An Approach to Extended Memorization of The Tipitaka

Adopted from Dr. Andrew M. Davis

(my latest blog on this topic is dhammadharo.wordpress.com)

Index

1. Value of The Tipitaka memorization

2. Advantages of memorizing books of the Tipitaka as opposed to individual verses

3. Making the commitment before Buddha

4. Choosing your first book

5. Surveying the terrain

6. Daily procedures

        a) retaining old verses

        b) learning new verses

7. Long-term retention

8. Memorizing long books or memorizing faster

The Value of The Tipitaka Memorization

There are numerous spiritual benefits to the memorization of The Tipitaka. A proper assessment of these benefits begins with understanding the role of the written word of Buddha in our spiritual development. Buddha openly stated that our spiritual existence is based upon the word of the Buddha:

"But what quality is most helpful for penetrating the meaning?...Remembering the Dhamma... If one didn't remember the Dhamma, one wouldn't penetrate the meaning..." (MN 95:434)

The words of Buddha are written in only one place: the Tipitaka. Also, according to the Mahanamasutta one of our ongoing responsibilities is to "dedicate oneself to the remembrance of the Dhamma (dhammadharana)” (AN 8:25) and in numerous places the one who “has heard much (bahussuto) is praised:

"At that time the upasika Nandamata got up very early, when it was still dark outside, and, with determined voice she recited the Parayana [Sutta Nipata v.976-1149]" (AN 7:50)

"'So be it, Lord!', replied the venerable Sona to the Blessed One and recited all 16 chapters of the Atthaka [Sutta Nipata v.766-975] " (Ud 5:6)

However, the Word of Buddha must enter us through our MIND—through our understanding—in order to change our hearts. Thus we are to meditate deeply on the Tipitaka in order to understand it better, so that our hearts may be changed. There is no more useful discipline to this careful process of verse by verse meditation than memorization. Memorization is not the same as meditation, but it is almost impossible for someone to memorize a passage of the Tipitaka without somewhat deepening his/her understanding of those verses. Plus, once the passage is memorized, a lifetime of reflection is now available through ongoing review… while driving on long trips, while walking on beaches, while conversing with friends, memorized verses can flow from you and cause a deepening of understanding.

In addition, the word sanctifies us by transforming our entire worldview from secular to spiritual: Contemplation on the words of the Enlightened One is like a pure river. As this river flows through your mind constantly, you will see things more and more the way Buddha wants us to … This gives us more and more wisdom to deal with this world.

However, this benefit does not merely bless US in our own growth and development, but it becomes a treasure trove for the growth of the Sangha as well. The Tipitaka memorizer will teach and encourage other Buddhists, with an apt word from the perfect Word of Buddha.

Finally, the memorization of the Tipitaka enables us to bless people with a powerful and vivid presentation of the teaching of deliverance.

There are other benefits… comfort during trials and bereavement, power and wisdom for counseling, the development of heavenly-mindedness,  overcoming indwelling unwholesome states of mind, fruitful passage of time while waiting for delayed plane flights, etc. Suffice it to say that this is well worth our time.

Memorizing Books Is Better Than Memorizing Individual Verses

Memorizing individual verses tends to miss intervening verses that the individual does not feel are as significant. If we continue to focus only on our "favorite" passages of the Tipitaka, we may well miss something new that Buddha wants to say to the Sangha through a neglected portion of his teachings. Buddha does not speak any word in vain, and there are no wasted passages of the Tipitaka.

This approach also aids in the proper teaching of the Dhamma. The best mode of teaching is expository—setting forth in good order what Buddha says. But a teacher who goes through the entire passage will undoubtedly open up a new world to his hearers, exciting them with observations they are not likely to have seen before. Thus, memorizing books leads to a constant discovery of new insights, which keeps love for the Dhamma vibrant and thrilling.

Also, since most of the Tipitaka is written to make a case, there is a flow of argumentation that is missed if individual verses are memorized. But memorizing entire books verse by verse and paragraph from paragraph enables the person to go easily from the "trees to the forest" and back again. Thus, there is far less likelihood of taking verses out of context when entire books are memorized. But those who memorize individual verses are particularly prone to taking verses out of context.

