Meditation in Gandhāra
Meditation must certainly have been a central practice of Buddhism in Gandhāra, however, direct evidence for the practices and techniques has been lacking. A recently discovered manuscript containing four sūtras concerning meditation has shed new light on this important aspect of Gandhāran Buddhism, but the picture is still incomplete. This paper provides a brief survey of the evidence from art and archaeology, as well as introducing the evidence from the new manuscript.
In ancient India, Gandhāra originally referred to a tribe, but later came to denote a place connected with that tribe, that is to say, the Peshawar Valley, located between the Suleiman Mountains along the modern border with Afghanistan in the west and the Indus River in the east. This area is now part of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. At the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion the main city of the region was Puṣkalāvatī(modern Charsaḍḍa), near the modern city of Peshāwār(Fussman 1994: 18). The important districts of Swāt and Buner as well as the cities of Bamiyan and Taxila are sometimes included with this area under the umbrella-term ‘Greater Gandhāra’ (Salomon 1999: 3). The Gāndhārī language, written in the Kharoṣṭhī script, served as a lingua-franca for this area, and is recorded in documents from the Northwest of the subcontinent from the time of the Emperor Aśoka until the 4th century of the Common Era. It is this period that I will focus on in this paper.
The study of Gandhāran Buddhism has seen enormous progress in the last 12 years, primarily due to the discovery of several important collections of Gāndhārī manuscripts. These collections are now preserved in the UK, the USA, Norway, Japan and Pakistan, and provide us with direct textual evidence of Buddhism as it was practiced in Gandhāra almost 2,000 years ago. These manuscripts constitute the oldest Buddhist manuscripts known in the world today and are likely to be among the oldest Buddhist manuscripts ever written. When we read these manuscripts, we generally find that the picture they provide of Buddhism at this early time closely matches our expectations based on our knowledge of the Pali, Chinese and Tibetan traditions. However, we also find new information that is not documented in other Buddhist traditions. One particular Gāndhārī manuscript exemplifies this situation, as it contains both familiar descriptions of meditation practices known to us in Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan versions as well as descriptions which are unique. But first, let us consider meditation.
Meditation has been a central practice of Buddhism from the very beginning. It was, after all, through meditation that the Buddha achieved enlightenment. The role of meditation has changed over time and the details of its practice have diversified over the centuries and from one Buddhist school to another. To try to understand the role and practice of meditation in Gandhāra during the Kharoṣṭhī period, we should consider the evidence available to us: evidence from art, archaeology, and the surviving written texts. However, the picture of Gandhāran meditation that emerges from this study is, inevitably, incomplete.
In order to fill in the gaps I would like to start with a framework based on the Pali commentaries and Buddhaghosa’ s Vissudhimagga. In this way, we can look at the Gandhāran evidence and see where the pieces might fit into this framework. The Pali sources are a natural place to look for such assistance as many of the texts available in Gāndhārī have close parallels in Pali. Of course, we must be aware that these sources also are removed both in time and space from Gandhāra, so the results will be at best, only an approximation of the role and practice of meditation in ancient Gandhāra. Other possible frameworks, such as Kamalaśīla’s Bhāvanākrama(8th century) are further removed in time and doctrine than Buddhaghosa.
Buddhist meditation includes practices of both sensory withdrawal(dhyāna, śamatha), and sensory observation(smti, vipaśyana). There is also some overlap between these categories. The meditation practices described in the Pali suttas may be arranged in the following schema. Double-underlined items have direct examples in Gāndhārī, single underlined items are mentioned in Gāndhārī documents.
1. Sensory Withdrawal
1.1. Ancillary techniques to counter lust, hatred, and delusion, in preparation for trance(dhyāna):
1.1.1. Meditation on the foulness of a corpse(EĀ-G ll. 61–3) and mindfulness of the body(RS 5 ll. 1–5) are used to counter lust.
1.1.2. Four immeasurable contemplations(love, compas sion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity) are used to counter hatred.
1.1.3. Mindfulness of breath is used to counter delusio n, and is part of a larger, and distinct, series of pr actices called the foundation of mindfulness (sm ṛtyupasthāna RS 5 l. 33).
