to benefit and happiness. Sensation, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness are not yours; abandon them. Abandoning them will lead to benefit and happiness.

“Here is an example: suppose someone were to cut down the grass, wood, branches, leaves, and foliage here in the Jeta forest, or were to take it away or burn it, or do whatever he wished with it. What do you think? Would you think, ‘That person is cutting us, or taking us away, or burning us, or doing whatever he wished with us’?”

The monks answered, “Of course not, Venerable Sir.”

“And why is that?”

“Because this forest, Venerable Sir, is not ourselves; nor does it belong to us.”

“In just the same way, abandon what is not yours. Abandoning it will lead to benefit and happiness. In just the same way, form is not yours; abandon it. Abandoning it will lead to benefit and happiness. Sensation, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness are not yours; abandon them. Abandoning them will lead to benefit and happiness.”

Thus spoke the Lord.

Besides these new versions of texts familiar from Buddhist canons in other languages, though, there are others—a great many of them—either never seen before, as in the case of the Abhidhamma debate mentioned above, or that appear in surprisingly different forms. Among the most interesting of these is a series of edifying legends presented in the form of laconic summaries casually jotted into the empty spaces of previously used scrolls. One of the most noteworthy is a brief and divergent version of the universally familiar story of Prince Vessantara (here called by his nickname, Sudashna), the paragon of generosity:

The story of the Bodhisattva’s previous life as Sudashna, to be told as an example: Since he was an all-giving king, he gave his mighty elephant to a brahman. The king also surrendered his chariot and gave away his children. Then Sakra, king of the gods, came from the sky and spoke this verse to him: “Truly this man is black, and black is the food that he eats.” The whole story is to be told at length.

This story is emblematic of the way the Gandharan texts are simultaneously like and unlike their parallel versions in the more familiar Buddhist canon. Strikingly, the full telling of the Vessantara story in the Pali jataka runs 115 pages, whereas the Gandhari version is boiled down to a four-line summary. This is an extreme example of the principle of expansion-and-contraction within Buddhist literature, according to which a narrator may, depending on the audience or other circumstances, string out his message to great length, abridge it, or even, as here, present it in the barest outline form. Here we see from the concluding notation, “The whole story is to be told at length,” that the scribe was jotting down the bare skeleton of his repertoire of tales by way of a memory prompt, presumably as preparation for a lesson or sermon.

But there is another surprising twist in this story. The verse Sakra speaks to Sudashna/Vessantara seems to be the wrong one—this verse appears in the Pali jataka stories not in the Jataka of Vessantara, but in that of Kanha. This is startling, and even somewhat unsettling, given how well known the Vessantara story is throughout the Buddhist world, all the more so because the verses are considered the essential core of the jataka stories, with the prose narrative deemed to be mere commentary. It would be tempting—but probably incorrect—to dismiss this anomaly as a memory error on the part of the scribe; it is unlikely the scribe would have misremembered an important passage from such a fundamental text. Rather, it seems we are dealing with an unexpected variant of the Vessantara story that circulated in Gandhara but did not survive into the canonical Buddhist literatures of later times. This situation is emblematic of the overall character of the rediscovered Buddhist literature of Gandhara: the broad textual framework and the main doctrinal principles are familiar, but the details are often different, sometimes subtly and sometimes, as here, dramatically so.

Other casual sketches scrawled into the spaces of earlier manuscripts involve not legends from the time of Buddha or from his previous lives but stories about notable figures who lived at the time of the scrolls’ creation. Among these are rulers of the kingdoms of the early centuries of the Common Era, previously known to us from their coins and inscriptions. These legends illuminate the historical context of the manuscripts themselves as well as the adoption of Buddhism by these foreign conquerors. A collection of fragments very recently discovered turned out to be a ledger of gifts to a monastery—a record of donations by the Kushana king Vima Kadphises, who ruled in the early second century CE. This is a spectacular discovery, revealing rare details of the relationship between secular powers and Buddhist institutions.

