Abstract of a paper originally prepared by Peter Skilling for the conference “Aspects of Buddhist Studies,” hosted by the International Buddhist College at Penang, Malaysia in August, 2006 In the past two decades the field of Buddhist studies has changed radically. In part this is a natural result of rapid globalization–emigration, travel, and electronic communications–which has brought increased contact between Buddhist groups and Buddhist cultures around the world. But I do not intend to deal with this sweeping social change here. My interest is the availability and study of primary sources, primarily textual, but also epigraphic, archaeological, and iconographic. I will limit myself primarily to Indian and Indic Buddhism–that of South and Southeast Asia, but the radical change of which I speak extends to all fields of the academic study of Buddhism, including Tibet, Central Asia, and China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Primary sources that have been published in recent decades have changed the map of Buddhist studies. The Gandhari manuscripts–by far the oldest Buddhist manuscripts extant–have revealed the textual traditions of the Northwest, perhaps of the Dharmaguptaka school. Newly identified texts have given access to the Sammitiya or Pudgalavadin tradition. The Dirghagama from Gilgit offers a rich collection of Sarvastivadin sutras. Studies of the Pali literature of Siam, where several hundred Pali texts remain in manuscript, unstudied and unedited, show that the study of Pali is by no means a closed book. The Schoyen manuscripts have revealed new forms of Buddhist Sanskrit and have given us precious fragments of Indian texts hitherto known only from translations. Sanskrit manuscripts from Tibet have begun to be published, including a complete Vimalakirtinirdesa. Numerous new inscriptions and artefacts from South and Southeast Asia have been discovered, and new Buddhist sites continue to be excavated in India and elsewhere. Careful text editions, new translations, new studies, have all advanced our knowledge. The publication of numerous vernacular texts, especially in Siam, offers rich new resources for the study of narrative and ritual. New lexicographic and electronic tools have made research both easier and more demanding. Most of the advances I have mentioned belong to the realm of the specialist. The textbooks and histories for the student of religion or the general public have lagged far behind, and even the monumental works of the past, such as Lamotte’s “History of Indian Buddhism,” are seriously out of date. Many of the received truths and fundamental categories of the past can no longer be sustained, and the very history of Buddhism needs reformulation. The challenge we face is to continue to study primary sources, but at the same time present the results of our research in an accessible form, all the while subjecting our presuppostions and categories to a constant critique. And this must be tempered by an awareness of how little we know – and how much there is to learn.
Peter Skilling is a Fellow of the Lumbini International Research Institute (Lumbini, Nepal) and a Special Lecturer at Chulalongkorn University (Bangkok, Thailand). He is founder of the Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation (Bangkok), a project dedicated to the preservation, study, and publication of the Buddhist literature of Southeast Asia.