Making the Commitment Before Buddha

Go to take refuge in the triple gem and contemplate where you want to invest time in the Tipitaka memorization. Listen to yourself. Then, humbly make the commitment before Buddha that you will invest time in memorizing your favorite / important part of the Tipitaka (most valuable for you). Later, after you choose your book to memorize, you will have the opportunity to make a written covenant before Buddha concerning your commitment.

Choosing Your First Book

Once you have made the commitment before Buddha that you will memorize a whole book (chapter, etc.) of the Tipitaka, the next step is to choose the book. This, too, should be done with careful reflection. Some practical concerns should guide your choice as well:

1) Not too long (or too short?): Your first book should not be too long, lest you get discouraged in the way and give up. The greatest obstacle to lasting achievement in this arena is lack of perseverance… just giving up. We give up usually because the way seems too long and we feel we lack the strength for the rest of the journey. Just as one who someday wants to finish a marathon does not begin simply by running 26.2 miles but must rather work up to that level, so it is also with extended Tipitaka memorization. You must get the discipline deeply rooted in your daily habits and you must develop your memory skills before you can attempt a really long sutta or een entire books. Start with one short sutta around 50-80 verses (100-160 lines) long. There are shorter suttas of the Tipitaka, but some may not have the same impact on your life as one of the longer suttas. However, all the Tipitaka is Buddha-breathed, and therefore you may even feel inclined to start with a very short one.

2) One that stirs you (creates samvega): Choose a book that inspired you, and that you think would be most useful in your personal walk with  and in your support to others. You should also choose a book that still has some mysteries to you (as all the Tipitaka should and does!), and that you see as an adventure in learning.

Surveying the Terrain

The next step is to survey the entire book for length, and decide how quickly you feel you can memorize it. Perhaps you can start at one verse per day, six days per week. I always recommend taking one day off per week so you don’t get burned out, or to take up the slack for days in which you are sick or exceptionally busy.

The way you survey the terrain is this:

1) Count the number of verses in the entire book.

2) Divide that number by the number of verses you will memorize per week. This is how many weeks the book should take you.

3) Look at a calendar and determine a tentative finish date.

4) Add 10% so as to not feel under tremendous pressure until you get used to this lifestyle (i.e. If you are doing—155 verses—at the rate of 6 verses per week, it will take you 26 weeks, or exactly 6 months; add 10%--3 weeks—for a total of 29 weeks).

5) Make a determination before an image of the Buddha that you will memorize this book by this date:

" I will memorize (name of the book) . I now dedicate myself to begin this task. I commit myself to memorizing this by (date) ."

Sign and date the determination, and put it in a place where you can get to it regularly when the times get tough. The purpose of surveying the terrain is to mark out a reasonable pace which will make achievement of your goal a probability. It will teach you how much you need to do every day, and when you should finish. The survey leads to a determination that helps you keep persevering.

Daily Procedures

Priority of reviewing old verses: Always give priority in your mind to the retaining of old verses even over the learning of new ones. What’s the point in going on to new ones if you don’t hold onto the old? This doesn’t mean you should re-memorize the old ones… just that you should begin every day’s work with review of old verses. Look on that as what you need to do to earn the privilege of acquiring some precious new verses. (Work before play!)

Repetition over time: Saying a verse 100 times in one day is not as helpful as saying it every day for 100 days. The absolute key to successful Tipitaka memorization is repetition over a long time period. This is how you retain old verses while learning new ones.

Memorizing the verse numbers: An important note is that it is well-worth the extra effort to memorize the verse numbers / paragraph and structural information as if they were part of each verse/paragraph. This will help prevent you from dropping out verses or even whole paragraphs when you’re reciting the book all the way through. It will also help you in being able to pick individual verses out to quote them. Finally, it will help you to be able to recall the verses as you are reading Buddhist books that cite them… you won’t have to look them up! Dhammpada 1:1-3’s verse numbers would be said like this (if you learn them in pali): "Yamakavagga-One. Manopubbangama dhamma …; Yamakavagga-two Grace manopubbangama dhamma…." DON’T SHORT-CUT THIS DISCIPLINE!! It actually makes memorization easier in the long run!

