One of the Oldest Buddhist Manuscripts Has Been Digitized & Put Online: Explore the Gandhara Scroll

Buddhism goes way back — so far back, in fact, that we're still examining important evidence of just how far back it goes. Take the exhibit above, which may look like nothing more than a collection of faded scraps with writing on them. In fact, they're pieces of the laboriously and carefully unrolled and scanned Gandhara Scroll, which, having originally been written about two millennia ago, ranks as one of the oldest Buddhist manuscripts currently known. You can read the scroll's story at the blog of the Library of Congress, the institution that possesses it and only last year was able to put it online for all to see.

"The scroll originated in Gandhara, an ancient Buddhist kindgom located in what is today the northern border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan," writes the Library's Neely Tucker. "Surviving manuscripts from the Gandharan realm are rare; only a few hundred are known to still exist." That realm "was under the rule of numerous kings and dynasties, including Alexander the Great, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka and the Kushan emperor Kanishka I," and for a time "became a major seat of Buddhist art, architecture and learning. One of the region’s most notable characteristics is the Hellenistic style of its Buddhist sculptures, including figures of the Buddha with wavy hair, defined facial features, and contoured robes reminiscent of Greco-Roman deities."




Written in the Gandhari variant of Sanskrit, the "Bahubuddha Sutra" or "Many Buddhas Sutra," as this scroll has been called, constitutes part of "the much larger Mahavastu, or 'Great Story,' a biography of the Buddha and his past lives." Here Tucker draws from the scholarship of Richard G. Salomon, emeritus professor of Sanskrit and Buddhist studies at the University of Washington, another institution that holds a piece of the Gandharan Buddhist texts. Many more reside at the British Library, which acquired them in 1994. The Library of Congress bought its Gandhara Scroll from a British dealer more recently, in 2003, and it arrived in what Tucker describes as "an ordinary pen case, accompanied by a handwritten note: 'Extremely fragile, do not open unless necessary.'"

So began "several years of thought and planning to devise a treatment strategy," an effort that at one point saw the Library's conservator practicing "her unrolling technique on a dried-up cigar — an item that only approximates the difficulty of working with a compacted birch bark scroll." Then came "gradual humidification over a few days, careful unrolling by hand with precision tools on a sheet of inert glass, followed by placing another sheet of glass on top once the scroll was completely unrolled," a "dramatic and silent affair" described in greater detail by Atlas Obscura's Sabrina Imbler.

The result was six large fragments and more than 100 smaller ones, together constituting roughly 80 percent of the scroll's original text. You can see all those fragments of the Gandhara Scroll, scanned in high resolution, at the Library of Congress' web site. This will naturally be a more edifying experience if, like Salomon, you happen to be able to read Gandhari. Even if you can't, there's something to be felt in the experience of simply beholding a 2,000 year old text composed on birch bark through the digital medium on which we do most of our reading here in the 21st century — where interest in Buddhism shows no signs of waning.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

When Astronomer Johannes Kepler Wrote the First Work of Science Fiction, The Dream (1609)

The point at which we date the birth of any genre is apt to shift depending on how we define it. When did science fiction begin? Many cite early masters of the form like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as its progenitors. Others reach back to Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein as the genesis of the form. Some few know The Blazing World, a 1666 work of fiction by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, who called her book a “hermaphroditic text.” According to the judgment of such experts as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, sci-fi began even earlier, with a novel called Somnium (“The Dream”), written by none other than German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler. Maria Popova explains at Brain Pickings:

In 1609, Johannes Kepler finished the first work of genuine science fiction — that is, imaginative storytelling in which sensical science is a major plot device. Somnium, or The Dream, is the fictional account of a young astronomer who voyages to the Moon. Rich in both scientific ingenuity and symbolic play, it is at once a masterwork of the literary imagination and an invaluable scientific document, all the more impressive for the fact that it was written before Galileo pointed the first spyglass at the sky and before Kepler himself had ever looked through a telescope.

