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When a Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Mahāyāna Influence on Theravāda Attitudes Towards Writing

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This article argues that Buddhist attitudes towards the written word in major Theravāda regions of Southeast Asia were strongly influenced by Mahāyāna Buddhism. Writing is not mentioned in the Pāli canon of the Theravāda Buddhists, and no emphasis was put on the idea of worshipping books in authoritative Theravāda literature, save a few words in an eleventh-century sub-commentarial text. The early generations of Theravāda Buddhists, not surprisingly, had an ambivalent relationship to writing and there is little evidence to suggest that they revered it. On the other hand, from the earliest times, seminal Mahāyāna texts have reserved their highest praise for the Dharma-bearing written word, and archeological and iconographic evidence as well as accounts of Chinese travelers suggest that stūpas were indeed made to enshrine texts and that books were the subject of votive cults. From the end of the first millennium CE, however, some Theravāda communities in Southeast Asia did begin to revere the written word in a Buddhist context by constructing beautiful libraries to house the texts, making texts out of gold, enshrining them in stūpas, and even worshipping them outright. In places such as Burma, Sri Lanka and central Thailand, this change of attitude coincided with the height of Mahāyāna influence. Moreover, in the northern Thai kingdom of Lan Na, there does not appear ever to have been any significant Mahāyāna presence and consequently, the more reverential Mahāyāna attitudes towards writing do not seem to have been imbibed by the culture, even though writing was well-known and fairly widely utilized.


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