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