Note: I’m currently contemplating the issues in this article, and it may be revised.
There is a series of terms that are commonly used to speak about the process of learning texts in the EBTs. These terms are typically translated as “learning, studying”, and so on. But it is difficult to know exactly what they mean. It is also problematic, since by the time the commentaries were written, the oral tradition was long in the past, so we cannot be sure they were using words the same way.
I want to make it clear and unambiguous in the translation that we are dealing with an oral tradition, where the literal syllable-by-syllable memorization of texts was a crucial step. While a modern word like “learn” can convey the same meaning, i.e. to “learn by heart”, it is used in a wide range of different senses. So I’d rather use it only for a general term, rather than when “memorization” is meant.
Let’s see if we can put our understanding of such terms on a more clear basis.
There are three critical terms I want to look at. They are:
- uggaṇhāti—lit., to “take up”, i.e. learn
- pariyāpuṇāti—to attain, master
- dhāreti—to bear in mind
Let’s start with the terms of clearest meaning. Dhāraṇa (noun) or dhāreti (verb) is a standard word meaning “to remember, bear in mind”. I think “remember” is fine, as long as it is clear it doesn’t mean just randomly happen to “remember” something, but to actively maintain something in memory. Note that the “re-” element here implies that it is a subsequent operation.
Pariyāpuṇāti is less obvious. It is typically used in the order as above, that is, after uggaṇhāti and before dhāreti. There are a number of passages that clarify the meaning:
SN 3.13, King Pasenadi is speaking:
ehi tvaṃ, tāta sudassana, bhagavato santike imaṃ gāthaṃ pariyāpuṇitvā mama bhattābhihāre bhattābhihāre bhāsa
Please, dear Sudassana, memorize this verse in the Buddha’s presence and recite it to me whenever I am presented with a meal.
SN 7.14, the Buddha is speaking:
Tena hi tvaṃ, brāhmaṇa, imā gāthāyo pariyāpuṇitvā sabhāyaṃ mahājanakāye sannipatite puttesu ca sannisinnesu bhāsassu
“Well then, brahmin, memorize these verses and recite them to your sons when you are all seated in the council hall with a large crowd.
In these cases it must mean “memorize”, i.e. literally commit word by word to memory. It doesn’t mean “learn” or “study” in the loose sense we use today. So far as I can see, this sense is consistent. While not all contexts demand this reading, several of them imply it, and none contradict it, so far as I can see.
SN 12.70, the students of Susīma are talking, urging their teacher to fraudulently enter the Sangha:
Tvaṃ dhammaṃ pariyāpuṇitvā amhe vāceyyāsi
Memorize that teaching and have us rehearse it with you.
Taṃ mayaṃ dhammaṃ pariyāpuṇitvā gihīnaṃ bhāsissāma
When we’ve memorized it we’ll recite it to the laity.
Here the second verb is the causative vāceti. This is a specialized term, for when a teacher recites a text together with the student, going over it until the student remembers it.
This passage confirms that pariyāpuṇāti has nothing to do with actually understanding a text. It only means committing the words to memory, and thus can be co-opted for corrupt ends. This is made clear a number of times. In the Vinaya, parajika 4, we find (translation by @brahmali):
Puna caparaṃ, bhikkhave, idhekacco pāpabhikkhu tathāgatappaveditaṃ dhammavinayaṃ pariyāpuṇitvā attano dahati.
Again, a bad monk learns the Teaching and training proclaimed by the Buddha and takes it as his own.
Here I would suggest “memorizes” is more precise. As a general principle, the same point is made:
Idha, bhikkhave, ekacco puggalo dhammaṃ pariyāpuṇāti—
It’s when a person memorizes the teaching—
suttaṃ, geyyaṃ, veyyākaraṇaṃ, gāthaṃ, udānaṃ, itivuttakaṃ, jātakaṃ, abbhutadhammaṃ, vedallaṃ.
statements, songs, discussions, verses, inspired sayings, legends, stories of past lives, amazing stories, and analyses.
