Meditation in Multiple Contexts: Early Buddhist Manuscripts and Inscriptions  

Meditation in Multiple Contexts: Early Buddhist Manuscripts and Inscriptions

Jason Neelis

In order to place Buddhist meditation in historical and philosophical contexts, scholars have attempted to identify different textual layers of the early tradition. Answers to these challenging questions depend largely on constructing a relative chronology of ideas based on analysis of early and late phases of Pāli canonical texts and comparisons with parallels in Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, and other Buddhist literatures. As Tilmann Vetter explains, a “common core” of doctrinal foundations for meditation practices among these textual traditions can sometimes be identified. However, it is very difficult to identify this common core of early ideas with the historical Buddha since subjective criteria are employed to determine which ideas are more original than others. Presuppositions about earlier and later strata remain problematic without external evidence from early manuscripts and inscriptions.

Early Buddhist manuscripts and inscriptions provide valuable perspectives on Buddhist meditation. Buddhist manuscripts in the Gāndhārī language from the 1st – 3rd centuries CE supply early written testimony of ideas connected with practices of meditation. In contrast to the literary evidence from Gandhāran manuscripts, Buddhist inscriptions reveal only limited information about meditation, which is difficult to associate with the physical evidence of donations to the Buddhist Saṅgha. Epigraphical references to meditation(dhyāna) and concentration(samādhi) do not provide details about specific techniques, but tend to be associatedwithworshipoftheBuddha,relics,andthe Dharma-body(dharmakāya). Buddhist literary and epigraphic references to ideas, terms, classifications, and practices illustrate different concerns with meditation.

A. Manuscripts

Fragments of manuscripts in the Kharoṣṭhī script and the Gāndhārī language supply the earliest evidence for the written transmission of literary texts with references to meditation practices. Prior to a veritable avalanche of recent discoveries of Kharoṣṭhī manuscripts since 1994, the only Buddhist manuscript in Gāndhārī was an incomplete version of the Dharmapada found near Khotan in 1892 and definitively edited by John Brough in 1962. Brough emphasized that the birch-bark scroll of the Khotan Dharmapada was “… accepted to be the oldest manuscript now extant of any Indian text” and “… the only Budhist text from the earlier period which has survived in any Indian language other than Pāli and Sanskrit” (1962: 1). Based on paleographic and linguistic features, Brough and other scholars generally date the Khotan Dharmapada to the second century CE. Parallels with the Pāli Dhammapada and the Sanskrit Udānavarga permit comparisons of this popular verse text, which was widely transmitted from very early stages of the Buddhist literary tradition. Certain verses of the Khotan Dharmapada specifically refer to practices of meditation (Gāndhārī aṇa corresponds to Pāli jhāna and Sanskrit dhyāna) and concentration (Gāndhārī samadhi corresponds to Pāli and Sanskrit samādhi). Examples drawn from the Bhikṣuvarga of the Khotan Dharmapada include:

i. Bhikṣuvarga 58(Pāli Dhammapada 372, Udānavarga 32.25)

nasti J̅aṇa aprañasa praña nasti aJ̅ayado yasa jaṇa praña ya so hu nirvaṇasa sadi’i

There is no meditation for one who is without wisdom, no wisdom for one who is not meditating. He, in whom there are meditation and wisdom, is indeed close to nirvāṇa.”

ii. Bhikṣuvarga 61(Pāli Dhammapada 365, Udānavarga 13.8)

salavhu nadimañea nañeṣa svihao sia añeṣa svihao bhikhu samadhi nadhikachadi “One should not despise what one receives. One should not wander about envying others. A bhikkhu envying others does not attain concentration.”

iii. Bhikṣuvarga 65-66 (= Pāli Dhammapada 271-2, Mahāvastu 3.422)

na śila-vada-matreṇa bhoṣukeṇa va maṇo adha samadhilabhena vevita-śayaṇeṇa va

phuśamu nekhamasukhu aprudhajaṇasevida bhikhu viśpaśa mavadi aprate asavakṣaye

“Not merely by virtuous conduct and vows nor, again, by much learning, nor by the attainment of concentration, nor by sleeping in seclusion, do I attain the happiness of the absence of desire, not attained by worldlings. Nor has a bhikkhu attained confidence, as long as he has not attained the destruction of the āsavas.”

