The Tipiṭaka, or Pāḷi Canon, was first written down at the Fourth Buddhist Council in 29 B.C.E. at the Aluvihāre Rock Temple in Sri Lanka. For those ~450 years from the time of the passing of the Buddha (parinibbāna), the teachings were memorised and passed down orally. Scholars believe that since that first written record, the Tipiṭaka has pretty much been “locked down”, with minor changes and additions coming in afterwards.
Despite the 2,000 year written record, and now digital libraries off and online, that tradition of memorisation continues on to today, but perhaps not as systematically and widescale. I often marvel at the prodigious memories of Burmese monks, almost all of whom can recite the entire paṭimokkha, eleven paritta suttas, the Dhammapada (if not the whole thing, then at least large swaths thereof), and many long suttas, i.e, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta, Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta, etc., not to mention lots of ceremonial stuff. I once asked one of my teachers how many suttas he could chant, and his reply was, “Not much. Maybe 50 or so”, his tone giving the impression that he felt he was a bit of a slacker!
Then there are those select monks who make it their practice to memorise the entire Tipiṭaka, to be tested on it, then to teach others with that encyclopedic knowledge. The first monk to receive the title Tipiṭakadhāra, or Guardian of the Tipiṭaka, was Mingun Sayadaw, U Vicittasārābhivaṁsa, at the Sixth Buddhist Council held from 1954-56 in Myanmar, who correctly answered all the questions posed by Mahasi Sayadaw based on the entire content of the Canon. Since then, there have been another twelve, eight of whom are pictured below.
About a month ago, I had an itch to research and do a write-up about the Sīmā[ref]monastery boundary, “parish”[/ref] and Uposatha Hall. Other things have taken precedence, and the project was put on the back burner. Much to my surprise and delight, Ven. Paññobhāsa seems to have had the same idea and today he posted an article on his blog regarding this very subject at Technical Matters: Ecclesiastical Precints (Sīmā). He does a really excellent job so I highly recommend reading it if you are interested in monastic issues.
One can not overstate how incredibly important the process for establishing the sīmā is for the Saṅgha, as well as the preciseness with which monastic ceremonies[ref]saṅghakammā[/ref] are carried out. Small oversights can completely compromise any given procedure, even going so far as to invalidating an entire lineage’s ordinations.
I’ve had the honour and privilege of attending several of these ceremonies over the years and always find the joy among both the monastics and laity to be really inspiring.
On 29 September 2013, S. N. Goenka passed away at the age of 89. This video documentshis ashes’ journey from Yangon to their final resting place in the Irrawaddy River near Sagaing Hill, about 12km from Mandalay. Included is a Dhamma talk by Sītagū Sayadaw in English (most of it was in Burmese, but only the English is recorded).