More About Lists and Something About Jayarava’s Comment

The apparent division between oral and literate cultures is an ongoing issue under discussion in academia and increasingly in the public forum. It is relevant to Buddhists because it relates directly to the validity of Buddhist texts which are believed to have been transmitted orally for some time before being written down.

A previous post Lists brought up an interesting comment from Jayarava.

Walter J. Ong has suggested that the making of lists is a distinctively *literate* activity and that such abstractions are not used in pre/non-literate cultures. (I’m citing the discussion of his work by Donald Lopez in Elaborations on Emptiness, p.32f). I haven’t had time to follow this up. It either means that Indian oral culture was completely unique in the level of it’s sophistication (and abstraction), or they started using writing a lot earlier than they let on. Certainly there must now be a question mark over whether the texts we have inherited “are the end products of an oral society”.

I’m also still pondering Bhikkhu Anālayo’s recent article about the distinctions in the way memorisation worked in Vedic and Buddhist Milieu, and contemporary research on memory. “The Vicissitudes of Memory and Early Buddhist Oral Transmission”, Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies, 2009, vol. 5 pp. 5-19. He also discusses the Buddhist uses of lists.

As to the second part of the comment, when this volume  of the Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies is available in on-line archives I’ll have a look at this article but for now I haven’t access to it.

But the first part of the comment brought a few thoughts to mind that are tangentially related. I don’t have the book which contains Lopez’s thoughts on the matter, but I am quite familiar with the work of Walter J. Ong. There is no doubt that Ong had a huge influence on communications theory, anthropology, post-modern philosophy and dozens of other disciplines. His thesis supervisor was no less than Marshall McLuhan so one can realize the influences of that luminary on his work as well.  While we might disagree with some of Walter J. Ong’s theoretical standpoints at present, he helped lay the groundwork, with highly original thought and theory, that a lot of current theory rests upon.

So the points to address are:

  1. Walter J. Ong has suggested that the making of lists is a distinctively *literate* activity and that such abstractions are not used in pre/non-literate cultures.
  2. It either means that Indian oral culture was completely unique in the level of it’s sophistication (and abstraction), or they started using writing a lot earlier than they let on.
  3. Certainly there must now be a question mark over whether the texts we have inherited “are the end products of an oral society”.

Ong’s theories and some of the criticisms of those theories directly related to this issue can be outlined (just a quick take-much more in the links at the bottom-particularly Chandler) as:

Technology and Consciousness

One of Walter J. Ong’s primary theses relates to the proposition that technology alters structure and function of consciousness. And that writing has brought about a radical change in consciousness. And therefore radical changes in cultures including values, political structures, self-perception and many other aspects. (see the criticism about Technological Determinism below).

Theorists involved in the comparative analysis of modes of communication frequently assume or refer to a binary divide or dichotomy between different kinds of society or human experience: ‘primitive’ vs. ‘civilized’, ‘simple’ vs. ‘advanced’, ‘pre-logical’ vs. ‘logical’, ‘pre-rational’ vs. ‘rational’, ‘pre-analytic’ vs. ‘analytic’, ‘mythopoeic’ vs. ‘logico-empirical’, ‘traditional’ vs. ‘modern’, ‘concrete’ vs. ‘scientific’, ‘oral’ vs. ‘visual’, or ‘pre-literate’ vs. ‘literate’. Such pairings are often also regarded as virtually interchangeable: so that modernity equals advanced equals civilization equals literacy equals rationality and so on. (Chandler)

Clearly one can deduce the dangers in this kind of thinking. It is a fundamental error to equate these concepts and where one concept such as literacy is in the primary focus to attribute causality to it when no such causality can be demonstrated.

This underlies many of the further criticisms of the theories presented. And is some ways I think it underlies the current “distrust” of what is written in Buddhist texts.

