May this new year bring us all deepening understanding and compassion amidst the conflict and turmoil of our times.
What is the Satipatthana Sutta, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness?
According to Bhikku Bodhi:
“The Satipatthana Sutta, the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, is generally regarded as the canonical Buddhist text with the fullest instructions on the system of meditation unique to the Buddha’s own dispensation. The practice of Satipatthana meditation centers on the methodical cultivation of one simple mental faculty readily available to all of us at any moment. This is the faculty of mindfulness, the capacity for attending to the content of our experience as it becomes manifest in the immediate present. What the Buddha shows in the sutta is the tremendous, but generally hidden, power inherent in this simple mental function, a power that can unfold all the mind’s potentials culminating in final deliverance from suffering.
“To exercise this power, however, mindfulness must be systematically cultivated, and the sutta shows exactly how this is to be done. The key to the practice is to combine energy, mindfulness, and clear comprehension in attending to the phenomena of mind and body summed up in the ‘four arousings of mindfulness’: body, feelings, consciousness, and mental objects.’”
To that end, on February 19th, 2020 we began studying and practicing with Joseph Goldstein’s Mindfulness- A Practical Guide to Awakening. Sharon Salzberg (author of Loving Kindness and other books) said, “This deeply significant work shows the path for mindfulness to become our closest friend.” Jack Kornfield (A Path with Heart and others) said, “this is a masterwork of wisdom, depth, and experience, combining careful analysis, meditative guidance, and great love.”
In his introduction, Goldstein says, “Over a dining room table, someone once asked me to define mindfulness in just a few words. Phrases like ‘living in the moment’ or ‘being present’ give a first intimation of what mindfulness is, but asking, ‘what is mindfulness?’ is a bit like asking, ‘what is art?’ or ‘what is love?’ Fully plumbing the depths of mindfulness requires time and exploration. There is a wealth of meaning and nuance in the experience of mindfulness that can enrich our lives in unimagined ways. This book is an attempt to mine these riches.”
A couple of further quotes from this book: In the body of the book there is the following paragraph, which is an example of a use of mindfulness that is important and fruitful, and is not what many people think of when they think of mindfulness. (The paragraph is from a section of the book on “hindrances.” The hindrances are certain negative mental states, not always obvious, that impede practice and peace of mind, and often lead to actions that are unskillful and cause further suffering.)
“It is revealing to notice the intimate relationship of thought and emotion. One often sparks the other, causing a chain reaction of mental proliferation. A certain thought arises, and if we’re not mindful of it as a thought, an emotion might quickly follow. The reverse can be true as well, with various emotions, including the hindrances, sometimes causing a flood of thoughts. But seeing this conditioned relationship over and ever again helps to weaken our identification with what is arising, and we understand on deeper levels the conditioned nature of the hindrances and other mind states. We no longer take them so personally.”
One more, a section about awakening compassion:
“Compassion arises out of our willingness to come close to suffering. The problem is that even though we may want to be compassionate, and perhaps often are, it is not always easy to open to the suffering that is present. And just as there are many times we don’t want to acknowledge and open to our own pain, we don’t necessarily want to be with the pain of others.
“There are strong tendencies in the mind that keep us defended, withdrawn, indifferent, or apathetic in the face of suffering. This indifference is often unacknowledged and is a great barrier to a compassionate response.
“As an experiment, watch your mind the next time you approach a situation of suffering. It might be some pain in the body of some emotional distress, like discontent, fear, unworthiness, jealousy, or loneliness. It might be an interaction with a difficult person, or a situation of suffering in the world – situations of racial injustice, political or religious violence, or of natural disasters. What happens as we face these situations, either in person or through the vivid images of the media? Do we feel uneasy? Do we withdraw? Do we numb ourselves? Do we let it in?
“The question for us is, how can our hearts stay open given the magnitude of suffering that exists in the world? Is it even possible to open to it all with compassion, diminishing the subtle cruelty of indifference? The challenge is not a theoretical one… Our practice is about the transformation of consciousness that makes compassionate responsiveness the default setting of our lives.
“Compassion requires both openness and equanimity. It requires learning to let things in without drowning in the difficulties and without being overcome by sorrow. It means learning to simply be with the truth of things as they are. This is the great gift of mindfulness that opens us to compassion. Being with the truth of what is present is what we do every time we open to our own pain or difficulty. As we practice opening to and coming close to the suffering in our own lives with compassion, we then have greater strength and courage to be with the suffering of others.”
The book can be found here:
In May we added two other resources to our exploration. At that time I said that there are a number of other commentaries on this sutra. The commentary I think might be most useful for those who find Goldstein’s work not as helpful as they might wish is the book by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (more briefly referred to by many as “Bhante G”) entitled The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English. I think it lives up to its title. It is available from several sources. Amazon’s “Look Inside” is here:
One more well-regarded commentary (got a good review from Joseph Goldstein…) is Analayo’s Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization, (a bit more on the scholarly side than Bhante G’s) with a “Look Inside” here:
I have previously mentioned Thich Nhat Hanh’s Transformation and Healing, which I see as a good complimentary text in many ways, but don’t see it as a good primary one, because some of the important parts of the sutra are addressed only briefly or not at all. There are also many places to buy this book. IF you want a “Look Inside,” you can go to:
Goldstein: “…As we settle into a growing awareness of ourselves, we begin to realize that our practice is not for ourselves alone, but can be for the benefit and happiness of all beings. How does our practice benefit others? How does feeling our breath or taking a mindful step help anyone else? It happens in several ways. The more we understand our own minds, the more we understand everyone else. We increasingly feel the commonality of our human condition, of what creates suffering and how we can be free.
Our practice also benefits others through the transformation of how we are in the world. If we’re more accepting, more peaceful, less judgmental, less selfish, then the whole world is that much more loving and peaceful, that much less judgmental and selfish…”
Nothing startling or difficult here, no rocket science involved. Simple, though not always easy. Just imagine though, what life might be like if living in this way was the norm. How can we get there? We start with ourselves.