References to dhyāna and samādhi in verses belonging to the “section on monks” (bhikṣuvarga) indicate that meditation was an essential component of monastic life, but these verses admonish monks not to practice meditation without wisdom(prajñā) and warn that attainment of concentration(samādhi) is not possible if envy and “intoxicants”(āsravas) are not eliminated. Since these didactic verses appear in Gāndhārī, Pāli, and Sanskrit Dharmapada-type literature, a “common core” of monastic attitudes towards the significance of meditative practices may be detected.

Another fragmentary version of the Bhikṣuvarga preserved in Kharoṣṭhī fragments belonging to the British Library collection and dated in the first century CE has recently been edited by Timothy Lenz. The twelve didactic verses with parallels in the Khotan Dharmapada and the Uraga-vagga of the Pāli Suttanipāta implore monks to eliminate anger, impurities, and thirst in order to “leave behind this life and the next, just as a snake leaves behind his old, worn-out skin” according to the common refrain(Lenz 2003: 59 ff.). Although these fragments do not contain explicit references to dhyāna or samādhi, praise for monks who have “understood that everything (*in this world) is unreal,” who have transcended “all the diversified world,” and who have “no desires (*which act as causes) for the bondage of the mind that will lead to rebirth” strongly suggest meditative contexts. The final verse of the British Library version praises “that monk who rids himself of the five hindrances.” Rupert Gethin points out that abandonment of the five hindrances(nīvaraṇa) of (1) sensual desire, (2) ill will, (3) tiredness and sleepiness, (4) excitement and depression, and (5) doubt frequently introduces Pāli stock descriptions of the four dhyānas/jhānas and figures prominently in various similes used to illustrate the basic principle of Buddhist meditation: “One stills and clears the mind and then turns it towards investigation and insight.”

Similar phrases and themes related to meditation practice appear in a Gandhārī version of the Rhinoceros Sūtra preserved in a British Library Kharoṣṭhī fragment edited by Richard Salomon. Like the Dharmapada, the Rhinoceros Sūtra is also a relatively early and popular verse text with parallels in the Uraga-vagga of the Suttanipāta, the Culla-niddesa, and the Paccekabuddhāpadāna in Pāli and in the Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Mahāvastu-avadāna of the Mahāsaṅghika-Lokottaravādins. Verses sharing the common refrain that “one should wander alone like the rhinoceros” can be divided into three types, according to Salomon (2000: 7):

1) exhortations against the dangers of attachments in the first half of the text;

2) prescriptions for a solitary ascetic lifestyle predominate in the second half; and

3) explanations of the value of finding good companions and warning against bad associations interspersed throughout.

While the text does not strictly concern meditation techniques, themes of eliminating attachments and solitary withdrawal are closely related. For example, the 29th verse of the Gāndhārī version (with close parallels in Pāli texts) connects withdrawal with meditation:

29. salaṇa to J̅aṇo aricamaṇa dhaṃmeṣo ṇico aṇudhaṃma[ya]ri [a]///

“Not abandoning withdrawal [and] this meditation, always acting in accordance with the dharma among phenomena … (*one should wander alone like the rhinoceros).”

Several verses refer to the abandonment of doubt (24c), the fetters of passion, hatred, delusion, and desire (35a-b), and the five obstructions of the mind (37a) with the gerund prahae or prahai (Sanskrit prahāya / Pāli pahāya).

24. bhayea mitra paḍibhaṇavaṃta bahoṣuda dhaṃmadhara uraḍa (*añae dhaṃmaṃ vi)yigitsa prahae ek(*o care khargaviṣaṇagapo)

“One should cultivate a friend who is intelligent, learned, a master of the dharma, noble. (*Having understood the dharma) and abandoned doubt, (*one should wander) alone (*like the rhinoceros).”

