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 monks, and how efficient they might be.
Certain practices may seem overly traditional, too slow and dated, or at least not the most sensible way of doing things. However, some methods used has stood the test of time because of their efficacy, not in spite of a lack of it.
I asked one of the khenpos of Ka-Nying monastery how the monks go about memorizing texts. I got the advice below. It’s fun and works exceptionally well.
These methods has stood the test of time because of their efficacy, not in spite of a lack of it
To be better able to remember a text, first make sure you understand it, and extract and associate a few keywords that capture its meaning.
Pick a suitable length of text for memorization, somewhere between one and three pages may be a good place to start. For poetry — one to five short poems would be good. It seems like the more 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 page 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.
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 paragraph, stress it while you are looking ahead to the first syllables of the following paragraph. This will help to create a supportive mental link in those places where you otherwise might easily forget the following paragraph due to it being less strongly connected to the flow of the words of the previous paragraph.
In the evening, before bed time, read your the selected text out loud approximately 100 times.
While reading, don’t work on trying to memorize it 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 text, 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.
In the morning
When you wake up in the morning, again try to read your selected text from memory, and look at it when necessary.
By now you will more or less effortlessly have committed the text to memory.
Once you can remember the text 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.
You can do the same with the selected text and write down the parts you struggle the most with.