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How to Memorize

Introducing a New Column: Good Practice

by Gordon Shotwell

Human beings used to have prodigious powers of memory and recitation.

Prior to the printing press, the only way to effectively preserve anything on a large scale was to learn it by heart. The time spent memorizing a text was much cheaper for most people than hiring a scribe to go and write it all down. Once we could print and distribute books, memorization became a less valuable skill and so fell out of common practice. Those of us who can remember a time before cellphones lived through a similar technological change in the use of memory. Before contact lists we all knew hundreds of arbitrary phone numbers, and maybe to this day can still recollect the ones which belonged to important people in our lives.

Modern Buddhists owe a huge debt to the memorizers of the past. The Buddha, so far as we know, did not write anything down, and so all of his teachings were learned and transmitted through memory for hundreds of years. Similarly, a huge proportion of the teachings which survived the annexation of Tibet did so because they had been learned by heart. A book written in the fabric of the mind is not easily burnt.

This is, I think, why we should learn things by heart. When you memorize something, you are making a statement that those words are as important as you are. They are worth actually engraving into our minds and hearts. We do this today with things like Facebook passwords, recipes, and television stations, but we should make that same statement about the texts, teachings, and histories which actually matter to us.

Practically speaking
We all today possess the same capacities as those great memorizers, but since memorization isn’t a big part of our lives we have lost a lot of the specific techniques. Here are a couple of practical ways of memorizing any text.

The Brute Force Method
This is my favourite method because it does not involve any creativity or cleverness, you just keep repeating a text in this way and eventually you know the whole thing. The method is to repeat a sentence by adding one word at a time. So to memorize the Heart Sutra, you would say out loud:

“Thus have”
“Thus have I”
“Thus have I heard”
“Thus have I heard once”
“Thus have I heard once the”
“Thus have I heard once the blessed”
“Thus have I heard once the blessed one”

And so on. When you get to the end of a sentence or line, you stop and start reciting the next sentence in the same way, once you completed a chunk of the text, you go back and try to recite the whole chunk. Do this every day until you have the whole text memorized.

The associative Method
In this method you associate a particular mental image with each line of the text. It can be completely absurd and disconnected. So you might associate “Thus have I heard once the blessed one was dwelling at Rajagriha at vulture peak mountain” with the image of a peeking vulture, and then “surrounded by the great gathering of the sangha of monks and the sangha of bodhisattvas” with a cool jug of sangria. Then you tie the different mental images together with a story, in this case maybe the peeking vulture is trying to drink the cool jug of sangria.

The technological method
Mnemosyne is an adaptive memorisation tool which helps to remind you of things just as you are beginning to forget them. To memorize a text using Mnemosyne, create a set of flashcards with one line of the text as the prompt, and the subsequent line as the response. One flash card would have “Thus have I heard” as the question and “once the blessed one was dwelling at rajagriha” on the answer side.

There certainly are other methods out there, and different approaches work for different people, so it’s important to find one which works and which you enjoy. Happy memorizing!

Gordon Shotwell is a second generation buddhist and cheerful member of the Shambhala community in Halifax. Contact him if you are interested in contributing your story about good practice techniques via: [email protected]

Article previously posted on elephant journal.

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5 responses to “ How to Memorize ”
  1. Will Brown
    Nov 5, 2012

    Wow, great topic. I seem to use a mixture of methods depending on the complexity of the passage. I’ve recently finished the Lineage chant and the beginning was rather easy due to its rhythm and rhyme but still required some brute force. But the section at the end requires some delicate (non brute) repetition where it’s necessary to remember where the verb is “guide” or “lead” and the object is “enlightenment” or “awakenment”.

    But as in many skills, “use it or lose it”, which seems to prove the psychological law of recency. If I memorize during retreat, but don’t keep it fresh after I get back home, I scramble for the chant book the next time it comes up.

    But to Patricia’s point, holding confidence and seeking the words and spirit of the chant from my heart rather than my brain often surprises me!

  2. John MacAdams
    Nov 5, 2012

    I have had good success with the “Reverse Brute Force Method”, much more so than the forward Brute Force Method as described above. I will provide an example bellow but also want to mention that I have spent many a morning walk using this method in rhythm with my feet hitting the pavement. Using rhythm was suggested by our dear resident Acharya Allyn Lyon a few years ago. (If you get the chance, ask for her story about memorization!)
    Brute Force in reverse:
    What I like about this method is that the meaning shifts and develops with the addition of each word. For clarity, I speak the building recitation out loud, but often find I need to go over the preceding word or words silently to ‘get it right’. Good luck!

    peak mountain
    vulture peak mountain
    at vulture peak mountain
    Rajagriha at vulture peak mountain
    at Rajagriha at vulture peak mountain
    dwelling at Rajagriha at vulture peak mountain
    was dwelling at Rajagriha at vulture peak mountain
    one was dwelling at Rajagriha at vulture peak mountain
    blessed one was dwelling at Rajagriha at vulture peak mountain
    the blessed one was dwelling at Rajagriha at vulture peak mountain
    once the blessed one was dwelling at Rajagriha at vulture peak mountain
    heard once the blessed one was dwelling at Rajagriha at vulture peak mountain
    I heard once the blessed one was dwelling at Rajagriha at vulture peak mountain
    have I heard once the blessed one was dwelling at Rajagriha at vulture peak mountain
    Thus have I heard once the blessed one was dwelling at Rajagriha at vulture peak mountain

  3. Patricia Blaine
    Oct 31, 2012

    Then there’s what might be called “the Manjushri method”: think strongly that your mind inherently contains infinite wisdom including what want to memorize, and also the capacity to retain it easily. When starting to memorize something, read it thinking, “I’ll be able to remember this easily”, and after that think “it’s in there” (meaning in your mind). Especially do not think ‘this is going to be an elaborate and difficult process of putting something foreign into my head’. It may be partly sort of mentally tricking yourself, but I have found this approach really really helpful.

  4. Great article, Gordon! Thank you. Point well made.

  5. Herry Prant
    Oct 30, 2012

    Agree of course that creating a set of flashcard is the best way to memorize text easily. I would like to recommend this site well: http://www.superflashcard.com. It is Superflashcard app with great databse and well-organized. Many parts of cardsets and games help you repeat and repeat things if you want to remember faster. I installed apps on my smart phone and I can pratice everywhere. My friends are also interested in this app. They share with each other, talk about it anytime. It sounds cool and great for downloading!.

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