Background and introductory notes to the Satipatthana Sutta.
These notes are to give to give a brief overall picture of the Sutta. This background information can support instruction in the meditation practice.
The Satipatthana Sutta is the Buddhas primary teaching on Mindfulness, telling us about its central place in the Buddha’s doctrine and its relationship with many aspects of the teaching, particularly Right View, conditioned co-production and the lakkhanas (lakshanas).
It is said that the Buddha, unusually, didn’t wait to be asked to give this teaching but initiated it in the midst of a mixed gathering of monks, nuns and laymen and women. The location was near modern day Delhi where the inhabitants (the Kurus) were known to be a happy, economically stable and intelligent community. Perhaps the Buddha was saying that his teaching on Mindfulness was not for everyone; that disciples needed a level of positivity and presence of mind before they could make use of it. The Buddha names the 4 Satipatthanas as the direct path to overcoming dukkha.
The meaning of Satipatthana.
Sati – mindfulness, recollection
Upatthana – placing near, attending, being present
Satipatthana – being present with mindfulness.
What you’re aware of:
1st Satipatthana – Body/Kaya: The physical form, body, sensations, touch, temperature, pressure etc. Kaya includes physical senses of sounds, sights, tastes and smells. We ‘inhabit’ our body and are aware of it from the inside. In Mindfulness practice, we will be aware/be mindful of the breath, body, postures and daily activities. The Sutta also details more discursive practices we won’t be going into; the elements, anatomical parts of the body and awareness of the corpse in decay.
2nd Satipatthana – Feeling/Vedana: The feeling tone of every moment experienced as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and divided further into whether the object helps or hinders progress on the path. Contemplation of Vedana quickly reveals our instinctual bias towards pleasant experience as ‘right’ and preferred, and unpleasant as unwanted and ‘wrong’ so we try to get rid of it.
Regardless of whether a moment of experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral each has the same potential if we’re aware of it.
Contact through one of the senses with an object tends to lead to either:
1. Pleasant feeling > liking > wanting more > feeding greed > attachment.
2. Unpleasant feeling > disliking > pushing away > to aversion
3. Neutral feelings tend to reinforce delusion or ignorance via apathy, indifference, confusion, disconnection.
More traditionally as the conditioned links of the nidana chain.
Contact > Feeling > Craving > Grasping/Clinging > Becoming.
If awareness is present there is the potential to understand the process through direct experience and not reinforce habits that keep us in delusion. The practice is simply to recognise whatever is happening whether pleasant or unpleasant and notice any reactions that develop from the feelings.
3rd Satipatthana – Mind/Citta: Includes all our internal experience of thoughts, images, emotions, moods, perceptions and volitions. It includes our expanded, spiritually beneficial and skilful mind states and also our contracted, unskilful states of greed, hatred and delusion. In meditation, we can notice manifestations of ‘wanting’ or ’not wanting’ in mind (and body) and also what constitutes delusion, often experienced as confusion, vagueness or wrong views.
Even though the mind has no colour, shape, form or location we can ‘know’ the mind and its ability to recognise ‘objects’ of experience through all six senses. We can also be aware of how the mind manifests through its functions such as thinking, knowing, sensing, perceiving, imagining, being aware etc. We can know the ‘mood’ of the mind or how it feels – for example, whether it is relaxed or tight, content or wanting something.
4th Satipatthana – Phenomena/Dhammas: Comprises a number of different dhamma/dharma teachings – the 5 hindrances, the 7 factors of awakening, the 5 khandas/skandas, 4 Noble Truths, 6 sense spheres.
Dhammas is not a different sort of experience (as body & mind are included in the first 3 satipatthanas) but a shift in perspective. The scholar Richard Gombrich talks about ‘learning to see the world through Buddhist coloured spectacles’. We view our experience through the lens of the different teachings listed in the 4th Satipatthana. The list is not definitive but serves as examples of Right View.
Another way to put this (as Bhante puts it) is when you become aware of (for example) a thought as a thought and you know you’re aware of that thought you turn your subjective experience into a (mental) object or mere ‘phenomena’. Bhante uses the example of the hindrance of ‘sense desire’. In the 3rd satipatthana you recognise ‘desire’ but from the perspective of the 4th satipatthana you know sense desire as a ‘dharma object‘. You see the desire from a dharma perspective as an ‘object’ in the mind. You know it’s not helpful to get ‘involved’ with this hindrance. You are then able to observe it more objectively and you are therefore less identified with your subjective experience of desiring a certain thing. It’s not ‘my thought’ or ‘I want/desire’ that thing but simply thinking happening or desire known as mental experience or physical sensations of body/mind.
Part of Right View and Dhammanupassana is that you notice more objectively the inter-relationship between the first 3 Satipatthanas of body and mind, the cause/effect processes constantly going on. Noticing them as processes we see the self ‘construction’ happening from moment to moment in experience.