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The process of education in the EBTs

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:

AN 4.102
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’ …

And again:

MN 22
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:

SN 5.154
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:

AN 2.47
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:

AN 4.160
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.

  1. To accept or receive (money)
  2. 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.
  3. At SN 47.8:
    sūdo sakassa bhattu nimittaṃ na uggaṇhāti
    Here, too, “grasp” would work fine. We could even use “get”.
  4. 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.

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Very interesting bhante!

I would like to note that the origin story of the Nissaggiya Pacittiya rule #17 describes a five-fold “curriculum” - apparently expected to be followed by those joining the early sangha - which consisted of i) recitation (uddesaṃ), ii) questioning (paripucchaṃ), iii) higher morality (adhisīlaṃ), iv) higher mind (adhicittaṃ), and v) higher wisdom (adhipaññaṃ).

Interestingly, I could not find a reference to his five-fold curriculum in the suttas. While we see in suttas like AN3.89 a threefold training (tisso sikkhā) - training in higher morality (adhisīlaṃ), higher mind (adhicittaṃ) and higher wisdom (adhipaññaṃ) - no explicit or implicit reference is there made to the important steps of recitation (uddesaṃ) and questioning (paripucchaṃ).

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Thanks for this. I have been wondering about the precise significance of these terms myself, especially the first two.

You say you prefer “memorise” to “learn” as a rendering of pariyāpuṇati, referring to my translation of this term in the origin story to bhikkhu pārājika 4. You may well be right about this, and I am quite prepared to change my translation, but first of all I would like to sort out what appears to me to be a weakness in your argument.

In support of your argument that pariyāpuṇati means to “memorise,” you quote the following phrases:

It seems to me these passages do not so much set up a contrast between memorising and learning as between memorising/learning on the one hand and realising on the other. It may well be that there was no clear distinction between memorising and learning in ancient India; the two processes were probably closely related. Memorising something and regularly reciting it to keep it in memory would have been almost indistinguishable from contemplating the text. I therefore feel that “learn” hits the mark quite well. It still contains the connotation of memorise, but it also refers to understanding the text. What it does not refer to is realisation.

Also, it is not clear to me why you propose to translate uggaṇhāti with “learn” when you have rejected this for pariyāpuṇanti. The relationship between these two words is fairly clear since they are often used together. Given that uggaṇhāti precedes pariyāpuṇanti, it could be that it is a more basic and preliminary form of learning or memorising. Alternatively the two could just be synonyms, which would fit a common pattern in the EBTs. In either case “learn” does not seem any better for uggaṇhāti than for pariyāpuṇanti. If uggaṇhāti refers to a more preliminary sort of learning, then I would propose “memorise” is the best translation. And pariyāpuṇanti would then naturally be to “learn.”

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Does “take in” work for uggaṇhāti better than the more literal “take up”?

Anyway, somehow I’m getting the sense of an underlying metaphor that is something like loading things in a cart, or better yet, loading bricks on the head of a brick bearer. First you have to take the bricks up; then you have to fix them in place in the right way so they don’t fall out of the pile; then you bear bear them with you on your head as you carry them around.

Similarly, with orally preserved verbal teachings, you first have to take them into your mind; then you have to arrange them and organize them in the right way so they are securely fixed in your mind. The you carry them around with you, and disgorge them as needed.

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Dear Bhante, shouldn’t we expect ancient Indian culture to have specialized terminology for the process of memorization?

At least for me, when I memorize something, at first it takes effort, I feel the cognitive strain on the brain in the beginning.

But with practice I get to the point* where I “know it by heart”, a state of fluency where retrieving it from memory feels easier.

Modeled on a memorization process, I would suggest:

Uggaṇhātha, bhikkhave, tāyanagāthā;
Mendicants, memorize the verses of Tāyana!
pariyāpuṇātha, bhikkhave, tāyanagāthā;
Know by heart the verses of Tāyana!
dhāretha, bhikkhave, tāyanagāthā.
Keep in mind the verses of Tāyana!

