Tipitakadhara Examination in Burma

Yesterday I found this very interesting website, explaining details about the Tipitakadhara examination in Burma:


Among a list of the curriculum for memorizing the Tipitaka by heart, it says:

An argument may arise that nowadays, with the Buddha’s words already inscribed on palm-leaf, folding book, stone slab, ink print, books and even in CDs, the bearing by heart of his words is unnecessary. The physical inscription and the mental impression at heart are not the same. The former is useful only in presence of the user for it might vanish anytime. There is no benefit whatsoever when the physical inscriptions cannot be obtained at will.

However, impressions retained at heart of the Buddha’s words benefit one whenever they are recollected, being helpful at any time. Such a person is able to walk straight on the path of Dhamma, while being helpful to his surroundings. Output equals the input concerning the learning process to bring up Tipitakadhara.

When learning by heart the Pâli Texts, one personally “meets” with their possessor the Buddha, bringing into oneself the infinite Attributes of him. In oneself the adoration for and conviction in the Buddha grow overwhelmingly, leading to the missionary inclination by way of prolonging the Buddhist spirit and teaching the Path. Insight grows in one while learning the Pali Texts in conjunction with the elaborative Commentaries and Sub-commentaries. Brimful with the adoration for and appreciation of the Buddha’s attributes, wisdom and perfections, one is never bound to deviate from his teachings. With the consciousness at heart about the benefit to oneself and fellow beings the victorious earner of “Tipitakadhara, Tipitakakovida” will always be beautifying the world, carrying the Banner of Victory in Dhamma.

Now, this is a very very tough examination. The attempt is done to memorize the Tipitaka by heart. As you can imagine, there are not many who are able to succeed:

In the long (59 years) story of Tipitakadhara Examination the candidates enlisted numbered 7103, the actual participants 5474, partially passed 1662, but only 11 have been awarded the Tipitakadhara Tipiíakakovida title. Among those outstanding theras 4 have passed away. The departed might now have attained the supreme bliss, the Deathless, or being reborn in the celestial abodes, they might be discoursing on Buddha Dhamma there. The remaining 3 Tipitakadharas probably will pass the written, interpretative examinations in near future and obtain the Tipiíakakovida, thus ending their long and arduous journey of sitting for these examinations. Again, some of the remaining candidates are indeed bearers of one main division of Pitakas… One-Pitaka-passed candidates now number up to 114, two-Pitaka-passed 13 and 2½-Piíaka-passed 5.

These numbers are still amazing.

Just last week I had an interesting discussion with a young monk from Sri Lanka who explained the drawback in recording Dhamma talks. He said his teacher explained that they had seen people being less attentive and concentrated when Dhamma talks where recorded – it seemed to be almost an excuse to postpone the training. From there we went to books, thinking that a book is something like that, postponing you from memorizing the instructions of the Buddha. “Maybe that is why”, reflected the young monk, “the Buddha had his monks memorize his teachings – so that they would practice them more immediate and directly”.


Width vs Depth

Just came across the following passage about the Burmese Tipitakadhara examination which tests monks for their memorization abilities:

Thus, the Tipitakadhara Examination is one of the longest and toughest examinations in the world. When the first Tipitakadhara Examination was held, the Venerable Mingun Sayādaw was one of over one hundred monks invited to observe the proceedings. When the result was a disappointment with no candidate successful, he resolved to repay the nation’s debt in search of a hero of the Pariyatti Sāsana. He set about the task systematically. He took up the Pāli Canon passage by passage, book by book. He first set out to understand the passage thinking in Myanmar and in Pāli. He broke the passage into sentences, paragraphs or sections according to the degree of difficulty. If necessary, he noted the number of modifications and variations in the selected pieces. He read aloud each section five times, then closing the book, he repeated what he had just recited. If he was hesitant or felt he had not mastered the passage he would open the book and read aloud five more times. If it was recalled smoothly he would recite it ten times and then pass on to the next passage. In the evenings when reciting the day’s passages he would not do it alone but request some other monk to check with the open book. This ensured that he did not pass over any word, phrase or sentence and that each declension was correct.

When two or three books had been mastered he would set aside each evening two or three periods required for their recall and recitation. The intention was to go through the finished books simultaneously so that the mind would be active in all the books at the same time and all interrelationships would be discerned

I wasn’t sure whether I would continue learning each Dhammapada chapter individually (like I did with Chapter 13), but I eventually decided against it. Simultaneously cycling through all chapters and adding 3 verses at a time forces me to go over the entire Dhammapada all the time and strengthen the “story” structure of each Dhammapada chapter.