1.1.4. Six remembrances (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, virt ue, generosity, and deities) are used to increase faith.
1.1.5. Mindfulness of death(RS 5 ll. 5–7) and the reme mbrance of nirvāṇa are used to motivate and reinf orce trance.
1.1.6. Perception of the repulsiveness of food(RS 5 ll. 7–9) and the four elements are used to remove di stractions.
1.2.1. Meditation on a device (kasiṇa), this progresses t hrough the stages: the beginning sign, the eidetic sign, the five hindrances, the representational sig n, and culminates in the meditation of attainment. The devices are: earth, water, fire, air, blue, yello w, red, white, light, limited space.
1.2.2. Four trances(BL 26, 29; RS 5 l. 39): in the first t rance, five factors of concentration are present (discursive thought, reasoning, enthusiasm, pleas ure, and one-pointedness). In the second trance, factors 1 and 2 are eliminated. In the third, factor 3 is eliminated; in the fourth trance only one-poi nt edness remains.
1.2.3. The four formless attainments(infinite space, inf inite perception, nothing-at-all, and neither ide a nor non-idea); in each case the meditator prog resses by eliminating the object of each successi ve formless trance.
2. Sensory Observation
The latter five of the seven purifications in Buddhaghosa’s scheme of seven steps on the path of purification(visuddhimagga) concern insight meditation.
2.1. Purification of view is concerned with removing all at tachment to self by examining the constituents of the body(RS 5 ll. 1–5), his senses, their objects and the five aggregates (RS 5 ll. 15–31).
2.2. Purification of overcoming doubt is concerned with re alizing the twelvefold chain of dependent origination (CKI 153) by examining the causes through which th e body comes into being. The result of this is insight into the three characteristics(impermanence (RS 5 ll. 30–31), suffering, and non-self).
2.3. Purification of what is and what is not the path exam ines all things in terms of the three characteristics. T his leads to eighteen great insights and the permanen t rejection of striving for permanence, happiness, and self.
2.4. Purification by knowledge and vision of the way is co ncerned with the pursuit of nine knowledges: knowle dge through contemplation on the appearance and dis appearance of conditioned things; knowledge through contemplation on the destruction of conditioned thing s; knowledge gained through fear of conditioned thing s; knowledge gained through contemplation of the da nger of conditioned things; knowledge gained through revulsion for conditioned things; knowledge gained th rough desire for liberation; knowledge gained through analysis of conditioned things; knowledge gained thro ugh equanimity for conditioned things; and knowledge gained by following the path the nirvāṇa.
2.5. Purification by knowledge and vision concerns knowl edge of the four noble paths (stream-winner, once-re turner, non-returner, and arhant), as well as two furt her attainments (attainment of fruition and cessation of thought and feeling).
In addition to these practices we might also take into account activities such as chanting, recitation, and circumambulation which, according to Luis Gómez, “hold an ambiguous status between ritual and meditation, mechanical reading and deep reflection” (Gomez 2005: 522). These activities are likely to have been a part of Gandhāran Buddhism.
As a further addition, I would like to briefly mention the visionary and ecstatic techniques which became so developed in the Mahāyāna. Techniques consisting of visualizing Buddhas and Purelands are not mentioned in the Gāndhārī texts we have found to date, but one is tempted to speculate that Gandhāran art may have played a complementary role in developing these practices by providing highly evolved portrayals of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas which could have been used as subjects for training these visualizations.
The products of the Gandhāran school of art are among the most famous of all creations of Buddhist art. Gandhāran art can tell us about meditation in Gandhāra in two ways. First, through illustrations of meditation being practised, and second, through depecitions that could be used as subjects for meditation.
Fig. 1. A wall-painting from Qizil.
Illustrations of meditation, which attest to the contemporary practice of meditation in Gandhāra are found, but for the most part consist of Buddha images. Typical of these are depictions of the Buddha in the classic meditation posture(dyāna mudra). Images of monks in meditation are rarer. One very clear example of a monk practicing a specific meditation comes from a wall painting in Qizil, Xinjiang. Admittedly Qizil is some distance from Gandhāra, but was certainly influenced by Gandhāra, as demonstrated by the fact that Kharoṣṭhī documents have been discovered there. Consequently, it is sometimes included in the area covered by the term Greater Gandhāra. This painting is datable to the 4th and 5th centuries of the Common Era. The painting shows a monk looking at, or perhaps thinking about a human skull. Clearly this suggests that the monk is reflecting on death (1.1.5), or possibly the constituents, or decomposition of, the human body(1.1.1). These possibilities are included in the outline of meditation practices given previously.
