Memorization Tools Seminar - Abhayagiri 2019 | Ajahn Kovilo
“Whatever a person frequently thinks and ponders upon,
that will become the inclination of their mind.” MN 19
I) The Gratifications of Memorizing Long Dhamma
So you have aspirations to memorize some longer Dhamma Discourse? The Dhammapada? The Pāṭimokkha? The Dasuttara Sutta (DN34)? Wonderful! Marvelous! Please give yourself several big pats on the back … and then a few more … and then maybe one or two more. These little encouragements, even if only mental, will be a big part of your upcoming adventure because your task is not for the half-hearted and the dilettante. Although internalizing these Dhamma Gems will take time and persistence, the project is doable and this essay will present some creative, useful, and not so commonly-known tools which will make your upcoming work both engaging and enjoyable. To do this, we will be taking the mission of memorizing the Dhammapada as our primary case study, providing detailed examples from its contents as a template from which other long Dhamma memorization projects can be modelled and adapted.
Before detailing some practical steps you can take to achieve your goal, it is useful to examine our forthcoming mnemonic travail through a lens which the Buddha would often recommend for contemplation: what are the drawbacks, the gratification, and escape of such a project? Regarding the drawbacks, for the sake of full disclosure, we submit the following depressing, one-sentence paragraph. As you read it though, know that the life-changing list of super-positives is coming soon. And inhale with a smile …
Practically speaking, memorizing the Dhammapada or any other longer Dhamma text is a time-intensive, often solitary endeavor requiring dozens (if not hundreds) of hours of dedicated concentration and possible frustration sometimes yielding minimal social approbation, and the kicker, you might forget it when you’re done … And exhale letting go.
In appreciating these facts, please encourage yourself and note that roughly the same claims could be made about both our efforts at meditation and, indeed, about our whole monastic lives. So don’t be put off. Here comes the honey!
As the quote preceding this essay makes clear, we become what we think about. This truth forms the basis and motivation of all Buddhist memorization efforts from internalizing the morning and evening chanting to memorizing the Aṭṭhakavagga or Pārāyana which the Buddha himself and several of his great disciples praised (e.g. Ud 5.6 and AN 7.53). As we recite and repeat these words of wisdom, we are radically interiorizing their insights and embedding their beautiful contents deeper and deeper into our hearts and minds. From day one in this process of internalizing the words of the Buddha, our time and reps (repetitions) pay dividends as the verses we spend time repeating begin to surface, seemingly on their own, throughout our day. As you lie down to sleep, you might hear the Buddha whispering, “On hearing the Dhamma, the wise become perfectly purified, like a lake deep, clear and still” (Dhp 82). Facing a challenging and provocative conversation, the perfect verse just might drop as if from above into your consciousness, “If, like a broken gong, you silence yourself, you have approached Nibbāna” (Dhp 134). In addition to these individual serendipities which occur intermittently as these timeless verses “become the inclination of our minds”, the Buddha frequently details many bonus boons for one who, as the common phrase says, “has followed the teachings by ear, recited them verbally, examined them with mind, and penetrated them well by view”. In the Anguttara Nikāya (10.73) he summarizes, “recitation is the nutriment of learning.”
As for the “escape” which the Buddha encourages us to continually reflect upon, this is the explicit content matter of many of the verses we will be chanting. As our mouths voice these texts and our hearts take them in, we are heedfully embodying the path of escape, “the path to the Deathless” (Dhp 21). As for those who give insufficient attention to internalizing the Dhamma (appasuto), there is no escape for such people. They are said to “grow old like a bull, growing only in bulk, but without their wisdom maturing” (Dhp 152). Through repeatedly reciting and contemplating the words of the Buddha, we are heralding the way to Nibbāna, where, “having gone, they grieve no more” (Dhp 225).
2) A Choice of Language
Having considered the “why?” of recitation, but before we go on to describe the specific methods which we will use to achieve our aim, it is good to give a moment to the question: what language do you want to memorize in? You have a lot of choices! Even if you are a traditionalist and want to memorize a primary text in a classical language, you have a number to choose from. As for our case study, the Dhammapada, in addition to the Pali version in the Khuddaka Nikaya (of which there exist several editions with slight variations according to country of origin), there exist also a Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit version, three Sanskrit versions, a Tibetan and four Chinese versions. If you choose to memorize a translation, you can basically just pick your language! The Dhammapada is one of the most translated spiritual classics in the world and a version even exists in Latin (the first full translation of a Buddhist text available in a European language translated by Viggo Fausboll in 1855). Even just in English, there exist dozens of translations from Gogerly’s first partial attempt in 1840 (if you like “thous” and “shalts”) to the more popular versions of recent times by Buddharakkhita, Thanissaro, Fronsdal, and Norman.
