This is the sixth and final post in a short series about the memorisation of root texts and outlines by students engaged in the Foundation Study Programme (FP) provided by Kadampa Buddhist Centres. The other posts in the series can be found through links on this page.

In this series we have looked at the background to the root texts and outlines, the benefits of memorisation and also one or two ideas for actual memorisation. In this post, I want to address some of the problems people have with the task of memorisation itself.

It seems to me that most of the people who have problems with memorisation fall into two camps. To put it crudely, those that feel they are too stupid, and those that feel they are too intelligent.

For those that feel they lack the intellectual ability to memorise texts, here are a few useful points to bear in mind:

  • We have all memorised lots of information in the past, such as the meanings of signs, the recipes of our favourite meals, the histories of our friends and family members, and their addresses. Everyone can remember information. Familiarity and patient effort are the key.
  • If we use the method given in the last post in this series, we can choose to memorise one verse, or even one line per day. Often we feel daunted by the amount of material to be memorised, but it is wrong to allow ourselves to become downhearted. If we can learn one word, then we can learn two. If we can learn two, we can learn a line. If we can learn a line, we can learn two lines. And so on. Everyone is different and even if you only learn one line per day, so what!? By the end of a week you will know seven lines! Just keep going any you will amaze yourself and gain so much confidence in your actual abilities – I am certain of this!!
  • Other people may be able to memorise texts much quicker than you. So what!? All that matters is that you make the effort and, however slowly, learn your outlines.
  • When you have made progress, you will be able to inspire others, and give them the confidence to enjoy the benefits of being able to call the outlines and root texts to mind at any time.

For those that feel they are too intelligent to memorise texts, I would like to make some points, but first I will explain what I mean in more detail.

Some people are very quick witted and intelligent. These people have gone through life using this intelligence to great advantage. But this kind of intelligence can also create its own kind of trap.

When they are faced with a new task, quick witted folk quickly identify short cuts or particularly clever ways around the task, so that they don’t have to think any more about it. In some ways, when engaging in external tasks the purpose of thinking is to identify ways of not having to think about the task in the future – inventing subroutines if you like, which don’t need conscious thought. There’s nothing wrong in this – we all do it.

When such people are confronted with a task such as memorisation, their normal approach will not work. There are no short cuts – one way or another they need to knuckle down like the rest of us and memorise it the hard way. For really smart people, it may have become part of their identity that they do NOT do things the way others do. To think that they have to slug it out like everyone else is hard to swallow.

They may become worried that they cannot do it. Their self-cherishing and makes them very unhappy about even trying, in case they fail.

Following this, they use their intelligence to come up with all kinds of reasons why memorisation is unnecessary or pointless. ‘The important this is to know and practice the teachings, not to memorise text.’ They are right to the extent that the most important thing probably IS to know and practice the teachings. But it is a non-sequitar to conclude that memorisation is not necessary.

Geshe-la BEGS us to learn our outlines. Therefore, we should learn our outlines, and never forget them.

I remember one Summer Festival several years ago when Geshe-la was addressing the issue of Dharma practice, and (to my recollection at least, either explicity or implicitly) root text and outline memorisation. He said ‘People come to me and they say ‘Oh it is so hard! It is so hard’. But you do not try (laughs!). You say it is so hard, but you do not try. You should try.’

Geshe Chekhawa says that we should ‘train in every activity by words’. Geshe-la explains that this means we should memorise texts so that we can call them to mind at appropriate times, and put them into practice. We need the EXACT words if we are to get the most out of this activity. By being able to recall the exact wording of a root text or outline, we will be keeping ourselves very closely aligned with the teachings.

When we begin a new FP text, we should look upon the learning of an outline as being the permanent introduction of the outline into our mental continuum, and we should feel like we mean to remember the outline for the rest of our life. At each FP class we should try to say the outline to the extent we have memorised it, and when we have memorised the whole lot, we should say it out loud at each class. In this way we will fix the outline into our memory. We should definitely not go through the year saying to ourselves – ‘I’ll learn it later’, and then memorise it just before the exam, only to forget it over the subsequent weeks.

If we do this, then over time, year by year, we will learn Geshe-la’s precious texts and be able to recall the main points in each book, without forgetting any. In years to come when we study the books once more, it will be familiar to us already, and we will lay down an additional layer of understanding, enriching our Dharma lives and the lives of those around us. We will also be able to bring life to our meditations by generating highly qualified objects.

Finally, let me say a few words about the future. Without the frequent recalling of the outlines, our memory will fade and eventually we will forget them altogether. This is a tragedy of the highest order.

One way to avoid this would be to write a timetable for yourself and put it on the inside of your wardrobe door, or somewhere else you will see it every day (ideally at the start of the day).  Let’s say you have the days of the week from Monday to Sunday in a list. Against each day, you can put the outline you are going to remember that day. During the day, you can say the outline to yourself while you are in the car, waiting in the supermarket checkout queue, in a boring meeting or walking the dog.

You can also mix in some Dharma Lists such as the Benefits of Going for Refuge. Over time your list will increase, but however much you end up being able to remember, I would always use a maximum of a two week cycle. Therefore, every two weeks, you will have refreshed your memory of all the Dharma Lists, outlines and root texts you have ever memorised. Now wouldn’t that be something to be happy about?

This concludes my short series on the memorisation of root texts and outlines on the Foundation Programme. I hope you have found the contents interesting and helpful. I would like to thank my Facebook friends, especially Losang Tenpa, for helping me gather and arrange my thoughts on the topic, and Donna Campanelli for asking me for my views on the topic.

May everyone enjoy the pure happiness of being able to recall a vast amount of pure Dharma in an instant, and may they use their wisdom and compassion to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all.