Buddhist teachings were not systematically written down for 1000 years. So, people ask, how can we have any idea what the Buddha really taught?
Well, in fact we do have a very good idea. Writing was considered an inferior form of record keeping compared to recitation. The rote learning of recitation makes for a remarkably durable record.
Pretty much all cultures have used this method. In 186 British travellers to New Zealand witness Maori recitations that lasted a solid 3 days. Modern research even suggest Australian Aborigine records go back 7000 years :
Even today, many monks can recite by heart vast tracts of the teachings. In fact, all monks must learn this technique – it becomes something of a meditation, and a means to internalise the teachings. Personally I can recite about 3 hours of hours worth of Pali text from memory, if reciting together in a group.
While Theravada Buddhism (the Way of the Elders) purports to be the ‘original’ teaching, in fact there are a lot of interpretations, changes and later works in Theravada. Nonetheless, it does contain the oldest teachings, and is the first port of call for scholars trying to find out what the historical Buddha did or did not teach. Language analysis, verse meter, and stylistic variations can all guide us to the very oldest parts of the record. Further, in recent times there has been scholarly activity comparing the oldest version of Buddhism in the Chinese to the Pali texts, which again allows us to see where changes have been made.
Curiously, the Pali Canon was only written down in a systematic fashion (by Buddhagosa) around a thousand years after the Buddha, because there were not enough monks to maintain the recitation. He was worried the teachings would soon be lost.
We’ll be looking at some of these texts in the coming weeks
Meanwhile here is a brief primer on the Pali Canon, and the relative virtues and deficits of different forms of record keeping: