Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta 1.
Updated: Sep 26, 2021
The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is a complete guide to the practice of mindfulness as taught by the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. In it he teaches that the direct path to awakening is possible through mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind and the mental states that either obscure or reveal the awakened mind. These four categories or fields of awareness give the text its name – satipaṭṭhāna – which is frequently translated as ‘The Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ but which might be more accurately translated as, ‘Attending with Mindfulness or Being Present with Mindfulness’. Whatever we finally call it the message is clear: these mindfulness practices, either singularly, in some combination or in their entirety, are a means leading to enlightenment, Nibbāna.
In these following sessions we are going to look into each of these fields – or a better translation, ‘pastures’ – of awareness, particularly seeing how they may deepen and enrich our own mindfulness practice. Some of the pastures of mindfulness seem fairly simple; mindfulness of the body, feelings and mind. But the last category, mindfulness of dhammas, is more complicated as it draws us into complex ideas and particularly how these ideas reveal both the causes of our suffering and also the insights that set us at ease and free in the knowledge of how things really are. I will provide some simple notes that will accompany each of the sessions. These are largely drawn from two books that you might like to read for yourselves – the first is the easier, the second, from which the first draws heavily, is the more authoritative. They are:
Joseph Goldstein, 2013, Mindfulness, A Practical Guide To Awakening, Sounds True, Boulder, Colorado.
Anālayo, 2003, Satipaṭṭhāna, The Direct Path To Realisation, Windhorse Publications.
This first week we look at the Sutta’s structure and the mental qualities that are necessary for its practice and which it hopes to further encourage. As already mentioned the Sutta consists of four pastures of mindfulness that are to be contemplated – body, feelings, mind, and dhammas or patterns of experience. This progression is headed first by a description of the satipaṭṭhānas as a ‘direct path’, followed by a ‘definition’ of how to practice them and at the end of each section a ‘refrain’ which describes the particular mindfulness meditation’s application. Finally the whole sequence ends with a ‘prediction’ about how this practice will achieve awakening and leaves us with a reaffirmation that this is a ‘direct path’. A diagram for this may be found in Anālayo p.17. Here is the translation for the direct path, definition and refrain sections:
Monks, this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of dukkha and discontent, for acquiring the true method, for the realisation of Nibbãna, namely, the four satipaṭṭhānas.
What are the four? Here, monks, in regard to the body a monk abides contemplating the body, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to feelings he abides contemplating feelings, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to the mind he abides contemplating the mind, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to dhammas he abides contemplating dhammas, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world.
(Refrain – this is its first occurrence and relates to the body)
In this way, in regard to the body he abides contemplating the body internally, or he abides contemplating the body externally, or he abides contemplating the body both internally and externally. Or, he abides contemplating the nature of arising in the body, or he abides contemplating the nature of passing away in the body, or he abides contemplating the nature of both arising and passing away in the body. Or, mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That is how in regard to the body he abides contemplating the body.
So we know that the direct path is achieved, bringing suffering to an end, through the contemplation of:
The dhammas – basic patterns of experience
and that contemplation is a combination of:
diligence (or ardency)
and renunciation of desires and discontents concerning the world
and that using this combination of ‘mental qualities’ we contemplate each pasture of awareness:
internally and externally
cultivating bare attention and unbroken awareness
independent, not clinging to anything in the world
So let’s unpack all these mental qualities and see how they are applied to the objects of mindfulness:
Contemplation – anupassati
The word anupassati means to repeatedly look or to closely observe. The reason we do this is to directly gain experiential insight into the impermanence, absence of self and unsatisfactoriness – that is, the ‘three factors of existence’ -of all of the objects of mindfulness listed in the Sutta. Given that the whole Buddhist project is entirely about ‘knowing how things really are’ and how this leads to the end of suffering, the practice of contemplation could not be of greater importance as this is solely achieved through contemplation. Further more mindfulness only becomes ‘right mindfulness’ (sammã sati) when it is tied to attaining the insights that contemplation reveals. Other goals, though perhaps attained using mindfulness, from this perspective, do not finally yield the insight of awakening and therefore by implication, maintain continued suffering.
