The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta 8
The Buddhist Background To Mindfulness
The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta 8.
The Awakening Factors
It seems that so much of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta has been about being mindful of our crazy mind and all the powerfully detrimental impulses and reactions that pass through it. Here, with the introduction of the seven awakening factors, bojjhaṅga, – mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration and equanimity – we have reached a seam of some of the amazing mind states that may be inhabited. This is what the text says:
If the mindfulness awakening factor is present in him, he knows “there is the mindfulness awakening factor in me”; if the mindfulness awakening factor is not present in him, he knows “there is no mindfulness awakening factor in me”; he knows how the unarisen mindfulness awakening factor can arise, and how the arisen mindfulness awakening factor can be perfected by development.
If the investigation-of-dhammas awakening factor is present in him, he knows….
If the energy awakening factor is present in him, he knows….
If the joy awakening factor is present in him, he knows….
If the tranquillity awakening factor is present in him, he knows….
If the concentration awakening factor is present in him, he knows….
If the equanimity awakening factor is present in him, he knows “there is the equanimity awakening factor in me”; if the equanimity awakening factor is not present in him, he knows “there is no equanimity awakening factor in me”; he knows how the unarisen equanimity awakening factor can arise, and how the arisen equanimity awakening factor can be perfected by development.
So the basic point is that by being aware of the presence (and how to sustain it) or absence (and how to recognise it) of an awakening factor, this in itself encourages development. We do not have to directly cultivate them intentionally – that is making ourselves be more mindful, investigative, energetic etc. In fact once we become mindful this starts a process whereby the first opens into the second and so on right up to the realisation of the seventh, equanimity. Awakening factors – these lovely states of mind – are the natural outcome of being mindful.
Given that everything starts from mindfulness the remaining six may be divided into two groups of three each countering the universal hindrances of sleepiness and monkey mind:
For sloth and torpor: investigation of dhammas, energy and joy.
For agitation: tranquility, concentration and equanimity.
The first group liven things up while the second calms things down.
I think it is also important to remember that, as with the five hindrances, that mindfulness of the seven awakening factors is not the same as, say, mindfulness of the breath, or the sense spheres – rather it is a registering of the mental state we find ourselves in at any given moment, either on or off our meditation cushion. In a way it is related to ‘clearly knowing’, one of the four elements of contemplation that we met right at the beginning. Being clearly aware of the presence or absence of each of the awakening factors as necessary.
One leads to another
As already noted, one awakening factor leads to the next. By being mindful we develop ‘investigation of dhammas’. The Pali word for ‘investigation’ also includes the idea of ‘discrimination’ and so what is meant here is the ability to consciously know what is happening in our mind and be able to discriminate what is wholesome and skilful from what is not. Having this clarity we are protected from the hindrance of doubt – a hindrance seen to arise from lack of clarity.
This then supports the awakening factor of ‘energy’ – which is all about making an unshakable effort and which links it to the diligence or ardour that we met in the ‘definition’ of contemplation at the start (contemplation = diligence, clear knowing, mindfulness and concentration). Here the idea is about making a sustained effort – not just a burst and flop – and it is set against the hindrance of sloth and torpor.
Making an effort leads to ‘joy’ – not sensual pleasure but the joy of meditation. And this in turn leads to ‘tranquility’, a mental and physical calm, that in turn deepens our ‘concentration’. This sequence counters the hindrance of restlessness and worry.
Finally this all leads to ‘equanimity’, a balanced state of mind made possible through sustained concentration and the opposite of the hindrances of craving and aversion,. Personally I love this word equanimity – even saying it is a pleasure. Most of us when we first come on a mindfulness course are excited by the possibility of a calm mind but this is only a means to the much greater achievement of being even and open with everything in our lives, all the ups and downs, all the acceptable and unacceptable aspects of our personalities. This is the achievement of dwelling, “independently, without clinging to anything in the world”, that the refrain describes as the purpose of mindfulness practice.
The Ven. Anālayo p.238 sums it up:
Practically applied, the whole set of the seven awakening factors can be understood to describe the progress of satipaṭṭhāna practice to this level of deep equanimity. On the basis of well-established mindfulness, one investigates the nature of subjective reality (viz. investigation-of-dhammas). Once sustained investigation gains momentum (viz. energy), with growing insight the object of contemplation becomes clearer and the meditator feels inspired (viz. joy) to continue with the practice. If at this point the danger of getting carried away by elation and agitation can be avoided, continued contemplation leads to a state of calmness, when the mind stays effortlessly with its meditation object without succumbing to distraction (viz. concentration). With maturing insight, this process culminates in a state of firm equanimity and detachment.