There are positive aspects of each choice and given that our project is a long one which will necessitate much headspace, it is helpful to give this question some consideration before you bite into even your first verse. If you choose a root text language – especially Pali – the primary benefits are several. Behind you, giving gentle nudges of encouragement, you will have the historical weight that comes with doing something which every single generation of monastics has done without break possibly going all the way back to the actual day the Buddha first taught each verse. That’s powerful! In addition to these persistent whispers from generations past, you will also be sharing a common language with fellow monastics of many a shade. In the case of Pali, you will be able to chant with both the Sri Lankan one-vassa monk who memorized his Dhammapada before ordaining as is obligatory in his sect as well as with the sixty-vassa Burmese MahāThera who, in addition to the Dhammapada, has all the other books of the Pali Canon memorized. As a bonus, you can also chant with Thai monastic University professors and … with me! As icing on the cake, if you are not yet as proficient in this root text language as you want to be, memorizing the Dhammapada is a great way to improve this vital skill. (Here is a link to a website featuring a word-for-word translation and grammatical explanation of the whole of the Dhammapadapāli: http://buddhism.lib.ntu.edu.tw/BDLM/en/lesson/pali/lesson_pali3.htm)
Choosing to memorize in English or whatever your native tongue, though lacking in the strengths which come from adopting a classic language, could still be most enjoyable and would have benefits of its own. In addition to actually being able to fully understand everything that you are absorbing, you are also likely to find that your memorization efforts go more smoothly than if trying to memorize a foreign text; all the words in themselves are already familiar to you. In addition to these advantages, it might also prove to be the case that memorizing in your native language will facilitate insights more readily. You are more likely to be profoundly affected by the advice, “If by renouncing a lesser happiness, one may realize a greater happiness, let the wise person renounce the lesser, having regard for the greater” than by parroting an unfamiliar language whose contents may as well read, “Folor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Morbi id mauris eget tortor porttitor ultrices. Fusce at libero congue lorem bibendum imperdiet in vel.” Also, if the text is mentally stored in your mother language, it will facilitate spontaneous quoting – such as when giving a Dhamma talk – more readily than an impromptu translation from a classical language.
Regardless of whether you choose to memorize in your native tongue or in a scriptural language, your upcoming feat is a formidable one and you would be wise to make your language choice based on what you know will keep you inspired through the course of this brain-based decathlon. But don’t worry too much. Once you have memorized the Dhamma in one language, it will be that much easier to go back and memorize it in a second!
II) The Memorizer’s Requisites
Having touched on some preliminary considerations, now we move on to the practicalities of how to actually accomplish our endeavor. For thousands of years and for innumerable monks and nuns in countless monasteries across the world, the process of memorizing a long Dhamma discourse was often a simple one: just do it. Extended and dedicated rote repetition is likely the main technique most monastics have used to memorize their texts and assignments. Indeed, it is still the primary mode taught in scholastic monasteries in many Buddhist countries today. And for certain categories of text (for example, short, simple verses) and for particular goals (for instance, if you want to be able to fluently chant something from beginning to end) the “repeat it again, then repeat it again” approach is both optimal and sufficient. That said, although there is certainly a place for rote learning in the memorization process, to rely on it as one’s mainstay and only tool for the job can feel deadening after some time.
For those who would undertake long Dhamma memorization with more active engagement and curiosity in mind, we present here a unique and even idiosyncratic approach featuring three non-Buddhist memory techniques which will make your efforts both more efficient and, honestly, more fun. In addition to the mental stimulation of these methods, they will proffer the added benefit that, in the case of the Dhammapada or a similarly versed text, you will be able to cite any verse by number. “What’s verse 315?” You will know. “What’s the source of that quote about the Eightfold Path being the best of all paths?” You will be able to cite chapter and verse number (Dhp. Ch. 20 Verse 273). With these three tools as a foundation, the necessary mechanical and repetitive characteristics of the rote approach can better function. These three tools are: 1) a Spaced Repetition System; 2) the Journey Method; and 3) the Major System.
1) Spaced Repetition
Ask most any medical student, hyperpolyglot, or memory champion how they remember the content of their specialty and the likely answer will be through using a Spaced Repetition System (SRS). For those unfamiliar, spaced repetition (also called spaced rehearsal, graduated intervaling, or expanded scheduling) is an efficient and structured memorization system – analog or digital – which exposes one to, and tests one on selected content over increasingly longer intervals of time based on one’s successful recall of that content. Basically, you can think of it as flashcards on steroids or gamified review.
A) The Leitner Box
A Leitner box (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leitner_system) challenges one to, through repeated correct recall, graduate flashcards through 7 levels of increasingly time-distanced reviews, and is great for ascetics without electricity or any kind of computer or mobile device. The “Leitner box” itself is a small box or even just a simple envelope into which one places 7 sturdy partitions – labeling them “1” to “7”. With the box or envelope prepped, one creates flashcards with a “question” on the front and its “answer” on the back and, depending on how vigorous one wants to be in one’s memorization efforts (we will discuss this below), one then enters a certain number of these into the Level 1 slot in the Leitner box or envelope each day for review. If one looks at the front of a card and knows what it’s cueing one to recall, i.e. what’s on the back of it, then that card goes up one level. If one isn’t able to recall what’s on the back, then the card drops two levels (once cards are stationed at these higher levels, which they will be in just a few days).
