The Buddha, Non-Literate Wisdom, and Why Ch’an is Beyond Words and Letters


Author’s Note: Many in the West are so understandably taken by the Buddha’s use of modernistic logic and reason in his expression of the ‘science’ of perceptual psychology, that they remain unaware that the Buddha either could not read or write, or if he could, never made any reference to this ability in the thousands of teachings attributed to him.  However, writing in November 1880, TW Rhys Davids and H Oldenberg, state (in the Introduction to Part I of their English translation of the Vinaya Discipline) that ‘writing’ was known to have existed during the formulation of the Vinaya Discipline, as it is mentioned on more than one occasion in the main body of that text, and within its associated commentarial ‘Notes’.[1]  Admittedly, its mention is not common, but its presence is contextually interesting: 

1) In Mahavagga I (45), for instance, it is explained that a man who had become a bhikkhu had in fact previously committed the crime of theft, and that the king had it ‘written’ that this man, once found, should be executed. 

2) In Mahavagga I (49) 1, it is stated that the parents of the Upali, suggested that if he learned the art of writing, then after their deaths, he could earn a living for himself. 

3) The Third Paragika Rule of the Vibhanga states any bhikkhu who kills a person, or brings about the death of a person, must be expelled from the Sangha.  In the Notes associated with this Rule, an example is given of attempting to cause death to another by persuading them that suicide leads to salvation.  It is stated that such an underhand activity might well be made not by word of mouth, not by messenger, but rather in ‘writing’.  Even if such corruption of the Dharma is made in writing, (and not spoken) it nevertheless constitutes a ‘Dukkata Offence’.  If another takes his life foolishly believing that in the suffering associated with self-inflicted death there is salvation, he who causes the death is guilty of a ‘Paragika Offence’. 

4) Again, the Vibhanga states that Buddhist nuns must renounce all attachment to the world and not participate in any worldly activity – except that of ‘learning to write’. 

These brief extracts contained within a very long ancient text, suggest that writing was probably known during the Buddha’s lifetime, and was used by the king and his government for official announcements, could be used to communicate in private life, and as a means to make a living that was available to both women as well as men.  However, despite these references, it is also clear by assessing all the implements that could be kept within the ordained Sangha community, that there is no mention of:

a) Pens (or similar writing devices).

b) Paper (or similar recording devices).

c) Existing texts containing important teachings.

The Buddha never taught that texts should be written-down, and learned through correctly reading the text.  On the contrary, in Mahavagga II (17) 5, 6, it is related how a group of bhikkhus had no one within their community who knew how to recite the ‘Patimokkha’ (Code of Monastic Discipline).  The answer was to send a bhikkhu to another Sangha community, and ‘learn’ this body of knowledge by word of mouth and accurately commit to memory. In the Mahavagga III, 5, 9, there is the story of a Upasaka (male lay follower of the Buddha) who sent word to the local Sangha living in his area, that he had received a teaching from the Buddha, and was concerned that if left too long, he might forget it.  A bhikkhu was immediately sent to learn this ‘sutta’ by heart, and bring it back to the Sangha community to spread its message (so important was this task that the Rule forbidding bhikkhus travelling in the rainy season was temporarily suspended).  In the Anguttara Nikaya (Katukka-Nipata and Pankaka-Nipata) there is an injunction that monks should ensure that they pass on (by word of mouth) the knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings they possess to others, before they themselves die and the teaching is permanently ‘cut-off’ at the root.  It seems that writing at the time of the Buddha (whenever that exactly was), was known but not yet associated with spiritual training or religious movements.  It could be that the sparse references to ‘writing’ in the Vinaya Discipline were added at a later date through faults in memory, transmission or transference, or included much later when the teachings were eventually committed to writing in 1st century BCE Ceylon (within the Theravada tradition).  Whatever the case, the Buddha NEVER mentions reading and writing, and obviously did not consider such abilities relevant to finding enlightenment on his path.  This appears to be the case in both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions.  In the Buddha’s time it was perfectly natural and expected for a great scholar to have gained immense knowledge and wisdom through direct ‘seeing’ and ‘perceiving’, but not through the agency of reading and writing.  ACW 9.9.2016

‘When reading the early Buddhist literature we must not forget how these works originated.  The Buddha himself and his disciples could not write.  It was an old tradition in Indian cultural life that compositions in prose as well as poetry should be learned literally by heart, and they were in this way transferred from generation to generation.  Matter that is conserved in this way will necessarily get a special character.’