The “Great Divide” between the Literate and Non-literate Cultures

The “Great Divide” criticism has been suggested with regard to Ong’s work. There is no clear division between the time when oral transmission waned and writing ascended. It is not as though an entire culture one day just stopped talking and picked up writing instruments. So certainly the possibility exists that at least some of the Buddhist texts were written down earlier than was presupposed. They might have served as models for later writings. And the way they are written with the Vedic style mnemonic devices intact for the most part is also of some interest. (more on that later)


Ong has emphasized the accuracy of written work especially with regard to it’s replicability. One obvious example that belies this is the copying of medieval manuscripts in Europe. Changes are introduced due to error by the copyist, censorship, local inflections, dialectical adjustments, spelling variations due to change in language use etc. Consider the revisions the Christian Bible has undergone.

With the availability of early manuscripts some of this can be checked by way of comparison. Fortunately it has been the habit of Buddhists to write commentaries rather than to revise original texts on a wholesale basis. This allows, to my way of thinking anyway, a somewhat greater degree of confidence as to their accuracy.

Even when a snapshot of cultural contents are captured by a technological innovation such as writing, it is in the succeeding snapshots, quickly superceded. Culture changes, spoken language changes, conditions change and the repetition of cultural contents will also change even if they are codified. Consider how many “revised editions” there are of books for example. The Oxford English Dictionary is in it’s 2nd edition (20 volumes) but it is updated quarterly.

Technological Determinism and Media Neutrality

Technological determinism focuses on causality – cause and effect relationships – a focus typically associated with ‘scientific’ explanation. Any exploration of communications technology has to recognize the difficulty of isolating ’causes’ and ‘effects’, or even in distinguishing causes from effects. As an explanation of change, technological determinism is ‘monistic’ or mono-causal (rather than ‘multicausal’): it offers a single cause or ‘independent variable’. It represents a simple ‘billiard ball model’ of change (Chandler-Technological Determinism)

Culture is a highly interdependent complex and to apply such simplistic thinking is reductionist in the extreme.

Additionally media is not a one way street. People affect media which further affects people in something of a feedback loop. One also has to consider the fact of vested interests who wish to manipulate, consciously or subconsciously, the media. There are factors of hegemony as well as other cultural factors that feed into the loop. Media of any type is not a neutral element.


Ethnocentrism in a rather general way means to view a situation from one’s own particular view point exclusively and to impose that viewpoint or framework of analysis upon another culture with little or no regard to the relevance of the other culture’s indigenous explanations or theoretical framework.  It is often an institutionalized mindset of dominant cultures and privileged groups. 

Litwin writes:

To be able to visualize sentences and to consider them as referring to a realm of
“truth” or “mind” that is connected to but separate from the physical world meant the genesis of a new kind of silent thinking—of a private, interior mental dimension. This led, in Ong’s view, to the individualism, abstraction, and intellectual separation from the human lifeworld that are part of what characterizes Western culture. These developments led to especially Western values of privacy, individual freedom, democracy, objective fact, and technological control.

Causality in any of these instances has not been nor can it  be established definitively or even tangentially. And many of these values are not exclusive to Western culture.

On Ong’s most well known book from 1982 Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word:

Ong devotes the first three chapters of seven to “thought and its verbal expression in oral culture” something which he admits is likely to seem “strange and at times bizarre” since we are so immersed in our own literate culture (Bingham)

These kinds of statements used to appear with some regularity in anthropological literature as well, particularly in studies related to culture and personality.  But as biases were increasingly challenged there emerged, and is emerging, a clearer picture.

Those in non-literate societies do not necessarily think in fundamentally different ways from those in literate societies, as is commonly assumed. Differences of behaviour and modes of expression clearly exist, but psychological differences are often exaggerated….There is a real danger that seeing non-literates societies as different from ours may be associated with seeing those who live in such societies as inferior to ourselves. The notion of ‘primitive mentality’ is now rejected by most anthropologists, though it survives amongst some conservative theorists. And the alternative danger of romanticizing ‘oral’ societies as more ‘natural’ than those in which we live is no less a problem. (Chandler)

Unfortunately in popular cultural mythology though such challenges to bias are not often considered.

