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Buddha's Words (Talk 10 of 13)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Nov 07, 2007
In topic: Early Buddhism
Tenth of Series of talks on the Pali Canon based on the book "In the Buddha's Words" by Bhikkhu Bodhi
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Transcribed and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum

Chapter 8 is called “Mastering the Mind,” and it’s about meditation and mindfulness.

You could ask, to begin with, “What is an emotion?” It’s a good question: what is an emotion? It’s a lot of things at the same time. For one thing, I think, it’s our deeply conditioned, physically based emotional setup. We all have an emotional shape, so to speak, that was formed in us in childhood. Then that shape is activated by something that happens in the present. There are different things that go on in the body when we’re experiencing emotions. So the body is activated in different ways if we’re angry, if we’re joyful, if we’re in despair. The body feels different in those emotional states. Then there are thoughts that are completely connected to the body states, which are connected to the event that arises in the present, and which are connected to our emotional setup. So what we mean by emotions, I think, is all of that together.

So an emotion is a complicated thing. It involves the body; it involves the neocortical brain; it involves the mind; it involves the limbic brain. The Mindfulness Sutra that I want to talk about tonight really bears all this out.

The Satipatthana Sutta is the Mindfulness Sutra. Sati is mindfulness and means “memory.” So mindfulness is a kind of memory. Memory means holding something in mind. Usually we think of memory as holding the past in mind, but when you think about it, the present is always falling into the past, so it requires a kind of memory to come back to the present. We have to remember to be present. Otherwise, if we don’t remember to be present, we will be distracted. The assumption that the sutra makes and speaks about is that it is possible to be more present, to be more powerfully and deeply present; furthermore, if we can be more powerfully and more deeply present, and train ourselves to be present, then that presence will have a healing quality to it. If we don’t intentionally remember to be present, we will be as we usually are: more or less present, partly present, or partly distracted. We may not even know that we’re partly distracted. That’s the usual human condition.

So we could say that mindfulness is the capacity to be completely, powerfully, brightly here. Present with what’s going on, whether it is thinking, feeling, sensation in the body, memory, fantasy. Whatever it is. To be present with what’s going on.

The sutra then goes on to propose a very thoroughgoing and painstaking training in how to be more powerfully and more brightly present. It says on the very first page of the sutra that developing mindfulness, developing this kind of presence, is the only way that you can overcome sorrow and pain, and achieve a lasting peace.

The course in mindfulness has four main steps, the “four foundations.” Or you could look at it as four subjects on which mindfulness is to be established. It seems as if the four subjects are progressive; one depends on the other. Each one is more complicated. The four subjects or foundations of mindfulness are mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of the mind or the heart—we might say mindfulness of emotions—and mindfulness of dharmas. So it’s a progression that takes you from the simple awareness of the physical body in the present moment, to what’s going on with fundamental reality at any moment. What’s real at any moment, starting with the body. There are subdivisions for each one of them, resulting in twenty-one meditation subjects. The practice of mindfulness of the body is the most detailed part of the course, which tells you that establishing mindfulness of the body is really, really important and is the basis for all the other foundations.

There are twenty-one meditation subjects in the sutra. First is mindfulness of the body, and this has fourteen subjects. It starts with mindfulness of breathing, and then mindfulness of the four postures: sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. So when you’re sitting, you’re mindful of sitting; when you’re standing you’re mindful of standing, and so on. Clear comprehension of activities—so when you’re doing something, you’re aware of what you’re doing.

So we think of the body as its outer appearance, but of course the outer appearance is the least of it. It’s thanks to the heart, the lungs, the liver, the blood vessels and everything else that things work, so why aren’t we aware of those things?And those things are not the things that we are attracted to in the body. If we were all transparent and looked inside of each other then we would not be so excited about one another. So it’s being aware of the body in all of its states, but also the nature of the body, what it’s made of and its impermanent nature.

The second foundation of awareness and the fifteenth meditation object is the meditation on feelings. Feeling is differentiated into three primary types: pleasant, painful, and neither-pleasant-nor-painful. So clearly by “feelings” here is not meant what we colloquially mean when we say “feelings.” This is the emotional set that I was talking about a minute ago, the kind of deep-seated set that we have whenever we see a certain kind of thing or experience a certain kind of stimulus. We are always either attracted to it, repelled by it, or confused, or neutral. It’s a deeply conditioned response that we’re not aware of. It’s the foundation of emotions, but we don’t experience it as emotion until it gives rise to thoughts and bodily sensations that are noticeable.

The sixteenth subject is contemplation of mind or heart. And this is basically the state of mind or emotion that the feeling has given rise to in a particular moment: happy, sad, angry, and so on. I think it stands for a whole range of emotional life.

The last one is contemplation of phenomena or dharmas. The sutra lists five different categories of dharmas that are brought into view in the fourth foundation, and they are the five hindrances (laziness, worry, doubt, and so on), the five aggregates, which means the five skandas (form, feeling, sensations, and so forth), and the six external and internal sense bases (meaning the eye and the ear and sounds and so on), and the seven factors of enlightenment (rapture, joy, concentration, mindfulness, investigation . . . ).