Pali Buddhist Texts Explained to the Beginner: By Rune EA Johansson, Curzon, (1981), Page 11

One of the reasons I was told that Hui Neng (the Sixth Patriarch of Buddhism) was (and remains) so popular in China, is that although perfectly and completely enlightened, like the vast majority of Chinese people prior to 1949, he was illiterate.  He could not read or write due to his humble family background and lack of formal education.  However, this inability did not prevent him from realising the empty mind ground – or that reality which underlies all psycho-physical functionality and acquired abilities.  If a student had a question about a sutra, Hui Neng would have that student read-out the section, and then he would wisely express his profound understanding through the spoken word.  Another reason Hui Neng is so popular (and important) to the Chinese Buddhist tradition, is that the Indian Buddha – Siddharta Gautama (the man believed to have initiated the Ch’an tradition), was himself illiterate.  The Buddha’s illiteracy is the hidden reason why Chinese Ch’an Buddhism is not dependent upon words and letters, or words and sentences. For many people in the modern world, brought up with abundant Buddhist scriptures (bound neatly in endless books), this seems an unlikely fact.  How can a system of such profound and logical thought, which is distinctly ‘modern’ in its presentation, be the product of an individual who could not read or write?  Indeed, so powerful was his penetrative insight into the nature of reality, that Western science and philosophy is still considering its impact upon the sum-total of the knowledge humanity possesses.  It seems that nearly every year or so lately, this or that advanced physics paper compares favourably the philosophy of the Buddha with contemporary scientific findings.  Even that modern genius Albert Einstein looked upon Buddhism with respect.  In other words, those who are now the product of mass literacy and sophisticated educational systems, look upon the ‘illiterate’ philosophy of the Buddha as if it had been produced at Oxford or Harvard after years of written research, lectures, data gathering, debate and refinement.

Of course, the Buddha’s system was a matter of personal will-power, and not institutional or group endeavour.  By an act of intense will, the Buddha managed to change the historically conditioned manner in which his brain functioned.  He managed to permanently ‘alter’ the thought-patterns of his mind so that they ‘shifted’ from the superstitious thinking associated with theology, and into that of modern logic and reason.  The Buddha’s Enlightenment mirrored entirely the European Enlightenment that would happen thousands of years after his lifetime, (and may well have pre-dated) and been far more sophisticated than its ancient Greek counter-part founded in Miletus by Thales.  The Greeks certainly developed logic and reason, but its early evolution is ponderous, inconsistent, and generally incomplete.  Greek logic and reason developed over centuries, and has been the product of many great thinkers using their minds in a new manner – but the Buddha’s system of thought appears to have evolved solely from his own efforts, and appeared suddenly in ancient India with no historical precedent.  Yes, the Buddha borrowed meditation from the Yoga School, and made use of pre-existing ideas such as polytheistic gods, rebirth and karma, but at no time did he use these terms in their historically correct context.  The Buddha made use of pre-existing terms, whilst thoroughly rejecting the historical premises for those terms.  Gods and rebirth were no longer ultimately real, but only appeared to exist as long as individuals believed in them (disappearing altogether when the mind achieved ‘enlightenment’).  Karma was transformed from a semi-divine and deterministic power, (as vague as it was fatalistic within Brahmanic thought), to the acknowledgement that everything operates in the universe through morally neutral cause and effect, and that through volition, or the state of mind of the individual, good, neutral or bad experiences could be experienced.  The Buddha saw that the minds of all beings are default set to function in the unenlightened state through the agency of greed, hatred and delusion, and that ‘enlightenment’ is the state of mind left after greed, hatred, and delusion have been uprooted through meditation.