Right now I am in the second cycle of adding 3 more verses (so 6 total) for each Dhammapada chapter (except chapter 13 which I finished completely).

The only benefit I can see with taking them one chapter at a time is that you have more “finished” blocks you can look back on. Still, it might be disheartening to see how many chapters are still in front of you, while with my current method I have the “feeling” I already “have” the Dhammapada memorized – just 3 verses deep, and all I have to do is add “the few verses missing” (psychologically speaking).

It is very interesting how these verses grow on you. I wonder if and what impact this memorization process had on the Burmese masters.

26 stories in 26 days

Done. Not with the entire Dhammapada, but the first milestone: to learn 3 verses of each chapter. That is 26 chapters times 3 = 78 Dhammapada verses (in Pali) in 26 days. Not bad, considering the last time I memorized something of this size was over 15 years ago.

Today too I would like to share some observations about this whole process (memorizing Pali). As outlined in my earlier posts, I created stories (strings of associations) which formed around the meaning of the Dhammapada verses as well as peg words which help me to identify the exact verse number and order of verses within chapters.

The following are “my” 26 short stories which evolved through trying to pull peg words and meaning of the verses into extra-ordinary, funny, interesting “tales”:

1.) does not have one…(sorry, I am sooo used to the first 3 verses…this will get a story eventually, when it gets more complicated.)
2.) a cow kneeing feeding on a pasture and meditating
3.) observing little mummies walking up a mountain with a volcanic lake
4.) a rower in a river of flowers
5.) a foolish thief stuck on a skyscraper
6.) a wise FBI detective caught in an underground prison
7.) a holy cow driving a bus
8.) a poisonous ivy’s fruits being stolen by Mike Tyson
9.) a deadly bee attacking a hot dog
10.) a sprint over living logs floating on the Danube
11.) diving into the dark ocean where a sunken village crumbles
12.) a small forsaken island with survivors fighting against a flower
13.) a river dam who decides to go on a hike after having a deja vu
14.) a pool of tar with the Buddha reaching out to pull people to the shore
15.) a happy dog whose tail looks like a cigar and who was rescued from lots of angry dogs
16.) a newsboy throwing dishes into people’s (which look like little nuts) drive ways
17.) the same angry bee digging a whole which almost makes a coach, pulled by a baby, break
18.) a dove, pale and yellow, which is close to death and decides to make its PhD but dies in a desert in New Mexico
19.) a very very wise talking bath tub
20.) a money seeking dog on the right path
21.) a net of nerves on which gigantic tarantulas chase Sindbad
22.) a nun giving a massage and a monk wearing the robes like a mask
23.) an elephant in a mensa following a naga serpent and walking over giant mint leaves
24.) emperor Nero travelling through time and hugging a creeper with leaves made of jam jars
25.) a bhikkhu sitting on a board of nails (meditating) while someone tries to disturb him with a lit matches
26.) a seemingly conceited brahmin who tries to cross over a stream quickly but loses against two friends in a moving truck

This will make it hard for anyone to forget. The necessity of having to find associations between peg words (dove = 18) and the verse number (animal = 235) and the topic (Mala = taint) and the verse itself (in this case being close to death) lead to some VERY funny VERY creative stories.

After about a week I realized that Mr Lorayne was absolutely right in his book when I emphasized again and again that you have to visually SEE your association – even if it is just for a brief moment. More than once I was stuck and not able to repeat a particular line because I had not created any visual imaging for that particular line. Now I have to clarify: I did NOT create a visual image for each verse line in every verse. Some of the verses went into memory like butter, they stuck right away, they were very very easy to recollect, even after long time, but others I had a really hard time with. Those which were hard, I realized I needed to identify the crucial words, the key words, which would help me pull the remainder of a line or phrase into memory – and then I would create a picture around those key concepts/words in my mind.

This really helped. One of the problems I saw was that when a line was very abstract I tried to dismiss it and “hope” that the memory of the visual for the line before or after would do the trick and help me later recall that particular verse line. Sometimes that actually does work in many cases it did not. The solution to this problem was easy: I had to do the “word substitution” trick and find a similar sounding more visual idea in another language I was familiar with and turn that into the theme for the particular verse. To give you an example: In Dhammapada verse Mummel (335) the first line has the Pali word “jammi” which I was not used to and which was hard to recall. So I would turn that into “jam” and imagine Nero (chapter 24 = Tanha, or Craving) as part monkey (from the first verse in this chapter) who cuddles (German: mummel) with a creeper on which jars of jam grow (jammi). As you can see, this visual is LOADED with meaning. Now it is not so much a problem of not forgetting this weird story – but rather a question of decoding it properly!