Photographing the verses with your eyes: Memorization is partly visual. This is not to say that blind people can’t memorize the Tipitaka, but just that the memorization process is connected very closely to the eye. Read each new verse ten times, covering each words as though photographing it with your eyes. I can still remember where some particular verses were on the page of the Tipitaka I first used to memorize them. Burn each verse into your brain with your eyes.

Say it out loud: Another help in memorizing is to say the verse out loud to yourself. The additional sensory input to your brain helps the memorization process. It doesn’t have to be very loud, just loud enough so you can hear it. Also, try putting some feeling and interpretation into reciting the verses… this is actually a form of meditation on the verses as you are learning them.

Sample daily procedure: The following is an example of how someone could go about memorizing Dhammapada at the rate of one verse per day:

1) Day one: Read Dhammapada 1:1 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.

2) Day two: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Dhammapada 1:1 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Look in the Tipitaka if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Now, do your new verse. Read Dhammapada 1:2 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.

3) Day three: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Dhammapada 1:2 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Again, you should look in the Tipitaka if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Old verses next, altogether: Recite Dhammapada 1:1-2 together once, being sure to include the verse numbers. Now, do your new verse. Read Dhammapada 1:3 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.

4) Day four: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Dhammapada 1:3 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Again, you should look in the Tipitaka if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Old verses next, altogether: Recite Dhammapada 1:1-3 together once, being sure to include the verse numbers. Now, do your new verse. Read Dhammapada 1:4 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.

This cycle would continue through the entire book (chapter of your choie). Obviously, the "old verses altogether" stage will soon swell to take the most time of all. That’s exactly the way it should be. The entire first book of the Dhammapada can be read at a reasonable rate in less than fifteen minutes. Therefore, the "old verses altogether" stage of your review should not take longer than that on any given day. Do it with the Tipitaka ready at hand, in case you draw a blank or get stuck… there’s no shame in looking, and it actually helps to nail down troublesome verses so they will never be trouble again. Therefore, your 21th day should look like this:

 

21) Day sixty: (eight days off in that span means you’re on your 19nd new verse, which would be Dhammapada 1:20) Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Dhammapada 1:20 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Again, you should look in the Tipitaka if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Old verses next, altogether: Recite Dhammapada 1:1-1:20 together once, being sure to include the verse numbers. LOOK IN THE TIPITAKA IF YOU NEED TO, SO THIS PROCESS WON’T TAKE TOO LONG!!! Now, do your new verse. Read Dhammapada 1:20 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.

Long-Term Retention

Assuming you continue this procedure in Dhammapada with no missed days (other than your one day off per week), you should be done with the chapter one to nine in 26 weeks. When you have learned Dhammapada 128, "Papavagga 9:12. Neither in sky nor in mid-ocean.." you should stop to celebrate!!!

But after your celebration is done, you need to get back to work. If you have done the "old verses altogether" stage faithfully, this next stage should not be overly burdensome, even though it may seem like it will. RECITE THE ENTIRE BOOK FROM MEMORY FOR 100 CONSECUTIVE DAYS. If you have done your work well, after about the second week you probably won’t even need the Dhammapada anywhere near you while you do this. Thus, you can do this step while in the shower, while driving, while washing dishes, while walking down the road, while exercising… IT WILL ADD NO EXTRA TIME TO YOUR BUSY SCHEDULE!! What is more, it is in this stage that you begin to see the scope of the entire book of Dhammapada (or whatever book you have memorized). You will see large themes that unite chapters together, you will see the flow of the argument, you will discover new things that you never knew before.

Be tough with yourself… 100 days without missing a single one! You can do it, and you’ll be glad you did.

