Three Recollections
January 20, 2024


January 20, 2024

One of the basic principles of getting the mind into concentration is that you have to gladden it first. There are lots of ways of doing this. Sometimes just thinking about doing the concentration is enough to get you glad. You have an opportunity to sit here with your eyes closed, and with no other responsibilities right now. You don’t have to deal with anyone else.

If you want, you can totally ignore the Dhamma talk. Just be with your breath. Be with your body. Be with your awareness right here in the present moment. You’re not responsible for the past, not responsible for the future. As for your responsibilities right here in the present moment, they’re basically for the sake of your happiness.

You want to develop good qualities in the mind, the qualities of the path: You can abandon the causes for suffering, and in the course of developing the path, you see those causes more clearly.

You can actually see where you’re causing stress for yourself, and you don’t have to. You have options, you have abilities: to think, speak, talk in ways that don’t cause any suffering at all, and actually cut through the habits you have for causing yourself suffering.

With those thoughts in mind, you can think about your own behavior: You’ve been observing the precepts, you’ve been generous. You can settle down with a sense of confidence that this is a good path and you’re capable of following it.

But as the Buddha said, there are times when the mind is not glad about settling down with the breath. He says either there’s a fever in the body that comes when you try to focus on the body, or the mind is sluggish and just doesn’t want to go there.

Or it gets scattered around. As soon as you focus on the breath, it’s like trying to balance a needle on top of a ball-bearing: It slips off. Or like trying to put two north poles of magnets together: They push each other away. There’s something that repels you from the breath, something that repels you from the present moment.

In cases like that, he says, you’ve got to find an inspiring theme. There are lots of alternative things you can think about that can inspire you: the six recollections are a standard list—recollection of the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Saṅgha; recollection of generosity, virtue, and the devas.

They fall into two sets. The first three, of course, have to do with the three refuges. The last three have to do with reflecting on yourself—in a positive way. So tonight I’d like to talk about the first three.

Recollection of the Buddha: You think about what an amazing person he was—wise, compassionate, pure. And we’re following a Dhamma taught by someone who really knew what he was doing.

Look at the story of how he gained awakening. It’s amazing how determined he was, but also how circumspect. When he was able to get the mind into good strong states of formless concentration and he was told that “This was it, this is as far as you could go,” he reflected on what he had there. These states of concentration were fabricated. Anything that was fabricated was bound to end at some point. So it didn’t come up to his standards. He wanted something deathless.

He subjected himself to extreme austerities to see if they would lead to awakening. The thoroughness with which he observed those austerities was pretty amazing. But also, what was even more amazing was when he finally realized that this was not the path.

There can be a lot of pride that develops around those austerities. But he was able to abandon that pride and look around—there must be some other way—and he was able to find it. It was his wisdom that enabled him to see how to get beyond suffering.

And his compassion in teaching: He taught everyone who was willing to learn, from devas down to the poorest people.

There’s one really touching incident concerning an outcast person whose job is to gather up garbage and withered flowers at shrine. He sees the Buddha coming down the road, so he pushes himself against the wall to get out of the way. The Buddha comes closer and closer, and the guy pushes himself even more and more against the wall until he realizes the Buddha actually wants to talk to him. The Buddha teaches him; he’s able to gain awakening. And that night, as he’s sitting and meditating, the devas come and bow down to him. So you can think about the Buddha’s compassion. He was able to teach people of all kinds.

And then his purity: The purity, here, is basically seeing what needs to be done and actually doing it. Interesting that that would be the definition of purity: You have high standards and you live up to them. If he was going to become Buddha, he had to test his awakening to make sure it was the real thing.

So he tested it again and again. You read in the Canon about the different standards against which he tested it. What was his knowledge of the devas? What was his knowledge about suffering? What was his knowledge about different states of being throughout the cosmos? Again and again, it passed, passed, passed the test. So wherever he saw that anything was lacking in his practice, he would make up the lack.

So get inspired by the Buddha, that he really was an amazing individual—and that his awakening, you could say, is the most important event in human history: the fact that someone was able to find the way to the end of suffering and able to teach it to others. You can take heart in that.

You can also reflect on the Dhamma. The Dhamma is available to all. And it teaches us a path that, as they say, is good in the beginning, good in the middle, good in the end. The basic principles are good; as you’re following them, you reflect on your actions. You can see the Buddha’s not asking you to do anything that’s beneath a really high standard, anything that you could be ashamed to do, anything that would harm anybody in any way.

There are so many ways in which people try to find happiness that are harmful. And here the Buddha’s saying, “Here, you can find happiness, and it doesn’t have to harm anybody.” He had seen this himself, as he looked at the world. He said everywhere he might look for happiness, he saw that someone already had laid claim to it. If he was going to try to find his happiness there, he’d have to push them away, fight them off.

That gave him a sense of real dismay. But then he realized, if he looked inside there was this huge territory in his heart where nobody else had laid claim, and he could find his happiness there.

