To what extent did memory aids and mnemonic devices contribute to the early spread of Buddhism ?

May 29th, 2011 | By | Category: Religion and Spirituality

Buddhism, right from its earliest days, had a system of a structured organisation of sutras as mnemonic devices which was specifically aimed at transmission of the Dharma. To a large extent, was this was perhaps custom-designed to aid transmission of the principles as taught by the Buddha with least distortion. But to what extent did the Buddha deliberately introduce this order and structure himself ? The following quote makes it clear that the Buddha himself stressed upon the importance of correct sequence of recall in practise :

If one of your fellow monks quotes the Dhamma in the assembly, and if he gets both the meaning and the word order right, you should praise and applaud him and say, “Excellent! How blessed and fortunate we are to have you as a friend and companion in the spiritual life who is so well-versed in both the pronunciation and the word order.”

The Buddha,

Digha Nikaya III,128-9

Considering that the earliest Buddhist mnemonic devices were aimed at not professional theologians, but simple wandering monks and nuns, the mnemonic word/concept list lengths of the common concepts were short : on an average 3 – 8 to aid recall, which overlaps with the most efficient list lengths human can generally recall with relative ease. But as the philosophical content increased, there were further lists and sub-routines, sometimes with increasing list lengths seen in the Abdhidhammas (the philosophical treatises) – the 12 chains of dependant origination, 18 sense elements, to 89 or 121 mental states with their sub-divisions and so on. (For example lists, see link 1 and 2.)

The Abhidhammas move on to intricate patterns of lists, sublists and lists-within-lists, and the term ‘matikas‘( Pali word for matrix) appeared in Buddhist literature to signify the ever-expanding cascade of lists. In Rupert Gethin’s, (Department of Theology, University of Bristol, UK) words : “the indefinite expansions based on the matikas continually remind those using them that it is of the nature of things that no single way of breaking up and analyzing the world can ever be final” (page 165, ‘The Matikas’, 1992, Rupert Gethin). He further notes that “using the lists is not merely an aid to learning the Dhamma by rote, as it were; on the contrary, the lists help one learn the Dhamma with a view to its inner structure and dynamic […] Thus to learn and know the lists is to learn and know how they fit together, how they interconnect to form the structure and pattern of the Dhamma” (p. 155). (1)

The physical act of chanting of the Suttas perhaps also subserves an important role in memory retrieval than is generally appreciated.

Studies (2) have shown that the performance of tasks associated with learning of material too improves the process of retrieval. Perhaps the physical act of chanting Suttas too were aimed at this process too, and has played an important role in the transmission of the sutras in the Buddhist monastic tradition. By the end of the 2nd century B.C. (close to the end of the nikaya period), the matrix of the lists (matikas) had become the subject of performance of recitations, rather than just reading, and had begun to be integrated with the practise of mindfulness itself. During recitation of these lists mindfully, one was in effect trying to remind oneself of the gists of the Buddha’s teachings, and indeed, the whole of Dhamma.

By the time Buddhism reached China, written scripts had become highly developed, and the numerical mnemonic devices noted in earlier Buddhism became gradually redundant as more textually elaborate Suttas like the Lotus Sutra appeared.


(1)“The Matikas: Memorization, Mindfulness, and the List,” in Janet Gyatso (ed.), In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, NY: SUNY Press, 1992, pp. 149-172.

(2)Zimmer, Hubert D.; Helstrup, Tore; Engelkamp, Johannes . Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol 26(3), May 2000, 658-670.

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