Problems with Developmental Theories

Developmental theories in general carry a lot of baggage. Due to the evolutionary paradigm early stages labeled as simple and later stages labeled as complex or refined come to represent growth. And complexity comes to represent somehow “better” in terms of value judgement. (Just compare this with controversies of primacy in  Buddhism!) And it does not take into account parallel forms of advanced communication.

Developmental theories are often simplistic in nature. That leads to a certain type of reductionism.

Reductionism and Graphocentrism

Walter Ong maintains: “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does. . . . More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness.” Or, like Jack Goody, one may regard writing to be “a technology of the intellect.”(Burkdall)

Graphocentrism (Chandler) is to place the written utterance in a relative position of higher importance than spoken words. It is often used by intellectual elites to bolster political and social positions. It is also often tied to developmental theories. In the comment Jayarava left regarding listing as a literate activity early Buddhist texts would somewhat belie this. There are so many lists and counted items. Consider Ven. Shrivasti Dhammika’s comments in his post on Oral Transmission:

Many of the Buddha’s disciples who became monks were brahmans and they brought with them the mnemonic skills they had been educated in…Like the Vedas, the suttas are clearly designed to be chanted. They are full of mnemonic devices – rhyming verses, repetitions, numbered lists, stereotyped phrases, etc.

Anyone with familiarity with the Vedas will realize this.

Writing is but one method of recording data accurately for later retrieval or wider dissemination.  I would like to bring up several parallel or pre-existing cultural developments in data recording that are overlooked by Ong’s theories. It’s a bit of a tangent from the lists issue but it demonstrates that there are other possible methods of accurately transmitting important cultural contents.

Several Examples that Fall Outside Most Communications Theory Paradigms

Ong’s form of literacy focuses on phonetic alphabets. It therefore omits the pictographic for example which is an alternative form of development.

Consider Chinese writing. There are many types of Chinese script including pictographs, ideographs, compound pictographs, compound ideographs, semantic-phonetic compounds, simple and complex numerals. There is some discussion that Chinese writing is wholly ideographic, meaning that written symbols directly related to ideas without speech as an intermediary step but this has been challenged . (One such challenge is in the article Ideographic Myth by Mark Swofford.)

Ong’s thesis on literacy deals with the most widespread writing types which are phonetic type alphabets  (phonemes and morphemes and related syntactic structures-ie verb tenses indicated by suffixes). With the diversity of written types in Chinese language there is no accounting for them in the theory. Does that make Chinese written language a cross between writing and art? Perhaps. I don’t know. The prevalence of the practice of calligraphy and the use of calligraphy within artistic productions among Chinese intellectuals throughout history brings up this question.

An interesting example of non-written data recording and list-making can be found in Kipayu strings used by the people of the Incan culture in Peru. They were used as methods of recording events, transactions and other data.


the quipu (or khipu) is a fascinating communication device used in the pre-Columbian world for everything from accounting and record keeping to, it is believed, recording detailed text… names, words, a full written language not in symbols but in lengths of string and knots tied at points along them. from en Peru

It is something that could be replicated and transmitted to others and those with an understanding of the process could “read” the strings and glean the message contained therein.

The use of pictographs as a recording and memory device is as old as the images in the Lascaux caves or the rock images (petroglyphs) in the Australian desert. (See Petroglyphs link below for more on this type of communication)

Since I mentioned the Australian desert it might be pertinent to bring up the subject of songlines as well.

Songlines, or Yiri in the Walpiri language, are tracks across the landscape created by Mythical Aboriginal ancestors when they rose out of the dark Earth and traveled, creating mountains, valleys, waterholes – all the physical features of the land. from Songlines 

The songlines of the Australian Aboriginal people are in addition to their mythological orientation and clan designators,  a form of data keeping that is passed on through the generations. Each clan is a keeper of the songlines relevant to their area. A songline is like a connection between nodes in a network of the landscape. It lists relevant landscape features for the nomadic traveler. It is like a non-visual form of map in this regard.

Many of the features delineated by the song lines appeared in petroglyphs across the Australian continent.

