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In December 2022 the British Library successfully completed a Project to conserve and digitise nearly 800 Lotus Sutra manuscripts in Chinese language from the Stein Collection. Funded by the Bei Shan Tang Foundation, this ambitious Project has provided an invaluable resource to the International Dunhuang Project (IDP).
The Lotus Sutra, whose earliest known name in Sanskrit is the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra and means “Sutra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma,” was possibly composed between the first century BCE and the second century CE. It is thought to contain the Buddha’s final teaching, complete and sufficient for salvation. It is one of the most influential scriptures of the Mahayana Buddhism, and is highly regarded in a number of Asian countries, including China, Korea and Japan, where it has been traditionally practised.
The British Library’s Stein collection contains more than 1000 copies of the Lotus Sutra in Chinese, which were acquired by Sir Marc Aurel Stein during his second Central Asian Expedition (1906-08), when he visited the Library Cave (Cave 17) at the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, in the present-day Gansu Province in China.
When the Project began, only a small amount of the Lotus Sutra manuscripts had been digitised and could be found on the International Dunhuang Project website. The majority were unavailable online. With a generous grant from the Bei Shan Tang Foundation in Hong Kong, the British Library began work to enable free worldwide digital access to this significant collection.
Aim and results of the project
The Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project started in August 2017 and aimed to conserve and digitise nearly 800 Chinese language copies of the Lotus Sutra manuscripts in the Stein Collection. By its close in December 2022, the Project had produced over 374,000 cm of conserved material and nearly 17,000 new images for the IDP website. It has provided free online access for scholars and the public to the digitised images of Lotus Sutra scrolls with enhanced catalogue records.
A series of engagement and outreach activities took place throughout the five-year period. The Library hosted an international conference titled “The Lotus Sutra: The teachings, transmission and material culture of a sacred Buddhist text” at the end of the Project, gathering key experts and scholars. The conference explored the digitised material and its significance to a range of scholarship areas, such as Buddhism studies, Dunhuang studies, manuscripts studies and conservation. Videos of the conference can now be seen on the IDP’s YouTube channel.
You can find the project’s updates and behind-the-scenes stories on our Asian and African Studies blog and on the IDP blog. An article reporting on the detailed results of the Project and the associated conference in December 2022 can be found on the Asian and African studies blog.
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