Preservation of the Dhamma

Revised October 28, 2017; November 11, 2017

  1. Buddha’s teachings were handed down mostly verbally from one generation to the next over three to four hundred years before it was written down in a comprehensive manner at the turn of the first century 2000 years ago in Matale, Sri Lanka.
  • The reason that it survived almost fully in content is due to the way it was composed into a form that is suitable for easy verbal transmission, in SUMMARY form in most cases; see, “Sutta – Introduction“.
  • Today, complete record of the Buddha’s teachings, the Pāli Canon, is preserved in the Tipitaka in 37 volumes, see, “Tipitaka PTS (Pali Canon English Translation)“. According to the above link, 33 volumes are available in English, but in my opinion many translations are not correct.

2. The discourses of the Buddha that were delivered in Māgadhi language were condensed and written down; this written form was called Pāli. But Pāli does not have its own script, so it was written down with Sinhala script.

  • This provides a clear way of sorting out the Mahāyāna literature, which was written in Sanskrit, and never written in Pāli; thus all the Sanskrit suttas were written by Mahāyānic philosophers.
  • Around the turn of the first millennium, translations of the Tipitaka to Chinese and subsequently to Tibetan also took place. Thus the original manuscripts in Pāli can be expected to contain most of the original discourses delivered by the Buddha.

3. Today, it is hard to fathom (especially for Westerners) that such level of accuracy could have been maintained in a verbally-transmitted material.

  • However, we need to understand the background traditions and also the determination of the monks over thousands of years that helped preserve most of the original teachings.
  • Even today, there are people who have memorized large sections of the Tipitaka, especially in Myanmar (formerly Burma). In Myanmar, there are special examinations to test these memorizations; see, “TIPITAKADHARA SAYADAWS OF MYANMAR ( BURMA ) IN FIVE DECADES“.  Also see, “Memorizing the Tipitaka“.
  • During the period of oral transmission, there were groups of bhukkhus who memorized (overlapping) sections of the Tipitaka. Then during a Sangāyanā (Buddhist Council), they all got together and compared each others versions to make sure they were all compatible.
  • A major reason for the assembly of the First Buddhist Council within three months of the Buddha’s Parinibbāna was to organize the vast material. Within the next two hundred years, two more Councils were held to recite and verify the teachings, and to finalize the Tipitaka in three broad categories (“ti” + “pitaka” or “three baskets”).

4. A critical point here is that a sutta is a CONDENSED version of a discourse in many cases. For example, the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana sutta was delivered to the five ascetics overnight. Imagine how many written pages that would be if written verbatim! Yet it was summarized in a few pages. The same is true for all the important suttas. Otherwise it would have been impossible to transmit all those thousands of suttas.

  •  The Buddha delivered most of his discourses in the Māghadhi (māghadhi = “maga” + “adhi” or Noble path) language. Tipitaka was written in Pāli with Sinhala script; Pāli is a version of Māghadhi suitable for writing down oral discourses in summary form suitable for transmission.
  • Each Pāli word is packed with lot of information, and thus commentaries (called “attha katha“) were written to expound the meaning of important Pāli words, and to explain the key phrases in the suttas.
  • Thus the Tipitaka was meant to be used with the commentaries. Pāli suttas are not supposed to be translated word-by-word;  see, “Sutta – Introduction“.
  • Most of those Sinhala commentaries were burned down in the Anuradhapura era; see, “Incorrect Theravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline“.
  • Fortunately, three original commentaries written by the main disciples of the Buddha (Ven. Sariputta, Ven. Kaccayana, etc) during the time of the Buddha had been included in the Tipitaka (in the Khuddhaka Nikāya), and thus survived. The current revival of pure Dhamma by the two Theros in Sri Lanka is partially due to their perusal of these three documents (Patisambhidamagga, Petakopadesa, and Nettippakarana).

5. With the loss of most of the commentaries and the non-prominence of the surviving three commentaries mentioned above, people started translating the Tipitaka word by word. The problem was compounded by the increase usage of the Sanskrit language beginning around the first century CE.

  • For example, “anicca” was translated first to Sanskrit as “anitya” and then the same Sanskrit word “anitya” was ADOPTED as the Sinhala translation for anicca. Similarly, “anatta” was translated to Sanskrit as “anāthma” and again was adopted as the Sinhala word for “anatta“. This itself has been responsible for preventing millions of people attaining Nibbāna for all these years; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“.
  • Another good example is the translation of paticca samuppāda to Sanskrit as Pratītyasamutpāda; see,  “Paticca Samuppada – “Pati+ichcha”+”Sama+uppäda”.   I think it is NOT POSSIBLE to translate some key Pāli words to Sanskrit or English or any other language without losing the true meaning.  This is the reason that I am going to just keep the original words in some cases and just explain what it is; also see, “Annantara and Samanantara Paccaya” or words like tanhā and Nibbāna.

6. The Buddha had foreseen this and warned not to TRANSLATE the Tipitaka to ANY LANGUAGE, and particularly to Sanskrit. There were two Brahmins by the names of Yameḷa and Kekuṭa who were experts on the Vedic Texts; they became bhikkhus and asked the Buddha whether they should translate the Pali suttas to Sanskrit.

