Satipaṭṭhāna – setting up mindfulness

Posted: February 2, 2017 by pathpress in Dhamma Article

by Ven. Ariyavaṃsa

ekāyano ayaṃ, bhikkhave, maggo sattānaṃ visuddhiyā, sokaparidevānaṃ samatikkamāya, dukkhadomanassānaṃ atthaṅgamāya, ñāyassa adhigamāya, nibbānassa sacchikiriyāya, yadidaṃ cattāro satipaṭṭhānā.

Bhikkhus, this is the one-way path for the purification of beings, for passing beyond grief-&-lamentation, for setting down pain-&-displeasure, for the attainment of the method, for the realisation of Nibbāna—that is, the four ways to set up mindfulness.

MN 10

There is only one way to put an end to suffering and that is to attain the method (ñāya) which only the Buddha teaches. And what is this method?

katamo cassa ariyo ñāyo paññāya sudiṭṭho hoti suppaṭividdho? idha, gahapati, ariyasāvako paṭiccasamuppādaññeva sādhukaṃ yoniso manasi karoti—’iti imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti, imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti; imassuppādā idaṃ uppajjati, imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati. yadidaṃ avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārā; saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṃ … pe … evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti. avijjāya tveva asesavirāganirodhā saṅkhāranirodho; saṅkhāranirodhā viññāṇanirodho … pe … evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa nirodho hotī’”ti.

And which is the noble method that he has clearly seen and thoroughly penetrated with wisdom? Here, householder, the noble disciple attends closely and appropriately to dependent origination itself thus: “When this is, this is; when this is not, this is not. When this arises, this arises; when this ceases, this ceases.” That is, with ignorance as condition, determinations; with determinations as condition, consciousness… Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. But with the complete fading away and cessation of that very ignorance, cessation of determinations; with the cessation of determinations, cessation of consciousness… Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.

SN 12: 41

Only when mindfulness is set up in a way that allows one to see and penetrate paṭiccasamuppāda can it be said to be sammāsati, rather than micchāsati. This means that one must set up mindfulness not by focusing on a single object of meditation (as most people seem to believe) but in a way that allows one to attend to the simultaneous presence of two mutually dependent things (“When this is, this is”). Indeed, if one makes the effort to contemplate the nature of experience, one finds that the possibility of an experience of just one thing is inconceivable, and that there must be, at the very least, two things. As Merleau-Ponty showed, the idea that perception is built up out of single homogeneous “sensations” or “impressions” is mistaken. Any perception always involves two things: a figure on a background.

When Gestalt theory informs us that a figure on a background is the simplest sense-given available to us, we reply that this is not a contingent characteristic of factual perception, which leaves us free, in an ideal analysis, to bring in the notion of impressions. It is the very definition of the phenomenon of perception, that without which a phenomenon cannot be said to be perception at all. The perceptual ‘something’ is always in the middle of something else, it always forms part of a ‘field’.

Merleau-Ponty 2002: 4

Whatever one focuses on, one will always find that there is something else there that isn’t the central focus of attention. For as long as there is that which is central, there will also be that which is peripheral. For as long as there is that which is peripheral, there will also be that which is central. The very idea of “central” requires there to also be “peripheral”, and vice versa. With one comes the other. Therefore, for every thing that is attended to, there must be something else also present which is not that thing.1

What, then, is mindfulness and what are the two things which mindfulness reveals? In the suttas, we sometimes find the word sati defined as memory or recollection—mindfulness of the past.

katamañca, bhikkhave, satindriyaṃ? idha, bhikkhave, ariyasāvako satimā hoti paramena satinepakkena samannāgato, cirakatampi cirabhāsitampi saritā anussaritā.

And which is the faculty of mindfulness? Here, bhikkhus, the noble disciple is mindful, he is endowed with the highest mindfulness and discretion, he remembers and recalls what was done and what was said a long time ago.

