Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Memory: "not a passive storehouse of traces but an active force like will"

"An event produces an effect upon an individual which may be described by the Sanskrit word 'sanya'. This Thai word has two meanings: 'memory'; and 'contract, covenant or promise.' Both of these meanings apply in describing the effect of a given event. For example, the burned child avoids touching the stove because the pain has influenced his memory and because the experience has established a contract, covenant or promise of future burnings if the stove is touched again. If this is an ordinary child who was burned, such events may need reinforcing, and memory helps to keep the precedent alive, If on the other hand, the child is deeply mindful of the precedent, he will not need to remember and will avoid touching the stove automatically. The encouraging of automatic responses without help of memory may be seen from various further combinations of the word 'sanya': sanya wirad: an arahat or perfect being who needs no power of memory because 'he has acquired a habit of not sinning'; sanya wimok: being without power of memory, where wimok means 'freed from, escaped, delivered from human passion'. Thus the learning of automatic habits, which can be carried on beyond the guidance of conscious memory, is like a step toward the freedom of a saint on his way to Nipphan. When the Thai speak of habits (nitsaj), they are particularly conscious of these automatic, reflexive responses.

Any event, rolling on from its own precedent, depends in part upon human memory and effort. Thus memory, for the Thai, is not a passive storehouse of traces but an active force like will. But if the event depended entirely on human memory and effort, its effects would be short-lived, for man is notoriously transient. 'Sanya is the seat of memory, but the memory of human beings does not last long.' More enduring are events which, like the words of the Buddha, stir a whole society; or, like the rising of the sun, stir the entire world of man and nature. But the most enduring is virtue, and above all, this must be written into one's heart as a good habit."


Hanks, Jane Richardson. "A rural Thai village's view of human character" in Felicitation volumes of Southeast-Asian studies presented to His Highness Prince Dhaninivat Kromamun Bidyalabh Bridhyokorn...on the occasion of his eightieth birthday -- Vol. 1. Bangkok, Thailand: Siam Society, 1965.

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