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Brief Essay on the Oral Tradition of Buddha

It is well known that the Buddha himself wrote nothing. Spiritual influence and personal example apart, his teaching was communicated entirely by oral means, through discourses to, and discussions with, his disciples and members of the public, as well as through inspired spontaneous utterance. While we do not definitely know what language he spoke, it would appear that he rejected the more ‘classical’ Sanskrit in favour of the vernacular, especially the dialects of Kosala and Magadha.

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When two monks ‘of cultivated language and eloquent speech’ complained that monks of various names, clan-names, and races (or castes) were corrupting the Buddha’s message by repeating it in their own dialects, and asked for permission to put it into Vedic verse he firmly rejected their petition deluded men he exclaimed, ‘How can you say this?

This will not lead to the conversion of the unconverted’. And he delivered a sermon and commanded all the monks: ‘You are not to put the Buddha’s message into Vedic. Whoever does so shall be guilty of an offence.

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I authorize you, monks; to learn (and teach) the Buddha’s message each in his own dialect (sakkaya niruttiya). In order to impress his teaching upon the minds of his auditors, as well as to facilitate its dissemination, he moreover had recourse to the repetition of key words and phrases, the drawing up of numbered lists of terms, and other mnemonic devices.

All these facts are of far-reaching consequence. In the first place, the Dharma having been orally taught, there intervened between the Parinirvana of the Buddha and the committing of his teaching to writing a period of oral transmission lasting two or three centuries in the case of some scriptures, and much longer in the case of others.

Then the fact that the monks had been authorized to learn and teach the Buddha’s message in their own dialects meant that the Dharma was from the beginning extant in a number of linguistic forms, so that, when finally it did come to be written down, this was done not in one language only but in many. Thus, it is said, the Canon of the Mahasanghikas was in Prakrit, that of the Sthaviravadins, that of the Pudgalavadins in Apabhramsa, and that of the Sarvastivadins in Sanskrit.

Hence when Buddhism spread outside India it came about that the Scriptures were translated into the language of those countries where the message was preached, into Chinese, Tibetan, Uighur, and so on. At no time, not even when Buddhism was confined to north-eastern India, was there any one canonical language for all Buddhists.

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The attempts made by some writers to present Pali as such are mistaken. The word Pali, meaning a line of the sacred text, is in fact not the name of a language at all, and the ‘Pali’ Canon of Ceylon is probably a Middle Indie recension of a version of the Tripitaka originating in western India.

The historical accident of its being the only Indian canon to have survived complete in the original language should not cause us to overestimate its importance, much less still to regard its excellent but selective contents as the sole criterion of what is and what is not Buddhism.

Finally, when the oral tradition was reduced to writing, the mnemonic de­vices employed by the Buddha and his disciples for the transmission of the Dharma were responsible for giving the Scriptures as literary documents cer­tain distinctive characteristics.

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