Norman gives his first talk on the Mindfulness Sutra to the Mar de Jade April 2014 Sesshin.
Mindfulness Sutra 1 – Talk 1 Mar de Jade April 2014
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Apr 05, 2014
Transcribed and edited by Emily Spielman and Barbara Byrum
Let’s begin with what we experience, what our life actually is. It’s very obvious, but we don’t usually think about it. Something outside meets our consciousness, like a cloud in the sky meets our eye, and then we have an experience. Or, we’re aware of an emotion or a feeling. In that case, the emotion or the feeling is like something outside, and our consciousness receives that thought or feeling. So that pretty much explains our life. Every moment is like that. There is always a meeting point between the consciousness and something outside.
Our whole life we’re worried about the outside. Whether we have enough money to pay the rent. Whether our friends and family are happy with us or are giving us problems. And we’re trying to organize the outside so it works out really well. But it usually doesn’t work out all that well, because the outside has a way of not being subject to our control. So ultimately we have a lot of suffering when we’re only focused on the outside.
We’re here this week to forget about the outside and to develop the inside, to develop the mind and heart that dances with the outside. If our life is sometimes difficult or unsatisfactory in some way, it might not be because of the outside circumstances. It might be because inside we’re not developed enough, we’re not wise enough. So we have a chance this week to develop the inside: the breathing, the feeling in the body, what it feels like to see something, to hear a sound, to appreciate the thoughts in our mind, our feelings. Over and over again, we bring the mind back to the inside and just pay attention to what’s there.
In Buddhism, there’s a developed practice, a way of doing this, because you actually need a practice. If we just try to pay attention to the inside without any instructions, it’s very likely that we will become entangled by all our usual habits and unwise ways of living. So there is a whole path in Buddhism for how to practice awareness. You can learn how to do it. You can develop more skill with this. And that’s what we’re here for this week, to see if we can develop this kind of skill.
There is a Buddhist sutra about this. The Mindfulness Sutra is about how we can develop this skill. In the original language of Pali, the title of this sutra is Satipatthana Sutta. So let me say a few words about what that title means. The word sati is usually translated into English as mindfulness or awareness or attention or presence or being present. Sometimes there is an example of throwing a ball against a wall. The point where the ball touches the wall, and the wall could register or feel the ball is the moment of sati. We all know what sati is already, because if there’s any experience, there’s some awareness there, otherwise there is no experience. If you’re unconscious in a coma, there is no sati. What makes the development of sati difficult is that we take it for granted. We automatically have awareness, so we don’t realize that there’s a way of developing this more and more.
Now it is very astonishing that the sutra claims that if we develop sati, we will put an end to our suffering and grief, and we will develop spiritual liberation. It doesn’t really seem possible, does it? Just by developing more of this awareness – that we have all of the time – how could this have all of these effects? And yet the sutra is telling us that. Clearly it indicates developing awareness in a way that we have not developed it so far. Most of us we have awareness, but we also have plenty of unhappiness, grief and suffering, and all kinds of emotions we don’t like. The Buddha here is claiming if we develop awareness fully, we can have a life of happiness, no matter what is going on on the outside. So that would be something really worthwhile, don’t you think?
This word sati, mindfulness, also has in it the idea of memory. Remembering to come back to awareness. If we go back to our comparison of the ball, it would be like throwing the ball against the wall, and then the ball bounces this way and that way, and over here and over there, all over the place. Mindfulness is when you throw the ball and it hits the wall, and then you remember to pick it up and throw it again and again. So you are a little bit organized in your awareness. You don’t just let it go all over the place.
It’s a very interesting point that in the Pali language there is no other word for memory other than the word sati. And when you think about it, it’s true, isn’t it? When you have a memory, when do you have that memory? There is only one time when you have a memory: right now in the present moment of awareness. So the past only exists in the present moment of awareness. Usually the whole idea of memory implies a person with continuity, who existed in the past and the same person existing now. There is a history of our life and things we like and don’t like. But in the Buddhist idea of awareness, there is only what arises in this moment. So the past is what we experience now, because the past really does not exist anywhere else, but right here in our lives in the present. And that is why if we have many wounds or problems from the past, and we lament the fact that it already happened, and there is nothing we can do, we are sad. But actually when we are aware in the present, we can heal the past.
So this teaching is saying that focusing very strongly, moment by moment, on the inside with great intimacy, very close to every moment, brings up the whole of our life, including the past. But this awareness is also relaxed. Although we bring a lot of attention to the present, we do so in a relaxed way. Later on the sutra talks about this. It says you have to pay attention to the present moment without goal, desire, or wanting something out of it, because if you’re seeking something, your awareness will be impure and incorrect. There is some intensity in coming back to the present moment – which includes all of our life – but also to do so in a relaxed and steady manner.
Sometimes mindfulness or sati is called samasati, which means correct or accurate awareness. This means it’s actually more than simply paying attention. Correct awareness, samasati, is an open awareness that has the intention of seeing things as they are in this moment. Even if we don’t like what we see, we’re willing to see. Of course, what we will see is that things are always coming and going. It’s impossible to hold onto a moment that we like. A moment that we really like passes away. A moment that we really don’t like also passes away in just the same way. Because that is the nature of things, they pass away, and no one can stop that. When you are able to maintain awareness as things come and go, and realize that this is how things always are, and when you feel that deeply in your body inside and in your mind and in your heart, you have a lot of peace. You really appreciate everything that comes. Even the things that are difficult, you really appreciate them. And also you realize that everything is coming and going with you. You realize that the whole universe is in the same boat you’re in, coming and going. And when you feel this way, you have a lot of love. You feel very much in a flow with everything. With enough awareness, it becomes how your experience actually feels to you.