When that is over, then stick the book in a slot (Monday morning, let’s say), and recite on Monday morning for the rest of your life. You will never forget it. However, don’t forget to weed the garden… as I will describe now:

"Weeding the garden": As you recite a book over a long period of time without looking at the Tipitaka, you will gradually being to make little mistakes or leave verses out. Again, this is why memorizing verse numbers is so essential!!! However, to "weed the garden," simply take one of your Monday morning times after the 100 days (perhaps every other month) and just read the book by sight all the way through. This will correct errors… this will "weed the garden."

Now, you are ready to memorize your next book!!!

Memorizing Long Books & Memorizing Faster

After you’ve taken six months with some part of the Dhammapada at the rate of one verse per day, you may feel that you’re ready to memorize a longer book. If, for example, you memorized the entire book, you would be looking at 423 verses. At the rate of one verse per day, that’s close to a year and a half (80 weeks with a 10% fudge factor in there). That may be too long for you… you’re ready to pick up the pace. When I memorized the Suttanipata, I did it at the rate of 36 verse per week… six per day, six days per week. It took me about 9 months, since I didn’t maintain that pace the whole time… but the Suttanipata is 1155 verses long… a verse a day would have been much too slow. Let’s look at how to do multiple verses in a single day:

1) Day one: Read Suttanipata 1:1 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. Repeat for verses 2 through 6, being sure to include the verse numbers. Then, recite the whole six verse section, Suttanipata 1:1-6, ten times. You’re done for the day.

2) Day two: Yesterday’s verses first!! Recite yesterday’s verses, Suttanipata 1:1-6, ten times, being sure to include the verse numbers. Look in the Tipitaka if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Now, do your new verses. Read Suttanipata 1:7 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. Repeat for Suttanipata 1:8-12. Then, recite the whole new six verse section, Suttanipata 1:7-12, ten times. You’re done for the day.

3) Day three: Yesterday’s verses first!! Recite yesterday’s verses, Suttanipata 1:7-12, ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Again, you should look in the Tipitaka if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Old verses next, altogether: Recite Suttanipata 1:1-12 together once, being sure to include the verse numbers. Now, do your new verses. Read Suttanipata 1:13 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. Repeat for Suttanipata 1:14-18. Then, recite the whole new six verse section, Suttanipata 1:13-18, ten times. You’re done for the day.

4) Day four: Yesterday’s verses first!! Recite yesterday’s verses, Suttanipata 1:13-18, ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Again, you should look in the Tipitaka if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Old verses next, altogether: Recite Suttanipata 1:1-18 together once, being sure to include the verse numbers. Now, do your new verses. Read Suttanipata 1:19 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. Repeat for Suttanipata 1:20-24. Then, recite the whole new six verse section, Suttanipata 1:19-24, ten times. You’re done for the day.

The ongoing review (the "old verses altogether" stage) will get unwieldy once you’re at chapter 7 or 8. At that point, start leaving off chapter 1, then chapter 2, then chapter 3 etc. as you continue to move through the book. Limit the amount of time you spend on the "old verses altogether" stage to fifteen or twenty minutes. Review the chapters you leave off (chapter 1, then 2, then 3) once per week. By the time you get to Suttanipata 28:20, you will have to divide your long-term review into reasonable portions. This is the "High School Method" of long-term review:

The High School Method of Long-Term Review (using the Suttanipata as an example):

1) Read Suttanipata with a stop watch, and time out ten minutes of verses, reading at a normal rate. This may be Suttanipata 1-5, depending on your normal reading rate. Let’s take that as an example. (I average about 125 verses for 10 minutes). NOTE: Stop at major chapter divisions. Dig deep and get to the end of the nearest chapter, even if it’s 11 minutes of reading for you.

2) Recite Suttanipata 1-5 every day for 25 days. After about 15 days, you should be able to do it without the Suttanipata, if you did your work well the first time you memorized these verses. Then just do it in the shower or while driving, etc. This shouldn’t add anything extra to your day.

