Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta 2.
Updated: Sep 26
Mindfulness of the Body
This second session looks at the first Satipaṭṭhāna – contemplating the body. The Sutta first gives instruction how and where to sit. Then continues describing this practices as a progression through mindfulness of breathing, postures, activities, anatomical parts, the elements and finally of our corpse in decay.
What is interesting here is that ‘contemplation’ becomes almost immediately a bit more plastic than the definition initially suggested. While mindfulness of the breath, postures and activities certainly do involve diligence, clear knowing, mindfulness and concentration, the remaining objects of mindfulness seem to involve additional skills such as cognitive reflection and visualisation. Again, mindfulness, is a surprisingly broad activity.
Reading this it maycome as a shock that this section on the body enters a slightly grisly survey of our body, followed by a dissection of its elements as if it were the carcass of a cow being butchered, followed by a particularly detailed consideration of the stages of a decaying corpse. Did the Buddha have a body problem? The Ven. Anālayo says not. Elsewhere it is clear that the body can experience great bliss and joy and this also becomes a vehicle for awakening. However the Buddha does not want us the either identify with our bodies nor spend disproportionate time on them because they are impermanent and a potential source of suffering. The hous e of horrors here is to be understood as a corrective to an imbalance and not the prejudice of a one time ascetic. Re: great bliss and joy. Contemplation of the body not only has the benefit of stopping us getting carried away by the pleasures of the flesh it also acts as the foundation for both calm and insight. On the calm side we have already mentioned how this develops into the deep pleasure of sustained concentration. And on the insight side, Nibbāna is said to be an indescribable happiness. Don’t forget, it was through mindfulness of the breath that the Buddha said he had become awakened.
How and where to sit
Here is the text:
And how, monks, does he in regard to the body abide contemplating the body? Here, gone to the forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut, he sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him, mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.
Plainly most of us will immediately falter here not being in possession of forests, trees or even huts and finding it quite impossible to sit up straight with crossed legs. However common sense and compassion prevail and most teachers nowadays say even a quietish corner in our house is good enough as is sitting up straight on a chair.
One last point. The phrase, ‘in front’ could mean the nose and top lip triangle or it could mean mentally in front as in ‘to the front of our awareness’. This second works better when the location for placing our awareness is in the chest or the abdomen.
Mindfulness of breathing
Breathing in long, he knows ‘I breathe in long,’ breathing out long, he knows ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he knows ‘I breathe in short,’ breathing out short, he knows ‘I breathe out short.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body,’ he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in calming the bodily formation,’ he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out calming the bodily formation.’
The first point is that text does not immediately say specifically where to rest our attention – nose, chest or belly. The Ven. Anālayo talks at some length about the different opinions including the instruction to place it where most comfortable. The issue of first long then short mirrors experience where the breath after a while goes through very subtle periods so as to almost disappear. Next comes a slight change in what we do. Up to now the instruction is to simply ‘know’ but now it changes to ‘train’ implying a bit more effort. The ‘whole body’ could mean ‘the breath throughout the body’ or ‘the whole body of each breath’, meaning a complete in and out breath, noticing all the changes in sensation as they occur. The last step is training to breath in and out ‘calming bodily formations’. ‘Bodily formation’ (kãyasaṅkhãra) in this context means calming the breath and also calming the entire body.
The word saṅkhãra is actually very interesting because it is so difficult to translate and fully understand. Used in the context of the fourth khandha, or aggregate of the psychophysical make up of a person, it describes that moment when something has been cognised and action of some form follows – an action that could be either mental or physical or both. There are innumerable expressions of this but one central one is called ‘cetanā’ – volition, will, intention, the actualisation of a goal. For more on the issue of calming the breath and body see note 1.
Next comes the first of many repetitions of the refrain that we looked at in session one. How are we to apply this practice? By contemplating its impact internally and externally. By recognising the impermanence of our objects of contemplation. By using our bare attention and continuous mindfulness and by becoming independent and not clinging to anything in the world.
