The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
by Eric Van Horn
Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn
for free distribution
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Table of Contents
- Mindfulness of Breathing
- Mindfulness of Postures
- Mindfulness of the Body Parts
- Mindfulness of the Elements
- The Corpse Contemplations
- The Hindrances
- The Factors of Awakening
The Pāli Canon has two important discourses on right mindfulness. The first is the "Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta: the Four Foundations of Mindfulness". There are two versions of this sutta, one in the Majjhima Nikāya (number 10) and one in the Digha Nikāya (number 22). The one that is most commonly referenced is the Majjhima Nikāya version, and that is the one that we will discuss here.
There are also two versions of this sutta in the Chinese canons. (There are two different versions of the Buddhist canon in Chinese.) These yield some interesting comparisons. It is worth looking at the differences between the three versions.
The four foundations of mindfulness are as follows:
- The body
- The mind, or mental formations
- Mind objects, or mental qualities
For each foundation, or "frame of reference", the sutta describes corresponding meditation practices. However, the inventory of practices is different in each version of the sutta. In the following table - which approximates the one in the book Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna [Ajahn Anālayo] - you see the differences in those inventories. The Majjhima Nikāya column is the Pāli canon (nikāyas), and the other two are the Chinese canons (āgamas):
I have a theory about the differences. As usual I will caution you that I am not a scholar, so treat this as the Buddhist equivalent of pillow talk. The Buddha's teachings have a problem in that he never gives an introductory talk of everything that he taught. There is no basic outline or overview. The monks and nuns memorized the discourses, and eventually they would see how everything fits together. Because they were memorized, the discourses were kept relatively short. Each discourse is a piece of the puzzle, and once they had enough pieces they would be able to see the whole picture.
Now we move forward in time. Different groups of monks concentrated on a subset of discourses. Further - and this happened in Sri Lanka - fewer and fewer monks knew the whole canon. There was a famine in Sri Lanka, and large numbers of monks died. There was one section of the canon that only one monk knew. Thus, the landscape of Buddhist practice changed. The tradition was in danger of dying out.
And here we are now, many hundreds of years in the future, and we do not memorize the discourses. In fact, very few people have read even one volume of them. And this brings me to two points about the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. The first is that I think over time more material was brought into the sutta to give it a broader scope. It's purpose was to contain many meditation practices so it could act as a general guide. Note, by the way, that I am not suggesting - as some have - that any of this material is inauthentic. It is simply material that was brought in from other parts of the canon. Now, many years later, with three different versions of the sutta, it is easier to guess what is original.
When I first read this sutta, the section on the fourth foundation was quite confusing to me. When I later read it with some idea of what was original and what was added, it made more sense.
The second point is that one of the dangers in the Buddha's teachings is that it is easy to take one discourse or a small collection of discourses and over-extrapolate from those. For example, when you read the whole Majjhima Nikāya, the importance of jhāna becomes clear. That is not obvious if you just read a few discourses.
Buddhism is like anything else. It has cliques, trends, and fashions, and people and teachings in the Buddhist world come in and out of favor. In recent years the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta has gotten a lot of favorable momentum. I spent two years reading everything that I could about it. I took a course in it, went on a retreat about it, listened to dozens of Dharma talks on it, and so forth. But as a result of this popular momentum, it has, I think, taken on an importance that is out of balance. To be sure, this is a very important sutta. But it is not the whole of the Buddha's teachings, and its importance can only be understood in the context of all of his teachings.
In the next section we will talk about the 8th factor in the Eightfold Noble Path, right concentration. The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is, as the title states, about the 7th factor in the path, right mindfulness. The cultivation of right mindfulness leads to the mastery of right concentration, which the Buddha defined as jhāna, or meditative absorption. All 7 of the previous factors culminate in the 8th factor. The 8th factor is not possible without the previous 7. But there is a particularly close bond between right mindfulness and right concentration. When right mindfulness leads to right concentration, right concentration leads to stronger right mindfulness:
Again, a bhikkhu develops serenity and insight in conjunction. As he is developing serenity and insight in conjunction, the path is generated. He pursues this path, develops it, and cultivates it. As he is pursuing, developing, and cultivating this path, the fetters are abandoned and the underlying tendencies are uprooted.” - [AN 4.170]
How to Work With These Practices
We established what should be your main practice. That is to stay with the breath, to experience the breath in the whole body, to get the breath comfortable, and to do all this with a goal of establishing comfort and well-being. And we have many tools in our meditative toolbox, like sweeping, breath counting, and so forth.
Now we are going to add some new tools to our toolbox.
As you can see, there are many practices in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. In order to make them part of your toolbox, I recommend that you do each one of them for some period of time. I cannot tell you what that period of time is. If you have a strong aversion to the practice - which happens most notably with the corpse contemplations - then drop it. Remember, the goal here is not to make more suffering for your self. Put it aside for now. But remember that this is an important area for you to revisit. A strong aversive reaction shows that this is an area where you need work, and when you feel able you should come back to it, to push against the edge of your practice. Investigate why you are having this reaction.
Conversely, if you find the practice useful and fruitful, continue to do it. (This does not necessarily mean easy.) You can do this in a number of ways. You can do the practice as your main practice. Or, you can do it for one sitting here or there. You can do it for part of your sitting. Experiment and see what yields the best results.
You may also have a neutral response to it. In that case, try to do it for a few sittings to become familiar with it, then put it aside.
For every practice you learn, you will have one of the following responses to it:
- It will be useful to you now and in the future.
- It will be useful to you now but not in the future. At some point it will stop being fruitful.
- It will not be useful to you now, but will be useful to you in the future.
- It will not be useful to you now or in the future.
Work formally with them. Stick with one that is productive for you. Put aside anything that is too disturbing, and come back to it when you are ready.
The First Foundation - the Body
As previously mentioned, the body is such an important foundation of mindfulness that the "Kāyagatāsati Sutta: Mindfulness of the Body" [MN 119] describes a complete path to Awakening using the body as the object of meditation. Now, this is a little deceptive because in being mindful of the body all the foundations are present. It is simply that the body is the doorway. Nonetheless, it shows how important the body is as an object of contemplation.
In the West we are particularly disconnected from our bodies. To progress in meditation, we need to connect with the mind-and-body. Whatever happens in the body manifests in the mind, and whatever happens in the mind manifests in the body. If you feel an unpleasant sensation, the mind can spin it into something painful. If the mind feels stress, your body will tense up. When you get a massage, the mind calms down. Thus, the mind and body are inextricably bound. The practices that you already know, such as sweeping and whole body breath awareness, develop the connection between body and mind.
Most people either like their bodies or don't like their bodies. In either case, you identify with the body as "me". If you like your body, you think "I am attractive". If you do not like your body, you think "I am unattractive". If the body is sick we say "I am sick", and if we are healthy we say "I am healthy". Thus several body practices are aimed at dis-identifying with the body as "me". The body is simply the body - as the Buddha says - "in and of itself".
