Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 6

Six Remarkable Features of Buddha’s Mindfulness
Last Quarter Moon Uposatha Day                              index to series

Last week … er, two weeks ago, I provided an overview of Right Mindfulness as described in the Satipatthana Sutta and many other related suttas. Recall that mindfulness is essentially keeping something in mind. What and how you keep that something in mind is the heart of your meditation technique. Samadhi is the most significant part of your meditation experience. The Buddha defines four basic domains for applying mindfulness: body, feelings, mind or consciousness, and (mental) qualities. He provides specific exercises particularly with regard to body and more particularly breath. For each theme he admonishes us to practice as follows:

The bhikkhu contemplates the body in the body, ardently, with full comprehension, mindfully and putting aside covetousness and grief for the world.

… and as for “body” similarly to body for feelings, mind and qualities. He supplements this with some limited advice on dealing with distractions, and with encouraging certain mental factors like delight and happiness. He also suggests in a couple of the Pali suttas (but not the Agamas) giving special attention to the rising and falling of phenomena. Out of mindfulness stability of mind and ultimately samadhi arise.

This week I want to highlight six features that are particularly characteristic of the Buddha’s method. It will be interesting to see which of these carry over to the variants of the Buddha’s meditation.

Buddha’s Mindfulness is Fun. An Asian meditation teacher came to America for the first time to lead a retreat. Into the first day of the retreat he asked his American attendant about the meditators, “Why do they all look so grim?” Apparently before the Buddha’s time any pleasure was to be scrupulously avoided by the dedicated ascetic. Maybe we have a bit of the same attitude in this country: “No pain, no gain.”

The Buddha, while recognizing danger in sensual pleasures, found spiritual pleasures to be of a quite different quality. Recall that shortly before his awakening the Buddha was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree and spontaneously “entered and remained in the first jhana: delight and pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation.” Then he thought,

Why am I afraid of such pleasure? It is pleasure that has nothing to do with sensual desires and unwholesome things. – MN 36

The meditation suttas make constant reference to delight (piti, what many translate as rapture) and happiness (sukka, what many translate as pleasure) as qualities of the early stages of meditation. “A pleasant dwelling in this very life,” “refreshing,” and other phrases are used as well. It sounds like fun to me.

Unlike in the case of fun things like wild parties, just singing in the rain, tango, chocolate truffles, practical jokes or scary movies, fun in the case of Buddha’s meditation is not primarily a goal, it is an enabling factor. Tuning into refined levels of pleasure makes one more aware of the refined levels of suffering, helps recognize the disadvantages of sensual pleasures, gives a place of rest in practice, and provides an early incentive to making practice a habit.

It is also a much different kind of fun, one that the uninitiated might perceive as boredom, but on close examination it is a much purer form of joyful happiness, untainted by stress, anxiety, fear and many other things that the uninitiated might not even recognize always accompanies wild partying, singing in the rain, and the others.

Sariputta gives us a somewhat enigmatic hint of the nature of spiritual pleasure:

Just that is the pleasure here, my friend, where there is nothing felt. – AN 9.34

Buddha’s Mindfulness is Being Present. “Being present” is indeed often taken to be almost synonymous with “mindfulness.” However, mindfulness does not logically entail being present. We might envision an inspirational speaker suggesting a mindfulness exercise such as, “Now, imagine the big bag of money you have charmed out of people in five years time. Rest your mind right there. Imagine how heavy the bag is, …” Or, “When you find your mind has wandered away from the daydream bring it gently back to the daydream.” Mindfulness could also involve contemplations of abstractions, like goodness or honor, and who knows where they are?

