Rev. Jnana - Zen Dharma Teacher - IBMC


A Dharma Talk at the IBMC --- What we accept today as common historical understanding in our knowledge of Buddhism in India is information that was totally unknown in the West a mere 200 years ago. A sub-continent as rich in history as is India, has for over 2,000 years, since the time of the Buddha, done much to obliterate the record of its past. The great Buddhist kingdoms of the first half of the first millennium came to be supplanted by the rise of the Hindus and the historical memory of the Buddhist kingdoms was almost erased. The Hindus, in turn, were conquered by the Muslims and ruled by them until the early 18th century. The subsequent revival of Hinduism did nothing to further the preservation or discovery of Buddhist India.

It is only with the arrival of the British that the destruction of India’s past was reversed and its recovery was begun, thanks to the persistent efforts of a handful of brilliant and inspired individuals. The British were the prime movers in this effort but they were not entirely alone in (literally) unearthing and deciphering the historical record. This morning we will skim the surface of some of the key factors and events in the rediscovery of Buddhism in India, achieved by a disparate cast of physicians, engineers, surveyors, botanists, geographers, assay specialists and merchants.

In setting the stage in India it is helpful to appreciate the extremely limited and imperfect knowledge of Buddhism that was available to the European world as a result of its colonial expansion in the East beyond India.

Christian prejudice and misinformation colored the earliest missionary-explorer-colonizer accounts of the practice in the Far East of what is now known as Buddhism. Francis Xavier dismissed the Rinzai Zen he observed in Japan in 1550-1551 as “a fraudulent law and an invention of the Devil’. Another Italian missionary traveling in China at the end of the 16th century believed Chinese Buddhism to be a form of Pythagoreanism brought from Greece by way of India.

Most shocking and disquieting were the reports from all of the missionary-explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries of the disturbing similarity between the rites and trappings of the Church of Rome and those practiced throughout Tibet and Mongolia. The Catholic Church’s response to these comparisons was to demonize what it called Lamaism. Referring to the Dalai Lama, one Catholic report accounts that “Strangers at their approach fall prostrate with their heads to the ground, and kiss him with incredible veneration, which is no other than that which is performed upon the Pope of Rome; so that hence the fraud and deceit of the Devil may easily and plainly appear.”

Around the end of the 18th century more significant and accurate reports about Buddhism, primarily in Burma and Ceylon, appeared and helped to establish the fact of the significance and dispersion of the Buddhist religion and provided much useful background information for the argument that Buddhism had indeed originated in India. In 1797 a British surgeon and devoted amateur botanist, Dr. Francis Buchanan, who had been a member of a British diplomatic expedition to the Kingdom of Ava, in what is now Burma, published the most extensive account of Buddhism in English to that date. In doing so he unknowingly founded the discipline of Buddhist studies, while using the word ‘Buddhism’ for the first time in print.

Buchanan’s essay, On the Religion and Literature of the Burmese, established that Buddhism was indeed a religion founded on a historical personage, though verification of its origin in India had not been made explicit in his Burmese sources, as Buddhism was known by these Burmese to have come to their land from the island of Ceylon. Buchanan deduced that since Buddhism had evidently existed in Ceylon for many centuries, it was reasonable to assume that at some time in the distant past it must also have flourished on the adjacent Indian landmass.

The appearance of Buchanan’s work led to the publication four years later, in the same journal as Buchanan’s original essay, of two papers from British officials in Ceylon that confirmed the general accuracy of his findings while commenting on every aspect of Sinhalese Buddhism. Neither of the authors writing from Ceylon grasped the full meaning of the core teachings of Buddhism, concentrating rather on what they could understand. These new sources did, however, contain a reasonably accurate dating of the time of the Buddha, as well as identifying the significance of the Bodhi tree, including the story of its miraculous origin in Ceylon. One of the Englishmen writing from Ceylon was convinced that the religion of the Burmans, the Siamese and the Sinhalese was the same and that they all worshipped Boudhou, though he was known by a different name in each country.

