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Buddhism Oral and Literate Traditions
by
Daniel Veidlinger

Introduction

The Indian world in which Buddhism arose was an oral world. The general scholarly consensus is that writing was not used in India until the Mauryan period sometime in the 3rd century BCE and that it was not used to record Buddhist texts until the 1st century BCE, when the Pali canon was written down for the first time in Sri Lanka. Every Sutta starts with the phrase evaṃ me sutaṃ (thus have I heard), which reflects the oral lineage of these texts. Specialized monks, known as bhāṇakas, were charged with the task of memorizing the texts and this tradition continued for many centuries after the texts were committed to writing. Mahāyāna texts, on the other hand, were written down from the start of this tradition and Mahāyāna reverence for writing is probably a reflection of that technology’s important role in the dissemination of its ideas. Since the 1960s there has been a growing amount of scholarship on the differences between oral and literate forms of communication, some of which has been directed toward examining this topic in the context of the Indian environment and Buddhism specifically. Major questions include the following: Were the early Buddhist texts improvised around a core set of ideas or transmitted in a fixed form? How did the structure of the texts reflect the methods of their transmission? What techniques were used to help memorize the texts and later to write them down? What was the relationship of the written to the oral tradition during the long period when they existed together? How did the medium affect the way the ideas of the religion were assimilated by its adherents?

General Overviews

A book-length introductory study of orality and literacy in the Buddhist world is still a desideratum, but a number of such studies examine the topic as it applies to European countries such as Greece, of which Havelock 1986 is a fine example. Other general studies of writing (Martin 1995) and orality (Finnegan 1977) are also relevant because they prepare the student to approach this topic through more specialized works on India and Buddhism. Rocher 1994, a short paper on orality and literacy, focuses mainly on the Brahmanical tradition, which brings up many points salient to the Buddhist world as well. For a general introduction to early Indian manuscripts and their artistry, no better work can be found than Losty 1982, which includes learned text and numerous full-color plates, and for Buddhist texts specifically that also includes texts and plates, Grönbold 2005 is the most complete volume available. Berkwitz, et al. 2009 is a superb collection of articles covering a wide range of subjects related to the life of Buddhist manuscripts in different regions. Wynne 2004 outlines the basic arguments that have been articulated over the past few decades about the manner in which early Buddhist texts were composed and transmitted.

  • Berkwitz, Steven C., Juliane Schober, and Claudia Brown, eds. Buddhist Manuscript Cultures: Knowledge, Ritual and Art. London: Routledge, 2009.

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    The best collection available of articles on literate culture, manuscripts, and their relation to the oral tradition. Contributions include discussions by excellent scholars on manuscripts from China, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Gandhāra, Nepal, and Mongolia.

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  • Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance, and Social Context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

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    Well-written and lucid introduction for undergraduates to the literary and sociological features of oral poetry, although India is only rarely mentioned. Discusses a wide range of topics such as the ideas of composition during performance, the uses of repetition, as well as the stylistic and structural features of oral poetry.

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  • Grönbold, Günter, ed. Die Worte des Buddha in den Sprachen der Welt/The Words of the Buddha in the Languages of the World: Tipiṭaka, Tripiṭaka, Dazangjing, Kanjur. Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, 2005.

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    Catalogue of an exhibition of Buddhist manuscripts at the Bavarian State Library from 27 January 2005 to 20 March 2005. Includes 152 examples from the Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan canons as well as rare modern printed editions from Asia and the West. Color plates accompany most entries. Text in German and English.

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  • Havelock, Eric. The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

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    A cogent introduction to the many theoretical and empirical questions related to orality and literacy by one of the doyens of the field. A very useful book for undergraduates beginning their study of the topic. Focuses on Greece but most points are salient to ancient India as well.

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  • Losty, Jeremiah P. The Art of the Book in India. London: British Library, 1982.

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    Richly illustrated catalogue of an exhibition of Indian books at the British Library from 16 April 1982 to 1 August 1982. Introduction and the first chapter provide a good guide for the layperson to the development of Buddhist (and other) manuscripts in the region. Topics such as attitudes toward writing, materials used, and artistic features of the manuscripts are covered.

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  • Martin, Henri-Jean. The History and Power of Writing. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

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    Translation from the French of his encyclopedic 1988 book Histoire et Pouvoirs de l’Écrit (Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin) dealing with writing from the earliest phases of cuneiform and hieroglyphics to the computer monitors of today. Simply a must-read for everyone interested in this topic.