Attachment to the body causes a great deal of suffering. (A multi-billion dollar industry is devoted just to finger nails: $7.47 billion in 2013.) Also note that most of the Buddha's disciples were young men. They had a great deal of sense desire, and as a result, a great deal of suffering. Thus, the Buddha was particularly keen to help his disciples see the body in a more balanced way.
This is a tricky point. On one hand, the Buddha often uses quite harsh language to describe the body. On the other hand, we live in the body, and we are dependent on the body. So we have different aspects of the body that need to be held in proper balance. The first is the rather raw, negative view of the body:
Behold this body - a painted image, a mass of heaped up sores, infirm, full of hankering - of which nothing is lasting or stable!
Fully worn out is this body, a nest of disease, and fragile. This foul mass breaks up, for death is the end of life.
- [Dhp 147-148]
But aversion is just as damaging a body relationship as attachment. And as the Buddha often points out, and as noted in the comment about the Kāyagatāsati Sutta, the body is a powerful doorway to practice:
Bhikkhus, when one thing is developed and cultivated, the body becomes tranquil, the mind becomes tranquil, thought and examination subside, and all wholesome qualities that pertain to true knowledge reach fulfillment by development. What is that one thing? Mindfulness directed to the body. When this one thing is developed and cultivated, the body becomes tranquil … and all wholesome qualities that pertain to true knowledge reach fulfillment by development. - [AN 1.583]
And then there is a balanced view of the body:
Reflecting wisely, [a bhikkhu] uses almsfood neither for amusement nor for intoxication nor for the sake of physical beauty and attractiveness, but only for the endurance and continuance of this body, for ending discomfort, and for assisting the holy life, considering: ‘Thus I shall terminate old feelings without arousing new feelings and I shall be healthy and blameless and shall live in comfort.' - [MN 2.14]
There is also this conversation in the Milindapañha: The Questions of King Milinda that records a conversation between King Milinda and the Buddhist sage Nāgasena:
The king asked: "Is the body dear to you recluses?"
"No, it is not".
"But then, why do you look after it, and cherish it so?"
"Has Your Majesty somewhere and at some time in the course of a battle been wounded by an arrow?"
"Yes, that has happened".
"In such cases, is not the wound anointed with salve, smeared with oil, and bandaged with fine linen?"
"Yes, so it is".
"Then, is this treatment a sign that the wound is dear to Your Majesty?"
"No, it is not dear to me, but all this is done to it so that the flesh may grow again".
"Just so the body is not dear to the recluses. Without being attached to the body they take care of it for the purpose of making a holy life possible."
- [Milindapañha, The Arahants and Their Bodies]
Remember that these instructions are antidotes to a problem. If you have a lot of attachment to the body, you need to see its limits. If your body view is negative, you need a positive antidote. And finally you see the body for what it really is, with pluses and minuses, important uses as well as limitations.
A solider in the cavalry has his horse. He cares for that horse, and depends for his life on it. But he never thinks "This horse is me, this horse is who I am". This is the proper attitude to take towards the body.
1. Mindfulness of Breathing
And how, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu abide contemplating the body as a body? Here a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him, ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. Breathing in long, he understands: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he understands: ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he understands: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he understands: ‘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 tranquilizing the bodily formation’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquilizing the bodily formation’ ; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquilizing the bodily formation.’ Just as a skilled lathe-operator or his apprentice, when making a long turn, understands: ‘I make a long turn’; or, when making a short turn, understands: ‘I make a short turn’; so too, breathing in long, a bhikkhu understands: ‘I breathe in long’…he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquilizing the bodily formation.’
In this way he abides contemplating the body as a body internally, or he abides contemplating the body as a body externally, or he abides contemplating the body as a body both internally and externally. Or else he abides contemplating in the body its nature of arising, or he abides contemplating in the body its nature of vanishing, or he abides contemplating in the body its nature of both arising and vanishing. Or else mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is simply established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and mindfulness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That is how a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body. - [MN 10.4-5]
This is perhaps the most important and fundamental practice in all of Buddhism. This is also a dense passage, so let us take some time to break it down.
First of all, this passage is missing in the Ekottarika-āgama version of the sutta. It is hard to know why that might be, and I will not speculate. But as I said, this is the most fundamental practice in Buddhism. This passage is treated in more detail in the next sutta we will look at, the "Ānāpānasati Sutta: Mindfulness of Breathing" [MN 118].
This is the practice that we are doing. We have added some extra practices to facilitate the body practice, but they all fall under this umbrella. As we see in the first passage, we do the following steps:
- Establish the physical and mental posture.
- Attend to the breath, following it all the way in and all the way out.
- See the differences in the quality of the breath. See when the in-breath is short or long. See when the out-breath is short or long. More generally notice all the qualities of the in-breath and out-breath. Sometimes the breath is coarse and uneven. Sometimes it is smooth as silk. In high levels of concentration, it can simply disappear.
- Expand the awareness of the breath to the whole body, just as we have learned. Feel the breath energy in the whole body.
- Now calm - tranquilize - the body. The sweeping practice is very good for helping us learn how to do this.
In the next paragraph we are invited to expand our mindfulness of breathing to do several things:
- Use the breath to contemplate the whole body internally. This means to look at our whole body in a general way, to become familiar with all phenomena as they relate to our bodies.
- Expand that awareness to the bodies of others. This is akin to body language. See those same phenomena in others.
- Now see those same phenomena both in our bodies and in the bodies of others. See how they are the same or different.
- See the arising and passing away of those phenomena. The breath arises and passes away, as do all physical phenomena, like waves on the ocean.
- Be aware of the body "in the body", that is, without adding anything to it. Be aware of the body purely as it exists. It is simply "this body".
- Now comes the hard part: abide in the body without clinging.
More clinging = more suffering; less clinging = less suffering, no clinging = no suffering.
It is tempting to go into greater detail about just what you can see with these practices. But not everyone experiences things in the same way, and when a teacher explains how they experience something, or how they understand it from the suttas, it can get in the way of your unique experience. In Zen they have this amusing expression, and that is that if you over-explain something your eyebrows fall off (!).
(You may have heard the comment that in "vipassana meditation" they over-explain things, and in Zen they under-explain them. I have experienced both of those.)
The Buddha himself tended to give sparse instructions to his monastics.
2. Mindfulness of Postures
(The Four Postures)
Again, bhikkhus, when walking, a bhikkhu understands: ‘I am walking’; when standing, he understands: ‘I am standing’; when sitting, he understands: ‘I am sitting’; when lying down, he understands: ‘I am lying down’; or he understands accordingly however his body is disposed.