In most cases I tried to transform or direct my association according to the general idea behind the verse. The verse ideas therefore were like the script into which I had to creatively force the peg words through means of associations and substitute words.

One word regarding the amount of repetitions. Overall I maybe repeated each of these 98 verses 5-10 times. Not at the same time but within the last 3 weeks. The power of these visual images allows for a much more relaxed approach to repetition cycles. In fact when learning a verse one evening sometimes a whole day would pass before I was able to repeat the same verse again and was always surprised with how less of an effort it was able to recall the correct verse. At that point it adds to your confidence and the next repetition can take place after an even greater interval. It is clear that if you casually bring these stories to your mind eventually the whole picture/visual gets clearer (that is something else I found very important to work on: trying to make the visual story more and more crisp through each repetition) and will become part of long term memory.

It is a strangely positive feeling to see the mind WANTING to learn yet another verse after already loading it up with 3 verses within a short period of time and having almost no difficulty in going up and down, word by word, over the text thus committed to memory.

Even more important and interesting are of course the results these verses have on your Dhamma life. I found them to be like a voice of the Buddha talking to me. For instance the other day I left a place were I listened to two people talk – in a very unrestrained way – and sometimes something which is meant in a funny way can hurt other people. Driving back home the Bhikkhu Vagga verse shot into my memory, all by itself – “kayena samvaro sadhu, sadhu vacaya samvaro” and I felt a much deeper appreciation for the meaning and relevance of what these words had to say. It was also interesting to note once again, as mentioned in the last post, to see how the stream of sankharas started to change my perception on certain things trough the re-evaluation in the light of the Buddha’s words of wisdom. Here another one: yo ce gatha satam bhase, anatthapadasamhita – eka gathapadam seyyo, yam sutva upasammati – the word upasammati expresses a beautiful idea: that the ultimate purpose of words should be the end of words – the silence of the mind! what a contrast to the gossipy internet-faring mind 😉

Enough for today. If someone likes to get a detailed explanation of how the above 26 short stories encode Dhammapada verses I am happy to share. Don’t worry if all of this makes absolutely no sense to you 😉

The singing roach

Today marks the end of nearly 2 weeks of memorization efforts with the Dhammapada using mnemonic principles to speed up the process of memorization and to make sure that I would not forget what I learned.

After I had finished learning the names of the chapters of the Dhammapada by heart and after finishing the first verse of each chapter last week, I had to think how to continue mapping out the Dhammapada “mentally”.

I decided to continue with the “top down” approach and started learning two more verses in each chapter. This way, so my reflection, I would be able to work on all chapters in parallel. This would give me the feeling that I was quickly progressing on the entire Dhammapada – rather than feeling “stuck” in the very beginning.

Right at this moment, today, I finished the 2nd and 3rd verse of chapter 17, Kodha-vagga. That means of chapters 1-17 I now know 3 verses by heart and of the remaining 9 chapters one verse each.

Over the past few days as this little self-study took on shape, I was wondering quite often how this engaged activity of learning Pali verses by heart would affect me and my meditation practice. I was sure it would, but I was wondering how and if I’d notice it at all.

Then, one day, I suddenly saw at least one side effect: In the morning I overheard a conversation and later that day my mind came back to it. While thinking about it a Dhammapada verse manifested itself in my mind – obviously pulled in through the association of what had been the subject of my investigation and the meaning which the verse captured. It was interesting to see, how the observation about something very mundane turned into a deeper reflection after my mind connected both the experience with the word of the Buddha. It became clear to me, that if this would happen more often and quite naturally, the interpretation of certain experience must change over time. I guess there is nothing mysterious about this observation, in fact we do that everyday – however in a more uncontrolled fashion impacted by greed, hatred and delusion.

To give you a practical example: In a discussion the question came up how to respond to a person who had gone behind the back of his team members and broke a promise he had given before. Immediately the following Dhammapada verse sprang to my mind and was showing a possible way of action which seemed very enlightened:

Akodhena jine kodham, asadhum sadhuna jine

Jine kaddariyam danena, saccenalikavadinam

Dhp 223

Through non-anger defeat the angry one, through goodness defeat the bad;

Defeat the miser through giving and the liar through speaking the truth.

To show you how the linking of a story continues to work excellent in my efforts to learn the Dhammapada by heart based on mnemonic principles, I would like to continue my “picture story” of the Puppha or Flower chapter (No. 4) in the Dhammapada.