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  • Rocher, Ludo. Orality and Textuality in the Indian Context. Sino-Platonic Papers 49. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

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    Explores why orality remained so important in India even after writing was introduced. Suggests that technical literature such as grammatical works had to be memorized in order to be useful. Although the focus is on the Vedic tradition, these issues are salient to the Buddhist world as well.

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  • Wynne, Alexander. “The Oral Transmission of the Early Buddhist Literature.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 27.1 (2004): 97–127.

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    Very good survey of the literature and thus an appropriate place to begin a study of this topic. Presents arguments for both the improvised and the fixed nature of early texts and suggests that they have been transmitted with enough fidelity to allow for fruitful text criticism.

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Primary Sources

There are a number of primary sources that contribute to our understanding of orality and literacy within the Buddhist context. In the absence of a fixed set of written documents, the question of how to know if a text that has been uttered by a learned person or group can indeed be considered to be the words of the Buddha (buddhavacana) naturally arose and is dealt with in the Mahāpadesa section of the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta. Lamotte 1984 examines this and other similar passages in detail. The Saṅgīti Sutta provides us with some key insights into the manner in which Buddhist doctrine was organized, memorized, and communicated in the earliest periods of the religion, and recordings of modern-day monks chanting the Mettā Sutta provide a glimpse into how this might have sounded. The first reference to the writing down of the canon is found in the Dīpavaṃsa (Oldenberg 2000), and the most direct reference to veneration of writing in Pali is to be found in chapter 10 of the 14th-century Saddhammasaṅgaha by Dhammakitti (Dhammakitti 1963). The Mahāyāna tradition has from the beginning paid more attention to written texts and some of the more well-known references in the literature to making and honoring manuscripts can be found peppered throughout such texts as the Lotus Sūtra (Watson 1993).

  • Dhammakitti. Saddhammasaṅgaha. Rev. ed. Translated by Bimala Churn Law. Calcutta, India: University of Calcutta, 1963.

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    According to this 14th-century Pali text from Thailand, in chapter 10, each letter in the canon should be considered a Buddha image, and therefore great merit accrues to those who write it down. The most explicit reference in the Theravāda Pali tradition to the importance of manuscripts.

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  • Lamotte, Étienne. “The Assessment of Textual Authenticity in Buddhism.” Buddhist Studies Review 1.1 (1984): 4–15.

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    This English translation of “La Critique d’Authenticité dans le Bouddhisme,” first published in 1947, is based on a variety of sources from Mainstream (Hīnayāna) to Mahāyāna, which discuss the ways of determining whether any given text can be considered the word of the Buddha.

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  • Mahāpadesa Sutta (Mahāparinibbāna Sutta 4.2). In Dīgha Nikāya. Vol. 2. Edited by T. W. Rhys Davids and J. Eslin Carpenter, 123–126. London: Pali Text Society, 1995.

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    The Buddha explains to his disciples how to determine whether a text that they have heard can be considered the authoritative words of the Buddha. Available in English online as “The Four Great References.” This volume is a new issue of a reprint (1975) from 1903.

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  • Mettā Sutta Recitation—Sri Lanka.

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    YouTube video of monks from Sri Lanka chanting this popular sutta in Pali provides a good sense of the auditory nature of oral transmission. The rhythm and simple melodies of this performance have played an important role in the assimilation of these texts into the lives of the faithful.

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  • Karaneeya Metta Recitation—Thailand.

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    YouTube video of monks from Thailand chanting this popular sutta in Pali. Note the differences between this style and that from Sri Lanka.

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  • Oldenberg, Hermann, trans. The Dīpavaṃsa: An Ancient Buddhist Historical Record. London: Pali Text Society, 2000.

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    This reprint of the 1879 edition includes both the Pali text and a translation of the 4th-century chronicle. Chapter 20, verses 20–21, tell of the writing down of the canon.

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  • Sangīti Sutta. In Dīgha Nikāya. Vol. 3. Edited by J. Eslin Carpenter, 207–271. London: Pali Text Society, 2006.

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    Corrected reprint. English translation in Thus Have I Heard, translated by Maurice Walshe (London: Wisdom Books, 1987). Rare account in the suttas of an oral, communal recitation of the basic teachings of the Buddha. Provides a glimpse into how this process might have unfolded. Available in English online.

