The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta 10.
The Buddhist Background To Mindfulness
The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta 8.
So at last we come to the end of Sutta which is a prediction of how long, if we practice, it will take to become awakened followed by a reassertion of the value of the Direct Path that we met at the very beginning. There are quite a lot of variables:
If anyone should develop these four satipaṭṭhāna in such a way for seven years … six years … five years … four years … three years … two years … one year … seven months … six months … five months … four months … three months … two months … one month … half a month … seven days, one of two fruits could be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or, if there is a trace of clinging left, non-returning. So it was with reference to this that it was said:
Monks, this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of dukkha and discontent, for acquiring the true method, for the realisation of Nibbãna, namely, the four satipaṭṭhāna.
The points to pull out are that after some amount of time two levels of realisation may be expected – either the lesser fruit of irreversibly no longer taking human rebirth or full awakening in the present. The Direct Path section then reminds us what the sutta has been all about – bringing discontent to an end through its methods for awakening.
So how long?
The Ven. Anālayo p.251 takes us into a intriguing discussion on the tension between a gradual path to awakening and awakening happening suddenly. Anālayo’s observation is that the path to awakening is definitely travelled gradually, accumulating the wisdom, ethical purity and meditative skills as we go. However it is not merely a matter of these accumulations and there are many accounts in the Suttas of the Buddha’s students suddenly experiencing breakthrough and awakening. However this said, these ‘sudden’ realisations always happen on the back of significant practice – they don’t just happen ‘out of the blue’.
The tension between gradual and sudden awakening is actually a theme that runs throughout the entire history of Buddhist practice, causing at times a great deal of conflict and controversy. This is particularly so in the ‘non-dual’ teachings on Dzogchen, Mahamudra and Zen that are all considered ‘instantaneous’ in slightly different ways. In fact the semi-legendary account of Buddhism coming to Tibet in the late eighth century contains a debate between ‘gradualist’ Indian monks and the proponents of ‘instantaneous’ Chinese Ch’an – the source of Zen. On this occasion the Indians won and the Chinese doctrine was banished as a heresy and its figurehead, Heshang Moheyan, criticised and mocked ever after. This said, the notion of instantaneous realisation did not go away. Two Tibetan Buddhist and a third Tibetan Bon tradition all hold that the moment of recognising the non-dual nature of awakened mind, pure awareness, can only happen ‘all at once’ because there is no halfway state between it and our usual dualistically partition mind. For me, reading Anālayo’s account, I was fascinated to see the roots of this rather esoteric debate and understand that originally it was much simpler. Yes, the Buddha did occasionally have people around him who suddenly utterly ‘got it’ but they always had a background of practice which supported their realisation. And actually, in fact, the later teachings are not really saying something so terribly different. The moment of recognising the awakened ‘nature of mind’ may happen in a split second but it only happens for those who have made the appropriate (gradual) preparations and once glimpsed there remains a long (gradual) period until it is fully and stably realised. Even those miraculous few who we are told were introduced and then instantly became fully realised still had travelled the long journey of the path, with all its practice, prior to that point.
Nibbãna – freedom from the three poisons /resting in Buddha Nature
We have already visited nibbãna in the previous section on the four noble truths but here I just finally want to pick up the controversy that I have touched on above which ultimately concerns the nature of consciousness. This is a huge subject and I will more or less dedicate next years Buddhist Background course entirely to it so what I am about to say is a kind of fore-taste.
The descriptions of mindfulness found in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta are obviously much more complex than the idea of being non-judgementally present usually offered by secular mindfulness. Non-judgement and presence are certainly part of it but as we saw on the first evening when we looked at the Definition and the four qualities necessary for practice – ardour, clearly knowing, mindfulness and concentration – there were in fact eleven separate definitions of mindfulness. However these may be boiled down and this reveals something fascinating that I talked about in the first notes. Here it is again:
Finally it can be seen that there is a tension developing within these diverse understandings of sati. On the one hand there is a clearly active quality to it. Sati as the guard who monitors what is arising within us, assisted by diligence and clear knowing, and enables wise choices how best to respond. And on the other hand sati as a wide open choiceless awareness that, mirror like, simply registers without picking and choosing between the contents of consciousness arising and dissolving within it and, going a further step, does not seek to intervene in any way.