In this way he abides contemplating the body as a body internally, externally, and both internally and externally…And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body.
Again, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu is one who acts in full awareness when going forward and returning; who acts in full awareness when looking ahead and looking away; who acts in full awareness when flexing and extending his limbs; who acts in full awareness when wearing his robes and carrying his outer robe and bowl; who acts in full awareness when eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting; who acts in full awareness when defecating and urinating; who acts in full awareness when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent.
In this way he abides contemplating the body as a body internally, externally, and both internally and externally… And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body. - [MN 10.6-9]
(Note: In Ajahn Anālayo's analysis this section has two parts: postures and activities. I conflated them into one.)
Like so many of the practices, this one is easy to understand and hard to do. The Buddha is instructing us to be - at all times - aware of our body. Know when we are walking. Know when we are standing. Know when we are sitting. Know when we are lying down.
You may think that you do know these things, but it is hardly ever the case. The mind is always somewhere else, planning, fantasizing, dreaming, thinking about the past. This is how we bump into doors and drive off the road. We are simply not paying attention.
One way to work with this practice is to pick a specific time to practice body awareness. When you get up in the morning, note your body position as you go through your morning routine. You can use a noting word to bring that attention to the foreground. Note "walking" silently to yourself when you are walking. Note "standing, standing" when you are brushing your teeth. This brings you back here to this present moment.
Once again the Buddha also instructs us to know the postures in our own bodies, the bodies of others, and the bodies of ourselves and others, and to know the body simply as the body, without adding anything else to it. It is just this body or that body, walking, standing, sitting, or lying down.
Extend this awareness to everything that you do. When you move your arm, know that you are moving your arm. There was once a monk who was giving a Dharma talk. Suddenly he stopped talking, pulled his arm into his body and then extended it back out. When someone asked him what he was doing, he said that he had reflexively and unmindfully moved his arm during the talk, so he went back and repeated that motion with mindfulness.
And finally, there is that word again, clinging: "he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world". This is awareness - at all times - of the body, but without attachment, and without adding anything to it. This is the meaning of "the body as a body".
3. Mindfulness of the Body Parts
Again, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu reviews this same body up from the soles of the feet and down from the top of the hair, bounded 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, intestines, mesentery, contents of the stomach, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints, and urine.’ Just as though there were a bag with an opening at both ends full of many sorts of grain, such as hill rice, red rice, beans, peas, millet, and white rice, and a man with good eyes were to open it and review it thus: ‘This is hill rice, this is red rice, these are beans, these are peas, this is millet, this is white rice’; so too, a bhikkhu reviews this same body…as full of many kinds of impurity thus: ‘In this body there are head-hairs…and urine.’
In this way he abides contemplating the body as a body internally, externally, and both internally and externally… And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body. - [MN 10.10-11]
Lest there be any confusion about the point of this exercise, in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta this section is subtitled "Foulness (of the body parts)". This practice is designed to reduce clinging and attachment to our bodies, as well as the bodies of others. The next time you see someone who you find attractive, start contemplating their body in this way. Those beautiful eyes? Imagine they have been removed and are lying on the table. That beautiful skin? Mentally peel it off and see what is underneath.
Clearly you must do this practice thoughtfully and wisely, and not with aversion. If aversion is a problem, return to the pleasantness of the breath, or switch to metta practice.
In the famous "Vesali Sutta: At Vesali" [SN 54.9] the Buddha encouraged his monks to contemplate the foulness of the body. The Buddha then went into seclusion. During the Buddha's time in seclusion many monks, having become disgusted with their bodies, committed suicide. Please, don't do that.
When the Buddha emerged from seclusion, he asked why the community of monks was so depleted. When they tell him what happened, he repeated the instructions in the first section on body practice. He encouraged them to do what I am encouraging you to do, and that is to establish a sense of well-being:
It is in this way, bhikkhus, that concentration by mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated so that it is peaceful and sublime, an ambrosial pleasant dwelling, and it disperses and quells on the spot evil unwholesome states whenever they arise. - [SN 54.9]
This practice on the foulness of the body needs a foundation of calm, tranquility, serenity, and well-being. Then you can see into the nature of the body.
Bhikkhu Bodhi says that in Sri Lanka the medical examiners know about this practice, and they let the monks sit in while they do autopsies. That is one way to think about it, the way a doctor would.
There is a logistical problem with this practice and that is simply remembering the body parts. You can use a cheat sheet and keep it in front of you while you are meditating. And it is not so important that you remember every body part exactly as it is in the sutta.
Another way to do this practice is with a guided meditation. There is good one by the Buddhist nun Ayya Khema (Internet search: "Body Parts Ayya Khema").
Doing this practice without aversion is very helpful in reducing bodily attachment. It is also helpful when sensual desire arises. Remember its purpose. It is an antidote to bodily attachment and to sense desire. Thus, this practice will be most helpful if you think that you are attractive, or if you have a lot of sensual - especially sexual - desire.
(Having said that, being characteristically out of step, sometimes when I do this practice I am struck by what an amazing mechanism the human body is. I have had my share of physical problems, and sometimes it seems like the body never works properly. But when I do this practice it seems like a miracle that the thing ever worked to begin with.)
4. Mindfulness of the Elements
Again, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu reviews this same body, however it is placed, however disposed, by way of elements thus: ‘In this body there are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element.’ Just as though a skilled butcher or his apprentice had killed a cow and was seated at the crossroads with it cut up into pieces; so too, a bhikkhu reviews this same body…by way of elements thus: ‘In this body there are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element.’
In this way he abides contemplating the body as a body internally, externally, and both internally and externally…And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body. - [MN 10.12-13]
Another way to contemplate the nature of the body is even more basic than the body parts, and that is the four elements. There is more wisdom to this than may be apparent to a modern reader. At first glance it may look like ancient alchemy. But the four elements represent qualities of our bodies that are true for all objects in the universe. Further, they represent a way in which we experience the world.
The four elements are:
- The earth element, or solidity.
- The water element, or liquidity. In ancient India, the water element was also seen as having the property of cohesion, or binding, in the sense of how water acts as a binding agent in dough.
- The fire element, or heat. The fire element also has the sense of energy.
- The air element, or wind. The air element also has the property of movement.
You can see and feel all these elements in your own body. When you sit on the cushion you feel the solidity of your body as it rests on the cushion. In your mouth you feel saliva, you feel the blood pumping through your body. This is the water element. The heat in your body is the fire element. The breath is the air element. The movement of the body is also the air element.
This practice is particularly interesting when you practice "internally and externally". Now you do not even need another body to see the same phenomena externally. The solidity of your body is the same property as the solidity of the floor and the earth. The liquidity of your body is the same as the rivers, streams and oceans. The heat element is the same as the heat from the sun or a fire. The wind element is the same as the wind itself. Your body has the same nature as nature itself. And when you die, those elements will not disappear, they will simply go back to being part of the cosmos.