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  • Watson, Burton, trans. The Lotus Sutra. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

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    One of the more accessible translations, based upon the 406 CE Chinese version of Kumārajīva. Chapter 10, “The Teacher of the Law,” has many good examples of exhortations to copy and honor the text, giving a sense of the role of writing in this and other seminal Mahāyāna texts.

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Theoretical Works

For the past several decades, scholars from such wide-ranging fields as media studies, anthropology, and psychology have theorized about the cultural and cognitive changes driven by the move from oral to literate modes of communication. Strong theories, approaching technological determinism, about the effects of oral and literate communication have been famously formulated by Goody 1968 and Ong 1982, which hold that writing is necessary for critical, scientific thinking. Lord 1960, building on earlier work by Lord’s mentor, Milman Parry, sets out most comprehensively the theory of oral formulaic composition, wherein bards spinning their tales in meter use stock formulas to compose the same story in different ways during each performance. Smith 1977 challenges this theory based on his examination of Rajasthani epic singers, who appear to have a relatively fixed text that they embellish as they go. The much-cited Graham 1987 urges scholars to pay attention to the oral and aural aspects of religious texts, and Griffiths 1999 alerts us to the many different ways of reading in a religious context, often in conjunction with vocalized words.

  • Goody, Jack. “The Consequences of Literacy.” In Literacy in Traditional Societies. Edited by Jack Goody, 27–68. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

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    The seminal article in which Goody outlines his theory that writing promotes scientific and cultural advancement, whereas orality supports tradition. Goody has developed this theory in many publications over the years.

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  • Graham, William Albert. Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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    Commonly cited study on the importance of paying attention to the oral aspects of scripture, including the sound of the words, the rhythm of the chanting, and the memorization skills that are required. See in particular chapter 6, “Scripture as Spoken Word: The Indian Paradigm.”

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  • Griffiths, Paul J. Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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    A close look at the variety of ways in which texts have been approached in different religious traditions. Chapter 5, “Commentary and Anthology in Buddhist India,” focuses on Buddhism and shows how memorization has been a key part of learning or even reading a text.

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  • Lord, Albert. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960.

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    Classic study of the way formulas are used by oral poets to construct the text extemporaneously out of a series of stock phrases that include thematic and narrative elements. Based on work with Milman Parry among Bosnian bards but with implications for oral poetry the world over.

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  • Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge, 1982.

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    Seminal work in the field of media theory that posits a change in consciousness elicited by the evolution from an oral to a literate society.

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  • Smith, John D. “The Singer or the Song? A Reassessment of Lord’s ‘Oral Theory.’” Man n.s. 12 (1977): 141–153.

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    Challenges the Parry-Lord theory by suggesting that there is often indeed a fixed seed text that is known by all performers of a text, but that kernel is embellished so extensively as to be almost unrecognizable.

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Beginnings of Literacy in India

Extensive research into the rebirth of literacy in India (after the demise of writing in the Indus Valley Civilization) has determined that writing was unknown until several centuries after the time of the Buddha. It is clear that Buddhism played an important role in the spread of this new communications technology throughout the Indic world. Bühler 1895 suggested that writing was used during the Vedic period as far back as the 8th century BCE and this influenced a number of scholars until more recent studies such as Fussman 1988, Hinüber 1989, and Falk 1993, armed with data that were not available during Bühler’s time, showed conclusively that writing was not used much before Aśoka. There is a strong possibility that Kharoṣṭhī, which is written usually from right to left, and Brāhmī, which is written from left to right and emerged slightly later, are both derived from Semitic scripts such as Aramaic with likely Phoenician influence. Salomon 1995 summarizes all of these arguments and is a good starting point for beginners on this topic. Much of this research is in German or French.

  • Bühler, Johann Georg. On the Origin of the Indian Brāhma Alphabet. Sitzungsberichte der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Vienna: Tempsky, 1895.

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    The first major study of the origins of writing in India, whose argument for an early date was very influential throughout the 20th century. Hampered by the inadequate state of knowledge at the time and superseded by Fussman 1988, Hinüber 1989, and Falk 1993.

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  • Falk, Harry. Schrift im Alten Indien: Ein Forschungsbericht mit Anmerkungen. Tübingen, Germany: Gunter Narr, 1993.

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    The most detailed study available on the origin and uses of writing in ancient India. Examines a wide variety of evidence, including Vedic and Buddhist texts, inscriptions, coins, sculpture, and reports of foreign travelers and concludes that writing was not known long before Asoka. Unfortunately, available only in German.

