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Title: Protestant Presuppositions and the Study of the Early Buddhist Oral Tradition
Author(s): MCGOVERN, Nathan
Journal: Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies
Volume: 42    Date: 2019   
Pages: 449-491
DOI: 10.2143/JIABS.42.0.3287485

Abstract :
Several decades ago, Lance Cousins published an article arguing that the Oral Theory from the field of Classics is useful for understanding the early production and dissemination of the Buddhist literature. Since then, several scholars, while at times adopting the language of Oral Theory, have been critical of Cousins’ argument that there was an improvisatory stage in the dissemination of the early Buddhist literature, arguing instead that it must have been passed down through strict memorization. In this article, which I dedicate to the memory of Lance Cousins, I argue that his original insight was correct, and that if we understand Oral Theory properly as implying a conservative tradition characterized by a certain amount of improvisation rather than strict memorization, then its applicability to the early Buddhist literature is born out by comparison of Pali suttas to their counterparts preserved in other languages. I further argue that resistance to this conclusion is rooted in certain Protestant assumptions about religion as located in a fixed scripture.

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