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
- [King James Bible, Genesis 3:19]
One way to work with this practice is to take each element, and then see that element in your life. It may be something happening right now, or something that happened in the past. Then see how it is the same. If you are sitting on the floor, see and feel the solidity in your body, and then see and feel it in the floor or the cushion. See if you can dissolve the boundary between the two, so that there is only "solidity".
Now move on to the water element. See the water element around you, or in a place where you have experienced the water element. Think of rivers, streams, the ocean, anywhere where the water element exists. See the water element in your body, and see how it is the same inside and out, internally and externally. You can also look at the elements in your body and the bodies of others, people and animals. It is the same element. See if you can dissolve the boundary.
Then look at the fire element. Imagine the sun bathing you in warmth. Feel the coolness of the shade. Feel the warmth of another. Dissolve the boundary between the warmth and energy around you and that in your body.
The air element is everywhere. We cannot live without it. A tiny portion of the earth's atmosphere is always inside of our lungs. Some of it is inside of our mouths. It is the same air, inside and out. The air element binds us to the earth's atmosphere. When the wind blows, we feel its movement on our skin. When we move - even in still air - we feel that movement also.
In some places in the Pāli canon (DN 33, MN 140, and SN 27.9) the Buddha describes two additional elements, space and consciousness. We know from science that even our apparently solid bodies are mostly empty space. Unlike some of the other elements, space is literally everywhere. The space in our bodies is the same space that stretches out to the limits of the universe. One of the formless attainments is the infinity of space, where the boundary between the space within you and outside of you disappears.
All of these five elements would not comprise a human being without the consciousness element. As with the space element, consciousness is infinite. Another of the formless attainments is the infinity of consciousness, where - as with space - the boundary between your "limited" consciousness and infinite consciousness disappears. Infinite consciousness is the consciousness that is aware of infinite space.
Another way to practice with the elements is when you feel stress. If you are arguing with someone, or you are upset by a news story - it could be anything - look into the elemental nature of your body and mind. See yourself as these elements. Then ask yourself, who is upset? What is upset? How are these elements being threatened? Does that even matter?
I have a dear Dharma sister who once told me how valuable this practice is for her. I did not say anything because I had never gotten much out of it. But finally I began to work with it and I had wonderful results.
This is very common in meditation practice, and this is why you need to return to practices that did not seem useful before. There is always something new to learn. That is what meditation practice is all about. Of course, sometimes the mind is not ready for a lesson. You don't start learning mathematics by taking Calculus. When the mind is ready, it will let you know.
Meditation is a lifelong activity. The Buddha did not stop meditating after he became enlightened. This practice is like science. A scientist would never say, "OK. I'm done. We know everything". There is always more to learn. Some Arahants only work with the formless attainments after they are fully Awakened. Even for a Buddha, there is more to learn.
In doing the research for this section, I ran into many teachings on this subjects, most of which I found unsatisfactory. Many of them are incredibly over-analyzed. Notice the Buddha's instructions at the beginning of this section. They are pretty simple, and pretty straight-forward. I have already said more about them then I should have. Do this practice and see what it yields for you. You may see things that are completely different than what I have described. See what is true for you.
Ayya Khema has a good guided meditation on the elements (Internet search: "Four Great Elements Ayya Khema"). Unfortunately it is cut short near the end, but of the many guided meditations that I have listened to on the elements, I think this is the best one.
5. The Corpse Contemplations
Again, bhikkhus, 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, a bhikkhu 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.’
In this way he abides contemplating the body as a body internally, externally, and both internally and externally…And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body.
Again, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals, or various kinds of worms, a bhikkhu 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.’
…That too is how a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body.
Again, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, 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-here a hand-bone, there a foot-bone, here a shin-bone, there a thigh-bone, here a hip-bone, there a back-bone, here a rib-bone, there a breast-bone, here an arm-bone, there a shoulder-bone, here a neck-bone, there a jaw-bone, here a tooth, there the skull-a bhikkhu 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.’
…That too is how a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body.
Again, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, bones bleached white, the color of shells… bones heaped up…bones more than a year old, rotted and crumbled to dust, a bhikkhu 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.’
In this way he abides contemplating the body as a body internally, or he abides contemplating the body as a body externally, or he abides contemplating the body as a body both internally and externally. Or else he abides contemplating in the body its nature of arising, or he abides contemplating in the body its nature of vanishing, or he abides contemplating in the body its nature of both arising and vanishing. Or else mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is simply established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and mindfulness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body. - [MN 10.14-31]
These are also called the "cemetery contemplations".
In the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, this section is labeled "The Nine Charnel Ground Contemplations". In India at that time, if you could not afford a cremation, your body was thrown into a "charnel ground" and left to rot. This provided an opportunity (!) to see what happens to a human body after death. Some monks would spend time living in a charnel ground.
As you can probably guess, this is a very challenging practice. Here we are seeing the body in its barest form. For each of these last few practices - contemplation of body parts, the elements, and now the corpse contemplations - the main purpose is to see clearly the nature of the body. In doing that, we may experience attachment and clinging, fear, and revulsion.
But imagine that you can really come to terms with those emotions. Ask yourself, why is it that Buddhist monks and nuns seem so happy? They do these practices.
Imagine a life where you are free from fear. Imagine a life where you do not cling to your physical form, your body. Imagine a life where you can look at a corpse, and see it with clarity, but without revulsion.
To do that, you must have a very healthy attitude about life. Instead of being sucked into a whirlpool of negative emotions, you can step back and view life from a greater perspective. Ṭhānissaro Bhikku compares this to using a telephoto lens, and zooming back just a bit. You have to put your life into a larger space.
Here is where a belief in rebirth is very helpful. Rebirth is a topic that everyone must deal with and come to terms with on their own. I practiced for 20 years before I dealt seriously with it, and came to believe that it is true.
But I am not going to try to convince you of the truth of rebirth, at least not here. But a more incremental step is to posit that it may be true, and to see what that does for your own personal health and happiness, and for your practice. Seeing that your own actions influence your future rebirths is certainly an incentive to be serious about them. And also - in the case of the corpse meditation - it can put this life and this body into a larger perspective.
According to the Buddhist tradition, we have had limitless lives through limitless time. We have been men, women, strong, weak, every race, color and creed, animals, ghosts, gods, and so forth. We have been kind and cruel, loving and hateful, generous and stingy. It is all there. We have died and had our bodies wither away an infinite number of times. And so it will be again in this life.
The Buddha's path offers us two possibilities. The first is to be happier in this time and in future lifetimes. The second is to become free from the uncertainty and risk of the rounds of rebirth altogether.
