Dissemination of copies of ancient Buddhist Palm-leaf manuscripts

church event

Around 6th century B.C. Buddhism and Buddhist philosophies formed a seminal nucleus of enlightenment in the Indian sub-continent that radiated its dhamma and wisdom through to the rest of the world. The sacred Buddhist dhamma that were verbally imparted across the sub-continent by Lord Buddha and reverent Sanghas were compiled and chanted by Arahant sanghas upon the Mahaparinirvana (passing away) of Lord Buddha, in order to ensure its continued preservation. What has survived today as the Tripitaka is the main legacy of this.

The Tripitaka compiles the Theravada Buddhist dhamma into three sections, hence the term tri-pitaka, meaning three pitaka. At its inception each of the three pitakas were entrusted to separate Rahat sanghas for their ensured and un-altered preservation. Since the maha-sanghayana (the first chronicalisation of dhamma, post Mahaparinirvana), many generations of accredited sanghas have carefully and benevolently re- chanted and re-chronicled the sacred dhamma, unharmed and unaltered. As a result of the third ever such momentous re-chant in the 3rd century B.C., the sacred Theravada Buddhist dhamma reached Sri Lanka. Since then, Sri Lankan sanghas have been devoted to conserving and protecting the sacred dhamma for future generations. It is remarkable that Sri Lankan Buddhist monks, despite the many socio-political oppositions and impediments over subsequent centuries, have tirelessly and selflessly worked to preserve, defend and safeguard the glorious dhamma. Their efforts and success of retaining dhamma in its most authentic form is unparalleled elsewhere in the world. The pinnacle of their endeavours was the momentous act of transcribing the sacred dhamma in palm-leaf manuscripts in the 1 st century b.c., which would mark the first ever written recording of dhamma in the world. The great written tradition of dhamma and Buddhist literary culture has since then continued to flourish through to the 19 th century, and in turn encapsulates an outstanding wealth of human discernment, knowledge and intellect that has helped advance human civilisation forward.

In the 12 th century under a territorial threat and then in the 18 th century under the negligence and improvidence of King Rajasinghe, the last king of Sri Lanka, much of the great repository of Buddhist literature and palm-leaf manuscripts were dispersed and dissipated. During the period of colonisation that followed, under the Portuguese, the Dutch and finally the British, the once prosperous collection of palm-leaf manuscripts continued to evanesce as they were requisitioned and moved to Europe. Currently, the surviving palm-leaf tablets are respectfully and considerately being preserved in various public and private collections across Europe. However, the highly seminal religious, medical, historical and cultural knowledge and intellect they contain, that may be fundamental to both Buddhist and South Asian cultural development are left inaccessible for scholarly and academic reference and research.

Technology and Buddhist Education

In order to ensure the continued preservation of all possible surviving manuscripts housed across the world, it has become imperative to obtain their digital copies and compile an easily accessible collection or anthology. Most of the manuscripts in question are over 150 years old and as such, in extremely fragile conditions, which makes them unsuitable for physical public reference in the first place. These factors have formed a compelling call for obtaining digital copies/scans of the manuscripts, which shapes the first part of this research’s motivation.

Secondly, all most all these manuscripts are written in ancient Sinhalese script, which requires to be translated to modern Sinhala and English, if these master pieces are to contribute to any ongoing contemporary theological, cultural or historical research and studies.