But the Buddha’s exercises are not generally like this; they are almost always very grounded in the present moment: almost every one takes a topic of current experience for contemplation, for instance, the breath, breathing in then out, the present posture, physical movements like carrying things, the composition of the body, current feelings, current states of mind, suffering or anxiety, and so on. In fact we are asked to attend to the rising and falling of phenomena as they occur for each of the four foundations of mindfulness. Distractions, on the other hand, tend to be thoughts about the past, such as regrets, or the future, such as plans and expectations. Elsewhere the Buddha admonishes us:

You shouldn’t chase after the past or place expectations on the future. What is past is left behind. The future is as yet unreached. – MN 131

Now, there are some peripheral exceptions in Buddha’s meditation; the Buddha does make use of certain visualizations of things that would not arise on their own. Metta meditation is generally like this; one imagines metta extending to an ever-widening circle of beings which must be brought to mind. The charnel ground contemplations ask us to consider that our bodies will be just like that at some future time. As we enter the jhanas we are asked in turn to imagine delight and happiness, happiness and equanimity suffusing the whole body.

Buddha’s Mindfulness is potentially a Wall-to-wall, 24/7 Activity. Sariputta and his best friend Mogallana were young ascetics and students of Master Sanjaya but were becoming disappointed with the results. One day Sariputta spotted another ascetic in the village on alms round and was astounded by his mindful deportment. It was Assaji, one of the first five disciples of the Buddha. Curious, Sariputta inquired as to Assaji’s background and both he and his friend were on their way to becoming not only arahants but the two foremost disciples of the Buddha. In Burma today monks leave the monasteries by the hundreds every morning as if to reenact Assaji’s alms round. It is beautiful to watch their calm composure, even that of the little novice monks.

The plot of the story of Sariputta’s introduction to Buddhism has undoubtedly played itself out in every generation since. An American ballet dancer was on tour in Japan and spotted a man at a train station not only of unusual attire but of remarkable deportment. Fascinated, she began following him around for a long time before she finally inquired as to who or what he was. He was a Korean monk. She ended up staying in Japan for many many years to study Zen. She is Dai-En Bennage, now abbess of a Zen center in Pennsylvania.

Mindfulness in manifold postures and activities, while walking, sitting or lying down, while lifting an arm, even while defecating, is characteristic of Buddhism prescribed right in the Satipatthana Sutta. It is not just something we do on the meditation cushion. And it gives rise to the characteristic Buddhist deportment. (The public perception of one’s deportment, by the way, will vary considerably, even among yogis of great attainment. Some of them have a natural flair, while others seem to come off as hopelessly klutzy or dumpy no matter how much mindfulness they internalize.)

Because mindfulness is an all-day and every-place practice in Buddhism, it entails an almost constant stillness and composure. The result is like hot coals, that retain their heat and provide warmth. But the flames of samadhi will then arise quite quickly and naturally with a log and a poke. Under controlled circumstances, such as that provided by your meditation cushion, samadhi will flare up.

Buddha’s Mindfulness Weaves Wisdom, along with Virtue, into Meditation. The sole function of mindfulness in many meditation traditions is to induce jhana, a serene state of mind. If this was the Buddha’s sole intent, he would not have given us such a wide variety of meditation subjects, nor asked us to consider them in a rather analytical way. He would not have given us mindfulness tasks that clearly relate to the training in Wisdom begun at the beginning of the Noble Eightfold Path, in particular observing experiences that bear on impermanence, suffering and insubstantiality and the aggregates of body, feelings, perception, formations and consciousness.

This is where the Buddha is at his cleverest and where the logic of his method shines forth. Consider: First the Buddha asks us to practice Wisdom through Right View and Right Resolve until the cows come home. Then he asks us to practice Virtue through Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood until we drop. This is prerequisite to meditation practice.

Without purifying view it is impossible to cultivate Right Samadhi – AN 6.68

When your virtue is well purified and your view is straight, based upon virtue, established upon virtue, you should develop the four foundations of mindfulness. – SN 47.15

Now the Buddha asks us to consolidate that mind of Virtue in Right Effort and that mind of Wisdom in Right Mindfulness and then to weave them together, … into a sitting mat. Here is where the weaving takes place:

The bhikkhu contemplates the body in the body, ardently, with full comprehension, mindfully and putting aside covetousness and grief for the world.

Next the Buddha will ask us to place samadhi on that sitting mat. In this way the beginning practices of Wisdom and Virtue will be able to continue but within the mind of samadhi, that is, with a hyper-refined, serene and keenly aware mind. This is like kicking our practices of Wisdom and Virtue into hyperdrive, and this will lead, if we keep at it, to the arising of higher knowledge, to the removal of all taints and to ultimate liberation. More about samadhi and beyond in coming weeks.