Then he showed by example that we can all do that. That’s what the Dhamma’s all about. After all, as the Buddha said, the qualities he developed in the course of his awakening were nothing totally exclusive to him. We all have these qualities within us in a potential form. In some cases, they’re pretty obscured, but they’re there.

He doesn’t say that we’re basically good by nature, but he does say that have good potentials. We have to watch out, of course, because there are bad potentials as well, so we have to be heedful.

But the goodness is there, and the Dhamma focuses on that. That basically gives us power.

We find so many ways in the world basically says, “Okay, the world is a mess, but you can’t do anything about it.” There are people who have power and they’re very jealous of their power. And they’re not very compassionate with their power either. They don’t really care about anybody else. They’re willing to wage war and not care what anybody else thinks. That’s the kind of world we live in.

If that’s all there were in the world, it would be a very dark, dark, dark world. But as Ajaan Fuang said about Ajaan Lee, Ajaan Lee showed him the brightness of life. The Buddha and his Dhamma show us the brightness—that it is possible to train the mind, to find true happiness within, and here are the steps all laid out. So you can allow those thoughts to gladden you.

Of course, if the Buddha seems super-human and hard for you to compare yourself to him, there are the members of the Saṅgha. Especially when you read the Theragāthā and the Therīgāthā, you realize that not everybody in those days was on the verge of awakening. We read about people like Yasa and Bahiya who happened to hear a very brief teaching by the Buddha and gained awakening. Well, those were the fruits that were already ripe. But there were a lot of fruits in the time of the Buddha that were not very ripe at all. They had to really work hard, yet they were able to do it. Some of them were even suicidal, but they got beyond it.

So you learn from them. You learn about the things they thought about that enabled them to lift their spirits, come to their senses. You realize the potential was there inside them. That potential is in you, too. It’s simply a matter of being willing to follow the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma. That’s the example set by people of all kinds: young, old, rich, poor, high caste, low caste. Those things didn’t matter.

This is what’s amazing about the Saṅgha. In one of the dreams the Buddha had that forecast his awakening, birds of different colors flew toward him. As soon as they came to him, they all became yellow.

The symbol there was that people of many different castes who would all come, and they would abandon their caste identity. In the case of the monks and the nuns, they would put on the yellow robe; the lay people would wear white. That was pretty radical back in those days, because caste was such a huge issue in India.

So we look at the Saṅgha, and we can see ourselves there someplace in the members of the Saṅgha who eventually did gain awakening.

There’s a tendency in the biographies of the ajaans in Thailand to make it sound as though they were ready to become arahants as soon as they came out of the womb. But as you get to know them, you realize they were human beings just like us. They had their problems, they had their difficulties, they had their weaknesses, but they were able to take advantage of their strengths.

Again, you can think the thought “They can do it, they’re human beings. I’m a human being, if they can do it, so can I”: That can lift your spirits.

So these are three of the possible inspiring themes that you might use. As the Buddha describes it, you can actually get into the first jhāna thinking about inspiring things like this. Stay focused on the theme until you find that it gives rise to a sense of well-being. Then you can drop the theme, come back to the breath, put aside your thoughts, and enter the second jhāna.

This means that this is a perfectly good alternative to starting out with the breath.

So take advantage of the fact that we have these recollections, because what’s going to gladden your mind, what’s going to gladden somebody else’s mind, will will differ from person to person.

For example, thinking about the Buddha, sometimes you’re inspired by his wisdom, sometimes by his compassion, sometimes by his purity. Well, whatever works—because that’s the basic principle, that was the principle that motivated the Buddha to begin with. He was going to find what worked. He wasn’t going to just listen to inspiring theories. As he said, he taught cross questioning rather than bombast.

Bombast is when the teacher teaches with beautiful words but doesn’t want you to ask questions about: What does this word mean? What does that word mean? He just wants to impress you with fine-sounding language, fine-sounding concepts.

But the Buddha’s way of teaching was to encourage cross questioning: If there’s something you don’t understand, ask. The purpose of this, of course, was to get you to cross question yourself. When you find yourself holding on to certain ideas, why do you hold on to them? What do you gain? What do they do, these ideas?

That’s probably one of the more radical parts of the Buddha’s awakening: Instead of just holding on to ideas, he asked himself: What do these ideas do? Where do they come from in the mind? What do they lead to?

He was able to step back from his old ideas—the ideas that kept him down, the ideas that kept him limited—and then opened his own mind to new possibilities.

That’s what the Dhamma he taught was all about: opening our minds to new possibilities. And when you see that those new possibilities apply to you as a potential member of the Sangha—here meaning the Saṅgha of the Noble Ones, whether you’re lay or ordained—that’s what can gladden the mind. That’s what can inspire you, so that the mind will be willing to settle down and really look into itself with a sense of confidence that it’s going to see good things inside when it looks.