There is a wonderful irony in the fact that just this book has been published at just this time. In the last three months there has been a great deal of news about the willful and savage destruction of Buddhist art in Afghanistan by the so-called Taliban. Colossal statues carved from living rock (one of them being the largest stone statue then existing in the world) were deliberately blown to smithereens to satisfy some sort of incomprehensible politico-religious bloodlust. The colossal statues stood in the Bamiyan valley. Their atoms are now indistinquishable from the other trillion grains of sand scattered about the foot of the Hindu Kush.
But now, just as one starts to comprehend the staggering degree to which all mankind has been impoverished by these heinous acts, Richard Salomon and his colleagues at the University of Washington and the British Museum offer back to the world something else nearly lost but now recovered -- and by doing so they manage to rekindle at least a little of one's faith in the fundamental decency of mankind. A mere one hundred miles east (and slightly south) of Bamiyan and the now-vaporized collosal statues was found a cache of Buddhist literature written on birch-bark scrolls dating from the first century A.D. They are said to be "the oldest Buddhist texts ever found, as well as the earliest surviving manuscripts in any Indic Language."
There could hardly be any writing material more perishable than birch bark, and these manuscripts were crumpled up and stuffed into earthen jars in a way hardly conducive to their survival. They were acquired by the British Library in 1994. Had they not been, one can easily imagine the maniacal thrill the Taliban would have derived from destroying them along with all the other "unacceptable" art they stumbled upon.
Though on the surface, fragile, crumbling manuscripts and colossal statues cannot be directly equated, I think the apparent difference in size and vulnerability between the two actually makes this story more intriguing. Logically, the statues should have survived but did not; the far-older manuscripts, which have been steadily disintegrating for two thousand years, did! For once it was not the giant statue that got to exclaim, "Look around, ye Mighty, and despair!"
True, by the time Saloman and his colleagues got hold of these manuscripts and began to unroll them, they faced the mother of all jigsaw puzzles, and some pieces were gone forever. The team has now spent years fitting them all back together, devising scholarly restorations of the lost portions of text were possible, and making a comprehensible translation of what emerged.
The present book is intended to be an exhaustive, definitive restoration and translation of only one small component of the total manuscript cache. Indeed the reconstructed manuscript translated here is a bare 44.4 cm by 27 cm in size, and contains only forty four-line verses. In contrast to its physical size, however, is the text's enormous pupularity within Buddhist literature. It is known to have survived in at least two other Indian language versions, Pali and Sanskrit. It is unquestionably one of the loveliest and most evocative statements of the Buddha's teaching about solitute and the role he expects solitute to play in the practice and spiritual growth of his followers. Thoreau, who had a great affinity for Indian literature, would have loved it -- as does nearly everyone else fortunate enough to encounter a sensitive translation.
Saolomon's translation of this elegant sutra is reassuringly familiar to those students of Buddhism who already know an earlier version of it. Though there are minor variations and differences, one's confidence in the reliability of all other received Indian texts (which have been translated and recopied endlessly over the years) is greatly reinforced. Together with the other texts found with it, this cache also helps one get a fix on what literature was apparently regarded as important to literate Buddhists two millennia ago, and just what traditional writings were by then finding their way out of India and onto the historical road to central Asia and beyond. Judging by the quality of this select library, Ghandara, already known to be a flourishing center of Buddhist art, must also have been the site of much very advanced Buddhist teaching, writing, etc.
Make no mistake, this book is devoted largely to scholarly issues, and the bulk of it will be of interest primarily to scholars. However it is also a fresh look at a significant segment of Buddhist literature, derived from the earliest source the world is ever likely to recover. The scholarly preoccupations (paleography, orthography, phonology, morphology, etc.) are informative, but the sutra itself is the real payoff for those whose zeal encompasses merely a serious interest in Buddhism. The thrilled reader stands awestruck by this miraculous feat of ressurection and restoration, and he eagerly awaits publication of the other associated texts, many less well known. When complete, this triumph of Buddhist scholarship may well appear to the intellectual world to assume the proportions of the most colossal of all sculptures, and could have a far deeper impact on our minds and lives.