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A Fabulous Memory Venerable Mingun Saydaw U Vicittasarabhivamsa
By Win Pe

(This article was reproduced from Myanmar Perspectives Vol III 2/98 with the permission from the author.)

The Guinness Book of Records of 1985 has this entry:
Human memory: Bhandanta Vicitsara (sic) recited 16,000 pages of Buddhist cannocial texts in Rangoon, Burma in May 1954. Rare instances of eidetic memory the ability to project and hence "usually" recall material are known to science.

The Venerable Mingun Sayadaw U Vicittasarabhivamsa was the first even in Buddhist lands to win the titles Tipitakadhara Dhammabhandagarika (Bearer of the Three Pitakas and Keeper of the Dhamma Treasure).

In 1948, the first year of independence from British rule the Government considered the need to purify, perpetuate and propagate the Sasana, to promote the emergence of a heroic Sasana personality with the ability to memorize and recite by heart the whole of Pali Cannon, the Tipitaka, and to seek out personalities with special intellectual powers to receive the reverence and praise of the devotees. The Government decided to institute the Tipitakadhara Examination.

It is an oral and written examination lasting thirty-three days. The candidate is examined in the three Pitakas: Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhamma. The oral examination in the Vinaya covers five volumes in five books comprising 2260 pages. In the Sutta, the oral examination covers three volumes in the three books comprising 782 pages and in Abhidhamma covers seven volumes in twelve books comprising 4941 pages. The oral examination on these 7983 pages or about 2.4 million words is not a viva voce, a question and answer examination. It is an examination on total recall and faultless reproduction. The candidate will be given a point in the Pali Cannon at any point, and asked to continue reciting from there, line by line, paragraph and page by page. Or he would be given a point and asked to go back from there a certain number of sections and to recite from there, There must be no error in the word form, the pronunciation must be correct, the flow must be smooth and the enunciation must demonstrate the proper understanding of the meaning of the passage being recited. A certain number of pages of text must be covered in a fixed time. A candidate who requires prompting for five or more times fails.

The written examination is not only on the Pali Cannon but also on the Commentaries and Subcommentaries. The ten major Commentaries in ten books and the major Subcommentaries in fourteen books cover 17917 pages. Candidates are tested on the doctrinal understanding, comparative philosophy, textual discrimination, taxonomic grouping and analysis and on the interrelationships. Though candidates are not expected to reproduce whole passages as in the oral examination, many of the questions cannot be answered without the ability to recall such passages and to compare diverse passages mentally at the examination desk. Thus, the Tipitakadhara Examination is one of the longest and toughest examinations in the world.

When the first Tipitakadhara Examination was held, the Venerable Mingun Sayadaw was one of over one hundred monks invited to observe the proceedings. When the result was a disappointment with no candidate successful, he resolved to repay the nation's debt in search of a hero on the Pariyatti Sasana. He set about the task systematically. He took up the Pali Cannon passage by passage, book by book. He first set out to understand the passage thinking in Myanmar and in Pali. He
broke the passage into sentences, paragraphs or sections according to the degree of difficulty. If necessary, he noted the number of modifications and variations in the selected pieces. He read about each section five times, and then closing the book, he repeated what he had just recited. If he was hesitant or felt, he had not mastered the passage he would open the book and read aloud five more times. If it was recalled smoothly he would recite it ten times and then pass on to the
next passage. In the evenings when reciting the day's passages he would not do it alone but request some other monk to check with the open book. This ensured that he did not pass over any word, phrase or sentence and that each declension was correct.

When two or three books had be mastered he would set aside each evening two or three periods required for their recall and recitation. The intention was to go through the finished books simultaneously so that the mind would be active in all the books at the same time and all interrelationships would be discerned.

The Venerable Mingun Sayadaw also trained for the physically gruelling examination. Where an oral session would last for three hours, he would practice reciting for five, thus accustoming to himself to a test for ten hours a day. In addition, he would do this for longer than the stretch of 33 days of the examination. He trained likewise for the written examination.

When the Third Tipitakadhara Examination came around in 1950, the Venerable Mingun Sayadaw was ready to repay the debt to the devotees of the nation. He appeared for the oral examination on 2260 pages of the Vinaya Pitaka. In a clear, firm voice unhesitatingly, without error, without prompting, with full understanding, he precisely enunciated each word and phrase audible to the whole audience. When there were different versions he pointed each out and suggested the most suitable one. The virtuoso performance received the appreciation and acclamation of the audience.

In the written examination in the Pali text, Commentaries, and Subcommentaries on the Vinaya, the Venerable Mingun Sayadaw received the following marks out of a possible 100.

Parajika 98
Culavagga 98
Pacittiya 99
Parivara 100
Mahavagga 92
In the Fourth and Fifth Examinations, the Venerable Mingun Sayadaw appeared for the oral and written examinations on the Abhidhamma and passed with equal facility. By that time, preparations for the Sixth Buddhist Council were underway. The Venerable U Vicittasarabhivamsa was a member of the Regional Mula Pali Visodhaka, Primary Redaction Committee responsible for the Mahavagga section of the Vinaya Pitaka. He completed the work in 19 days so his regional committee was further assigned the Parivara. This also was finished expeditiously.

In undertaking the assignments, the Venerable Sayadaw did not just read through the texts with the committee but sought out the different versions, brought out the reference in the Commentaries and Subcommentaries, explained the implications to the clear understanding of the committee members, sought a unanimous conclusion and wrote the report.

The Venerable Sayadaw also participated in next higher redaction Committee, The Pati Pali Visodaka Committee. In sessions of the Committee, Myanmar monks who were well-versed in the Pali texts but not proficient in the language and Sri Lanka monks who were proficient in the language but not so well-versed in the texts could not get the understanding of each other. When such occasions arose the Venerable Mingun Sayadaw would respectfully and pleasantly explain the issue and possible solution to each side and thus arrive at a satisfactory understanding. Observing the performance of the Sayadaw, the Sri Lanka monks would say, "There is none such in Sri Lanka, there is none such in Jambudipa".

The Venerable Sayadaw returned to his monastery in Mingun and worked on the Commentaries and Sub-commentaries. He foresaw that after redacting the Pali Cannon, the Commentaries and Sub-Commentaries would follow. At the same time, he had to prepare for the Tipitakadhara Examination on the third and final Pitaka. He was not unduly worried. After the voluminous prescriptions of the Vinaya and Abdhidamma, the less than 800 pages of the Sutta Pitaka were not onerous.

On a January afternoon in 1954, the Venerable U Vicittasarabhivamsa successfully completed the recitation of the Pathika Vagga of the Sutta Pitaka and a Tipitakadhara Dhamma-bhanadagarika was born in Myanmar.

   

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