The Buddha, through his Four Noble Truths, assessed that existence for a living being is ‘nama-rupa’ (mind and body integrated – see Chain of Dependent Origination), and that the notion of an underlying and permanent self was an illusion.  As the Buddha defined enlightenment by way of what it is not, the notion of ‘emptiness’ is very important in his system of thought.  The enlightened state is not greed, hatred or delusion.  The enlightened state is not the literal belief in polytheistic (or monotheistic) gods.  The enlightened state is not the blind acceptance of a deterministic karma that is partly determined by personal actions, and partly directed by the will of punishing or rewarding gods.  Enlightenment is not the acceptance of, or practical experience of rebirth.  Enlightenment is not the acceptance of, or practical experience of a ‘soul’ theory.  In other words, a fully enlightened and rational mind, is a mind ‘emptied’ of all delusion and irrationality.  This ‘emptiness’, however, has a practical realisation within Ch’an Buddhism, and is not just defined by the ‘absence’ of things. Yes, all delusion in the mind must be uprooted, but delusion is defined as the erratic and chaotic movement of the surface mind, that must be ‘stilled’ through meditation, or after a rigorous dialogue encounter with an enlightened master.  Once ‘stilled’, this obscuring layer is removed and the practitioner can see directly into the empty nature of the psychic fabric of the mind.  Once this understanding permeates all six senses, it appears to ‘expand’ and encompasses all that which it senses.  All this was realised by the Buddha without the need to read or write, and the power of his insight was such, that we are still discussing it today.  Hundreds of years after his lifetime, his sutras – which had been passed on from generation to generation by monks tasked with remembering them by word of mouth – were eventually committed to paper and comprehensively recorded in writing.

Although the Buddha could not read and write, and despite the fact that in the modern world ‘illiteracy’ is associated with a lack of education and knowledge, this cannot be said to be the case in ancient India.  The Buddha was a high caste Indian who had received a very sophisticated Brahmanic education, including Vedic studies, yoga, martial arts, and preparation for ruling and leadership.  All these arts were conveyed not through the written word, but rather through the recalled spoken word and in remembered actions.  It was a very sophisticated education in an age before reading and writing came to dominate education.  When Buddhism spread to China in the 1st century CE, reading and writing had already been raised to the level of spiritual attributes by the scholar-sage Confucius.  The Ch’an School produced very learned masters in the Buddhist literature but always remembered that the Buddha’s enlightenment was achieved prior to the era of wide-spread reading and writing, and constituted a unique and entirely different mind-set.  The Buddha’s knowledge and wisdom was not attained by ‘reading’ the ‘words’ explaining what others understood, or claimed to understand.  His ‘Buddhi’ (i.e. ‘intuitive’ knowledge) was a direct perception of reality in its most pristine and unmediated realisation (beyond and unsullied by the obscuring clutter of intellectualised words and letters).  The Ch’an School resided in a highly literate China that put a great stock on the written word as a civilising tool (despite the fact that only about 10% of the people could read or write).  The Ch’an School technique appears to refer back to a time in Indian history before the Buddha-Dharma was rendered into the written word, and became sullied by intellectual attachment, and shallow understanding.  Although this is a common knowledge within China, it is virtually unknown in the West, with many scholars referring to Ch’an as a later development, and offering no understanding as to its ‘beyond words’ motif.  It is quite often the case that Western scholars do not reference Chinese language source materials, but instead rely upon antiquated, and quite often flawed Japanese scholarship that misinterprets and misconstrues Chinese Buddhist history.

When reading and writing was associated with Western religion, its use was very different to that found in modern society, where ample texts are available and subject to individualistic consumption. Contemporary reading usually involves one person absorbing one text as if the act of ‘reading’ should be an entirely ‘private’ affair.  However, given that in the past throughout the world it was common for only a very select minority of people to possess the ability to read and write, reading was often a ‘shared’ experience, with texts being read aloud rather than silently.  In this regard, Jean Leclerc states:

‘…in the Middle Ages, as in antiquity, they read usually not as today, principally with the eyes, but with the lips, pronouncing what they saw, and with the ears, listening to the words pronounced, hearing what is called the “voices of the pages”…  Doctors of ancient times used to recommend reading to their patients as a physical exercise on an equal level with walking, running, or ball-playing.’[2]

It seems logical to assume that even after teachings were written down, their recitation followed on from the time of recitation from memory, and that initially at least, despite the shift in conveyance from memory to bamboo strip, leaf or paper, the manner in which the text was handled followed all the conventions of a ‘remembered’ text for hundreds or thousands of years.  The Buddha might have thought that as there was no real difference in how a text was recited, it was more efficient and functional for a Sangha that prided itself on a lack of possessions, (and which referred to its adherents as ‘bhikkhus’, or ‘beggars’), that the use of memory – common for the time – was by far the preferred (and perhaps superior) method of conveyance.  After-all, the Buddha’s method of transformation has the centre of its activity in the mind, and the perfecting of memory could well have been considered as important as perfecting the jhana states, and the uprooting of greed, hatred, and delusion.  The Buddha’s relationship to reading and writing can be logically assessed as:

i) He could read and write and never mentioned this ability throughout his 45 years of teaching.

ii) He could not read or write, but knew about these abilities and thought them irrelevant to his path.

iii) He could not read or write, and was unaware that such an ability existed.

