Copyright 2002-2003 and on,

Two thousand five hundred years ago the Buddha wandered the Ganges plains of Northern India. For over 45 years he taught a means of spiritual liberation to all who sought guidance. The power of his teaching was such that a great many of his discourses have survived to this day. Collectively they are known as the Canon and are often referred to as the Tipitaka or "three baskets".

The three baskets, or groups, are:

- Vinaya Pitaka, Which is concerned with the rules of discipline governing the order of monks and nuns.

- Sutta Pitaka, A vast collection divided into five major sections called ‘nikaya’. These mainly deal with aspects of doctrine, the Buddha’s teaching.

- Abhidhamma-pitaka - Comprised of seven works which are a systematic exposition of the whole of the works found in the Sutta-pitaka. A philosophical, psychological treatment of the teaching.

In this essay, for easier reading, scriptural quotations have been simplified by merely referring to the “Text”.

As Buddhism evolved over the centuries many quite distinct schools arose, each having a version of the scriptures. For most Buddhists the standard reference point is the Pali version. One of the main teachings of the Buddha was on impermanence and scriptural records are no less exempt from change than any other thing.

History and Doctrine
A common area of doubt is the 500 or so years between the death of the Buddha and the writing down of the scriptures. Here we will examine how the situation may have been during the Buddha’s life, and second, consider the three great councils which endeavoured to stabilise the teaching at various periods after the Buddha’s death.

The Text was preserved in oral form until about 80 BC and then recorded in writing at Aluvihara, Sri Lanka. Some portions may have been written earlier, as writing was not unknown before this time, but suffered from a lack of “permanent” writing materials. The oldest reference to writing is in a tract called the “Silas”, dated approximately 450 BC. In this Text we see writing praised as a “distinguished art” and there is reference to a monk “scratching a writing”. Literature would have been limited to official notices and small, private communications. So the teaching of the Buddha was an oral one and over the years as it developed and expanded it became necessary not only to listen but to learn.

In the Text we see that: “a monk has mastered the Teaching, thus heard he teaches others in detail, he makes others recite in detail, he makes them repeat in detail”. One question that arises is the feat of memory involved in preserving such an extensive body of teaching orally for so long. This seems extraordinary but was apparently quite usual in ancient India. Here are some modern statistics regarding memory: In 1949 oral examinations on the texts were offered in Burma. During the first 30 years, 67 monks separately recited the five volumes of the Vinaya; 265 monks the 16 volumes of the Suttas and well over 300 had perfect recall of an entire nikaya. One consideration regarding memory is that an illiterate community, such as largely existed at the time of the Buddha, would have greatly strengthened other means of recording and transmitting information. A parallel to this suggestion is found in the highly developed sense of hearing which blind people develop.

During his 45 years of teaching the Buddha must have standardised certain methods of offering the teaching. Those monks and nuns close to him would have had little trouble remembering such forms, especially allowing that many of them were enlightened and the subject matter would have been completely understood. The repetition in the Suttas would indicate the Buddha used the principle all teachers use: “tell them what you are going to say, then say it, then tell them what you have said.” The second source of repetition is the oral tradition itself, seen observed in oral literature all over the world. Each discourse that the Buddha gave would also have been the subject of later discussion by those present and to decide what form the discourse should later be taught in, the Sangha would have chosen how to condense what had been said, which superfluous matters to remove if any, and how to crystallise those aspects of the teaching repeatedly found - the four noble truths, restraint of the faculties, mindfulness, and so on. They would have been trying to couch the whole of the discourse into a set pattern conducive to memorisation, introducing as much repetition and reiteration as possible.

This would seem to suggest an organised structure of systematisation, but the teachings were not offered as a mechanistic, impersonal explanation. They were directed to a person, in a real situation, as advice on how to live. The whole purpose of the Buddha’s teaching was not to establish a metaphysical position or evolve some complex philosophy, but to lead individuals to see something about themselves. For example, in the Text he energetically refutes the accusation by Sunakkhata (a recently disrobed monk) that “the recluse Gotama teaches Dhamma on a system of his own devising, beaten out by reason, based on empirical knowledge.” However, even during the life of the Buddha, Sutta organisation must have been in an embryonic form and we see in the Text reference to “dhammadhara, vinayadhara, matikadhara”, (those who learn the teaching, the discipline and the summaries).