So I’m going to say a little bit about these different foundations. Mindfulness of the body seems simple enough. We just return awareness to the body and the processes of the body, so that we can begin to have an experience of what the body really is, rather than doing what we usually do, which is to assume that the body is us, and then, without necessarily noticing at all what the body actually is, projecting onto it a huge set of conditioned emotions and responses and self-concepts that we’ve developed over the course of a lifetime. When you get into detailed awareness of the body, you begin to see that the body has its own mind, so to speak. It’s not just working for me! It’s a phenomenon in and of itself. In our practice we all know this, because not only is zazen basic awareness of the body, but all of the forms of the practice are about fostering mindfulness in standing, in walking, in eating, in bowing, in movement, in work, and so on.

So I think we’re pretty familiar with mindfulness of the body from our own practice, and usually what people call meditation is - from the point of view of the mindfulness sutra – just an intense application of mindfulness, beginning carefully and explicitly with the body.

What the feelings are is a little bit less obvious to us. We’re all struggling to bring the feelings, or vedana, into view. You could say that our arising in the present moment results from our emotional set. Each one of us has our own particular way of manifesting . In a way, we’re all exactly the same, but then we’re all different. It’s deep conditioning that causes the whole chain of reactivity that comes into our conscious lives. It can arise into consciousness, but only through mindfulness of the body. Through an intense practice of mindfulness of the body, eventually we can feel the vedana. And even if we have a lot of sophistication about why we are the way we are, that’s not the same as actually feeling the root vedana, which has no cognitive dimension at all. It’s like a gut reaction, and you feel it through the practice of mindfulness of the body.

The sutra is very repetitive, and each time something to be mindful of is given, a formula is repeated. This passage happens to be in the part that has to do with mindfulness of the body, but the same thing is repeated with mindfulness of feelings, and emotions, and so on. It says:

In this way, the practitioner dwells contemplating the body in the body internally, or the practitioner dwells contemplating the body in the body externally, or dwells contemplating the body in the body both internally and externally; or else, the practitioner dwells contemplating in the body its nature of arising, or dwells contemplating in the body its nature of vanishing, or dwells contemplating in the body the nature of both arising and vanishing; or else, mindfulness that “there is a body” is simply established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and repeated mindfulness. And the practitioner dwells independent, not clinging to anything in the world. This is how a monastic dwells contemplating the body in the body.

The same formula is repeated over and over again. So it’s interesting, because first of all “the body in the body” means the actual body, not the conceptions that we have of the body. And you do that internally and externally. This is important, because you would think that mindfulness is only internal, but it’s not. You’re aware of the body within oneself, and you’re aware of the bodies of others. You’re aware of other people’s postures and breathing.

The course in awareness implies and very directly indicates that this is about looking within oneself deeply enough to realize that you are a human being like other human beings. Otherwise, if you just completely are going within, and not constantly recognizing the existence of other people, it’s very counterproductive, because then you’re reinforcing your separation. But this is the opposite of that.

So it’s really interesting that it says mindfulness is both internal and external. The sutra says, “Or else, contemplates the body in its nature of arising and vanishing.” In other words, you’re aware of the impermanence of the body at all points. You’re aware that every experience of the body is quickly changing into another experience, and you try to notice the arising and vanishing of the succession of experiences.

“Or else, mindfulness that there is a body is simply established to the extent necessary” [there’s just the bare attention to the body.] “Independent, not clinging to anything in the world.” [doing this without goals, without needs, just doing it fully for its own sake.]

Once you are aware of the body, you become aware of the vedana – the gut reactions and emotions – and then you begin to see patterns. You begin to notice a set of emotions that are basically hindrances that are holding you back in your living. And once you bring that into view and you understand that, then you begin to notice how the body-mind perception works – the five skandhas, the perceptual apparatus. When you clarify that and you have some measure of freedom within that, the factors of enlightenment arise. You’re interested in your experience, and you have the capacity to be happy and study it and clarify it even further. You understand how reality unfolds and how suffering is constellated. And then you’re free.

I’ve presented it as a progressive course: first you do this and then that happens, and then you do that. That’s the way the sutra is written. But throughout the history of Buddhism, in different traditions and teachers, the sutra has been approached in many, many different ways. Almost never, I think, is it presented in actual practice, just the way it’s written in the text. The text gives you a big field, and then teachers and traditions have different approaches to how to present that field. I think a typical Vipassana retreat in North America will go through the four foundations of mindfulness one after the other, as if you were going to progress in that way. “Ok, it’s the fourth day of the retreat, you should be experiencing this and feeling that.” In Zen practice it’s not that systematic or programmatic, and it’s not step by step.

So it’s not as if you completely get one step, and then you go on to the next one. It’s like you’re constantly looking on that level, I think, through your whole life. What I’m saying is that the foundations of mindfulness flash in and out. The basic Zen practice is to emphasize mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of the breath, and to make a very strong effort in that.

A very strong focus in Zen is on mindfulness of the body with intensity and focus, and then with an open consciousness mindful to whatever else is arising. In other words, not mindfulness of the body for the purpose of eliminating everything else, but mindfulness of the body for the purpose of being awake and alert to whatever else is coming up. So whether it’s vedana, or whether it’s emotion, or whether it’s insight into the Noble Truths, there’s a trust that always coming back to mindfulness of the body will cause many other phenomena to arise.