The work was not published until 1634, four years after Kepler’s death, by his son Ludwig, though “it had been Kepler’s intent to personally supervise the publication of his manuscript,” writes Gale E. Christianson. His final, posthumous work began as a dissertation in 1593 that addressed the question Copernicus asked years earlier: “How would the phenomena occurring in the heavens appear to an observer stationed on the moon?” Kepler had first come “under the thrall of the heliocentric model,” Popova writes, “as a student at the Lutheran University of Tübingen half a century after Copernicus published his theory.”

Kepler’s thesis was “promptly vetoed” by his professors, but he continued to work on the ideas, and corresponded with Galileo 30 years before the Italian astronomer defended his own heliocentric theory. “Sixteen years later and far from Tübingen, he completed an expanded version,” says Andrew Boyd in the introduction to a radio program about the book. “Recast in a dreamlike framework, Kepler felt free to probe ideas about the moon that he otherwise couldn’t.” Not content with cold abstraction, Kepler imagined space travel, of a kind, and peopled his moon with aliens.

And what an imagination! Inhabitants weren’t mere recreations of terrestrial life, but entirely new forms of life adapted to lunar extremes. Large. Tough-skinned. They evoked visions of dinosaurs. Some used boats, implying not just life but intelligent, non-human life. Imagine how shocking that must have been at the time.

Even more shocking to authorities were the means Kepler used in his text to reveal knowledge about the heavens and travel to the moon: beings he called “daemons” (a Latin word for benign nature spirits before Christianity hijacked the term), who communicated first with the hero’s mother, a witch practiced in casting spells.

The similarities between Kepler’s protagonist, Duracotus, and Kepler himself (such as a period of study under Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe) led the church to suspect the book was thinly veiled autobiographical occultism. Rumors circulated, and Kepler’s mother was arrested for witchcraft and subjected to territio verbalis (detailed descriptions of the tortures that awaited her, along with presentations of the various devices).  It took Kepler five years to free her and prevent her execution.

Kepler’s story is tragic in many ways, for the losses he suffered throughout his life, including his son and his first wife to smallpox. But his perseverance left behind one of the most fascinating works of early science fiction—published hundreds of years before the genre is supposed to have begun. Despite the fantastical nature of his work, “he really believed,” says Sagan in the short clip from Cosmos above, “that one day human beings would launch celestial ships with sails adapted to the breezes of heaven, filled with explorers who, he said, would not fear the vastness of space.”

Astronomy had little connection with the material world in the early 17th century. “With Kepler came the idea that a physical force moves the planets in their orbits,” as well as an imaginative way to explore scientific ideas no one would be able to verify for decades, or even centuries. Hear Somnium read at the top of the post and learn more about Kepler’s fascinating life and achievements at Brain Pickings.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Beatboxing Buddhist Monk Creates Music for Meditation

Most of us assume Japanese Buddhist monks to be silent types. In their personal lives they may well be, but if they want to go viral, they've got to log onto the internet and make some noise. This is the lesson one draws from some of the Buddhist figures previously featured here on Open Culture: Kossan, he of the Beatles and Ramones covers, or Gyōsen Asakura, the priest who performs psychedelic services soundtracked with electronic dance music. Depending on your taste in music, their performances may or may not induce the mental quiet one associates with Buddhist practice, and the music of Yogetsu Akasaka, the latest Japanese Buddhist monk to attain internet fame, may at first sound equally untraditional. But listen and you may well find yourself in a meditative state without even trying.

"The 37-year-old went viral in May, after posting his 'Heart Sutra Live Looping Remix,' a video that’s relaxing like ASMR, and engrossing like a DJ set," writes Vice's Miran Miyano. "With the loop machine, he layers sounds and chants all coming from one instrument — his voice." A musician since his teens and a beatboxer since his early twenties, the Tokyo-based Akasaka became a monk five years ago, following the path taken by his father, an abbott at a temple in rural Iwate Prefecture.




"Before he was ordained in 2015, he belonged to a theatre company formed in Fukushima prefecture, northeast Japan, after the region was devastated by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami," writes Richard Lord in the South China Morning Post. "He has also been a full-time busker in countries including the United States and Australia."

