Oral and Literate Traditions

Daniel Veidlinger

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:
Oral and Literate Traditions

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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?

Article.  5630 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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