Since the evidence is rather limited, I would like to simply note here, that art objects, such as the Buddha sculptures, and especially more elaborate scenes like the Mohamed-Nari stele may have played a role in, or at least developed alongside the kind of visualization exercises that were a feature of Mahāyāna meditation(see Rhi 2003: 176–7).
One of the best preserved Buddhist sites from the Gandhāra region is the monastery of Takht-i-bāhī. As such, these ruins are a good place to look for evidence of meditation in Gandhāra.
The ruins at Takht-i-bāhī are situated 50 km northwest of Peshawar, on a hilltop 500 m above sea level. The origins of this monastery are uncertain, but it probably dates back at least to the first part of the 1st century(see Konow 1929: 57). The monastery flourished during the Kharoṣṭhī period, and was perhaps destroyed in connection with the arrival of the Hephthalites early in the 5th century.
Fig. 2. The monastery at Takht-i-bāhī
The plan of the monastery is typical of many Gandhāran sites. It consists of a main stūpa; a courtyard which once contained many small stūpas and pillars; as well as the monastery proper, consisting of a further courtyard surrounded by the monks’ cells. At Takht-i-bāhī the main stūpa court and the court of many stūpas are surrounded by high walls, in which niches are set that would have contained sculptures.
The main stūpa is now gone, but its platform remains. This platform has a flight of steps which would have provided access to the base of the stūpa. Certainly, the practice of circumambulation, walking around the stūpa, would have been performed here. As mentioned previously, this can be considered a special form of meditation practice.
Other architectural features which might be associated with mediation are the monks’ private cells, the conference hall, and some underground chambers. Fifteen private cells are arranged on three sides of the monastery courtyard. A stairway at the northeast corner probably led to another fifteen, or so, cells on a second level but these are now lost. It is estimated, therefore, that up to about thirty monks might have been in residence in this part of the monastery at any one time. These cells would likely have been used by the monks for their private meditation practice in addition to sleeping and other activities.
The conference hall at the northwest of the site would have been large enough to easily accommodate all of the monks in residence for meetings, communal recitations and ceremonies. Lantern brackets in the walls suggest that this room was also used at night.
Ten underground chambers are situated in two rows below the courtyard south of the conference hall. The five chambers on the east side are extremely dark. It has been suggested that these were used by monks as meditation chambers (Shakur 1946: 25). Of course, it is impossible to rule out other functions for these rooms, for example, it has also been suggested they were used as granaries (Shakur 1946: 26). Similar, subterranean chambers are found at other Buddhist sites in Gandhāra, such as the nearby site of Jamālgaṛhī. If these dark spaces were used for meditation, it may be that they were suitable for the ancillary techniques (1.1), or sensory observation techniques (2) in the above scheme. The trance techniques (1.2) would have required a little light in the initial stage of the practice in order to perceive the device(kasiṇa).
To summarize the evidence thus far, art and archaeology can give us only a very limited picture of Gandhāran meditation. Evidence from art suggests the posture meditation practitioners might have used, and to a very limited extent, what practices they engaged in. Archaeology on the other hand, cannot tell us anything about the content of the meditation, but only suggests places that might have been used. To know any more about meditation in ancient Gandhāra, we must refer to the available texts.
Gāndhārī words for the meditation practices described previously, and cognate with Sanskrit terms such as dhyāna, śamatha, smṛti, vipaśyana, occur in various Gāndhārī manuscripts and a very few inscriptions. Examples of these have been presented by Jason Neelis in his contribution to this volume.
At present, the best source for information about meditation in Gandhāra is a manuscript from the Senior Collection. This collection consists of twenty-four scroll fragments on birch bark; and is similar in many respects to the British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragments which have been described in detail by Richard Salomon in his book Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhāra(1999). Like them, the provenance of the Senior Kharoṣṭhī fragments is unknown, but it might be Haḍḍa in modern Eastern Afghanistan. These fragments can be dated to about 140 c.e. Unlike the British Library manuscripts, the Senior Collection seems to have been prepared on request for a donor as a ritual deposit (Allon 2007: 4).
