SuttaCentral

Techniques for memorizing suttas


#1

Hi all,
I’d like to start memorizing suttas from Pali canon. I’m thinking of anything ranging from the length of a verse from the Dhammapada to longer discourses like Maha Satipatthana sutta. Given that the Buddhist tradition was primarily an oral one in its beginning, I imagine that monks and nuns during the Buddha’s time, and still today, have developed many techniques for efficiently and effectively memorizing suttas. However, a cursory search of the archive on sutta central and on google has revealed little in terms of actual techniques or instructions for how to go about doing this.

If anyone has any information on the topic and could point me in the right direction I’d greatly appreciate it. I’d also love to hear from anyone who has memorized a significant number of discourses about any tips they have, or what impact memorizing discourses has had on their practice.

With metta,
Lucas


#2

I don’t know to what extent details about the methods of memorization and recitation used in early Buddhist communities are preserved.

But whenever I ask myself how that was possible I end up reading something about how the oral transmission and tradition vedic chants have been preserved to date:

Prodigious energy was expended by ancient Indian culture in ensuring that these texts were transmitted from generation to generation with inordinate fidelity.[1][7]
Many forms of recitation or pathas were designed to aid accuracy in recitation and the transmission of the Vedas and other knowledge texts from one generation to the next.
All hymns in each Veda were recited in this way; for example, all 1,028 hymns with 10,600 verses of the Rigveda was preserved in this way.
Each text was recited in a number of ways, to ensure that the different methods of recitation acted as a cross check on the other. Pierre-Sylvain Filliozat summarizes this as follows:[8]

  • Samhita-patha : continuous recitation of Sanskrit words bound by the phonetic rules of euphonic combination;
  • Pada-patha : a recitation marked by a conscious pause after every word, and after any special grammatical codes embedded inside the text; this method suppresses euphonic combination and restores each word in its original intended form;
  • Krama-patha : a step-by-step recitation where euphonically-combined words are paired successively and sequentially and then recited; for example, a hymn “word1 word2 word3 word4 …”, would be recited as “word1word2 word2word3 word3word4 …”; this method to verify accuracy is credited to Vedic sages Gargya and Sakalya in the Hindu tradition and mentioned by the ancient Sanskrit grammarian Panini (dated to pre-Buddhism period);
  • Krama-patha modified: the same step-by-step recitation as above, but without euphonic-combinations (or free form of each word); this method to verify accuracy is credited to Vedic sages Babhravya and Galava in the Hindu tradition, and is also mentioned by the ancient Sanskrit grammarian Panini;
  • Jata-pāṭha , dhvaja-pāṭha and ghana-pāṭha are methods of recitation of a text and its oral transmission that developed after 5th century BCE, that is after the start of Buddhism and Jainism; these methods use more complicated rules of combination and were less used.

These extraordinary retention techniques guaranteed the most perfect canon not just in terms of unaltered word order but also in terms of sound.[9] That these methods have been effective, is testified to by the preservation of the most ancient Indian religious text, the Ṛgveda (ca. 1500 BCE).[8]

:anjal:


#3

I listened to DN33 many times per week while walking meditation. I always walk the same path so that the words, sights, smells, touches, and sounds all match up with the sutta. This multi-sensory reinforcement is very helpful with retention. I have been doing this for months. Although not memorized, I do know chunks and some by heart. The benefit of listening while meditating has been enormous. Every time I hear the sutta, new insight emerges.

Consider voice.suttacentral.net for sutta listening and memorization. Although not strictly in orthodox chanting cadence, you may find the audio immersive and helpful in your own efforts to study. Pali is included as well as an option.


#4

I’ve memorized a few dozen suttas mostly from the Majjhima Nikaya and I’ve found it most helpful to chant them (not just read them) out loud regularly, at least once a day. Start with a few paragraphs and when you have memorized them, move on to the next few. Always repeat the first paragraphs you already know while you add more.
Chant all the repetitions. They are very helpful for memorization and have a calming effect. Because they are easy to chant, they can lead to much piti.
Choose your favorite suttas for your first try. If you enjoy memorizing them, it’s much easier to keep at it. Don’t memorize suttas that seem difficult or boring in the beginning.
Memorize them in a language you understand. If your Pali isn’t great, start with English (or another language) and move on to Pali later.
Don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to memorize your first sutta. It gets easier over time. There are so many repetitions in the suttas that after a while, it’s just like putting together pieces you already know from other places. And as your brain gets used to memorization, even new content sticks in your head much more easily.
After a while, you will get to the point where you can memorize shorter suttas at the first repetition. That’s a pretty cool feeling… :wink:


#5

Last month I memorised my first sutta, using this beautiful recording by Bhikkhu Jiv —anyone knows who he is?

audtip.org sn35-028-aditta : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive (the “chant” file)
Anyone knows of a good collection of melodies to chant suttas? How do you do it @vimalanyani? Do you have few melodies and you alternate?