A busker Akasaka remains, in a sense, albeit one who, from the corner of YouTube he's made his own, can be heard across the globe. In addition to recordings like his hit version of the Heart Sutra, he's also been live streaming performances for the past two months. Lasting up to nearly two hours, these streams provide Akasaka an opportunity to vary his musical as well as spiritual themes, bring different instruments into the mix, and respond to fans who send him messages from all over the world, mostly outside his homeland. "I think in Japan, people often associate Buddhism with funerals, and the sutra has a little bit of a negative and sad image," he says to Vice. Indeed, as the saying goes, the modern Japanese is born Shinto, marries Christian, and dies Buddhist. But as Akasaka shows us, his tradition has something to offer all of us, no matter our nationality, in life as well.

via Metafilter

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Introduction to Thought Forms, the Pioneering 1905 Theosophist Book That Inspired Abstract Art: It Returns to Print on November 6th

“It is sometimes difficult to appreciate the impact that the late-nineteenth century (and ongoing) occult movement called Theosophy had on global culture,” Mitch Horowitz writes in his introduction to the newly republished 1905 Theosophical book, Thought Forms. That impact manifested “spiritually, politically, and artistically” in the work of literary figures like James Joyce and William Butler Yeats and religious figures like Jiddu Krishnamurti, handpicked as a teenager by Theosophist leader Charles W. Leadbeater to become the group’s messianic World Teacher.

The Theosophical Society helped re-introduce Buddhism, or a newly Westernized version, to Western Europe and the U.S., publishing the 1881 “Buddhist Catechism” by Henry Steel Olcott, a former Colonel for the Union Army. Olcott co-founded the society in New York City in 1875 with Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky. Soon afterward, the group of spiritual seekers relocated to India. “Nearly a century before the Beatles’ trek to Rishikesh,” writes Horwitz, “Blavatsky and Olcott laid the template for the Westerner seeking wisdom in the East.”




Theosophy also had a significant influence on modern art, including the work of Wassily Kandinsky, until recently considered the first Abstract painter—that is until the paintings of Hilma af Klint came to be widely known. The reclusive Swedish artist, whom we’ve covered here a few times before, came first, though no one knew it at the time. After showing her revolutionary abstract work to philosopher and onetime German and Austrian Theosophical Society leader Rudolf Steiner, she was told to hide it for another fifty years.

Theosophy gained many prominent converts in the UK, Europe, and around the world. Af Klint joined the Swedish society and remained a member until 1915. The symbolism in her mysterious abstractions, which she attributed to clairvoyant communication with “an entity named Amaliel,” may also have been suggested by the drawings in Thought Forms, an illustrated book created by Theosophical Society leaders Leadbeater and Annie Besant, who was “an early suffragist and political activist,” notes Sacred Bones Books. The small press will release a new edition of the book online and in stores on November 6. (See their Kickstarter page here and video trailer below.)

Besant was “far ahead of her time as an artist and thinker. Theosophy was the first occult group to open its doors to women and Thought Forms offers a reminder that the history of modernist abstraction and women’s contribution to it is still being written.” Although that unfolding history centrally includes af Klint and Besant, the latter did not actually make all of the illustrations we find in this strange book. She and Leadbeater claimed to have received, through clairvoyant means, “forms caused by definite thoughts thrown out by one of them, and also watched the forms projected by other persons under the influence of various emotions.”

So Besant would write in 1896 in the Theosophical journal Lucifer. After these “experiments,” the two then described going into trances and viewing “auras, vortices, etheric matter, astral projections, energy forms, and other expressions from the unseen world.” The two described these visions to a collection of visual artists, who rendered them into the paintings in the 1905 book.

Among those who do study the Theosophical Society’s impact, its first generation of publications—especially Olcott’s “Buddhist Catechism” and Blavatsky’s 1888 The Secret Doctrine—are especially well-known texts. But Thought Forms may prove “the most widely read, lasting, and directly influential book to emerge from the revolution that Theosophy ignited," Horowitz argues.