The twenty-four scrolls that make up the Senior Collection contain 41 texts of varying lengths and degrees of completeness. Many of these texts are parallel to āgama sūtras in Pali and Chinese, by far the best represented of which are sūtras belonging to the Saṃyuktāgama/Pali Saṃyutta-nikāya. A catalogue and overview of this collection is currently being prepared by Mark Allon (forthcoming). The Saṃyuktāgama is a rich source of sūtras describing meditation. Senior Kharoṣṭhī Fragment 5 contains four such sūtras. The instructions in this manuscript probably reflect contemporary views and practice of meditation in Gandhāra around the middle of the first century.
Senior Kharoṣṭhī Fragment 5(see appendix)
Scroll 5 from the Senior Collection is a short manuscript comprising 42 lines of text, 21 on each side, and four sūtras, with two on each side. Despite damage to the center of the manuscript, it is, in fact, one of the best preserved of all Kharoṣṭhī manuscripts.
The first sūtra on this manuscript contains a description of four perceptions(saññā), these are: perception of foulness (asubhasaññā), perception of death(maraṇasaññā), perception of the repulsiveness of food(āhārepaṭikkūlasaññā), and perception of non-delight in the entire world(sabbaloke anabhiratasaññā). The first three directly relate to the ancillary techniques described earlier, items 1.1.1, 1.1.5, and 1.1.6 respectively. We should note also that either of the first two items may be indicated in the wall painting from Qizil discussed earlier.
The description of the first perception has parallels in Pali and Tibetan. The descriptions of the remaining three do not have direct parells, however, the sentiments of the perception of death and the perception of the repulsiveness of food are echoed elsewhere. As far as I have been able to discover, the description of the fourth perception, non-delight in the entire world, appears to be unique to the Gāndhārī tradition. One might imagine the monks of Takht-i-Bāhī going to the subterranean chambers and feeling isolated and alone, and then recreating this feeling when they walked down to the town at the base of the hill.
The second sūtra on this manuscript is a Gāndhārī text directly parallel to the Pali Natumhāka-sutta. This short sūtra preserves a teaching on the five aggregates(skandhas), recommending that one not think of them as one’s own, hence the sūtra’s title ‘Not Yours’(natumhāka). The sūtra contains a simile comparing the aggregates to the grass, sticks, branches, leaves, and foliage in the Jeta-grove, which one can readily acknowledge as not belonging to the self. Therefore, we may connect the teaching of this sūtra with the Purification of view(2.1).
The third sūtra also has parallels in Pali and Chinese. It instructs the adherent to view the five aggregates with disgust. Through this practice one is said to gain understanding of the aggregates, and in turn, be released from the cycle of birth, aging, sickness and death. Again, this instruction is might be classified under the Purification of view(2.1). The context of disgust suggests a connection with the first part of the first sūtra on this manuscript.
The fourth and last sūtra on this manuscript has direct parallels in Pali and Chinese. This sūtra teaches that liberation depends both on the recognition of the five aggregates as impermanent, and on the maturation of factors which contribute to enlightenment(bodhipākṣyadharma). The Gāndhārī version ends in the middle of the first of three similes found in the parallel versions, in which the practitioner is compared to a hen whose eggs won’t hatch unless they are properly incubated. This sūtra, like the previous two, concerns the five aggregates, but in this case they are to be viewed as impermanent(anitya, 2.2), that is, as subject to arising(samudaya) and passing away(astaṃgama). Not only that, but also the factors which contribute to enlightenment must be cultivated(bhāvita) too. In the Gāndhārī list of these factors forty-one items have been included as opposed to the usual thirty-seven.
