Exercise of the memory is not a burden

It is thought to be axiomatic today that to require students to memorise many things will produce robots and “stifle creativity”. No evidence is usually produced for this assumption; it is somehow regarded as self-evident. Let us look at a definite case. In the English educational system we have to learn 26 letters of the alphabet, some of which have differing block capital forms. But in addition we have to learn the number digits 1-9, and how to read them. The digits are international, on the page but sound quite different when spoken in the various languages. For instance, 92 is read by us as ninety-two, but in French it is read quartre-vingt-douze. Then we have symbols such as ‘=’ equals, ‘≠’  is-not–equal-to and so on. There are 30 or 40 of these that have to be learnt. Furthermore some of the digits 1,2,3…, are read differently when they are followed by certain letters. For instance, 2nd is read second, and 2-ennial can be read biennial. Altogether one might count up to bout 100 of these signs which have to be memorised.

Compare this with the 2000 odd ideograms which Japanese children have mastered by the time they are sixteen. Each one corresponds to something like our ampersand sign ‘&’, but usually much more complicated with 10 or 12 strokes making up the form of the character. Each of the characters has 2 or 3 different readings like our example of 2nd above. A well-read Japanese can read and write at least 2500 characters and scholars will know another 500 special to their field.

Westerners are often horrified when they first hear of this “burden” imposed on the memory and assume that there must be many in Japan who are simply unable to learn them. But in fact the literacy rate and the school attendance figure is 99%. There is no native Japanese word for dyslexia in the language – it had to be translated from the English (Nan-doku-sho or difficult-reading-syndrome).

According to the United Nations translation experts Japanese is the most difficult language in the world to master; this is confirmed by, for instance, the Jesuits. They report that when one of their number, often already expert in 2 or 3 languages is directed under obedience to devote himself full-time to mastering a new language it usually takes at least 3 years when living in the country. But in the case of Japanese it takes over 5 years.

Are we now to suppose that the ordinary Japanese, under the crushing burden of memorising the language will be robotic and lacking in creativity? The evidence is, on the contrary, that the composition of the short poems called ‘tanka’ is practised by millions of Japanese, and they are appreciated by millions more. The culture of poetry is everywhere in Japan: the great newspapers with circulations of 7 or 8 million customarily print one such at the end of the weather forecast each day. There are popular monthly magazines that invite poems from the public and print hundreds of them each month. A housewife, an army sergeant, a clerk and a factory worker may all one month be showing a copy of one of these magazines to friends and saying “I got one in this time”.

Now let us see whether intellectually Japanese are crippled by rote learning their own language. Take the case of physics, the most abstract of the sciences. Two of the most revolutionary discoveries of 20th century physics were predicted by Japanese physicists. In 1903 Nagaoka predicted the nuclear structure of the atom, as against the doughnut model which was then the orthodox view; then in 1909 Rutherford confirmed it by shooting alpha particles through gold foil and immediately wrote to Nakaoka to that effect. In  1935, Hideki Yukawa, with great courage predicted an intermediate particle between the accepted duality of the proton and electron. This was in flat contradiction to the triumphalist doctrine of the time that science had gloriously reduced the complexity if nature to a simple duality (or trinity allowing the neutron).

In everyday life there is a strong intellectual current in Japan. A prominent place in all the main newspapers is given to the two board games Go (played with black and white stones and concerned with capturing territory), and Shogi (Japanese chess, enlivened by paratroops dropped onto the board in lieu of a move). The masters of these games are prominent public figures. It can be argued that the Japanese Shogi is more complicated than the Western game because of the almost incalculable possibilities of the paratroop drops. As evidence of this Shogi checkmating problems have every move a check where as in the West such a rule would make the problem too obvious. Again we have no game with the subtleties of Go.