The level(s) one reviews each day is determined by the specially designed Leitner Box schedule (See image below from https://fluent-forever.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/LeitnerSchedule.pdf), which generally instructs one to review 2 different levels daily: level 1 and one other level according to the algorithm of the calendar. This calendar schedules one’s reviews based on a program of increasing duration: level 1 cards are reviewed every day; level 2 cards every other day; level 3 cards every third day; level 4 cards once a week; level 5 cards once a fortnight; level 6 cards once a month; and level 7 cards once every two months after which a card has “graduated” into long-term memory.
Once you have your box or envelope with dividers and understand the general rules of the game just described, now comes the time to make your notecards containing each sequential Dhamma section, in our case, each individual Dhammapada verse. These notecards can be any size depending on your eyesight and the dimensions of your box. Now, write each Dhammapada verse number on the front of your notecard. You can perhaps begin by making a doable 20 cards for the first 20 verses, i.e. the whole first chapter, “The Pairs”. On the back of each card, write the corresponding verse itself.
At this point, you will have to ask yourself how long you want to spend memorizing verses each day. If you only want to spend 30 minutes, then consider only adding 5 or so new cards into your level 1 slot daily. If you add more than that, the time it takes you to review your cards each day may increase beyond what you feel is reasonable. This will become especially true when it comes time for you to review levels 6 or 7 which, by the time you get to that day, will likely contain several dozen cards. If you have a good memory or are willing to spend more time, then you can add more than 5 cards each day to your level 1. But be careful: for the Leitner Box or any SRS to be effective, you need to diligently try to do your reviews every single day. If you enthusiastically add too many cards in the beginning, when more time-challenging days arise, it might be easy to just give up your new, fledgling SRS habit altogether rather than have to face hours of review. Therefore, it’s recommended that you do not write off more than you can review. Start modestly, adding only 5 or so cards a day.
Now that you have decided how many new Dhamma prompt cards to add into Level 1 of your Leitner Box each day, you are all ready to simply follow the review schedule calendar and review whichever levels are recommended on a daily basis. Once your hand has recovered from writing out the first 20 verses onto your notecards, copy out the next 12 verses of the second chapter “On Heedfulness”, the next 11 verses of the third chapter “On Mind”, and so on, until you have made notecards for all 423 verses of the Dhammapada. No need to rush. It will likely be a long time before you even get to verse 200. In the meantime, you can just keep these to the side as potential cards until the time comes to insert them into level 1. Although this may sound complicated, do not worry: if you keep up your Leitner box memorization habit every day according to the review calendar, there is no way you will not memorize the Dhammapada.
B) ANKI and Digital SRS Options
For fancy monastics with mobile devices or other digital options, there exist many SRS apps for use on multiple platforms. The foremost of these is called ANKI and, to the joy of mendicants everywhere, it is totally free! [ … at least on android devices.] ANKI and all other SRS applications basically do digitally what the Leitner box does manually, i.e. they allow the user to create digital flashcards which are then shown on a schedule of increasing intervals. The author has created a very basic “Dhammapada Pali by Number” deck for ANKI in the .apkg format available for download here (https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/189632670
Both the Leitner box and digital SRS options have their merits. A minimal-gadget-possessing “middle way” monastic only occasionally using the internet and instead preferring wi-fi free forests for pleasant abiding might ask the question then: which is better?
The Leitner box is certainly less conspicuous in a forest monastery with a strict no-mobile phone policy: you can just take out your box anywhere at any time and not risk offending any luddites. It also has the advantage of requiring manual entry for each card; you have to write out by hand with ink every verse you submit to the Leitner box. And there is research showing that such manual action helps to encode the information in a multi-modal way which strengthens the mental impression (https://redbooth.com/blog/handwriting-and-memory). On top of that, there is a positive sunk-cost effect such that, having spent so much time writing out all these cards, one is more committed to the project as a whole and less likely to give up on the endeavor than if they had simply downloaded a pre-made deck as is possible with the digital SRS options.
That said, there are advantages to ANKI and the other digital applications. For one, the algorithms which these apps base their review schedules on are much more detailed and sensitive than is possible with the simple correct/incorrect, time-based calendar used with a Leitner box. These apps can take surety-of-response and time-needed-to-answer considerations into account in determining how soon one will see each card again (cards with which one is less sure about or which require more time to answer will be called up for review sooner than cards with which one is more sure about and which take less time to answer). In accord with the principle of the “forgetting curve” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forgetting_curve) discovered by the nineteenth century German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, such refinements of review do have an effect on the efficiency of mental encoding and the endurance of cognitive storage time.
Also, such apps allow for both audio and visual input for either side of the digital card. An example of audio input might include a recording of someone reading the verse in Pali or English on the back “answer” side of each card. [Here are two sites featuring mp3 audio tracks of the Dhammapada for downloading: individual tracks for each verse in Pali https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0Bwcg-r6WkKO5NmU1TWZCTTd6QmM?usp=sharing; and chapter readings in English https://www.readingfaithfully.org/sutta-reading-audio-book-mp3-dhammapada-buddhas-path-wisdom-translated-acharya-buddharakkhita/ ] As for visual input, a quick Google search could give you a photo of “a water pot filling drop by drop” (as the wise fill their hearts with goodness – Dhp 122), or “gourds lying scattered about” (as dove-colored bones in Autumn – Dhp 149), or of “a charioteer braking his rolling chariot” (as the wise brake their rising anger – Dhp 222). And each of these images could help stimulate recall and encoding if placed on either side of a digital card. Further, although some features of these apps do require network connectivity, the actual card reviewing can often be done independently of whether one has internet access or not.
Regardless of whether you choose to go modern monk chic with the latest SRS app or grizzled, old-school minimalist with the Leitner box, the desired goal of fully internalizing the Dhammapada really depends on your own level of commitment. If you don’t do your reviews – screen-based or paper card-based – according to the schedule pretty much every day, then the result will be similarly lackluster. If you don’t do your reps, you won’t get the muscles, i.e. your neurons just won’t be well-enough connected. If, on the other hand, you commit yourself to a strict discipline of daily reviews, the fruit will be the same regardless of the technology: you will successfully memorize the Dhammapada without a doubt.
Initialism and the Spacing Effect
Before going on to introduce our next mnemonic requisite, there are two further refinements of the spaced repetition method which are useful to describe, namely, initialism and considerations of review spacing. The first such strategy, initialism, takes advantage of a trick used by actors to memorize lines. Above, when describing how to make cards for one’s Leitner box, the simple model of “verse number on front; corresponding verse on back” was used. Here, we can refine that recommendation for those interested: prior to reviewing your “verse number on front; corresponding verse on back” cards, create and review cards of the type, “verse number plus verse’s initials on front; corresponding verse on back”. And what is meant by “verse number plus verse’s initials on front”? In this case, on the front of your cards – digital or manual – write the verse number and the first letters of each word in that verse. For example, the front of the card for the first verse in the Dhammapada would read:
(if memorizing Pali)
m dh; m m; m c p; bh v k v; t n d; c v p”
(if memorizing English from the Buddharakkhita translation)
M p a m s. M i t c; t a a m. I w a i m a p s o a, s f h l t w t f t f o t o.”
And the backs would read:
(for the Pali)
manasā ce paduṭṭhena;
bhāsati vā karoti vā;
tato naṃ dukkhamanveti;
cakkaṃva vahato padaṃ”
(for the English)
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts, suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.”
Prompting one’s memory using initials in this way can be a great gateway habit into the memorization process which otherwise (i.e. if one just tries prompting oneself to remember a full verse based only on it’s numbered order) might be too daunting and lead to giving up the whole project altogether. Give this strategy a try right now by reading over the full verses printed above once or twice and then looking at the initials for that verse while covering up the full verse itself. You will be surprised at how quickly you can recall the full verse based solely on a string of formerly meaningless consonants and vowels!
A second refinement of the SRS method is the intelligent implementation of what educational psychologists call the spacing effect (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spacing_effect), i.e. that learning is enhanced when material is reviewed over time. As our project of memorizing long Dhamma texts is both time-consuming and mentally challenging, this principle is especially relevant. Although the spacing effect underlies any SRS system, what follows are two possible Dhammapada-specific implementations of its principal, that is, two calendar-based plans for success. First, we will present a comfortable two-year timetable followed by a more express, one-year timetable. If neither of these two time frames seem attractive to you for memorizing all 423 verses of the Dhammapada, or if you have chosen a different long text for memorization, please skip this section or read it only for possible ideas of how to construct your own long-term plan for victory.
Taking 423 verses and dividing them by 24 months, one gets about 18 verses per month. Although that is mathematically straightforward, the chapters of the Dhammapada do not, in actuality, organize themselves so crisply. Instead of trying to stick too closely to the math, you might try and keep to a one-chapter-per-month schema. The eight chapters that have relatively few verses (e.g. chapter 11 “On Aging” [11 verses] and chapter 12 “On Self” [10 verses]) are chunked together and the two longest chapters (chapter 24 “On Craving” [26 verses]; and chapter 26 “On The Holy Man” [41 verses]) are spread over two months each. Here is our proposed two-year calendar labeled as “Month 1, Month 2, ….” rather than “January, February, …” to encourage everyone to not wait till New Years to begin your project but, instead, to start now!