So ‘idaṃ dukkhan’ti yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti
But they don’t truly understand: ‘This is suffering’ …
Idha, bhikkhave, ekacce moghapurisā dhammaṃ pariyāpuṇanti…
Take a foolish person who memorizes the teaching
Te taṃ dhammaṃ pariyāpuṇitvā tesaṃ dhammānaṃ paññāya atthaṃ na upaparikkhanti
But they don’t examine the meaning of those teachings with wisdom
The connection with merely textual knowledge rather than experience is also found in the Buddha’s account of his studentship:
So kho ahaṃ, bhikkhave, nacirasseva khippameva taṃ dhammaṃ pariyāpuṇiṃ.
I quickly memorized that teaching.
So kho ahaṃ, bhikkhave, tāvatakeneva oṭṭhapahatamattena lapitalāpanamattena ñāṇavādañca vadāmi theravādañca, ‘jānāmi passāmī’ti ca paṭijānāmi ahañceva aññe ca.
So far as lip-recital and oral recitation were concerned, I spoke with knowledge and the authority of the elders. I claimed to know and see, and so did others.
Finally, let’s look at uggaṇhāti. So far as I can see, this consistently precedes pariyāpuṇāti.
SN 2.8 (similar, AN 8.8, MN 89):
Uggaṇhātha, bhikkhave, tāyanagāthā;
Mendicants, learn the verses of Tāyana!
pariyāpuṇātha, bhikkhave, tāyanagāthā;
Memorize the verses of Tāyana!
dhāretha, bhikkhave, tāyanagāthā.
Remember the verses of Tāyana!
Sometimes its place in this sequence is taken by suṇāti, to listen:
Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhū na sakkaccaṃ dhammaṃ suṇanti, na sakkaccaṃ dhammaṃ pariyāpuṇanti, na sakkaccaṃ dhammaṃ dhārenti, na sakkaccaṃ dhātānaṃ dhammānaṃ atthaṃ upaparikkhanti, na sakkaccaṃ atthamaññāya dhammamaññāya dhammānudhammaṃ paṭipajjanti.
It’s when mendicants don’t carefully listen, memorize, and remember the teaching. They don’t carefully examine the meaning of teachings they’ve remembered. And they don’t carefully practice in line with the meaning and the teaching they’ve understood.
However, it is not identical in meaning, as sometimes it is a later stage:
Idha, bhikkhave, yassaṃ parisāyaṃ bhikkhū ye te suttantā tathāgatabhāsitā gambhīrā gambhīratthā lokuttarā suññatāpaṭisaṃyuttā tesu bhaññamānesu na sussūsanti na sotaṃ odahanti na aññā cittaṃ upaṭṭhapenti na ca te dhamme uggahetabbaṃ pariyāpuṇitabbaṃ maññanti.
It is an assembly where, when discourses spoken by the Realized One—deep, profound, transcendent, dealing with emptiness—are being recited the mendicants do not want to listen. They don’t pay attention or apply their minds to understand them, nor do they think those teachings are worth taking up and memorizing.
So clearly it refers to an initial phase of learning that follows hearing. Probably it means something close to its literal English equivalent, to “take up” a subject for study. I not entirely sure this will do as a rendering, but let’s keep it for now.
The following passage also illustrates this sense:
Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhū duggahitaṃ suttantaṃ pariyāpuṇanti dunnikkhittehi padabyañjanehi.
Firstly, the mendicants memorize discourses that they have taken up incorrectly, with misplaced words and phrases.
Dunnikkhittassa, bhikkhave, padabyañjanassa atthopi dunnayo hoti.
When the words and phrases are misplaced, the meaning is misinterpreted.