Can the intellectual and poetic streams combine? They have done in the past. The multi-talented 9th century saint-scholar usually called Kobo Daishi is traditionally the inventor of the Japanese alphabet (strictly speaking a syllabary). Before his time the language had no alphabet of its own and had to be written by using random Chinese characters having approximately the same phonetic value as the syllables to be written – a clumsy system indeed. It was he who first classified the fifty syllables of the language in the most scientific way (still used in grammars), and selected certain simplified symbols to represent them. So far the scholar. Then the poet in him thought that for teaching the new alphabet he would embody the syllables in a poem in a particular metre, using each syllable once and once only. But Kobo was not only scholar and poet, he was also a saint. He decided that his poem should declare the essence of Buddhism, and paraphrased four lines of the Nirvana-sutra as representing the heart of the Buddhist doctrine. The stanza in the original Sutra is as follows:

All earthly things pass away:
This is the law of all existence.
Going beyond this law of extinction,
We are in the bliss of Nirvana alone.

The extreme difficulty of the task may be imagined, but Kobo solved it brilliantly with a poem of great beauty:

In Kobo’s poem the lines are:

i ro ha ni ho he to chi ri nu ru (w)o
wa ka yo ta re so tsu ne na ra mu
u (w)i no o ku ya ma ke fu ko e te
a sa ki yu me mi shi (w)e hi mo se su

This can be translated as:

The blooms are fragrant, but alas! They fall.
Who in this world can remain forever?
Crossing this day the mountains of transient existence
We see no more shallow dreams nor get drunk on them.

In a traditional theatre, the rows of seats were identified by the syllables of this poem so the ticket holders would come in and walk down the ails looking at the little panels on the end of the rows showing I, RO, HA, and so on. They would be repeating the lines of the Buddhist poem  “The blossoms are fragrant, but alas! They fall, Who in this world can remain forever… ” Ah! Here we are. The learning by heart brings a little beauty and meaning into an everyday affair of life.

In ancient India before there was writing not merely holy texts but all others were learnt by heart. Classics of medicine and grammar were often in verse, to make them easier to memorise. The ability was continued long after writing was introduced about 200 BC and even up to recent times. When Professor Paul Deussen, one of the founding fathers of Sanskrit studies in the West, went to India to gather material for his famous Philosophy of the Upanishads, he made arrangements to study a particular text with one of the great pundits of the time, Ramishra Shastri. He relates that when he went for the first meeting he sat at the table opposite the pundit and laid his copy of the 150-page text in front of him with his notebook ready to begin. He knew it was customary to exchange a few pleasantries at the beginning, but after this he waited for the pundit to produce his copy of the book but the pundit made no move to do so and a silence fell. The pundit seemed to be waiting for something to. After a little the pundit said ” Well, Professor, don’t you think we might begin now?” He then recited the first half page of the text from memory. Deussen hastily opened his book to follow and the lesson began. Neither then nor at any time afterwards did the pundit use a book. He knew the whole text by heart, and could instantly quote from any part of it.

The spiritual application is that a yoga student is asked to memorise important verses from the classics, and meditate on them. Keen students often memorise a chapter of thirty or forty verses. When these have been not merely learnt but meditated on, they make a channel through which inspirations can come easily and without distortion. As an example a brahmacari on a pilgrimage in the mountains became separated from the party and fell into a cleft injuring his leg so badly that he could not get out. He knew it was very unlikely that he would be rescued. He said that in his despair a line of a Gita verse suddenly came to him: “My devotee does not perish.” He said that he knew he was going to die but he felt a bright stream of immortality within him as he drifted into unconsciousness. In the event by an amazing chance he was found and another member of the party was able to pull him out to safety.

In another case, a man had meditated on some of the incidents in the life of Christ, among them the case of the woman adulteress taken before Jesus in the temple. This man had been engaged in rather dubious transactions which by chance were exposed in the Press; he lost reputation, credit and friends. Crushed, he found it difficult to pick himself up and begin a new life when the phrase came to him: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and do not sin again.” He felt forgiven and stirring in him a new courage.

Professional interrogators say that if someone has inner resources, such as memorised poems, that person will be difficult to break down. But if they are entirely extraverted and thus dependent on the surroundings they can often be induced to form an attachment and dependence on the interrogator. Most of us will not have to face interrogation but nearly all will encounter at some time a situation of great stress or perhaps isolation. At these times the inner channels, if prepared, can open to a flood of light.

© Trevor Leggett

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