Diligence – ãtãpî
Joseph Goldstein translates ãtãpî as ‘ardent’. I like this translation because it encompasses both a sense of intense application and passionate involvement. The Ven. Anālayo uses the phrase, “strong and unwavering commitment” and says that although ãtãpî is usually associated with the psychic heat generated by fervent asceticism, in the Buddhist non-ascetic culture it was adapted to mean a motivation that arises from experiencing the bliss of absorption. There is also another nuance here. Diligence does not simple mean working really super hard at ones practice. Rather it means being properly attentive to the balance between being wound too tight and then collapsing and being wound too loose and sliding into laziness and inertia. Anālayo p.39 says, “… ’diligent’ then amounts to keeping up one’s contemplation with balanced but dedicated continuity, returning to the object of meditation as soon as it is lost.”
Joseph Goldstein links the cultivation of diligence with a Buddhist teaching called, “The Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind”. These are 1. The Precious Human Rebirth 2. Impermanence 3. Karma – the law of cause and effect 4. The suffering of conditioned existence. This teaching is used to create the motivation to enter and stay on the path by reminding us of the realities of our existence. However for we in the West it does pose the problem of where do we actually stand on the reality of rebirth and karma?
Clearly Knowing – sampajãna
Clearly knowing means a full awareness or clear comprehension of what we are contemplating. We grasp what is happening. This can work at several levels. At the simplest it just means when – for instance – I breath in I know I am breathing in. The action is conscious. However it is also associated with the wisdom aspect of the practice because what we eventually come to clearly know is the impermanence, not-self and unsatisfactoriness of our objects of meditation. A knowing of the ‘three factors existence’ that finally leads to awakening. Thus, as Anālayo p.40 puts it, “… the quality of “clearly knowing” can range from basic forms of knowing to deep discriminative understanding”.
In practice this may begin by simply knowing what we are doing when we are doing it and whether what we are doing is skilful or not. That is to have an inkling of our motivation. In this sense clearly knowing is not only connected to the wisdom aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path but also the ethical aspect that encourages wholesome actions and the meditation aspect that through Right Effort monitors what is wholesome and what is not. Joseph Goldstein takes this issue of motivation and works it up to include the motivation of why we are engaged with the practice – is it for myself alone or do I practice for all sentient beings? He suggest that we begin to clearly see what affects us affects others also and this opens into the interconnectedness of life. I would add that clearly knowing our motivations must also include seeing when our motivation is entirely selfish and short term – unless we bring the light of awareness to all parts of ourselves we may become convinced we are more realised than we actually are!
Clearly knowing is intimately linked to being mindful – so much so that there is a common compound word – satisampajañña. The wide occurrence of this word refers to the simultaneous presence of awareness and knowledge which is, “ …the need to combine mindful observation of phenomena with an intelligent processing of the observed data.” Anālayo p.41. I think this works two ways. Firstly it is the act of consciously knowing that we are practicing mindfulness and keeping that knowledge in awareness – that is not just spacing out. Secondly it is clear knowing of what is happening during our practice and based on this non-judgemental assessment making the small adjustments that are described in the section above – tightening or loosening our practice as need demands for instance. In the light of this I could easily argue that the whole content of “Why Can’t I Meditate?” is an exercise in clearly knowing because it is entirely about understanding what is happening while we practice. Finally the Buddha said that it was both necessary to ‘know’ and to ‘see’ to awaken. Anālayo p.42 suggests that maybe clearly knowing is the ‘knowing’ aspect while mindfulness represents the ‘seeing’.
Mindfulness – Sati
It is surprising to see the range and complexity of meanings mindfulness actually has but which are seldom described. These include:
Sati as memory as in recollection of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha or, in deep meditation, as in the Buddha at his awakening, recollecting all of his past lives. Finally a monk was said to have awakened while recalling the qualities of the Buddha.
Sati as that which enables memory – if we are mindfully present when events occur we are more able to recall them later.
Sati as in remembering to be in the present moment – so sati as returning to present moment awareness.
Sati as presence of mind, fully awake in each moment, having present moment awareness.
Sati as ‘collectedness’ which is the opposite of distraction.
