Introduction

Whoever attentively reads a small number of the countless ‘speeches’ of Buddha is soon aware of a harmony in them, a quietude of soul, a smiling transcendence, a totally unshakable firmness; but also invariable kindness, endless patience. As ways and means to the attainment of this holy quietude of soul, the speeches are full of advice, precepts, hints.

Hermann Hess

The goal of the Buddha’s teachings is freedom – freedom from the bondage of passions, freedom from the distress we inflict upon ourselves through our ignorance, and ultimately, freedom from the rounds of birth and death – Nirvana. Like a dazzling snow-capped mountain that we can see in the distance but not yet reach, the freedom of Nirvana lies at the end of a path, the Noble Eightfold Path. But the Path is a long one, sometimes passing through smooth terrain and sometimes through rough, with many twists, turns and undulations, and if we are to walk it with sure and steady steps and without being sidetracked, we will need help. To the Buddhist this help comes in the form of the Three Refuges; the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. The Buddha is a refuge because his life and attainments remain proof that Enlightenment is possible, that perfection is the true purpose of life. He is the supreme archetype for all who quest for spiritual maturity. Reflecting on the Buddha’s life and example fills us with the enthusiasm needed to walk the path. The Dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha, is a refuge because they provide us with a realistic and complete description of reality as well as advice on ethics, social relationships, meditation and almost every other aspect of life. The Sangha is the fellowship of the Buddha’s disciples, past and present, enlightened or not, bound together by their common commitment to attaining what the Buddha attained. The Sangha is a refuge because those who have preceded us on the Path can give us advice on the journey ahead, while those who are walking with us can provide companionship on the journey, bring us back to the Path when we deviate, and help us up when we stumble and fall. While the Buddha realized the Dhamma and then proclaimed it, the Sangha aspires to be like the Buddha by practicing the Dhamma. Thus we can say that that Dhamma is preeminent among the Three Refuges. The Buddha himself said that he lived “dependant on Dhamma, honoring Dhamma, respectful and deferential to Dhamma, with Dhamma as a standard, with Dhamma as an overlord.” (A.I ,109).

The Buddha attained Enlightenment in about 528 BCE and started teaching the truths he had discovered soon afterwards, sometimes verbally, sometimes by example. When he spoke, his words were so relevant and clear and often enhanced with similes so memorable, that they were never forgotten by those blessed enough to hear them. His deeds were a perfect expression of the compassion he urged others to develop that they too were long remembered. Some months after he attained final Nirvana, everything he had said and done was committed to memory and, like a golden thread passing through crystal beads, began to be orally transmitted from teacher to disciples. When this oral tradition was eventually superseded by writing, all this material was compiled into three huge collections and came to be called the Tipitaka, the Three Baskets. The first of these collections is the Sutta Pitaka, containing the discourses and sayings of the Buddha and those of some of his enlightened disciples, as well as recounting some of the events in the Buddha’s life. The second collection, the Vinaya Pitaka, contains the rules and administrative procedures for the monastic community. The third collection, the Abhidhamma Pitaka, somewhat later than the other two collections, contain minute analysis of psychological processes.

Through the centuries, Buddhists have expressed their reverence for the Tipitaka by writing it on golden plates, placing its pages between gem-studded covers, or housing its volumes in magnificent libraries. More importantly, they have revered the Tipitaka by striving to centre their lives around the Dhamma it contains. They have looked to it for guidance and inspiration and in return it has given them peace of mind and purity of heart, while pointing always towards the freedom of Nirvana. Familiarity with the Buddha’s words is an indispensable part of the spiritual life.

The centre of axis of the Buddhist life is meditation and one of the most important meditative practices is taught by the Buddha is the Recollection of the Dhamma (Dhammanussati). The practice itself consists of selecting a passage from the Tipitaka and quietly reflecting on its meaning. When this meditation is done every day, and with a respectful and reverential attitude, the meaning of the words being contemplated will sink into the heart and help transform it at the deepest level. To read or to hear the Buddha’s words is, as it were, to come into direct contact with the Buddha himself.

This book has been specially compiled for those practicing the Recollection of the Dhamma, although anyone interested in Buddhism will find it useful too. It consists of extracts from the discourses in the Tipitaka and from some post-canonical literature, arranged so that one extract can be read every day for a year. The first edition of this book came out 22 years ago. For this second edition all the extracts have been checked and in some cases partly or wholly re-translated. A few of the original extracts have been replaced by new ones, mainly from the Jataka, a source of Buddhist wisdom I had previously not tapped.