Before he was to make his his later and most significant findings in India Dr. Buchanan was dispatched to Nepal for a year, where he eagerly sat about gathering material for his study of the religion of Nepal. While in the Himalayan kingdom he noticed distinct similarities between many non-Hindu Nepalese structures and the pagodas and Buddha figures he had seen in Ava. He also was able to establish that the Sakya Singha or the Lion of Sakya of the Newar people of the Katmandu Valley was identifiable with the Gautama Buddha of Ava and Ceylon.

All of these Buddhist-related findings in nearby countries greatly impacted the pending discoveries in India, providing key historical background not otherwise available at the time.

As the East India Company strengthened its position in Bengal during the early and mid-18th century, a posting with the Company became a much sought after foothold for the younger sons of the English gentry. From among these young recruits were to arise those few resourceful individuals and their successors that would help identify and ultimately solve the mystery of India’s lost religion. These individuals comprised a hard core of India enthusiasts, less interested in colonial spoils, than in learning as much as they could about the country, its peoples, culture, history, languages and religions.

As these early British discoverers slowly fit together disparate pieces of what evolved as the puzzle of Buddhist history in India the individuals involved did not initially appreciate that they were even dealing with what is now identified as Buddhism or that it had any relationship to the religion practiced elsewhere in Asia as described, however inaccurately, by their fellow Westerners. They initially identified Buddha as God, rather than a teacher. There was even no agreement on his name, as the variations ranged from Bodoo, Boudh, Bhooddha, Boudhou, to Bodou, among others.

But we return to our Dr. Buchanan, now a few years after his stint in Nepal. The time is November 1811 and he and a small band of assistants are heading south from Patna on a statistical survey of Bengal, toward the town of Gaya and, just beyond, a huddle of stone temples that went by the name of Bodh-Gaya. In the town of Gaya Buchanan was struck by the fact that many relatively modern buildings were built of obviously salvaged materials, including stone carvings of the Buddha and portions of granite pillars. The religious images employed in the local architecture were considered by the Hindus to be nastik, or unorthodox, that is work of the Buddhists.

Not surprisingly the partially restored ruins at Bodh-Gaya were rich in stone carvings and ornamentation. The Hindu ascetics living at Bodh-Gaya were aware of the antiquity of the site and treated the images and inscriptions found there with considerable respect, much more tolerant behavior than that exhibited by most Hindus. Until recently the ascetics had no realization of the site’s true religious significance. Two separate delegations, a few years, apart from the King of Ava, to Bodh-Gaya confirmed to the ascetics that the Burmese regarded the site as holy, that it was here that their god Gautama had lived, and here that the Bodhi, tree had given this same Gautama shade as he sat and meditated. During the course of excavations and exploration at Bodh-Gaya, the leader of the ascetics introduced Buchanan to a local convert to Buddhism who was able to guide him about the region and to inform him more fully. The convert explained that at one time Bodh-Gaya had been the center of religion in India, that a great Buddhist king named Ashoka had once lived there and that it was he who built the Mahabodhi temple. Even if Dr. Buchanan failed to grasp why Bodh-Gaya was the center or religion in India, his conversation with the convert had provided him with some extremely valuable clues about the early history of Buddhism. Traveling a bit further afield with the convert across southern Bihar, Buchanan discovered a few miles from Rajgir extensive ruins with magnificent stone sculptures. Drawings were made of some of the finest examples and the party moved on, unaware of the fact that they had camped within the ruins of Nalanda, once the largest and most renowned university in Asia and the last beacon of Buddhism in India.

Four years after Buchanan returned to England for good, a party of British officers, in 1819, on an afternoon hunting expedition, made a remarkable discovery of what remains one of the great monuments of Indian art. The monumental structures of the Great Stupa of Sanchi were found still standing and, almost miraculously, were largely undamaged. One of the British officers despaired of doing justice to the ‘magnificence of such stupendous structures and exquisitely finished sculptures’. Every sculptural panel told a story, but what story the British had no idea. Now, of course, we know the extraordinary panels at Sanchi depict the life of Gautama Buddha and scenes from the Jataka Tales, without ever portraying the Buddha in anthropomorphic form.