Sati as a ‘breadth of mind’ that enables many things to be held in mind simultaneously.
Sati as calm and detached observation.
Sati as that which ‘probes’ for insight and ‘prepares the ground’ for wisdom.
Sati as that which monitors and guards the senses, sati as protection.
Sati as a firm foundation, giving stabilisation.
Sati as bare attention and choiceless awareness .
Sati – awareness – has already been described as a ‘detached observation’ that is present moment to moment. This implies that it does not itself act but is the clear awareness that then provides the best environment for wise action to occur. This relates to the difference between unconscious reaction and conscious response. Something greatly emphasised in our courses because it is this that identifies and interrupts ‘automatic pilots’. Further more this quality of non-activity, simple bare attention, is also associated with a particular interpretation of ‘choiceless awareness’ – sati as simply being present with whatever arises with no movement towards changing it in any way. Here the rational is that we do not need to change anything because within the sphere of awareness everything is already constantly changing. Sati then takes the middle path between the two extremes of suppression and reaction. Nothing is suppressed as it arises but what arises is not identified with and then acted from. In this sense sati has a quality of sobriety and equanimity.
Finally it can be seen that there is a tension developing within these diverse understandings of sati. On the one hand there is a clearly active quality to it. Sati as the guard who monitors what is arising within us, assisted by diligence and clear knowing, and enables wise choices how best to respond. And on the other hand sati as a wide open choiceless awareness that, mirror like, simply registers without picking and choosing between the contents of consciousness arising and dissolving within it and, going a further step, does not seek to intervene in any way.
These two interpretations actually become the basis for an evolution in the understanding and practice of mindfulness. Joseph Goldstein describes them as ‘fabricated’ and ‘un-fabricated’ mindfulness. The first requiring an intention and effort to continue in it – diligence. And the second non-interventionist style in its most profound expression being a natural state of inherent non-dual awareness that we can rest in without effort – something obviously more difficult to do. The first is more associated with early Buddhism and perhaps its contemporary representative, Theravada Buddhism, and the latter with the later Tibetan Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions and Japanese Zen. In the forms of practice we teach these two types of practice are known as the ‘doing something’ practices and the ‘doing nothing’ practice and they are practiced in combination.
Free of desires and discontents – concentration – samãdhi
To be free from desires and discontents implies a mind that rests in a calm and contented state. A mind that is not primarily driven by the three root poisons of ignorance, greed and hatred or entirely obscured by the five hinderances -desire, aversion, sloth and torpor, agitation and doubt. A mind that is not driven by picking and choosing from likes and dislikes. This is principally achieved through the calming aspect of the practice that is enabled by our deepening concentration and, as we go deeper, the stabilisation of this concentration which is called a state of samãdhi. Joseph Goldstein p.21 says that samãdhi is achieved through “enjoying embodied presence, settling back into the body and allowing the stress and tensions to unravel through simply being aware of what presents itself”. Does that sound easy? Hmmmm….
Traditionally the cultivation of samãdhi requires a foundation of ethical behaviour (sīla) because without it the mind is either coarsened by its actions and refuses to remain still or it is persecuted by distractions full of shame, guilt and remorse. To this extent lay Buddhists have generally taken some or all of the lay precepts to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and becoming intoxicated. However experience reveals that a mind in a chronic state of anxiety or depression is similarly compromised and will find extended and deep concentration extremely difficult. This is then not so much about ethics as mental ill-health. There is also the issue of whether ethical action motivated by wanting to attain samãdhi is actually ethical? Surely we act ethically because we believe it is good in itself and also for the wellbeing of others, not because we want something just for ourselves?
In practice, for most of us, the issue of samãdhi is academic. And this is fortunate as the Ven. Anālayo says that the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is not saying we have to have achieved samãdhi or sustained concentration before starting practice but that the practice itself develops concentration that leads to samãdhi and this then starts a loop where the practice itself furthers our ability to practice more deeply. However, while samãdhi may not be initially essential, concentration, even if only weak, is. This is built up by our mindfulness, particularly the style of mindfulness where we rest our attention fixedly upon one unmoving point and repeatedly return it there when distracted. Further more, it is not only calm abiding that is cultivated through the concentrated mind but also insight. Without concentration we will not have the stability to see the ‘nature of how things really are’. And it should be remembered that the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is not primarily about achieving a state of immovable calm but the insight that leads to awakening.
