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Since I started studying buddhist texts in a more thorough and general way I’ve been curious about the traditional methods of learning and pedagogics used by monastics, and the efficacy of them.
Certain practices from a modern outsider’s perspective may seem overly traditional, dated and possibly useless, or at least not the most sensible way of doing things. But I have a strong suspicion that the methods used has stood the test of time because of their efficacy, not in spite of a lack of it, so I’m happy to try them out and investigate how they work for me.
I asked one of the khenpos of Ka-Nying monastery how the monks go about memorizing texts. I got the advice below, and I’ve tried to apply to the best of my ability. And I find that it’s fun and works well.
If you ask around, you may find that different people have different techniques.
To be better able to remember a stanza, and the connection between lines and stanzas, first make sure you understand the meaning to some degree, and extract and associate a few keywords that capture its meaning.
Pick a suitable number of stanzas for memorization, somewhere between one and five four-line stanzas may be a good place to start. It seems like the more verses you memorize in the same chunk, the better the long term retention is. But it takes more time to get it all committed to memory. You will find that it’s easier and goes faster to memorize just a single verse in a night, but long term retention may suffer. Experiment with the numbers to find what’s suitable to your capacity and schedule.
The faster you can read, the better and more you can memorize. But be careful and meticulous, and increase speed only when you can do it without causing mistakes.
To be able to read faster, try to look ahead. So while reading one word out loud, try to keep your eyes on the next few words – the further you can look ahead, the better.
And don’t be shy! By reading out loud, and clearly moving your lips and tongue, you will activate your muscles in the mouth and also hear what you read, and thereby create better circumstances for remembering
While reading the last syllable of a line, stress it while you are looking ahead to the first syllables of the following line. This will help to create a supportive mental link in those places where you otherwise might easily forget the following line due to it being less strongly connected to the flow of the words of the previous line.
In the evening, before bed time, read your selection of stanzas out loud approximately 100 times.
While reading, don’t work on trying to memorize the stanzas in a conscious way. Just read. Read fast, and read many times. Apply the techniques mentioned above.
In my experience, remembering comes gradually and spontaneously, and you will find that before reaching a hundred repetitions you more or less remember the stanzas, with maybe a few places causing some struggle. When this happens, you may want to apply some memory technique as a bridge to that particular passage so that you manage to remember what doesn’t come spontaneously after what you just read.
When you wake up in the morning, again try to read your selection of stanzas from memory, and look at the text when necessary.
By now you will more or less effortlessly have committed your selection of stanzas to memory.
Once you can remember your stanzas with some ease, you can just recite them from memory while walking around.
In some of our khenpo classes at RYI we need to memorize stanzas, and for the quizzes you might need to write the stanzas. In that case need to adjust the process a bit to account for learning how to spell all words properly (in Tibetan), or remembering the correct punctuation (in English). I’ve found that just adding a few rounds of writing the stanzas after having prepared as above works fine for me.
At a recent lunch with Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche at Ka-Nying monastery, he mentioned the benefits of having a text memorized, for instance the one thousand stanzas of the Bodhicaryavatara. With a text like this committed to memory, one is always prepared to read it to oneself for inspiration, or use it as a basis for teaching others. By learning 3 stanzas or so every day, the entire book would be memorized in a year. If this inspires you, and you decide to do it, please let me know how it goes.
~Peter from Sweden