SN 48: 10

Memory involves the presence of thoughts or images.2 Imagine, for example, that you bump into an old friend who you have not seen for a long time. You find that various memories of this person come to mind. The experience is comprised of at least two things: not only is there the presence of the actual person in front of you, but there is also your ‘past experience’ of this person, which is nothing other than the more or less elaborately organised collection of mental images that present themselves in this encounter.3 When one is mindful of the past, a thing is present, together with various images that relate to this thing’s past. However, mindfulness need not pertain to the past. In the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the word sati is used to refer to mindfulness of the present. In this case, a thing is present together with the reflexive knowledge that this thing is present. This reflexive knowledge is an image or thought of the thing which is present—and this image is another thing which is present. One finds both the present thing and its image together: two things, both simultaneously present.4

In the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta we find perhaps the most detailed description of what mindfulness of the present is and what we should attend to in order to set up mindulness properly. The Buddha tells us that there are four starting points which a bhikkhu can use to set up mindfulness: body, feeling, mind and thoughts.

1. kāyānupassanā (contemplation of body)

idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu kāye kāyānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā, vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṃ;

Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu dwells as an observer of body within body, ardent, aware, mindful, having removed covetousness-&-grief in regards to the world.

MN 10

For example, he is aware that he is breathing in. This is the situation in which he finds himself. But not only is there this situation of breathing in—there is also, included within this situation, this thought: “I am breathing in”. He observes the simultaneous presence of:

a) the situation: that I am breathing in
b) this particular phenomenon which is the thought: “I am breathing in”

If he focuses on the external (the situation that he is breathing in), the internal (the thought that: “I am breathing in”) is there, but peripheral. If he switches his attention to the internal, the external is now peripheral, though still present. Either way, whether it is central or peripheral, both are present in one way or another. In this way he is aware of body both-internally-and-externally and sees that if one is there, the other must also be there. He understands that if there were no general situation of him being there breathing in, then that thought: “I am breathing in” could not possibly arise. But at the same time, he also understands that if there were no thought: “I am breathing in”, it would not be possible for him to be aware of this situation of being there breathing in. With one comes the other. When one arises, the other necessarily arises, and when one of them disappears, the other must also disappear.

The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta gives a number of variations in which this principle of simultaneity can be discerned (e.g. recognising the different ways in which the breath can manifest; becoming aware of the feelings, mind or thoughts present while one breathes; attending to the knowledge of one’s bodily posture or bodily activities while that posture or activity is there) but the basic principle remains the same: with this, this.

In the final part of the section on kāyānupassanā we find the following passage:

atthi kāyo’ti vā panassa sati paccupaṭṭhitā hoti. yāvadeva ñāṇamattāya paṭissatimattāya anissito ca viharati, na ca kiñci loke upādiyati. evampi kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu kāye kāyānupassī viharati

Or else there is the presence of mindfulness that “There is body” to the extent necessary for the purpose of reflexive knowledge and he dwells independent and does not assume anything in the world. In this way, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu dwells contemplating body within body.

MN 10

Rather than focusing on the situation of breathing in or sitting down or eating food, he finds that he can attend to an even more general situation. The situation that he finds himself in—whether he breathes this way or that, whether he is sitting, standing or walking, whether he is sweeping leaves or chopping firewood—is that “There is body”. Any perception of body, any feeling that arises dependent upon body, anything he does with or because of that body—all of that can only be there because body is already given. All that can be said is “There is body”, for to say anything more than this would be to say too much. It is there, already given, having arisen of its own accord. And since it has arisen all on its own, so too it must pass away all on its own, at any moment. Therefore, body is aniccā. The noble disciple recognises that any other phenomenon simultaneously present within this situation of “There is body” is bound up with it, fully dependent upon it, and cannot possibly remain standing without it. Since the situation-as-a-whole is discerned as impermanent, so too anything more particular that is found within it—whether past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near—must also be impermanent.

iti ajjhattaṃ vā kāye kāyānupassī viharati, bahiddhā vā kāye kāyānupassī viharati, ajjhattabahiddhā vā kāye kāyānupassī viharati; samudayadhammānupassī vā kāyasmiṃ viharati, vayadhammānupassī vā kāyasmiṃ viharati, samudayavayadhammānupassī vā kāyasmiṃ viharati.

