Buddha’s Mindfulness Overview
First Quarter Moon Uposatha Day index to series
Meditation in the Buddha’s discourses is described in terms of three aspects: effort, mindfulness and samadhi. Last week we looked at Right Effort in some detail. The next two weeks we will look at Right Mindfulness, the primary technique of meditation.
Mindfulness. The Buddha composed a simile about mindfulness (SN 47.20): The most beautiful woman of the land also accomplished in singing and dancing is to give a public performance. Throngs of people show up. A man, however, is given a task: He must carry a vat of oil on his head between the audience and the stage where the most beautiful woman in the land is singing and dancing, … without spilling a drop! Just to add some incentive, a strong man will follow with raised sword. As soon as the swordsman sees a drop of oil on the ground, off comes the oil-bearer’s head!
The root meaning of sati, which we translate as mindfulness, is ‘remembering’, but in the Buddha’s sense it can best be understood as ‘keeping in mind’. It is an active process of keeping the mind unwaveringly engaged in the task at hand. This simile brings out that the challenge to mindfulness is distraction. It also brings out the incentive we have for mindfulness; without it we will tragically not survive on the Path. Notice sati here is an active process, it is something you do. It is not just an aware state of mind (that is a part of samadhi) but clearly it maintains consistent awareness.
Notice also that Right Effort is by this account also a form of mindfulness, one directed at keeping and letting out the unwholesome and keeping and letting in the wholesome. Mindfulness is also compared by the Buddha to a gatekeeper. The main difference is that whereas what we call Right Effort weaves in the strand of virtue, what we call Right Mindfulness weaves the strand of Wisdom into our samadhi.
A specific non-Buddhist technique of mindfulness underlies much of the world’s meditation, and it is this: Focus the attention on a single small object or point of meditation — the object might be, for instance, a candle flame, the breath perceived at a particular point in the body, an image in the mind, a sound, or an imagined sound. If the attention wavers or something else intrudes, simply reestablish the attention on the object of meditation. Let’s call this one-pointed mindfulness. One-pointed mindfulness, like any kind of mindfulness, is not easy; the mind has great resources for distraction. But the instructions for one-pointed mindfulness are simple, direct, and reveal themselves as powerful when by brute force it overcomes all distractions: one-pointed mindfulness leads to deep mental absorption in the object of mindfulness and ultimately to the blissful shutting out of almost everything else that would otherwise arise in the mind. This is mindfulness, but Right Mindfulness is more sophisticated and far-ranging than this. One-pointed mindfulness seems incapable of carrying wisdom into the meditation practice.
Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Right Mindfulness is at the center of the Buddha’s meditation technique. Recall that Right Samadhi is not a technique but a resultant state of mind that depends on Right Mindfulness, as well as on Right Effort. The Buddha offers detail instructions for Right Mindfulness in terms of four categories of contemplations, what are call the four foundations or establishments of mindfulness, or what Thanissaro Bhikkhu calls the four frames of reference. These contemplations are as follows:
- Deportment: standing, sitting, lying down, etc.
- Activities: going forwards and backwards, looking straight ahead, away, bending and the stretching of limbs, eating, bathing, urinating, etc.
- Composition of the body
- Types of physical Materiality
- Decaying corpses
2. Feeling : arising physical or mental pain, pleasure or neutral feeling
3. Consciousness : states of mind as they arise
4. Mental qualities
- The Five Hindrances : lust, anger, sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, doubt
- The Aggregates : form, feeling, perception,formations and consciousness
- The Sense-bases: eyes, ears, tongue, nose and mind along with sights, sounds, tastes, odors and thoughts, etc.
- The Factors of Enlightenment: mindfulness, investigation, energy, delight, serenity, samadhi, equanimity
- The Four Noble Truths
Pretty much, you can apply mindfulness to everything that arises in experience or that you are doing in these four all-inclusive realms, but certain topics, like breath, are highlighted as natural foci of attention or for what they teach us. Mindfulness characterizes the Buddhist life. Mindfulness brings stability and wisdom into Buddhist meditation.
The primary description of the techniques of Right Mindfulness is the Satipatthana Sutta (Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta, MN 10), also embedded in the slightly longer Mahasatipatthana Sutta (DN 22), not the most commonly recited but certainly the most studied text in the entire Pali Canon. I suggest but don’t require that any reader of this blog series read it; it is only about two cups of coffee long and you can find it here.The general content of this sutta is also presented in brief in about seventy other suttas, some of which bring out specific aspects of mindfulness practice, including its relation to samadhi. The Anapana Sati Sutta (MN 52), which emphasizes use of the breath (anapana) in conjunction with all four categories of mindfulness should also be mentioned, as well as the Kayagata Sati Sutta (MN 119), which emphasizes bodily awareness and walks through the relevance of mindfulness to samadhi and to the realization of higher knowledges. My task here is not to teach mindfulness — books and teachers abound — but as elsewhere in this series to help orient.
Basic Techniques. The same techniques with limited variations are applied to each of the various themes of contemplation, described for each in almost the same words. Each of the four Foundations of Mindfulness is introduced like this:
The bhikkhu contemplates the body in the body, ardently, with full comprehension, mindfully and putting aside covetousness and grief for the world.