|Year One||Chapter(s) to memorize||Total number of verses this month|
|Month 1||Chapter 1||20|
|Month 2||Chapters 2&3||23|
|Month 3||Chapter 4||16|
|Month 4||Chapter 5||16|
|Month 5||Chapters 6&7||24|
|Month 6||Chapter 8||16|
|Month 7||Chapter 9||13|
|Month 8||Chapter 10||17|
|Month 9||Chapters 11&12||21|
|Month 10||Chapter 13||12|
|Month 11||Chapter 14||18|
|Month 12||Chapters 15&16||24|
|Year Two||Chapter(s) to memorize||Total number of verses this month|
|Month 13||Chapter 17||14|
|Month 14||Chapter 18||21|
|Month 15||Chapter 19||17|
|Month 16||Chapter 20||17|
|Month 17||Chapter 21||16|
|Month 18||Chapter 22||14|
|Month 19||Chapter 23||14|
|Month 20||Chapter 24a||13|
|Month 21||Chapter 24b||13|
|Month 22||Chapter 25||23|
|Month 23||Chapter 26a||21|
|Month 24||Chapter 26b||20|
If one wants to memorize the Dhammapada in a year, a content-logical calendar might look like this:
|Year One||Chapter(s) to memorize||Total number of verses this month|
|Month 1||Chapters 1&2||32|
|Month 2||Chapters 3&4||27|
|Month 3||Chapters 5,6,&7||40|
|Month 4||Chapters 8,9,&10||46|
|Month 5||Chapters 11,12,&13||33|
|Month 6||Chapters 14,15,&16||42|
|Month 7||Chapters 17&18||35|
|Month 8||Chapters 19&20||34|
|Month 9||Chapters 21&22||30|
|Month 10||Chapters 23&24a||27|
|Month 11||Chapters 24b&25||36|
|Month 12||Chapters 26||41|
B) The Journey Method
The next memory technique to be discussed has been used for millennia and is known by various names including the Journey Method, the Method of Loci, Memory Palace, Memory Journey, or the Mind Palace Technique1. Having gained some familiarity with the theory of spaced repetition above, this journey-based mnemonic method will give you a visual and spatial context into which you can place the verses you are learning. The journey method is a technique whereby the memory champion (that is you!) creates meaningful mental image-cues related to the content they are trying to remember and then embeds those images into a visualized landscape according to a specific predetermined narrative route. The landscape can be any room, building, or larger scene you are familiar with including the hut you live in, the meditation hall you sit in, the monastery where you stay, or any other smaller or larger environment that you can easily bring to mind in its details and particulars.
Though a skilled mnemonist can generate visually-rich mind palaces filled with detailed cues effortlessly, this meta-skill takes time to cultivate as it is actually the fluid combination of three subskills. These component skills are: 1) learning how to come up with strong visual tells which reliably translate to ready recall of desired content; 2) imagining three-dimensional landscapes through which one can mentally “travel”; and 3) understanding how to mentally embed or encode the images from skill one into your map from skill two in a logical order you can follow repeatedly. For the purposes of explanation, we will describe these principles as if they were distinct, first going over some specifics of concentrated image creation, then going into the practice of how to craft your imagined environment, and finally imparting some thoughts on how to combine these into a seamless whole. The reader will note that, even in the explanatory descriptions below, not to mention the actual practice of creating mental journeys, it is not fully possible to separate these three processes. They naturally bleed into one another. And this is not a problem. As we have been doing throughout, we will continue using the Dhammapada as our primary example.
Creating Visual Cues
Let’s jump right in and try to come up with a strong visual image cue which will prompt us to remember the first verse of the Dhammapada. To do this, we don’t need to try to make up images for every word of every line of each verse; it is usually enough to create an image that encapsulates the gist of a verse. For Dhammapada verse 1 in English, you could imagine a huge, bright red heart (mind) walking along (you have to add some legs to it of course) with three or four smaller hearts each in the shape of a different State of America (mental states) following along behind it. And that is your cue to recall that, “Mind precedes all mental states”.
If you are memorizing the Pali, and you already know some or all of the meaning of what you are internalizing, then you can use a similar method to that described above, that is imagining images that correlate with the verse’s meaning. If your Pali is not yet so strong, you can instead use just the sounds of the words to create your visuals, or even just the first or second syllables as memory joggers which will then prompt you to recall the remainder of the verse (which shouldn’t be so hard if you are using your Spaced Repetition System). For our first line, “manopubbaṅgamā dhammā”, you could imagine a muscular Captain America (man) looking at Winnie the Pooh with a playfully admonishing look on his face and saying “Oh Pooh!” Just this could be enough to spark your memory of the verse in its entirety.
Before moving on, it is important to discuss how to create monastic-friendly mnemonics. If you have ever read the works of Tony Buzan or almost any other memory champion or writer on memory skills, you will certainly have encountered the would-be-didactic advice: make sure your mental images are as sexual, aggressive, and violent as possible! While this may be useful advice for a layperson trying to memorize 20,000 digits of pi or attempting to remember the exact order of 5 decks of cards in 5 minutes, this is not good advice for you my monastic sisters and brothers! It would be better if you never set out on this Dhamma memory challenge than for you to contradict literally all three fundamentals of Right Thought (“Thoughts of sensuality, thoughts of ill-will, and thoughts of harming. These are Wrong Thought” MN 117). Fortunately, these three bad ideas are not your only ammunition in taking aim at finding truly durable and fun mnemonic visualizations.
