The Book – a miracle artifact

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The Annual Book Week held in Sri Lanka, is highly praiseworthy. This is a time for all of us to reflect on the massive contribution made by ‘The Book’ towards the wholesome progress of human culture. The Art of Writing and its result ‘The Book,’ have proved sources of influence, that have moulded human history.

While we celebrate the ‘Book’ and the impact it has had on the lives of men and women, there is an impressive fact we should not overlook. From ancient times, priests have been associated with the Art of Writing, and earliest printed books in the world were primarily religious works.

In the sacred history of religious literature, Sri Lanka has been in a highly prestigious position. It was in ancient Sri Lanka that the Buddha’s teachings were recorded in book-form for the first time. The event took place under the royal patronage of King Vattagamini Abhaya, also known as Valagamba.

Two thousand and forty years ago, this ruler of Sri Lanka, convened an assembly of erudite monks, and invited them to record the Buddha’s words in book-form. This historical event took place at the Aloka Vihara (Alu Vihara) in Matale.

According to traditional lore, the outcome of this sacred literary initiative was the production of an extensive series of ola-leaf books. Sources well conversant with tradition have said that these ola-leaf books heaped together were as tall as ‘nine elephants.’

Buddhist Scripture evolved from Sri Lanka

As we celebrate the Annual Literature Week, the production of the ola-leaf has to be especially remembered.

Prior to the royal patronage of King Vattagamini Abhaya, the Sacred Words of the Supremely Enlightened Buddha were brought down by mnemonic tradition – that is through the oral tradition. Had that process continued, some segments of the Buddha’s dispensation would have vanished forever.

But we in Sri Lanka preserved it by committing it to book- form. This way, we are entitled to a proud place in the history of book-production in the world. It is from Sri Lanka that the written Buddhist Scripture went to many other parts of the world. The Chinese monk who went on a pilgrimage, Fa-hien, came over to Sri Lanka to study and copy our written scripture.

Notwithstanding all of that, I wish to make a suggestion. When we hold our Annual Literary Festival under State patronage, we have to assign a special day to remember the committing of the Buddhist doctrine to book-form by Sri Lanka. We could have seminars, exhibitions or public lectures to mark the event, islandwide. Even monasteries can participate in this sacred event. This will enable, especially the younger generation, to fully appreciate our achievement in Buddhist literature, making Sri Lanka the pioneer for the whole of mankind to record the word of the Buddha in book-form.

As I visualize it, the Annual Literary Festival can engender in our youthful generation, a love and deference for the printed book. The ‘millennia’ (the young people of the 21st century) are fast getting alienated from the printed book. The manner in which, and the extent to which, they are being dominated by electronic and digital means of communication has made them pathetically unaware of the colourful evolution of the cultural tool we generally describe as The Book.

The Book is an everyday ‘miracle’ as much as the spoken word that these have now become so commonplace and so familiar that we are incapable of being amazed by the wonder of their evolution throughout the long history of mankind.

Creation of the Art of Writing

The Annual Literary and Book Week is the ideal forum to present the people, especially to the younger generation, the dramatic story of The Book.

Today, the world’s population stands at around seven billion people. We are described as Homo Sapien – The Wise Man. Our Planet Earth is 4.5 billion years old. And, we, the ‘Wise Men’ have inhabited this world for about 50,000 years only.

An outstanding achievement of this 50,000-year-old human culture is the creation of the Art of Writing and its outcome – The Book.

Almost all the ancient cultures had their specific form of writing. Egyptian civilization that flourished in the Nile Valley was one of the oldest human communities to have an advanced system of writing. The writing material they used was papyrus – a form of sedge (reed) that grew profusely in association with the River Nile. The pith of this plant was processed into writing material. (The word paper is derived from it.)

A scribe (religious person) wrote on papyrus with a brush, using ink. This way, from the earliest times, priests were associated with the Art of Writing and the production of books. What is noteworthy is that, the scribes put down literally and accurately, what the King (the Pharaoh) dictated. In consequence, the ancient decrees of the Egyptian rulers had a prefatory phrase: “Thus was it said by the Great Palace (Pharaoh). And so was it written down. And so shall it be done.” The rulers, evidently, were not that educated. But the scribes had to be careful to ensure the Royal Decree was accurately noted. Any lapse would have cost them their life.

This form of writing is called ‘hieroglyphs’ (writing done by priests). This writing flourished in an era – that was about 4,000 years ago.