So as you do these contemplations, put them into the space of infinite time. It is like that New Yorker cartoon of the New Yorker's view of the world, where New York is huge, and way in the distance is this little island called "Japan". That is how we usually look at our lives. Our lives are like New York. Everything else is Japan.
But now zoom back with that lens. Make New York fit into a bigger space. What does your life - New York - look like from the moon? Mars? Pluto? This enormous, overwhelming thing we call "this very life" is now just one of very, very many.
This makes our current life both more and less important. It is more important because we have this priceless opportunity to practice, to make this life and future lives really count for something. It makes this life less important because this is not all there is. This life is part of a very, very long continuum. In the scheme of things it will come and go, and our 80 years - or whatever it is - that we live will disappear in the vastness of time. Five lives from now what happens to this particular body will hardly seem relevant, like that toy we were so attached to as a child and now we can hardly remember.
As to the mechanics of doing this practice, it will be hard for most people to visualize the stages of corpse decomposition. Here are the stages as described by the Buddha:
- "Furthermore, bhikkhus, 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, a bhikku 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.'"
- "Again, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals, or various kinds of worms, a bhikkhu 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.’"
- "Again, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, a skeleton with flesh and blood, held together with sinews..".
- "Again, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, sinews...a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, held together with sinews..".
- "Again, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, a skeleton without flesh and blood, held together by sinews..".
- "Again, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, disconnected bones scattered in all directions-here a hand-bone, there a foot-bone, here a shin-bone, there a thigh-bone, here a hip-bone, there a back-bone, here a rib-bone, there a breast-bone, here an arm-bone, there a shoulder-bone, here a neck-bone, there a jaw-bone, here a tooth, there the skull-"
- "Again, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, bones bleached white, the color of shells…"
- "Again, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, bones heaped up..".
- "Again, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, bones more than a year old, rotted and crumbled to dust, a bhikkhu 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.’"
(Note that in the initial quote some of the passages have been omitted. In the listing here they have been re-inserted.)
And here is the Reader's Digest version:
- Body swollen
- Body devoured by crows
- Skeleton with flesh and blood
- Fleshless skeleton smeared with blood
- Skeleton without flesh and blood
- Disconnected bones scattered in all directions
- Bones bleached white
- Bones heaped up
- Bones turned to dust
On the Internet there are photographs of decaying corpses (Internet search: "buddha cemetery contemplations"). They will not map exactly to the stages of decay the Buddha describes, but they are close. However - again - please use good judgment. This is a very advanced practice. The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta was addressed to a community of monks, people who had already made a big commitment to this practice. Even then, as we have seen, some of the Buddha's own monks became so repulsed by their bodies that they committed suicide.
This can be a very powerful practice. In Thailand you can buy photographs of decaying corpses. Monks often buy them and keep them with them. They may put a photograph on the table at mealtime. Although it may be counter-intuitive, this practice can help you to overcome one of the greatest fears that people have, and that is the fear of death.
The Second Foundation of Mindfulness - Feelings
And how, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu abide contemplating feelings as feelings? Here, when feeling a pleasant feeling, a bhikkhu understands: ‘I feel a pleasant feeling’; when feeling a painful feeling, he understands: ‘I feel a painful feeling’; when feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, he understands: ‘I feel a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.’ When feeling a worldly pleasant feeling, he understands: ‘I feel a worldly pleasant feeling’; when feeling an unworldly pleasant feeling, he understands: ‘I feel an unworldly pleasant feeling’; when feeling a worldly painful feeling, he understands: ‘I feel a worldly painful feeling’; when feeling an unworldly painful feeling, he understands: ‘I feel an unworldly painful feeling’; when feeling a worldly neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, he understands: ‘I feel a worldly neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling’; when feeling an unworldly neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, he understands: ‘I feel an unworldly neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.’
In this way he abides contemplating mind as mind internally, or he abides contemplating mind as mind externally, or he abides contemplating mind as mind both internally and externally. Or else he abides contemplating in mind its nature of arising, or he abides contemplating in mind its nature of vanishing, or he abides contemplating in mind its nature of both arising and vanishing. Or else mindfulness that ‘there is mind’ is simply established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and mindfulness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That is how a bhikkhu abides contemplating mind as mind. - [MN 10.32]
Worldly feelings cause sense desire, and guarding the sense doors is a way to abandon it. Unworldly desire is to be cultivated. Unworldly pleasant feelings come from serenity. Unworldly unpleasant feelings motivate us to practice. It is the angst we feel because we feel stress and want to be free from it. Unworldly neutral feelings are the quality of equanimity, which is the primary factor of the fourth jhāna.
Thus for pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings, each has a worldly aspect and an unworldly aspect. This makes for six types of feelings.
The practice of the second foundation of mindfulness is to be aware of feelings as they arise in the mind. Most of the time we are experiencing neutral worldly feelings. Become sensitive to that. When a pleasant feeling arises, see that. Likewise with unpleasant feelings. You can use a silent, mental label, like "pleasant". You can also see what the mind does with it. You can see how the mind takes pleasant feelings and turns them into objects of desire, and unpleasant feelings and turns them into objects of aversion.
You can either make this your main practice, or make it part of a more general mindfulness. You may be doing breath practice, for example, and may notice the feeling tone of a sense contact. See it, and return to the breath. Or you may spend the entire sitting just noting feelings.
Likewise, for unworldly sensations, note them as well. In particular, you may notice pleasant sensations, like tingling, or a moment where the mind gets very quiet and serene. Let these feelings bathe the body.
You can also use this knowledge to cultivate the mind. If you feel unpleasant sensations, look a place in the body that feels pleasant. If the mind is too highly charged, look for a place that is neutral, more equanimous. That can make the mind calmer, and bring the energy level down.
This sutta has many "stock passages". Each of the practices in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta follows the same formula. The object of meditation is 1) to be contemplated internally, 2) externally, and 3) internally and externally. This contemplation is done, in this case, contemplating "feelings as feelings", that is, with nothing added. This is sometimes translated as "feelings in and of themselves".
The next step is 4) to see into the arising and passing away of the object, to see its transient nature. In the case of the body, the body itself will grow old, die, and decompose. In the case of the breath, each breath has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the case of feelings, they come and go like waves on the beach, one feeling giving way to the next.
This leads to the fifth step:
Or else mindfulness that ‘there is mind’ is simply established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and mindfulness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world.
Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu describes it this way:
This stage corresponds to a mode of perception that in the "Cūḷasuññata Sutta, The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness" [MN 121] the Buddha calls "entry into emptiness":
"Thus he regards it [this mode of perception] as empty of whatever is not there. Whatever remains, he discerns as present: 'there is this.'"
This is the culminating equipoise where the path of the practice opens to a state of non-fashioning and from there to the fruit of Awakening and release.
- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, "Maha-satipatthana Sutta: The Great Frames of Reference"]
The Third Foundation of Mindfulness - Mind
And how, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu abide contemplating mind as mind? Here a bhikkhu understands mind affected by lust as mind affected by lust, and mind unaffected by lust as mind unaffected by lust. He understands mind affected by hate as mind affected by hate, and mind unaffected by hate as mind unaffected by hate. He understands mind affected by delusion as mind affected by delusion, and mind unaffected by delusion as mind unaffected by delusion. He understands contracted mind as contracted mind, and distracted mind as distracted mind. He understands exalted mind as exalted mind, and unexalted mind as unexalted mind. He understands surpassed mind as surpassed mind, and unsurpassed mind as unsurpassed mind. He understands concentrated mind as concentrated mind, and unconcentrated mind as unconcentrated mind. He understands liberated mind as liberated mind, and unliberated mind as unliberated mind.
In this way he abides contemplating mind as mind internally, or he abides contemplating mind as mind externally, or he abides contemplating mind as mind both internally and externally. Or else he abides contemplating in mind its nature of arising, or he abides contemplating in mind its nature of vanishing, or he abides contemplating in mind its nature of both arising and vanishing. Or else mindfulness that ‘there is mind’ is simply established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and mindfulness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That is how a bhikkhu abides contemplating mind as mind. - [MN 10.34-35]
The Buddha here gives us mind states to note, most of which are paired:
Bhikkhu Bodhi says this about some of the terms:
The paired examples of citta ("mind states") given in this passage contrast states of mind of wholesome and unwholesome, or developed and undeveloped character. An exception, however, is the pair “contracted” and “distracted,” which are both unwholesome, the former due to sloth and torpor, the latter due to restlessness and remorse. (Majjhima Nikāya Aṭṭhakathā explains “exalted mind” and “unsurpassed mind” as the mind pertaining to the level of the jhānas and immaterial meditative attainments, and “unexalted mind” and “surpassed mind” as the mind pertaining to the level of sense-sphere consciousness.) “Liberated mind” must be understood as a mind temporarily and partly freed from defilements through insight or the jhānas. Since the practice of satipaṭṭhāna pertains to the preliminary phase of the path aimed at the supramundane paths of deliverance, this last category should not be understood as a mind liberated through attainment of the supramundane paths.
- [Bhikkhu Bodhi, Majjhima Nikāya, Introduction]
The explanation that Bhikkhu Bodhi gives here for the contracted mind comes from the Pāli commentaries. This is not quite how I understand it. Think about what the opposite of a contracted mind is, and that is an expansive mind. An expansive mind is like that zoom lens being backed off to get a wider perspective. A contracted mind has trouble getting out of its own way. You get locked into such a narrow view that you cannot see the big picture. This can cause a lot of angst. You get really wrapped up in yourself. An extreme case is depression.
The other terms, like "exalted", "surpassed", etc. are technical terms, but if you experience them in a different way, do not let me, the commentaries or anyone else dissuade you from that.
The Buddha tells us to see when any of the three poisons are absent. Usually we look for what is there. In this case we are told to see what is missing. This is a key point. When the poisons are missing, this is a mind state to be cultivated. It is also a fruit of the practice. It is a reward. See when the practice is working, and take satisfaction in that.
As we work toward attaining jhāna, the experiences of the mind as exalted, unsurpassed, and liberated will take on more meaning. This is a sign that the practice is working. It may be inconsistent and sporadic, but it is there. First you get that old truck started, and then you work on getting it to run smoothly.
As with feelings, you can note these states as they arise, or you can spend your entire sitting noting them. And as with the other foundations of mindfulness, you see them first "in and of themselves", then "arising and vanishing", and finally "with bare knowledge and mindfulness, not clinging to anything in the world".
The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness - Mind Objects
The fourth foundation of mindfulness is sometimes left untranslated as "dharmas" (Pāli: dhamma). The word "dharma" has multiple uses. In its most common use it means - literally - "doctrine". More colloquially it means the teachings of the Buddha. In this context the convention is to capitalize it, a.k.a., "Dharma".
In a larger sense, the word "dharma" also means "how things are", i.e., the nature of reality. In ancient India that would have also meant how to behave. You understand the world to be a certain way, and then act in a way that is consistent with that understanding. If you think about it you can see that everyone has a dharma. Some dharmas are good, and some of them are bad.
A third way meaning for the word "dharma" is "phenomena". Everything that arises and passes away is a "dharma". When the mind is distracted, some sense event triggers the distraction. The distraction arises and passes away. This is a "dharma".
The fourth foundation of mindfulness has the most differences in different versions of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. Two of the three versions list the hindrances. One - the Pāli version - lists the Four Noble Truths. (This does not make any sense to me.) Two list the sense spheres, which I think belong to the teaching on "dependent co-arising". The Pāli version also lists the aggregates, which also does not make sense to me.
What does make the most sense to me is the hindrances and the factors of Awakening. The hindrances are to be abandoned, the factors of Awakening are to be developed. And that is what I will concentrate on here.
1. The Hindrances
And how, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu abide contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects? Here a bhikkhu abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects in terms of the five hindrances. And how does a bhikkhu abide contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects in terms of the five hindrances? Here, there being sensual desire in him, a bhikkhu understands: ‘There is sensual desire in me’; or there being no sensual desire in him, he understands: ‘There is no sensual desire in me’; and he also understands how there comes to be the arising of unarisen sensual desire, and how there comes to be the abandoning of arisen sensual desire, and how there comes to be the future non-arising of abandoned sensual desire.’
There being ill will in him…There being sloth and torpor in him…There being restlessness and remorse in him…There being doubt in him, a bhikkhu understands: ‘There is doubt in me’; or there being no doubt in him, he understands: ‘There is no doubt in me’; and he understands how there comes to be the arising of unarisen doubt, and how there comes to be the abandoning of arisen doubt, and how there comes to be the future non-arising of abandoned doubt.
In this way he abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects internally, or he abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects externally, or he abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects both internally and externally. Or else he abides contemplating in mind-objects their nature of arising, or he abides contemplating in mind-objects their nature of vanishing, or he abides contemplating in mind-objects their nature of both arising and vanishing. Or else mindfulness that ‘there are mind-objects’ is simply established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and mindfulness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That is how a bhikkhu abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects in terms of the five hindrances. - [MN 10.36-37]
The hindrances have already been discussed in the section on Problems While Meditating. Here the most important point is to see them juxtaposed with the Factors of Awakening. Meditation is commonly taught as a neutral kind of experience, one where you simply note phenomena as they arise and pass away. There certainly is that aspect to meditation, As we have seen in the stock phrase, that is one of the practices that the Buddha advises us to do.
