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A Thai Life of the Buddha: A study of a rare Buddhist manuscript held in the Bodleian Library Oxford

Doctors Appleton and Shaw discuss the manuscript with Dr. Gillian Evison (Head of the Bodleian Libraries' Oriental Section
& Indian Institute Librarian) and Dr. Samuel Fanous (Head of Bodleian Library Publishing).

Dr. Appleton and Dr. Shaw discuss the manuscript with Dr. Gillian Evison (Head of the Bodleian Libraries' Oriental Section 
& Indian Institute Librarian) and Dr. Samuel Fanous (Head of Bodleian Library Publishing).

In February 2011 Dr Naomi Appleton was awarded a British Academy Small Research Grant to fund a study of Bodleian Library MS. Pali a. 27 (R), an illustrated Thai Buddhist manuscript from the late 18th century. She will carry out this project in collaboration with Prof. Toshiya Unebe (Nagoya University, Japan) and Dr. Sarah Shaw (Oxford University) over the coming year.

The manuscript contains an anthology of philosophical and doctrinal texts in the Pāli language, accompanied by 40 miniature paintings depicting scenes from the Buddha’s extended lifestory (ten past lives plus final life). Illustrations of the Buddha’s final life are rare in Thai manuscripts, and these images preserve a distinctively Thai biographical and iconographic tradition. The images are therefore particularly valuable to scholars, and in combination with the texts they raise important questions about the history of Thai Buddhism. In addition the manuscript is accompanied by a letter from an early 19th century missionary, providing insight into the earliest understandings of Buddhism by Europeans.

Professor Unebe examines the manuscript

Prof. Unebe examines the manuscript.

The main output of the project will be a book provisionally entitled A Thai Life of the Buddha published by the Bodleian Libraries. In addition, this website will grow to incorporate a transcription of the text, and further information about this and related manuscripts.

Manuscripts such as the one at the centre of this project are sitting in libraries both in Europe and Asia gradually deteriorating. This is not because of a lack of interest in them as sources for our understanding of Buddhist history, but rather because of a lack of resources for their publication and a shortage of scholars who have the diversity of skills and experience required to study them as a whole. A collaborative approach such as this one will make all aspects of this particularly interesting manuscript available to an international audience, and will hopefully encourage further research on related sources.

Our research questions:

(1) What do the images depict?

One major task of the project is to identify and analyse each of the images. The manuscript (MS) contains 30 paired illustrations on one side (face A) and 10 on the other (face B). The face A images include paired illustrations of each of the ten great jātaka stories, which are linked to the ten perfections required for buddhahood and are commonly believed to narrate the final ten lives of the Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be). These are followed by images from the final life of the Buddha, which continue on the verso right up to the distribution of his relics. The final-life biographical images appear to be based upon the Thai biography Pathamasambodhi. All the images resonate with central Thai temple mural paintings and provide an insight into that iconographic tradition.

Dr Sarah Shaw examines a related manuscript.

Dr. Sarah Shaw examines another illustrated manuscript.

(2) What motivated the choice of images?

Whilst jātaka images are fairly common on Thai MSs, images from the life of the Buddha are much less so, and the reasons for this are not well understood. It is noteworthy that face A of this MS ends with the moment that Bodhisatta attains buddhahood, suggesting that the intention was to show the bodhisatta career (involving both past and final lives) on one side and the Buddha career (teaching, miracles, conversion of key followers, death, and survival in bodily relics) on the other. This MS should contribute to our understanding of the history of Buddha biography in Theravāda Buddhism.

(3) What is the relationship between the images and the text?

As is the case with many other MSs that depict the ten jātaka stories, the text bears no obvious relation to the images. The reasons for matching philosophical or ritual texts with popular narrative images are not clear. A full examination of the text and a comparison with other MSs, as well as investigation into ritual uses of the text, may increase our understanding of this matter.

(4) What is the provenance of this manuscript?

Accompanying the manuscript are three pieces of evidence as to its provenance. A label inserted in the cover addresses somebody by the name of Thomson and records that the MS was found in Kandy, Sri Lanka. A letter from Rev. Clough (a Wesleyan missionary to Sri Lanka) to a Mr M.C. Gibson Esq. (the apparent donor of the MS) gives little insight into the contents of the MS but a great insight into the earliest understandings of Buddhism by Europeans. The letter is labelled, in what appears to be a third hand, as an account of the MS from 1819. The MS remained unidentified by Bodleian staff for many years perhaps because of its unusual provenance, and it was only “discovered” by Mme Jacqueline Filliozat in 1998 (see her catalogue in the Journal of the Pali Text Society, 24: 1-80). We would like to better understand how and why the MS travelled from Thailand to Sri Lanka and later to the UK. This requires consultation of catalogues, bills of sale and related materials.


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