Building on Recollection
Theosophical Quarterly, April, 1928
While the Suttas record instances in which the Buddha spoke eloquently to groups of villagers, to large numbers of men and women assembled in the towns, to those who visited him, as did King Ajatashatru and many learned Brahmans, yet it remains true that the heart of his teaching and its deepest elements were addressed, not to these varied listeners, but to disciples, or, sometimes, to a single disciple, as the beloved disciple Ananda. His main desire and purpose was to train disciples, to help those who desired liberation, and who were ready to work and sacrifice for liberation.
It was not enough for the aspirant for discipleship to wish for liberty, or even to express that wish to the great Master. He had to do much more: he had to sacrifice; and the initial sacrifice was drastic and inclusive: he who wished to be, in the true sense, a disciple of the Buddha, and a member of his Order, must first renounce all the normal desires and ambitions of ordinary personal life, and prove that his renunciation was real, by “giving up the household life and entering the homeless life”; he must repeat the sacramental formula, “I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to the Law of Righteousness, I go for refuge to the Order”; and he must make the equivalent of the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and accept in detail a rule of life covering his studies, conduct and manners. Only after these great sacrifices and efforts were made, was it possible for him to be a disciple in the true sense, and to strive successfully for liberation. This necessity of initial sacrifice and effort is universal, perpetually valid; it may not be possible actually to leave home and all its duties and occupations, but it is necessary to make the act of self-surrender symbolized by this “going out”, and to maintain and increase that self-surrender.
Therefore, those disciples to whom the essential teaching of the Buddha was addressed, had already passed through the conversion of the will, the change of polarity, the transference of the centre of gravity, the self-identification, from the outer to the inner, from the lower to a higher self. Much, nay, almost everything remained to be done, but the first great sacrifice had been made, the first transformation had been passed through.
It is essential to keep this fundamental truth in mind when we seek to understand the central teaching of the Buddha: this teaching is addressed to those who have, in will and in act, sacrificed the personal to the spiritual life, and have thus established a focus of self-identification, of consciousness, in the spiritual life. It is especially necessary to keep this in mind while we are seeking to understand the vitally important teaching of Recollection, and what follows as the fruit of Recollection. The disciple, practicing Recollection, must become aware of his actions, his sensations, his emotions. Precisely because, through sacrifice and the transfer of the focus of self-identification from the lower to the higher nature, he has raised his point of view from the midst of these acts, sensations and emotions, and has established a footing above them, so that he now looks down upon them from above, this very act of viewing them from above tends to separate him from them, to detach his will and consciousness from his sensations and emotions, and to free him from their domination. In other words, the very act of Recollection is, for the disciple, an instrument of liberation: the white light of spiritual perception is full of power, and, like the pressure of physical light described by Arrhenius, tends to drive outward and downward the enthralling sensations and emotions.
This is true for the regenerate disciple who, drawn by overmastering love of the Master and the beauty of holiness and valour in the Master, has made the initial effort and sacrifice, and has crossed the dividing line, saying, “To the Buddha as my refuge I go.” But it is not true for the unregenerate man who, still clinging to the desires and activities of his personality, makes a certain effort towards the practice of Recollection. If, seeking the alert awareness which the Buddha has enjoined on his disciples, he dwells in thought upon his sensations, let us say the sensation of the flavour of alcohol, he is more likely to increase his desire and his slavery than to diminish or conquer it. So with anger or resentment; by becoming more aware of his feeling of injury suffered, he will strengthen it, because the focus of his consciousness, his self-identification, is still firmly rooted in the lower, personal self. The initial effort and sacrifice have not been made. The promised fruits of Recollection will not be gathered by him.
Therefore, Light on the Path bids the disciple, at the very beginning of the way, to “seek in the heart the source of evil and expunge it.” Before the soul can stand in the presence of the Masters its feet must be washed in the blood of the heart. The great initial sacrifice must be made. Only after it has been made will the fruits of Recollection follow.