"By many estimates, Thought Forms marks the germination of abstract art”—originated through several artists' best guess at what visions of psychic phenomena might look like. You can follow Sacred Bones' Kickstarter campaign here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Breathtakingly-Detailed Tibetan Book Printed 40 Years Before the Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible went to press in the year 1454. We now see it as the first piece of mass media, printed as it was with the then-cutting-edge technology of metal movable type. But in the history of aesthetic achievements in book-printing, the Gutenberg Bible wasn't without its precedents. To find truly impressive examples requires looking in lands far from Europe: take, for instance, this "Sino-Tibetan concertina-folded book, printed in Beijing in 1410, containing Sanskrit dhāranīs and illustrations of protective mantra-diagrams and deities, woodblock-printed in bright red ink on heavy white paper," whose "breathtakingly detailed printing" predates Gutenberg by 40 years.

That description comes from a Twitter user called Incunabula (a term referring to early books), a self-described bibliophile and rare book collector who posts about "the history of writing, and of the book, from cave painting to cuneiform tablet to papyrus scroll to medieval codex to Kindle."




Incunabula's six-tweet thread on this early 15th-century Sino-Tibetan book includes both pictures and descriptions of this remarkable artifact's interior and exterior.

Its text, written in the Tibetan and Nepalese Rañjanā script, "is printed twice, once on each side of the paper, so that the book may be read in the Indo-Tibetan manner by turning the pages from right to left or in Chinese style by turning from left to right." The book's content is "a sequence of Tibetan Buddhist recitation texts," or chants, all "protected at front and back by thicker board-like wrappers," each "covered in fine pen-drawings in gold paint on black of 20 icons of the Tathāgatas."

Incunabula has also posted extensively about Buddhist texts from other times and lands: a Thai folding manuscript from the mid-19th century telling of a monk's journeys to heaven and hell; a Mongolian manuscript from the same period that translates the Čoyijod Dagini, "a popular Buddhist text about virtue, sin and the afterlife"; an example of "Japanese Buddhist printing 150 years before Gutenberg"; an "8th century Khotanese amuletic scroll from the Silk Road." The creators of these texts would have meant the words they were preserving to survive them — but our marveling at them hundreds, even more than a thousand years later, would surely have come as a surprise.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

500+ Beautiful Manuscripts from the Islamic World Now Digitized & Free to Download

Mathematics, astronomy, history, law, literature, architecture: in these fields and others, the Muslim world came up with major innovations before any other civilization did. This Islamic cultural and intellectual flowering lasted from the 11th through the 19th century, and many of the texts the period left as its legacy have gone mostly unresearched. So say the creators of Manuscripts of the Muslim World, a project of Columbia University, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, and Haverford College aimed at creating an online archive of "more than 500 manuscripts and 827 paintings from the Islamicate world broadly construed."

As UPenn Libraries Senior Curator of Special Collections Mitch Fraas tells Hyperallergic's Sarah Rose Sharp, “The aim of this project was to find and digitize all the Islamicate manuscripts in Philadelphia collections and along the way we partnered with Columbia on a grant to take a multi-city approach."




To the sources of its manuscripts it also takes a multi-culture approach, including "texts related to Christianity (Coptic and Syriac mss. galore), Hinduism (epics translated into Persian in Mughal India), science, technology, music, etc. but which were produced in the historic Muslim world." There are also texts, he adds, "in Persian, Arabic, and Turkish of course but also in Coptic, Tamazight, Avestan, etc."

If you can read those languages, Manuscripts of the Muslim World obviously amounts to a gold mine. (You may also find something of interest in the digital archives of 700 years of Persian manuscripts and 10,000 books in Arabic we've previously featured here on Open Culture.) But even if you don't, you'll find in the collection marvels of book design that will appeal to anyone with an appreciation of the lush aesthetics, both abstract and figurative, of these places and these times. Some of them aren't even as old as they may seem: take the manuscript at the top of the post, "overpainted in the 20th century to mimic Mughal style." Or the one below that, whose colophon "says the copy was completed in 1121 A.H. (1709 or 1710 CE)," which "does not make sense given the author likely lived in the 19th century."