SN III 153.8–13
T no. 99 67a29–b1
T no. 1 16c10–1
4 yìduàn 意斷
4 shénzú 神足
4 chán 禪
5 gēn 根
5 lì 力
7 juéyì 覺意
aria aṭhagia mag̱a
ariya aṭṭhaṅgika magga
xiánshèng bā dào賢聖八道
This list itself seems to be a very early attempt to catalogue the practices conducive to the path. Some of these are directly concerned with meditation, such as the four foundations of mindfulness(smṛtyupasthāna), and of course the four dhyānas(G jaṇa). The inclusion of the four dhyānas seems to be associated with the Dharmaguptakas, or perhaps more generally with the Gandhāra region (see Glass 2007: 35).
The evidence regarding meditation in Gandhāra is admittedly quite scant. Fortunately, we are able to draw on a variety of sources, art, architecture, epigraphy, and manuscripts. Taken individually, the data from each may not amount to much, but together, I think we can draw some tentative conclusions about meditation in Gandhāra.
First, the descriptions of meditations given in Senior manuscript 5 occur in the context of sūtras, that is, teachings set at the time of the Buddha. The fact that these sūtras were chosen specifically for inclusion in a ritual deposit suggests that they were both revered and relevant at the time of their creation. Therefore, I suggest, that the descriptions of meditation practices they contain would have been current in Gandhāra in the second century of the Common Era. The fact that one of the practices described is apparently depicted in a wall painting two or three centuries later strongly supports this claim.
In terms of the scheme of meditation practices provided by Buddhaghosa, we find that the ancillary techniques of sensory withdrawal are the best represented in our sources. The sensory observation practices are also represented, particularly where they overlap with the ancillary techniques. This leaves the trance practices as the least well represented in out texts so far. I would not infer from this that the trances were less significant to Gandhāran Buddhism, rather, this is likely to be an accident of preservation. In this regard, it is interesting that the four trances have been included in the practices conducive to the path in Gandhāra.
It is also apparent that descriptions of Mahāyāna-type visualizations are, so far, absent from the Gāndhārī materials. It is perhaps likely that in this case too, our sample of Gāndhārī texts is too small. We can hope that, as Gāndhārī manuscripts continue to come to light, this situation may change, and we will come to know more about meditation in Gandhāra.
Translation of Senior Kharoṣṭhī Fragment 5
The Sutra on the Perceptions(S̱aña-sutra)
“What is the concentration connected with perception of foulness? Concerning this, a monk who is at the foot of a tree or in an empty house or in an open space examines this very body, as it is placed, as it is disposed, upward from the sole of the foot, surrounded by skin, downward from the tip of the hair, (*full) of impurity of (*various) kinds. (*There are in this) body: head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, dust, networks, outer skin, thin skin, bones, bone marrow, (*flesh, sinews, kidney, liver), heart, pleura, spleen, lungs, small intestine, large intestine, anus, bladder, fecal matter, tears, sweat, saliva, mucus, pus, blood, (*bile, phlegm, fat, grease), joint fluids, head, and brain. It is the undistracted one-pointedness of mind of a person so positioned which is called ‘the concentration connected with the perception of foulness.’
“(*What) is the concentration connected with the perception of death? Concerning this, a monk who is at the foot of a tree or in an empty house or in an open space, this one … [thinks,] ‘I will die, I will not live long, I will perish, I will die, I will disappear.’ (*It) is the undistracted one-pointedness of mind of a person so positioned which is called ‘the concentration connected with the perception of death.’
“What is the concentration connected with the perception of the repulsiveness of food? By ‘food’ is meant porridge, sour gruel; this, the monk … realizes, is ‘fecal matter’; he realizes [it is] ‘saliva’; he realizes [it is] ‘vomit’; he realizes [it is] ‘a lump of putrid bodily secretions’—‘black filth.’ It is the undistracted (*one-pointedness of mind) of a person so positioned which is called ‘the concentration connected with the perception of the repulsiveness of food.’
“ere, in every respect … he is dissatisfied. he reflects. he (*does not enjoy. he does not delight). It is the undistracted one-pointedness of mind of a person so positioned which is called ‘the concentration connected with the perception of nondelight in the entire world.’”
The Not yours Sutra(Ṇatuspahu-sutra)
The setting is in Śrāvastī. “What, Monks, is not yours, you should abandon that. When abandoned, that will be for [your] benefit and ease. (*Moreover, what is not yours?) Form is not yours; you should abandon that. When abandoned, that will be for [your] benefit and ease. Feeling, perception, conditioned forces, perceptual consciousness are not yours; you should abandon them. (*When abandoned), that will be for [your] benefit and ease.