35. raga ca doṣa ca prahae mokho taṣ̅a ya sarvasay(*o)ya(*ṇa)ṇi (*asaṇtrasaṃ jivitasaṃ)śayasi(*ṃ) ek(*o) care kharga(*v)iṣaṇa (*gapo)

Having abandoned both passion and hatred, [and] delusion and desire [and] all the fetters, (*not trembling [even when]) in doubt (*of [one’s] life), one should wander alone (*like) the rhinoceros.”

37. prahai paṃcavaraṇaṇi cedaso uvakileśa vavaṇuja sa(*r)va (*abhibhuya sa)rvaṇi pariṣ(*e)aṇi eko care khargaviṣa(*ṇagapo)

Having abandoned the five obstructions of the mind, having expelled all the defilements, (*having overcome) all dangers, one should wander alone (*like) the rhinoceros.”

The injunction to abandon the “five obstructions of the mind” in the Rhinoceros Sūtra is similar to praise for the monk who rids himself of the “five hindrances” in the Dharmapada verse discussed earlier, with only slight differences in terminology (avaraṇa/āvaraṇa instead of nivaraṇa/nīvaraṇa).

Clear associations between practices of meditation and published Gāndhārī manuscripts in the British Library collection are elucidated in the Prasaṇa sūtra edited by Mark Allon. This sūtra is the third in a group of three “Ekottarikāgama-type” sūtras which may have belonged to a Gāndhārī “Section of Fours” similar to the Catukka-nipāta of the Aṅguttara-nikāya in Pāli. The third text elaborates the four “efforts” or “abandonings” (Gāndḥarī prasaṇa / Pāli padhāna / Sanskrit pradhāna, prahāṇa) included in lists of the 37 factors which contribute to awakening (bodhipākṣyadharma), which are listed as 41 in a Gāndhārī manuscript in the Senior collection edited by Dr. Andrew Glass. Rupert Gethin suggests that the discrepancy between Pāli padhāna (“effort”) and Sanskrit prahāṇa (“abandoning”) may have been deliberate, since “it does seem that the Buddhist tradition as a whole preserves an explanation of the term which focuses on the notion of abandoning.” In any case, the Gāndhārī Prasaṇa sūtra can be compared with parallels in at least four Pāli suttas as well as Central Asian Sanskrit fragments from Turfan and Chinese translations (including An Shigao’s translation of an anthology of Ekottarikāgama sūtras). The order of the four “efforts” varies considerably in the textual sources and the sequence in this Gāndhārī version is apparently unique because the groups are not divided into “profitable” (kuśala) and “unprofitable” (akuśala) pairs. “Restraint” (sabara corresponds to Sanskrit saṃvara) and “abandoning” (prasaṇa, here corresponding to Sanskrit prahāṇa) appear as the first and fourth members, with “protecting” and “development” as the second and third members in the Gāndhārī Prasaṇa sūtra:

1) Sabara (Sanskrit saṃvara) “restraint”

2) Aṇorakṣaṇa (Sanskrit anurakṣaṇā) “protecting”

3) Bhavana (Sanskrit bhāvanā) “development”

4) Prasaṇa (Sanskrit prahāṇa) “abandoning”