When you know something by heart, you can basically put it in your working memory whenever you feel like it; work with it, contemplate it, remember it, think about it, keep it in mind, etc

It makes sense to me that pariyāpuṇāti means ‘to attain, master’ in the sense that something has been memorized to the point of mastery, i.e. knowing something by heart.

Dear Bhante, I would suggest that this refers to the initial, cognitively straining work of memorizing something new :anjal:

Edit: *not that I am a big memorizer or anything, I have just sometime played around with different memorization techniques in relation to some uni exams.

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I agree with these translations. Uganima is ‘learning’ in a broad sense, in Sinhalese. ‘Pari-pun’ suggests to (memorise) fully. Dhareti is to bear, but more meaningfully, understanding and (therefore) absorb.

Further factors:

Kitagiri sutta MN70 https://suttacentral.net/en/mn70
“And how is final knowledge achieved by gradual training, gradual practice, gradual progress? Here one who has faith in a teacher visits him; when he visits him, he pays respect to him; when he pays respect to him, he gives ear; one who gives ear hears the Dhamma; having heard the Dhamma, he memorises it; he examines the meaning of the teachings he has memorised; when he examines their meaning, he gains a reflective acceptance of those teachings; when he has gained a reflective acceptance

With metta

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That seems likely, doesn’t it? After all we are dealing with an oral culture. But for exactly the same reason it could be argued that they must have had many words that essentially mean “memorise.” So which one is it: are we seeing a process of different stages of memorisation or are we dealing with mere synonyms? Or could it even be a bit of both?

One way of deciding this is applying the principle of “least meaning” advocated by @sujato. This would favour the synonym hypothesis. Moreover, when we see a string of related terms in the suttas, they tend to be synonyms or near synonyms. It is easy to see why this is useful in oral literature, since it reduces the chances of faulty memorisation. By the same token, a sequence of terms where each term signifies a relatively minor evolution on the previous one is going to be more difficult to transmit reliably, especially over long periods of time. So when we see pariyāpuṇati and uggaṇhāti used together, I now think they are probably used as synonyms. The alternative hypothesis, I would argue, can be sustained only if we find clear evidence in the suttas that these words are used in distinct ways.

What does this mean for the translation? Probably not all that much, as long as we stay within the ballpark meaning of “memorise/learn.”

There is another interesting aspect to the passage from pārājika 4. The Pali says: dhammavinayaṃ pariyāpuṇitvā. Now dhamma is doctrine, but vinaya does not necessarily refer to the monastic rules in this context. In the EBTs it seems that vinaya refers to the more general idea of “training,” and only later does it acquire the specific meaning of Vinaya Piṭaka. In the current context it is quite clear how pariyāpuṇitvā relates to dhamma: you memorise it, or even learn it. But the “training” is just how we apply the doctrine and so pariyāpuṇitvā cannot mean “memorise.” In this case something like “understanding” seems more appropriate, or perhaps “mastery,” as you suggest.

Overall, I am still reasonably satisfied with “learn” for pariyāpuṇāti in the context of pārājika 4.

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I agree, there’s no point in giving things a more elaborate meaning unless there is evidence for it. I can see how that approach actually takes a bit of restraint even.

I was wondering, since the topic is education, for someone who wants to realize the teachings, what is actually the best way to study the suttas?

Should one try to emulate the ancient Indian ways of study, or are modern ways equivalent?

Are there any “best practices” to recommend?

I think the crucial thing is to reflect on the teachings. This may be aided by memorisation, but it is by no means essential. Sometimes all you need to do is carefully study and contemplate one core framework, such as the gradual training, which in turn is really just an detailed expansion of the noble eightfold path. This is what I do when I teach meditation retreats based on the suttas, such as this one coming up in Hamburg. In my experience, people find this approach both helpful and inspiring.

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Thank you, Ajahn @brahmali !

I can confirm that such a sutta retreat is both helpful and inspiring :slight_smile:

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