Looked at from the side of the cultivation of an unshakable calm, the awakening factors enable a profound ‘letting go’ – a letting go at the deepest level of the contractions we call ‘my self’ – facilitated by ‘seclusion’, a ‘fading away’ and finally ‘cessation’. From the perspective of insight the awakening factors arrive at a depth of equanimity that makes possible knowing all things ‘as they really are’.
Let’s look at the seven awakening factors individually:
Joseph Goldstein p.227pp. quotes Rupert Gethin who describes mindfulness having four “basic applications”:
Not forgetting – a stability of awareness that remembers to stay where it has been put and not wander off.
Presence of mind – watching out for what is happening in our minds and guarding against what is harmful.
Remembering – closely related to the above, remembering or recalling what is wholesome and what is not. This is to set and maintain our ethical compass.
Close association with wisdom – when we are mindful and clearly knowing, resting in non-reactive and non-judgemental awareness, this leads to insight into how things really are which ultimately becomes wisdom. In later non-dual schools of Buddhism mindfulness in its pure form becomes ‘king mindfulness’ which is our innate awareness that is synonymous with Buddha Nature.
Investigation of dhammas
In some ways this is the key mental factor – the ‘what we do with our mind’ – because it is about the cultivation of wisdom and it is wisdom that overcomes ignorance and the suffering it engenders. We have actually visited this mental factor throughout the whole Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta as the Buddha over and over again directs us to see clearly things as they really are and identify which are the wholesome and skilful ways of being. Married with mindfulness it is first cousin with clearly knowing. These are its activities:
Discerning what is wholesome and what is not – this links with the watcher of mindfulness above.
Recognising habit patterns of suffering – this builds on the above and extends to acceptance and kindness – the basis of equanimity.
Seeing personality as not-self – stuff happens but where is the person it happens to?
Recognising the empty nature of thought – they seem so real but are often untrue.
Exploring the mind/body – another aspect of seeing things as they really are.
Energy is an interesting one as it could quite easily become an unwholesome mental state if misunderstood or misused. It is closely aligned to strength and courage and this gives us a feel of what we need to bring to our practice – or as my own teacher Tsoknye Rinpoche says, “A yogi practices with guts.” And it is true – sometimes we just need to get hold of ourselves and sit even when another part is moaning, “I don’t want to!”. However this can begin to go badly wrong if our energy and effort become colonised by ‘should’s and oughts’. The presence of these as our motivator can indicated that we have internalised an authoritarian voice into our practice that is telling us what we must do – the point being it is not coming from our own conviction but that of another. Done like this rebellion or joyless compliance are just round the corner. For it to be our own it must come from our own sense of spiritual urgency in the face of just how horrible samsara, cyclic existence, can be.
Or even better still, ’rapture’! This is a fascinating mental state because it has more than just pleasure in it but also an almost anticipatory excitement. To be rapt is to be engaged, to be craning forward. Joy comes in two forms, worldly and unworldly, and here it is the unworldly, the not triggered by simpler sensual pleasures, that we are dealing with. Unworldly rapture is the thrill of meditation. The Buddha described five levels of rapture starting from goose bumps and our sitting position almost lifting off the cushion as our spine lengthens to waves of rapture repeatedly breaking through our body to a pervading rapture where we are constantly filled with happiness and exhilaration. Of course there is also a danger with this that it is so seductive that our practice becomes all about reproducing the experience. This warning given there are a number of things, all essentially involving gratitude, that can help transport our practice, making it a joyous, rapturous event:
rejoice in having found refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
rejoice in having found an ethical engagement with the world.
rejoice in acts of generosity.
rejoice in at last having a way that really brings peace to a crazy mind.
Or calm, serenity and composure. We have often spoken of ‘calm abiding’ being one aspect or consequence (along with insight) of practicing mindfulness. And it is so here – when we energetically and enthusiastically practice mindfulness so that our body really begins to take pleasure in the practice, then out of this an unshakable calm infuses our being, providing a platform for even deeper states of calm absorption and the insight these enable. This leads to the next awakening factor.