The efforts of protecting (2) and developing (3) both involve concentration (samādhi). The “effort of protecting” (aṇorakṣaṇaprasaṇa) is aimed at preserving “profitable” (kuśala) states of mind, including “signs of concentration” (samasinimiti corresponds to Sanskrit samādhi-nimittam). A monk’s perception of corpses in various states of decomposition is considered a beneficial “sign of concentration” because this meditative practice leads to the destruction of desire and lust (Allon 2001: 281 ff.). The elaboration of the “effort of development” (bhavanaprasaṇa) lists seven “limbs of awakening” (Gāndhārī bujaghu / Pāli bojjhaṅga / Sanskrit bodhyaṅga), which includes the “awakening factor of concentration” (samasibujaghu = samādhi-bodhyaṅga) as the sixth item (Allon 2001: 129, 289-96). Rupert Gethin (2007 [1992]: 173-7) points out that the seven factors of awakening are frequently juxtaposed to the five hindrances (nīvaraṇa), which are referred to in Gāndhārī versions of the Dharmapada and Rhinoceros Sūtra. This version of the Prasaṇa Sūtra does not include a discussion of the fourth “effort of abandoning” which may have been reserved for another scroll due to lack of writing space at the bottom of the recto. Based on Pāli parallels, the missing section probably calls for the abandoning of thoughts of sensual pleasure(kāma), hatred(vyāpāda), and cruelty (vihiṃsā) (Allon 2001: 297).

This brief survey of passages in published editions of early Buddhist manuscripts that can be related to meditation themes shows that the general practice of meditation (dhyāna), attainment of concentration(samādhi), abandonment of the five hindrances(nīvaraṇa), and the cultivation of the factors leading to awakening(bodhipākṣyadharamas) were promoted as important religious goals. However, the published materials represent only a small sample of the wide range of early manuscript fragments with passages that can shed light on Buddhist meditation. Other passages in unedited fragments of the British Library and Senior collections discuss the four stages of dhyāna. At this symposium, Dr. Andrew Glass has presented his research on instructions on meditation in a group of four sūtras in Scroll 5 of the Senior collection to appear shortly as the fourth volume in the Gandhāran Buddhist Texts series. Kharoṣṭhī manuscripts in the Schøyen and Bajaur collections are likely to provide additional references to meditation practices and themes.

B. Inscriptions

In contrast to the literary evidence from early Buddhist manuscripts, inscriptions provide relatively little information about specific techniques or practices of meditation. Since early Buddhist inscriptions typically record donations of various items to resident monastic communities and to stūpas and other shrines, the epigraphic evidence gives many concrete details about worldly aspects of Buddhist practices of giving for religious merit. Although inscriptions generally do not directly address contemplative practices, a preliminary effort to find epigraphic references to dhyāna, samādhi, and other terms reveals some surprising ways in which concerns with meditation have been expressed. The survey is limited to early Brāhmī inscriptions from Sāñcī and Mathurā and to Kharoṣṭhī inscriptions from the Northwest, and is therefore not comprehensive. With the exception of two problematic Kharoṣṭhī inscriptions on a copper ring and seal from Taxila, dhyāna and other common terms for meditation were not popular elements in proper names. An interesting title for those who practice meditation(prāhaṇīka) appears in a Kuṣāṇa period Brāhmī inscription on a pillar base donated by two Buddhist monks in Mathura:

“This pillar base is the the gift of the monks Śurīya and Buddharakṣita, the practisers of meditation (prāhaṇīk[ā]n[aṃ]). May this surrender of a pious gift (deryadharmmaparītyāgena) be for the bestowing of health on all practicers of meditation(pr[ā]haṇīkānaṃ).”

This rarely attested title is clearly related to the practice of the four “efforts” or “abandonments.” Gregory Schopen’s observations about ambivalent attitudes towards ascetic meditating monks who are more typically ridiculed rather than praised in passages in the Mūlasārvāstivāda-vinaya (often associated with Mathurā) may help to explain why names or titles related to meditation are uncommon in Buddhist inscriptions. Although numerous literary passages (including examples from Gāndhārī manuscripts examined earlier in the presentation) emphasize ideals connected with meditation practices, inscriptions and Vinaya texts concerned with everyday features of Buddhist monastic life paint a very different picture.

Epigraphical references to meditation are more closely associated with epithets of the Buddha and his relics than with names and titles of individual monks or nuns. In an example from the first century CE Kharoṣṭhī inscription of Senavarma (also cited in the paper by Andrew Glass), the Buddha is elaborately praised as

“… complete in the meditations, powers, releases, concentrations, and attainments through all the good dharmas and knowledges.”

