A Meditator’s Tools: A Guide on the 10 Recollections

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Meditation is not simply a matter of bare attention. It is more a matter of appropriate attention, seeing experience in terms of the four noble truths and responding in line with the tasks appropriate to those truths: stress is to be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed. These tasks involve processes of thought, analysis, and memory—which means that these processes, instead of being enemies of meditation, are actually the means by which Awakening is attained.

The ten recollections are a set of meditation themes that highlight the positive role that memory and thought play in training the mind. They employ memory to sensitize the mind to the need for training, to induce feelings of confidence and well-being conducive for concentration, to keep the topics of concentration in mind, to produce tranquility and insight, and to incline the mind toward the deathless when tranquility and insight have grown sufficiently strong.

Strictly speaking, only seven of the ten are actually “recollections” (anussati): recollection of the Buddha, recollection of the Dhamma, recollection of the Sangha, recollection of virtue, recollection of generosity, recollection of the devas, and recollection of stilling. The other three are called mindfulness (sati) practices: mindfulness of in-and-out breathing, mindfulness of death, and mindfulness immersed in the body. However, the Pali words for mindfulness and recollection—sati and anussati—are intimately related. In the Pali Canon, sati does not simply mean awareness. It means the ability to keep something in mind; it is a function of the active memory. This point is clear in the Buddha’s definition of the faculty of mindfulness (§11), and it crops up again and again in the descriptions of these three mindfulness practices: mindfulness involves keeping particular themes or intentions in mind so as to induce mental states necessary for concentration, clear insight, and release. Thus all ten of these practices—the recollections and mindfulness practices—employ memory as an essential factor. For convenience’s sake, it seems best to stick to the traditional label of “recollection” for all ten.

Unlike other sets of meditation practices, such as the four frames of reference (satipa˛˛h›na) or the four sublime abidings (brahmavih›ra), the ten recollections do not have a single canonical discourse devoted to the entire set. Thus the way they interact and support one another has to be pieced together from many different discourses scattered throughout the Canon. The only place where they are listed as a set is in a series of ten short discourses in the Aºguttara Nik›ya (§§1-10). These discourses suggest that all ten recollections function in the same way, for all are described in the same terms:

“This is one thing that—when developed & pursued—leads solely to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding.”

From this formulaic statement, it might be concluded that all ten are equivalent and interchangeable, and that the choice of one theme over the others is simply a matter of personal preference. However, other passages in the Canon indicate that this is not so. Each recollection plays a specific role in the practice, and all are needed to provide a complete and effective training for the mind. In this way, they are like the contents of a meditator’s toolbox: a range of approaches that every meditator should master so as to respond skillfully to whatever issue arises in the practice.

Broadly speaking, the roles of these practices are these:

1) Mindfulness of death is meant to evoke a sense of saªvega—a sense of dismay over the dangers and futility of human life as it is normally lived, with its ordinary defilements, and a sense of urgency in trying to find a way beyond those limitations. This sense of urgency further induces the quality of heedfulness in approaching the practice, which the Buddha said is basic to all skillful endeavors.

2) The first six recollections—of the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, virtue, generosity, and the devas—are meant to induce a sense of joy and confidence (pas›da) in the practice. The first two induce a sense of confidence in the practice itself; the last three, a sense of confidence in one’s own worthiness to follow the practice; while the third theme— recollection of the Sangha—can induce both. The texts say that the joy and confidence induced by these practices can bring the mind to concentration and cleanse it of defilement, although they do not describe in any detail as to how far this cleansing goes or how it occurs. Passage §16, however, suggests that these themes can perform this function as adjuncts to mindfulness practice.

3) Mindfulness of in-and-out breathing and mindfulness immersed in the body are the primary themes for developing tranquility and insight so as to lead to strong concentration in terms of the four jh›nas, or absorptions; and they develop jh›na in such a way that it gives added power to tranquility and insight in leading the mind to release (§36).

Of all the meditation themes taught in the Canon, mindfulness of in and out breathing is treated in the most detail, and so it seems to have pride of place among the ten recollections. The Buddha himself, prior to his Awakening, apparently practiced this theme more than any other (§32). After his Awakening, he frequently continued to practice it as well (§40). However, mindfulness of in-and-out breathing and mindfulness immersed in the body play complementary roles on the path. To begin with, there is some overlap in the two, in that the first four steps of breath meditation are also listed as techniques in mindfulness immersed in the body. In addition, mindfulness immersed in the body—especially in its aspect as contemplation of the unattractiveness of the body—can handle strong defilements that in some cases do not respond to the tranquil concentration induced by mindfulness of in-and-out breathing (§53). At the same time, mindfulness immersed in the body can sometimes induce strong feelings of disgust and revulsion that cause the mind to respond in unskillful ways. When this happens, mindfulness of in-and-out breathing can help dispel those feelings and replace them with a feeling of refreshment that helps the mind stay skillfully on the path (§33). In this way, these two mindfulness practices work together to keep the mind balanced and on course.

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