Bishop Burgess and Buddhism

pali manuscript

Bishop Burgess (1756-1837), the founder of St David's College, Lampeter, was the first President of the Royal Society of Literature, which was seen by its promoters as an English equivalent of the French Academy, setting the standards of the English language, publishing ancient manuscripts, and encouraging interest in the language and its literature.

Bookseller and orientalist Edward Upham (1776-1834) wrote to Burgess asking whether the Royal Society would support the creation of a repository for the oriental manuscripts which were at that time being brough into the country by returning traders and East India company servants. This letter is in the archives at Lampeter. Also in the archive is just such a manuscript as Upham may have had in mind. The manuscript was presented to the college by Thomas Phillips in 1844. Inscribed on palm leaves, it has been tentatively identified as a nissaya – a text in Pali (written in Burmese script) with a word-by-word translation into Burmese, and it includes what appear to be offerings made to Buddhist monks. It may possibly be one of the texts of the Vinaya.

Upham presented Burgess with a copy of his study of Buddhist Ceylon, The History and Doctrine of Buddhism(London,1829), an image from which is shown below. Upham edited translations of three important native histories of Ceylon, The Mahávansi, the Rájá-Ratnácari, and the Rájá-vali (3 vols., 1833) and also presented copies to Burgess.

upham devil

Upham was a member of the Royal Asiatic Society, and it is tempting to think that he might well have met Lampeter's great benefactor Thomas Phillips there, since Phillips had been a member from the founding of the society until his death in 1851. Coincidentally, a book formerly in possession of Upham was presented to the library by Thomas Phillips along with two volumes from the circulating library which Edward’s brother John operated in Bath.