#6

Oddly, for me the most spine-tingling immersive chants are the chants without melody. Melodies carry emotional beckoning of identity in their tonal patterns. Just as I can’t listen to a song for long, I can’t listen to a chant with melody for long.


#7

Well, there’s really tonal patterns everywhere, whether or not one feels one is “singing.” I don’t like chants that are too melodious either, but I feel that a bit of melody aids memorisation, which is no big discovery…


#8

Yes. I can see how that would work. My own trick is to bind the sutta memory to sights and touches during walking meditation. So at a particular corner, DN33 transitions from the three’s to the four’s. The spatial reinforcement provides an additional benefit of being able to get a “birds’ eye view” of the sutta and drop in on any section. It is also bound to touch because I walk barefoot, so particular segments will actually be associated with “walking on twigs turning left” or “splashing in puddles turning right”. For example, the DN33 section on restraining thought happens as I walk into the wind on a long straight stretch. And that is how restraint feels to me. :wind_face:

I also will always associate the DN33 fives with policecars. Because they really did stop me. :rofl: :police_car:

In a way, I guess you could say that I gave up on memorization and simply decided to live the sutta. Because all my memories of the sutta have become memories of my life.


#9

That’s pretty cool…

Can you recite DN 33 from memory?


#10

I asked myself that question just a few moments ago and was wondering why I was crying. It was then that I realized that I was living DN33. It has become part of my life. Memorization is acquisition and possession. If memory happens it happens. I am content to just live DN33. It is a very strange answer, I know, but I remember DN33 just like I remember brushing my teeth. Not exactly, but as part of my life.


#11

I can relate so very well with what you say!

The only aspect that gives a special point to actual memorization, or the capacity of being able to recite from memory, is that this is the way the suttas have been transmitted to us over the centuries—and this too brings tears to my eyes sometimes. :cry:


#12

Yes, I am amazed at those who can memorize. I am a horrible failure at memory. I once memorized Beethovens First Piano Sonata. Now I can’t play piano. So I would not count on me to quote any sutta. Don’t trust me!


#13

I wouldn’t believe that. Someone who can memorize Beethoven’s first piano sonata can certainly memorize anything they want to, using appropriate techniques for memorization.

And just like everything else, memory is very much related to mindfulness.

I have been memorizing the Mettasutta in Pali recently (finally! I’ve tried already for a long time and always failed, until finally I found out how to do it), and am at the moment reciting it every day in order to settle the memory. And when thoughts occur like “was this correct?”, “what comes next?”, etc. I don’t manage to finish my recitation. But when I just focus on the words I am reciting right now, the next bit flows from my mouth just by itself, and the recitation works perfectly fine.

A bit like “dancing in the dark”… :man_dancing: :wink:


#14

Touche. :sunglasses:


#15

After I memorized Beethoven’s First Sonata, I found that I had killed it. It was quite horrible to find that I had choked it to death. So I opened my hands and let it go free, not mine, not me not myself.

And now that it is no longer mine, it has come back to life for me and I will always enjoy hearing my old friend.


#16

If it is in Pali, I listen to a recording first if one is available. Makes it easier to get the long and short syllables right.
In English, I just read it out loud and usually some kind of tune develops from there. I don’t purposely pick or alternate melodies. Some kind of melody just “emerges” from the sutta, and it feels natural to chant it like this.
I’ve noticed that other people chant English suttas in totally different ways. Whatever feels right… :slight_smile:


#17

You killed nandi. It’s sound. :dizzy_face:


#18

:rofl: you’re quite right. I did kill the delight. And in killing the delight there really was no point in practicing the sonata daily. So I stopped. And then the memorization died. It’s really odd that even though I memorized it, now I do not recognize the sonata. When I hear that sonata being played, it sounds familiar, but I’ve lost all the features and the details. It just comes across as “piano sounds classical music, probably Beethoven”. I can’t even remember how it starts or how it ends. This experience makes me wonder how I will ever be able to remember anything from a past life!

With DN33, it’s a little different. There are spots that are familiar and others that are strange. According to the Buddha, I’m supposed to be able to recall mindfully. However I am quite a failure at recall. So I muddle along and just listen to the sutta, reciting as I can. What did become apparent to me yesterday was that there is a certain freedom in simply attending.


#19

Wonderful! Can you say more about this? What ‘method’ did you find that worked for you?
:pray:


#20

Repeatedly chanting it, many times, adding a verse every day. :laughing:

Edit: And, most importantly, find the right version first, the one that is mostly used. Don’t use the Mahasangiti version that is on SC—it has a very bad mistake (saying, instead of a mother protecting her child, she does not protect them… ). The best is to take it from here. :anjal: