The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta 9.
The Buddhist Background To Mindfulness
The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta 9.
The Four Noble Truths
So finally we come to the last Dhamma section – the four noble truths. This may seem a little strange because the four noble truths are themselves a summary of the entire Buddhist path and essentially cover all of the material we have looked at within the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta during this last year. It is as if we have come to the end and the end consists of the whole journey again. Personally I wonder if what we see here is further evidence that the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta has had a variety of forms and some elements remain central throughout while others are more peripheral. Could it be that this last section, being so important in itself, got tacked on by the later monks?
The text is very simple while being incredibly profound:
He knows as it really is, “this is dukkha”, he knows as it really is, “this is the arising of dukkha”, he knows as it really is, “this is the cessation of dukkha”, he knows as it really is, “this is the way leading to the cessation of dukkha”.
So we are to “really know” what is dukkha, what creates it, what stops it and just how to do this. Simple.
An interesting and ancient analogy to this is found in the healing of a physician. The physician diagnoses the disease – dukkha.
He recognises its cause – craving.
He knows the cure – awakening.
And he proscribes the medicine – the noble eightfold path.
What is dukkha?
The word dukkha covers physical events – in the prayers of my own traditions practice this is described as the “stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness and death” – and all the unhappiness that comes from being unable to get what we want. This ultimately can be boiled down to the unwanted sensations that arise as we try to control and protect our sense of self, or again as the tradition puts it, when we are motivated by “self-cherishing”. Given this it is easy to understand why one of the most common translations of dukkha is ‘suffering’ – all of the above have to one degree or another the ability to make us feel pain. However there is a problem with this narrow definition. The Buddha elsewhere said that all experience is dukkha, not just the painful parts. If we think about it there are many experiences that bring suffering temporarily to an end and others that have nothing to do with overt suffering in any way. It is not true that all our experiences are painful. The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta itself confirms this. Apart from the deep, nourishing pleasures described in the last section, the awakening factors – including joy, tranquility and equanimity – there are many quite ordinary sensory experiences that are registered as pleasant. So if not ‘suffering’ how else might dukkha be translated?
The word dukkha is derived from a Sanskrit word that describe an ill fitting axle-hole of a wheel – so dukkha literally means a “bumpy ride”. The same words may also suggest something standing badly or being uneasy and uncomfortable – perhaps the experience of the bumpy ride? Because of this possibly a better word to translate dukkha is ‘unsatisfactoriness’. And this too makes sense if we think about it. While sometimes there is suffering – pain, hurt, anxiety, angst – more broadly the whole of our experience is finally (from the Buddhist perspective) unsatisfactory because nothing other than awakening is satisfying for ever. This unsatisfactoriness may occasionally cause acute suffering – the loss of the person we most love, the horror of a terminal illness – but most of the time it’s just a low level frustration, an inconvenience, something that taints everything, a fact of life we can never get away from. What at base do we (really, really) WANT – we probably just want MORE or BETTER, and more or better is never enough.
Approaching this from a slightly different, perhaps more scientific angle, it is interesting to include some contemporary research. It seems that mind basically has two types of thinking. One is a focussed attention that is used when we concentrate on a task and the other a free roaming semi-conscious mode that wanders at random around a small number of self-referential concerns centred in the past and future. An experience of a “dissatisfied mini-me”. We spend our time about half and half in each depending on what’s going on in our lives. This dissatisfied mini-me thinking is plainly the discursive thinking that Buddhism is talking about and its emotional tone – dissatisfaction – confirms the Buddha’s observation that the nature of experience is unsatisfactory. What is also interesting is that the focussed mode of thinking is clearly the basis for all the mind states that the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta encourages us to cultivate – clearly knowing, mindfulness and concentration. It also explains why learning to do this is so very hard. The discursive mind is not simply an aberration, a mind that is not working properly. Rather it is an entirely natural mode which suggests it has had distinct evolutionary advantages for it to continue to exist. And this is so – from this dreamy, self concerned mind come all sorts of ingenious ideas that are all about its own well being and survival. In fact it was exactly from this mind that the Buddha to be observed his world and decided that it was incapable of delivering the happiness he wanted. Meditation methods that cultivate calm close this type of thinking down and replace it with more of the focussed mode. However it is impossible to close it down entirely for ever. Because of this Buddhism has evolved meditations that cultivate a third type of mind ‘activity’ that is resting in an open awareness that is undisturbed by the presence of thought. We may look at this more deeply later but here it is enough to say that this is an ingenious solution as it incorporates both modes of thinking while at the same time lifting them to a whole new level.
Returning to our discussion of dukkha, for those of us who have arrived at this material from a secular mindfulness perspective there is something being said here that might be quite challenging. The Buddha is saying that while it is possible to bring all suffering to an end forever it is not possible to take the unsatisfactory element out of existence. We may come to a point where it no longer troubles us but however much practice we do phenomena will not change from being unsatisfactory to satisfactory. It’s just not possible. Does this then contradict the secular promise that when mindful enough our experience of existence, of the phenomenal world, changes and everything feels better – better relationships, better work life, better sex? A kind of banishment of everything unpleasant or even neutral. Not all secular mindfulness is taught the same, many teachers are aware of its Buddhist under pinnings and do not offer the impossible however it is certainly presented as such sometimes. This misses the point that mindfulness is not something that can be added to experiences that makes them all feel good, rather, it is part of the tool kit that leads to an equanimity that is able to embrace all experiences – pleasant and unpleasant – without becoming ruffled in any way.
What creates dukkha?
What creates our suffering when we experience something that does not satisfy? Again we have a choice of several different words. Usually it is said that ‘attachment’ is the cause but this does not seem quite right – particularly for those of us who have been exposed to psychotherapeutic ideas. Do we not speak of the need to make healthy secure attachments and how a person without attachment can never know a fulfilling relationship? The Sanskrit word here is ‘taṇhā’ which means craving. This helps a lot – it is craving for particular experiences that causes the problems, the wanting and not wanting, the greed and hatred, the profound ignorance of how things really are that makes us suffer. Observation of myself immediately confirms this. I go through my days continuously trying to manipulate everything so that it produces pleasant sensations that I like and excludes the opposite. The dissatisfied mini-me mentioned above in action. However the nature of how things are – unsatisfactory – makes this a fruitless task and as the Borg say on Star Trek “Resistance is hopeless”; nothing I do makes it any different. So what are my choices, continue to crave, to pick and choose, and suffer or give it up, accept with an open heart how things are and begin to find some equanimity. The feeling of craving is actually really unpleasant so you would think it a no brainer or would you?
There is also an alternative explanation here for what causes suffering. Not craving but ignorance. What is being highlighted here is that craving actually springs from ignorance – that we crave satisfaction from sources that are ultimately unsatisfactory when we do not really know how things are. Kind of repeatedly going to a bare cupboard or fridge that we just cannot understand is empty. It is interesting that sometimes the two aspects of mindfulness meditation, calm and insight, have been seen as addressing each of these causes. Calm addresses craving while insight addresses ignorance. This supports the view that ignorance is the root cause of suffering, calming the passions supports access to insight but it is only insight that overcomes suffering finally and fully.
What overcomes dukkha?
The short answer is the end of craving. This is the theme of renunciation that we have encountered throughout the whole Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. Remember the refrain, the purpose and outcome of practicing mindfulness, “he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world”. The Sanskrit word here is ‘nibbāna’ – awakening, enlightenment – which is derived from the idea of a fire burning out – so the fires of craving coming to an end via detachment. Personally I have a bit of a strange feeling at this point. An ascetic part of me is excited and attracted to these ideas but another more hedonistic part thinks, “Hmm, maybe later”. The problem is that the language cannot do the experience justice and further more it is coloured by the largely renunciate communities of monks and nuns that finally wrote down the Buddha’s spoken teachings – a Buddha who had spent his formative years practicing austerities. Fortunately we need not solely rely on these sources for descriptions of awakening, Buddhism offers many others as it unfolds over the years and some of these are couched in the positive – and to be fair the Buddha himself also gives many entirely positive descriptions himself. We have used the word ‘awakening’ throughout these notes, not just awakening from the ignorance of not knowing how things really are but also awakening to the bliss and freedom from the constraints of being a separate self. The Buddha likened this journey as crossing over a stormy sea and the experience of nibbāna as reaching the other shore. Anyone prone to sea sickness will appreciate the profound relief of this metaphor. Here is a traditional description given by the monk Nāgasena, around 150 BC, to a Greek Indian King who asks:
“Is it possible, Nāgasena, to point out the size, shape or duration of nibbāna by a simile?”
“No it is not possible; there is no other thing like it.”
“Is there then any attribute of nibbāna found in other things that can be demonstrated by a simile?”
“Yes that can be done. … As the ocean is empty of corpses, nibbāna is empty of all defilements; as the ocean is not increased by all the rivers that flow into it, so nibbāna is not increased by all the beings who attain it; it is the abode of great beings and it is decorated with the waves of knowledge and freedom. Like food, which sustains life, nibbāna drives away old age and death; it increases the spiritual strength of beings; it gives the beauty of virtue, it removes the distress of the defilements, it relieves the exhaustion of all suffering. Like space, it is not born, does not decay or perish, … it is not attached to anything, it is the sphere of Noble Ones who are like birds in space, it is unobstructed and it is infinite. Like a wish-fulfilling gem, it fulfils all desires, causes delight and is lustrous.”
What is the path that ends dukkha?
The path – the noble eightfold path – is the means to end dukkha. Given that last year we spent the entire year looking at just this it is certain that we cannot say that much in a couple of paragraphs! It consists right view, understanding, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. The ‘eight path factors’. The adjective ‘right’ – sammā – applied to each does not exactly mean right as opposed to wrong but more ‘thoroughly’, ‘properly’, ‘in the right way’, ‘as it ought to be’ ‘best’, or ‘perfectly’. However it is true that what makes any of the path factors not right is the absence of the other seven so in this sense it is possible to have, say wrong mindfulness, when it is practiced without the presence of the whole path.
The noble eight fold path – that which is practiced by the noble ones – is divided into three sections:
Wisdom – right view and intention.
Ethics – right speech, action and livelihood.
Meditation – right effort, mindfulness and concentration.
Right view – the understanding that our actions have karmic consequences and the importance of the four noble truths. Together these give a context of meaning in which we practice.
Right intention – renunciation of what obscures awakening and the cultivation of kindness, compassion and wisdom.
Right speech – to not lie or hurt another by what we say, to speak in ways that lead to awakening.
Right action – to not kill, steal, hurt another sexually or ourselves through intoxicants, to act in ways that lead to awakening.
Right livelihood – to earn a livelihood by means that do not contravene right speech and action. For a nun or monk to live by begging.
Right effort – to monitor our subjective mind so to encourage and maintain what is wholesome and skilful and discourage the opposite.
Right mindfulness – as we have seen throughout – a present centred attention that stays with and returns to that on which it has been place. While there is an element of assessment in this it is not judgemental – ie: seen as good or bad.
Right concentration – the ability to reach states of meditative absorption that generate profound calm and culminate in the equanimity and mindfulness necessary for the ultimate insight of awakening.
Just looking at these several things jump out. Firstly they go far wider than the largely practical remit of the earlier sections of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. In right view and intention we are offered a context of meaning that envelopes the entire practice. Why do we practice? We practice because we believe in these values. Of course they have been implicit throughout, particularly in the ‘Refrain’, but here they are made completely apparent. And the same for the ethical dimension. All of the satipaṭṭhāna’s have been guided by what is wholesome and what is not but here we have it stated very clearly – these are the wholesome path factors we are to embrace. The meditation section is not so very different – and this is my second point – in fact it beautifully encapsulates all the instructions we have received from the previous sections. Essentially observing our minds to encourage what is good and from this ethical foundation cultivate a calm mind that is able to gain insight into how things really are. All the meditative instructions, however complicated, are found in these last three path factors.
Being mindful of the eightfold path
Given that this final dhamma section is essentially an overview of the whole path how are we to be mindful of it? Each of the four noble truths requires from us a particular response. Dukkha must be understood. The cause of dukkha must be abandoned, the cessation of dukkha must be realised and the path to the cessation of dukkha must developed. So we have a list of things here we may be mindful of. A kind of running inventory to keep ourselves on track. Furthermore the five aggregates of self are to be understood and ignorance, craving and aversion are to be abandoned while knowledge and freedom are to be realised and calm and insight developed. So we can add these to the list also!
Another approach is to divide our practice into either being mindfully present with the experience of dukkha and the conditions that have lead to its arising or being mindfully present with the absence of dukkha and the conditions that have lead to this. Effectively mirroring practices that we have encountered earlier in the sutta where we monitor our subjective experience – what happens in our emotions and minds – and see what leads to what in an attempt to make some wiser decisions about where we put our energy. This can work on two levels – either just being mindfully aware of stuff going on in our minds or in reaction to events happening in the immediacy of our everyday lives.
Finally it just remains to say that the four noble truths are all inexorably moving towards nibbāna just as is the whole Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. In fact realisation of any of the satipaṭṭhāna’s is the same as realisation of the four noble truths – there is no difference. At the end of the day its all about this hurts, finding out why and doing something about it that brings the hurt to an end.
We have had so many instructions on how to be mindful of our body, feelings, mind and more complex mind states, the dhammas. Perhaps what is important here is that it invites us to step back and ask the biggest question: what is my commitment to this material? We may find that it is simply interesting. We may find that it is so different from how we are and what we believe that as a counterpoint it shows us to ourselves more clearly. We may find that we are attracted to it but quite incapable of incorporating its enormity into our life. And we may find that it is deeply inspiring and something we really want to follow. Whatever the answer the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta tells us that everything is changing so holding our answer in mind we might just watch that space and see what happens!