There have been many other surprises, as well. Sprinkled among the many dozens of texts are ten examples of Mahayana sutras—including ones well known in Sanskrit, Tibetan, or Chinese, such as the “Perfection of Wisdom Sutra” and the “Bodhisattva Basket Sutra”—as well as others previously unknown in any language. These texts are leading scholars to rethink the long-debated origins of Mahayana Buddhism, revealing Gandhara to have been a—though not necessarily the—center of early Mahayana. The texts have also called into question the widespread assumption that the Mahayana sutras were originally composed or set down in Sanskrit, rather than a regional dialect such as Gandhari. Even more significant are the circumstances of the discovery of these ten Mahayana sutras; in every case, they constituted part of larger groups of manuscripts, the majority of which were non-Mahayana texts. Thus, we’re left with the impression that Mahayana Buddhism in the early centuries of the Common Era was not institutionally, and perhaps not even doctrinally, distinct from what later came to be called the “Hinayana” or “Lesser Vehicle.” All indications are that the more traditional or conservative practices coexisted with Mahayana ideas, even within the same monastic communities.
A Hint of What Has Been Lost

The discovery of previously unknown texts also offers a hint of how much of the Buddhist literature that once existed has not come down to us. The fact that extensive remnants have come to light in Gandhara is no coincidence but rather a result of particular climatic and cultural factors. Gandhara lies beyond the central monsoon zone, whose extremes of heat and humidity prevent the longterm survival of organic materials such as birch bark or palm leaf. Additionally, the Buddhists of ancient Gandhara had a practice of ritually interring their manuscripts in clay pots or other containers in the precincts of their monasteries, further promoting their preservation. It was likely due to these incidental factors that the oldest known Buddhist manuscripts were found in Gandhara, and not because such manuscripts were unique to the region. Similar texts must have existed elsewhere—perhaps everywhere—in the Buddhist cultures of the Indian heartland, but there is virtually no chance such manuscripts would have survived the deleterious effects of the monsoon climate.

The discovery of some random fragments of the literature of Gandharan Buddhism from the beginning of the Common Era is significant in part because it enables us to triangulate with the Pali and (partial) Sanskrit canons and begin to see all three as merely the surviving fragments of a vast tapestry of local Buddhisms and Buddhist literatures. Even from the tattered remnants of this grand tapestry, we can discern common threads in the form of shared basic texts, particularly among the sutras recognized, at least in theory, as authoritative by all schools, which still form a common core of beliefs and principles.

But we also find differences—sometimes minor and technical, sometimes significant and surprising—among the texts of other genres, many of which seem to be locally composed materials: commentaries, scholastic treatises and debates, local stories, hymns of praise to the Buddha, and more, which together comprise as much as half of the Gandharan manuscript material. In short, we find a shared conceptual foundation on which the various regional and sectarian traditions have built their own superstructures. Some of the differences are merely formal, for example in their differing formulation and arrangement of the materials, while others are more substantial, as in the Gandharan reconception of the Vessantara story.
Multiple Buddhist Canons

One of the clear messages these texts seem to have for contemporary practitioners is that it’s not helpful to think of Buddhism in terms of a contrast between a single original source and the implicitly inferior derivatives of that primal source. Rather, the complexity and variability of Buddhist teachings appear to have been built in from the very beginning; after all, one of the Buddha’s special qualities was said to be his intuitive ability to adapt his teachings to the capabilities and needs of the person or persons to whom he was speaking. On a linguistic level, the Buddha in the vinaya urged his followers to spread his message “in one’s own dialect.” India, from antiquity to this day, has always been a land of vast linguistic diversity. We should not assume, then, that the Buddha himself, or his contemporary followers, restricted themselves to a single language or dialect. The linguistic and textual diversity that characterizes Buddhism existed from the very beginning. Thus, any search for the exact, true, original words of the Buddha is not only doomed to disappoint but misconceived from the start. It would make more sense to think in terms of multiple Buddhism existing virtually from the very beginning, perhaps even during the lifetime of the Buddha.

