Boy Who Remembered Pāli Suttas for 1500 Years

November 21, 2018; April 25, 2020

Introduction

1. This is a true story about a boy (Dhammaruwan) who recited complex and lengthy Pāli suttā at five years of age, which sounded very different from current chantings. Furthermore, he remembers accounts of his previous life 1500 years ago, when he accompanied the famous Buddhaghosa on his trip to Sri Lanka.

  • Dhammaruwan was born on November 18, 1968, in Matale, Sri Lanka. At the age of about two years, he would sit in meditation and then start chanting. At times he would speak in a language not understood by his mother, who tried to hush him up.
  • His step-father encouraged the boy to continue and regularly made recordings of the chants.
  • These accounts come from the book, “Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research” by Bhikkhu Anālayō (2018), and  Skype interview with Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, 16th September 2014. Both Bhikkhus have had long-term interactions with Dhammaruwan.
Previous Life in India – 1500 Years Ago

2. According to Dhammaruwan’s memories, he learned the Pāli chants in a former lifetime in India, where he had been born as the son of a Brāhmin and trained in memorization of the Vedas. He had gone forth as a Buddhist monk and become a student of the eminent monk Buddhaghosa at Nālandā, India. For a historical timeline, see, “Buddhaghōsa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background.”

3. After being trained as a bhāṇaka (a reciter), he was chosen to accompany Buddhaghosa from India to Sri Lanka, together with other monks who had similarly been trained. Having come to Sri Lanka, he stayed with Buddhaghosa at the Mahāvihāra in Anurādhapura, of which he remembers various details.

  • These recordings of Dhammaruwan are strong evidence for rebirth. How could a child of age 3-5 even remember such complex Pāli words?
  • The way he recites the suttā — the way he pronounces Pāli words — is better than most bhikkhus today. But the recitals sound different from those that we hear these days; instead of monotonic chants of today, keywords stand out in this recital style.
  • One can see that Dhammaruwan, as an adult, chants just like any other adult today; see #6 below.
Recitals From 1500 Years Ago

4. Here is a youtube video of a few of his recitals:

Here are recordings of several suttā, with downloadable links:

Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta:

Download

Mahā Mangala, Ratana, and Karaniya Metta Suttas:

Download

Bojjhaṅga Sutta:

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Information From Bhikkhu Bodhi Interview

5. The following is an excerpt from the interview mentioned above with Bhikkhu Bodhi in 2104, which had a discussion on Dhammaruwan about a quarter of the way into the interview:

“There is almost no other rational explanation [apart from real past life memories] for how he could know these suttā. The skeptic might say he must have listened to monks chanting them over the radio. We might accept that explanation if he had recited the Metta Sutta (Sn 1.8), the Mangala Sutta (Sn 2.4), or the Ratana Sutta (Sn 2.1), or maybe even the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. But even that would be somewhat stretching the bounds of credulity: that a 3 or 5-year-old boy should be reciting the whole Dhammacakka Sutta (SN 56.11) just by listening to it on the radio, without any text in front of him. But as a 7 or 8-year-old he also chanted the entire Girimānanda Sutta (AN 10.60), and that is just so rarely chanted by monks on the radio. And then there is a recording of him reciting passages from the Patthāna, the book of conditional relations in the Abhidhamma. I didn’t compare his recitation with the text, because he doesn’t say which portion he’s reciting … the Patthāna consists of six or seven volumes of very repetitive text with just minor variations.

Then his intonation is very different from the contemporary Sri Lankan style of chanting. Just by listening, you can tell it’s coming from another era. It’s not the modern style of Sri Lankan chanting. And then there’s something very interesting. I don’t think anything has been published or spread around about this. Years ago I was listening to his recitation of the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) with the PTS Pāli edition in front of me, where they have footnotes with variant readings. I found that in a number of places where there were differences between the Sinhala and the Burmese script editions he was reciting in accordance with the Burmese script edition. But not always: there were a few places where there were differences, and he was following the Sinhala edition. But in maybe 65% of the cases where there was a difference, he was following the Burmese script edition”.

“Old Recital Ability” Lost at Age Twelve

6. Dhammaruwan lost this ability to recite in this particular fashion after about 12 years of age. These days, when he chants the same suttā, he recites them just like current bhikkhus recite them.

  • Even in those early years, he was not able to recite in that “special way” at any time. According to Bhikkhu Bodhi: ” You know, you’d ask him, “Ruwan recite such and such a text,” and he was not able to do it. But occasionally he would say to his adopted father, Bertie: “Uncle, uncle, I’m starting to remember. I’m starting to remember!” Then Bertie would get the tape recorder and set it up and record his recitation.”
  • Therefore, the ability to recite that way was not there all the time, even in those early years.
  • Now, of course, he has lost those memories and recites those suttā just like anyone else recites them these days.

Here is a recording of the Karaniya Metta Sutta as an adult (chanting starts @2 minutes):

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Related Information

7. Bhikkhu Anālayō’s book has complete transcripts of all the recorded suttā that Dhammaruwan recited; see, pp. 167-237.

In the following video, a child describes her life as a deva during the time of the Buddha (in Sinhala.) She says the Buddha was different than depicted in the current statues @21 minutes).

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