Mindfulness of postures
Again, monks, when walking, he knows ‘I am walking’; when standing, he knows ‘I am standing’; when sitting, he knows ‘I am sitting’; when lying down, he knows ‘I am lying down’; or he knows accordingly however his body is disposed.
We have all seen Buddhist’s walking very slowly and if we have been taught this practice we will know that we are trying to be aware of the sensations of walking in our feet and perhaps our legs. In this way the continuity of mindfulness is strengthened. However the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is trying to do something more than this. While mindful of the four postures – walking, standing, sitting and lying down – we are not only enjoined to consciously know how our body is positioned but also to have an awareness of what is happening in our minds. Particularly noticing what thoughts accompany what postures and recognising unwholesome or unskilful thoughts and dissolving them in mindfulness. On our courses we often do an almost no movement at all ‘walking meditation’, simply standing still for a longish period of time. This utter frustration of movement when we are expecting to move can be very revealing. Slowed to almost nothing all the thoughts become very apparent. Thus the practice is not only good for the sleepy meditator or the meditator who has legs that can not stand being crossed anymore but also for the cultivation of insight. Furthermore as we walk we may ask ourselves ‘who is walking?’, differentiating the bare attention of the experience from the narrative of a self who is having it. In this way mindfulness of body posture may lead directly into insight into the ‘three factors of existence’ – impermanence, not-self and unsatisfactoriness.
Then the refrain:
Internal and external
Bare attention and continuity of mindfulness
Independent and not clinging to anything in the world.
Mindfulness of activities
Again, monks, when going forward and returning he acts clearly knowing; when looking ahead and looking away he acts clearly knowing; when flex- ing and extending his limbs he acts clearly knowing; when wearing his robes and carrying his outer robe and bowl he acts clearly knowing; when eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting he acts clearly knowing; when defecating and urinating he acts clearly knowing; when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent he acts clearly knowing.
Putting aside the issue of dress and the absence of a bowl, mindfulness of activities takes the postural awareness further into the detail of what we do each and every day. Not unlike cleaning our teeth from week one of the mindfulness course plus a bit more. Joseph Goldstein and the Ven. Anālayo both focus on the term ‘clearly knowing’ – sampajãna – which we first met in the definition as an element of contemplation along with diligence, mindfulness and concentration. They break it down into four components – clear knowing of our activities should include knowing their purpose, whether they are suitable, whether they are a proper ‘pasture’ of mindfulness and whether they are non-delusional. Let us look at them in detail:
Purpose – this is to clearly know what our motivation is and recognise whether it is beneficial or not when we entertain a train of thought, speak or act. Given that we are so good at fooling ourselves with self-justifications this is an eye opener.
Suitability – it is not enough that something is wholesome or skilful, it also needs to be suitable in the particular circumstances of the moment. The Buddha highlights this with his two questions: “Is it true and is it useful?” Both must be satisfied. Something true could be said or done but it may not actually be useful. Similarly something useful could be said or done but it may not be true. Clear knowing makes sure both qualities are present.
Pasture – we have already encountered the notion of a proper pasture of mindfulness, the body, feelings, mind and dhammas. Interestingly this implies an improper pasture of mindfulness which would be something that actually contributed to states of mind and activities that actively went against the values the Satipaṭṭhāna and Buddhism generally espouse. Here I am thinking where secular mindfulness is being used for purposes that plainly serve the practitioners narcissism.
Non-delusion – is to clearly know experientially impermanence, not-self and unsatisfactoriness. It is to know that all these strivings for what is wholesome, what is wise and compassionate, is ‘all just empty phenomena rolling on’ – doing with no doer!
Mindfulness of anatomical parts
Again, monks, he reviews this same body up from the soles of the feet and down from the top of the hair, enclosed by skin, as full of many kinds of impurity thus: ‘in this body there are head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, bowels, mesentery, contents of the stomach, faeces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints, and urine.