This is not, of course, how the various sectarian, regional, and linguistic traditions present themselves. Inevitably, they portray themselves as the sole (or at least the most authentic) keepers of the dharma. After all, in Buddhism, as in other realms, history is written by the victors, or at least by the survivors. The Buddhisms that have existed over the centuries loom large simply because they survived and flourished. They to embody the history of Buddhism, but from a wider perspective, they are each only one part out of many.

The Pali canon of the Theravada school looms especially large. In the popular conception, it is considered the true and original Buddhist canon, due to a confluence of favorable circumstances. The Theravada Pali canon is the only complete surviving Buddhist canon in an Indian language; it is the canon of one of the most vital surviving schools of Buddhism over a wide geographical area; and it was the canon and form of Buddhism that first became known to European scholars. But in the time since awareness of Buddhism spread around the world in the nineteenth century, the discovery of other schools and canons has drastically shifted this point of view. For example, it has been clear since the early twentieth century that there existed in northern India and Central Asia complete Buddhist canons in Sanskrit, representing the texts of the Sarvastivada and of the eighteen traditional schools. The discovery in the last two decades of extensive remnants of one or more canons in the Gandhari language has broadened the picture even further, requiring us to speak of multiple Buddhisms and multiple canons throughout the Indian Buddhist world.

Extrapolating from what we now have—a slightly larger fraction of the whole—we can begin to conceive of the vast variety and richness of the many Buddhisms, the immense intellectual and spiritual production that must have coexisted in early India. This—along with the vast treasures of technical and historical data they provide—is the greatest gift the Gandharan manuscripts grant us.
What is a Buddhist to do?

Returning to the question of what, if anything, these discoveries mean for modern Buddhist practitioners, there are no answers that will appease everyone. Each individual practitioner must determine how to proceed for him or herself. On one hand, one can safely ignore the new material without missing anything essential to the theory or practice of Buddhism. On the other hand, Buddhists may wish to dip a toe—or even plunge headfirst—into these previously uncharted waters. Modern Buddhists may be inclined to see the diversity that characterized Buddhism throughout its history as an emblem of strength rather than cause for doubt or confusion, a source of richness rather than conflict. The insights that the Gandharan manuscripts provide into the wealth and variety of thought and belief during a formative stage of Buddhist history, and the perspective they provide on the overall question of what Buddhism is, offer personal enrichment for those who seek it out.

Shattered Buddhist statues restored with help from the OI

UChicago institute helps reassemble ancient, rare art from first to 6th centuries

Some of the earliest known statues depicting the Buddha have him in startling costume—draped in the lushly folded fabric of ancient Greece or Rome. Sometimes he has Greco-Roman facial features, naturalistically rendered and muscled torsos, or is even shown protected by Hercules.

Many of these striking Buddhas hailed from Hadda, a set of monasteries in modern-day Afghanistan where Buddhism flourished for a thousand years before the rise of Islam. Located on the Silk Road, the area had frequent contact with the Mediterranean—hence the Buddha’s Hellenistic features. One of the richest collections of this unique art from Hadda was destroyed in 2001, when the Taliban ransacked the National Museum of Afghanistan and shattered the museum’s Buddha statues.

Nearly two decades later, the museum’s conservators are working with the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, one of the world’s foremost research centers on the civilizations of the ancient Middle East, to bring the collection back to life. Supported by cultural heritage preservation grants from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, OI researchers, along with Afghan colleagues, are painstakingly cleaning, sorting and reassembling statues from the more than 7,500 fragments left behind, which museum employees swept up and saved in trunks in the basement.

“When they were broken, we lost a part of history—an important period of high artistic achievement—which these objects represent,” said Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, director of the National Museum of Afghanistan. “They are the only pieces remaining from the archaeological sites; Hadda was burned and looted during the 1980s, so these pieces at the museum are all we have left. By reviving them, we are reviving part of our history.”