This is true of the ground previously covered regarding the practice of Recollection, up to the point where the disciple, having become fully aware of his acts, sensations and emotions, goes on to gain awareness of his thoughts, immediately “realizing within himself the presence or absence of sensual thoughts, envious thoughts, thoughts of sloth and torpor, thoughts of vanity and vacillation, thoughts of doubt; conscious of their uprising, their rejection, and the danger of their return, even when they have been rejected.” It is equally true of the teaching which follows.
The five forms of thought just enumerated are called the “five obscurities”, or “obstacles”, or “besetting sins”, because they are the causal impulses in the mind, which impel and set in motion the ensnaring emotions and sensations. The Buddha then goes on to an equally fundamental part of his teaching, the five Skandhas, or aggregates, which are the basis and substance of personal life, and are therefore described as “the five aggregates of clinging to (personal) existence.” Since the Skandhas are a fundamental element of the Buddha’s method of instruction, it may be expedient to give the Sanskrit names, and try to gain a clear view of their meaning and content. First, Rûpa, “form”, the “aggregate of form” being the physical body, whose constituent elements have already been enumerated and, in the “cemeteries”, commented on with grim realism. As was pointed out at the time, the purpose of this stringent description is, to break down, at any cost, the enthralling tyranny of the body, which so dominates much of human life. After that tyranny has been broken, the right use of the body must be learned. Second, Vedanâ, “sensation”, the “aggregate of sensations” being “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye”, and the like enthralments of the other senses; as before, conquest of these tyrannies will lead to the right use of the powers of perception; but their abuse must first be blotted out. Third, Sanjña, which has been rendered “abstract ideas”, “thoughts”, and, in the enumeration of the Skandhas, appears to mean, not the direct impressions of the senses, but the thoughts abstracted, or extracted, from these impressions, as the thought of an allurement through the eyes, which is more abstract, and more lasting, than the allurement itself, and which contains the impelling force that leads one to seek the situation in which the allurement may be renewed. It is more mental than emotional, yet it contains the seeds of future emotions and craving for sensations. Fourth, Sanskârâ, “tendencies, both physical and mental”. The history of this word is interesting. It seems to have meant first “adornment”, and in particular, the adornment of pottery, the curves and dots and patterns which the potter incised on the unbaked clay of a jar which he had completed on his wheel, and which were rendered permanent by the process of firing in the kiln. The past participle of the same base, Sanskrita, “adorned”, came to be applied to the “adorned”, or “refined”, language of the classical period, and is preserved in the word Sanskrit. As an element in the mind, Sanskârâ acquired a more special meaning. At first, it meant an imprint or pattern engraved on the psychic substance of the mind, as an inner copy of some outward object which the attention had rested on; the mind-image of something seen or heard or otherwise perceived. And, because this mind-image, if originally touched with desire, emotion or allurement, takes a certain life and energy of its own, and exerts pressure to bring about renewal of the alluring sensation, thus leading to a reinforcement of the mind-image, and renewed repetition, the word gained the fuller meaning of “dynamic mind-image”, which it has in the school of Shankara Acharya. This is close to the meaning in the teaching of the Buddha, who used the word to describe impressions which, by reason of their energy, become impulses or tendencies; and he included both mental and physical tendencies. Both are built up in the same way, by the embodiment of an “elemental” force in the impression, a force with impulses and claims of its own, and the tendency to express them. Fifth, Vijñâna, which means, in Sanskrit, knowing something as different from something else, a knowledge which distinguishes. As one of the Skandhas, its meaning is less abstract; it seems to indicate a tendency of the mind based on distinction or preference, and so a “predisposition, physical, mental or moral”. To these five Skandhas, two more should probably be added: the “heresy of separateness” which marks the boundary of the personality, and “egotism” which supplies the driving power of the personal machine built up by the five more concrete Skandhas. With this technical description in mind, we may now consider what the Buddha is recorded as saying regarding the Skandhas:
“And further, disciples, with reference to the elements of being, a disciple abides considering the elements of being in the Five Aggregates of clinging to personal existence. How does the disciple so abide?
