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

The Role of Memorization in the Curriculum

Memorization is the first step in any traditional Tibetan monastic career, and initially it is practiced almost to the exclusion of other activities. It continues for those monks who wish to pursue higher monastic studies, for the curriculum is structured around the study of a few basic texts committed to memory. Unlike studies at modern institutions, which are organized according to disciplines, scholastic studies are organized around important writings – the great Indian treatises (tenjöbstan bcos, śāstra), the root (tsawartsa ba, mūla) texts... It is the study of these texts that constitutes the tradition.

These texts are assimilated through commentaries and debates, which themselves are not memorized. Instead, students memorize the root texts, which are written in short, mnemonic verses. The commentaries and debates are retained not verbatim but in relation to the memorized root text. That text provides a nondiscursive template around which ideas that might otherwise seem disconnected can fall into place, enabling students to organize explanations and objections. The memorization of a root text thus contributes not only to the retention of information but also to the accessibility of the information retained. Psychologists distinguish between free recall, in which subjects attempt to recall as many random items as possible, and the cued recall of items organized by rubrics. Their experiments indicate that cued recall is more effective.10 For the students, the memorization of base texts provides the rubric needed for cued recall, enabling them to recall topics more easily.

Students are also expected to memorize a certain amount of commentarial material. Some memorize entire commentaries, amounting to hundreds or even thousands of pages. These commentaries can provide decisive arguments during a debate. They also supply models for the students, helping them to gradually assimilate the highly technical and precise commentarial style and procedures. Nevertheless, learning root texts by heart is much more important, for sharp students are able to reason persuasively without quoting texts. Similarly, they can rely on their own understanding to comment on texts – but only if they have mastered the root text, which provides the structure according to which knowledge is organized and stored.

This educational process reflects the belief that knowledge needs to be immediately accessible rather than merely available.11 That is, scholars must have an active command of the texts that structure the curriculum, not simply the ability to retrieve information from them. Knowing where bits of information are stored is not enough: the texts must inform one’s thinking and become integrated into one’s way of looking at the world. Geshé Rabten emphasizes the importance of an active knowledge based on memorization, which he contrasts with the approach he observed among his Western disciples: “Although it was difficult at first, I, like other monks, gradually became accustomed to it [i.e., recitation], so that both memorization and recitation came with ease. In the Western academic tradition, note-taking plays a vital role, and much of one’s knowledge tends to be confined between the covers of one’s textbooks [or notebooks]. Our corresponding stores of knowledge were held in our mind through memorization.”12 When texts are held in mind, their deeper meaning becomes apparent and the knowledge they convey becomes active and useful. Otherwise, one merely has scattered bits and pieces of information. It is only through memory that these pieces can be combined to provide actual knowledge.

Hence, memorization cannot be divorced from learning. It enables the monks to fully assimilate the content of the texts they study. As William Graham explains, “The very act of learning a text ‘by heart’ internalizes the text in a way that familiarity with even an often-read book does not. Memorization is a particularly intimate appropriation of a text, and the capacity to quote or recite a text from memory is a spiritual resource that is tapped automatically in an act of reflection, worship, prayer or moral deliberations.”13 In the Tibetan scholastic context, as noted above, quotations can supply effective arguments within a debate; commentaries can be particularly useful to corner an adversary and demonstrate the mistakes in his interpretation. It is also significant that some of the memorized texts have spiritual relevance. But by far the most important role of memorization, especially of the root texts, is to provide the organizational structure of the whole curriculum.

The cultivation of memory is central to Tibetan monasticism in general and scholasticism in particular. As Mary Carruthers has argued in a study of medieval Europe, reliance on memory is characteristic of traditional education; modern societies, in contrast, are primarily documentary. Tibetan monks memorize texts in order to internalize their content, not because of their scarcity. Printing has existed for several centuries and although texts were not always abundant, they were far from rare. Hence, memorization is not just the result of material conditions, or the survival of a practice once dictated by such conditions. The medievalist Jean-Claude Schmitt notes, “Nothing is outlived in a culture, everything is lived or not. A belief or a rite is not the combination of residues and of heterogeneous innovations, but experience that has meaning only in its present cohesion.” 14


[10] R. G. Crowder, Principles of Learning and Memory (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1976), 9.
[11] For a distinction between accessibility and availability, see Crowder, Principles of Learning and Memory, 11.
[12] Rabten, The Life and Teaching, 53. A Sanskrit proverb puts it this way: “As for knowledge that is in books, it is like money placed in another’s hand: When the time has come to use it, there is no knowledge, there is no money.” (quoted in W. A. Graham, Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 74).
[13] Graham, Beyond the Written Word, 160.
[14] J.-C. Schmitt, “Religion populaire et culture folklorique,” Annales: Economies, sociétés, civilizations31 (1976): 946; quoted in Bernard Faure, The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 89.
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Tibetan Monastic Education, by Georges Dreyfus