Visiting Gandhara in Edinburgh

I have recently become aware of some quite impressive pieces of Gandharan Buddhist art in Edinburgh collections, both in the University Library Centre for Research Collections, and in the National Museum of Scotland. During a recent visit from Peter Skilling and Nat Sirisawad we were lucky enough to view both collections, including the museum pieces that are kept in off-site storage. (Many thanks to curator Rosanna Nicolson for arranging this latter trip, which was a fantastic experience!)

Sumedha makes his vow to buddhahood at the feet of the past buddha Dipankara, who predicts that he will indeed become a buddha in the future. This traditionally marks the beginning of the long path of Śākyamuni Buddha. Gandharan relief. Image (c) National Museums Scotland. Museum reference A.1934.371

Sumedha makes his vow to buddhahood at the feet of the past buddha Dipankara, who predicts that he will indeed become a buddha in the future. This traditionally marks the beginning of the long path of Śākyamuni Buddha. Gandharan relief. Image (c) National Museums Scotland. Museum reference A.1934.371

Most of these pieces are fragmentary stone reliefs, but some are quite substantial, including a beautiful relief of the encounter of Sumedha with Dipankara Buddha (above), and a number of other friezes that are harder to identify. These seem to have been donated primarily by army officers from Scottish regiments, though little is known about their provenance.

The University’s collection can be found by inputting “Gandhara” here:

A Gandharan relief showing musicians and dancers? Photograph © The University of Edinburgh/Thomas Morgan. Item reference 0017324.

A Gandharan relief showing musicians and dancers? Photograph © The University of Edinburgh/Thomas Morgan. Item reference 0017324.

Only some of the Museum’s pieces have been photographed, but more are promised, and you can search what there is here:

These visits, along with more time spent amongst the University’s Southeast Asian manuscript collections, have convinced me that I would like to explore Edinburgh’s Buddhist materials more extensively. I hope, with the help of colleagues, to find out more about what the items are and how they ended up in Edinburgh instiutions. Watch this space!



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On compiling an Index

This week I have been wondering what bad deeds I did in past lives in order to be stuck at my desk, squinting at a pdf of my book, trying to compile and populate an index. It is far from my favourite task – that perfect combination of really hard work and really really boring. The names and texts and simple references are fine, but I struggle to work out what to include and what not to include, and then how to sub-divide those entries that are all over the place. I can’t just list “Buddha”, or “gods”, or “Indra”, but must find a way to break them up into sensible sub-entries.

It has taken over my brain to the extent that I found myself quietly alphabetising the keywords in sentences my husband was saying to me last night.



tea: chai; decaf green; mint; real; see also coffee


I also found myself indexing in my dreams. Never a good experience…

Alphabetising is actually something I struggle with. Given that nowadays my dictionary use tends to be for Sanskrit and Pāli, I really do have to sing my English alphabet to myself as I work on putting terms in order.

Technology has also been taxing. I had to do proof corrections in Adobe, but for some reason Adobe couldn’t recognise any words with diacritical marks as words, making it impossible to search for my index terms. So I switched to Preview. All well and good, except for the crashes. Oh, and the point where, when indexing, I spot a correction, and have to shut down the document in Preview, open it in Adobe, make the correction, shut it again and open in Preview…. Still, it’s a lot better than index cards I suppose!

The trouble is, much as I hate the process of compiling an index (and I have compiled five of them in the past six years!) I can’t quite bring myself to let someone else do the work. For a start I would worry about how they would choose the terms, especially those related to themes and concepts. And then there’s the language issue, with many of the entries in Indic languages with their complex spellings. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, indexing has led to me spotting a number of spelling errors or inconsistencies in the main text. Could I really trust someone else to know that Śibi and Śivi are the same person, but that the Vasu gods are different to King Vasu? As for choosing the sub-divisions for entries, I really don’t see how anyone other than the author could do this.

