Some of the projects of Edinburgh Buddhist Studies members.

Jataka database project

In 2017, Dr Naomi Appleton was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize in recognition of her research. She is using the prize money to fund the creation of an online searchable database of jātaka stories (stories of the Buddha’s past lives) in Indian texts and art which can be viewed on Jataka Stories.

Jātaka literature is difficult to navigate because of its scale and complexity. The largest textual collection (the Pāli Jātakatthavaṇṇanā) contains around 550 stories, while the many other jataka texts both increase the total number of stories and repeat stories in multiple versions; versions of some stories are also found in non-Buddhist texts. Artistic depictions at Buddhist sites from the first century BCE to the present day add to the challenges of interpreting the genre, while textual scholars and art historians operate in largely separate fields without many opportunities to share their expertise.

For these reasons, research into these fascinating narratives will be greatly enhanced by the new database. Dr Chris Clark was appointed as research assistant to oversee the original development work (2018-2019), and the database version 1.0 was launched in December 2019, with version 2.0 currently under development. As part of the project, Dr Appleton also hosted an International symposium on imagery in Indian Buddhist narrative texts and art in September 2019, resulting in a volume called Narrative Visions and Visual Narrative in Indian Buddhism, published by Equinox in 2022.

Comparative Buddhology in Indian Narrative Literature

This project, which explores notions of buddhahood across Indian literature from the first half of the first millennium, is funded by the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) and runs from October 2020 for three years. It is a collaboration between Dr Naomi Appleton (Principal Investigator; University of Edinburgh) and Dr Chris V. Jones (Co-Investigator; University of Cambridge).

A premise of this research project is that 'Buddhological' reflection on the nature of Śākyamuni, and his status relative to other liberated beings and teachers, developed over time and was a topic of debate, divergence, and significant innovation. Evidence suggests that the emergence of Mahāyāna Buddhism - a second wave of Buddhist innovation that began around the turn of the Common Era - complicated the already diverse opinion about the Buddha. In the same period, non-Buddhist authors expounded theistic systems and stories that posed fresh competition to the perceived status of the Buddha as the apex of religious authority. We will use Buddhist literature from both sides of the Mahāyāna “divide” to explore how “the” Buddha was understood as relating to other buddhas (past, future, or elsewhere), his liberated disciples, and other (apparently independent) figures believed to have achieved the ultimate goal.

In addition to working together on research publications, the project team will host an international symposium on “Literary Buddhas” and are also working to improve support and resources for the teaching of Buddhism in secondary schools.

Jeweled pagoda mandala digital project

By highlighting the sequential path in gold, this digital project visualizes the transcription of sacred text into the form of a pagoda in the first fascicle of Ryuhonji's set of jeweled pagoda mandalas. This project developed by Dr Halle O'Neal accompanies an article in The Art Bulletin, "Performing the Jeweled Pagoda Mandalas: Relics, Reliquaries, and a Realm of Text."

It was developed in collaboration with Christopher Strasbaugh of the Visual Resources Center at Vanderbilt University.

Jeweled Pagoda Mandala Digital Project on Youtube

Reuse, recycling, and redemption in Buddhist manuscripts

From 2020 to 2022, Dr Halle O'Neal is working on a new project on medieval reuse and recycling in Japanese Buddhist  material material culture with the support of a grant from the ACLS/Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Research Fellowship in Buddhist Studies and the Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship.

Based on this project, she is serving as the guest editor of a ten-article special issue forthcoming in Ars Orientalis, titled “Reuse and Recycling in Japanese Visual and Material Cultures.”

Her current monograph project, “Writing against Death: Reuse and Recycling in Japanese Buddhist Manuscripts” explores the materiality of death and mourning, and the visualisation of memory and embodiment in Japanese epistolary.