But that is just one aspect to meditation. If that is all there was, you would simply note the arising and passing away of unskillful mind states. You would never develop the path. After all, as the Buddha tells us, the path is to be developed:
This noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering is to be developed. - [SN 56.11]
Thus, working with the hindrances is not simply a case of seeing them. To be sure, sometimes simply seeing will make them go away. If the hindrance is weak, that may happen.
But sometimes the hindrance is strong. We have to apply an antidote to the hindrance. Sometimes we have a "multiple hindrance attack". Panic can set in. In these cases you need an antidote. If the first thing you try does not work, try another one. Walking meditation can help when there is a strong hindrance attack. As mentioned in the last section, you can find a place in the body that feels pleasant, and let the mind settle there. Change your breathing. Make it slower and more deep, or make it fast and shallow. Make it deep on the in-breath and short on the out-breath. Make it short on the in-breath and long on the out-breath. Invent a new kind of breathing. Practice metta. Practice sweeping. Try breath counting. You have a lot of tools with which to work. And finally, if nothing else seems to work, then try to simply watch it. Detach yourself from the experience as much as you can.
This is a skill. As the Buddha tells us, the objective is to abandon all the hindrances, not just be with them.
2. The Factors of Awakening
Again, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects in terms of the seven enlightenment factors. And how does a bhikkhu abide contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects in terms of the seven enlightenment factors? Here, there being the mindfulness enlightenment factor in him, a bhikkhu understands: ‘There is the mindfulness enlightenment factor in me’; or there being no mindfulness enlightenment factor in him, he understands: ‘There is no mindfulness enlightenment factor in me’; and he also understands how there comes to be the arising of the unarisen mindfulness enlightenment factor, and how the arisen mindfulness enlightenment factor comes to fulfillment arisen mindfulness enlightenment factor comes to fulfillment by development.
There being the investigation-of-states enlightenment factor in him...There being the energy enlightenment factor in him…There being the rapture enlightenment factor in him…There being the tranquility enlightenment factor in him…There being the concentration enlightenment factor in him…There being the equanimity enlightenment factor in him, a bhikkhu understands: ‘There is the equanimity enlightenment factor in me’; or there being no equanimity enlightenment factor in him, he understands: ‘There is no equanimity enlightenment factor in me’; and he also understands how there comes to be the arising of the unarisen equanimity enlightenment factor, and how the arisen equanimity enlightenment factor comes to fulfillment by development.
In this way he abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects internally, externally, and both internally and externally…And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That is how a bhikkhu abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects in terms of the seven enlightenment factors. - [MN 10.42-43]
Of all the teachings of the Buddha, I think that those on the Factors of Awakening are the least appreciated, and the least often taught. In a nutshell, if you can abandon the hindrances and fully develop the Factors of Awakening, you would be enlightened, or at least on the cusp of it.
The seven factors are divided into three groups, depending on the energy level of the mind and body. The factor that is useful regardless of the energy level is:
The factors that are most helpful when the mind is sluggish are:
- investigation of states
The factors that are most helpful when the mind is overly active are:
The meaning of mindfulness has already been covered in the section on Right Mindfulness in the section on the Four Noble Truths. But perhaps a few more comments are in order at this point.
By now you know a great deal about the Buddha's teachings. And now, perhaps, you can appreciate the true meaning of mindfulness. Meditation is purposeful activity. When you sit down, it is worth bringing to mind the foundation on which you practice, which is right view. You keep in mind the object of meditation, the practice that you are doing. And you bring to mind your own knowledge and experience, what has worked for you in the past and what has not worked for you. If you are "just sitting", you are doing what Thich Nhat Hanh calls "wasting your time on the cushion".
Meditation is not something you do while mentally making dinner reservations or reminding yourself to stop for milk on the way home. And it is not just watching the world go by. This is a training. Skillful mind states are to be developed; unskillful mind states are to be abandoned. Your intention must be wholesome. As the Buddha puts it, your actions must be rooted in non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion. Your attention must be fully present, and you must bring energy and ardency to the fore. And for the countless times when those things do not come together, and you have to remind yourself to come back to the breath, you do it with love and compassion for yourself. What you are doing has skill and merit.
A sense of humor helps, too.
(For a very complete description of right mindfulness, see Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu's book, Right Mindfulness.)
2. Investigation of States
Abiding thus mindful, he investigates and examines that [mind] state with wisdom and embarks upon a full inquiry into it. On whatever occasion, abiding thus mindful, a bhikkhu investigates and examines that state with wisdom and embarks upon a full inquiry into it-on that occasion the investigation-of-states enlightenment factor is aroused in him, and he develops it, and by development it comes to fulfilment in him. - [MN 118.31]
This passage is rich with meaning. It starts with a context of having established mindfulness. Having done so, one looks at the mind "with wisdom" and "embarks on a full inquiry into it".
Thus we see that we are not just watching events pass by. We are starting "with wisdom" - right view - and then we are asking questions. What is going on? What activity is asserting itself most strongly? Do we keep coming back to the same thought over and over again? What is that all about?
How is the mind? Is it sluggish? Focused? Calm? Serene? Do I need to make an adjustment? Does the mind need more energy? Less?
Meditation is very much about balance and calibration. What does the mind need? Anything? Perhaps it is focused, calm, and steady. If it is, keep it there.
Like so many of the Buddha's instructions, the investigation-of-states factor can be actively pursued, or it may arise naturally. Both have value. When it arises naturally, that is something to see, too. Suddenly what is going on in the mind becomes really interesting. You can play with it and see what happens.
Once when I was on retreat I had a lot of hip pain. But I was pretty focused at the time, and started watching the sensations in the hip. A reasonable level of concentration helped me to cut through the mind's wanting to make the unpleasant sensations into a big problem. I started watching the sensations come and go, and move around. When the bell rang to end the session, I was so wrapped up in what I was seeing that I just kept sitting.
This is investigation-of-states.
In one who investigates and examines that state with wisdom and embarks upon a full inquiry into it, tireless energy is aroused. On whatever occasion tireless energy is aroused in a bhikkhu who investigates and examines that state with wisdom and embarks upon a full inquiry into it-on that occasion the energy enlightenment factor is aroused in him, and he develops it, and by development it comes to fulfillment in him. - [MN 118.32]
Thus, this sense of inquiry leads to energy.
Energy is a fascinating topic in Buddhist practice. I once read a story about a Buddhist monk who did not sleep for several years. The Buddha himself is said to have only slept one hour a night. When I first heard these stories I thought they were urban legend.
But then I went on a long retreat, and by the end of it I was only sleeping 6 hours a night. I had always needed at least 8 hours of sleep a night, and often more. Still, I had plenty of energy. But I was concerned because the retreat was ending, and I had a long drive ahead of me the next day and work the day after that.