“[It is] just as if a person were to cut or carry off or (*burn or) do as they please with the grass, sticks, branches, leaves, and foliage in this Jetavana. Then what do you think? Would this occur to you: ‘Now then, this person cuts us or carries us off or burns us or may do as he pleases with us’?” “Indeed, this is not the case, (*sir). Why is (*that)? [Because] this [Jetavana], sir, neither is the self nor belongs to the self.”
“In the same way, you should abandon what is not yours. When abandoned, it will be for [your] benefit and ease. (*In the same way,) form is not yours; you should abandon that. When abandoned, it will be for [your] benefit and ease. Feeling, conception, conditioned forces, perceptual consciousness are ⟨*not⟩ yours; you should abandon that. When abandoned, it will be for [your] (*benefit and ease).” This is what the Lord said.
The Faith Sutra(Ṣadha-sutra)
The setting is in Śrāvastī. “For one having faith, Monks, for a noble son who has gone forth from the home to homelessness out of faith, this accords with the dharma: That he should live full of disgust with respect to form; he should live (*full of) disgust with respect to feeling, perception, conditioned forces, and perceptual consciousness.
“Living full of disgust with respect to form, he fully understands form. (*Living full of) disgust with respect to feeling, perception, conditioned forces, and perceptual consciousness, [he] fully understands perceptual consciousness.
“Fully understanding form, fully understanding feeling, perception, conditioned
forces, and perceptual consciousness, he is released from form; [he] is released from feeling, perception, conditioned forces; [he] is released from perceptual consciousness; [he] is released from birth, aging, sickness and death, grief, lamentations, (*suffering, despair,) and frustration. [he] is released from suffering, so I say.” This is what the Lord said.
The Adze handle Sutra(*Vasijaḍa-sutra)
The Lord was staying in Śrāvastī. “Monks, I say the destruction of the taints is for one who knows [and] sees, not for one who does not (*know [and] does not) see. I say the destruction of the taints is for one who knows how and sees how? To wit: [for one who knows] ‘This is form, this is the arising of form, this is the (*passing away) of form; (*this) is feeling; this is perception; these are the conditioned forces; this is perceptual consciousness, this is the arising of perceptual consciousness, this is the passing away of perceptual consciousness.’ So I say the destruction of the taints is for one (*who knows thus), who sees thus.”
Then a certain monk said this to the Lord: “you say that the destruction of the taints is for one who knows thus, who sees thus. Then, why, in this case, is the mind of some monks not liberated from the taints without clinging?” “It must be said, ‘due to (*its) noncultivation.’ Due to the noncultivation of what? Due to the noncultivation of the wholesome states. Of which wholesome states? Due to the noncultivation of the four foundations of mindfulness, of the four right strivings, of the (*four) bases of supernatural power, of the four meditations, of the five mental faculties, of the five powers, of the seven factors of awakening, and of the Noble Eightfold Path—due to the noncultivation of these wholesome states.
“A monk who lives without engaging in the practice of meditation may well form the desire ‘Oh, let (*my) mind be liberated from the taints without clinging!’ But in fact his mind is not liberated from the taints without clinging. For what reason? It must be said, ‘due to (*its) noncultivation.’ Due to the noncultivation of what? Due to the noncultivation of the wholesome states. Of which wholesome states? Due to the noncultivation of the (*four) foundations of mindfulness, of the four right strivings, of the four bases of supernatural power, of the four meditations, of the five mental faculties, of the five powers, of the (*seven) factors of awakening, and of the Noble Eightfold Path—due to the noncultivation of these wholesome states.
“[It is] just as if a hen might have eight, ten, or twelve (*eggs). [And suppose] these eggs were not properly sat upon by this hen day in and day out, were not properly incubated day in and day out, were not properly nurtured day in and day out …”
BLBritish Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragment
CKICatalog of Kharoṣṭhī Inscriptions (www.ebmp.org)
EĀ-GGāndhārī Ekottarikāgama (ed. Allon 2001)
RSRobert Senior Kharoṣṭhī Fragment
TTaishō Shinshū Daizōkyō
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