In general, when creating mental images for recall, it is helpful to involve as many senses as possible. If you can smell the mules, horses, and elephants of Dhp 322, this aroma is likely to stick in your mind; all the more if you can reach out and stroke their silky and bristling hair. If you can imagine the tastes enjoyed by those Radiant Gods who feed on bliss mentioned in Dhp 200, your tongue will become your ally along this mental flight. If you can hear the regret-filled sighs of those sad old men who lived debauched lives in their primes, neither ordaining nor amassing wealth righteously, verse 156 will sound for you at slightest provocation. As for sights, make your images as vibrant, active, and colorful as possible. Try to imagine vividly the sun-drenched skin and sand-splattered hempen shawl, so recently purchased for an exorbitant fee, of the lone nomadic trader, sitting hunched, whose eyes violently shuttle between every possible site of ambush which surrounds him. Here you witness the subject of verse 123 who is a model of how concerned we should be of committing the unwholesome.
In addition to using these sense-based but not sensual images, you can further increase the likelihood of making these verses stick through three other skillful means—by adding personal relevance, by conscious exaggeration, and through the skillful use of humor. For Dhammapada 802, I can imagine my brother as a giant, pants-drooping-down plumber rerouting rivers with his ginormous, Mario-style wrench looming above my little niece and my first-grade teacher, Miss Carpenter, who are – while standing on the banks of one of these new waterways – straightening arrows and planing wood respectively. With this strange picture in mind, it is unlikely I will ever forget the contents of verse 80 … even if I wanted to … which I kind of do.
Mind Palace Architecture/ Journey Method Trail Blazing
Now we return to our process of creating a clear blueprint for our memorial travels. Before giving some thoughts on a reasonable formula for creating a mental environment for journeying, I will briefly relate my own missteps in this arena while memorizing the Dhammapada in Pali as a case-study of a few things to avoid. I will follow these bloopers with a description of a more intelligently, and intentionally designed mind palace for memorizing the Pāṭimokkha. Possibly-boring-content spoiler alert: several of the following paragraphs contain what some general readers might feel to be a glut of arcane and esoteric detail. Although learning of the tortuous details of another person’s mind palaces will, for those intent on and new to the journey method, certainly feel like touring a fascinating museum with a knowledgeable docent, for those reading this essay with less investment, the tour may instead feel tedious and torturous. For the latter reader, please feel free to skip to the next heading on embedding content. For the former, you are brave knights! And I commend you on your fearlessness!
When I first began memorizing the Dhammapada, I did not yet have a clear goal of learning it in its entirety. Accordingly, I somewhat haphazardly made up my journey as I went along, memorizing one chapter a month over the course of two years’ time during which I lived in three different monasteries on two continents. To give the reader some sense of what a huge memory palace might look like, I present here my own journey as a case study.
Although I had the sense to situate each chapter within a fairly small area (e.g. the verses of chapter 1 “The Pairs” are scattered around the hut in Northeast Thailand where I was living when I first began the memorization in earnest), the full route I would mentally walk each time I would chant the Dhammapada in its entirety is a fairly winding and somewhat fantastical one. The route begins logically enough initially snaking along my alms route for chapters 1-4. For chapter 5 “The Fool”, however, I felt inclined to beam myself over to my university dorm building where it was exceedingly easy to imagine foolish things happening in virtually every corner of the place. For chapters 6-15, I returned to the general vicinity of where I was living at the time, wandering past the school and over to the local meditation center. After 15 months devoted to daily memorization and review, conditions conspired to bring me back to America where I continued my mental journey placing the contents of chapters 16-19 throughout the library and surrounding rooms of my home monastery in California. At this point, I moved once again to a branch monastery in Washington State where I laid out the verses of the remaining seven chapters into the bathrooms and offices of my residence there.
For someone just beginning the project of creating a huge memory palace, there are some useful lessons that can be learned from looking at the example above. Though it is not so difficult to mentally transport oneself from one continent to another in the time it takes to breathe between reciting two lines, I think that having one continuous route in one real-world location, preferably wherever you are living now or nearby is a superior method. And if you can plan out this virtual hike right now from day one, you will save yourself the occasional mental hiccup of having to remember “Is verse number 274 on the bookshelf in the storage room in White Salmon or is it on the bookshelf in the library in Redwood Valley?” To create such a large and detailed map, it is useful to consider a few numbers: you will need 26 distinct zones (these can be rooms, small buildings, clearly delineated parts of a trail, etc.) into which you can place 10-40 images at discrete loci within each zone (these will be corners of rooms, windows, wall-hangings, desks, trail signs, or that crazy 3-trunked tree with the urn stuck in it, etc.).
After completing my own Dhammada memorization project using the map described above and realizing the drawbacks of having to beam myself back and forth from Thailand to my college dorm every time I wanted to recite chapters 4-7, I took more care with my Patimokkha memorization. Rather than piecing together a jumble of partial maps from different places, I took the time – perhaps just an hour or so one afternoon – to map out a more fluid, real-life, and concrete route. To prepare for the mental cartography that lay before me, I took several preliminary steps. First, I physically drew a map of the monastery where I was living (the relevant section of which covered perhaps 30 acres). Next, I planned out the numbers involved: I needed 8 zones for the 8 rule classes (Pārājika, Saṅghādisa, Aniyatā, etc.), and anywhere from 4 to 92 specific, geographic loci for each zone. To make the 92 Pācittiya rules less cumbersome, I subdivided my large Pācittiya-zone into 9 subdivisions to match its 9 vaggā or chapters, and the did the same with the 3 vaggā of the Nissagiyā Pācittiyā class and the 4 sections of the sekhiyā.
