Chico State professor writes on Buddhist texts

By LARRY MITCHELL, Chico Enterprise Record, March 16, 2007

Chico State University, CA (USA) -- When professor Daniel Veidlinger told people he was going to study texts from northern Thailand's "golden period" of Buddhism, his friends wished him well.

They also expressed concern: how was he going to find any writings from 500 years ago? In Thailand's hot, humid climate, it seemed everything would have disintegrated.

Fortunately, they were wrong, Veidlinger said during a recent lecture at Chico State University, where he is a professor of religious studies.

Veidlinger showed slides of the Buddhist texts he found in Thailand. They were written on long palm leaves. The writers carved the letters into the leaves and then pushed soot into the carvings to create text that stood out. They strung the leaves together with string and stored them in secure boxes in "libraries" raised well off the ground to protect them from floods.

Veidlinger spoke Feb. 9 to more than 100 people in the first of four lectures this spring sponsored by Chico State's religious studies department.

He talked about his recently published book, "Spreading the Dhamma: Writing, Orality and Textual Transmission in Buddhist Northern Thailand."

He explained that in Pali, an ancient Indian language, "dhamma" means the same thing as "dharma."  The "dhamma" has two meanings, he said. It means the truth about the universe and also the teachings of the Buddha.

To make sure his listeners were at least a bit familiar with Buddhism, he quickly ran through the story of the Buddha.

According to legend, he said, the Buddha was a young prince who lived between India and Nepal probably in the 6th century B.C. He'd led a very sheltered life, never venturing beyond his family's compound. And so he'd never known about aging or sickness or death.

When he was 29, he left the palace grounds for the first time and soon encountered an old man, a sick person and then a human corpse. These things had to be explained to him, and he was horrified to learn he would be subject to these eventualities himself.

But then the Buddha met an old and happy wandering ascetic. He asked the old man about his happiness.

The man told him he realized the world was full of suffering and death, but that he was trying to find happiness by reaching beyond the known world.

"The Buddha decided to join this fellow and gave up all his possessions. He gave it all up to seek spiritual salvation," Veidlinger said.

In time, the Buddha came to understand the secret of happiness. He developed his core teachings, "the four noble truths," and gave thousands of lectures about this during his lifetime.

For his book, Veidlinger didn't study the teachings of Buddhism themselves but rather how these teachings were spread throughout Asia.

At first the Buddha's ideas were spread by word of mouth only. In the Buddha's time, there was no writing in India. When writing developed, about 250 B.C., the first Buddhist texts were written.

Even so, Veidlinger said, monks continued memorizing the thousands of pages of the Buddha's teachings so they could continue to be passed on orally, by chanting.

Veidlinger said he found there were two conflicting traditions. One group of monks felt writing would be the wave of the future and embraced it. The other group feared that writing down the teachings would cause the monks to lose prestige and influence.

"If a monk memorizes a lot of texts, that person becomes equivalent to the text and is honored and venerated," he said.

Writing was regarded as "a lower form of communication," he said.

Transmission through chanting was predominant for centuries and still is important today, according to Veidlinger.

"I concluded that even as late as 1500, the oral method of transmitting was the main way of transmitting," he said.