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  • Fussman, Gerard. “Les premiers systèmes d’écriture en Inde.” Annuaire du Collège du France (1988–1989): 507–532.

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    Argues for a Mauryan era origin of writing similar to Falk 1993 and Hinüber 1989.

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  • Hinüber, Oskar von. Der Beginn der Schrift und frühe Schriftlichkeit in Indien. Mainz, Germany: Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, 1989.

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    This work covers ground similar to Falk 1993 but is a good deal shorter and focuses more on Buddhism specifically. Chapters 5 and 14 are particularly valuable in that they discuss the oral composition and transmission of Buddhist texts.

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  • Salomon, Richard. “On the Origin of the Early Indian Scripts: A Review Article.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 115.2 (1995): 271–279.

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    A good place to begin research into the beginnings of writing in India, as it is a relatively short article that summarizes most previous and current scholarship on the topic. Available online.

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Oral Aspects of the Pali Tradition

The Pali canonical texts known collectively as the Tipiṭaka were originally committed to memory by monks trained for this function called bhāṇakas, who then transmitted them through oral recitation, as detailed in Adikaram 1953 and Mori 1990. They therefore constitute, as does the Vedic corpus as well, one of the largest bodies of world literature that was so transmitted and naturally have been the subject of much theorizing by scholars of oral literature. The primary issues of debate have been whether the texts were composed during performance from a stock of formulas, as outlined in the Parry-Lord theory of oral composition (see Theoretical Works), or whether they were fixed early on and memorized verbatim from generation to generation, as Cousins 1983 was one of the first to discuss. The different methods would presumably be reflected in the structure and style of the texts and have strong implications for the viability of different strategies of both textual criticism and hermeneutics, as Hoffman 1992 points out. However, there is a good deal of disagreement as to whether all of these points make for a robust debate. Allon 1997 provides us with by far the most detailed study of structural and stylistic features in the extant Pali corpus and attempts to decipher what these can tell us about the methods of composition used. Allon, however, is highly technical, and therefore the beginner would be advised to commence with Anālayo 2007, which covers a lot of the same ground in a short and clearly written paper. Gethin 1992 focuses more on the malleability of the texts and suggests how the mātikā lists could have been used as mnemonic aids for the doctrine that was expounded through the narratives. Collins 1992 adds to the picture by looking beyond formal textual features to the vocabulary used and by suggesting how certain terms and phrases are indicative of an oral milieu. He also reminds us that the oral tradition continued long after the texts were written down, and Deegalle 2006 is a useful presentation of how Buddhist ideas and texts are still preached in an oral environment to the faithful today.

  • Adikaram, E. W. Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon; or, State of Buddhism in Ceylon as Revealed by the Pāli Commentaries of the 5th Century A.D. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Gunasena, 1953.

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    Part 1, chapter 3, deals with what is known from the commentaries about the bhāṇakas, monks who memorized and transmitted the canonical texts. This system continued to operate for many centuries, even after the texts were written down, and shaped the form of the canon. First published in 1946.

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  • Allon, Mark. Style and Function: A Study of the Dominant Stylistic Features of the Prose Portions of Pāli Canonical Sutta Texts and Their Mnemonic Function. Studia Philologica Buddha. Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1997.

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    The most comprehensive study of oral formulae and other features of orality in the Pali canon. Detailed, step-by-step analysis is laid out along with a complete list of references to back up the research. Concludes that there is evidence for both improvised and memorized portions of the canon.

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  • Anālayo, Bhikkhu. “Oral Dimensions of Pāli Discourses: Pericopes, Other Mnemonic Techniques, and the Oral Performance Context.” Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies 3 (2007): 5–33.

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    A relatively short and cogent paper that introduces the basic textual features of Pali oral transmission such as repetition, alliteration, and formulas and situates the oral tradition within its social context. A good place to begin the study of oral transmission.

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  • Collins, Steven. “Notes on Some Oral Aspects of Pali Literature.” Indo-Iranian Journal 35.2–3 (1992): 121–135.

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    Examines the interface between the oral and the chirographic period of Pali literature, emphasizing that handwritten texts existed alongside the oral tradition for a good deal of Buddhist history. Looks at many terms in Pali that are associated with orality and explores their meaning.