If the Buddha was illiterate, it is curious that he would give permission in the Vinaya Discipline for his nuns (bhikkunis) to learn how to write, whilst advising them to renounce all other worldly activities.  As Andrew Skilton points out in his excellent ‘Concise History of Buddhism’ (see ‘Preface’), the received Pali texts of the modern Theravada School exhibit, in part, definite evidence of sectarian editing. Even so, as this school allots a superior position to a man and a subordinate position to a woman, it is difficult to envisage why women (and not men) would be granted the ability to read and write by the Buddha (whose original ‘liberal’ teachings should not be conflated with any particular school that arose after his passing).  Whatever the case, the Buddha-Dharma inherited by the Chinese Ch’an School does not discriminate between men or women, and is not reliant upon the ability to read and write.  Reading and writing is simply a function of the mind, that in and of itself represents a ‘moving surface’ mind that does not perceive reality.  This is why Ch’an masters advise that all activities be ‘laid down’ and the attention turned firmly within.  This includes no reading of books, or communicating in writing for the duration of the Ch’an training.

A final consideration is this; the Chinese explorer (and devout Buddhist pilgrim) Fa Xian (法顯) [337-422] – whose name literally means ‘Dharma Manifested’ – visited India (and other Buddhist countries) in search of Buddhist sutras between 399-414 CE. Kanai Lal Hazra states in his book entitled ‘Buddhism in India as Described by the Chinese Pilgrims AD 399-689’, the following information:

‘Fa-hein (Fa Xian) and his friends returned to Pataliputra from Banaras.  Fa-Hein’s aim was to obtain complete sets of the Vinaya texts. But he could not find any written volume.  Because in the various places of Northern India the Vinaya texts were handed down orally from teacher to teacher.  Then in a monastery he found a copy of the Mahasanghika Vinaya.  “The copy of the rules is the most complete with the fullest explanation.”  This was accepted by the Buddhist monks in the Buddha’s lifetime and was used by the monks of the First Great Assembly.  Fa-hein also obtained a manuscript of the Sarvastivada rules in six or seven thousand gathas.’[3]