In this way he dwells as an observer of body within body internally, or he dwells as an observer of body within body externally, or he dwells as an observer of body within body both-internally-and-externally. He dwells as an observer of the nature of arising in regards to body, or he dwells as an observer of the nature of vanishing in regards to body, or he dwells as an observer of the nature of both-arising-and-vanishing in regards to body.

MN 10

2. vedanānupassanā (contemplation of feeling)

vedanāsu vedanānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā, vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṃ

Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu dwells as an observer of feeling within feeling, ardent aware, mindful, having removed covetousness-&-grief in regards to the world.

MN 10

The second approach is to focus on feelings. Here a bhikkhu might attend to the simultaneous presence of the following two things:

a) the situation: that there is a pleasant feeling
b) this particular phenomenon which is the thought: “There is a pleasant feeling”

He understands that the situation in which he finds himself (that there is a pleasant feeling) can only be discerned due to the presence of this thought: “There is a pleasant feeling”, and yet that thought would not be manifest were it not for the presence of pleasant feeling. Again, the principle of paṭiccasamuppāda is seen: “When this is, this is.” Or else he recognises that whether he feels a pleasant feeling, a painful feeling or a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, in every case he is in the even more general situation of “There is feeling”.

atthi vedanā’ti vā panassa sati paccupaṭṭhitā hoti. yāvadeva ñāṇamattāya paṭissatimattāya anissito ca viharati, na ca kiñci loke upādiyati. evampi kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu vedanāsu vedanānupassī viharati

Or else there is the presence of mindfulness that “There is feeling” to the extent necessary for the purpose of reflexive knowledge and he dwells independent and does not assume anything in the world. In this way, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu dwells contemplating feeling within feeling.

MN 10

Whenever and wherever he looks, he can only ever find that feeling is already there given, and so the perception of impermanence is established on this situation of “There is feeling”. Any more particular feeling that he experiences, which can only be there founded upon the very fact that “There is feeling”, must also, therefore, be impermanent.

iti ajjhattaṃ vā vedanā vedanānupassī viharati, bahiddhā vā vedanā vedanānupassī viharati, ajjhattabahiddhā vā vedanā vedanānupassī viharati; samudayadhammānupassī vā vedanāsu viharati, vayadhammānupassī vā vedanāsu viharati, samudayavayadhammānupassī vā vedanāsu viharati.

In this way he dwells as an observer of feelings within feelings internally, or he dwells as an observer of feelings within feelings externally, or he dwells as an observer of feelings within feelings both-internally-and-externally. He dwells as an observer of the nature of arising in regards to feelings, or he dwells as an observer of the nature of vanishing in regards to feelings, or he dwells as an observer of the nature of both-arising-and-vanishing in regards to feelings.

MN 10

3. cittānupassanā (contemplation of mind)

citte cittānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā, vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṃ

Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu dwells as an observer of mind within mind, ardent aware, mindful, having removed covetousness-&-grief in regards to the world.

MN 10

Or he may choose to attend to the manifestation of mind within mind. For example, he may attend to the following two things:

a) the situation: that there is a lustful mind
b) this particular phenomenon which is the thought: “There is a lustful mind”

As well as seeing the simultaneous presence of these two things, he knows that they are bound up with each other—for how could he know the situation (that there is a lustful mind) without that thought: “There is a lustful mind” being present, and how could that thought: “There is a lustful mind” be there without the simultaneous presence of the situation (that there is a lustful mind)?