You will probably NOT understand why the following makes such an amazing difference if you never experienced linking associations consciously or never employed a peg system to memorize number. Anyhow, here is the puppha vagga story which helps me remember the 3 beginning verses (so far) of the puppha vagga:

The puppha vagga is chapter number four in the Dhammapada, because four in the Major System (which unambiguously maps Phonemes against numbers) stands for “Ra” (a peg word with just one sound in it, namely “r” and thus can only refer to one number and that is 4) – and in my mind I imagine the Egyptian sun god Ra to walk through a field of flowers in which only his head his visible.

Now, out of that first picture I imagine that there is a rower  (verse no. 44) in a boat traveling on that ocean of flowers.

Ko imam pathavim vicessati, yamalokanca imam sadevakam

Ko dhammapadam sudesitam, kusalo pupphamiva pacessati.

In my mind my mental “camera” then moves to the “shore” of this “river of flowers” where I see someone standing on the rail (verse no. 45) who listened to what the guy in the boat just said and replies:

Sekho pathavim imam vicessati, yamalokanca imam sadevakam

Sekho dhammapadam sudesitam, kusalo pupphamiva pacessati.

Finally, my “mental camera” moves back to the person in the boat, but now I see a little roach  (verse no. 46) standing in front of the boat singing the following lines (In order to not forget any of the lines of this verse which is a bit harder for me to remember, I mapped each line of the verse into the story – sometimes I do that, sometimes I don’t. But so far I found that I HAVE to do this, if I come across a verse which not readily stays in memory. It is paramount to not losing the context and flow and having something to connect my associations):

So the roach starts to sing:

Phenupamam kayam imam viditva

“(Having seen this body as a lump of foam” – at which point the roach points to a lump of foam in the river.

Maricidhammam abhisambudhano

“Having awoken to the fact that (it) is of the nature of a mirage” – at which point in the song I see the roach flicker as if it itself is just a mirage

Chetvana marassa papupphakani

“Having broken Maras poisenous arrows” – here I see the roach fighting arrows off which are shot at him from all sides with his tiny sword.

Adassanam maccurajassa gaccha

“May walk unseen by the king of death” – and finally the little roach walks over the water and suddenly disappears.

You can understand, that if someone would ask you, “do you know Dhammapada verse 46” – that it would make you smile 😉 before you even give the answer, which I am sure, would be correct.

And if, for instance, you ask me what the verse 78 in the Dhammapada would be I first map the number back to a work and arrive at  cave  and thus immediately know the association of the cave with a person who is hiding behind paper-boards (Pappe) and someone tells him not to hide behind the small boards but rather the large ones which triggers my memory of the following Dhammapada verse:

Na bhaje papake mitte

Na bhaje purisadhame

Bhajetha mitte kalyane

Bhajetha purisuttame

One might think that this is complicated, but in fact, it is an amazingly simple trick to remember ad-hoc a verse deep in the middle of a book while at the same time being able to retrieve the verse number through an unambiguous visual/mental encoding schemata where the picture of a cave can only stand for the number 78.

First (real) target: The Dhammapada

After the initial testing of Pali, Mnemonics and Harry Lorayne’s tips I waited one full week to see how long those stories would stay in my long term memory and how often I would have to recall them in order to make them easily accessible. Mnemonic techniques were working their magic and even though my habits from pure rote learning made me “feel” like I had to recall the learned subject over and over again, I was always amazed how perfectly the story sat in my memory and how easy it was to access the lists.

During that week I did some research on my next object for memorization. First I was undecided between the Parayana vagga of the Sutta Nipata and the Dhammapada. Obviously the Dhammapada was quite a big undertaking (423 verses) but of course I had my hopes up that my teenage memorization of it would help me and make it easier to “refresh” and then better organize it using the nearly learned tools of memorization.

The Parayana vagga is another long term friend of mine, a chapter capturing some of the most in-depth ideas of Buddhist philosophy and meditation and I had tried earlier, 10 years ago, to learn some of it by heart, but never made it beyond the 4th or 5th sutta (of 16).

I finally decided to go for the Dhammapada. I was curious to see if it was true what many memory “acrobats” said that “you never forget you just can’t find it” and I also decided to test this whole mnemonics meets Tipitaka idea on an actual book of the Tipitaka. It was curious to me whether another top to bottom approach would work in first mapping out the book structure and then filling it with life.