We have already met concentration in the ‘definition’ section at the beginning of the Sutta. Generally speaking our concentration is rubbish unless it is focused on a highly engaging stimulus – such as a great TV programme – that keeps it engaged. Here concentration grows from and also deepens the experience of calm. Buddhism has mapped this journey in detail – as one would expect – and describes a process of unfolding absorption states – jhāna’s – that build one upon another. Essentially what is being described is a state of non-distraction – samādhi – a one pointed unwavering concentration that stays on its object of mindfulness. The first taste of this is described as ‘access concentration’ that then blossoms into the first of four jhāna’s with the last unfolding again into a further four ‘formless’ jhāna states. The first of this sequence brings with it a great deal of the rapture we mentioned above but it is interesting that as the depth of the absorption grows this affective aspect decreases and is replaced by a increasing sense of insight and equanimity – the qualities that are the heart of awakening. Traditionally there has been some debate just how far along this path of the jhāna’s one needs to progress to become enlightened. Generally the answer is just enough to provide the platform for insight and equanimity, and this seems to make sense as the highest of the formless jhāna’s is a state which, just based upon the description, sounds indistinguishable from a mindless coma – the very antithesis of being awake. On a practical note, descriptions of the concentration states can be quite destructive for us who are just beginners because they can inject into our practice an unrealistic ambition or make us feel completely defeated in the face of what sounds impossible. They can also strengthen the widely held delusional desire to stop all thinking when we meditate. To counter this it is important to remember that every time we notice we have become distracted while practicing, and remember to return to our object of mindfulness, we are strengthening the muscle of concentration. Where ever this may all end up this is where it begins and being in this present moment – just however it is – is the only place we can presently be. It’s more than good enough.
Oh delight! Equanimity in Buddhism is often equated with awakening itself. The place where the fires of painful craving have burnt themselves out. When we first hear this word we may think that what is being described is rather boring – “What, feel the same about everything?”. But this is not what is being described, in fact almost the opposite, a state that can participate in the indescribably satisfying experience of being nakedly present with things just as they are, utterly engaged, unhindered by defensive closures.
In Buddhism this is described in many different ways – one is to be free of the ‘four worldly dharmas’: gain and loss, praise and blame, pleasure and pain and name and fame. Just imagine not being driven by this lot! Another is to have achieved the ‘four divine abodes’: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. Or again to have have accomplished the ‘six perfections’: generosity, virtue, patience, energy, concentration and wisdom. But the one that I have always loved the most is the first line of the famous, “Verses on the Perfect Mind”, by the third Zen patriarch, Seng-ts’an:
“The Great Way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose”.
And how do we cultivate this:
Let go of attachment – or put differently, value actions for their good motivation rather than outcome.
Associate with wise and equanimous people.
Bear in mind the four divine abodes/ the six perfections.
And lastly – be mindful and clearly knowing!
The importance of this teaching
There are many other versions of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta in Chinese and Sanskrit but in their Dhammas section they only universally include mindfulness of the hindrances and awakening factors – all the other dhammas are absent in one or another. This suggests that these two, hindrances and awakening factors are the two most central. And in fact the Buddha absolutely confirms this, mindfulness of these dhammas is essential for realisation.
As I have already said, mindfulness of the awakening factors, and also the five hindrances, is part of the skill of learning the practice of mindfulness. This means that while our object of mindfulness is say on one of the body meditations or perhaps even feelings or mind we can simultaneously monitor – that is clearly know – how we are with the meditation, what may be hindering our mindfulness and concentration or what encouraging experiences are arising from it. It’s really just common sense – wanting to have only certain types of meditation experience, being asleep or agitated and doubting what we do needs to be gradually replaced by a deepening mindfulness of our subjective experience that opens us to being engaged, joyous, tranquil, concentrated and equanimous. And then bingo!
And one last point – in Tibetan there is the word nyam which is translated as an experience arising from the practice. Generally this is good because it means our practice is alive and working (whatever that may mean) but at the same time having the experience of a nyam is quite dangerous because it can create powerful emotional reactions. An unpleasant nyam may be met with aversion even to the extent of stopping practicing and a pleasant nyam – perhaps even more dangerous – can create craving for a repeat experience, entirely killing off our equanimous ability to accept whatever arises with composure and acceptance. The awakening factors described here are also nyams and however supportive to our practice they also have a dark side the moment we begin to pick and choose.