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According to Wikipedia, in the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali canon there are 10.000 sutras. According to tradition, Ananda recited by heart all 10.000 sutras after the death of Gautama and they have been memoriesed and recited regularly by monks, for many centuries, before they were written down.

So my questions is: how is it possible to memorise and recite regularly 10.000 sutras? Is it realistic to think it happened like that or is there another explanation about how the sutras have been transmitted and written down?

I hope the question is clear.

I’m asking this because if I try to image today’s monks memorise and recite 10.000 sutras it seems something out of reality. My guess is that only very few people would have the ability to do that. So I struggle to imagine how they could have done it for centuries. But maybe I am missing something and there is an explanation that I cannot see.

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    As an FYI: human memory and attention span has decreased significantly with modern mass media. Keep in mind that an old-time bard would have memorized any number of epic poems the length of the Odyssey and Iliad (and be expected to recite them on demand), and to this day the Qu'ran is still primarily taught through rote memorization. People are capable of memorizing far more than one might imagine; there's just little incentive to do so these days. – Ted Wrigley Aug 24 at 3:17
  • @TedWrigley Yes although Why isn't there a Buddhist Bible? suggests that the Buddhist texts are 10 times longer than the Bible. – ChrisW Aug 24 at 5:42
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The way the Pali Canon was transmitted was by oral tradition. The composition is in a poetic form, using mnemonic formulae for memorization and recitation. The recitation would have also served a ritualistic or ceremonial purpose. Even the tradition says that in the First Buddhist Council, Ananda and Upali recited the suttas and the vinaya.

Please see "Pali Oral Literature" by L.S. Cousins. I quote below:

Early Buddhist literature is an oral literature. Such a literature is not without its own characteristic features. A widespread use of mnemonic formulae is one of the most typical of these. I would refer to the considerable body of research on the nature of oral epic poetry. In such poetry the formulae are used both as an aid to actual performance and to maintain the continuity and form of the epic tradition.

Both these features are certainly present in the sutta literature. In the first place many suttas are clearly designed for chanting. We should assume that, then as now, their chanting would produce a great deal of religious emotion - the pamojja and piti-somanassa of the texts. The difference of course would be that the language of the suttas would still be directly comprehensible to the hearers. In these circumstances suttas would be chanted by individual monks both for edification and for enjoyment. We may compare the recitations attributed to Ananda and Upali in accounts of the First Council. In practice they would have to be tailored to the needs of the particular situation ~ shortened or lengthened as required. An experienced chanter would be able to string together many different traditional episodes and teachings so as to form a coherent, profound and moving composition.

I believe that the monks edited and reorganized the Pali suttas over centuries to make them have mnemonic formulae and they also modified similar stanzas to become exactly identical - which is why you can find some standard formulae repeated in multiple suttas. This made it easier to memorize, recite and transmit. This is explained below.

From section 3.2 of the book "The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts" by Bhikkhu Sujato & Bhikkhu Brahmali:

For several hundred years, from the time that separate transmission lineages emerged in the Asokan period until the texts were written down, the EBTs were passed down orally in separate textual lineages. Comparative studies have shown that this oral transmission was highly reliable and that the core doctrinal material was essentially unchanged. How did this work,given what we know about the unreliability of memory? Indian culture provided the template for highly reliable oral preservation. It is known that the Ṛg Veda and other Vedic texts were transmitted orally—that is,by memory—with extreme accuracy for over two thousand years.

In his comprehensive study of the Majjhima Nikāya, Anālayo considers the impact of oral transmission and concludes: “At the same time, ratherthan giving us a completely new picture of early Buddhism, what my comparative study of the parallels to the Majjhima Nikāya discourses yields is a reconfirmation of the essentials, with occasional divergence in details.”

In the field of oral literature, there is a distinction between texts that are to be memorised verbatim, as in the Buddhist and Vedic traditions, and those which serve as springboards for storytelling, as in oral folk traditions.

The latter are subject to natural evolution and variation; they are meant to adapt to the teller and the situation. Such, according to Oldenberg, are also found in Buddhist literature, specifically in the Jātaka collection of the Khuddaka Nikāya. But the former, which are codified and fixed texts, are meant to be preserved in exact form, as in the case of the EBTs.

The Indian oral culture developed various methods to ensure that this was achieved. Such methods pervade every aspect of the EBTs, and include:

  1. Repetitions of words, phrases, passages and whole Suttas;
  2. Standardisation of words, phrases and passages;
  3. The use of synonyms;
  4. The use of the waxing syllable principle;
  5. Sound similarities;
  6. Concatenation of Suttas or other textual units;
  7. Formal structures, especially ABA;
  8. “Summary” and “exposition”, which is a standard feature of Indian oral education;
  9. Framing narratives to define the limits and give the context for the spoken material;
  10. Verse summaries of prose teachings (especially in the Aṅguttara);
  11. Similes (usually in an ABA structure);
  12. Numbered lists;
  13. Group recitals.

From this page, we find the story about Ananda's eidetic memory, but I could not find the original source for it.

Shakyamuni Buddha had a famous disciple, Venerable Ananda, who bore the nickname of “The Learnt Man”. As Venerable Ananda has a rare ability, an eidetic memory, he could remember every word of Buddha’s teachings. Because of his special talent, many often asked Buddha what good deeds Venerable Ananda had done in his past life to deserve such a blessing.

Buddha replied, “Ananda’s eidetic memory was a result of the accumulation of good deeds in his past life.”

He explained, “Several lives ago, a master monk demanded his novice monk to memorise all the sutras he was taught and would be reprimanded or punished if he did not meet the master monk’s expectation. On a fateful day, the novice monk received no food offering all morning and became worried, as spending more time on the streets would mean less time to study his sutras. In desperation, he started weeping. An elder approached this novice monk to show his concern, and after learning of his difficulty, he told the novice monk to go to his house for food in his subsequent days. Having secured a source of food offering, the novice monk could spend most of his time learning his sutras.”

Putting the story into perspective, Buddha said, “The master monk was Buddha Dipamkara, the novice monk was me, and the benevolent elder is the Ananda today. Ananda’s good karmic deeds had gained him his eidetic memory in his present life, which allows him to remember every word of dharma preaching.”

Also, from "The Life of Ananda, Guardian of the Dhamma" by Hellmuth Hecker and Ven. Nyanaponika Thera:

In selecting Ananda as the treasurer or guardian of his Dispensation, the Buddha had chosen one whose personal qualities coincided perfectly with the demands of the post. By virtue of his devotion to learning, Ananda was ideally suited to receive the manifold teachings delivered over a forty-five-year period; by virtue of his phenomenal memory, he could retain them in mind exactly as spoken by the Master; by virtue of his sense of order, he could be relied on to preserve them in the correct sequence and to explain them in such a way that the structure of ideas accorded with the Buddha’s intention; and by virtue of his steadfastness, he would so endeavor that the pupils under his charge would receive the teachings fully and be properly trained so that they in turn could pass them on to their own pupils.

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I’m asking this because if I try to image today’s monks memorise and recite 10.000 sutras it seems something out of reality. My guess is that only very few people would have the ability to do that. So I struggle to imagine how they could have done it for centuries. But maybe I am missing something and there is an explanation that I cannot see.

Actually 10,000 suttas are still a very small subset of the vast amount of data out there. Kim Peek, a megasavant, who was the inspiration for the autistic savant character Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rain Man, was also known as the living Google, for his extraordinary ability to memorize unimaginably large amount of data and information. Of course it's rare to see many monks possessing the brain power like that of Mr. Peek or Ven. Ananda, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to memorize such quantity of data in the suttas. Also, it'd only take a few monks with such ability per generation to act as human databases to preserve and pass on the data to the next generations, which is possible and doable. And even in the worst case scenario where there's no supersavant to memorize it all, the suttas can be divided up into smaller chunks so that a team of monks can memorize portions of if, instead of 1 single man memorizing it all.

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In the University I knew many people who knew by heart a book or two:

The books that we used most often. When we talk about them we either quoted exactly what we all have read, or if someone deviated from the exact words of the quoted passage, few other usually correct him... So, books used and discussed every day for year or two by a group of people are memorisable! If the book is lost or absent it can be restored by such a group of adepts.

There is a story about losing the complete collection of the Old Testament books before the Christian era: All texts was completely restored mot-à-mot by a Prophet's students (Ezra as I remember) who inquired and readed those books absolutely every day many years. Without doubt 100% restored, because those scholars knew even the number of each book's letters, even they the central letter of each book was known, as well as the first and the last. They were always interested in no changes in those books due to falsification or unintended mistakes of rewriting.

It's quite possible and achievable for most of contemporary scholars, who inquire intensively few cardinal books for more than year, to quote them exactly mot à mot ... They even don't notice it and don't render it as unusual or miraculous, since they are more concerned with the exact words than with some kind of pride: Human heart can remember what it loves !!!

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  • Maybe before the Pali canon was written down centuries after Ananda, there was many faculties of hundreds monks each dedicated to a certain section of the Tipitaka, generation after generation. Few Buddhist monasteries were as crowded as a contemporary University. It's not mandatory, excluding Ananda and his circle of recitators, that one person is expected to memorize completely a stack of Suttas and monastic rules as vast as Tipitaka is. Especially when it comes to rules, everybody can remember whether certain rule forbids or allows in peculiar casus. As to Suttas — You easily can notice tha – user39690 Aug 23 at 20:35
  • As to Suttas — you easily can notice that the arrangement of the Pali Suttas is mnemonic. The Buddha was fast thinker and speed speaker. Each short Sutta is few minutes long: Greetings—Question—Answer—Blessings. Longer Suttas are lectures on important epoché. But I doubt Buddha spoke in such circular mnemonic (written) manner ...Nothing to add about Mahayana sutras ... :-) except that they're obviously fantastic novels: without a trace of the Pali Tipitaka mnemonic system ;;-) It's rediculous that they insist on being as ancient as Tipitaka and mock on "limited" Theravadin canon. ;;-) – user39690 Aug 23 at 20:47
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According to Wikipedia, in the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali canon there are 10.000 sutras. According to tradition, Ananda recited by heart all 10.000 sutras after the death of Gautama and they have been memoriesed and recited regularly by monks, for many centuries, before they were written down.

That is just a subset. Actually, we have been reciting and memorizing corresponding Atthakatha, too. It is the order in Vinaya Rule to recite and it is automatic reaction after enlightenment because one agrees to memorize more detail when one realized the real benefit from something.

So my questions is: how is it possible to memorise and recite regularly 10.000 sutras? Is it realistic to think it happened like that or is there another explanation about how the sutras have been transmitted and written down?

Yes, it have been being like that for 2500+ years because there is the order to do, and it is automatic reaction after enlightenment.

It is not just a myth because I still doing this myself, some sutta, even I am not a noble one. And there still be many Suttas memorizers nowadays, some are well known in The Guinness Book of Records of 1985 but some are not well known. However, every Theravada monks must recite and memorize follow to Vinaya Rules.

I’m asking this because if I try to image today’s monks memorise and recite 10.000 sutras it seems something out of reality.

You can't do because the ordinaries have too many duties, activities, favorites to do for 5 strings, but the noble ones have only one main thing left to do--practice follow the Buddha's teaching. Even the lay noble ones, they use 5 strings follow to the Buddha's teaching as well, so it is impossible if they can't memorize the Buddha's teaching actually.

The reality is not what you can thinking of or not. The reality is what is happening in real life. And the tipitaka memorizers (or some part) still alive, so this is real.

My guess is that only very few people would have the ability to do that. So I struggle to imagine how they could have done it for centuries. But maybe I am missing something and there is an explanation that I cannot see.

As some part which I wrote which I translated from Vinaya Pitaka and Commentary:

Qualities of nissayamuccaka-bhikkhu (teaching lay people)

  1. Proficient to recite pāṭimokkha-pāli and to understand it's commentary.
  2. Proficient to recite and to understand 4 bhāṇavāra (~1,000 syllable) of sutta and their commentary, to teach laymen on uposatha day.
  3. Proficient to recite and to understand sutta for bhikkhu's life such as andhakavindasutta, mahālahulovādasutta, ambaṭṭhasutta, etc.
  4. Proficient to recite and to understand sutta for teaching in 3 chances: banquet for saṅgha by layman (nidhikaṇdasutta), funeral ceremony (tirokuṭṭasutta), and auspicious ceremony (maṅgalasutta).
  5. Enough understand to judge/to decide about saṇgha's ceremony such as uposatha, pavāraṇā, etc.
  6. Proficient to recite and to understand his kammaṭṭhānā throughout the nibbāna-course.
  7. 5 years experience in monk hood as a monk.

Qualities of bhikkuparisūpaṭṭhāpaka-bhikkhu (teaching bikkhus)

If above layman's teachers want to teach bhikkhus (ūpajjhā-ācāriya, nissaya-ācāriya), they must increase their skill level to all of the following qualities.

These are for abhivinaya teaching:

  1. Proficient to recite mahāvibhagha and bhikkhunivibhaṅga (first 3 books of thai 45 books pali-tipitaka) of vinaya-pitaka-pali. At least, he can relay with the other 3 bhikkhu. Proficient to understand it's commentary, too.
  2. Proficient to recite all saṇgha's ceremony in vinaya-pitaka mahāvagga and julavagga.
  3. Proficient to recite 14 vatta in vattakhandhaka.

These are for abhidhamma (kammaṭṭhāna) teaching:

  1. Proficient to recite one of this suttanta-pali: mūlapaṇṇassa (1st/3 parts of M.N.) for student in M.N. faculty, mahāvagga (2nd/3 parts of D.N.) for student in D.N. faculty, sagāthavagga+nidānavagga+khandhavāravagga of S.N. or mahāvagga of S.N. for student in S.N. faculty, before half of A.N. or after half of A.N. or ekakanipāta+dukanipāta of A.N. for student in A.N. faculty, jātaka+commentary (because kammaṭṭhāna was described in commentary) for student in jātaka faculty.

Qualities of bhikkunovdaka-bhikkhu (teaching bhikkunīs)

If above layman's teachers want to teach bhikkhunī, they must increase their skill level to all of these qualities:

  1. Proficient to recite whole tipitaka-pali and commentary-pali. Or at least, he still must recite whole tipitaka, but he can recite just one commentary of suttanta, first 4 parts of commentary of 7 parts of abhidhamma. However, vinaya-commentary is what he must recite it all.

Reference: tipitaka and commentary of vinaya pācittiyakaṇḍa bhikkhunovādakasikkhāpada and vinaya mahāvagga mahākhandhaka.


Related topic: https://buddhism.stackexchange.com/a/22917/10100

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    See also dhammaweb.net/mingun.html which describes how Ven. Mingun Sayadaw memorised the books -- what techniques he used -- although that (i.e. "how to memorise what you read") is not the same as "how to memorise what you hear". – ChrisW Aug 24 at 5:45

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