But perhaps I am just a control freak, and should relax and try a professional indexer next time. Or maybe I should just stop writing books 🙂



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Women in Early Indian Buddhism

When I see an academic book that looks interesting and relevant, my general policy is to buy it and add it to a pile on my desk, ready to be read when I have a moment. The rule is that books have to be at least partly read before they are allowed onto the shelves. Of course, workloads being what they are, sometimes books stay on that desk pile for quite a long time, and the pile climbs ever higher and looks ever more daunting. In the summer I try to make a concerted effort to give these books some attention!

And so it was that this week I finally sat down to read Alice Collett’s 2014 edited collection for OUP, Women in Early Indian Buddhism: Comparative Textual Studies.

The volume is a lovely little collection of studies of some neglected textual sources that provide new perspectives on the position of women in early Buddhism. Because of the authorship and provenance of Buddhist texts, women are too often presented as distractions or dangers to male practitioners (at best) or terrifying and voracious demonesses (at worst). But this volume provides evidence – including in texts likely authored by early Buddhist nuns – that the situation was actually much more interesting than this. From the relatively well known poems of early Buddhist nuns (in the Therīgāthā) to recent manuscript finds, the book covers a delightful range of sources, each one carefully assessed and explored.

Given my interest in jātaka and avadāna literature, it should be no surprise that I was particularly interested in Jonathan Walters’ chapter on the Apadāna and Karen Muldoon-Hules’ on the Avadānaśataka. Both chapters explore the theme of marriage. Muldoon-Hules investigates the presence of Brahmanical marriage rites in the Sanskrit Buddhist Avadānaśataka, while Walters argues that a focus on marriage in the past-life stories of nuns in the Apadāna is part of a strategy of re-writing women into the Buddhist past. In the two specific examples explored by Walters – the apadānas of Bhaddā-Kāpilāni and Yasodharā – the nuns’ stories reinsert these women into the narrative accounts of their husbands, suggesting that the women were not only partners in the men’s spiritual quest, but that the men could not have achieved what they did without their wives.

Sadly the volume does not contain any assessment of jātaka literature, perhaps because it is so vast and so often misogynous, though there are plenty of positive portrayals of women to be found in it too. Maybe writing something on the positive female figures of the jātakas is a job to add to my to-do list, which, incidentally, covers a whiteboard in my office. (Whichever way I face, I see either that big pile of books or that big wall of tasks! All in good time…)

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Trying to work in Edinburgh in August

The summer is always a strange time for academics. In amongst tying up loose ends from last academic year and preparing for the next, we cram in conferences, research, writing and – one hopes – the odd holiday. In Edinburgh it is doubly strange, because August involves a mass invasion of tourists and performers for the various festivals, including the world-famous Fringe festival. Many of the university buildings are transformed into venues for music, dance, theatre, magic or comedy.

Living in a tourist town is mildly annoying at the best of times. The walk from my office to the main university library takes me past the cafe that claims to be the “birthplace of Harry Potter” as well as a peculiarly famous statue of a small dog. I learned very quickly that if I refrained from walking through anybody’s photographs then I would never get anywhere! But in August I steer clear of the library altogether, if I can. And if I can’t avoid it, then I transform into my very own form of performance art: I am the “angry local trying to work” as I barge through the swarms of tourists, hands firmly in pockets as I refuse all the offers of flyers for shows. I manage to maintain this sour demeanour until someone asks me for directions, at which point my instinctive smile and British politeness take over!

For you should not misunderstand me: I am no misanthrope. I love Edinburgh and am happy to share it with other admirers. I am also aware that the festival is a lucrative opportunity for the city and the university, and that the money it brings can help support services that I value. But that said, I am challenged by the practicalities of working when there is a bar outside your office window and the building periodically shakes with the sound of a drumming group playing in what was the student canteen.

This year I thought I would try a new approach, to embrace August. I took time off and enjoyed some excellent shows as well as some peace and quiet at home. I am even allowing myself the odd show now I’m back at work. This afternoon I spent an hour in a shed with novelist Ian Rankin and three other members of the public participating in a continuous reading aloud of the twelve-volume Chilcot report into the Iraq war. Very sobering, though I’m not sure it helped with my ever-growing to-do list.