So the first thing I had to do was to learn the 26 books of the Dhammapada by heart. Now this did not seem to be such a big jump anymore, based on my previous experience with the books of the Tipitaka, but I faced one problem, which I had to solve, because it would even get bigger the further I came: direct access 😉

Let’s say someone would ask me to chant the 16th chapter of the Dhammapada…how would I know which one was the 16th? Would I want to count the chapter names, walking through a simple associated list of visuals? Or, let’s say I would remember a verse in a given situation, and wanted to share it with others or just lookup translations myself, how would I know how to locate that particular passage?

It was clear that my next endeavor needed the application of the Major system or a similar peg system which I had just started to use based on Harry Lorayne’s instructions.

So I started to learn the chapter names of the Dhammapada by heart identifying each chapter (for instance toes (10) with Danda and nail(25) with Bhikkhu) when I realized that the number pegs were going to be needed in many other books/contexts (if I were to continue this project of mine) and so I needed something else to make these pegs and their names relate to the Dhammapada. For that purpose (quite naturally) I lined up the chapter names on a hiking path which I knew very well and added a touch of  the loci system to make these particular items belong to the visual representation of the Dhammapada which I was about to fill with details.

Following the top-bottom approach I started with the first verse in each of the 26 chapters. My encoding seemed to be a challenging task:

  • At the point in the path where I would identify the chapter of the Dhammapada with a peg and an association
  • I took a sideturn and imagined the peg for the verse-number becoming part of the overall chapter heading and turning into the first eposide of the initial verse in each chapter.

Let me give you an example at this point to make it sound less theoretical:

The number 4 in the Major system is represented by the letter “r” (think: four). My peg for this letter is the word “Ra” – and I visualize the Egyptian sun god.

Now the fourth chapter in the Dhammapada is the “puppha” or flower chapter (my luck, I don’t have to look this up anymore 😉

So in my mind I visualized the Egyptian sun god walking through a field of flowers, where only his head sticks out of this ocean of flowers.

The verse number of the initial verse in this “Flower chapter” is 44. A 44 is represented by the letters (rr) and the peg word according to Lorayne’s list in his “The Memory Book” is “rower” (r-owe-r). You need to really understand the idea behind the Major System in order to realize why that is such a cool system and makes it extremely easy to remember numbers.

What I had to do next was to somehow visualize a “rower” and “flowers”. This I did, in that I “saw” the rower in his boat row on top of the ocean of flowers as if he was on water.

Now came the final and tricky part. The four line verse itself. The verse goes like this:

“Ko imam pathavim vicessati, yamalokam imam sadevakam. Ko dhammapadam sudesitam, kusalo pupphamiva pacessati?”

As you may have guessed, this too came from memory. What was to be done? I imagined how the rower would look left and right towards the “banks”  of the flower-river wondering about the meaning of the verse. Here at this point I saw how it helped that I had learned the verses 15 years ago – it was very easy to memorize them, they felt extremely familiar. The most important fact was that I needed triggers to find the key words to the verses encoded in my story – something which I initially did not realize as much as later on.

Within 3 hours I was able to fill the grid of 23 beginning verses of each chapter (out of 26 chapters) and finished that day with amazed at how interesting it was to learn the Dhammapada this way. It seemed almost effortlessly compared to the pains of rote memorization and I caught myself wondering quite often that it was impossible to still remember so many verses after just “loading them up” in such a short time, but still, the little stories which kept the verses tight closely to the topic of the chapter and tagged by the verse number pegs brought back all of them. The next day I finished the full list of 26 verses – the first one of each chapter – and I knew for the next weekend I was ready to try something more challenging.

Dealing with the length of the Smaller Collection

Fired up by the ability to recall the list of the seven Abhidhamma books backwards and forwards using the little mnemonic pocket trick of creating a linked association list, I decided to devote my intention that same evening towards the last challenge (or so I thought) – memorizing all the books in the Khuddaka Nikaya (Smaller Collection of the Sutta Pitaka) and memorize them in order.

For I could (with enough time) probably had listed most of the books in the Khuddaka Nikaya (as the Sutta Pitaka was always my main area of interest) it still was intriguing to see if I was able to build an extended list of strange Pali names into an unforgettable association. You might guess the answer – of course it is. Here is what I came up with:

