The 2006 talk by Richard Saloman that seems to have inspired the article is avaliable on "iTunes U". It's called "In Search of the Words of the Buddha".
He uses two stories from the Vinaya to illustrate what he thinks is a fundamental characteristic of the early Buddhist attitude towards scriptures: what matters is not so much the precise wording as the sense; the spirit rather than the letter of the law.
What Saloman describes as "a relatively liberal attitude towards the preservation of the scriptures" is hard to square with the precision that must have been required to maintain the relative uniformity of the nikaya/agama traditions. Perhaps they got conservative just before the major sectarian splits, just in time to save the relative unity of the early canon.
The first key quotation comes from the story of Saruputra's Awakening. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html
Sariputra asks Asvajit about the Buddha's teaching. In Salomon's paraphrase:
Asvajit said he's only a newcomer to the Buddhist community and did not consider himself competent to accurately or completely explain the Buddhist teachings in all their volume and complexity.
Sariputra replies: Just tell me the essential meaning, in detail or in brief. I only care about the meaning, never mind the words themselves.
The second quotation also comes from a story found in the Pali Vinaya, (Cullavagga, V. 33. 1). Salomon's paraphrase:
One day, two of his Buddhist disciples who were Brahmins by birth asked the Buddha whether he would allow them to render his teachings into the literary language of the Brahmanical elite, namely, Sanskrit. But the Buddha, who habitually avoided Sanskrit and always taught in the local vernacular dialect, replied that these Sanskrit speaking Brahmins must not adapt a single hegemonic language for the transmission of his words. Rather, he commanded, the Dharma must always be preached to people 'in their own dialect'.
Just for fun, here are a few Chinese parallels to these stories. Five parallels to the Asvajit/Sariputra exchange from here http://agama.buddhason.org/book/bb/bb03.htm
. Only the first two have Sariputra giving an opinion on the value of the spirit over the letter.
《佛本行集經》隋 闍那崛多 譯「我唯取真理，不好名與句，智者愛實義, 依義我修行。」
《Abhiniskramana Sutra》tr. Jñānagupta (523-619): Sariputra: I'm only after the truth, I'm not interested in terms and phrases. The wise love the true meaning. I practice according to the meaning.
《Dharmaguptaka Vinaya》tr. Buddhayaśas and Zhu Fonian (completed 413): Aśvajit: I'm not yet up to discoursing at length on the meaning. Today I can only briefly explain the essential teaching.
Sariputra: It doesn't matter if it's in brief or at length - the essential teaching is what I love to hear.
《根本說一切有部毘奈耶出家事》唐 義淨 譯「不能廣說。然我今者不能記文。略說其義。」底沙告曰「願說其義。」
《Mulasarvastivada Vinaya》tr. Yijing (635-713): Aśvajit: I can't explain the meaning at length. What's more, I can't remember the words right now. I will briefly explain the meaning.
Sariputra: Please do.
《Mahīśāsaka Vinaya》tr. Buddhayaśas and Zhu Fonian: Aśvajit: how could I declare the vast meaning of my teacher? Today I can only briefly explain the essential teaching.
《Mahāprajñāpāramitā śāstra》 tr. Kumarajiva (tr. 402-405): Aśvajit: how could I declare the great truth or explain at length the teachings of the Tathagata?
Sariputra: briefly explain the essential teaching!
Versions of 'the language question', from an article by the great Chinese Buddhist scholar Ji Xianlin (English) http://www.tuninst.net/LANG-RELIG/Lang- ... m#fn13-01b
Ji Xianlin suggests in a follow up article http://www.360doc.com/content/11/0113/1 ... 1662.shtml
that the Mulasarvastivadin and Sarvastivadin versions emphasise that it's an issue of recitation pronunciation rather than of language generally because they actually used Sanskrit to write the sutras.
In the Vinaya-mātrkā-sūtra
There were two Brahman Bhikkhus, named Usaha and Samadha, who went to the Buddha and said to him, "The disciples of the Buddha come from different castes of different places in different countries. Their language is not the same and their pronunciation is incorrect, and thus they distorted the right teachings of the Buddha. May the Blessed One allow us to carry out debates and compile the scriptures according to the Chandas way (referring to Sanskrit), so that the sentences may be arranged in order and the pronunciations corrected, in order to unveil the teachings of the Buddha." The Buddha told the Bhikkhus, saying, "In my teachings emphasis is not laid on rhetoric. What I mean is that the doctrines should not be misunderstood. They should be taught in any language which is understood by the people, according to their suitability." Therefore, his teachings were taught according to the circumstances of the land.