We need to shift our attention to a specialized aspect of the story which we’ve only touched on up to this point, the crucial role of historical linguistics and the decipherment of key inscriptions. In the case of India, without access to the sacred texts, and the major literary, historical and legal works of ancient India, all the inquisitive Western minds available would soon have run into a dead end. In northern India in the mid-18th century the Brahmans held a closely guarded monopoly over Sanskrit, the language of the gods, which they maintained as a secret, esoteric language. It was only after the first book printed in an Indian native language, a grammar of Bengali, appeared in 1778 to wide popular acclaim that the Brahmans eventually relented. Even they wanted in on the miracle of the printed word in their language. In the coming decades there were several British amateur Indiologists eager to learn the esoteric language and to study the religious and historical texts made available to them.

The newly acquired knowledge of Sanskrit, combined with the Englishmen’s pre-existing knowledge of classical Greek historical and geographic texts relating to India, led to some auspicious deductions. At first they would seem to have nothing to do with Buddhism, but they helped unlock some significant doors to the past. Initially significant among these discoveries, in 1793, was the verification that modern Patna was built near the ruins of the seat of a famous ancient king of northern India, known to the Greeks as Sandrokottos. Careful study revealed that Sandrokottos was the Greek translation of none other than the Sanskrit name Chandragupta, later identified as the founder of the Maurya dynasty and the great-grandfather of King Ashoka, who was eventually understood as a seminal figure in Indian Buddhism, both in documenting the Buddhist past and in supporting Buddhism in his time.

The British were aware, from their earliest days in India, of a huge sandstone pillar, ten feet round at the base and over 40 feet tall, in the countryside south of Delhi. It was known from Arab chroniclers that the column have been brought to Delhi on the orders of a 14th century Sultan Firoz Shah. It was subsequently known as Firoz Shah’s Lat or staff. What was truly unique about the column was that it was covered by lines of inscriptions written in three different scripts. British antiquarians in the late 18th century ascertained that one of the scripts was a pre-cursor of the more rounded form of pre-Devanagari Sanskrit. Most puzzling were the pseudo-Greek looking characters, looking as much like squiggles as letters. They remained a central mystery for some years to come even as further evidence of the script’s use was discovered on additional columns and rock faces scattered across northern India. At least one of these inscriptions was assumed to be Buddhist, as the Brahmins, who did not know its meaning, referred to it with shuddering and disgust, speaking of the time when the Buddhist doctrines prevailed and were otherwise reluctant even to speak on the subject.

Two key figures now enter the picture. The first of these is a British diplomat stationed in Nepal in 1820, where he remained for the next 26 years. While most of his work was done from Nepal, Brian Hodgson had a major role in helping to advance the understanding of Indian Buddhism. Hodgson was an inveterate collector of information on Buddhism. Late in his life he was described by a French scholar as having provided Buddhist studies with its first ‘true and most solid base’. In his first four years in Nepal he dispatched no fewer than 218 Sanskrit texts to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta. He developed a close friendship with a learned Nepalese Buddhist sage who further expanded his Buddhist knowledge. Hodgson was the first Westerner to begin to understand the historic division of the Buddhist world between Theravada and Mahayana. His reading of Sanskrit, and later Tibetan, texts convinced him that Buddhism had emerged out of Brahminical early Hinduism, rather than the other way round and that its origins were entirely Indian.

The second key figure is one James Prinsep, Assay Master of the Government Mint in Calcutta. Hodges had developed a regular correspondence with Prinsep and many of their letters in the mid-1830’s concerned inscriptions that had come to their attention, recorded by others earlier or discovered by them directly. It soon became clear that many of the inscriptions were substantially the same. The outcome of this linguistic comparison was the romanization of what came to be recognized as the preamble to the standard compendium of the precepts of Buddha, “The cause of all sentient existence in the versatile world, the Tathagata hath explained.”