  • That is when the Buddha admonished them that Sanskrit was a language with musical overtones developed by the high-minded Brahmins and thus it was not possible to convey the true meanings of Maghadhi (Pali) words in Sanskrit; see, Chulavagga 5.33.
  • In the Sutta Central English translation, the Pali word for Sanskrit (chandasa) is translated incorrectly as, “metrical”; see, “15. Minor matters (Khuddaka)” which is the translation of “1. Khuddakavatthu“. The relevant Pali text is located close to the end, and starts as, “Tena kho pana samayena yameḷakekuṭā nāma…”.

7. One grave problem we have today is the many people try to translate a given sutta word by word to another language. Thus the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana sutta that we mentioned above is translated to a few pages.

8. Another important point is that even up to the 20th century, the whole Tipitaka was written on specially prepared ola (palm) leaves. They deteriorate over 100 years or so and needed to be re-written. Even though that was a very labor-intensive process (there are about 60 large volumes in the modern printed version of the Tipitaka), it served another important purpose.

  • Sinhala language (both spoken and written) changed over the past 2000 years. The need to re-write it every 100 or so years made sure that the changes in Sinhala script was taken into account; of course Pāli language has not changed at all.
  • The following video gives an idea about how those leaves were prepared and what tools were used to write with:

9. Finally, just before the Sinhala commentaries were burned down, Buddhaghosa translated and edited those commentaries back to Pāli in his Visuddhimagga and other books.

Timeline of Preparation of Dhamma Suitable for Transmission

The following a summary of the technical details that may not be of interest to many. It is for the sake of completeness.

Shortly after the Buddha passed away, Ven. Mahakassapa, the de facto head of the Sangha, selected five hundred monks, all Arahants (those who have attained Nibbāna), to meet and compile an authoritative version of the teachings. This first Buddhist council was held three months after the Parinibbāna at Rājagaha the capital of Māgadha. The cullavagga, one of the books of the Pāli Vinaya Pitaka, gives an account of how the authorized texts were compiled at the First Buddhist Council: On the basis of Venerable Upali’s recitation of Vinaya, the Vinaya Pitaka, the compilation on disciplinary matters was compiled. Venerable Ananda then recited “the Dhamma” or the Sutta Pitaka, i.e., the discourses, and on the basis of this recitation the Sutta Pitaka, the Compilation of Discourses, was compiled (Venerable Ananda was supposed to have an amazing memory and had memorized all the Suttas preached by the Buddha). The Abhidamma was rehearsed by all the Arahants present at the Council. Although parts of the Abhidhamma were recited at these earlier Buddhist Councils, it was not until the Third Council that it became fixed into its present form as the third and final Pitaka of the Canon.

  • The proceedings of the Third Council compiled by the Moggaliputta-tissa thera in the Kathavatthu, that became part of the Tipitaka (Three Baskets). It was during the Third Council that the final version of the Tipitaka (as available today) was compiled. It finalized the Abhidhamma pitaka, and added several books on the Khuddhaka Nikāya, in addition to the Kathavatthu.

The composition of the Tipitaka is as follows:

1. The Vinaya Pitaka is composed of five books: Major Offenses (Prajika Pāli), Minor Offenses (Pacittiya Pāli), Greater Section (Mahavagga Pāli), Smaller Section (Culavagga Pāli), and Epitome of the Vinaya (Parivara Pāli).

2. The Sutta Pitaka consists of five Nikāyas: Digha Nikāya (Collection of Long Discourses), Majjhima Nikāya (Collection of Middle-Length Courses), Samutta Nikāya (Collection of Kindred Sayings), Anguttara Nikāya (Collection of Discourses arranged in accordance with number), and Khuddaka Nikāya (Smaller Collection).

3. The Abhidamma Pitaka consists of the following categories: Dhamma Sangani (Classification of Dharmas), Vibhanga (The Book of Divisions), Kathavatthu (Points of Controversy) which was actually compiled by venerable Moggaliputta Tissa at the Third Buddhist Council, Puggala Pannatti (Description of Individuals), Dhatukatha (Discussion with Reference to Elements), Yamaka (The Book of the Pairs), and Patthana (The Book of Relations).

  • Again, all these 37 books are collectively termed the Tipitaka (Three Baskets) or the Pāli Canon.

It is this enlarged Canon completed at the Third Council that was committed to writing in Sri Lanka in the first century BCE (29 BCE) at the Aluvihara Monastery at the Fourth Buddhist Council. The material in Pāli was written down in Sinhala language (Pāli does not have its own script). This huge collection was written down on palm leaves with a stilo, a pointed steel dagger-like instrument, which scratched the letters into the soft leaves. An ink made from berries was rubbed over the whole page and then gently removed, so that only the indentations retained the color. It is said that Tipitaka was also written down on gold leaves as well.

  • It must be mentioned that Theravada Buddhism was brought to Burma and Thailand from Sri Lanka in the first century CE; over the next two centuries it diffused into adjoining countries of Laos, and Cambodia, and survives in its purity in those countries as well  to the present day. (In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970’s massacred most of the monks, and the Buddha Dhamma is virtually extinct).
  • While the Sangha (with the aid of most of the kings) in Sri Lanka took pride and honor in keeping the teachings intact, Buddhism went through many changes in India, as well as in China, Japan, and Tibet, and then finally disappeared altogether from India around 1200 CE.

Next, “Historical Timeline of David Conze“, ……….

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