With these numbers in mind, I then set to doing the mental architecture of figuring out how to best embed cues for all 227 rules into the map I had drawn in a logical way that followed a specific and easy-to-follow path through the monastery. This task was easy … and fun! And when I was done, I had a detailed mind map which led me on a leisurely walk from the monastery mailboxes (the 4 Pārājikā), through the parking lot (the Saṅghādisā), past the bell tower (Aniyatā) and the meditation hall (Nissagiyā-Pācittiyā), up the road past 9 separate monk dwellings (perfectly housing the ten or so rules within each vagga of the Pācittiyā class), past the boiler room (Pāṭidesanīyā) and the monk’s utility building (sekkhiyā), and ending – with gratitude and relief after such a journey – at the monk’s common restroom (adhikaraṇasamathā). Given that I was actually then living at the monastery, every time I would walk parts or all of this journey – which was every single day – I was further cementing the mortar of my mind palace by seeing the rules all around me.
Embedding Cues into Your Map
Once you have exciting images in mind and have a clear cognitive map of your journey, your final step (which we have already begun to describe) is to place those images into your mind palace in specific and fixed locations, for instance, just underneath the Buddha statue in your hut. After you have staged your first image (for example, our big, walking heart leading several other small hearts for the first verse of the Dhammapada), you will now do the same thing with each subsequent content detail (e.g. the second, then third, then fourth, etc. verses of the Dhammapada). These steps can be summarized simply: 1) create a colorful image symbolizing the verse, and then 2) place that object or scene into your palace in an orderly arrangement, or “journey”. You are creating a virtual tour through the palace or map in your mind, moving from room to room or from this hut to that tree past that big rock down to the Dining Hall. The course of this mental tour depends entirely on you.
Hopefully, you too can take the time now to design your mind palace. It won’t take long and it will make your memorization journey that much more enjoyable. Don’t worry, you will learn the intricacies of mental architectonics as you proceed!
C)The Major System
Our next memory tool, the Major System, is a technique that allows us to convert numbers into visual images based on a specific encoding formula. Here we will teach that formula for the numbers 0-9 and, with that as our foundation, thereafter explain the principle for creating images for all numbers between 10-99. Although this tool does not have a historical connection with Buddhist study and memorization, it can be a useful supplementary practice for encoding and retrieval.
For all of us long Dhamma memorizers, this system allows us to strategically place these numerical images into our mind palaces to remind us of what number (from 1-423 in the case of the Dhammapada or from 1-227 in the case of the Pāṭimokkha) correlates with which location in our palace and hence what verse or rule in our selected long Dhamma. This indexing system enables us to both recall any verse based solely on being given its numerical order and, upon hearing any verse, to be able to say what number it is. Although it might seem just a parlor trick, having the numerical order of all verses in one’s head does save time when reading and trying to understand Buddhist reference works. Even more worthwhile, if you have memorized the Dhammapada in Pali, you are then able to immediately mentally cross-reference and contextualize the many (mis)quoted Buddha snippets you come across on t-shirts and in popular Dharma magazines. When you read, “In the Dhammapada, the Buddha said, ‘Everything is misery.’” you are able to discern right away that the author might possibly just be misquoting Dhp 278, “sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā.”
With this introduction in mind, here are the specifics of the Major System and how we can implement it for our Dhammic purposes. As mentioned above, each numeral from 0 to 9 is assigned one or several related sounds. The suggested correlates are as follows:
|Numeral||Associated sound(s)||Mnemonic for remembering association|
|0||“Z”,“S” & soft “C” as in “zoo, sīla, ace”||“Z” is the first letter of “zero” – 0|
|1||“D”,“T” & “Th” as in “dhamma, triple gem, the Buddha”||“D” and “T” are letters with one downstroke – 1|
|2||“N” or “Kn” as in “Nanda, knee”||“N” is a letter with two downstrokes – 2|
|3||“M’ as in “Moggallāna”||“M” is a letter with three downstrokes – 3|
|4||“R” as in “righteous”||“Four” ends in “R” – 4|
|5||“L” as in “loving-kindness”||“L” is the roman numeral for 50 – 5|
|6||“J”,“Sh”&“Ch” as in “jay, shark, chai”||Six looks like the letter “G” – 6|
|7||“K”& hard “C” as in “key, cow”||The letter “K” looks like 2 small sevens atop one another – 7|
|8||“F”&“V” as in “friend, valentine”||The number eight looks like a cursive “f” or two “V”s, one inverted beneath – 8|
|9||“P”&“B” as is “person, Buddha”||The number nine looks like “P” flipped left or “b” rotated 180 degrees – 9|
Here is where things get personal. At this point you want to create 10 different phonesthetic images for these numerals based on the chart above, for example: 1 is a “tie”; 2 is someone saying “No!”; 3 is “me” [you … whoever you are]; 4 is a “rye bread; 5 is a “lye”, etc. Although you want the visual associations you make to be as personal as possible so they are easy to remember, you also want to make sure that they: 1) only have one syllable; and 2) do not end in a consonant sound. This will help to make sure that they don’t get confused with the larger numbers we will be creating images for next.