The other pages here come from a set of "illustrations from Qurʼānic stories" (this one depicting "Abraham sacrificing his son") and a "Persian calligraphy and illustration album." You'll find much more in Manuscripts of the Muslim World, hosted on OPENN, the University of Pennsylvania's online repository of "high-resolution archival images of manuscripts" accompanied by "machine-readable TEI P5 descriptions and technical metadata," all released into the public domain or under Creative Commons licenses. Though each manuscript's entry comes with basic notes, the collection is, in the main, not yet a thoroughly studied one. If you have an interest in the Islamic world at its peak of cultural and intellectual influence so far, you may just find your next big research subject here — or at the very least, material for a few hours' admiration. Enter the collection.

via Hyperallergic

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Foot-Licking Demons & Other Strange Things in a 1921 Illustrated Manuscript from Iran

Few modern writers so remind me of the famous Virginia Woolf quote about fiction as a "spider's web" more than Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges. But the life to which Borges attaches his labyrinths is a librarian's life; the strands that anchor his fictions are the obscure scholarly references he weaves throughout his text. Borges brings this tendency to whimsical employ in his nonfiction Book of Imaginary Beings, a heterogenous compendium of creatures from ancient folk tale, myth, and demonology around the world.

Borges himself sometimes remarks on how these ancient stories can float too far away from ratiocination. The “absurd hypotheses” regarding the mythical Greek Chimera, for example, “are proof” that the ridiculous beast “was beginning to bore people…. A vain or foolish fancy is the definition of Chimera that we now find in dictionaries.” Of  what he calls “Jewish Demons,” a category too numerous to parse, he writes, “a census of its population left the bounds of arithmetic far behind. Throughout the centuries, Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia all enriched this teeming middle world.” Although a lesser field than angelology, the influence of this fascinatingly diverse canon only broadened over time.

“The natives recorded in the Talmud” soon became “thoroughly integrated” with the many demons of Christian Europe and the Islamic world, forming a sprawling hell whose denizens hail from at least three continents, and who have mixed freely in alchemical, astrological, and other occult works since at least the 13th century and into the present. One example from the early 20th century, a 1902 treatise on divination from Isfahan, a city in central Iran, draws on this ancient thread with a series of watercolors added in 1921 that could easily be mistaken for illustrations from the early Middle Ages.

As the Public Domain Review notes:

The wonderful images draw on Near Eastern demonological traditions that stretch back millennia — to the days when the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud asserted it was a blessing demons were invisible, since, “if the eye would be granted permission to see, no creature would be able to stand in the face of the demons that surround it.”

The author of the treatise, a rammal, or soothsayer, himself “attributes his knowledge to the Biblical Solomon, who was known for his power over demons and spirits,” writes Ali Karjoo-Ravary, a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Predating Islam, “the depiction of demons in the Near East… was frequently used for magical and talismanic purposes,” just as it was by occultists like Aleister Crowley at the time these illustrations were made.

“Not all of the 56 painted illustrations in the manuscript depict demonic beings,” the Public Domain Review points out. “Amongst the horned and fork-tongued we also find the archangels Jibrāʾīl (Gabriel) and Mikāʾīl (Michael), as well as the animals — lion, lamb, crab, fish, scorpion — associated with the zodiac.” But in the main, it’s demon city. What would Borges have made of these fantastic images? No doubt, had he seen them, and he had seen plenty of their like before he lost his sight, he would have been delighted.

A blue man with claws, four horns, and a projecting red tongue is no less frightening for the fact that he’s wearing a candy-striped loincloth. In another image we see a moustachioed goat man with tuber-nose and polka dot skin maniacally concocting a less-than-appetising dish. One recurring (and worrying) theme is demons visiting sleepers in their beds, scenes involving such pleasant activities as tooth-pulling, eye-gouging, and — in one of the most engrossing illustrations — a bout of foot-licking (performed by a reptilian feline with a shark-toothed tail).

There’s a playful Bosch-ian quality to all of this, but while we tend to see Bosch’s work from our perspective as absurd, he apparently took his bizarre inventions absolutely seriously. So too, we might assume, did the illustrator here. We might wonder, as Woolf did, about this work as the product of “suffering human beings… attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.” What kinds of ordinary, material concerns might have afflicted this artist, as he (we presume) imagined demons gouging the eyes and licking the feet of people tucked safely in their beds?

See many more of these strange paintings at the Public Domain Review.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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