October 15, 2012

How to Memorize. ~ 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 why it’s so important 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.

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.

1. The Brute Force Method
This is my favorite 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.
2. 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.
3. The Technological Method
Mnemosyne is an adaptive memorization 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.



Editor: Seychelles Pitton





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