As well as the noise and the difficulty walking anywhere, It really is hard to work when everyone around you seems to be on holiday! I am not sure what the solution is, but I take some comfort from the knowledge that next year I will spend the second half of August attending conferences in Toronto. Maybe I can take holiday for the first half and join those folk in the bar outside my office window, or the crowds photographing themselves with the famous statue of the small dog…

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The Jātakas of the Mahāvastu

In the spirit of my last post, I’d like to share my research notes on the many jātaka stories found in the Mahāvastu. These fall into several categories, with some told as part of explanations of the career of a/the bodhisattva, and others told during the final life-story of the Buddha to explain repeated events in the past. Only the latter type tend to be called jātakas, and to further confuse matters some stories that are called jātakas don’t feature the Buddha at all! So these stories really challenge our definition of the jātaka genre and what it is all about.

My research on these stories is just beginning, but some preliminary thoughts will appear in a paper I am writing up for a collected volume on Buddhist paths, which Cristina Pecchia and Vincent Eltschinger are putting together following a symposium on that theme last December. It should be a really interesting volume.

Meanwhile enjoy the story summaries in pdf here: Mahavastu Jatakas

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Summarising Jātaka Stories

I have been thinking a lot recently about the art of summarising stories. There are four reasons this is on my mind:

– I finally reached number 100 on my mission to tweet all 547 stories of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā. It is slow work as it is always bottom of the list, but I am gradually creating a searchable resource of really short summaries (which has its own page on this blog).

– I was asked, again, to try to identify an image that may or may not depict a jātaka story. This happens often enough to make me wish I had a proper searchable database (a long held ambition). In response to the last query I did get as far as scanning a typed paper summary of the first 454 stories of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā that I made during my doctoral research but long ago lost the digital file for (oops). A kind colleague used his text-recognition software to transfer my scan into a searchable file again. (Thank you Alex you are a wonder!) Though I still couldn’t identify the story…

– I have been working on an article on how jātakas are conceived of in different Sanskrit texts, in the process of which I have created summaries of the jātakas in the Mahāvastu, as well as revisiting previous summaries of the Avadānaśataka and Jātakamālā…

– I was paid a visit by an intern working to increase awareness of the University’s “DataShare” service, which is a platform for storing and sharing research data.

Tying together these experiences I think I have decided it is time to get myself a DataShare account and start to tidy up some of the story summaries I have produced over the years, ready to share them with others. When it’s up and running I’ll make sure to link to it from this blog.

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Vessantara Jataka

Having recently submitted my own book to the publisher, I have been enjoying working through a backlog of reading other people’s! I particularly enjoyed devouring Steven Collins’ edited volume Readings of the Vessantara Jātaka, which came out with Columbia University Press earlier this year. It contains seven papers on varied localised forms of engagement with the story, along with an introduction by Collins.

9780231160384The Vessantara Jātaka, the story of the Buddha-to-be giving away his children and his wife in the perfection of his generosity, is one of the most important narratives in Southeast Asian Buddhism, and it is this region that features most heavily in this book. The volume is designed to accompany a reading of the Pāli version of the story, which can be found in a translation by either Margaret Cone (The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara) or Sarah Shaw (in our The Ten Great Birth Stories of the Buddha). It certainly complements a study of the text, bringing the story alive in its varied artistic and ethnographic contexts. As such it is ideal for use in teaching alongside the story, and will definitely be finding itself on the reading list for my course on Theravada Buddhism.

The contexts that are explored are richly varied, as well as being – in several cases – richly illustrated with colour images. Some discussions surround key characters, from comic portrayals of the brahmin who receives Vessantara’s children, to interpretations of Vessantara and Maddī as a model husband and wife. Others focus on practices, including the Bun Phra Wet festival and its accoutrements, and a Newari ritual context. The introductory essay by Steven Collins sets the scene nicely, outlining the story and the key debates that surround it, such as questions of genre, “excessive” giving, and “original” versions.

Collins’ introduction reminds us that there is still plenty of work to be done on this fascinating story, not only in its various contemporary manifestations, but also in its textual forms. I have an article in my drafts folder on some different aspects of the Indian literary context that I think shed light on the Pāli Vessantara Jātaka. It has been hanging around for a couple of years waiting for attention, and maybe its time has come…


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