Research

Buddhist sūtras are fundamental sources for understanding the beliefs that once dominated, and largely continue to dominate, Asian societies. But classical philological approaches to these texts, assuming an Ur-text and linear development, misrepresent their nature and obscure their history. Like oral literature the sūtras are authorless and textually fluid, their content formulaic and modular, and the situation complicated by their huge volume and the linguistic diversity of their extant versions. Their fluidity and the absence of an Ur-text makes traditional stemmatic editing inappropriate. Other options are also unacceptable: eclectic editions conflate distinct sources, creating texts which never existed historically, while exclusive focus on a single version ignores the tradition’s true richness.

Utilizing the tools of Digital Humanities, Open Philology offers a revolution in approaching the composition of these scriptures, and other literatures with common features, such as the Homeric corpus or Rabbinic literature. Given the vastness of the Buddhist canons, we will focus on a traditional subset of texts, and produce electronic editions which preserve their diachronic and synchronic fluidity, revealing the intertextuality inherent in their formulaic composition. Our editing environments will allow one to easily view the diversity of sources, in different versions of ‘the same text’ and in parallels in other texts, and permit one to view data at any level of granularity, according to one’s interests.

The project will produce corpora of sūtras mutually aligned in their Chinese, Tibetan and, when available, Sanskrit versions, a map of formulaic content, annotated text editions and translations, a general study of the corpus, and a series of scholarly publications on methodological and content-oriented issues. The tools and results we produce will bring our historical understanding of Buddhism, the most formative influence on Asian cultures, to a new level.

State of the art

According to Buddhist tradition, in the 40 years of his teaching career the Buddha (5th c. BCE) wandered preaching from village to village. He gave ‘the same sermon’ multiple times, each time, however, a bit differently, as a bard repeating a tale, and like a bard, he employed formulae to facilitate his teaching. In an age when memory ruled, these sermons were held in mind, in whole or in part. Since each ‘original’ varied from every other ‘original’, the lessons passed on orally, even if memorized verbatim, came to constitute a circulating collection of variant but equally authentic versions of the Buddha’s teachings, the sūtras. Some sermons, so profound that they could not be revealed openly during the Buddha’s lifetime, taught the ‘Great Vehicle’ (leading toward awakening, in Sanskrit, Mahāyāna). Setting aside the historicity of this scenario, it reflects the actual situation of sūtras themselves, constituted of multiple closely related versions, sharing substantial formulaic material which, however, cannot stem from a unique archetype or ‘Ur-text’

As Buddhism spread from its Indian homeland throughout Asia, missionary monks carried the sūtras with them, in manuscripts or in memory.

Since Buddhism vanished from India by the 13th c., the scriptures are for the greater part preserved in renderings in Chinese (from the 2nd c.) and Tibetan (from the 8th c.). The volume of this material is huge, in Tibetan translation over 70,000 pages, of which only a very small portion is yet critically edited or translated in any modern language. For both practical and principled reasons, Open Philology focuses on one representative set of Mahāyāna sūtras, the Mahāratnakūṭa collection (MRK). From a practical perspective, while still sizable—some 3500 Tibetan pages—the MRK permits study by a single team. From the perspective of its content, its 49 texts represent a cross-section of the varieties of Mahāyāna sūtras found in the broader canon. The MRK may even have been compiled with the intention to create a sort of ‘mini-canon,’ a hypothesis which arises not only from its thematic variety but also from the circumstances of its composition.