The Foundations of Mindfulness: Satipatthana Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 10
Transcript of an eight-week presentation 2022 by Tahn Pamutto
Part One: Mindfulness
It’s a big subject actually. It’s one of the first things that we are introduced to in the Buddhist teachings besides, you know, don’t be violent. Be nice and be mindful, right?
So during the last year of the Buddha’s life, he did a sort of grand tour of India and revisited all of the places he had been to and all the communities that he had helped found. He reiterated his teachings over the last 45 years. And he codified them in a set of 37 things… a set of different lists that contain 37 things that he called the Wings of Awakening. The Bodhipakkhiyadhamma.
At the culmination of the Buddha’s teaching career, he’s basically saying, “These are what you should remember. Pass these on in future generations. If they hear these things, they’ll probably be able to figure out what it was we were doing.”
If you comb through this list, you’ll find that two things kind of float to the top with the most mentions. One of them is energy (Viriya) and the other is mindfulness (Sati) .
This is like quintessential Buddhism, right? Does anybody want to be brave and offer a definition of what Sati is?
In order to do any Buddhist practice, we need to have a working definition of mindfulness. Okay? So each of you has a working definition of what mindfulness is, and there’s no right or wrong answer because you’ve built it up over all of the practice that you’ve done. Rather than diving right in when we started the meditation, we said, “Hold on, what’s here in the room?,” right?
This is what it is to kind of stop and be like, “Well, what do I tell myself it is? What am I looking for? How do I know it’s there?” Because we could just dive right into the four foundations and mindfulness and say, “It is 1, 2, 3, 4,” and expound those. But would we actually be talking about mindfulness if we didn’t have that working definition from the get go? Or would we just be adding more concepts? As we’re adding stuff, are we paying attention to what’s there?
So… what is not mindfulness? Maybe that’ll help us too. So, just a show of hands, think back to that time before time, before we were introduced to the Buddhist teachings, before we were introduced to practice, to meditation, to any of that. We want to rate how much mindfulness we had at that time. So take all the time that we were awake… what percentage of that time were we mindful, based on what we know now?
Who feels that they were probably mindful about 80% of the time, before, just from the get go. Who feels that they were mindful at least 50% of the time? … don’t be shy. Who feels they were mindful maybe 25% of the time? Okay. So, so now we’re starting to see a few bodhisattvas in the room, very developed beings.
Now who feels they were mindful at least 10% of the time. So at least maybe like one or two hours of the day altogether? Before they encountered those practices? Yeah, I mean, I would go about 5% personally, and I was pretty interested in it.
Based on what we know now, like before we were introduced to mindfulness, were we trying to be mindful? Were we trying to sit? and if we were trying, were we succeeding?
Realistically. I mean, I almost can’t remember public school. I’m aware that it was painful. It was excruciatingly boring, but I don’t think I was mindful for any of it. Technically I was trying to be anywhere else but in the classroom. So I can’t even, I can’t even point to like, maybe 1% in that case.
Okay. But now, let’s say, right now let’s look at our lives and um, do we feel the number has gone up? Who feels that they’re more mindful now? Who feels that the percentage has maybe gone up five or ten percent at least. Yes. At least. Who feels it’s gone up more than that?
For me it depends on the day. And you know, if I have a day where I am sort of more present or I’m not distracted or thrown off or sick or, you know, then I can say I could have a pretty mindful day. But then there are days that, you know, I actually missed, you know, I didn’t, it didn’t register at all.
I’d like to think I’m getting better at it, but does it matter?
I think it’s circumstantial for me right now. Still.
Anybody else feel it’s, it’s still pretty circumstantial even after all this time? Like, some days are good, some days are bad.
I noticed something in my own practice when I first started, when I was first introduced to the idea, it was maybe like a moment of mindfulness during the day, whereas now it’s kind of moving into portions of the day are are mindful.
Has anybody else experienced something like that? Development of more extended moments?
So now we’re aware that there is something that’s not mindfulness and that it is our basic state, technically if we’re doing it more than 50% of the time before we’re introduced to practice. So not-sati is present more often. So we’ll find our way to sati.
The word “sati” is kind of mysterious. It literally comes from a root that means memory. Just like remembering. But if we were to take that at face value, that doesn’t help us technically. Because we feel that our, our working definition of mindfulness deals with not conceptualizing, right? Being aware of something as it is, so that we’re not thinking back to something previously. It’s not that kind of memory.
And we actually kind of get helped by the word “mindfulness” in the English language. Because this isn’t even a Buddhist word. It’s a Christian word. Christian monastics were using the word mindfulness to refer to a recurring recollection of God. So the feeling is “God is always present,” but we forget He’s there. So developing mindfulness was training in this aspect of remembering that “God is present” as a form of practice.
It’s actually a pretty good word in a pretty good application of this idea of remembering. We’re not remembering in terms of accessing our memories.
We are remembering the fact that we can be ignorant of the present moment. We’re remembering to let go of things.
What we’re remembering to do is we are remembering to not be lost, which is an odd way of saying it.