“In this world, disciples, a disciple attains to the understanding that ‘this is Rûpa, the bodily form, this is the rising of form, and this its setting; this is Vedanâ, sensation, this is the rising of sensation, and this its setting; this is Sanjña, thought, this is the rising of thought, and this its setting; these are the Sanskârâ, the tendencies, this is the rising of the tendencies, and this their setting; this is Vijñâna, predisposition, this is the rising of predisposition, and this its setting’; thus recognizing the nature, the rising and the setting of each of these elements of being in the Five Aggregates of clinging to personal existence, his Recollection is established in the measure of this knowledge, in the measure of this detailed recollection.”
To put it in other words: the disciple, who has made the indispensable initial sacrifice and effort of self-surrender, and has thereby established a focus of consciousness in the higher, spiritual nature, looks down from that point of vantage at the personality, analyzes it, takes it to pieces, and thus comes thoroughly to understand its nature and impulses, and, most vital, becomes thoroughly saturated with the realization that the personality is “not-self”, that in it there is no selfhood or abiding principle. He does this not once, but continuously; establishing his realization by this detailed recollection until it is firmly fixed, and the domination of the personality is broken. Then will come the time for him to discover and acquire the right use of each of these powers, just as the time came to learn the right use of the bodily powers, after these had been analyzed and conquered. And as before, the white light of spiritual perception, in which the disciple views these powers, by its very nature aids him to subdue them. True Recollection is already the first step of conquest. So we come to the Six Dwellings; namely, the five organs of perception, each being regarded as the dwelling of one of the powers of perception, sight, hearing and the other powers, together with mind, considered as the dwelling or receptacle in which the five kinds of perception are gathered together and moulded into general impressions or mind-images. The Buddha said:
“And further, disciples, with reference to the elements of being, a disciple abides considering the elements of being in the Six Dwellings, whether in himself or in another. How does the disciple so abide?
“In this world, disciples, a disciple understands the eye, understands forms, and understands the attachment which arises through these two, understanding how attachment not yet arisen may arise, how attachment which has arisen may be broken, how attachment which has been broken may arise in the future; so also he understands hearing and sounds and the attachment which arises through them, with its coming into being, its ceasing and the danger that it may arise again; so also with scent and odours; with the tongue and savours; so also with the body and contacts; so also with the mind and forms of thought and the attachment which may arise through these, its beginning, its ceasing and the danger that it may arise again. Thus he abides considering these elements of being, whether in himself or in another. He abides unswayed, coveting nothing in the world.
“And further, disciples, with reference to the elements of being, a disciple abides considering the elements of being in the Seven Members of Illumination. How does the disciple so abide?
“In this world, disciples, a disciple, if that member of illumination named Recollection is awake in his inner self, understands that it is awake; if it be not yet awake, he understands that it is not yet awake; so also with that member of illumination named Discernment of Elements; so also with that member of illumination named Valour; so also with that member of illumination named Joy; so also with that member of illumination named Serenity; so also with that member of illumination named concentrated Meditation; so also with that member of illumination named Poise. In the case of each, he understands how, if it be not yet awakened; it arises, and how, when it has arisen, it goes onward to perfect fulfillment.”
The dividing line between the lower and the higher has been passed, the turning in the way has been conquered and the new way has been entered on; the disciple, having fought the good fight against the personal self and won the victory, thoroughly understanding the personal self and all its activities and allurements and delusions, now prepares to enter on that life which supersedes the personality; he is ready to gather the fruits of the spirit. And the fruits of the spirit are these: recollection, discernment, valour, joy, serenity, meditation, poise; this is the wisdom which comes down from above. The disciple is established on the path; his task is to attain these fruits, and to bring each one of them to perfection, assiduously guarding against the danger of recession.