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  • Cousins, Lance. “Pali Oral Literature.” In Buddhist Studies Ancient and Modern. Edited by Philip Denwood and Alexander Piatagorsky, 1–11. London: Curzon, 1983.

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    The first article to explicitly apply the Parry-Lord theory of oral composition to Pali texts. Cousins argues that the texts were probably composed orally at first, with different reciters creating slightly different narratives based around the same themes, but then the material became fixed over time.

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  • Deegalle, Mahinda. Popularizing Buddhism: Preaching as Performance in Sri Lanka. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.

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    Discusses the development and uses of preaching techniques in Sri Lanka by which the faithful commonly come into contact with Buddhist ideas and textual passages. This is an important feature of the oral engagement with Buddhism that ought to be studied alongside the more formal oral transmission of the Tipiṭaka.

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  • Gethin, Rupert. “The Mātikās: Memorization, Mindfulness and the List.” In In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. Edited by Janet Gyatso, 149–172. SUNY Series in Buddhist Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

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    Shows how lists, which are ubiquitous in Buddhist texts, help readers to memorize large amounts of material and can also be used as storehouses of concepts that can be deployed during an oral discourse. Gethin thus believes that the early texts were indeed improvised extemporaneously around core topics.

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  • Hoffman, Frank J. “Evam Me Sutam: Oral Tradition in Nikāya Buddhism.” In Texts in Context: Traditional Hermeneutics in South Asia. Edited by Jeffrey Timm, 195–220. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

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    Insists on the necessity of considering the oral nature of early Pali texts for the development of a Buddhist hermeneutics. Establishing the legitimacy of a text to interpret is the first step in the hermeneutical process, and an oral text makes this process much more problematic.

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  • Mori, Sodō. “The Origin and the History of the Bhāṇaka Tradition.” In Ānanda: Papers on Buddhism and Indology; a Felicitation Volume Presented to Ananda Weihena Palliya Guruge on His Sixtieth Birthday. Edited by Y. Karunadasa, 123–129. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Felicitation Volume Editorial Committee, 1990.

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    Examines the development of the oral tradition based on information found in Pali texts and commentaries.

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Literacy in the Pali Tradition and Theravāda Context

Tradition holds that the Tipiṭaka was first written down in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BCE, and as Bechert 1992 assures us, there is little reason to reject this account. Norman 1992 uses the variants that are found in the written tradition to adduce something of the history of writing in the region. Once the texts were written down, they were still very much maintained and transmitted in an oral manner, with the written manuscripts, usually on palm leaves, serving more as aids to memory than as the primary loci of the texts. The interface between the written and oral traditions is a complex matter, and as Veidlinger 2006 states, there were strong social and institutional consequences to the emphasis of one mode over the other. McDaniel 2008 explores in great detail the ways that manuscripts have been used in Thailand and Laos to support the sermons and pedagogical techniques employed to teach both monks and laypeople. Hinüber 1996 also looks at Thai manuscripts, focusing on their colophons as sources of valuable information about manuscript culture in premodern times. Tambiah 1968 rounds out the historical and philological studies mentioned above with ethnographic work on the state of literacy among Thai Buddhists in a village in the 1960s.

  • Bechert, Heinz. “The Writing Down of the Tripitaka in Pali.” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens 36 (1992): 45–53.

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    Disputes theories that accounts in the Dīpavaṃsa and Mahāvaṃsa of the writing down of the canon in the 1st century BCE are spurious later interpolations, emphasizing rather that internal and external evidence suggests that they were indeed committed to writing around this period.

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  • Hinüber, Oskar von. “Chips from Buddhist Workshops: Scribes and Manuscripts from Northern Thailand.” Journal of the Pali Text Society 22 (1996): 35–57.

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    Focuses on what can be learned about the production and uses of premodern Buddhist manuscripts from Thailand based on their colophons. The article plays a valuable role in the reconstruction of what literate culture was like in a traditional Buddhist environment.

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  • McDaniel, Justin T. Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words: Histories of Buddhist Monastic Education in Laos and Thailand. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008.

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    Examines pedagogical texts that consist of words that have been lifted from Pali texts, which are then glossed and expanded upon in the vernacular language. They straddle the boundary between oral and written modes of communication as they are never read silently but are used to support sermons.

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  • Norman, Kenneth Roy. “The Development of Writing in India and Its Effect upon the Pāli Canon.” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens 36 supp. (1992): 239–249.

