In Tibet there existed the widespread practice of memorising texts. This was useful because paper was scarce. Not everyone could have their own copies of the texts. This is obviously not the only reason or value in memorisation – but it is an important factor. There are some interesting statistics which indicate that we remember a surprisingly low percentage of what we read – so even if we owned all the books we imagine we might require, a single reading is not enough. Even if we read a book many times, we still need to have that material at our perceptual and experiential fingertips in every moment.
Memorisation therefore is not enough – unless we can actualise kindness. Unless we can integrate teachings with our daily lives, we’ll merely acquire a complex and repetitive series of word patterns. There is no more point in this than in becoming ‘The Amazing Memory Man’ – do you remember him? He could remember the football results of the last however many years – and he wasn’t even particularly intelligent. If teachings on bodhicitta are memorised in this meaningless way you would be even more unfortunate than The Amazing Memory Man – because at least he earned his living with his quirky capability.
It could be said that memorising teachings on bodhicitta is more beneficial than memorising football results – but if we remember the words and fail to live their meaning … then we seed our consciousness with barriers to the actualisation of bodhicitta. Our link with these words and concepts then becomes one of experiential incomprehension.
Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche has a story on this subject. There was a certain monk—with rather a prominent nose—who spent his time memorising the chö’jugchen6 by Gyal-sé Zhiwa.7 One day the monk was on the roof of the monastery with a group of monks erecting a pole from which to fly wish-path flags. There was a mischievous young gé-nyèn8 with them and he seemed to enjoy nothing better than teasing the old monk about the size of his nose, especially because the old monk was rather sensitive about it.
The gé-nyèn would shout,
Hey Big-nose! Keep your head turned the other way, you’re blocking the light!
The old monk would scowl – but at the same time he’d be mumbling the chö’jugchen.
Then the gé-nyèn would shout,
I bet you could keep a few bags of tsampa in that schnozzle!
Big-nose however, was occupied pulling the line to keep the pole upright and merely just growled the particular words
of the chö’jugchen he was repeating at the time.
It was important that he remembered them accurately – and that he recited them completely.
The young gé-nyèn finally went too far.
Hey Big-nose you must accumulate a lot of negative karma – because everything you chant goes
right up your nose! This was too much for Big-nose.
He became so incensed that he let go of the rope and punched the gé-nyèn on the nose,
ironically yelling out the line he’d reached in his recitation:
One moment of anger destroys a lifetime of good actions!
And there he stood snarling, the gé-nyèn lying on the ground with a broken nose and the two other monks half crushed under the flag pole.
The point of this tale is obvious. We need to live these teachings rather than parrot them – even if one does have a nose like a vulture.