Whether there is a lustful mind or a mind free from lust, an angry mind or a mind free anger, a deluded mind or a mind free from delusion, a constricted mind or a distracted mind, an expanded mind or a mind that is not expanded, a surpassed mind or an unsurpassed mind, a composed mind or a mind that is not composed, a liberated mind or a mind that is not liberated—the phenomenon of mind is recognised as such. He picks up the sign of mind (cittassa nimitta uggaṇhāti).5 But in whatever way the mind has become manifest, it is also possible for him to attend to the more general situation that: “There is mind”.

atthi cittan’ti vā panassa sati paccupaṭṭhitā hoti. yāvadeva ñāṇamattāya paṭissatimattāya anissito ca viharati, na ca kiñci loke upādiyati. evampi kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu citte cittānupassī viharati

Or else there is the presence of mindfulness that “There is mind” to the extent necessary for the purpose of reflexive knowledge and he dwells independent and does not assume anything in the world. In this way, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu dwells contemplating mind within mind.

MN 10

For as long as there is any experience, that experience can only be there because first of all mind is given. Without mind, experience would be inconceivable. In this way, since mind is impermanent, contingent, unnecessary, gratuitous, completely beyond his control, it is possible to cultivate the perception of impermanence in regard to the presence of mind. And once he understands the impermanence of mind at this most general level, then any particular way in which that mind can possibly be disposed (i.e. mind within mind) will also be recognised as impermanent.

iti ajjhattaṃ vā citte cittānupassī viharati, bahiddhā vā citte cittānupassī viharati, ajjhattabahiddhā vā citte cittānupassī viharati; samudayadhammānupassī vā cittasmiṃ viharati, vayadhammānupassī vā cittasmiṃ viharati, samudayavayadhammānupassī vā cittasmiṃ viharati.

In this way he dwells as an observer of mind within mind internally, or he dwells as an observer of mind within mind externally, or he dwells as an observer of mind within mind both-internally-and-externally. He dwells as an observer of the nature of arising in regards to mind, or he dwells as an observer of the nature of vanishing in regards to mind, or he dwells as an observer of the nature of both-arising-and-vanishing in regards to mind.

MN 10

4. dhammānupassanā (contemplation of thoughts)

dhammesu dhammānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā, vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṃ.

Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu dwells as an observer of thoughts within thoughts, ardent aware, mindful, having removed covetousness-&-grief in regards to the world.

MN 10

Or, finally, he may turn his attention to his underlying assumptions—the ideas, the thoughts, the images which determine the way he understands this very experience. For instance, to take just one example from the many thoughts outlined in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, he may attend to the following two things:

a) the situation: that this experience involves the presence of matter
b) this particular phenomenon which is the thought: “Such is matter”

He understands that these two things are mutually dependent. With one comes the other. When one arises, the other necessarily arises, and when one of them disappears, the other must also disappear. He understands that the situation in which he finds himself (that this experience involves the presence of matter) is a necessary condition for the presence of this particular thought: “Such is matter”. If there were no matter present, then how could that thought possibly arise? At the same time, he also understands that if there were no thought: “Such is matter”, it would not be possible for him to be aware of this situation of matter being present. Unless one has put an end to all determinations (in the case of the arahat), that thought: “Such is matter” determines matter as such.

Thoughts in relation to experience are always present, even in the case of the uninstructed and inauthentic puthujjana who operates under and is driven by the unexamined assumptions that he holds in regards to his experience. The fact that one can talk about one’s experience means that experience has already been determined in some way. Just like body, feelings and mind, the fact that these thoughts are present is beyond one’s control. That is to say, one’s thoughts, assumptions, beliefs in regards to experience are impermanent.

atthi dhammā’ti vā panassa sati paccupaṭṭhitā hoti. yāvadeva ñāṇamattāya paṭissatimattāya anissito ca viharati, na ca kiñci loke upādiyati. evampi kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu dhammesu dhammānupassī viharati

Or else there is the presence of mindfulness that ‘There are thoughts’ to the extent necessary for the purpose of reflexive knowledge and he dwells independent and does not assume anything in the world. In this way, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu dwells contemplating thoughts within thoughts.