The statues are beautiful, by all accounts. First excavated by French archaeologists in the 1930s, and spanning 500 years of Afghanistan’s history between the first and sixth centuries A.D., they are an example of a rare art form unique to the region, often called the Gandharan style. Some stand alone and others in tableaus, ranging from life-size to others that can fit in the palm of a hand. But the task of reconstructing them is more than a puzzle.

The materials these ancient artisans used were primarily limestone, schist and stucco—which tend to crumble and disintegrate under duress, rather than simply crack. “It’s more like trying to assemble pieces from 30 different jigsaw puzzles that have all been dumped together—without the pictures from the boxes,” said Gil Stein, professor at the Oriental Institute and a leading expert on the rise of social complexity in the ancient Near East.

Stein heads the project, which is part of the OI’s ongoing work with the National Museum of Afghanistan Cultural Preservation Partnership. Begun in 2012, the partnership has helped restore the museum’s infrastructure, including developing a bilingual database to document the first full inventory of the museum’s collections, as well as training conservators in the latest techniques for preserving and restoring objects.

The collection is largely from the Hadda monasteries located in northwestern Afghanistan, near the modern-day city of Jalalabad. The region’s warm climate fosters citrus and pomegranate trees and helped it blossom as a center of trade on the Silk Road for centuries—thus its art influenced by both East and West.

‘The big puzzle’

Alejandro Gallego López, the OI’s field director in Afghanistan, explained the process of restoring the statues. First is to assess the collection—identifying and classifying features, such as archaeological motifs, and visible parts of bodies, like legs, heads or arms. This census can help them estimate how many objects there were originally (they think it was between 350 and 500).
A nearly full pieced-together statue compared to an older photo when it was intact
Courtesy of the Oriental Institute

Each piece is photographed and then carefully treated with the latest preservation techniques by Fabio Colombo, the OI’s head conservator in Kabul. Next they’re sorted by color, texture and mortar. “Then starts the big puzzle,” Gallego López said.

Some of the objects have inventory numbers from the 1960s and ‘70s written on them, so they can try to match them with remaining records. Most of the museum’s records were lost during a fire in Afghanistan’s civil war, but earlier this year, they discovered a trove of overlooked records hidden in an old office, which contained photos and numbers of artifacts. By a stroke of luck, the surviving cards happened to focus on the Hadda collection.

So far, Gallego López said, they’ve been able to reassemble about 50 statues; he hopes they will have about 150 in the end.

“It’s really exciting work, especially when you can get a few different pieces together,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to bring them back to life.”

Once the work is complete, the museum will exhibit them, Rahimi said. He is excited to show the history of Afghanistan to younger generations, who may not be aware of it; and also to older generations, who may remember the art. “I see a lot of reactions from people when they see the statues,” he said.

“It’s more like trying to assemble pieces from 30 different jigsaw puzzles that have all been dumped together—without the pictures from the boxes.”

—Gil Stein, Professor at the Oriental Institute
—Gil Stein, Professor at the Oriental Institute —Gil Stein, Professor at the Oriental Institute

Gallego López and Stein are similarly happy that Afghans—both at the museum and the public—will be able to fully appreciate and preserve their history. “This rich cultural heritage belongs to the people of Afghanistan,” Gallego López said. Stein agreed: With the training and database in place, the National Museum will be equipped for the future. “Foreigners and grants come and go, but they’ll still have the knowledge,” he said.

Since its founding in 1919, the OI has conducted field-defining research across the Middle East, including excavations and field projects, linguistic research deciphering ancient languages, creating comprehensive dictionaries, reconstructing the histories, literatures and religions of long-lost civilizations, and preserving the region’s imperiled cultural heritage. Much of this research is on display at the OI Museum, located on the UChicago campus and home to the largest collection of ancient Middle Eastern artifacts in the United States with 350,000 objects.