Buddha’s Mindfulness is Centered in the Body. Probably the most salient symbol in Buddhist iconography is the full-body posture of the Buddha in seated meditation. When I, along with perhaps most other Buddhist yogis, sit in meditation I am keenly aware I am emulating the posture of the Buddha (well, roughly: I never have been able to manage full lotus).

Mindfulness anchors the mind in any of a variety of subjects, mental and physical. Aspects of the physical body and particularly the entire body play distinguished roles. Of the subjects of mindfulness, the largest number have to do with the body: Breathing, types of deportment (standing, sitting, lying down, etc.), bodily activities (going forwards and backwards, looking straight ahead, away, bending and the stretching of limbs, eating, bathing, urinating, etc.), composition of the body (body parts, and elements), and decaying corpses. Mindfulness of the body is specifically treated in the Kayagata Sutta (MN 119). Among the body contemplations in- and out-breathing is particularly distinguished, the observation of the whole breath. Mindfulness of the breath is specifically treated in the Anapanasati Sutta (MN 118). This sutta recommends watching the breath while simultaneously attending to each of the other three foundations of mindfulness, so the breath functions as a kind of anchor which still permits other forms of mindfulness.

The Dhammapada tells us:

With mindfulness immersed in the body well established, restrained with regard to the six media of contact — always centered, the monk can know Unbinding for himself. — Ud 3.5

They awaken, always wide awake: Gotama’s disciples whose mindfulness, both day & night, is constantly immersed in the body. — Dhp 299

Also, the whole body in many suttas is visualized as a container in each stage of jhana respectively for a characteristic set of mental factors. For instance, the first jhana involves the following visualization:

He makes rapture and pleasure born of seclusion drench, steep, fill and pervade his body so that there is no part of his whole body unpervaded by the rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. – MN 119, etc.

It is easy to appreciate how centering the mind in the whole body might provide a natural place for the mind to rest. The body provides the basic coordinates for relating to the physical world; it determines up, down, front, back, right, left, in the self and outside of the self.

Buddha’s Mindfulness is Never One-Pointed. The Buddha describes a simile for the four foundations of mindfulness (MN 125), that of binding a forest elephant by a rope to a post to break the elephant of its wide forest habits. Notice that the elephant still retains some freedom of movement, but within a limited range. One-pointed mindfulness would be like the more extreme measure of putting the elephant into a container or a cage so that he cannot ever turn around, much like animals are often treated in factory farms. Recall that the common technique of one-pointed mindfulness involves fixing the attention unmovingly on a single small object or point of meditation. This is not the Buddha’s mindfulness.

The Buddha offers us not fixed objects of meditation, but rather broader themes of contemplation. For instance, the breath is a process that involves much of the entire body. We consider the different forms of breath, and even what feelings and thoughts arise with the breath, but remain loosely teathered to the breath. We contemplate the mind as a whole, notice the state of the mind and become aware of whatever arises. We contemplate a rotting corpse from all aspects, then even consider that that will be us some day. And there is a logic to this: One-pointed mindfulness would do little for developing wisdom; awareness must be broad.

Nowhere that I am aware in the suttas of does the Buddha ever ask us to focus the attention more narrowly than this, not on a candle flame, not on the breath perceived at a particular point in the body such as the upper lip or even in the belly, not on an image fixed in the mind (nimitta), not on a colored disk. I suspect one-pointed mindfulness is entirely foreign to his method.

This last point will be a bit controversial, since much of Buddhist meditation is in fact one-pointed. However this is exactly one of the places where we need to distinguish Buddha’s meditation from its variants. Next week I would like to reflect a bit on my logic in making this distinction. Among other examples I will discuss the most likely counterexample to my claim that one-pointed mindfulness is outside of the Buddha’s method.


2 Responses to “Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 6”

  1. Michael Says:


    Thank you for your post. About one-pointedness, looking forward to your next post, but in my mind the question is how much one-pointedness is necessary to fulfill the first of the four tetrads of Anapanasati Sutta.

    Thank you,

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