Epigraphic formulae in reliquary donations recorded in the Senavarma and other Kharoṣṭhī inscriptions refer to the relics of the Buddha as saturated with virtue(śīla), concentration(samādhi), and wisdom(prajñā):

1) Senavarma reliquary inscription (lines 7a-b): “relics [of him] saturated with virtue, saturated with concentration, wisdom, release, knowledge, and sight”

2) Kopśakasa reliquary inscription: “[These relics are] saturated with virtue, saturated with concentration, and saturated with wisdom”

3) Inscription of Abdagases in year 98: “I establish these relics of the Blessed one [which are] saturated with virtue, saturated with concentration, saturated with release, and saturated with release.”

A similar formula is applied to the Kākanādaboṭa monastery (rather than relics) at Sāñcī in a Brāhmī inscription dated in Gupta year 93 (= 412-3 CE), in which the “sense-faculties [or the donor or of the monastic residents?] remain absorbed in the virtues of morality(śīla), meditation(samādhi), and wisdom(prajñā).” In these inscriptions, concentration(samādhi), virtue(śīla), and wisdom (prajñā) refer to components of the eightfold path, which is commonly divided into these three categories of religious practice. The Ramaka Kharoṣṭhī dedication of year 74 (= ca. 16 CE) is somewhat analogous, since it connects a relic deposit with a “loosely formulated summary” of the four truths:

“To what measure should this relic deposit [be beneficial?] [May it lead] to the elimination of arising (samudayapraṇae), to the cultivation of the path (magabhavaṇae), to the destruction of desire (maṇorasakṣae), [and] to the cutting off of suffering (du[kha]daïae bhoto).”

The practice of inscribing the pratītyasamutpāda formula of “dependent arising” on relic caskets, stūpas, and other objects is first attested in a Kharoṣṭhī reliquary inscription from the Kurram valley in northwestern Pakistan dated in the middle of the second century CE. Daniel Boucher identifies this formula in many other inscriptions from South and Central Asia, and argues that inscriptions with the pratītyasamutpāda indicate a “dialectic” between “concrete and abstract modes of defining and locating the Buddha” in his corporal relics or in the Dharma body, which becomes the focus of Mahāyāna practices connected with the “Cult of the Book.” Thus, epigraphically attested formulae reflect basic Buddhist doctrinal positions which are elaborated in much greater detail in literary traditions.


Early Buddhist manuscripts and inscriptions supply external evidence for ideas and ideals, terms and classifications, and practices of meditation in the first and second centuries CE. Since the evidence from manuscripts is fragmentary and epigraphic sources only tangentially address meditation, it is very difficult to identify a “common core” of doctrinal foundations for meditation based on these sources. Gāndhārī manuscripts show that principles of meditation and concentration, especially the aims of abandoning attachments and eliminating the five hindrances, were important concerns. Kharoṣṭhī and Brāhmī inscriptions do not necessarily corroborate the textual tradition, since proper names and titles related to meditation are very rare, and epigraphic formulae link dhyāna and samādhi to epithets and relics of the Buddha rather than actual techniques. Passages in inscriptions which paraphrase or explicitly refer to basic tenets of the four truths, eightfold path, or dependent arising illustrate correlations between Buddhist literature and epigraphy, so the contrast between epigraphic and textual sources is not absolute. Although I was unable to address meditation in early Buddhist art, architecture and archeology, Dr. Glass incorporates relevant materials from Gandhāra into his presentation. A nuanced history of Buddhist meditation remains to be written, since new discoveries of manuscripts, inscriptions, and artifacts continue to enrich our understanding of chronological and regional contexts. My effort to examine principles and practices of meditation on the basis of manuscripts and inscriptions probably raises more questions rather than producing clear resolutions to complex issues, but I hope to have at least demonstrated that the available sources reflect a variety of interesting points of view.

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