Histories of Buddhism in Southeast Asia have imagined a clear break between pre-modern and modern practices. In the past, they claim, each Buddhist temple ("wat)" and abbot was very independent. Teaching depended heavily on moral tales, especially the Jataka birth stories. The teaching style was predominantly oral.
Beginning in the mid-19th century, there was a revolution: Printing made available standard editions of texts. Western scholars invented the idea of a "canon" of older, orthodox texts. The court in Siam and the colonial administrators in Indo-China imposed a "purified" teaching based on this canon and a more regimented organization of the Sangha.
Nun ("maechi") students, Pali grammar class, Samnak Santisuk nunnery, Nakhon Pathom.
Justin McDaniel has studied Buddhist education from past to present. Unlike most scholars, he based himself in the "Lao" periphery of Lanna, Laos, and Isan. He ordained for a time in a small "wat" beside the Mekong River and tramped all around the periphery, peering into "wat" libraries, listening to sermons, and quizzing novices. He concludes that the break between pre-modern and modern was much less clear than it seems.
He cannot find out very much about pre-modern teaching in the "wats" in either Laos or Lanna except for two things. First, abbots paid a lot of attention to collecting and copying manuscripts. Abbots who did this on a large scale became honored and famous. Often they distributed copies of manuscripts over a wide area. Second, the most common form of manuscript found in the "wat" libraries and used by the monastics and abbots are not the classical texts, but "nissaya" (and the similar "vohara" and "namasadda"). These are literally "supports" or crib-guides for a monastic delivering a sermon or homily.
by Chris Baker (7/13/09)
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