In Light on the Path it is written that “he who would escape from the bondage of Karma must raise his individuality out of the shadow into the shine; must so elevate his existence that these threads do not come in contact with soiling substances, do not become so attached as to be pulled awry. He simply lifts himself out of the region in which Karma operates. He does not leave the existence he is experiencing because of that. The ground may be rough and dirty, or full of rich flowers whose pollen stains, and of sweet substances that cling and become attachments—but overhead there is always the free sky. . . . The operation of the actual laws of Karma is not to be studied until the disciple has reached the point at which they no longer affect himself.” This is an eloquent description of the stage of the path we have been considering; a summary of the allurements and the victory over them, whereby the disciple raises himself from the personality to the life which is above the personality, and receives his reward in an understanding of the laws of personal life, the laws of personal Karma. For there is also the greater Karma, the universal law of harmony guiding to perfection.
Therefore, it is precisely at this stage of the way that the Buddha gives his expression of the laws of personal Karma, by expanding and explaining the Four Noble Truths, whose deep metaphysical significance the disciple is now ready to understand, because he has conquered. The four noble truths are:
The misery of bondage to personal life;
The origin of this misery;
The path that leads to this cessation.
Each of these noble truths is set forth with the Buddha’s matchless gift for analysis and order, and also with something even greater, his profound understanding of human pain and sorrow that has won for him the name, Siddhartha the Compassionate; that kingly quality in him which inspired him to say, “Let all the sins of this evil age fall upon me, but let man be saved.”
“What, disciples, is the noble truth of the misery of bondage? Birth is misery, decay is misery, sickness is misery, dying is misery, sorrow, lamentation, pain, despondency, despair are misery, longing for what we cannot get is misery, and in brief, the five aggregates of clinging are misery.”
With compassion the Buddha describes the misery of birth in bondage to personality, the misery of decay, the misery of dying; with even deeper compassion he speaks of the misery of grief and lamentation, desponding and despair:
“What, disciples, is grief? When anyone, disciples, is overwhelmed by calamity, stricken by pain, so that he is afflicted by grief and grieving, the very essence of grief, the height of grief, the depth of grieving, this, disciples, is named grief.
“What, disciples, is lamentation? When anyone, disciples, is overwhelmed by calamity, stricken by pain, he laments with lamentation, with great and bitter lamentation, with the very essence of lamentation, grievous and bitter, this, disciples, is named lamentation.
“What, disciples, is bodily pain? When anyone, disciples, experiences bodily affliction and suffering, bodily torment and wounds, this, disciples, is named bodily pain.
“What, disciples, is desponding? When anyone, disciples, is afflicted by grief of heart, sorrow of heart, filling and overwhelming the mind, this, disciples, is named desponding.
“What, disciples, is despair? When anyone, disciples, is overwhelmed by calamity, stricken by the very essence of pain, and is filled with despair and despairing, with the full bitterness of despair and despairing, this, disciples, is named despair.”
Even more noteworthy are the sentences that follow:
“What, disciples, is the misery of longing for what we cannot get? When any one among mortals longs to be free from the misery of birth, to escape from birth. But this is not to be gained by longing. When anyone longs to be free from decay, to escape from decay. But this is not to be gained by longing. When anyone longs to escape from dying. But this is not to be gained by longing. When anyone longs to escape from sickness and grief and lamentation and desponding and despair. But this is not to be gained by longing.”
The Buddha then turns to the source, the cause, of this inescapable misery which surrounds and overwhelms the life of bondage to personality:
“What, disciples, is the noble truth of the origin of this misery? It is that thirsting desire which causes bondage to rebirth, thirsting desire full of sensuality and passion, seeking indulgence everywhere; it is the thirst of desire, the thirst for bodily life, the thirst for separate life. Whatever things are alluring and fascinating in this world, in these desire springs up and grows, in these desire establishes itself and takes root.”
And once again he repeats to the disciples, now better able to comprehend, the long lists of sensual things which fascinate and allure, and of the powers through which they allure, dispensing “a several sin to every sense”. Then follows the question:
“What, disciples, is the noble truth of the cessation of this misery? It is revulsion without any reserve, renunciation, abandonment, forsaking of thirsting desire; it is final liberation, free from allurement.
“And what, disciples, is the noble truth of the path that leads to the cessation of misery? It is the Noble Eightfold, Path, that is: Right Understanding, Right Resolution, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Recollection, Right Meditation.