Examples from contemporary aboriginal art show that many of the symbols are similar to those from the petroglyphs.  The petroglyphs are thought to be associated with journeys taken and function as proto-maps just as the  songlines do. Images from Jinta Desert Art-Iconography 

thndlt  Thunder and Lightningkang Kangaroowthole Waterhole

These are somewhat abstract symbols, which are non-phonetic yet carry a particular meaning in a semiotic manner.  They demonstrate that many cultures without phonetic writing can indeed produce products of the mind that do indicate:

…a new kind of silent thinking—of a private, interior mental dimension. This led, in Ong’s view, to the individualism, abstraction, and intellectual separation from the human lifeworld that are part of what characterizes Western culture. (to reiterate the Litwin quote above)

These characteristics are not limited to Western culture by any means. And all of the examples given demonstrate that to some extent.

Uluru Australia-a meeting point of many of the songlines-(photo 2001)


I would even propose that writing is another form of art rather than a technology, as much as song, decoration and painting, in that it is a recording of a snapshot of particular mental or physical events in time. Technology is a Western paradigm to denote a particular category of creative elements developed in any given culture. There are many other ways to view cultural creations. (There’s a dissertation in that assertion likely so I won’t put it all here.)

So thanks to Jayarava for the comment. I don’t get much chance to deal with this kind of stuff as I didn’t think any of the readers of this blog had interest in what may be a rather esoteric set of subjects. So it’s been kind of fun to dig into this a little and I appreciate that opportunity.

Links on Questions about Buddhist Texts

Modernism and post-modernism– on Ven. Sujato’s blog

Ven. S. Dhammika has numerous posts on the subject of Buddhist and other ancient texts (not all directly related to this discussion but tangentially interesting) as well, such as:

Links on Cultures and Anthropological Topics Mentioned

Petroglyphs – Pictographs – Cave Paintings – Geoglyphs – explanations with good photos

Types of Chinese Characters from Omniglot-writing systems and languages of the world

The Origins of Chinese Script– examines the myths and archeological evidence

Khipu – Pre-Columbian Communication and Unlocking the secrets of the Quipus discusses the archeological interpretation of Pre-Columbian string and knot communication techniques

Songlines across the Wollemi-on discoveries of lithographic images and their tie to songlines in Australia

First Australians-an excellent documentary on the Australian aboriginal history entitled First Australians told from the viewpoint of the First Peoples.

The Songlines-a video clip and discussion page for the Australian Government’s digital learning initiative

Links on Linguistics, Communication Theory and Related Philosophy

Walter J. Ong – a summary of his work from Wikipedia

St. Louis University archive of the work of Walter J. Ong including some of his essays and papers

ORACY ! by Hosein Moeini – gives a brief overview of some of the criticisms of Ong’s theories

Communication Theory/Orality and Literacy-a paper from Wikibooks outlines Ong’s theories, contributions and influences within the scope of Communication Theory

Critical Thinking and Media Shifts: Exploring the Ethical Implications of Technological Change through the Thought of Walter Ong and Other Media Theorists by Rory Litwin (paper presented at MIT6 conference April 24-26, 2009 MIT)

Biases of the Ear and Eye: ‘Great Divide’ Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism-Daniel Chandler outlines numerous criticisms of various theorists including Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Ong and others in a well researched discussion

Technological or Media Determinism by Daniel Chandler

Review of Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy:The Technologizing of the Word by Art Bingham

The Persistence of Writing by Thomas Burkdall in EDUCAUSE Review

3 comments on “More About Lists and Something About Jayarava’s Comment

  1. Hi Nella,

    Wow, you seemed to have tapped a vein there. Probably more than I can effectively take in.

    The issue of when writing was used in India is an interesting one. There is no evidence (at all as far as I know) of the use of writing before Asoka (mid 3rd century BCE). However Asoka must have been writing for someone, and had scribes (professionals?) to carve his words into the rock using a fairly well developed script. Asoka clearly saw writing as part of his statecraft (not to say imperialism). Writing in India is however widely believed to be based on Persian models – the Achaemanids controlled Gandhāra during the Buddha’s lifetime for instance. And we know they used writing extensively because many sample remain in Persia. So there is a chance that writing was already in use, but nothing of it survives. There is a commentarial (i.e. later) tradition than the kings of Magadha sent their sons to learn about administration in Gandhāra – they might have been going to learn about Persian methods of imperial admin, including writing?

