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Buddha’s Words (Talk 10 of 13) – 2007 Series

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 11/07/2007
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In Topics: Pali Canon

Tenth of Series of talks on the Pali Canon based on the book “In the Buddha’s Words” by Bhikkhu Bodhi

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

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

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.

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