“And what, disciples, is Right Understanding? It is an understanding of the misery of bondage to personal life, an understanding of the origin of this misery, an understanding of its cessation, an understanding of the path that leads to this cessation.
“And what, disciples, is Right Resolution? It is the resolution of self-surrender, the resolution to be rid of malice, the resolution to refrain from injuring others.
“And what, disciples, is Right Speech? It is abstinence from lying, abstinence from slander, abstinence from cruel words, abstinence from foolish and frivolous talk.
“And what, disciples, is Right Conduct? It is to abstain from killing, to abstain from taking what is not given, to abstain from unclean desires.
“And what, disciples, is Right Livelihood? It is when a noble hearer of the teaching, renouncing a wrongful livelihood, enters upon a right livelihood.
“And what, disciples, is Right Effort? It is when a disciple, with regard to evil and sinful elements of being which have not arisen, arouses his will, determines, makes valorous effort, concentrates his imagination and resolves that they shall not arise; when with regard to evil and sinful elements of being which have arisen, he arouses his will, determines, makes valorous effort, concentrates his imagination and resolves that they shall be extirpated; when with regard to righteous elements of being which have not arisen, he arouses his will, determines, makes valorous effort, concentrates his imagination and resolves that they shall arise; when with regard to righteous elements of being which have arisen, he arouses his will, determines, makes valorous effort, concentrates his imagination and resolves that they shall be established, that they shall not be shaken, that they shall be increased, that they shall be developed to full perfection.
“And what, disciples, is Right Recollection? It is when a disciple with reference to the body abides considering the body, ardent, fully conscious, recollected, altogether putting aside both covetousness and dejection, and so likewise with reference to sensations, to imaginings, to forms of thought.
“And what, disciples, is Right Meditation? It is when a disciple, cleansing himself from sensual desires, cleansing himself from sinful elements of being, enters into and abides in the first stage of Contemplation, which is accompanied by analysis and reasoning, born of discernment, suffused with happiness and joy; when, rising above analysis and reasoning, he enters into and abides in the second stage of Contemplation, a stilling of mental activity within himself, unified, without analysis or reasoning, suffused with happiness and joy; when, rising above rejoicing, he abides poised, recollected, fully conscious, aware of bodily serenity, he enters into and abides in the third stage of Contemplation; when he transcends both rejoicing and grieving, when both exulting and desponding have ceased, he enters into and abides in the fourth stage of Contemplation, beyond rejoicing or grieving, poised, recollected, pure. This, disciples, is Right Meditation. This is the noble truth of the cessation of the misery of bondage.”
So far the Noble Eightfold Path, which is the consummation of the Four Noble Truths. For how long, through how many lives, must the devoted disciple tread the path before he attains to liberation? The answer of the Buddha to this inevitable question is, perhaps, the most striking part of the whole teaching:
“Whoever, disciples, thus goes forward through these four degrees of Recollection during seven years, may confidently look for one of two rewards: even in his present state he will attain to illumination, or, if there be in him a remainder of the aggregates, he will not again fall into bondage. But, disciples, it is not a question of seven years; whoever thus goes forward through these four degrees of Recollection during six years, may confidently look for one of these rewards. Nor, disciples, is it a question of six years; whoever thus goes forward through these four degrees of Recollection during five years, may confidently look for one of these rewards. Nor, disciples, is it a question of five, or four, or three, or two years, or even of one year, of seven, or six, or five, or four, or three, or two months, or one month, or even of a half-month; whoever thus goes forward through these four degrees of Recollection during seven days, may confidently look for one of these two rewards: even in his present state he will attain to illumination, or, if there be in him a remainder of the aggregates, he will not again fall into bondage.
“This was my meaning when I said in the beginning that there is one way of salvation for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of grieving and lamentation, for the conquest of misery and dejection, for the increase of wisdom, for the attainment of Nirvana, namely, the establishment of these four degrees of Recollection.”
Thus spoke the Master. Rejoicing, the disciples praised the Master’s word.