The Pali Cannon and the limits of human memory

thumbnail
Tom Carr, modified 11 Years ago.

The Pali Cannon and the limits of human memory

Posts: 131 Join Date: 2/17/10 Recent Posts
The Pali Cannon was passed on verbally from monk to monk for several
hundred years before it was written down. The complete English
translation of the Pali Cannon is about 5,500 pages. Is it possible
for one person to memorize this much? My guess is that it was not
memorized by a single person, but that groups of monks each memorized a
part of it and passed it on that way.

This raises several questions.

Modern people who have access to books do not train their memories in
the same way that monks who did not have books would have. Our ability
to memorize texts verbatim must be a tiny fraction of what is possible
if memorization was developed to it's maximum. Do we know just what
is possible? How much can be memorized by a person who devotes his
life to it?

Do we know anything about how groups of monks might have broken down
the Pali Cannon into parts for individuals to memorize?
thumbnail
tarin greco, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: The Pali Cannon and the limits of human memory

Posts: 658 Join Date: 5/14/09 Recent Posts
Tom Carr:

Modern people who have access to books do not train their memories in
the same way that monks who did not have books would have. Our ability
to memorize texts verbatim must be a tiny fraction of what is possible
if memorization was developed to it's maximum. Do we know just what
is possible? How much can be memorized by a person who devotes his
life to it?

Do we know anything about how groups of monks might have broken down
the Pali Cannon into parts for individuals to memorize?


there are monks who have memorised one of the three baskets of the pali canon. there are monks who have memorised two of the three baskets of the pali canon. and there are monks who have memorised all three of the three baskets of the pali canon. these monks are given titles which reflect those achievements. they do exist today, however few there are now, so it is entirely plausible that there were monks of the past who were able to do the same. presumably, there are established ways of learning how to memorise one of the baskets to begin with (that involves breaking them down further), but i have not heard about them.

tarin
thumbnail
Tom Carr, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: The Pali Cannon and the limits of human memory

Posts: 131 Join Date: 2/17/10 Recent Posts
Are we talking about the same thing? Someone memorized this:


thumbnail
tarin greco, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: The Pali Cannon and the limits of human memory

Posts: 658 Join Date: 5/14/09 Recent Posts
Tom Carr:
Are we talking about the same thing. Someone memorized this:

[image of pali canon in bookshelf]


yes, we are talking about the same thing.

some of the titles i mentioned which are given are as follow:

i) Suttantika or master of the Sutta Pitaka
ii) Vinaya-dhara or one versed in the Vinaya or Discipline
iii) Matika-dhara or one versed in matika or Abhidhamma
iv) Digha-bhanaka and Majjhima-bhanaka (Reciters of the Digha and Majjhima Nikayas)

and here is a list of recent burmese tipitakadharas (followed by the year they were tested in and their age at the time):

Ven. Vicittasarabhivamsa (the Mingun Sayadaw) 1953 42
Ven. Nemainda 1959 32
Ven. Kosala 1963 36
Ven. Sumingalalankara 1973 27
Ven. Sirinandabhivamsa1984 42
Ven. Vayameindabhivamsa 1995 39
Ven. Kondanna 1997 55
Ven. Silakhandabhivamsa 1998, 2000 34
Ven. Vamsapalalankara 1998, 2000 32
Ven. Indapala 2001 40
Ven. Sundara 2001 45

(information gleaned from this article)
thumbnail
Tom Carr, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: The Pali Cannon and the limits of human memory

Posts: 131 Join Date: 2/17/10 Recent Posts
Thanks for the info, and the link. I am amazed.
S K, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: The Pali Cannon and the limits of human memory

Posts: 5 Join Date: 8/19/10 Recent Posts
Hi Tarin, Hi Tom,
I think this claim may be a bit misleading. The unresolved issue to my mind is that of the commentarial literature. While I'm not sure how it works with the living Tipitakadharas, I don't think there was ever a tradition of committing the atthakathas and tikas (commentaries and sub-commentaries) to memory - which are the bulk of the volumes in that image, for instance. They were written documents from the start, and only composed after Buddhaghosa's time (except for the earliest like the Niddesa, Petakopadesa, and Nettipakarana, which are considered canonical and were also memorized). If you look at the memorizers' titles, they refer to Vinaya, the Abhidhamma matrices, or to the books of the individual nikayas (the core canonical texts - Long Discourses, Middle-Length Discourses, etc). Thus, there were memorizers of vinaya, memorizers of the long discourses, memorizers of the middle-length discourses, etc, but not (as far as I know) memorizers of the voluminous commentarial literature on all of these. References to the living tradition of the time are found scattered throughout Visuddhi-magga. There are comments on for instance the difficulty of undertaking to be a majjhima reciter, apparently the largest memorizational burden, with 152 suttas (of the sort: it's really hard to memorize MN - first you finish the first 50, then you've got another 50; then you finish that and still you have another 50...). There are also references to exceptional monks who memorized all three pitakas, and to learning the explanations of particular schools and teachers, along with these. I get the sense these latter may not have been memorized verbatim, however.

Breadcrumb