MN 10

Although one cannot help but have thoughts in regards to one’s experience, the Buddha provides us with thoughts, teachings, ways of regarding experience which correspond with the nature of that experience. If they did not correspond with the nature of experience then it would not be possible to fully understand that experience, but because they do correspond, it is possible to fully understand that experience. Therefore, it is possible for a bhikkhu to take on, cultivate and develop the thought: “Such is matter” such that that thought begins to stand for that which is the material basis for that experience. This will only be the case when he ceases to assume the existence of that matter—when the thought: “Such is matter” no longer determines that matter dependent upon which that thought is there. Such a bhikkhu understands that any relationship, any directionality, any assumption whatsoever between these two things (the thought: “Such is matter” and the matter because of which that thought: “Such is matter” is there) is inconceivable. They are two completely separate heaps that cannot possibly cross over into each other’s domain. Therefore, he no longer assumes that the matter which he thinks about is, is not, both is and is not, neither is nor is not that matter because of which the thought: “Such is matter” is there. In this way, he no longer conceives matter. The thought: “Such is matter” no longer determines matter as such. All that can be said is that it is simply simultaneously present with it—nothing more. The nature of that matter because of which the thought: “Such is matter” is there is now directly seen. And it is by seeing this that he now knows what his task is: to abandon it.

Now that he has seen the Dhamma which the Buddha teaches, having seen the dhammas which the Buddha teaches us to contemplate, he now knows that all the thoughts which are present (however vague, fuzzy or peripheral they might be) which pertain to the nature of this experience (e.g. “Such is matter”, “There is sensual desire in me”, “This is the eye, these are forms and this is the arising of the bond dependent upon them both”, “This is the enlightenment factor of mindfulness”, “This is suffering”)—all of these now stand for the entire situation in which he finds himself without determining any form of existence (bhava). He dwells observing thoughts within thoughts, and since the nature of the situation-as-a-whole is clearly discerned as being contingent, utterly beyond his control, and subject to cessation, so too he understands that all of the particular thoughts he has that pertain to this experience must also be impermanent and subject to cessation. And so he abandons them. It is in this way that he abandons all assumptions in regards to existence and puts a complete end to suffering.

iti ajjhattaṃ vā dhammesu dhammānupassī viharati, bahiddhā vā dhammesu dhammānupassī viharati, ajjhattabahiddhā vā dhammesu dhammānupassī viharati; samudayadhammānupassī vā dhammesu viharati, vayadhammānupassī vā dhammesu viharati, samudayavayadhammānupassī vā dhammesu viharati.

In this way he dwells as an observer of thoughts within thoughts internally, or he dwells as an observer of thoughts within thoughts externally, or he dwells as an observer of thoughts within thoughts both-internally-and-externally. He dwells as an observer of the nature of arising in regards to thoughts, or he dwells as an observer of the nature of vanishing in regards to thoughts, or he dwells as an observer of the nature of both-arising-and-vanishing in regards to thoughts.

MN 10

References from Pali Canon

AN Aṅguttara Nikāya
MN
Majjhima Nikāya
SN
Saṃyutta Nikāya

Other References

Merleau-Ponty (2002) Phenomenology of Perception. (trans. C. Smith) Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Ñāṇavīra (2010) Clearing the Path. Path Press Publications.

Footnotes

1 “…and when there actually is a given thing o, there actually are, also, other things.” (Ñāṇavīra 2010: 97)

2 The word “thought” here (and throughout this essay) does not refer to full-blown discursive thinking, which is designated in Pāḷi by the two words vitakka (“thinking”) and vicāra (“pondering”). Rather, it refers to the more primordial mental images that make such thinking-&-pondering possible.