    I have to take issue with one statement you made: that it was the Buddhist habit to write commentaries rather than revise. Actually they did both. Revisions are clearly evident within the Pāli texts themselves, both doctrinal and linguistic, and they often stand out for being done so badly. Also consider the many (mostly minor) differences between the recensions of the canonical suttas, and the more substantial differences in the vinayas. A settled unitary text may never have existed, but if it did then everything we have is likely to have been revised. Revisions like translation into Sanskrit, or other Prakrits also happened. (unlike the Vedas note.) If you trace a text like the Samaññaphala Sutta through it’s history it gets major revisions in Mahāyāna versions – and there are a number of other prominent examples. Mahāyāna texts can seldom even be considered a single entity as often the extent versions show incredible variation in length and structure, as well as subject matter – these strata are often preserved in Chinese translations. In some Buddhist traditions – I’m thinking especially of Tibet – they now work almost entirely from the commentaries without referring to original texts. I think one could argue that this is effectively a revision of the text.

    With respect to the Vedas and Pāli texts, I am reasonably familiar with both and I would say that they are of very different character – not at all comparable in terms of structures/features that might aid memorisation. The Veda’s, for instance, have none of the interminable repetition of the Pāli, or the constant use of gerunds to indicate that the thing which has just happened, has happened – “he approached the Buddha, and having approached the Buddha he saluted him, and having saluted him he sat to one side, and having sat to one side he said:” etc. In fact, as literature, the Vedas seem far more sophisticated to me.

    Anālayo in his article (which I have sent to you) points out that the strategies for memorisation and the consequences of that techniques were very different. Brahmin boys learn the Vedas by heart before they know what the sounds mean. It is only after they have mastered the sounds that they receive instruction in the Vedic language and the meaning of the texts. Buddhists however used the vernacular and therefore understood (and interpreted!) what they learned as they learned it. The result was word perfect recollection by Brahmins, and distinct variations by Buddhists, though with less variation than is typical in oral traditions. Anālayo has no problem with the texts being oral in origin.

    As for the rest, it is a lot to take in. Though I was intrigued by the possibility that writing might have been used much earlier than previously thought, it’s not a central concern – and since there is substantial criticism of Ong’s methods it may be that the lead is not worth following. Though as I understand it the Indian situation is unique – use of petroglyphs (whatever they were used for and in the case of Lascaux we can only guess) not withstanding. The Australians were/are concerned with the concrete details of the landscape, flora and fauna, and their relationship to it – not with abstractions such as the ontological status of the objects of the mind sense; or the processes by which experiences are cognized and what can go wrong with them to create suffering.

    I’ve always thought that the prominence given to calligraphy in China was related to the use of writing itself, rather than a lingua franca, to bridge the gap between the many mutually unintelligible languages spoken there. Writing was important in China in a way that it wasn’t in cultures where a language like Pāli or Latin could bridge the gap between cultures.

    Thanks for writing at such length – as a reader I probably can’t (won’t?) do it justice, but hopefully it will inspire others to follow up the threads.

    Best Wishes

    • Thanks Jayarava for your lengthy comment.
      Your initial comments sparked a whole cascade of ideas that I attempted to capture. And maybe there’s something in this particular exercise that would intrigue someone else enough to follow up. I am not any kind of expert on the fine points of textual differences. A bit beyond my field so it’s nice to get input from those with more familiarity. But making the reach is the only way to learn something.
      I do wonder if one compared commentaries from different time periods that changes to the texts themselves could be deduced. It would be an interesting exercise though I lack both the time and the depth of language scholarship needed for such an endeavor.
      Writing in China is a unique and important development that a lot of Western scholarship hasn’t adequately accounted for with these broad theories. The state of knowledge is in constant development and under constant scrutiny everywhere though, and perhaps some new insights will emerge.
      Also thanks for sending the article. I will read it today.

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