These two interpretations actually become the basis for an evolution in the understanding and practice of mindfulness. Joseph Goldstein describes them as ‘fabricated’ and un-fabricated’ mindfulness. The first requiring an intention and effort to continue in it – diligence. And the second non-interventionist style in its most profound expression being a natural state of inherent non-dual awareness that we can rest in without effort – something obviously more difficult to do. The first is more associated with early Buddhism and perhaps its contemporary representative, Theravada Buddhism, and the latter with the later Tibetan Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions and Japanese Zen. In the forms of practice we teach these two types of practice are known as the ‘doing something’ practices and the ‘doing nothing’ practice and they are practiced in combination.
Right at the end of Mindfulness Joseph Goldstein’s picks up this exact point. The aggregate of consciousness that is a momentary, conditioned and dualistic and has the three factors of existence, transitory, not-self and unsatisfactory is, according to some teachers, is a deluded expression of a pure awareness. A pure awareness that is the true nature of the mind and exists beyond time and all conditioned phenomena. This awareness has many names including Buddha Nature. We touched on this – with some relief – when we tackled the thorny issue of not-self. So what is it little boys and girls are made of? Is it actually nothing but continuously coming and going stuff – early Buddhism’s answer – or pure awareness, Buddha Nature, in which stuff comes and goes – later Buddhism’s answer. (To put it very simply).
This evolution of the understanding of mindfulness directly impacts on what this whole thing has been about – awakening. An early Buddhist definition of awakening is to be without ignorance, grasping or hatred, the three poisons. Utterly without them for ever, not even a trace! However some later forms picked up the Buddha describing nibbãna as the ‘brightly shining mind’ and looking into the mind discovered that this was indeed true. There is a special type of consciousness, pure awareness, that is not merely a momentary consciousness of something, that has a luminous clarity and emptiness in which we can rest. Thoughts and emotions may come and go but awareness itself is never disturbed. To know this fully is to be an awakened one, a fully realised Buddha.
And I think that is enough for now. For those of us interested in this puzzle have a look at this excerpt from One Dharma, Joseph Goldstein, on this subject:
All things come to an end
I hope you have enjoyed this journey through the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta as much as me. I have known of this Sutta for many years – the very first complete teaching on mindfulness – but had not realised just how rich and practical it was. What I come away with is an enrichment of my own practice – not just on the cushion, but much more importantly, throughout each day. At heart the Sutta teaches something very simple. If we become aware of what’s happening in our mind we can make wise choices about what to encourage and what to let go. The way this works in detail is that in each moment I receive sense impressions as pleasant or unpleasant and instantly cloak these with wanting and not wanting, choices that are themselves the result of deep unconscious patterns. If I can catch myself doing this, the things that have hindered me – wanting, not wanting, the urge to be unconscious, being agitated and in doubt – are gradually replaced with awakened mind states – principally mindfulness and equanimity. And with this suffering is transformed by awakening.
Put like this our secular mindfulness courses have surprisingly said much the same thing but in their own language. Watching the mind we find deep unconscious patterns that cause stress and depression – the automatic pilots. Unpacking these further we discover that both thoughts and emotions cannot be entirely trusted to represent reality accurately. Thoughts are not facts when they ruminate, catastrophise or generalise. Emotional reactivity is caused just as much by unconscious triggers as it is by reactions to what is happening outside of us. Put all this together and we begin to move from unconscious reaction to conscious response. From often self-punitive and self-deluding ways of being with ourselves to something more open and accepting. Something with far less fear.
So that’s it.
May the benefit of our conversation together go out to our families and friends and beyond to all beings with sentience within the infinity of time and space!
NW. 3.12. 2018