This discovery, pieced together with recent translations from the Tibetan, based on original texts provided by Hodgson, provided to the handful of curious Europeans a great deal more information on the life and death of Gautama Buddha that confirmed and added to that already obtained by Buchanan and others.

Thus, by the end of 1836 the Indian origins of Buddhism had been established beyond doubt, together with the main biographical facts of the philosopher who had come to be called Gautama Buddha, Tathagata, Sakyamuni and more than a score of other names. It was now apparent why the Mahabodhi tower had been raised at Bodh-Gaya, why there was a stupa at Sarnath-and why the envoys from Ava had come looking for the holy places associated with Gautama Buddha. Much had been learned but much more still remained undiscovered— other key Buddhist historic sites and the manner in which Buddhism had evolved and spread through Asia in the centuries following the death of its founder had still to be established-as had the reasons for its disappearance from India. Even more puzzling was the knowledge of who had ordered the mysterious pseudo-Greek inscriptions, still untranslated, to be carved on the polished columns and great boulders whose diverse locations suggested ever more strongly the existence of some unknown Buddhist civilization in India’s past. The discovery of this missing key to much of India’s Buddhist past is the final element in our story this morning.

We’ve already made note of the mysterious inscriptions having initially been found on Feroz Shah’s Lat in Delhi. James Prinsep, the last individual we’ve introduced in to our narrative, had received copies of an inscription from Brian Hodgson, which he had found on another pillar near the Nepalese border. It turned out to be exactly the same as the mysterious script from Delhi, which Prinsep had termed “Delhi no. 1”. Two more inscriptions in Delhi no. 1 were identified as well, both of these appearing on large rocks located on opposite sides of the country. Finally, some inscriptions from the Great Stupa at Sanchi were identified as containing the same characters as well. Prinsep was a brilliant amateur linguist and, working in 1837, made the intuitional judgment that the inscriptions were likely records of donations. By a process of logical deduction he speculated that certain identical characters at the end of each inscription meant gift. Following this logic he was able to deduce the characters and sounds of these characters, relying on his understanding Sanskrit. From here it was relatively easy for someone with his knowledge of ancient alphabets to piece together the rest of the letters in the inscriptions. It became clear to Prinsep that he was dealing with an early vernacular form of Sanskrit, now known as Prakrit, found in all early Buddhist literature and with very close links to Pali.

Still the translation of all of the texts was not yet clear. It was apparent that they all appeared to begin with a declaratory formula of a royal edict, reading in English akin to ‘Thus spake King Piyadasi, Beloved of the Gods’. The expectation then was that the rest of the text would reveal the doctrine of some great reformer, such as Shakyamuni. Instead, the texts as eventually translated, were clearly the work of a monarch whose rule had extended far and wide, and a monarch profoundly influenced by the Buddhist teachings.

Yet, who was the great ruler Piyadasi? The answer to this question came serendipitously in a communication to Prinsep from a fellow Englishman working on translations of Pali chronicles in Ceylon. A Pali text, brought to Ceylon from Siam in 1812, made reference to the fact that “Here then we find that Asoka was surnamed Piyadassi….” Prinsep had his answer and to this day, James Prinsep’s unlocking of the Delhi no. 1 script remains unquestionably the greatest single advance in the recovery of India’s lost past.

Even with all of this new knowledge much still remained unknown in 1837: the location of Lumbini, where the Buddha was born; the whereabouts of his father’s capital, Kapilavastu, where he spent his first twenty-nine years; and the locations of Sravasti, the capital of Kosala where the annual rainy season retreat was spent, of Vaisali, where he gave his last sermon, and Kushinagar, where the Buddha entered into his paranirvana. How these discoveries came about is a further story for another time.

[The content of this dharma talk is largely based on the book The Search for the Buddha; the men who discovered India’s lost religion by Charles Allen. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003]

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