When people hear that the Buddhist scriptures were orally transmitted for several centuries, they assume that they must be very unreliable. It is often said that the Tipiñaka was first committed to writing in Sri Lanka in about the 1st century BCE, but this is a misunderstanding. The source of this information is the ancient Sri Lankan chronicle, the Dãpavaüsa. But all this work says is that the Tipiñaka was first written in Sri Lanka at that time. It may well have been written down much earlier in India, and indeed there is good reason to believe it was. It is likely that this was done during the reign of King Asoka. This king was a devote Buddhist, he was very concerned that the Dhamma should be preserved and disseminated, and he made wide use of writing as a part of public policy. Everything we know about Asoka suggests that committing the Tipiñaka to writing would be the very thing he would have done. If this is correct, it would mean that about 200 years passed between the writing of the Tipiñaka and the Buddha's passing. However, the Ma¤jusrimålakalpa says the Tipiñaka was written down during the reign of Udàyibhadda, the son of King Ajàtasattu (tadetat pravacanaü ÷astu likhàpayiùyati vistaram). If this is correct, it would mean that the Tipiñaka was first written only about 30 years after the Buddha, when people who had actually met him were still alive.
Centuries before the Buddha, the brahmins, the hereditary priests of Brahmanism, had perfected ways of committing the Vedas to memory so they could be passed on to the next generation (itihàsa). The earliest Vedas, the èg Veda, date from between about 2000 and 1500 BCE and did not start being written until at least the 11th or 12th century CE. This means that they were orally transmitted for years nearly 3000 years. Despite this, linguists and Indologists agree that the Vedas reflect daily life, beliefs and language of the time they were composed, i.e. that they have been faithfully handed down. How was this done?
A brahmin's whole life was dedicated to becoming a living receptacle for the Vedas. Twelve years was given to learning each of the four Vedas by heart, a task taking 48 years altogether (Sn.289). Great attention was given to getting pronunciation, the intonation and the word order correct. Usually a father was the `passer on' of the sacred hymns and his son was the `receiver' of them (D.I,89). Many of the Buddha's disciples were brahmins and they brought to their new faith the mnemonic skills they had been educated in. These same skills were used to preserve the Buddha's sermons, talks and sayings. And like the Vedas, the suttas are clearly structured to be chanted. They are full of mnemonic devices Ý rhyming verses, repetitions, numbered lists, stereotyped phrases, etc.
Even before the Buddha's passing, monks and nuns would regularly chant the suttas in congregation (D.III,211). The Buddha gave advice on how this should be done. `If one of your fellow monk quotes the Dhamma in the assembly, and if you think he has got the meaning and the word order wrong, or the first right but the second wrong, or vice versa, you should neither accept it nor reject it. Rather, you should explain to him the correct meaning and the correct word order. But if one of your fellow monks quotes the Dhamma in the assembly, and if he gets both the meaning and the word order right, you should praise and applaud him and say ßExcellent! How blessed and fortunate we are to have you as a friend and companion in the spiritual life who is so well-versed in both the pronunciation and the word orderû.'(condensed, D.III,128-9). This made it difficult to add, delete or change anything in a sutta once it had been settled and committed to memory.
It is also important to realize that lay Buddhists had a role to play in orally transmitting the suttas too. The Buddha said he wanted not just his ordained disciples but also his lay men and women disciples to be `knowers of the Dhamma' so that they could `pass on' what they had learned to others (D.II,105). The Vinaya says that if a monk hears about a lay person who is dying and who knows a sutta that he doesn't, the monk should go and learn it before the lay person passes away (Vin.I,140-1). The lay disciple Ugga had both the Dhamma knowledge and the self-confidence to teach monks on occasion (A,IV,208 ff) as did the lay man Citta (S.IV,284-5). In the absence of a learned monk Hatthaka knew enough Dhamma to convert and instruct large numbers of the people in his town (A.IV,219).
Inscriptions from Sanchi mention lay men and women who knew suttas (i.e. by heart) and sometimes whole collections of suttas. The Divyàvadàna mentions some travelling merchants getting up before dawn to chant the Udàna, the Theragàthà and selections from the Sutta Nipàta `in their entirety'. Whether they chanted these texts as they read them from a book or whether they did it from memory, we do not know.
The tradition of committing the Buddhist scriptures to memory has not entirely died out. There are still a few monks in Burma who can chant from memory the whole of the Tipiñaka. See Poetry.