In the Dharmagupta-vinaya, Vol. LII:
There was a Bhikkhu named Bravery, who was the descendant of a Brahman family. He came to the presence of the Buddha, and after having worshipped him, he sat aside and said to the Blessed One, "Venerable Sir, the Bhikkhus come from different castes and have different names. They misinterpreted the teachings of the Buddha. May the Blessed One permit us to rearrange the Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit." The Buddha said, "You are fools! That would be a defacement to mix the Buddhist scriptures with a heretical language." He further said, "Recite the scriptures in the language of the country according to the custom of the people."
In the Mahisasaka-vinaya, Vol. XXVI:
There were two Brahman brothers who were versed in the Chandas-veda and later became monks in the Buddhist Order. They heard that the Bhikkhus were reciting the scriptures in an improper way, and said to them scornfully, "You venerable sirs have become monks for a long time, and yet you don't know the masculine and feminine genders, the singular and plural numbers, the present, past and futrue tenses, the long and short vowels, and the heavy and light acents. In such a way you are reciting the scriptures!" The Bhikkhus were ashamed to hear this remark, and the brothers went to the Buddha and reported the case to him. The Buddha said, "They are allowed to recite the scriptures in their own native tongue, only that they should not misunderstand the Buddha's meaning. No one is allowed to mix the Buddha's word with a heretical language. One who acted contrarily would be considered as having committed the offence sthulatyaya."
In the Sarvāstivāda-vinaya, Vol. XXXVIII:
Once the Buddha was in Sravasti. There were two Brahmans, one being names Gopa and the other one, Yapa, who had a devout faith in Buddhism and become Buddhist monks. They had formerly leaned the heretical four Vedas, and after having become monks they recited the Buddhist scriptures with Vedic intonations. Then one of them died, and the one who was alive forgot some passages of the scriptures and could not recite them fluently. He could not find a companion and was unhappy of it. Thus he told it to the Buddha, who said to the monks, "From now onwards anyone who recites the Buddhist scriptures with a heretical intonation will be considered as having committed the offence of Dukkata."
In the Mūlasarvāstivāda-nikāya-vinaya-samyuktavastu, Vol VI:
Once the Buddha was in Sravasti. At that time the Ven. Sāriputra ordained two Brahmans into the Order. One of them was called Ox-given and the other one, Ox-born. Both of them studied the recitation of Buddhist scriptures. Afterwards they travelled about and came to a village, where they obtained many offerings and took up their lodgings there. Now these two persons had formerly learned the grammatical method of Brahmanic hymns. So when they recited the Buddhist scriptures, they habitually followed their old method. Then one of them suddenly died of illness. The one who was living was grieved by the death of his friend, and forgot most of the scriptures through negligence. Thus he returned to Srāvasti and came to the Jetavana Grove. After having taken rest, he went to see the Ven. Kaundinya, to whom he paid his respect and said, "Venerable Sir, let us review the scriptures together." "Very well, I shall recite them for you," was the reply. After the elder had recited some passages of the scriptures, the monk said to him, "Venerable Sir, your recitation of the scriptures is mistaken. The vowels are not pronounced as long ones, and so there is something missing." The elder said in reply, "I have always recited the scriptures in this way." Thus the monk took his leave and went to see Asvajit, Bhadra, Mahānāma, Vasas, Yaśas, Pārna, Gavāmpati, Vimala, Subāhu and Rāhula, to each of whom he said, "Venerable Sir, let us review the scriptures together." "Very well, I shall recite the scriptures for you," was the reply. After the elder had recited some passages, etc. etc., the monk took his leave and went to see the Ven. Sāriputra, to whom he paid his respect and said, "Upādhyāya, let us review the scriptures together." While they were reciting the scriptures together the monk elongated the vowels, and Sāriputra pronounced them with double length. The monk said, "Venerable teacher, all the other elders are mistaken in their recitation. Only you, Venerable teacher, are correct in pronunciation and grammar." Sāriputra said to him, "You are a fool. You are mistaken yourself, and yet you slander those wise men, saying that they do not know how to recite the scriptures. None of the elders is mistaken in the recitation." Having been rebuked, the monk remained silent. Then the monks reported this to the Buddha, who thought in his mind, "All this trouble is caused by the elongation of vowels in the way of singing hymns when the monks recite the scriptures. Therefore the monks should not elongate the vowels in the way of singing hymns when they recite the scriptures. Any monk who recites the scriptures in the Chandas (Sanskrit) way shall be considered as committing a transgression. But one is not considered so, if the vowels are elongated according to his own dialect."