Once you have 10 distinct images for these basic numerals, it is now time to create images for two-digit numbers. To do this, you want to find words containing two consonant sounds – one at the beginning of the word related to the numeral in the tens position (for example the “2” in “27”), and one at the end of the word related to the ones position (for example the “7” in “27”). As for the vowels in between or around these consonants, in the Major System, they don’t matter and can be anything at all. The same is true for semi-vowels like the “y” in “cry”, or nasal sounds like the suffix “-ing” in “singing”.
Keeping these rules in mind, images for the number 11, could be any of the following: a “dead” person, a rising “tide”, a “dyed” robe, a “tight” monk hat. The number 12 could be visualized as a “tin” box, two monks “dining”, a drug “den”, a phone with a dial “tone”, etc. Once you have the idea, you can create images for all the numbers from 13 to 99. Like the creation of your mind palace, this imaginative exercise is both enjoyable and useful. Within the span of thirty minutes, you will have created a visual dictionary of all two-digit numbers which you can use for the rest of your life in numerous ways from more easily memorizing your passport number to quickly being able to recall the number of your room or hut in a larger monastery.
Though you now have 100 number-images in your brain, for the purpose of being able to index the Dhammapada, as mentioned above, I would recommend planting imaginary placemarkers only at every fifth verse in your memory palace as planting them at every single verse might overload your system and decrease your cognitive bandwidth. As we have not tested our sanity and gone the further step of creating 900 more number-images to account for all three-digit numbers, we can just reuse the two-digit number-images we already have again at every fifth verse from number 100 to 420.
To give an example of what this kind of place-marking looks like in practice, I submit verse 325 in my own Dhammapada journey. Verse 325 is in the Nāga Chapter which is located in the foyer at the Pacific Hermitage monastery in Washington state. In the back right corner of this room – in between the back door and the door to the Meditation Hall – there rests a filth-covered snoring pig (“When a man is sluggish … sleeping and rolling around … like a fat domestic pig …”). With this verse-prompting image already embedded in my mind’s eye, I can now overlay my Major System-inspired place-marker for the number 25: nails. In that same corner, I now see that my pink friend has turned ascetic and, though still sluggish, now lays upon a bed of nails.
III) Putting it All Together and Maintaining it
Congratulations! You have all the tools you need for your upcoming construction project! You have all the requisites necessary for your imminent journey! Your task now is just to put all this theory into practice: get your Leitner box ready or download ANKI; draft the plans for your memory palace; and make some numbers into pictures for placemarkers. Once these elements are squarely in place, then all you have to do is just take the steps to make your SRS your kalyāṇamitta (spiritual friend). Make your daily Leitner reviews a habit and the friendship will blossom until one day, you’ll have it – the whole of your long Dhamma discourse in your head, animated, indexed, and filled with metta!
When that day comes, you might ask yourself, “Now what?” Fair enough. You have just done the brain equivalent of walking the Appalachian Trail on a moving treadmill. When you reach the final step, though you have substantial momentum behind you, you may also feel rather exhausted. Do you quit and settle for the paradoxically unfulfilling Buddhist bragging rights of being able to say, “Yes! I memorized the whole Dhammapada!”? You certainly could and the merit you made with every step of the journey would not be lost.
If, on the other hand, you want to maintain the hard-won habit, you could, like the rare, intrepid hiking virtuoso, turn around and keep on walking. Here we will briefly introduce one possible maintenance plan for you to keep up your beautiful Dhammic memories. This plan involves daily recitation from memory for about 20 minutes, the time it takes for you to drink a hot cup of fine tea. If you recite around 60 verses a day – roughly 4 chapters – you will succeed in chanting all 423 within 7 days. Here is one possible timetable:
|Chapters chanted this day||1-4||5-9||10-13|
|Total # of verses per day||59||69||50|
If you made paper flashcards, keep them, and occasionally test yourself. If you used a digital SRS, then your cards are already saved just waiting for you to call them to mind. And that is about it.
Hopefully you will enjoy your upcoming journey as much as I enjoyed both my initial one and my subsequent leisure walks over the familiar terrain. All that remains is to start. As a Taoist sage might have said if they had known of memory palaces and spaced repetition, “The mental journey of a million miles, begins with the first rep.” Please delight in the views.
1 Although no record exists in classical Theravada texts which detail the specifics of this memory aid, once one learns its mode, one can easily imagine that such discourses as the Mahāsudassana Sutta (DN 17) – which detail highly elaborate and visual landscapes for little apparent didactic reason – may have, in effect, been imagined in a similar way by practitioners of old who venerated their contents. Although the author is ignorant of the refinements of the practice, mandala meditation in Mahayāna Buddhism could also be used to similar effect.
2 Dhp 80: “Irrigators regulate the rivers; fletchers straighten the arrow shaft; carpenters shape the wood; the wise control themselves.” (Buddharakkhita translation)