I’m interested in improving memorisation of chants and sutta’s. Especially because I’ve noticed that although I’ve been a practicing lay buddhist for quite some time, the biggest obstacle to my practice living in a western society is the lack of practices being reinforced and reminded by the environment. In the west, we rely on written text, so a distinction between the home environment where I practice and “outside” starts to creep in. By memorising and reminding myself of the dhamma, I hope to retain the practice more throughout the day. Of course, I’m not intending to mindlessly repeat the words but to be aware of their meaning.
I’m asking you to share any experience you have with this, memorisation and recitation methods, to improve my practice and hopefully this could be of merit to others. I’ve been searching but haven’t found much about traditional methods.
I’ve been interested in the Vedic recitation methods as well because I recently visited India and I witnessed a ceremony where hymns were chanted by memory with great speed. Since Buddhism started in the Vedic environment, I’m wondering if the Pali texts were memorised in this manner as well. I’ve included a link to a series of videos where the methods are explained.
Basically the recitation involves going techniques of “back and forth” between the words in many different ways to ensure everything is memorised.
Sri K. Suresh: Vedic Recitation Methods explained:
I recommend Bhikkhu Anālayo’s book ‘ Early Buddhist Oral Tradition: Textual Formation and Transmission.’ He talks about the history of Buddhist transmission in its historical context. There are plenty of other resources, but that’s a good and solid foundation I believe.
As far as the detailed Vedic chanting variations, it doesn’t seem Buddhists did this. Buddhists were (and are) far less powerful than the brahmins in terms of oral memorization and transmission. Part of this is because of the nature of the movements:
Brahmins often, if not always, started memorizing very young from childhood with particular teachers, dedicating their life to memorizing and later learning ritual performance. Buddhists were often adult converts, and their job was not just reciting text but using the meaning for practical instruction and application.
Therefore, from #1, the Buddhists tended to start out with the source material already understanding, contemplating, and discussing the meaning. This makes for less effective memorization where you learn pure sounds, then later learn the meaning, as people are less likely to consciously or unconsciously edit a string of syllables.
This also meant that the specific sounds themselves were prized less than the Vedic corpus, which cared a lot about syllabic precision; the Buddhists mostly cared about the overall phrasing and meaning. Of course, they wanted faithful transmission, and they did a pretty good job, but the oral technology wasn’t as sophisticated.
There’s more to go into, but hope that helps as far as basic historical differences. Highly recommend memorizing suttas and compilations, and I’m sure there’ll be good advice from others here.
I don’t know anything about traditional memorisation and recitation methods, but as you ask for personal experience with memorisation methods, I will share this: I have used Anki (https://apps.ankiweb.net/) to memorise (a handful of) chants / suttas and found it to be very effective (Anki is a program and app for flashcards, using spaced repetition, so you only study what you are about to forget). I do it like this: I make a card with one line (or half a line, a few words) of Pali, and the “answer” is the next line or half a line. The same for the English version of some chants. Then I study the cards on my phone. It only took a few days or a week (studying maybe ten minutes a day) to memorise the metta sutta for example. (It helps to also listens to the chants often.)
Thank you so much Vaddha for the information. I’ll try to check out the recommended literature. And another thank you for the explanation of the differences. Understanding the meaning is much more important to us than any ritual significance.
Do you have any personal experience memorizing certain sutta’s, and if so what was your method?
Thank you so much, I am familiar with Anki in the context of language learning. I hadn’t thought about using it in this context yet. And I’m planning to maybe use it again with Pali vocabulary. So if I have time after trying so many recitation variations I will try your method as well!
There’s nothing wrong with rote learning. In my western education they often talked down on it as a way around actually understanding something, but rote learners know that they don’t actually necessarily understand its meaning, they memorize it for the purpose of learning the deeper meaning later on. Having it memorized and soaked into your subconsciousness makes the deep learning much easier, as you can easily recall the text wherever and whenever you want to check what it was. On a semantic level of meaning I did find it much easier to remember once I knew what each word generally meant, allowing me to just put the sentence together naturally, but knowing the truest meaning will come in a separate activity (meditation).
In practice, I found memorization incredibly uncomfortable… at first. It got very easy after I got past the barrier of the awkwardness of the grammar, word ordering , and Pali spelling patterns, then it’s like magic - I could repeat a line (after learning each words meaning) just a dozen times and remember it forever.
The thing you would be doing most is repetition… The thing you would be doing most is repetition… The thing you would be doing most is repetition… Seriously. I use a stack of things to keep count myself, committed to some number of repetitions such as 8. After I read it a few times, then I move to trying to predict the next words, and I also tried by looking away until I don’t remember one part, so I slowly transitioned between fully looking at it and not being able to see it.
If you want to remember a number and title of each text together, this shows a way (initialism). And here’s a list of recommended texts to memorize.
As others have mentioned here, rote memorization is not to be dismissed so quickly. It is the traditional Buddhist approach as well. And I have looked into modern memory techniques and so forth — when it comes down to verbatim text, there really is no magical formula.
Personally, I found group chanting (as a monastic) very helpful. If you can chant along with a recording or with a friend, that’d be great. Also, someone who can orally cross-check your recitation if possible.
Go in pieces. Break the text into sections, then memorize section by section. 1, 2, 1-2, 3, 1-2-3, 4, 1-2-3-4, etc. taking as much time as you need between adding sections and integrating them into the whole. Recite regularly and frequently, but also give yourself some time; don’t forcefully cram, because you’ll just forget. Familiarize yourself deeply with the whole discourse as well, so that it feels like an old friend rather than feeling abstract and foreign.
I also found it helpful to attach particular memories and knowledge of sections/words to the pieces I memorize. This builds an association in the mind to reinforce the memory from several angles, and mnemonics can help you keep sections in the right order. It’s easy to know the material but accidentally mess up the order it goes in.