It all starts out with a small (Khuddaka, for Khuddakapatha the first book) really microscopic book which I can identify as a Dhammapada using a magnifier. That Dhammapada has a mouth and can talk and it shouts (Udana, actually means proclaim): “This is what the Buddha has said (Iti vutta, for Itivuttaka)” and it points to the Sutta-Nipata. Right at that moment, flying (Vimanavatthu) on two open books arrive hungry ghosts (Petavatthu). In the distance encircling me I see a semi circle of the most noble Arahants sitting and chanting (Thera– and Therigatha) while behind them in space (and time) even less known Theras and Theris (Thera/TheriApadana) are sitting. I try to look even further back in time and see the former Buddhas (Buddhavamsa) and their examplary behavior (Cariyapitaka) and further down the timeline I see the Jatakas. Then, the “mental camera” returns to the topic of the Sutta-Nipata which was just “proclaimed” by the tiny Dhammapada and I see two elephants, a large and a baby one (Mahaniddesa and Culaniddesa) carrying the meaning (niddesa) of the Suttanipata side by side towards a crossroads (Patisambhiddamagga). There they are being led (Nettipakarana) by a little walking basket (Petakopadesa) towards the goal of their journey, the Milindapanha).

You can imagine that the above story lives from the fact that Pali words and meaning do make sense to me and so become natural part of the story telling or settings. However, later I found that it helped tremendously when I was able to find a substitute word (similar sounding) to the Pali and capture the substitutes meaning making it part of the (Pali) story I try to remember. More on that next.

Linking the Abhidhamma

So I looked at the books in the Abhidhamma and thought – wow, how can I possibly create a story out of these names. I knew that if I was going to use more mnemonics for a larger part of my efforts in memorizing parts of the Tipitaka, that this would be the first real world test: Can these mnemonic tools actually work on something like a “foreign language” (my efforts where directed in learning the Tipitaka in Pali) and secondly on something so different than from what the mnemonic tools seemed to be used for.

Here is the list and it took me about 20 minutes this time to come up with a story:

  • Dhammasangani,
  • Vibhanga,
  • Dhatukatha,
  • Puggalapannyatti,
  • Kathavatthu,
  • Yamaka,
  • Patthana.

I am pretty sure you know by now that these 7 names came from my memory. I did not have to look them up. They are burned into my head – all just because of the silly story I connected them with and as long as I don’t forget that story, I won’t forget those seven names. Here is the story (and if, for whatever exciting reason, you ever want to learn them by heart, you probably have to come up with your own story, which might come more natural to you).

So what I imagined was several books with heads, arms and heads, sitting around a table playing cards. Now “sangani” in Pali can mean “count together” and I imagined that one of these venerable card-playing Abhidhamma books was “counting the Dhamma coins” together, amassing them in one big heap in the middle of the table. Then another talking book, the Vibhanga started dividing (vibhanga in Pali) the heap of money into three equal amounts. Suddenly the Dhatukatha book, one of the players shouted “let’s do something (here I use German where “Da-tu” reminded me of “there do” something) with the money. So the books hand the money over to one of the players who is also a book but has dozens of heads sticking out of it. That is the puggala-pannyatti (puggala means person and I think of all the persons that book represents with its multiple heads). The puggala-pannyatti takes the Dhamma chips and starts walking towards the Kathavatthu with whom it wants to start a conversation (katha in Pali) what to best do with the money when all of a sudden the God of shadows (Yama) shows up hovering about him and scolding him about playing cards. Yama (reminds me of the Yamaka) points to the ground and the poor Puggala-Pannyatti realizes that it only stands (Patthana) on a small remaining piece of rock while the earth around it is crumbling and falling into Lava – it does not look good for the gamblers… 🙂

This story fulfilled several mnemonic criteria which helped me make it unforgettable: I use unlikely events, unlikely weird objects and strange situations but still manage to weave them into a story. If you think that there is too much pathos and too many cartoonish elements in it – you are right. That is exactly what makes it work. At that point I discovered another interesting fact: It was actually quite easy to come up with weird associations because I was able to use multiple languages and Western-Eastern (sometimes contradicting) symbols and tie them into a story. That weird combination challenged my visualization and interest and made it even more likely to remember the list.

Enter the Structure

Eventually it dawned on me that what I needed to do first was to get a proper structure of the terrain into my mind. Something like a map, a “mind-map” of the Tipitaka. The idea was not to start in the first book, first sentence (like a bottom up approach) but to start out with the structure of the Tipitaka, the sceleton. Then, from that point onwards I would “flesh out” the different books, chapters, verses/passages I would want to keep in memory and build a “tree of knowledge”.

So one weekend I decided to start very simple and just learn the book names of the Tipitaka by heart.

Now, a short glance at any content listing of the Tipitaka will tell you that this is not a too hard thing todo, especially if you just read “The Memory Book” and had lots  of training in linking items.