This then completes the mental qualities described in the ‘Definition’. Next we look at the ‘Refrain’. Remember this is about what we are doing when contemplating each of the pastures of mindfulness.
Internally and externally
Being mindful of what is happening within me is the stuff of mindfulness – being aware of my bodily posture, my physical sensations, my emotional reactivity, my compulsive thoughts and even awareness itself. However the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta also asks that we are mindful externally which means primarily of others but of our environment as well. This is obvious once we remember that the Eight Fold Path contains an ethical section that is all about our relationship to others as well as ourselves. The phrase ‘both internally and externally’ may be more than a repetition and according to Anālayo may be suggesting that to think in terms of ‘my’ inside and an external world beyond me may be to fall into the delusion of a separate, self existing person when more phenomenologically all that is actually happening is experiences coming and going with an additional narrative added on top which connects them to some sort of enduring self.
If contemplation is the central most important tool in Buddhism than impermanence has to be the central most important realisation that contemplation uncovers. Without exaggeration the gateway to liberation. It is the key characteristic in the ‘three factors of existence’ – ‘not-self’ simply points out the utter impermanence of every part of us and ‘unsatisfactoriness’ arises when we act as if impermanence does not exist. In later Mahayana Buddhism it becomes ‘emptiness’ – the absence of an unchanging and discreet entity within persons or objects. And with this insight springs into existence a vision of a universe in which everything is constantly changing into everything else along patterns of cause and effect. Buddhism calls this ‘Dependent Co-arising’ (paṭicca samuppãda) – a vision of complete interconnectivity. Based on this Buddhism describes various psychophysical structures that demonstrate this interconnectivity. Two central ones in early Buddhism are the ‘Five Aggregates’ and the ‘Twelve Links’. Structures that describe the links between sense stimuli and its interpretation within consciousness and how consciousness, marred in ignorance, migrates between one life time to the next. In this sense, impermanence, which means the inevitable end of everything, also becomes the inexhaustible source from which everything is constantly becoming. However we must be careful here; emptiness is not a thing, it is a description of how things really are.
In our own practice we are immediately confronted with impermanence. It is difficult to maintain our daily practice, to repeat a desired meditation experience, to even remain sitting on our seat. Entirely impermanent our diligence, clear knowing, mindfulness and concentration seem to come and go entirely out of our control. Entering into a fight with these realities only makes things worse. Shooting ourselves with a second arrow of discontent with ourselves and our practice compounds the unsatisfactoriness. The only hope we have is to embrace the impermanence. This means at first being happy with the thoroughly unstable nature of our practice. Later this may open to an awareness of the impermanence of thoughts and sensations during our practice – how they come and go – and finally as we go deeper still and really begin to slow down, a sense of the continuous process of change and how this may be experienced as limitless space.
Cultivating bare attention and unbroken awareness
We have already looked at some length at the various nuances of meaning found in the practice of mindfulness. Here there is a clear emphasis on the cultivation or practice part of it. That is, the doing (or being) of mindfulness. What we are cultivating is a quality of awareness that is characterised by bare attention – a registering of experiences without adding anything else to them. A direct knowing of bodily sensations, physical or emotional, the movement of thoughts, the brightness of awareness, without making up unnecessary stories about the experience. And, because this is very difficult, when we do make up stories and then with a combination of our clearly seeing and mindfulness recognise we have done so, to this experience we also bring bare attention. Noting we have done so with a simple “Thinking” and immediately continuing in the practice.
Unbroken or continuous mindfulness must be an aspiration which anyone who has tried knows is quite some distance off. However it remains true that the more we practice the better we get at it. This does not mean some kind of thought free, blissed out state but a growing awareness of ourselves that is simpler and not clothed in reactivity and with this a greater awareness of who and what is around us. Quite simply we are less blinded when its not all about me. Being able to slow ourselves down by resting in the refuge of the breath, not being panicked by physical pain, being able to sit with emotions now felt within the body and recognising that thoughts are often no more than fantasies designed to maintain ones sense of invulnerability, are all the fruits of mindfulness. Insights derived from our practice. Certainly this is not a continuous stream of mindfulness but it is a greater awareness and with more and more practice this becomes second nature.
