There are no 2600 year old monasteries, even in Afghanistan

Today I got an email, one of many over the years, repeating the old mistake that a 2600 year old monastery in Afghanistan is under threat from a copper mine. The monastery is real, and the threat is real, but the date is not.

In fact, there are no clear archaeological remains of any monastery anywhere older than about 1st or 2nd century BCE. In certain circles much has been made of this, but it’s a storm in a teacup. The state of archeology in India is extremely incomplete, and an argument from absence is no argument at all. Anyway, there’s hardly any architectural remains at all from the period of the EBTs, so all this tells us is that monasteries were built using the same perishable materials as everything else.

The 2600 year date appears to have originated in 2010, perhaps in this article in the Daily Mail:

Did it occur to no-one that an article in a tabloid rag with the title “Copper load of this!” might not be the best source of information for ancient Buddhist history? :disappointed:

This silly error has been repeated a truly mind-boggling amount of times, despite the fact that to anyone with a passing familiarity with the history of Buddhism it’s obviously wrong. It would require a complete rewrite of the early history of Buddhism if it were true.

Probably it originated as a simple mistake. The site itself may well go back 2600 years (or even earlier) but the Buddhist layers stem from around the 1st century CE at the earliest. This was the Kushan period, when Buddhism was well established in the region.


The topic of how Buddhism reached and was practiced in those arid corners of the planet has always fascinated me.

What was the tradition - in terms of Doctrine or Vinaya - that prevailed there and in where nowadays is found Pakistan?

It is a fascinating story that rewards careful study.

But in terms of traditions, at least three schools are well attested in the area.

  1. The Dharmaguptakas probably originated in the area, founded by a certain Dhammagutta (= Dhammarakkita,) who was born in “Alasanda” (i.e. one of the cities in the region established by Alexander the Great). In the time of Ashoka he led the mission to Gandhara. Their school is essentially identical to the Theravadins of Sri Lanka. They’ve left us a Vinaya, the Dirghagama in Chinese, and some Abhidhamma and other texts in Chinese. In addition, many of the old manuscripts in Gandhari recently recovered from the region have been attributed to them.
  2. The Sarvastivadins either had their base or a major branch in Kashmir. (Depending on which theory of their origins you ascribe to. The Mulasarvastivadins are sometimes said to have been the older version of the school and were based in Mathura). Many of their texts remain in Chinese, Tibetan, and Sanskrit. Most of our extant EBTs in all these languages stem from this school, or group of schools. They used something fairly close to classical Sanskrit.
  3. The Lokuttaravada branch of the Mahasaṅghikas also had a presence, and it is to them that the Bamiyan Buddhas are attributed. However, the Mahasanghikas were found all across India, and their texts, as we have them, were sourced from various places including Patna and Nepal (IIRC). There are fragments from the Gandhara region, but I can’t recall if any of the major Mahasanghika texts stem from there. They used Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.

Thanks for that Bhante.

Do we have any idea of what were the key difference in approach by these three groups at that stage?

Were these as dramatic as the differences we have today in terms of practical approaches, place of the bhikkhu/bhikkhuni Sangha in the spiritual community, construction style of monasteries, veneration (or absence of) by lay disciples?

I wonder if back then people were already taking externally divergent routes in terms of preserving the study and practice of the Dhamma.

It’s a bit hard to say. Most of the differences we have are recorded in the philosophical (i.e. Abhidhamma) texts.

The most obvious difference would seem to be that the Mahasanghika promoted the super-human dimensions of the Buddha, which is realized quite literally at Bamiyan. This may indicate a more devotional practice, which in turn would suggest a more “populist” approach. Their texts seem to reinforce this, being looser, more “fantastic”, and with a much less rigorous approach to textual fidelity and Abhidhamma. But of course, devotion and inflation of the Buddha are found in the other schools as well, so this is a matter of degree.

As for the Sarvastivada, it is probably even harder to point to practical differences. Perhaps the most suggestive guide is the texts relating to their patriarch Upagupta. While the Theravadins emphasized doctrinal correctness, he was the pioneer of the so-called upaya, the use of creative and one-off “skillful means” in teaching, which are recorded in countless narratives. Still, the Sarvastivadins were no strangers to the orthodox mindset; their later teacher Sanghabhadra (4th century) described Vasubandhu as “that heretic whose ravings have all the coherence of a mad deaf-mute in a fever dream.” Ouch!

It does seem as if, on the whole, differences in practice were minimal. It was probably more like the different nikayas in Thailand or Sri Lanka today than, say, Theravada vs. Chinese Mahayana. While the schools might have their specific emphasis, within each school there would have been scholars and practitioners of various sorts, and, no doubt, scoundrels as well.


This is very interesting to me. I always wondered why we virtually do not find in the Pali Nikayas anything on the concept of upaya.

Would you have more details on the texts and narratives related to Upagupta which introduce it?

One of the best books in Buddhist studies, period: John Strong, The Legend and Cult of Upagupta.


Is there a way to download this book somehow?

A Facebook page called “Tathagat Gautam Buddha” posted today some photos from the ancient Mes Aynak settlement of artifacts that have been uncovered by archaeologists there. I thought these photos kind of beautiful, so I am reposting.

Note the natural and calm posture of the sculpture’s form.

Here’s a trailer for a film that has been made about Mes Aynak, and the courageous effort being made by some archaeologists to protect and preserve the site, despite the encroachment of a Chinese copper mining venture, and the bombs launched by the Taliban in the area.