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    Points out that since the bulk of the canonical texts are not metrical, the Parry-Lord theory of oral composition cannot be strictly applied to this corpus. Also argues that errors and variants found in the texts suggest a slower evolution of writing systems than works such as Falk 1993 (cited under Beginnings of Literacy in Asia) have proposed.

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  • Tambiah, Stanley J. “Literacy in a Buddhist Village in North-East Thailand.” In Literacy in Traditional Societies. Edited by Jack Goody, 86–131. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

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    Important ethnographic contribution to the discussion focusing on the role of the village temple as a center of literate learning, where a small percentage of villagers would learn to read mostly Buddhist texts; even fewer would learn to write, mostly for copying and not creation of new texts.

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  • Veidlinger, Daniel M. Spreading the Dhamma: Writing, Orality, and Textual Transmission in Buddhist Northern Thailand. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006.

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    Looks at the interface between the written and oral traditions and their social implications. Uses archaeological, epigraphic, and manuscript evidence to build a rich picture of manuscript culture with a focus on the 15th and 16th centuries.

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Oral and Literate Aspects of the Mahāyāna Tradition

Mahāyāna Buddhism has utilized writing from its inception, unlike Theravāda, whose textual tradition can be traced back to a corpus that was transmitted orally for several centuries. The two forms of Buddhism therefore have quite different approaches to orality and literacy, as Veidlinger 2006 discusses. Gombrich 1990 in fact argues that the Mahāyāna could not have arisen at all without writing because, being outside the institutional process of oral transmission, it needed a relatively easy way to preserve its texts. Whether this thesis is correct or not, writing was certainly venerated by early Mahāyāna Buddhists, as Schopen 1975 discusses. Cole 2005 assumes that early Mahāyāna sutras were always written down and examines them as literary projects that attempt to encapsulate the presence of the Buddha through their very textuality. It is well known that the Chinese took the written word to another level through their development first of paper (see Tsien 2004) and then of printing (see Cherniack 1994), both of which affected the career of Buddhism and Mahāyāna texts to a great extent in China. However, even with this central role played by writing, Mahāyāna Buddhist texts often had an important oral dimension, especially in their commentaries, as Klein 1994 so lucidly explains. They still mostly commence with the phrase “Thus Have I Heard”—thereby, according to Lopez 1995, appealing to the authority of an unbroken oral tradition.

  • Cherniack, Susan. “Book Culture and Textual Transmission in Sung China.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 54 (1994): 5–125.

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    Heavily annotated article about the ways in which textual criticism was affected in China by the transition from manuscript to print culture. The success of print led to the decline of manuscript traditions, leaving few alternative versions with which to check the printed versions. Focuses more on the Confucian than the Buddhist tradition.

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  • Cole, Alan. Text as Father: Paternal Seductions in Early Mahāyāna Buddhist Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

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    Engagingly written work approaching core Mahāyāna texts through the lens of literary theory with the assumption that they are the products of creative authorship that poured its genius into specifically written works. Emphasizes the strategies used to distill the experience of the tradition into the reading of physical books.

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  • Gombrich, Richard F. “How the Mahāyāna Began.” In The Buddhist Forum. Vol. 1. Edited by Tadeusz Skorupski, 21–30. New Delhi: Heritage, 1990.

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    Influential article that links the rise of Mahāyāna to the use of writing, which enabled a small group of people to compose new texts that could be preserved without institutional support. Originally published in Journal of Pali and Buddhist Studies 1 (1988): 29–46.

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  • Klein, Anne Carolyn. Path to the Middle: The Spoken Scholarship of Kensur Yeshey Tupden. SUNY Series in Buddhist Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

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    Studies the oral dimensions of traditional Tibetan scholarship as exemplified in the Lama as “living text.” Excellent presentation of the structure and cadences of oral scholarship, which would normally accompany the learning of most texts in traditional Tibetan society. On orality and literacy generally, see the introduction.

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  • Lopez, Donald S. “Authority and Orality in the Mahāyāna.” Numen 42.1 (1995): 21–47.

    DOI: 10.1163/1568527952598800Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A useful overview that assesses a number of theories about textual transmission, including Goody’s theory about the written composition of the Vedas (Goody 1980, cited under Orality and the Vedic Tradition) and Gombrich’s theory of the rise of Mahāyāna and its relation to writing (Gombrich 1990). Available online.

