Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Tibetan Monastic Education
by Georges Dreyfus
January 1, 2001
Section 2 of 7

The Practice of Memorization

Most monks… start their careers when they are young (between six and twenty).2 Their first task is to memorize a large number of rituals. Memorization typically proceeds as follows. Every day, the young monk memorizes a fixed and gradually increasing amount of textual material. Usually he starts with a couple of sentences, gradually increasing to one side or both sides of a folio. Some become memory virtuosi, able to memorize five or even ten folios a day.3 In the evening, the student meets with his teacher, who examines him on the material learned that day and gives him a new piece. The teacher recites the piece, making sure that the student knows exactly how to read the passage. This precision in reading is particularly important for mantras.4 Though they are in Sanskrit, they are written in the Tibetan alphabet. Hence, they are difficult to read. The teacher’s reading is quite important: it is considered a form of transmission (lunglung) and authorizes the student to work on the text. Most Tibetan monks insist on the importance of such transmission (though not all agree). Once the teacher is satisfied, the student is ready for the next day’s memorization.

After rising and doing the usual chores, such as cleaning his room or that of his teacher, the young monk sits down cross-legged on a bed or on a cushion on the ground and performs a few devotional recitations; in particular he invokes Mañjuśrī, the patron bodhisattva of wisdom. This invocation ends with the syllable dhīḥ, the sonic seed of this bodhisattva, which is repeated as many times as possible in a single breath: dhīḥ, dhīḥ, dhīḥ, dhīḥ… Such repetition is thought to increase the intellectual faculties and hence to help one memorize. The young monk then proceeds to memorize the passage given to him the night before. He loudly reads it from his text bit by bit, rocking his body back and forth. He starts with the first word or two of the first sentence or line of a stanza (often but not always the text is written as poetry; the verses of seven, nine, or eleven syllables, grouped in four-line stanzas, are easier to retain than prose), reciting that element until he has mastered it. He then moves on incrementally until he has memorized the whole sentence, which he recites, still in a loud voice, several times. The same process is repeated for subsequent sentences; and after memorizing each, he recites the sentences that he has just memorized. Thus, by the end of the session, the whole passage forms a whole that can be integrated with the passages he has already memorized.

The process of memorization is aural. Without relying on visual mnemonic devices, Tibetan monks memorize their texts by vocalizing them. The only support is a tune to which the words are set. In certain monasteries (such as NamgyelRnam rgyal, where monks are expected to memorize an enormous amount of liturgical material), the text is memorized to the same tune to which it is later chanted. In scholastic monasteries or in smaller monasteries, there is no fixed tune. But in both cases, students concentrate entirely on the text’s sonic pattern, ignoring other associations as much as possible.5

If the whole day is devoted to memorization, the session is often finished around noon, just before the young monk has lunch (often with his teacher). The afternoon is taken up in various ways, depending on the wishes of the teacher, the age of the student, the day of the month, the type of institution, and so on. Some teachers are quite strict and closely watch their pupils, who have to spend most of the afternoon reciting what they have memorized. Others allow greater freedom. At the NamgyelRnam rgyal monastery in India, monks memorize new material in the morning and recite earlier lessons through the whole afternoon and evening. Gen Lozang GyatsoRgan Blo bzang rgya mtsho [Dreyfus’s principal teacher at the Dialectic School in Dharamsala, India] had a much easier time: his first teacher was very a kind man who did not keep tight discipline. GenlaRgan lags would spend the afternoon playing with other young monks, unless there was some special event (a full-day liturgical service) or a specific task to be done.

The evening is spent practicing the texts previously memorized. The student starts by reciting that morning’s passage several times, until his recitation is fluent and almost effortless. He then goes back to the parts of the same text learned on preceding days, ending with the passage learned the same day. He may add other texts learned previously. This exercise, which usually takes one or two hours, is essential to ensure that passages once memorized are not forgotten. At first, the passage newly memorized, which could be recited quite fluently in the morning, comes in the evening with difficulty, if at all. It needs to be fixed again in the memory, a task best done just before the student goes to sleep. After a night of sleep, the text starts to take its fixed form, which has to be constantly strengthened until it becomes ingrained—a process that takes many days of repetition. In this way, the student’s hold on previous passages increases, and the new passage is integrated gradually into the memorized text as a whole. It is only when the texts are so well learned that they come to mind automatically that frequent recitation is no longer needed. At that point, reciting them a few times a year can keep them alive in the monk’s memory.

In the evening, the young monk being trained in memorization faces the biggest ordeal of the day: the dreaded exam on that day’s passage. The student enters the teacher’s room and hands over the passage he has been working on. He then sits or squats at the feet of his teacher, who is seated on his bed (the usual position of most Tibetans when they are at home), and repeats the passage by heart. Sometimes the teacher asks him to recite previously learned passages. Any mistake is immediately punished. Some teachers hit their students for any mistake. An error in pronunciation might draw a single stroke, but a failure in memory could lead to a more serious beating. GenlaRgan lags was lucky; his teacher, who was also a relative, was kind toward his students. Others are much less pleasant, and there are even some sadists who brutalize their students. Once the exam is over, the cycle starts again with the transmission of a new passage to be memorized the next day.

This process of memorization is practiced not only by monks and nuns, but also by laity. Most laypeople recite religious texts every day and often memorize the briefer ones, using the same technique described here. The memorization of such texts relies only on sound. A friend of mine reported that when he was a child, his parents made him memorize the maṇḍala offering, a text recited in which one offers a symbolic representation of the to the universe to the deity worshipped or the guru. It describes the objects to be offered: the sun (nyimanyi ma), the moon (dawazla ba), the precious umbrella (rinpoché dukrin po che gdugs). My friend, however, understood these to be the names of people and thought the text referred to Mrs. Sun, Moon, and RinpochéRin po che being there (duk’dug).


[2] A few individuals become monks at an advanced age (after forty or fifty). Such people, who are called genchörgan chos (i.e., “[those who practice] dharma in their old age”), are considered second-class monks and are not expected to memorize very much; often they are accepted in monasteries only if they can provide for themselves.
[3] Traditional Tibetan books are not bound; the loose pages contain five to seven long lines, printed from wood blocks. TsongkhapaTsong kha pa is said to have been able to memorize up to seventeen folios a day. See Cha har dge bshes blo bzang tshul khrims, Rje thams cad mkhyen pa tsong kha pa chen po’i rnam thar go sla bar brjod pa bde legs kun kyi byung gnas in The Collected Works (gsung ’bum) of cha har dge bshes lo bzang tshul khrims, vol. 2 (Kha) (New Delhi: Chatrin Jangsar Tenzin, 1971), 104.
[4] A basic premise in Indian and Tibetan cultures is that a mantra is fully effective if, and only if, it is pronounced exactly right. This requirement, which goes back to Vedic culture, is viewed by Tibetans with some flexibility and even humor. They know that they do not read mantras in the same way that Indians do. Nevertheless, they have kept the old injunction requiring precise pronunciation. On the general theory of mantra, see H. Alper, ed., Mantra (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989).
[5] To be sure, the memorizers look at a page, thereby introducing a visual dimension. Changes in the appearance of that page (e.g., in a different edition) can disturb the process, a sign that visual patterns contribute to memorization. But a completely memorized text becomes fully sonic. Sometimes the memorizer relies solely on the spoken words of the teacher, a practice that eliminates any visual dimension. It is less common, however, for it is time-consuming.
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Tibetan Monastic Education, by Georges Dreyfus