Now the linking of items works in such a way that you try to connect the things you want to learn (in this case “names of books”) and weave them into funny mental stories. Now these stories will be different for each person as things which help me remember for instance the “Parajikavagga” of the Vinaya will mean nothing to you. Still, let me show you how I started and you will get the idea:

The books of the Vinaya are:

Parajikavagga, Pacittiyavagga, Mahavagga, Culavagga, Parivara.

One might say, this is such an easy list, I don’t need any fancy technique to learn them. That is true. For this list, but then again, how can you make sure that in 40 years from now your chances of remembering this list are as high as possible? The trick that Mnemonics teaches you let me to create a funny little story in my mind – and the importing thing is to really really visualize each item (even if just for a second) in such a way that they remind you of the item.

So I started with “Parajika” and turned that (after 10 minutes of thinking what this could be pictured as) into an “Indian king who sat on a throne always saying pa-pa-pa” (stuttering raja) – which of course reminds me then of “Pa-raj-(ika)”. Suddenly a “pa-cheetah” (Pacittiya) jumps from behind a curtain towards the king. The king sees the cheetah and jumps out of a window where he lands on a huge elephant (maha, meaning big in Pali) floating in the air next to a liliput elephant (cula). Both of them are surrounded (encircled) by a band of golden light (pari-vara, can mean circumference).

And that’s it. It’s a silly funny little story but captures all the 5 books for the Vinaya (for me).

Then I thought. Well, that was easy, I can sure do the same with the Abhidhamma. Even though I had a pretty good knowledge of the makeup of the Sutta and roughly of the Vinaya I always struggled with the Abhidhamma books. This was going to be the first real challenge.

How the journey began

Yaññadeva, bhikkhave, bhikkhu bahulamanuvitakketi anuvicāreti, tathā tathā nati hoti cetaso

Majjhima Nikaya

satthā dhammaṃ deseti, aññataro vā garuṭṭhāniyo sabrahmacārī, api ca kho yathāsutaṃ yathāpariyattaṃ dhammaṃ vitthārena paresaṃ deseti. Yathā yathā, bhikkhave, bhikkhu yathāsutaṃ yathāpariyattaṃ dhammaṃ vitthārena paresaṃ deseti tathā tathā so tasmiṃ dhamme atthapaṭisaṃvedī ca hoti dhammapaṭisaṃvedī ca. Tassa atthapaṭisaṃvedino dhammapaṭisaṃvedino pāmojjaṃ jāyati. Pamuditassa pīti jāyati. Pītimanassa kāyo passambhati. Passaddhakāyo sukhaṃ vedeti. Sukhino cittaṃ samādhiyati. Idaṃ, bhikkhave, dutiyaṃ vimuttāyatanaṃ yattha bhikkhuno appamattassa ātāpino pahitattassa viharato avimuttaṃ vā cittaṃ vimuccati, aparikkhīṇā vā āsavā parikkhayaṃ gacchanti, ananuppattaṃ vā anuttaraṃ yogakkhemaṃ anupāpuṇāti.

Anguttara Nikaya

You are absentminded when your mind is absent; when you perform actions unconsciously, without thinking…we see with our eyes, but we observe with our minds. If your mind is “absent” when performing an action, there can be no observation; more important, there can be no Original Awareness…The solution to the problem of absentmindedness is both simple and obvious: All you have to do is to be sure to think of what you are doing during the moment in which you are doing it…There’s only one way, and that is by using association. Since association forces Original Awareness-and since being Originally Aware is the same as having something register in your mind in the first place, at the moment it occurs-then forming an instant association must solve the problem of absentmindedness.

“The Memory Book”

Chances are that if you are an ardent reader of the Sutta Pitaka the thought of learning the word of the Buddha by heart comes  quite natural. For centuries Buddhist lay people and monks transferred the knowledge and word of the Awakened One and his teaching through space and time by no other means than their memory.

The other day I was listening to a series of Dhamma talks, at a retreat event, and this very inspiring young bhikkhu, whose modesty prevents me from even mentioning is name, mentioned the following idea a couple of times: “What are we, if not a collection of our memories.” (He did not mean this in the more philosophical sense, but rather worldly context) and he finished “how much would our lives change, if our perceptions, triggered by memories of the words of the Awakened One change, would be different ones…filled with more enlightened thoughts”. This particular monk’s tradition put a lot of effort in making contemplation on the word of the Buddha a subject for their meditation and made me look back at my beginning years as a Buddhist.

For when I was a young teenager, first getting in touch with the magic word of the Buddha, I was so fascinated by it (including the stories of those Arahants who all did know the Dhamma by heart – not just in realization but also verbatim from the lips of the Buddha) that I undertook the strange project to memorize the Dhammapada by heart. I was 16 when I started, with nothing more equipped than Ven. Nyanatiloka’s translation and my simple rote memorization efforts.

