Buddhist Scriptures Part II – The Record

[Summary: A look at Asian Chanting as a form of record compared to the written word. Arguments for chanting being more accurate. Written in response to the New Atheist contention that all scripture is worse than fairy tale. Continued from Part I “Buddhist Scriptures  – Their Veracity]

“New Atheists” Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris et al, propose that all religion has been proven bogus, and one branch of their argument is the authenticity of scripture.

Says Hitchens,

“Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world”

He adds,

“the sciences of textual criticism, archaeology, physics, and molecular biology have shown religious myths to be false and man-made.”

Summing up the position of this crew, religions are humanly constructed traditions and at their center are corrupted texts that were cobbled together by provincial, ignorant men who knew less about the world than any high-school teenager alive today.

So how do the Buddhist scriptures hold up?

Most traditional Buddhists hold that their set of scriptures is the authentic version, and pure “Buddha Vacana” or the words spoken by the Buddha himself. They were recorded just after the Buddha’s death by recitation and memorization by his disciples wanting to maintain the purity of their teacher’s Dhamma in his absence. This meeting, and two subsequent ones 100 and 300 years later are called the Buddhist Councils.

The means of record was chanting, or recitation. Often scholars point to a much later date for the texts finally being written down, as if the written word is final. But there is good argument supporting chanting as a much superior form of record than writing, even though writing was fairly widespread (geographically) in India at the time. Because chanting is not a skill widely appreciated today, people tend to dismiss it as a form of record keeping, but it does not take that much practise to become proficient. Buddhist monks even today can recite large tracts of scriptures by heart. There are said to be 6 Burmese monks alive who can recite the entire Tripitaka – and today’s Tripitaka is much larger than the one at the Buddha’s time.

The Pali (=Buddhist) texts are formed in such a way as to aid recitation, with many repetitious passages and stock phrases, something that makes them somewhat stodgy to read. And they are broken up into recitation sections. Monks of old would choose certain sections to recite with a group, and when proficient, would move on and take up a new section. Frequent gatherings enabled exchanges between the groups of the different sections. The majour themes of the Dhamma, such as the six sense model or Four Noble Truths, are repeated endlessly throughout the scriptures, so that for most monks, hearing new sections would be like rediscovering covered ground.

Some advantages of Chanting as a form of record:

  • When chanting, a mistake is easily picked up and corrected because the culprit hears himself out of sync. with his fellow reciters. With written texts, a mistake would be repeated in all copies made of the work.
  • Having the work so embedded in the mind aids to understanding, and makes it instantly available in the daily life of the reciter
  • Changes are harder to make, since so many people would have to re-learn sections. New stories however, are easily added.

The chanting was in large groups, which would then travel to hear and recite to other groups aiding in the discussion and sharing of the teaching, and the maintenance of the Sangha.

Some of the disadvantages of Writing:

  • Only the well educated could read, therefore the teaching thus recorded would have a limited audience. Curiously the reverse is true today.
  • Writing was not considered to be ‘holy’ as was recitation, nor was it traditionally practiced by the priesthood.
  • Leaves and parchment were of poor quality and subject to rapid decay, insects, fire and flood.
  • The place that the teachings would be of the most use was inside the minds of people, rather than in rooms of parchments.

Writing was undertaken by scratching on leaves, and then passing the ink over. That way one could not see what was written until the entire leaf was finished. The leaf would only then last 50 or so years. In fact, we can note historically, that the teachings were only written down when there were too few monks to maintain them by recitation – writing down was a last resort!

So we can assume that what we have is really very close to what the Buddha himself actually taught. There have been additions, and some stories seem to be inconsistent, but knowing that, it seems plausible to still find access to the original teachings. After all, He taught that no one should trust any scripture, but that each person had to pick up and test the Dhamma for themselves.

On to Part III (Final)


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