For thousands of years in Sri Lanka the Buddhist teachings were passed down written on ola, or palm, leaves. The oldest ola leaves in the world are around 500 years old, but normally they only last for around 200+ years before they have to be copied again.
That means that the primary witness to the teachings have been copied time and time again by dedicated scribes through the ages before they reached the age of paper, and then digital, publication.
There has therefore been a tremendous amount of work involved, mainly by the Sangha members, in order to bring the teachings down to the present day.
Even when ola leaves were being used, they were mainly a kind of aide-de-memoir for trained recitors (bhāṇaka) who had in fact memorised the texts, and the manuscripts are full of peyyāla, or repetition, passages, which the recitor would fill in once he had his cue. This is often forgotten in modern editions and translations of the texts, where the repetitions are omitted.
More often than not what we read in translation is in fact only a kind of ‘Reader’s Digest’ version of the actual text, and this distorts not only the architecture of the text, but also the force with which it is contemplated.
Anybody reading the Pāḷi texts in the original can tell you how much more powerful the texts are when they are recited aloud, and it is evident that they reflect an oral, not a written, tradition.
When I was in Sri Lanka I was often going round temples looking at ola leaf manuscripts for various projects I was working on.
When I was living in Chetiya Giriya aranya in Matale district I was not far from Pallepola where one learned monk was still keeping up the tradition of writing on ola leaves, and indeed teaching his students the art as well.
I had reason to consult this monk when I was preparing my edition of the chanting book Safeguard Recitals, and I often found him sitting quietly writing on ola leaves when I approached.
The method itself is quite interesting, as the letters, in fact, can barely be seen as they are being written, they are carved with a stylus into a prepared leaf, which leaves only a faintly visible impression on the leaf.
Only when it is finished is it possible to rub into the groove a specially prepared type of black ink, made from charcoal of a certain tree mixed with oil, at which point the letter becomes clear.
I often expressed admiration for the ongoing work I was interrupting, and one day Ven Wimalaratana asked me if I would like a book he had copied of the Dhammacakkappavattanasuttaṁ. I accepted of course and it has been one of the prized possessions for over a decade.
Recently I obtained a mouse-scanner which is able to scan up to A3 size objects and so the first thing I did was to scan the ola leaves in this book, and make a transcript which I have now published on Ancient Buddhist Texts as an example of ola leaf writing.
Ven Wimalaratana had a particularly fine hand and used the old Sinhala letters for writing the Pāḷi text not all of which are even found in printed editions, so it also has a value because of that. Even though the letters are in Sinhala script I hope you will be able to value the work done.
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