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Horner, I. B.


HORNER, I. B. The British scholar Isaline B. Horner (18961981) devoted her considerable intelligence and energy to furthering scholarly and popular understanding of Buddhism, especially in the English-speaking West. After earning her B.A. (1917) at Newnham Collegethen one of only two women's colleges at Cambridge UniversityHorner stayed at the college as assistant librarian (19181920) and then acting librarian (19201921). In 1921 she accepted an invitation to accompany the college principal's sister, D. J. Stephen, on a trip to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, and Burma (now Myanmar). Although Stephen probably considered the trip a Christian mission, she and Horner shared an interest in Eastern religions, and Horner filled her letters home with descriptions of Buddhist and Hindu practices she encountered in these British colonies.

After two years abroad, Horner returned to Newnham as librarian, a position she would hold until 1936. Shortly thereafter, she began studying the religion she had witnessed in Ceylon: Theravāda Buddhism. At that time Western scholars of Asian religions tended to regard scriptures as repositories of the earliest and, therefore, most authentic forms of these religions. Thomas Rhys Davids had founded the Pali Text Society (PTS) in 1881 to facilitate the study of Theravāda Buddhism by producing editions in roman characters, and translations into English, of the Theravāda tradition's scriptures, written in the language called Pali. In 1925 Horner contacted Caroline Rhys Davids, Thomas's wife and successor as president of the PTS following his death in 1922. Caroline Rhys Davids encouraged Horner to research the topic of women in early Buddhism, in part by studying English translations of Pali texts. Horner followed this advice, while studying the Pali language with Cambridge professor E. J. Rapson.

Horner's Women under Primitive Buddhism came out in 1930, and her second book about Theravāda Buddhism based on study of Pali texts, The Early Buddhist Theory of Man Perfected, was published in 1936. Both books were well received by scholars of Buddhism and by the intellectual English-reading public. Women under Primitive Buddhism remained the only book-length study of women in Buddhism for nearly fifty years. When scholars eventually took up this topic again, they rediscoveredand acknowledged their gratitude forthis book. Several of them corresponded with Horner late in her life, and she encouraged their efforts to build on her work. Although some of Horner's characterizations of early Buddhism in these two books from the 1930s appear outmoded in light of later scholarship, her grounding in the Pali texts ensured the lasting relevance of much of this work.

Horner's greatest contribution to the study of Buddhism came through her work on the Pali literature and her leadership of the PTS. By the early 1930s Horner had begun to edit and translate Pali texts for publication. Over the next fifty years she edited four volumes of Pali scripture and translated fifteen volumes of Pali texts into English for the PTS. But Horner's impact on the study of Theravāda Buddhism through its Pali scriptures extended far beyond even this impressive list of published Pali editions and translations. Groomed by Caroline Rhys Davids to step in as her successor at the PTS, Horner served the PTS first as honorary secretary (19421959) after her mentor's death and later as president (19591981). For nearly four decades Horner actively recruited scholars from Europe, America, and Asia to contribute to the work of the PTS, and she then politely but persistently pushed them, and helped them, to complete their projects. Horner guided fifty-six new volumes of PTS publications through the complex process of book production, from initial correspondence with potential editors and translators through final negotiations with printers and distributors. Many acknowledgments of and grateful thanks for Horner's help appear in the prefaces and introductions to these PTS publications. Over the same period, Horner monitored the stocks of PTS books and managed the reprinting of 223 out-of-print and revised volumes.

Horner's indefatigable dedication and financial backing ensured that the PTS continued to publish one to four volumes annually throughout the twentieth century. For decades she inspired and encouraged students to take up the study of Pali and scholars to work on Pali texts without pay or even royalties. Horner actively pursued funding for the work of the PTS and often paid for its publications herself when she could not drum up sufficient financial support from other sources. Horner also left the PTS a substantial legacy in her will that has continued to support many of its activities into the twenty-first century.

In addition to her contributions to the scholarly study of Buddhist texts, Horner influenced the growing popular practice of Buddhism in the West by giving countless lectures to Western Buddhist groups and writing articles for their publications. Horner hesitated to call herself a Buddhist because she did not meditate, but she constantly demonstrated her commitment to propagating what she saw as the true teachings of Buddhism, always grounded in the Pali texts. She had little patience for Western Buddhists who corrupted the teachings of Buddhism with those of Hinduism or ideas of their own devising. Her interpretations of Buddhism for practitioners impressed even Asian Buddhist monks and scholars, including her many friends and admirers in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, who frequently asked her to contribute articles to their publications and to give lectures when she traveled in Asia (19341935, 19381939, 1950, 19531954).

The University of Ceylon granted Horner an honorary doctor of letters in 1964, as did Nava Nalanda Mahavihara in 1977. In 1980 Horner received an Order of the British Empire award from Queen Elizabeth II for her services to the PTS. Having lived to see the celebration of the first one hundred years of the PTS, Horner died in London on April 25, 1981.


Conze, Edward, I. B. Horner, David Snellgrove, and Arthur Waley, trans. and eds. Buddhist Texts through the Ages. Oxford, 1954. An anthology of texts from the Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna branches of Buddhism; the first part ("The Teaching of the Elders") comprises Pali texts chosen and translated by Horner.

Cousins, L., A. Kunst, and K. R. Norman, eds. Buddhist Studies in Honour of I. B. Horner. Boston and Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1974. A volume of essays by prominent scholars of Buddhism; includes a bibliography of Horner's most significant publications and a "Biographical Sketch" of her by R. E. and C. W. Iggleden.

Horner, I. B. Women under Primitive Buddhism: Laywomen and Almswomen. London, 1930. A thorough examination of Theravāda Buddhist teachings concerning women; remained the only book on Buddhist women until the late 1970s.

Horner, I. B. The Early Buddhist Theory of Man Perfected: A Study of the Arahan Concept and of the Implications of the Aim to Perfection in Religious Life. London, 1936. A philosophical analysis, critique, and reconstruction of the Theravāda Buddhist teachings concerning the ideal goal and the path to achieve it.

Horner, I. B. "Some Notes on the Buddhavamsa Commentary (Madhuratthavilāsinī )." In Buddhist Studies in Honour of Walpola Rahula, edited by Somaratna Balasooriya et al., pp. 7383. London, 1980. The last of many articles Horner published in which she brought to the attention of other scholars and translators particular points of interest from a text she had recently translated.

Horner, I. B., trans. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya Pitaka). 6 vols. Sacred Books of the Buddhists Series 10, 11, 13, 14, 20, and 25. London, 19381966. A translation of the Theravāda Buddhist texts concerning monastic life, constituting one of the three (ti-) major divisions (piaka) of the Pali canon (the tipiaka ); Horner's most substantial contribution to the translation of the tipiaka into English.

Horner, I. B., trans. The Middle Length Sayings (Majjhima-nikāya). 3 vols. Pali Text Society Translation Series 29, 30, and 31. London, 19541959. Horner's translation of the second of the five sections of the Pali canon's Dhamma Pitaka, or division of doctrinal teachings.

Horner, I. B., with Padmanabh S. Jaini, trans. Apocryphal Birth-Stories (Paññāsa-jātaka). Sacred Books of the Buddhists 38. London, 1985.

Pali Text Society. "About the Pali Text Society." Available from The society's website offers information on the Pali canon, on Pali language and literature, and on PTS projects and publications.

Grace G. Burford (2005)

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