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  • Schopen, Gregory. “The Phrase ‘pṛthivīpradeśaś caityabhūto bhavet’ in the Vajracchedikā: Notes on the Cult of the Book in Mahāyāna.” Indo-Iranian Journal 17 (1975): 147–182.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00221011Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Influential and oft-cited paper discussing the emphasis in Mahāyāna texts on copying and worshiping manuscripts of said text. Also available in Schopen’s Figments and Fragments of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India: More Collected Papers (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), pp. 25–62.

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  • Tsien, Tseun-hsuin. Written on Bamboo and Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

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    Classic study of the history of writing in China deals mostly with pre-Buddhist techniques but does have sections on paper, silk, and stone examples of Buddhist texts. Originally published in 1962.

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  • Veidlinger, Daniel. “When a Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Mahāyāna Influence on Theravāda Attitudes towards Writing.” Numen 53.4 (2006): 405–447.

    DOI: 10.1163/156852706778942012Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that in predominantly Theravāda regions such as Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, a positive change of attitude toward writing coincided with the height of Mahāyāna influence in those areas, which led to the ritual veneration of books and manuscripts. Available online.

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Orality and the Vedic Tradition

No study of orality and literacy in the Buddhist world would be complete without at least a cursory look at how the Vedic tradition in India approached this issue. Vedic was, after all, the dominant culture out of which early Buddhism arose and to which many of its arguments were addressed. Presumably, many of the memorization techniques and attitudes toward the oral and written word would have been informed by the Vedic tradition of the Brahmans. Cenkner 1980 provides a good overview of this tradition and the importance of memorization in the life of the educated Brahman. Goody 1980 was driven by the logic of Goody’s theories to argue that in fact the Vedas must have been composed in writing, although the author concedes that they were probably passed down through memorization. Falk 1990 provides a detailed rebuttal of Goody, showing that there is no evidence for his claim, which weakens his theory. Staal 1986 shows, again contra Goody, that in fact the very orality of ancient Indian civilization provided the ground for the kind of highly sophisticated developments in linguistics and science that Goody thought are indexical of literate culture. Levitt 1984 is somewhat alone in claiming that writing was regarded as very sacred in ancient India and was, for that reason, only rarely used.

  • Cenkner, William. “The Pandit: The Embodiment of Oral Tradition.” Journal of Dharma 5.3 (1980): 237–251.

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    Examines the roles of the Pandit and the Guru within the oral tradition and discusses the relative unimportance of writing in Indian traditions.

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  • Falk, Harry. “Goodies for India—Literacy, Orality, and Vedic Culture.” In Erscheinungsformen kultureller Prozesse: Jahrbuch 1988 des Sonderforschungsbereichs Ubergange und Spannungsfelder Zwischen Mundlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit. Edited by Wolfgang Raible, 103–120. Tübingen, Germany: Gunter Narr, 1990.

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    Point-by-point refutation of the argument in Goody 1980 that the Vedas and ancillary works were originally composed in writing. Presents a major challenge to Goody’s thesis that writing is required for a certain degree of sophistication in literature and logical thought in science.

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  • Goody, Jack. “Oral Composition and Oral Transmission: The Case of the Vedas.” In Oralità: Cultura, Letteratura, Discorso. Atti Del Convegno Internazionale (Urbino, 21–25. July, 1980). Edited by Bruno Gentili and Giuseppe Paioni, 7–18. Atti di Convegni 2. Rome: Edizioni dell’Ateneo, 1980.

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    Argues that the Vedas were composed in writing but were transmitted orally to retain the sanctity and mystery of the text. Article is the subject of numerous attacks by Indologists based on evidence that writing was not known at this time. Also included in Goody’s The Interface between the Written and the Oral (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 110–124.

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  • Levitt, Stephan H. “The Indian Attitude toward Writing.” Indologia Taurinensia 13 (1984): 229–250.

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    Takes the unusual approach that writing was not often used in ancient India because it was regarded as very sacred. While most scholars have taken precisely the opposite view, this position merits serious examination.

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  • Staal, Frits. The Fidelity of Oral Tradition and the Origins of Science. Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing, 1986.

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    Shows how the Indian obsession with transmitting oral texts faithfully and understanding their grammatical construction led to many intellectual developments that were highly sophisticated and scientific. Runs counter to Goody’s thesis that writing is required to develop critical scientific thought.

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LAST MODIFIED: 09/13/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195393521-0120

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