Buddhist "Dead Sea Scrolls"?

Image from Danhuang Caves

There was a note today on an academic list about a set of texts nicknamed, by some, the Buddhist “Dead Sea Scrolls” now being for sale. There is an item about this here today.

Some background about the items is given in the piece:

The Schoyen Collection is allegedly one of the largest private collections of ancient manuscripts in the world. The single largest group of manuscripts in the collection are thousands of fragments of possibly 1400 Buddhist manuscripts taken out of Afghanistan after Taliban came to power. The manuscripts were found in a cave close to Bamiyan, and they might be part of a library that was damaged in the late 7th or 8th century. The manuscripts were made available for researchers after the purchase, and an international research group, directed from the University of Oslo, Norway, aims at investigating and publishing them. [...] Altogether the Schoyen Library now has eight complete Buddhist manuscripts, over 5,000 folios and sizable fragments from 1,400 different manuscripts, plus more than 8,000 small fragments. These are on palm leaf, birch bark or vellum, and some seem to have been damaged in antiquity. The majorities of the texts are in Sanskrit, and most probably originated in India and were brought to Bamiyan by pilgrims. They include many previously unknown Buddhist texts, as well as some of the oldest surviving scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism. The earliest manuscripts have been dated to around 100 AD, and hence the comparison with the Jewish scrolls found near the Dead Sea.

This seems like an incredible set of texts, even if much of it is fragmentary. These were found in caves near Bamiyan in Afghanistan. That are very near where the statues of the Buddha were blown up by the Taliban a number of years back. There are likely to be more collections like this at various points along the Silk Road route as well as this is hardly the first such set of texts found in the back of a cave. A large body of material has come out of the caves at Dunhuang near the Taklamakan Desert. (These are discussed quite often on the blog at earlyTibet.com.

I keep hoping that some of the sutras and tantras that were lost in their Sanskrit originals (or lost entirely except for a quote or two) will be found. There are many aspects of the development of Buddhism, especially into the Mahayan forms, that are less than clear.

For the manuscripts in the Schoyen Library, Norway is trying to purchase the collection, which is being sold to raise money for humanitarian causes by their owner, Martin Schoyen. It is felt that these are a treasure to be preserved and studied and that the government of Norway would like to maintain them.

I’m looking forward to translations of the more intact portions of these being made available someday.

Update: Apparently, part of this isn’t recent news and they have been on sale or in the process of it for a while. There is a note on the Schoyen Collection website about some of the fragments being sent back to Afghanistan that is from this February.