Although the Theravada School Buddhist texts were committed to the written form around the 1st century BCE, it appears that in North India during the 5th century CE (some six hundred years later), there were schools of Buddhism that still retained the oral tradition of passing on the teachings by word of mouth, and that had not transferred their remembered Buddhist knowledge into readable form.  This behaviour appears to be an adherence to a much older tradition that had survived for at least a thousand years or more since the lifetime of the Buddha. Contrary to Theravada rhetoric that it, and it alone, retains the oldest version of the Buddha’s teachings, the above text makes it clear that in 5th century CE India, it was the Vinaya of the Mahasanghika School that was considered not only the oldest extant version at the time, but also the body of knowledge used to ‘fix’ the teachings at the First Buddhist Council (held soon after the Buddha’s death).  It is interesting to note that Bodhidharma, the Indian Buddhist monk that brought the ‘Dhyana’ (Meditation) School to China (where it became known as ‘Ch’an’) in the year 520 CE, arrived only 106 years after Fa Xian had returned from India (in 414 CE).  It is logical to speculate that Bodhidharma was very well aware that certain Indian Buddhist schools still existed that had refused to abandon the tradition followed by the Buddha, which emphasised the realisation of enlightenment during a developmental process that was not dependent upon the use of words and letters, or the ability to write words and read sentences.  Of course, as time went by, the ability (and necessity) of societies and cultures to make written records of their existences became ever more important, and the Dhyana (Ch’an) tradition probably represents a vibrant Buddhist school of India (and China), which preserved in essence the ‘pre-literacy’ tradition prevalent in ancient India at the time of the Buddha, whilst fully accommodating the contemporary necessity to embrace modern trends of scholarship premised upon the ability to read and write.  This historical development explains the apparent contradictory nature of the Ch’an School which possesses masters who have an advanced grasp and understanding of the most complex and difficult Buddhist written texts, whilst simultaneously demanding with an iron will, that all Ch’an students immediately ‘give-up’ and ‘abandon’ their reliance upon, and attachment to, their ability to read and write.  This Ch’an attitude is not a rejection or abandoning of literacy skills, on the contrary, it is the temporary suspension of a particular cognitive function of the mind that constitutes ‘movement’ in the mind, and is associated with inner psychological turmoil.  The ability to read and write is not the issue.  The issue is that the Buddha taught (in a pre-literacy age), that all functionality of the mind must be ‘stilled’ if the surface mind is to be ‘calmed’.  It is only when the surface mind becomes ‘still’, that a penetrative insight is able to perceive the deep and essentially non-substantive ‘empty’ mind ground from which all perception emerges and returns.  The ability to read and write simply allows the surface mind to add images of letters and words in combinations that represent various and continuous ‘attachments’ to surface movement.  The Ch’an method of the ‘hua tou’ (話頭), unknown as it was in pre-literacy India, was devised in China as a means in part, to combat that country’s reliance upon literacy skills in all areas of its culture (including spiritual development).  The ‘word head’ implies the principle of ‘ante word’, ‘word origin’, or ‘before word’, and refers to the ‘empty’ underlying mind ground from which the conception of a mental image emerges.  In the unenlightened state, the obscuring surface of the mind appears as a constant and self-replicating barrier of confusion and chaos.  It seems that one surface image automatically gives rise to another image in quick succession, with no gaps observable in the process.  The hua tou creates the enquiring word ‘who?’, and through an act of will, ‘turns’ it back toward the base of its origination (in the empty mind ground), and away from its apparent (and incorrect) manifestation in the surface mind.  Although one thought appears to give rise to the next in a lineal fashion, (like one word logically following the next in a correct grammatically structured sentence), this is incorrect from a Ch’an Buddhist perspective.  Thoughts (or ‘words’) only appear to follow one another in a continuous succession – this is an expedient or superficial truth. It is ‘correct’ only from the position of the surface (or ‘seeming’) mind, and is not correct from the perspective of the deep (or ‘real’) mind.  Thoughts (or ‘words’) do not really follow on from one after another, but in reality continuously ‘emerge’ or ‘bubble-up’ from the deep and empty recesses of the psychic fabric.  This being the case, it follows that the Ch’an method of ‘turning words’, particularly in relation to the hua tou, is a developed technique designed to counter the otherwise ‘solid’ surface structure generated in the mind through the ability to read and write.  During sustained training, the hua tou quite literally acts as a cognitive ‘drill’, and enables the practitioner to break through the accrued levels of psychological conditioning.  Of course, the hua tou method can be used effectively by literate or illiterate people, as all beings experience the steady stream of deluded thought that flows across the surface of the mind, but it is particularly useful for those caught up in their own intellectual understanding, which has been acquired through, and is inherently linked to the ability to read and write.  This non-reliance upon literacy skills as a means to acquire enlightenment explains why the tradition of Ch’an patriarchs begins with the Buddha holding-up a flower in an act of non-verbal communication with Mahakasyapa.  The Buddha’s enlightenment, as preserved within the Chinese Ch’an School, is the direct realisation of the ‘essence’ or ‘origination’ of thought in the deep mind, which must never be mistaken or conflated with the manifestation or functionality of thought in the surface.


©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2016.


[1] See ‘Sacred Books of the East’ Series, Edited by Max Muller, Vol. 13 [Vinaya Texts Part I], Vol. 17 [Vinaya Text Part II] and Vol. 20 [Vinaya Texts Part III] –  as re-published in 1982 by Motilal Banarsidass – Pages ix-xxxvii of Part I.

[2] Williams, Paul, Mahayana Buddhism – the Doctrinal Foundations, Routledge, (1994), Page 38 – Leclerc 1961: 34)

[3] Hazra, Kanai, Lal, Buddhism in India as Described by the Chinese Pilgrims AD 399-689, Munishiram Manoharlal, (3011), Pages 4-5

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