The word patthana, as in Satipatthana Sutta, means “to stay close to something” or “to place something near to something else.” So within the practice of awareness, there is a closeness, a relationship. The only time when anything appears to us is when there is some awareness. Without awareness there is a cold, dark zero. So awareness brings a warm and bright world into view. The same word also means to put something in a place or a location. So this is a sutra about how we locate and place awareness. It is powerful phrase for me, “a place for awareness,” because usually we think of the world as very solid and firm, and our mind as not so solid or firm. But actually it’s the opposite. The inside and the outside are equally firm. Equally present. So when we develop mindfulness, we develop more presence, more firmness, more strength.
Mindfulness is not the same thing as self-consciousness. It’s the opposite almost. Self-consciousness is I am here. I am seeing this or that. I am feeling this or that. Is it good or bad? How am I doing? Am I doing well? This is the opposite of mindfulness. Mindfulness is simply seeing, hearing, thinking, feeling. There is no evaluation of one’s self. There’s just the immediate experience. Also, mindfulness is not observation, or standing aside and observing our experiences, observing our thoughts and feelings.
Sometimes the phrase “bare attention” is used. Simply the experience itself coming and going. Just presence with what happens, without evaluation or too much thinking, without wanting this or that, just willing to experience the fact of what happens. Of course, when you try to do this, you find that you are always self-conscious. You always have desire for this or that. For instance, if you’re sitting in meditation, and now it doesn’t feel so good to be sitting there – it hurts or something – and the bell doesn’t ring, then you want the bell to ring, right? Here I am at the beautiful beach. I’m sitting here. It hurts. I’m inside. Why am I not on the outside? So that’s not mindfulness. That’s the mind complaining with many extra thoughts. And notice that those are not thoughts that are making you happy, right? Those are thoughts that are increasing the unpleasantness of your experience in that moment.
So when those things happen, and of course they do, then you have to be mindful of that. It won’t do to try to make those thoughts go away. You won’t be able to. So when you find those thoughts going on, you just come back to mindfulness. Instead of letting the ball bounce this and that way, you pick it up again and you throw it again at the wall. And when it starts bouncing again, you pick it up and throw it at the wall. You return to your body. You return to your breathing. You notice the thoughts. You don’t condemn yourself for it, but also you don’t believe the thoughts too much or let them push you around.
In the moment of just being present, there is always happiness. Even if there is an unpleasant feeling in the body, even when there’s awareness of that unpleasant feeling and nothing more, there’s happiness there. It seems hard to imagine, doesn’t it, that we could have something unpleasant going on, but at the same time, we can be happy? But in that moment of bare attention, you find that is exactly what happens. And when the mind driven by confusion and desire begins to create thoughts and feelings, that’s when the unhappiness comes again and that’s when we apply sati. We come back to bare attention. We allow ourselves to appreciate the flow of moments of our lives. So this is the practice that we’re working on this week. Remembering to come back to our breathing and our body, appreciating that moment of just paying attention.
How do we do this? The sutra talks about four locations for mindfulness: mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of the feelings, mindfulness of mental or emotional states, and mindfulness of patterns of mind. So this is the whole course of study of mindfulness. And through this study we come to be clear about how our mind and heart work, and how to disentangle the tangle of unhappiness. Of the four, the most basic is mindfulness of the body, and that one is the most important. It doesn’t mean to be mindful of our concept of the body, our idea of the body. All of us think of our body, we have an idea or a concept. Mindfulness is to be aware of the actual process of the body: this living process in time that we call the body. To experience with warmth and closeness the life of the body.
Let me end this morning with just a little bit about this. So when we come into the hall to take our seat, we walk in carefully. Even from wherever we’re coming from, when we start turning toward the hall to walk, we are already preparing ourselves for awareness. When we sit down in the beginning of every period, we take a great deal of time to really feel all that’s going on in the body. It’s there. So we settle our body. Then we feel the breathing in the belly. Maybe you can feel it now while I’m talking. Very even breathing: coming in, going out. So especially in the beginning of each meditation period, you really pay close attention to every breath all of the way in and all of the way out. It’s just like the ocean waves, right? Come all of the way in, go all of the way out. Very smooth and natural. And then whenever your mind wanders, you simply come back to the breathing, which is easier to do if you establish a strong connection to the breathing at the beginning of every period.
When thoughts and memories and visions and complaints come into your mind, this is not a mistake. It doesn’t mean you’re doing the practice wrong. It’s just a natural thing. Minds do that, right? That’s what the mind is made for. So just notice what’s going on. If it helps, you can tell yourself, Oh there I go complaining again. There I am thinking about my mother again. How come I can’t stop thinking about my mother? Or whatever it is. And as soon as you notice what it is, you come back to the breathing. And if a hundred times, a thousand times, the ball starts bouncing around, a hundred times, a thousand times, you just pick it up and throw it again.
So that’s it. It’s really simple. You might think there must be more to it than that. Isn’t there something more interesting than that? How could that possibly do me any good? Well, all I can say is according to the Mindfulness Sutra, this is the only way to eliminate grief and sorrow, to purify the heart, to end pain and anxiety, and to realize nirvana.
So for now, just trust this method. But I don’t think it will take you very long to realize that it really works. You will all experience some moments of relief and joy just being willing to be present with your life. And then you’ll have more faith in this method.
We’re all very fortunate that we have a chance to do this together. We really don’t know whether we’ll ever do it again. This might be our only chance. None of us here, including myself, knows for sure whether we’ll ever do this again. So please don’t waste this precious time. Gently, steadily, with a lot of kindness to yourself, and a lot of forgiveness, keep paying attention. Keep coming back.