Inquiring Mind: What are the origins of “audio dharma” in the Buddhist tradition?
Ajahn Amaro: The very embodiment of the teachings revolved from the beginning around speech, hearing and then rote learning or recitation. Although it was suggested by two brahmins that the teachings be written down, the Buddha said no. This stipulation of an oral transmission insured that his teachings remained in the public domain, since only an extremely small percentage of people could read in those days. The Buddha wanted the teachings to be a freely accessible bank of knowledge and guidance for everyone to draw upon, wherever they came from and whatever their walk of life.
IM: Why do the suttas begin with “Evam me sutam,” or “Thus have I heard”?
AA: That’s the voice of Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant for twenty-five years. In a way Ananda is the patron saint of audio dharma. He had perfect recall and could recite all of the Dhamma teachings and exchanges without error. Casting the teachings in the form of “what Ananda heard,” rather than as divine revelation, suggests a very open spirit. If they are helpful, use them. If not, leave them aside.
IM: All these oral teachings have now been written down. Is there any difference between reading them and hearing them?
AA: Well, if you’re reading the scriptures, it’s easy to think, “No one talks like that,” especially if the Buddha is said to repeat five or six paragraphs verbatim, with only one or two words changed at a time. But it’s important to understand that this massively repetitive stylization helped to facilitate rote learning. It also gives the teachings a rhythmic, musical quality that carries a strength and somehow helps the contents to sink in fluidly and easily. That’s why some people say: I can’t read the Pali scriptures comfortably, but if I speak them out loud, then they really sink in.
IM: Without tapes and CDs and the web, what was the distribution process for the earliest audio dharma?
AA: There was a different kind of web—a network of faith. People would come and listen to the teachings and then learn to recite sections of them—like the Dhammapada or the discourses of the Majjhima Nikaya, or whatever was important or useful to them. Then they would teach their children, students or novices, and in due course, the teachings would be passed along generation to generation. So the process of listening, learning and repeating was the way the Dhamma spread.
IM: Of course, one could memorize the entire Pali Canon and not necessarily realize the teachings.
AA: As the Buddha said, you could be sitting by my side, hanging on to the edge of my robe, but if your heart is filled with greed, hatred and delusion, it’s as if you’re many leagues away. But someone who is far away practicing the Eightfold Path, who is free of greed, hatred and delusion, it’s as if they were sitting face-to-face with the Tathagata.
Listen to Inquiring Mind‘s audio offerings, including Ajahn Amaro in conversation with Dennis Crean, discussing monastic perspectives on “the tough stuff”—money, sex, power—by clicking here.