I used to think that what this meant was that the suttas had been previously learned wrongly and the students were merely repeating the mistakes of their teachers. However I now see that this is a mistake. The process of uggaṇhāti and pariyāpuṇāti is always done by the same person. What it means is that the students don’t “get it” properly, i.e. they don’t pay proper attention in class, etc. They then “memorize” (pariyāpuṇāti) the mistakes they picked up because of their inattention and slackness. I have changed the translation to reflect this.
I’m going to gather here as an appendix various uses of uggaṇhāti, apart from those mentioned above, which are the most directly relevant. I haven’t yet decided whether any of these should affect my argument above.
- To accept or receive (money)
- At Pvr 7 we have
Pañcahaṅgehi samannāgato vinayadharo “bālo” tveva saṅkhaṃ gacchati—attano bhāsapariyantaṃ na uggaṇhāti
Here, “grasp” in the sense of “understand” would work well.
- At SN 47.8:
sūdo sakassa bhattu nimittaṃ na uggaṇhāti
Here, too, “grasp” would work fine. We could even use “get”.
- There are a few uses in lists of quasi-synonyms in the Niddesas:
- Mnd 15: gīyanti gaṇhīyanti uggaṇhīyanti dhārīyanti upadhārīyanti upalakkhīyanti
- Mnd 8: diṭṭhigataṃ gahetvā gaṇhitvā uggaṇhitvā parāmasitvā abhinivisitvā
- Cnd 9: sutvā suṇitvā uggaṇhitvā upadhārayitvā upalakkhayitvā
- Cnd 17: suṇoma uggaṇhāma dhārema upadhārema upalakkhema
While we can’t draw too much conclusion from this, at least we can say that in the process of learning, uggaṇhāti happens relatively near the beginning; after “hearing” but always before anything that suggests examining the meaning (Here, upalakkhati.)
More useful than any of these is the story of Nāgasena’s education in the Milinda (Mil 2). While obviously a late text, it still operates in a world of oral instruction and gives a more detailed idea of the process than we find in any early text, and one that is firmly embedded in the Brahmanical traditions. Nāgasena’s father instructs his teacher:
“sajjhāpehi kho tvaṃ, brāhmaṇa, imaṃ dārakaṃ mantānī”ti.
“Brahmin, have the boy rehearse the mantras.” (Here sajjhāpeti in causative = vāceti, which as we noted above, means “make recite together you”.)
“Tena hi, tāta dāraka, uggaṇhāhi mantānī”ti.
“Well, then, dear boy, learn the mantras.” (Here uggaṇhāti could be rendered as “learn” or “take up the study of” or “apply yourself to the study of”.)
Ācariyabrāhmaṇo sajjhāyati nāgasenassa dārakassa ekeneva uddesena tayo vedā hadayaṅgatā vācuggatā sūpadhāritā suvavatthāpitā sumanasikatā ahesuṃ,
The brahmin teacher rehearsed (not causative) for the boy Nāgasena, who with just one recitation (uddesa), had got the three Vedas by heart (literally, hadayaṅgatā), with correct intonation, well remembered, well organized (or “scrutinized”?), well attended to (or “investigated”?)
sakimeva cakkhuṃ udapādi tīsu vedesu …
Right away, vision arose regarding the three Vedas …
Here, uggaṇhāti is most naturally taken as an umbrella term for the whole learning process, including memorization, rehearsing, examining, etc. This seems a little different than the EBT use, where it is a stage in the process. Perhaps it is just a natural variability in usage, or perhaps the use evolved in the four hundred years between the Buddha and Nāgasena.
Incidentally, the use of hadayaṅgatā here is noteworthy. It’s not found in this form in the EBTs, but hadayaṅgamā is used very frequently to describe pleasant speech, where it is usually translated as “going to the heart”:
yā sā vācā nelā kaṇṇasukhā pemanīyā hadayaṅgamā porī bahujanakantā bahujanamanāpā tathārūpiṃ vācaṃ bhāsitā hoti
They speak in a way that’s mellow, pleasing to the ear, kind, going to the heart, polite, likable and agreeable to many people.