Authority and Orality in the Mahāyāna

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Abstract

The Mahāyāna sūtras, acknowledged by scholars to have been composed centuries after the death of the Buddha, almost invariably begin with the stock phrase, “thus did I hear,” thereby maintaining the conceit of orality. The paper explores the role of this orality as it figures in strategies of authority for the Mahāyāna sūtras in Indian Buddhism. The paper considers at some length recent scholarship (notably that of Richard Gombrich) on the question of when Buddhist texts were first written down, in light of the widely read but highly problematic theories of orality put forth by Walter Ong and Jack Goody. The paper next compares the positions on speech (and by extension, orality) in the Mīmāmsaka view of the Vedas and in the Buddhist view of the word of the Buddha. Although Buddhist scholastics devoted a great deal of energy to attacking the Mīmāmsaka position of the eternal nature of the Vedas as sound and although scholars have tended to regard the Hindu and Buddhist positions as antithetical, there are significant unacknowledged affinities between the Mīmāmsaka and Buddhist positions which help explain why the Mahāyāna sūtras begin, “thus did I hear.” The paper concludes with a discussion of the possible significance of writing in the rise of the diverse association of cults of the book which we have come to call the Mahāyāna.

Authority and Orality in the Mahāyāna

in Numen

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