The Suttas never refer to themselves as nikayas, although we find reference to nine divisions of text; “Suttas, mixed prose and verse, expositions, verses, solemn utterances, sayings, birth stories, marvels and catechisms”. This system was probably more a reflection of the tradition of the times and ‘adopted’ rather than ‘invented’ by the Buddha’s disciples. It is quite probable that the senior disciples, and not the Buddha, were most concerned and instrumental in preserving various discourses. However, not long before his death, the Buddha exhorts Cunda: “those of you to whom I have taught the truths that I have realised, must come together and recite the teaching together - without quarrelling; comparing meaning with meaning and sentence with sentence, in order that this pure doctrine may exist and continue for a long time”. One must assume that by this time quite specific things to ‘recite and compare’ had been formulated.

As time passed the Sangha would have dispersed and each group of monks would have had its stock of favourite Suttas, both by way of subject and style. Most communities would have had within their ranks those who could recite one version or another of standard topics. Each group would have had an area of interest: for example, the monks at Kosambi would relate to the discourses given there, those having problems with anger would have had special interest in Suttas on this topic, nuns would have had a special interest in teachings about nuns, and so forth. So with probably no major planning or discussion, collections of discourses came to be grouped quite naturally.

The development of the scriptures as an oral form for so many centuries was partly due to an Indian preferrence for this style of transmission as much as it was to the shortage of a writing material suitable for such a voluminous work. With the Mauryan expansion southwards during the fourth to third centuries BCE came the development of the southern talipot palm (corypha umbraculifera) as a ‘mass produced’ material for writing. The palm leaf manuscript unleashed tremendous potential and was a focus for the exploration of techniques and trends not only of scriptural study and learning itself but also of calligraphy, painting, metalwork and carving. Being able to produce a tangible, permanent record of a scripture also manifested levels of social prestige as objects reveal things about their owners and makers both during and long after their lives. This tended to have a two-edged effect - on the one hand there was sponsorship for scholarly works, on the other there was an inclination to promote ‘popular’ (cult) trends.

- The form of a palm leaf manuscript was fairly quickly established and remains a consistent, shared, universal style: leaves, a hole in each, are stacked and bound into covers (of varying materials) with cord(s) over which the leaves are flipped.

- Making a manuscript was no easy matter. Typically, the leaves were cut from the tree, boiled and then smoothed out, dried, stacked, cut to size, polished, hole punched and burnished - all this before any writing even began. The prepared leaves were then scratched / incised with styluses (the stylus, and its manufacture, was an important artistic craft in its own right). The incised lines and letters were then ‘inked’ - rubbed with powdered graphite or other minerals (or charcoal) - and when the leaves were again polished the letters appeared in a bold black or blue. As is seen in fine books today, manuscripts of a high quality sometimes include dividers of uninked leaves to protect fine work.

- Different periods and different cultures produced their own distinctive rendering of the palm leaf style. Burmese manuscripts are often lacquered with the base tending to be cloth or other fine natural fibres. Wooden covers would still commonly be used for their strength in protecting the fragile lacquer. Tibet and much of ancient Central Asia lacked a ready supply of palm leaves and often substituted birchbark and later, paper In Sri Lanka, two types of palm leaf are seen used in manuscripts - tal kola, a small but heavy (durable) leaf, and pus kola, a broad and long but thin (fragile) leaf. The palm leaf itself has remained the essential requirement of a book.

- The greatest limitation of the natural leaf is its size. Various examples of composite work can be found but the difficulty that begins to arise with anything too complex is apparent. With the advent of paper - about 5thC CE - the first development was the scroll but this gave way to the folding-leaf style book which was a precursor to the modern, bound book. It is still popular today with long sheets folded into a concertina shape with pages being glued on as necessary. Even with a modern book we talk of a page as a ‘leaf’ - ‘leafing through the book’.

- Other difficulties include reproduction - everything is done by hand; lengthy base material production; limited seasonal material ‘harvesting’; relatively thick ‘pages’ make for quite large volumes and on account of this storage of major works like the Ti-pitika are a significant matter - see ‘library’ thumbnail above. When considering all this it is amazing to contemplate the huge volumes of work that were transcribed onto palm leaves. More wonderous still is the number of these delicate pages that has survived. Even so - time to develop other materials.

