During my first years as a monk in Sri Lanka, in the early 1970s, my meditation practice consisted almost exclusively of mindfulness of breathing. This, I had read, was the meditation subject that the Buddha himself had used to gain enlightenment, and I reasoned that if it worked for him, it would surely work for me. Over time, however, I found that mere attention to the breath caused my mind to dry up and grow brittle, and I felt the need to balance mindfulness of breathing with another meditation practice that could more actively nurture the emotional side of my being. Searching through the Visuddhimagga, the massive compendium on Theravada Buddhist meditation, I came upon two meditation subjects that seemed suited to my needs. One was the meditation on lovingkindness; the other, recollection of the Buddha.
Since I had naturally felt keen devotion to the Buddha, I sensed that I would find this meditation subject congenial. I therefore studied the instructions on its practice recorded in the Visuddhimagga and added a session of recollection of the Buddha to my meditation periods. I found, almost at once, that this meditation subject had a powerful transformative effect, causing an upsurge of confidence, joy and devotion. About the same time, I discovered a sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya (1:296) in which the Buddha himself had praised its benefits: “There is one thing, O monks, that leads to peace, higher knowledge, enlightenment and nibbana, namely, recollection of the Buddha.”
Over the centuries, recollection of the Buddha (buddhanussati) has been one of the most popular meditation subjects in the entire Buddhist tradition. It is as popular among the Buddhists of Sri Lanka and Burma as it is among the Chinese followers of Pure Land Buddhism. It serves not only as a devotional practice common among laypeople, but also as one of the basic meditations practiced by earnest monks as a prelude to insight meditation. It is included among the four “protection meditations,” where it is recommended as an antidote to doubt, mental sterility and heedlessness.
The classical practice of “recollection of the Buddha” employs nine epithets of the Buddha, as found in the canonical formula: “The Blessed One is fully purified, perfectly enlightened, accomplished in knowledge and conduct, fortunate, knower of the world, unsurpassed trainer of persons to be tamed, teacher of devas and humans, the Enlightened One, the Blessed One.” For a modern practitioner, I recommend selecting three of the epithets, which I have found sufficient for recollection. The three qualities most meaningful to me are those represented by the Pali terms araham, samma sambuddho and bhagava. I see these designations as signifying, respectively, the Buddha’s immaculate purity, his vast wisdom and his boundless compassion.
To practice recollection of the Buddha, sit in a comfortable posture. You should not use a rosary (mala), for you might then slip into mechanical repetition of the words. The word recollection (anussati) actually means “repeated (anu) mindfulness (sati).” To practice correctly, you want to be mindful of the Buddha’s qualities—to turn them over and over in the mind—not to repeat a formula in an ancient language. For the practice to be fruitful, you also have to understand the meanings and connotations of the Pali terms.
First, relax any tensions in your body and clear your mind by practicing a few rounds of mindfulness of breathing. Then, with your mind’s eye, see before you a beautiful, inspiring image of the Buddha, as if you were seated in his presence. He should be sitting calmly in meditation or in the teaching mudra. His face should be serene, gentle, kindly and compassionate; his body should be radiating an aura of soft light. Since this is not an exercise in visualization, you need not visualize the image in detail—only enough to serve as a basis for contemplating the Buddha’s qualities.
Call to mind the word araham, “the Purified One,” and thereby contemplate the immaculate purity of the Buddha’s mind. Recollect the Buddha as one whose mind is forever cleansed of all stains and defilements—the unwholesome mental qualities of greed, hatred and delusion and their offshoots, such as anger, conceit, envy, arrogance, worry and doubt. Dwell for a minute or two on the purity of the Buddha’s mind. If the idea of mental purity remains unclear, focus on the mental image of the Buddha and try to see how the purity of his mind is manifested by his bodily form: his soft and gentle facial expression, his graceful manner, his bodily aura. Do not construct elaborate thoughts about the Buddha’s purity. Simply focus on any idea that imprints on your mind a distinct impression of the Buddha as one who is fully purified. Let this quality of complete purity flow into your own mind and heart and suffuse you with a feeling of purity.
After a minute or two, call to mind the term samma sambuddho, “the Perfectly Enlightened One.” With the aid of this phrase, contemplate the Buddha’s perfect wisdom: deep, vast and luminous, penetrating everywhere without obstruction. He has comprehended all the principles of the dhamma; he has understood all phenomena in terms of their general characteristics, their distinctive characteristics and their conditioning relationships. If the idea of perfect wisdom remains unclear, focus on the mental image of the Buddha and try to see how his perfect wisdom is manifested by his bodily form: his dignified posture, his self-mastery, his meditative poise, his gracious act of teaching others. Do not construct elaborate thoughts about the Buddha’s wisdom. Simply focus on any idea that conveys to you a distinct impression of the Buddha as one who is perfectly wise. Let this quality of perfect wisdom flow into your own mind and heart, inspiring you to develop wisdom.
Again, after a minute or two, call to mind the word bhagava, “the Blessed One.” With the aid of this word, contemplate the Buddha’s great compassion, which blossomed in the perfection of all excellent qualities: selfless generosity, flawless conduct, boundless altruism, unshakable equanimity, enormous spiritual power. See the Buddha as pouring out an endless stream of dhamma teachings to benefit countless sentient beings in accordance with their dispositions. If the idea of the Buddha’s great compassion remains unclear, focus on the mental image of the Buddha and try to see how his compassion is manifested by his bodily form: his soft and gentle facial expression, his sublime physical features, his gracious act of teaching others. Do not construct elaborate thoughts about the Buddha’s compassion. Simply focus on any idea that enables you to acquire a distinct impression of the Buddha as the compassionate one, the embodiment of all excellent qualities. Let this quality of great compassion flow into your own mind and heart, arousing in you gratitude, reverence and devotion.
After contemplating the Buddha as the Blessed One for a minute or two, again call to mind the word araham, “the Purified One,” and contemplate the Buddha’s immaculate purity. Then proceed to samma sambuddho, “the Perfectly Enlightened One,” one who is perfectly wise. And then go on to bhagava, “the Blessed One,” the embodiment of great compassion. As you practice recollection of the Buddha, turn the Buddha’s virtues over in your mind, again and again: immaculate purity, perfect wisdom, boundless compassion; immaculate purity, perfect wisdom, boundless compassion. You may dwell on one particular quality longer than on the others, but ideally you should try to give each quality equal time. Proceed in this way through the meditation period.
You may use this meditation subject as your main practice or as a preliminary to some other meditation subject. If, for example, your main practice is mindfulness of breathing, you can begin an hour’s session with ten minutes of mindfulness of the Buddha. When, by recollection of the Buddha, the mind is uplifted and grows serene, you can then turn your attention to the breath.
As with any meditation subject, don’t expect quick and dramatic results. But if you practice regularly and diligently, you’ll be certain to experience the benefits. By contemplating the Buddha, we suffuse our minds and hearts with his majestic virtues. We gain joy, calm, happiness and bliss. We quiet the waves of troubling thoughts and easily concentrate our minds. This concentration serves as a secure basis for cultivating insight-wisdom.