The Oral Composition and Transmission of Early Buddhist Texts
, by Mark Allon, St John’s College, Cambridge
Indian Insights: Buddhism, Brahmanism and Bhakti (© Luzac Oriental, 1997)
Papers from the Annual Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions (1989 – 1994)
“It is generally agreed that early Buddhist literature, of which the Pāli texts of the Theravāda canon are the most numerous and best preserved examples, was composed and transmitted orally.(1) This is considered to be the case for the following reasons:
1. There is no reference to writing or writing materials in the principle Pāli nikāyas, (2) though there are many references to learning and reciting discourses (see below).(3)
2. Although there are a few passages in the Pāli Vinayapiṭaka which indicate that the art of writing was known at the time when these Vinaya texts were put into their present form, these do not refer to texts and their preservation.(4)
3. Despite detailed rules governing the use of all items used by the monks and nuns, the Vinaya has no ruling governing the use of writing materials. (5)
4. There is no archaeological evidence for the use of writing in India during the early phase of Buddhism, that is, before the time of Aśoka (6) – although this view may have to be revised in the light of recent finds in Sri Lanka of Brāhmī characters on potsherds dating from this period. (7)
5. Finally, many of the stylistic features of these texts indicate an oral origin. (8)”
1. O. von Hinüber, 1990, chap. V (esp. p. 22), p. 30, chap. XIV; K.R. Norman, 1993a, p. 280; R. Gombrich, 1990a & 1990b; L.S. Cousins, 1989, esp. p. 1; S. Collins, 1992.
2. R. Gombrich, 1992b, p. 27; O. von Hinüber, 1990, esp. p. 30.
3. S. Collins, 1992, esp. pp. 124 – 25; R. Gombrich, 1990b, p. 26.
4. T.W. Rhys Davids & H. Oldenberg, 1881, pp. xxxii – xxxv; cf. R. Gombrich, 1990b, pp. 27 – 8.
5. T.W. Rhys Davids & H. Oldenberg, 1881, pp. xxxii – xxxiii; R. Gombrich, 1990b, p. 28.
6. R. Gombrich, 1990b, p. 27. For the most recent views on writing in India, see O. von Hinüber, 1990, esp. pp. 54, 72 and K.R. Norman, 1993b, esp. pp. 243, 245 – 47.
7. See R.A.E. Coningham, 1993. S.U. Deraniyagala dates these to 600 – 500 BC; R. Allchin/R.A.E. Coningham tentatively date them to 400 – 450 BC.
8. O. von Hinüber, 1990, pp. 22 – 3; R. Gombrich, 1990a, pp. 7 – 8; 1990b, pp. 21 – 2; L.S. Cousins, 1983; G. von Simon, 1965; 1977, p. 479.