This item considers several materials (other than palm leaves) that have been used to record the Buddhist scriptures over the years. The range of substances - singular and composite - and variety of techniques employed is considerable but they all have one purpose - to convey aspects of a teaching that lead to liberation. One of the most significant considerations when choosing a material is its durability. It is curiously common to find that the more enduring elements are either quite expensive or difficult to work. Even with the development of modern technology this is still relatively true.

- Stone was probably the original ‘canvas’ on which man drew with cave paintings being the earliest (surviving). The material is commonly available but it is quite difficult to work the surface with any degree of detail. Weight is also a problem, seriously limiting distribution. Although there are earlier examples of Buddhist scriptures on stone - e.g. stupa ornamentation - King Asoka’s rock edicts c. 250 BCE were probably the first ‘scripture’ which was widely distributed. Although the text is not visible here is a link to a picture of the pillar raised by Asoka at Lumbini.

- The use of stone as a medium of expression was extensive during the Buddha’s life with a high degree of ornamentation becoming increasingly apparent as support for the Sangha extended however the use of text was often only employed for recording the names of various donors to the work. One form that presents a kind of ‘cosmology’ is the footprint, with many arcane symbols being presented for study.

- A relatively common medium was terra-cotta. It is both cheap and easily worked and, if well fired, reasonably durable. Tiles were often used as ornament on either buildings or stupas, with primarily pictorial content - perhaps with a short passage of scripture as ‘caption’. Another use of terra-cotta. was as seals; a device employed by institutions and administrative bodies to make a consistent mark. Perhaps the most common votive object was the impressed terra-cotta. plaque, which typically showed a variety of traditional symbols with a short teaching inscribed. Small terra-cotta. stupas were commonly pressed from molds and would often have a small area given to a brief inscription.

- The use of metal was not uncommon at the time of the Buddha but the most predominant form was iron and the quality made it unsuitable for either casting or engraving texts. The silver and gold smiths of the time were renowned and copper was also in use but such material was expensive and generally reserved for the wealthy. Its use as a script medium was severely limited and restricted to important documents and to ‘master’ plates - either for ensuring the original text was stored or as a printing plate.

- Examples of ivory used purely for text are rare. Here is a Burmese leaf [?] - (bottom right). The thumbnail - top left - is a detail of an ivory palm leaf book cover.

- Cloth was in use well before the Buddha but it seems it was the Chinese who largely developed silk as an art medium. The only example of Indian or SE Asian text on cloth I found was a pen-inked (not brushed), chalk-embedded silk imitation of a palm leaf which had not weathered well. Most Chinese examples are predominantly graphic with the text secondary. One cloth form that has become particularly common through the Tibetan tradition is the prayer flag. These are usually block printed in one colour on cotton cloth of either white or a plain, single colour. Here is a recent example made by children.

- Although not strictly a ‘scripture’ it is worth mentioning mandalas here. They are predominantly symbolic but convey a wide variety of sometimes quite complex information - acting as a kind of mnemonic.

- The material par excellence was and is paper. According to tradition it was first made in 105 CE by Ts’ai Lun, a eunuch attached to the Eastern Han court of the Chinese emperor Ho Ti. The material used was probably the bark of the mulberry tree. The earliest known paper still in existence was made from rags about AD 150. For approximately 500 years the art of paper making was confined to China, but in 610 it was introduced into Japan, and into Central Asia about 750. Paper made its appearance in Egypt about 800 but was not manufactured there until 900. [Papyrus is not strictly paper - being made of moistened, sliced reeds laid lengthwise, with other layers laid crosswise. This ‘mat’ was then pressed and the dried sap held it together.]

- Printing from carved wood blocks was invented in China in the 6th CE. The first known book printed from wood blocks was a Chinese edition of the Diamond Sutra c. 868. The Tipitaka, which ran to more than 130,000 pages, was block-printed in 972. Printing from reusable blocks was a much more efficient method of reproducing a work than was copying by hand, but each block took a long time to carve and was limited to that one work. In the 11th century the Chinese invented movable type but they made little use of it because the great number of Chinese characters required made it impracticable.

- The paper scroll was the most significant development beyond the palm leaf as both the size - and gradually texture, quality, etc., - could be controlled with some scrolls, undoubtedly joined, being over 10 metres long. The scroll gave way to the folded book which in turn produced more or less what we have now as the sewn and bound book.

- And last, but I am sure not least, we have what you are reading now - the digital book. Are we more wise on account of more words? I wonder.