If we feel some revulsion at this list of body parts and what the body oozes then this section will have done its job. However, as with all things Buddhist this needs to keep a middle way. One Sutta describes a group of monks who became so disgusted with their bodies that after excessive practice some of them committed suicide – which is plainly going too far! The point of this section is not to hate our body but to not get carried away thinking we are our bodies either. There is a theme running throughout the entire Sutta that sensual craving is a root cause of suffering and that for this to end requires renunciation. This is a difficult message for those of us who are not enthusiastic about asceticism. However identification with the body can and does cause enormous suffering in our society where so many expressions of the body – particular looks, age, illness, gender, disability – are marginalised or even persecuted. Even very beautiful and healthy bodies are in an irreversible process of decay as all the cosmetic ads. imply. Contemplating our body in a measured but real way brings us face to face with its impermanence and trying to halt this impermanence quickly creates more suffering.
Mindfulness of the elements
Again, monks, he reviews this same body, however it is placed, however disposed, as consisting of elements thus: ‘in this body there are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element’.
Our next object of contemplation takes us down to a finer level of enquiry. It also describes an ancient Indian way of thinking that is unfamiliar to us – that the four basic qualities of matter are solidity, liquidity (or cohesion), temperature and motion. Earth, water, fire and air. Anālayo says the investigation of anatomical parts has already brought mindfulness and clear knowing to the solidity and liquidity of the body (the parts of the body and what they extrude) so that here we have a “more comprehensive approach” that includes the bodies heat and movement. Mindfulness of our temperature, our digestion and ageing, connects to fire. Mindfulness of the internal movements such as breath and, more subtly, blood, connects to air. And we can go deeper still; contemplating in each particle of the body, as it comes into being and immediately fades away, each and all of the four elements. The idea, as the Sutta so graphically puts it, is that as when a butcher cuts up a cow, with dismemberment the ‘cow’ disappears and is replaced with ‘cuts of meat’. Similarly, a shift may occur in us where the experience of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ is replaced by an impersonal combination of elements causing a healthy detachment. Furthermore, this reduction to simply elements makes it clear that we are not different nor separated from the environment and deeper still gives an insight into not-self, “With sustained contemplation a meditator may come to realise that this apparently so solid and compact material body, and with it the whole material world, is entirely without essence.” Anālayo p.151. A more modern parallel would be how Quantum Mechanics penetrates deeper and deeper into matter so that apparent reality disappears and is replaced by minute changing processes. One last point – there are examples in the Suttas where contemplation of the elements is used to cultivate loving kindness and compassion. The elements, whatever is done to them, feel no resentment of ill will. Knowing that we are these elements may help us be equally free of unwholesome mental states.
Mindfulness of the corpse in decay
Again, monks, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground – one, two, or three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals, or various kinds of worms … a skeleton with flesh and blood, held together with sinews … a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, held together with sinews … a skeleton without flesh and blood, held together with sinews … disconnected bones scattered in all directions … bones bleached white, the colour of shells … bones heaped up, more than a year old … bones rotten and crumbling to dust – he compares this same body with it thus: ‘this body too is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate.’
This final contemplation in the Body section requires that we add imagination to our list of skills. It has two aims, to counteract sensual desire through contemplation of the repugnant aspects of the body, and secondly, to remind ourselves of the ever present reality of death. The first is achieved by either viewing, or imagining in detail, a corpse in decay – however much we may desire and love a beautiful body this will eventually happen to it just as it will happen to our own. There are however, according to Anālayo, several instances of Monks contemplating dead female bodies in charnel grounds and still feeling desire! Because of this later commentaries suggest if we do this with a real corpse then choose one of the same sex. I don’t know whether this story illustrates just how sexually frustrated the monk was or whether he had strange and overpowering appetites – whatever the message we are back again with the concern that the senses drag us into all kinds of unhappiness. The second objective, a reminder of deaths presence, is obviously underlined by this sort of practice. In other places the Buddha also used the next breath or the next bite of food to impress the importance of remembering the fragility and fleetingness of our existence – the next breath, the next mouthful could be our last. Finally, through this contemplation, we are urged to give up our attachment to and identification with our bodies which will serve us well – firstly at the point of death when we will be parted from our bodies, and secondly as preparation for the experience of the ‘deathless’, Nibbāna, awakening itself, which will occur once we are no longer driven by the cravings having a body seems to create.