And there is a greater twist still. As we begin to really see that thoughts are just thoughts, that emotions may feel real but are not necessarily true. As we realise that if we just sit and do nothing really powerful impulses will just come and go of their own accord, we may also realise that the awareness that all this comes and goes within is not in anyway changed or damaged. Lovely experiences, horrible experiences all come and go and awareness itself remains unaltered. Within Buddhism this is a bit of a mystery. Early Buddhism says that this awareness is simply a momentary consciousness that itself is coming and going. And this is true, observation proves we are not always conscious. However, later Buddhist schools have seen behind this conditioned consciousness a deeper level of intrinsic awareness that is not partitioned into subject and objects, that is timeless, not created and therefore not impermanent. An awareness that is just awareness and has nothing to do with me personally. This awareness has been associated with Buddha Nature, the already awakened nature within everyone that is obscured as long as we do not know how things really are. This awareness is therefore the ultimate form of mindfulness – it is the ground of awareness that the practice of mindfulness leads to and it is the essence of what mindfulness already is. Finally awareness becomes aware of itself.
Independent, not clinging to anything in the world
Lastly we come to the purpose or fruit of our practice. Intimation of this is already found in the section on mindfulness above because what we practice mindfully, principally letting go of the central defensive narrative of the self, is here further realised. This takes some unpacking. Buddhism does not deny the existence of the feeling that I am someone – that I have a sense of self. Nor does it deny the functional value of this feeling/concept – without it I would not have agency or be able to act with apparent continuity. What it does challenge is my understanding of this self; principally the feeling that I am a separate and unchanging entity that must defend its existence against the threats, all ultimately derived from change, that constantly assail me. When the self is held in this tight, concretised way it feels continuously in danger. Any unwanted change in my circumstances threatens my security – and there are always unwanted changing circumstances! However, when the self can be more lightly held, not taking myself so seriously, then the threat level drops and everything becomes easier. Most of us will have had at times this sort of experience and what we are being presented with here is deeper experience of this. In the light of this the issue of dropping the story line, no longer believing our narratives and resting in bare attention without all the normal picking and choosing begins to make greater sense. All of this frees us from the confines of a reified sense of identity, we begin to cling less to the thoughts and emotions we have taken ever so seriously as ‘me’, ‘mine’ and ‘myself’ and with this reduction in the craving or thirst for self suffering begins to lessen. Anālayo says, p.116, of this that ‘abiding independent’ means being free of craving and ‘speculative views’ while ‘not clinging to anything in the world’ means the non-identification of a self with all the psychophysical structures (khandha, the five aggregates) that make up the processes of a person. This is the realisation of the ‘not-self’ element of the ‘three factors of existence’ and with it comes the deepest understanding of impermanence, or to use the later term, emptiness. This then completes the refrain reminding us what we are doing as we practice mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind and dhammas.
This has been a bit of a baptism under fire – it is a lot to take in. Thankfully it will be a little simpler for the next three sessions while we stay with the body, feelings and mind and then it will heat up a bit more with the dhammas. However if we hang on to the key point that suffering caused by clinging onto a tight and defended ‘me’ can be helped by letting go into a more simple moment to moment awareness free of stories, then we won’t go far wrong.
Points for consideration:
1. Notice in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta it is contemplation that the Buddha is teaching, not just mindfulness. Mindfulness is absolutely central but it is just one part of the art of contemplation along side ardency, clear knowing and renunciation.
2. Clearly knowing and mindfulness plainly support each other in the practice of contemplation but it also seems that the many characteristics of mindfulness sometimes include the knowing and assessing qualities of ‘clearly knowing’. This suggests an original greater flexibility in the use of these terms.
And for our own practice:
3. Well it’s all already here – practice contemplation using diligence, clear knowing, mindfulness and concentration on whatever our object of mindfulness is so to gain insight into its impermanence and thereby bringing suffering and delusion to an end fore ever. Good luck!