The Core Research Group of the Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection (BMSC) has initiated a project on birch bark fragments of the Mūlasarvāstivādavinaya and the Prajñāpāramitā from 8th century Afghanistan. The core group of BMSC consists of Jens Braarvig (The Norwegian Institute of Philology), Paul Harrison (Stanford University), Jens-Uwe Hartmann (Ludwig Maximilian University, München), Kazunobu Matsuda (Bukkyo University, Kyoto), Gudrun Melzer (Ludwig Maximilian University, München) and Lore Sander (emerita, formerly Museum of Asian Art, Berlin).
The Mūlasarvāstivādavinaya contains the Buddhist Monastic Rules, with its great repository of legends and history, and the Prajñāpāramitā are sutras on Mahāyāna Philosophy and Ethics.
Based on its more than 20 years of experience in treating such fragments for preservation in archives and for restor-ation and publication, the group has established a cooperation between the mentioned scholars and institutions, including the associated participants Dr. Fumi Yao (Waseda University, Tokyo), Jaehee Han (Dongguk University, Seoul and PHI) and Dr. Jens W. Borgland (Uppsala University and PHI).
The manuscript fragments are going to be sorted, transcribed, studied and catalogued. The study on the Mūlasarvāstivādavinaya manuscript is supported by The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation (American Council of Learned Societies).
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Preservation, transcription and cataloguing
The methods of preservation employed in the present project are a refinement of several earlier similar projects, three of them in close cooperation with the BMSC research group and PHI. The preservation of birch bark manuscripts is a new field, but several successful results have been achieved.
Already in 2000 a small material was attempted opened as an experiment, with good results, based on methods earlier employed in Berlin. Then in 2006-8 the important manuscript of the Vajracchedikā was opened by Brynjulf Fosse, who, with Professor Knut Kleve, had developed methods to open the Herculaneum burnt papyri from the Vesuv eruption. Professor Braarvig had the privilege to study these methods in Fosse’s studio.
PHI has also, in 2015, cooperated with the paper conservator Daniel Gilberg in his studio in Oslo, who managed to open several fragments. This was brought about also with the renowned conservator Mark Barnard from the British Museum, who on the invitation of PHI, spent a period in Oslo to work on birch bark manuscripts together with Daniel Gilberg. Mark Barnard was the one to open the Kharoṣṭhī scrolls in the British Library, studied by Richard Salomon and his group at Washington University, a project with which the BMSC project is closely associated.
In addition, the project Buddhist Manuscripts from Gandhara at Ludwig Maximilian University is in close collaboration with the PHI project, having studied Gandhara mansucripts for several years, among them one of the British Library fragments as well as the BMSC.
The main element of the procedure is a carefully monitored and calibrated process in moisture chambers by which the birch bark folia naturally separates from the bundles in which they are at the outset embedded. This procedure is the one generally applied by the few others who work with restoring Buddhist birch bark manuscripts, among them the Handa Kyuseido restoring the Hirayama manuscript materials.
We will share this method, together with language studies, palaeography and codicology, with our Afghan partners with whom we are developing a cooperation on preservation of cultural relics.
The first three mentioned projects have been initiated and are managed by PHI, and their methodological approaches constitute a network of expertise directly available to PHI. In its present preservatory endeavour, PHI is thus well positioned to continue working on the birch bark manuscripts of the BMSC, drawing on the results of the mentioned previous methodologies. The preliminary results seem very promising, managing to separate birch bark folios from the bundles without damage.
Transliterations, editions, translations and commentaries will be published subsequently as the materials are ready.