And so on for “feelings in feelings,” “the mind in the mind” and “phenomena in phenomena.” The parts of this mean as follows:
- “Contemplation” is “anupassana,” literally ‘seeing-along’, that is, ‘watching’, ‘contemplating’, ‘close attending’ or ‘observing’.
- “The body in the body,” etc., means ‘in and for itself’. Normally we do not see things in themselves long before we begin to wrap them in feelings, ideas, plans and reasons for disliking them. We should strip away what is extra and look at things directly. Let them speak for themselves.
- Ardency brings energy, an active curiosity or lively interest in the theme of contemplation.
- Full comprehension encompasses the theme in every way it directly presents itself, not focusing too narrowly.
- Mindfulness keeps the mind on task, watching.
- Putting away of covetousness and grief for the world refers to letting go of the grossest of the distracting Hindrances, thus incorporating much of Right Effort into Right Mindfulness.
This is the basic technique in a nutshell; it is not complex. However, the Buddha’s mindfulness, like any kind of mindfulness, is not easy; the mind has great resources for distraction. Its instructions are also not so simple as one-pointed mindfulness and probably do not lead so quickly to the same degree of mental absorption or to the blissful shutting out of what would otherwise arise in the mind. But it will be appreciated how all but ardency and comprehension among these factors work together to still the mind. Ardency and comprehension, as well as the choice of subjects of contemplation, for their part, begin to weave wisdom into meditation practice alongside serenity.
Specific contemplations have further instructions, for instance directed toward awareness of the various parts of the breath, for assuming the meditation posture prior to practicing mindfulness of breathing, and so on. I will refer to some of these details in passing next week when relevant.
Alongside the basic technique of Right Mindfulness, there are some secondary practices. A common second set of contemplations investigates impermanence. These are included in the Satipatthana Sutta, but apparently not in the equivalent Chinese Agama, and rarely in the many other Pali Suttas that deal with mindfulness. This would indicate that they are less central as one begins mindfulness practice, and are likely a later addition to the Sutta. Nevertheless, they do at some point become instrumental in the development of higher wisdom, especially in conjunction with samadhi.
“He remains focused on the origination with regard to the body, on passing away with regard to the body, or on origination and passing away with regard to the body. Or his mindfulness that ‘There is a body’ is maintained to the extent of knowledge and remembrance. And he remains independent, not clinging to anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in and of itself.
And so for feelings, mind and phenomena.
Tending the Flames of Samadhi. Recall that “for one of Right Mindfullness, Right Samadhi springs up.” (SN 5.25-6) The Buddha repeatedly admonished practitioners to cultivate Samadhi, to enter the jhanas, for these lead to higher wisdom and the ending of taints. Like minding a fire, the cultivation of samadhi requires attention to the various factors of samadhi, to encourage factors appropriate to the current jhana, to balance certain factors and to respond quickly to any distraction. Although samadhi is a resultant state, its particular qualities can be shaped by mindfulness. In fact the various factors of samadhi are already themes of mindfulness of feeling, of mind and of mental qualities. While samadhi is monitored, additional techniques apply to modify these factors for desired results.
We have seen that the first jhana arises with delight (piti) and happiness (sukka). Progressive states of jhana refine these until only equanimity is left. To help this process along, the Buddha recommends a a series of visualization, beginning with entry into the first jhana:
He makes delight and happiness born of seclusion drench, steep, fill and pervade his body so that there is no part of his whole body not pervaded by the delight and happiness born of seclusion. – MN 119, and many other suttas
The Buddha offers the simile of a bathman mixing soap powder by hand with water to describe this practice. A similar practice is repeated for each jhana, but adjusted as jhana factors are progressively lost, so finally in the fourth jhana the practice is simply,
“he pervades the body with a pure bright mind.”
The simile for the fourth jhana is that of the body covered completely by a white cloth. Notice how the Buddha makes use of the body as a repository of mental states.
If sitting in meditation the fever of lust or sluggishness arises, or the mind becomes scattered pursuing external matters, the Buddha recommends directing the mind to some inspiring theme. He does not mention it, but such a theme might be the Buddha, or an image of the Buddha in meditation. This will arouse delight, then serenity, then pleasure, and concentration will be restored. After that the mind can withdraw from the inspiring theme. (SN 47.10)
Two important qualities of mind that should be developed in samadhi are tranquility (samatha) and insight (vipassana). These are the qualities of the still mountain pond.
When tranquility is developed, what purpose does it serve? The mind is developed. And where the mind is developed, what purpose does it serve? Passion is abandoned. When insight is developed, what purpose does it serve? Discernment is developed. And when discernment is developed, what purpose does it serve? Ignorance is abandoned. – AN 2.30
The Buddha admonishes us to keep these two factors in balance because the work together. For doing this the Buddha offers a startling technique: Ask someone else what to do!
The individual who has attained internal tranquillity of awareness, but not insight into phenomena through heightened discernment, should approach an individual who has attained insight into phenomena through heightened discernment and ask him: ‘How should fabrications be regarded? How should they be investigated? How should they be seen with insight?’ – AN 4.94
Analogous advice is offered to the individual who has attained insight into phenomena through heightened discernment, but not internal tranquillity of awareness.
Next week I will make a second pass over Right Mindfulness, but this time I will simply point out Six Interesting Features of Buddha’s Mindfulness that give it its unique character. This will later serve as a checklist to identify ways in which variants of Buddha’s Meditation differ or do not differ from the original.