When and where was the Tipitaka first written?
Posted on May 2nd, 2017

Bhante S. Dhammika Australia Courtesy The Island

In an article I wrote for The Island and which was published on 21st April 2017, I highlighted several well-known details about the life of the Buddha, which most Buddhists assume come from the Tipitaka, but which in fact cannot be found there. I went on to suggest that some of these stories may well have been created centuries after the Buddha. Several people have responded to this article, including Dr. Chandre Dharmawardene of Canada. In his response he mentions that the Tipitaka was first committed to writing in the 1st century BCE at Aluvihara in Sri Lanka. In saying this Dr. Dharamawardene is of course in accordance with generally accepted and oft repeated ‘fact.’ However, it is a ‘fact’ that I would like to reassess.

Firstly, where does this piece of information come from? It comes from the Dipavamsa and is, I think, repeated in the Mahavamsa also. Both these great Chronicles were composed in circa 3rd – 4th century and CE and 5th century CE respectively, that is, they are reporting an event that took place at least 500 years earlier. This is in itself no reason to doubt this information, but it is good to keep it in mind. A lot can happen in 500 years. But far more important than this, is that the chronicles are doing nothing more than reporting an event that took place in Sri Lanka; the committing of the Tipitaka to writing. For reasons that are not clear it is widely assumed that therefore this was the first time this had ever been done anywhere. But was it? Might it not have been written down in India, some time before this? Quite possible, indeed quite likely!

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I will be arguing from silence here, but nonetheless, I think there is good reason to assume that the Buddhist scriptures were first committed to writing in India during the Mauryan period, in particular, during the reign of King Asoka (268-232). Consider this – Asoka was a devoted Buddhist and very clearly he wanted the Dhamma to be as widely known as possible. To this end he sent religious delegations throughout India, to the West, to Suvanadvipa (probably southern Myanmar), and of course to Sri Lanka. Tradition says he built numerous stupas, a tradition backed up by archaeology, in that many Indian stupas are known to have been first built during the Mauryan period. Tradition also says that he convened a council to try to reform the Sangha, something hinted at in his Allahabad and Sarnath edicts. But even more significant, Asoka made wide use of writing in his public polity; in fact, his edicts are the oldest decipherable writing from India. As far as writing is concerned Asoka was an innovator. Further, in his edict of 256 BCE he urged monks “to listen to and remember” certain suttas from the Tipitaka, which he also named. In asking them “to listen to” certain suttas he may have been referring to listening to them being chanted, but he also may have meant listening to them being read out from a palm leaf book. In short, it is not a major jump from all this to saying that the Tipitaka was written during the reign of King Asoka.

But there is more. The so-called British Museum scrolls, extracts from the Tipitaka recently discovered in Afganistan, have been shown to date from about 100 BCE. This is conclusive proof that Indian Buddhists had already written down at least parts of the suttas by that time. And of course the task of doing this may well have begun earlier.

But there is yet more. In a Buddhist text called the Manjusrimulakalpa, it makes the startling claim that the Tipitaka was first written during reign of Udayibhadda, the son of King Ajatasattu. If this is correct, it would mean that the writing down of the Tipitaka took place only some 30 years after the Buddha. The Manjusrimulakalpa dates from about the 8th century CE, although there is little doubt that parts of it draw on much older material.

One big difference between ancient Sri Lankans and ancient Indians is that the former were fairly good record-keepers and the Indians were not. Further, vast amounts of information about ancient India that may have once existed have simply not survived; records written on palm leaf easily fall prey to termites, mould and damp. Our knowledge of the progress of Buddhism, particularly during its first 500 years, is extremely sketchy. Perhaps some Indian monks did write the Tipitaka and recorded the fact, but the record of it has not survived. The Dipavamsa, etc. did survive and it tells us of an event of enormous importance that took place in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BCE. But it tells us almost nothing about things that did or might have taken place in India. It was the recording Sri Lankan history, not the history of India, of which it probably knew little.

Bhante S. Dhammika

Australia

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