In fact it was Kurt Schmidt’s Pali primer, who first got me into learning Pali by heart. In his small booklet,which was my first introduction to Pali, right from the start, he encourages the student to consolidate his miniscule Pali knowledge in each chapter by memorizing a few stanzas. From there I went on learning the 3 famous suttas, many months later and under lots of effort, because they simply were chanted worldwide in all Theravada circles and I thought it would be “nice” to know at least those texts by heart – if the monk was able to chant them by heart, why not me?

And then, a year later, it was the Dhammapada which I entered into. It was a slow, ardous task. Every morning, I would learn a verse, repeat it. Look it up. Repeat it, look it up, repeat it, look it up – over and over again. Probably for half an hour before going to school. Then the next day, I would check if I still remembered the last one, and if, would move to the next. At the end repeating both… When I felt that a verse was stuck in memory, I skipped repeating it.

That way, in the most ordinary and innocent school-poem-memorization way, I proceeded over the length of 1.5 years and made it up to the 23rd (of 26 chapters). But even then wholes had formed in my memory of the Dhammapada and it seemed like sisyphos work to be able to keep all of it accessible and alive.

This was years before the internet become mainstream, and so Tony Buzan – memorization tricks and mnemonics were unknown unknowns to me. (I think, when it came to memorizing, it did not even occur to me that there might be better ways of doing it than, well, memorizing).

This was over 15 years ago.

When the monk’s Dhamma talk inspired me to look back into the possible benefits of learning some of the teachings of the Buddha verbatim I thought of it as an interesting self-experiment. It was intriguing to find out how the exercise of learning and carrying the Buddha’s word as an act of meditative attention would benefit me. But I knew – this time – I was going to go about it in a more scientific manner.

During the years I had read some of Tony Buzan’s books and at University got familiar with the various systems of association, link building etc. But for whatever reason, it never really hit me and became part of my habits. Something which I regretted – very much like the fact that of the Dhammapada memorization efforts only 2-4 verses were left in my memory. Or so I thought.

The first thing an internet user in the year 2011 does if he wants to venture into a new area of learning is of course to google the subject untiringly. That’s what I did. For about a week I was skimming online websites about Tony Buzan (that’s where I started out) and various systems for memorization – I knew their theory, but they did not mean anything to me at that time other than academic theories – only used by weird people in weird public memorization appearances.

Then I came across Josh Foers book “Moonwalking with Einstein”. I knew it was not a book on the art of mnemonics, which I was actually looking for, as I still had no clue has how to connect mnemonics of the 21st century with the task of memorizing the Tipitaka – but that was actually what I intended to do – or at least attempt.

Josh’s book was a great motivational source. In a very accessible way he showcases his own personal journey into mnemonic techniques and during the process describes the subcultur of mnemonics as a sport of competition. Among the many interesting people and experiences he relates there was the one I kept coming back: A Chinese Dr who had memorized the entire Oxford English dictionary, some 50,000 words. In an online video on youtube he explains how he did it. And that really helped me in my pursuit of finding a way to “handle” the Tipitaka or, on a smaller scale, at least the memorization of a page, a chapter or a book in verbatim.

Because, the unfortunate fact remained that even while I was devouring Josh’s book, the online google search for learning books verbatim where very limited. In fact most resources deal with the Quran, which is learnt just by rote repetition and a few Christian pages which don’t do much differently – sometimes provide an additional repetition plan a la flashcards.

But I was looking for something else.

It dawned on me, that the first thing I had to do, was to update my knowledge on the basic memorization techniques as described by Josh and as I had studied long time ago from Buzan, but which were long forgotten – well, I knew them, but then again, I wanted some kind of proper guidance in refreshing my knowledge about them.

So I went to Amazon and looked at the reviews and ordered the book “The memory book” from Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas. Now, this book looked very old (in fact it was from the 80s) but the cover mentioned that over 2 Mio copies were in print (in the newest edition). I can believe that now. There is something about it which taught me more on memorization than all the Tony Buzan books together which I ever read – and that might not actually be Buzan’s fault but my own inadequacy in “getting it” in those days or from him.

After the first few chapters in which Harry Lorayne explains the basic principles of making things memorable and linking items together I was astonished (once again) how good this mnemonic stuff worked and disappointed at myself not having found this the day I was born.

Still 2 weeks passed, while I was studying “The memory book” while I was thinking and thinking how to best apply such a system to the verbatim memorization of longer passages, especially with the intention to recall them at will. More in my next post.