It seems to me that in this first section on the body that the Sutta has two basic messages. The first is found in mindfulness of breathing, body postures and activities. It says that paying attention and being aware will create calm and generate insight. However this second quality, insight, is ultimately about really deeply understanding the impermanence of everything including ourselves. This is where the second message, clearly conveyed by mindfulness of our anatomy, elements and the decay of our corpse, begins to kick in. Once we profoundly take on that impermanence and not-self are the nature of reality we will no longer look to them for happiness and with this renunciation the ‘deathless’ state of awakening will finally occur. This of course is the basic message of early Buddhism that is also found explicitly in the Buddha’s first teaching on the Four Noble Truths. The truth of suffering, what causes it, what ends it and how to achieve this. Perhaps for us, reading this now, it begins to get a little clearer that for the Buddha, a natural renunciate and one time star ascetic, that craving for things that please the mind and senses is at the root of the problem and so here we find meditations designed specifically to counter this deep instinct. Whether we share this ascetic inclination or not I leave to you!
Secondly, it may also be apparent that the issue of there not being something in us that remains untouched by change might cause some problems. We are used to thinking that we have some sort of authentic, real or true self that we can identify and use to steer our lives. Buddhism does not believe this. ‘Not-self’ means that when we in our meditation look through the psychophysical processes that constitutes ‘us’ we do not find an unchanging self, soul or essence – it’s just not there. This is then reflected in phrases such as ‘thoughts are not facts’ and ‘feels real, not true’. Phrases that completely undermine experiences that we would normally unquestioningly believe and be guided by. So if we can’t find a central guiding principle whispering to our thoughts and emotions what do we to steer by? Again I hand this over.
The issue of intention is not mentioned by Anālayo in the section on calming the breath. Is it that we are intentionally trying to create a calm state or that the act of consciously breathing in and out naturally creates calm? My guess is that it is the latter – experience generally confirms this. However the way the text reads – “training” – it could be the former. If this were so then it would seem that that side of the practice that is influenced by bare attention and choiceless awareness – simply “knowing” – is here eclipsed by the side that is more interventionist – having a goal and training towards it. Later non-dual forms of mindfulness will view such ‘training’ with concern.
Something to do at home:
Here is a meditation on death and decay –
A death meditation developed by Thich Nhat Hanh
1 Aware of my beloved alive and healthy, I breathe in. Smiling to my beloved alive and healthy I breathe out.
2 Seeing the dead body of my beloved, I breathe in. Smiling to the dead body of my beloved, I breathe out.
3 Seeing the dead body of my beloved blue in color, I breathe in. Smiling to the dead body of my beloved blue in color, I breathe out.
4 Seeing the dead body of my beloved infested with worms and flies, I breathe in. Smiling to the dead body of my beloved infested with worms and flies, I breathe out.
5 Seeing the dead body of my beloved as a white skeleton, I breathe in. Smiling to the dead body of my beloved as a white skeleton, I breathe out.
6 Seeing my beloved’s body as a number of fresh bones scattered here and there, I breathe in. Smiling to my beloved’s body as a number of fresh bones scattered here and there, I breathe out.
7 Seeing my beloved’s body as a number of dried bones, I breathe in. Smiling to my beloved’s body as a number of dried bones, I breathe out.
8 Seeing my beloved’s body being wrapped in a shroud, I breathe in. Smiling to my beloved’s body being wrapped in a shroud, I breathe out.
9 Seeing my beloved’s body being placed in a coffin, I breathe in. Smiling to my beloved’s body being placed in a coffin, I breathe out.
10 Seeing my beloved’s body being cremated (or buried), I breathe in. Smiling to my beloved’s body being cremated (or buried), I breathe out.
11 Seeing my beloved’s remains being mixed with the earth, I breathe in. Smiling to my beloved’s remains being mixed with the earth, I breathe out.