3) On the 26th day, add the next "ten minutes" of Suttanipata. Let’s say this is Suttanipata 6-8. Recite Suttanipata 6-8 every day for 25 days, while continuing Suttanipata 1-5 for this time. At the end of this period, you will have done Suttanipata 1-5 for 50 straight days, and Suttanipata 6-8 for 25 straight days.

4) On the 51st day, add the next "ten minutes" (i.e. 125 verse or so) of Suttanipata. Let’s say this is Suttanipata 9-12. Do these chapters for 25 days, while continuing Suttanipata 1-5 and 6-8. At the end of this period, you will have done Suttanipata 1-5 for 75 days, Suttanipata 6-8 for 50 days, and Suttanipata 9-12 for 25 days.

5) On the 76th day, add the next section… perhaps Suttanipata 13-15. Do these chapters for 25 days, while continuing Suttanipata 1-5, 6-8, and 9-12. At the end of this period, you will have done Suttanipata 1-5 for 100 days, Suttanipata 6-8 for 75 days, and Suttanipata 9-12 for 50 days, and Suttanipata 13-15 for 25 days. As in a high school, Suttanipata 1-5 is your "senior class", Suttanipata 6-8 your "junior class," Suttanipata 9-12 your "sophomore class," and Suttanipata 13-15 your "freshman class." The entire reciting process should take no more than 45 minutes, if you’ve done your timing right. ALSO NOTE… by this time, you should be able to recite Suttanipata 1-12 at least with no Tipitaka edition at all… thus, it can be done while you do other things… thus, you will be sitting and doing nothing but memorization for no more than 15-20 minutes at most.

6) On the 101st day, you can "graduate" Suttanipata 1-5, and stick it into a "Monday slot" to do it for the rest of your life… you have done it so many times at this point, you could recite it in your sleep! (Perhaps you do!) Simply recite it every Monday, in addition to the ongoing work you’re doing… or, of that’s too much, just review it once a month to keep it fresh.

Now, add the next "ten minutes" of Suttanipata, to replace the "senior class" that just graduated… perhaps its Suttanipata 16-19. Keep on going with Suttanipata 6-8 (your new "senior class"), Suttanipata 9-12 ("junior class"), and Suttanipata 13-15 ("sophomore class"). At the end of this next period, you will have done Suttanipata 6-8 for 100 days, Suttanipata 9-12 for 75 days, Suttanipata 13-15 for 50 days, and Suttanipata 16-19 for 25 days.

7) On the 126th day, "graduate" Suttanipata 6-8, add Suttanipata 20-22, and continue. At the end of this next period, you will have done Suttanipata 9-12 for 100 days, Suttanipata 13-15 for 75 days, Suttanipata 16-19 for 50 days, and Suttanipata 20-22 for 25 days.

8) On the 151st day, "graduate" Suttanipata 9-12, add Suttanipata 23-25, and continue. At the end of this next period, you will have done Suttanipata 13-15 for 100 days, Suttanipata 16-19 for 75 days, Suttanipata 20-22 for 50 days, and Suttanipata 23-25 for 25 days.

9) On the 176th day, "graduate" Suttanipata 13-15, add Suttanipata 26-27, and continue. At the end of this next period, you will have done Suttanipata 16-19 for 100 days, Suttanipata 20-22 for 75 days, Suttanipata 23-25 for 50 days, and Suttanipata 26-27 for 25 days.

10) On the 201st day, you can "graduate" Suttanipata 16-19, and finally add Suttanipata 28 to your review cycle. Continue on, but add no new verses. Go until you have finished your 100 days on Suttanipata 28 (the 300th day!!). After about 25 days of doing Suttanipata 28, you should be able to recite the entire Gospel of Suttanipata at a good rate of accuracy, totally from memory. At that point, you can fall on your knees and give thanks to Buddha for His goodness to you. But keep doing your work until you’ve finished your 100 days for all verses.

11) Review each section one a week or once a month as you feel the need, in order to keep it fresh.

 

May the triple gem bless your diligence and hard work! Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!