So we’re not looking for the present moment, we’re remembering that we can get out of it.
And that’s something of a way back to the present moment.
I think we can agree that if there’s any creature that is more skilled at being in the present moment, it’s the simplicity of a dog, right? And there’s this wonderful long Jack Kornfield joke where, if you can be happy with whatever lands in your bowl, if you can fall asleep in a moment without any struggle and it goes on and on and on for like 20 different things. If you know you have an absolute best friend and you would never betray them. And the punchline is you’re probably a dog.
But do we feel that the activities and the the mind state of a dog would qualify the definition of something? Do we feel like dogs have strong sati?
We’re talking about something that is a factor of awakening. That’s one of the lists it shows up in. So we’re not on the path to enlightenment unless we do something that gets us off the path of ignorance.
So there has to be some sort of doing, or else we would be in a state of mindfulness more often. Right?
I know, I’m making you work…but it’s good work, you know, that helps us kind of narrow this down.
The volition of a child and the volition of dog are on different planes than the volition of an adult who’s become acquainted with suffering. There’s a reason I think that the word “practice” is used, because we get so acculturated out of it. And we become so involved with our various attachments and the disappointments that come along with them that we do need to make a choice.
And the choice is to practice, right? So there’s some turning towards something, right?
I think we agree that we like to be in the present moment. That’s not the whole concept of something necessarily. Because if we’re in the present moment, happily deluded, we’re not stepping foot on the path of awakening, right? So there’s gotta be some aspect of clarity. And so maybe this is why the word that the Buddha chose to use, but a word that was already a common parlance, “sati” comes from memory.
And, and in some way there’s some act of part of the mind that is looking, you know, it’s actually, it’s not just being; it’s aware and it’s cognizing its surroundings. We’re remembering that it’s not just floating through life. We’re remembering in that moment. It’s like, “Oh, I gotta be here because ignorance is always around the corner.
A very, very interesting, like this experience of totally being in the moment, the Buddha himself, in the life where he became the Buddha, had this glorious moment as a young boy when he was seven years old. There was a harvest festival where all of the nobles go out into the fields and make the first plow lines in the fields and it’s this big ceremony. The young prince was just sitting up on a hill and watching everybody working in the fields. And it’s a really happy day.
And he’s just totally chilled out. Yeah. He’s just sitting under a tree and he starts to pay attention to his breath and he goes into the first jhana. So he attains samadhi and after that he, he kind of gets up, he’s like, “that was really nice.”
And he promptly forgets about it for the next 30 years. So remembering is kind of looking at the practices and recognizing that we’re coming back to it.
It’s not a won-and-done thing. It’s not like we will be mindful once we stop being filled with self doubt or self-loathing or anger at the present moment. There’s some aspect of intending to be mindful.
Like turning towards our situation and looking at it objectively or remembering what we were doing before, remembering that there’s this path, remembering that there’s the Four Noble Truths, remembering that there’s the Buddha Dhamma Sangha.
So now what were we’re getting to is that the Buddha’s definition of samadhi.
Samadhi is developed as a factor of the Eightfold Path.
The definition is the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
And it’s interesting because most of us probably, if we were doing a show of hands, like how many people had been taught as a form of mindfulness, paying attention to bodily sensations?
Yeah. Except those are not in there because they’re not in the Four Foundations.
We’ve been taught to listen to the content of our thoughts. You know, what are our thoughts saying, how do we feel, what’s the mood of our mind? These are the shorthands that we use when we’re teaching mindfulness and meditation.
And yet when we get to the actual content, the Buddha lists as the basis of mindfulness, turning our minds towards very objective realities, not simply our subjective reality: “How do I feel in this moment? What’s happening to me?”
Instead turn our mind to, “What is happening?”
Yeah. So this is the distinction between “being okay and being happy and being okay with what’s arising here” and understanding what’s arising here in the context of reality.
So what is actually here? We could be totally okay and deluded. And to be honest, we can be totally miserable and mindful. But categorically I think we would start to find, if we give it time and we give it practice, we find that being mindful helps us in the other one. We’re more likely to have moments of being okay with what is.
Once we understand “what is”, once we see “what is” objectively and we stop being so worried about it, stop being worried about how our thoughts reflect on us.
Because we’ve seen them come and go. We know they’re ridiculous, so we don’t take ’em so seriously. You know, we might have a physical sensation; we don’t worry that we have cancer! Because we’re like, “Yeah, no, maybe I do, maybe I don’t. It doesn’t matter right now, I don’t have to get up. Like I just sit here and keep breathing. Like if I’ve got cancer, I’ll find out later,”
We know how bodies work, we know they’re like cars actually. They work better than cars.
And we can see that feelings are just three flavors.
I like it. I don’t like it, I don’t care.
Greed, hate, and delusion. That simplifies things as opposed to, you know, psychology. I don’t even know how many kinds of feeling they’re up to, right?
So I don’t really have any other like, objective for discussion. We can maybe divide up the foundations and mindfulness over the next few weeks. So we got four foundations. We can spend two weeks on each of them.