Different types of writings

In the Mesopotamian culture (the culture of the Babylonians) the writing material that was widely available, was clay. With the flooding of twin Rivers – Euphrates and Tigris – layers of clay became almost a permanent geographical feature. These ancients made characters in the wet-clay, with tiny chisels and dried the clay tablet in the sun. As the letters were formed with chisels, this variety of writing was called cuneiform (chisel-made). One of the world’s oldest libraries was in ancient Babylon – in the city of Nineveh, and it included the literature of the neighbouring peoples’ as well.

In ancient Greece, the writing was done on parchment – the skin of goats and sheep.

The parchment book had two handles – one on each side. The reader unrolls the parchment and comes to the end of one line. The second line begins below the end of the first line. This system of writing was described as boustrophedon (turning like oxen in ploughing).

The greatest contribution to the human skill of writing and book production came from ancient Chinese culture. They gave the world mankind’s most popular writing material – paper.

To begin with, they printed books using blocks of smoothened wood. They would write the text in ink and brush, on a piece of paper and would press that wet-ink text on the surface of the smoothened wood-block surface. The text gets printed on the wood-block surface in a mirror version. Then each character is cut, so that the surface of the letter will stand out. Then once again, the surface is inked and a blank-paper was pressed on it. Then the proper version of the text appears on paper. This was called block-printing.

But this had a disadvantage. For each page of a book, a separate block had to be made and that block can be used only for that book. But the ancient Chinese got over this problem by making a block for each letter. This system is called movable type. That kind of letter can be used anywhere it is needed.

The first book to be printed in the whole of human history was the Saddharmapundarika, printed by the Chinese. This way, mankind’s first printed book is a Buddhist Sutra.

Thereafter, printing spread from China to various other countries. In 770 A.D. Empress Shotoku of Japan had a million dharanis (prayer-charms) printed for free distribution as an act of merit.

Lifetime dedication

Guttenberg’s first book, the 42-line Mainz Bible was printed in 1453. In Sri Lanka and in many Asian countries, the widely used writing material was the ola leaf. In the old monasteries of Sri Lanka, the bhikkhus were dedicated throughout their life-time to the writing of the Sacred Books.

To make ola-leaf books, the tender leaf of a palm was made use of. It was dried, and cut into long strips. Words were written on it with the stylus. Then the page was brushed with soot to make the writing appear clearly. The pages are perforated on two sides. A thread is passed through the perforations, and two covers hold the ola-leaf pages together. In most instances, the ola-leaf covers are elaborately painted with various traditional motifs.

Printing was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Dutch Governor, Van Imhof, in 1739. One cannot help but wonder why printing did not reach Sri Lanka from China, much earlier. Fa Hien, the Chinese pilgrim monk records that, he was moved by seeing a paper fan offered to a shrine at Anuradhapura. This was obviously presented by a Chinese devotee. If paper fans were brought here, one wonders why the art of printing was not introduced by the Chinese in those early days.

Today, in Sri Lanka, printing is quite advanced and sophisticated. But when we celebrate the Annual Literary Festival, we must be mindful of the need to use the printed word to uplift our culture and to guide the younger generation towards higher moral values. The digital communication systems link the human community, across the world, together. But we must ensure while been attuned to world trends that our children must be capable of appreciating our kind, gentle and compassionate way of life, built on the timeless teachings of the Supremely Enlightened Buddha.

Even when the printed medium was first introduced to Sri Lanka by the Dutch technician who created the Sinhala types for the first Sinhala book that was printed, which was inspired by the pirivena-writing style. (Pirivena is a traditional Buddhist educational institute).

Make children appreciate books

On this occasion when we celebrate Literature and especially The Book, the younger generation should be guided to show deference to this prestigious artefact called The Book. Children must appreciate that although The Book is a commonplace object, it is also a daily miracle when we observe its astonishing evolution over a period spanning nearly 40 centuries. When children value that picturesque history of The Book, they will begin to turn to high literary classics which are a human heritage.

As the digital era advances, someday the printed book may totally disappear. I am quite certain that many people who are sober and thoughtful would not want that to happen.

Therefore, the Literary Week should be a festival in Sri Lanka, that will celebrate The Book, and should be an occasion when the younger generation would pledge to protect this great human treasure called The Book, even though they rely on digital and other instant methods of communications. And, please remember, religion and priests have from very early times, been the custodians of the Art of Writing and the preservers of book-culture.

(The writer is the Chief incumbent of the Japan Naritasan Joso Temple, the Founder of the Daham Sevane Singiththo, and the International Development Foundation)

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