Dr. Richard G. Salomon (William P. and Ruth Gerberding University Professor Emeritus, Asian Languages & Literature) was recently awarded the 2020 Khyentse Foundation prize for Outstanding Buddhist Translation for his 2018 book Buddhist Literature from Ancient Gandhāra. This prize is awarded annually for excellence in translation works that make the Buddhist heritage accessible to a broader public. It also won the Prix de la Fondation Collette Caillat Prize in 2019. He spoke with our graduate student assistant, Shelby House, about the book and the Khyentse award.
SH: Professor Salomon, congratulations on your accolades and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for the South Asia Center blog. Your book, Buddhist Literature from Ancient Gandhāra, emerged from the UW Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project. Could you tell me a little more about the project and its goals?
RS: The UW Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project was founded in 1996, originally as a joint venture with the British Library (n.b.: not the British Museum!) to study and publish a group of Buddhist manuscripts that the Library had recently acquired. In the course of my initial visits to the Library in 1995 and 1996, I was able to confirm that they were the oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts ever known, dating back to approximately the first century CE, and that they represented the hitherto lost Buddhist literature and traditions of Gandhara (modern northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan), which at that period in history one of the major centers of Indian Buddhist culture.
Since then, many more manuscripts of similar type and antiquity have been discovered and come under the auspices of the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project and its affiliates in Australia, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland. To date, eight books and innumerable articles about them have been published, but still only fraction of the whole corpus – over two hundred manuscripts and fragments – has been definitively published. Thus a great deal of work remains to be done by the current and future generations of scholars – most of them trained at the UW – who have developed specializations in this material. Among the key players was the UW’s Prof. Collett Cox, who will retire this June, and whose expertise in Buddhist literature, doctrine, and philosophy was a key to the success of the project. Senior Lecturer Timothy Lenz, also recently retired from UW, also played a leading role on the basis of his profound knowledge of Buddhist narrative literature.
SH: The Khyentse Foundation prize honors outstanding translations that make Buddhist literature accessible to the broader public. What made you decide to create a volume that was geared toward lay readers, rather than other academics?
RS: After spending some twenty years studying these documents, I began more and more to feel a desire, even an obligation, to make them accessible to a wider audience. Their importance for the history of Buddhism is, in some respects at least, comparable to that of the Dead Sea scrolls for Biblical traditions, and I felt dissatisfied with limiting their publication to technical philological studies addressed to a specialist audience. In this, I was hearing the voice of my long-dead father, an editor by profession who spent much of his life translating academic specialist writings into publications accessible to the general public. He not only taught me about the obligation of a scholar to make important materials widely available, but also something about the way to do it. In this way, I feel that the recognition of my efforts along these lines is a tribute to his memory.
SH: Are you working on any other projects these days? Has the quarantine changed much about your day-to-day work?
RS: Turning back to the present – and the future – I am doing the best I can to carry on my work under the currently prevailing conditions. Besides teaching via Zoom – stressful and frustrating for a technophobe such as myself – I am continuing as far as possible to work on the Gandharan manuscripts and other more of less related topics. I have a highly optimistic, if not unrealistic bucket list of books and articles in various degrees of completion or planning, including technical editions of at least two more Gandharan manuscripts, and perhaps eventually a second volume of popular translations, should circumstances permit. In any case, I’m definitely not ready to stop yet.
You can read more about Professor Salomon’s work and the Gandharan manuscripts in Scroll India: https://scroll.in/article/950877/the-gandharan-manuscripts-change-what-we-know-about-the-course-of-buddhist-history