It turned out I was fine. I drove home, and even stayed up late that night and was up early the next morning.
One of my favorite Buddhist monks only sleeps two hours a night. This shows the kind of power that a deep meditation practice can have. We spend so much of our lives under stress, and when that stress is greatly reduced, all kinds of things become possible.
Keep the energy balanced. Too much energy is the hindrance of restlessness. Too little is the hindrance of sloth.
Use common sense when dealing with your energy level. When you are restless, consider what you can do about it. Sometimes deep breathing helps. Sometimes short breaths help.
If you are working with a high energy practice like investigation-of-states, switch to something more calming. Sweeping may help. Simply following the breath may help. Finding your "beautiful breath" may help. Ask yourself, what kind of breathing would feel really good right now?
There may be tension in one part of the body causing restlessness. Try breathing into that area. You can change postures. Some people consider changing postures to be a mortal sin, but if it is done mindfully and in service to your practice, it can be very helpful.
Walking meditation can also help. And while walking, try different paces. If you feel sluggish, start with fast walking. If you are restless, sometimes fast walking works well, and sometimes slow walking works. See what works for you.
There is a related subject to energy and that is how long you sit. The convention is to sit for 45 minutes or an hour, and to walk for 30-45 minutes.
But during the Buddha's time they did not do this. They would simply meditate. And there are monasteries that follow the old convention. The meditation period is several hours. You sit when you want and you walk when you want. Personally I prefer this style. Granted, it can cause some distractions for the other people in the retreat, but this is an opportunity for you to move silently, and for the other meditators to breath through the sounds.
The advantage to this approach is that it is another way to learn. You may think that 3 hours is forever, but you may be surprised at how long you can sit with practice and training. I know people who sit this long and longer. And it is actually quite interesting to see the ebbs and flows of practice over a longer period of time.
There is no right or wrong way. You do what works for you. But consider a different way to practice, one that may have some additional challenges, but also some additional benefits. If you think you cannot do something, you never will.
As for restlessness' counterpart - sloth and torpor - in Problems While Meditating you may recall that the Buddha has a whole Discourse on Dozing [AN 7:58].
Ultimately, it is up to you to use your wisdom, and your own practical understanding of your own mind. No one knows your mind as well as you do. And if you need to splash some water on your face or get some sleep, trust your own discernment and your own best judgment.
In one who has aroused energy, unworldly rapture arises. On whatever occasion unworldly rapture arises in a bhikkhu who has aroused energy- on that occasion the rapture enlightenment factor is aroused in him, and he develops it, and by development it comes to fulfillment in him. - [MN 118.33]
The Pāli word that is translated here as "rapture" is "pīti". It is also sometimes translated as "joy". But the literal translation is not as important as the experience of it. Pīti is the technical term for a meditative state, one that is the most important factor of the first jhāna. Note that the Buddha uses the phrase "unworldy rapture", thus we know this is a reference to jhāna.
In the next section - on concentration - we will discuss how to enter the first jhāna. But for now, simply know that this is where we are headed. As the mind becomes ever more calm, the thought-making process will slow down, thoughts will become a mere whisper. This will manifest in the body as an energy flow. You may feel tingling and pleasant sensations. This will flood over the whole body. This is the experience of pīti in the first jhāna. It is one of the fruits of practice.
Do not be afraid of this experience. Remember, the Buddha tells us to develop this quality. It is one of the Factors of Awakening.
In one who is rapturous, the body and the mind become tranquil. On whatever occasion the body and the mind become tranquil in a bhikkhu who is rapturous-on that occasion the tranquility enlightenment factor is aroused in him, and he develops it, and by development it comes to fulfillment in him. - [MN 118.34]
By now we are immersed in the world of jhāna, meditative absorption. Rapture is highly energized. Different people experience it differently. People who need this type of positive experience will have very strong rapture, perhaps overwhelmingly so. For others it may be more mild.
This highly energized state can be quite exhausting. It is like when you laugh a lot. At first it feels good, but after a while you are just worn out.
In the first jhāna the hindrances disappear. You can look for them, but you will not find them. To be sure, this is a conditioned state, so when you leave jhāna the hindrances will return. But it is a taste of the possibilities that come with a full Awakening.
As for tranquility, you may recall that in the Buddha's description of dependent co-arising, in the reverse chain - the one that leads to liberation - rapture is a "proximate cause" of tranquility:
...with rapture as proximate cause, tranquility; - [SN 12.23]
Here, the overly energized state of pīti fades. This leads to a much calmer state of mind. You may experience a profound stillness, contentment, happiness:
Tranquillity, by removing the subtle bodily and mental disturbances connected with gladness and rapture, brings the serene pleasure that prepares the mind for deepened concentration.
- [Bhikkhu Bodhi, Majjhima Nikāya, Introduction]
And that leads to the next Factor of Awakening...
The Pāli word for "concentration" is "samadhi". While "right concentration" refers to jhāna, samadhi specifically refers to a state of mind that is "one-pointed" (i.e, "singleness of mind"). This is a factor of the second jhāna:
Again, with the stilling of applied and sustained thought, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the second jhāna, which has self-confidence and singleness of mind without applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of concentration. This bhikkhu is said to have blindfolded Māra… - [MN 26.35]
And finally, concentration leads to the quality of equanimity, which is a factor of the third and fourth jhānas...
Again, with the fading away as well of rapture, a bhikkhu abides in equanimity, and mindful and fully aware, still feeling pleasure with the body, he enters upon and abides in the third jhāna, on account of which noble ones announce: ‘He has a pleasant abiding who has equanimity and is mindful.’ This bhikkhu is said to have blindfolded Māra…
Again, with the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance of joy and grief, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the fourth jhāna, which has neither-pain-nor-pleasure and purity of mindfulness due to equanimity. This bhikkhu is said to have blindfolded Māra… - [MN 26.36-37]
Equanimity is a liberated state. It is a taste of the promise of full Awakening. The mind is free of the tug-of-war between craving and aversion. The mind can sit calmly in the midst of experience. You see how much stress craving and aversion create. And apropos of the need for sleep, once you are not spending your entire day burning up energy from stress, the mind does not need as much rest.
In this chapter we looked at the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
- The body.
- The mind.
- Mind objects (dharmas).
For the body, we discussed five practices:
- Mindfulness of breathing
- Mindfulness of postures
- Mindfulness of body parts
- Mindfulness of the elements
- The corpse contemplations
We discussed the six types of feelings, that worldy feelings are to be guarded, and unworldly feelings are to be cultivated.
We discussed the 9 unwholesome mind states - which are to be abandoned - and the 7 wholesome mind states that are to be cultivated.
Finally we discussed the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, "mind objects", or "dharmas". We concentrated on the hindrances - which are to be abandoned - and the Factors of Awakening, which are to be cultivated.