In praise of memorizing the Dhamma

A short article in Scientific American discussing the “Sanskrit Effect”:

It brings to mind Ananda’s verses in Thag 17.3:

You should stay close to a learned person—
Don’t lose what you’ve learned.
It is the root of the spiritual life,
So you should memorize the Dhamma.

Knowing the sequence and meaning of the teaching,
Skilled in the interpretation of terms,
He makes sure it is well memorized,
And then examines the meaning.

Accepting the teachings, he becomes enthusiastic;
Making an effort, he scrutinizes the Dhamma;
Striving at the right time,
He is serene inside himself.

If you want to understand the Dhamma,
You should associate with the sort of person
Who is learned, and has memorized the Dhamma,
A wise disciple of the Buddha.

A monk who is learned, and has memorized the Dhamma,
A keeper of the great sage’s treasury,
Is a visionary for the entire world,
Venerable, and learned.

Delighting in Dhamma, enjoying Dhamma,
Reflecting on Dhamma,
Recollecting Dhamma,
He doesn’t decline in the true Dhamma.


Well there are two types of being learned: just like there are people who are leaned in how to drive and there are people who are leaned in driving itself.

So does there are people who are leaned in the text of Dhamma and there are people who are learned in the Dhamma itself.

Ananda was famous for his memory, but we shouldn’t misunderstand and think that advice to memorize and constantly reflect on the dhamma we memorized only applied to Ananda, or people with extraordinary memory, or reciter monks tasked with memorizing portions of the tipitaka. The same instructions come across regularly in the suttas, applicable to everyone, not just Ananda.

In AN 6.29 for example, the buddha asks a monk, ‘what are the 6 recollections’? The monk gives the wrong answer, and the Buddha calls that monk “a fool”.

After reading that sutta a few times, I realized even though I’m not a monk, the Buddha was talking to everyone who wants nirvana. I’m no fool, so I memorized (sati) it, and recite it daily, reflect on it (using V&V vitakka and vicara of first jhana) as I recite it, and reflect on it any time it’s relevant throughout the day.

I can’t emphasize enough how important this practice is. The only difference between Ananda and you is the amount you memorize, but the practice of relating to what you do have memorized is the same, it involves memory (sati), being rememberful and a rememberer (sato), this practice is samadhi, and you should be doing it all the time if you care about nirvana.

One of the first things I started doing after this insight really sunk in, is I stopped reciting useless things that I memorized, let those fade from memory, identified what were the critical necessities that I didn’t yet have memorized that were important to nirvana, and acted accordingly. IMO, most pali chanting books I’ve seen contain over 50% unnecessary things I wouldn’t bother memorizing. And most of the most important things you should have memorized aren’t in most chanting books.

If every Buddhist did this, memorizing the important core, word for word, the Dhamma wouldn’t get corrupted. Or at least, if there was unintentional corruption from misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the Buddha’s words, then later generations at least have an opportunity to recover the lost meaning and figure out the misinterpretation.