3 cf. Ñāṇavīra 2010: 266

4 “In immediate experience the thing is present; in reflexive experience the thing is again present, but as implicit in a more general thing. Thus, in reflexion the thing is twice present, once immediately and once reflexively.” (Ñāṇavīra 2010: 44)

5 cf. AN 6:68 and SN 47:8

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Comments
  1. Ven. Members of the Savaka Sangha,
    Upasaka, Upasika,
    Buddhabodhisattas

    May person trusts,that hints are welcome and out of this he likes to point out two thing incl and seen here, but maybe not brought together: 1. “figure on a background”-realisation, and the maybe misleading translation “(the body)…within…(the body)” and would suggest to try to use “in and of it(self) – an sich und für sich”, since that might solve the problem of namarupa (mind = backround, matter/form=figure, our simply “mind-matter” – “Geistesgegenständlichkeit”). The point is, like maybe suggested here already, to do not matter, do not mind, to get the realisation, that both depend on each other. Maybe far of the purpose of this topic given here, anyhow, my person likes to share a more “deeding” access to depending co-arising, with a verbisised approach: http://sangham.net/index.php/topic,2477.msg10828 maybe useful for one or another break on through the other side.

  2. just an additional question to contemplate about, or just look for one self: mind “within” or better “in and of it self” is impermanent? Matter, in and of it self, is impermanent? Take a look, but not around.

  3. Simon says:

    Good day Ven. Johann!

    You expressed the opiniion that to translate the phrase “(kaye kayā)nupassī viharati” (and so on) as “(the body) within (the body)” could be misleading. I think this is not necessarily the case. Besides being a more litteral translation than “in and of it(self)”, it seems to me that there is a third translation possible that gives attention to some of the subtleties of Pāi-grammar.
    The locative in the phrase “kaye kayānupassī viharati” could also be understood as a locative of reference (“concerning”, “in regard to”), as it occurs frequently in the Suttas. The phrase could then be traslated as “in (regard to the) body, he/she dwells contemplating the body”. For further details see O.H. de A. Wijesekera’s “Syntax of the Cases in the Pali Nikayas”, p. 292 f. His other examples there include: pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu cakkhuṃ udapādi D II.32 “insight arose regarding previously unheard of things’’; ālokite vilokite sampajānakāri hoti M I.57 “he acts mindfully with regard to (lit. in) looking forward or sideways”; abhikkante … sampajānakāri D II.95 “acting mindfully in going …” indriyesu gutta-dvāro D I.63 “having guarded doors with regard to the senses”; kāmesu micchâcārā D II.13 “wrong conduct with regard to the pleasures of sense”; aparapaccayā satthu-sāsane D II.14 “independent of others as regards the message of the Master”.

    Best wishes,

    Simon

  4. Simon says:

    Dear Bhante Ariyavaṃsa!

    Thank you again for this lucid essay. Something I appreciate very much is your faculty of consistency and stringency, you are able to show how the one principle of “when this is, this is” applies in the various contexts of satipaṭṭhāna-contemplation. You write:

    “The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta gives a number of variations in which this principle of simultaneity can be discerned (e.g. recognising the different ways in which the breath can manifest; becoming aware of the feelings, mind or thoughts present while one breathes; attending to the knowledge of one’s bodily posture or bodily activities while that posture or activity is there) but the basic principle remains the same: with this, this.”

    I wondered if you could give a comparable elucidation of the other body-contemplations in the sutta of contemplation of the anatomical parts of the body, the elements and a corpse in decay?

    Greetings,

    Simon

  5. Simon,

    Sadhu for the generousity to even try to give a language ignorant person some even more amount of knowledge to receive.
    That “concerning”, “in regard to” is fine, as long as one does not make the body (for example), by observing the body “in and of it self”, to a matter of concern or reagard (of mine, this body, the body, a body…), Simon. My person trust that Simon sees the matter, by penetrating it. What ever literary one might choose, its the same matter with it. The “figure on a background” issue, Bhante Ariyavamsa kindly pointed out. So there are things around the observing that should not matter, get no background, to become a figure, should not be saññā-sized.
    After all it was meant for some who might while reading doing the read. My person is not very skilled to give people loving figures on backrounds pleasant food, nor is he skilled in language and literaric work.
    Atma trusts that it might give some another try, dry. Maybe even you Simon. Where would our concerning of the figure end up, if it does not get a desired background? To an end?

    Metta and mudita

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