The Foundations of Mindfulness: Satipatthana Sutta
Majjhima Nikaya 10
Transcript of an eight-week presentation 2022 by Tahn Pamutto
Part Three: Body
“The reason we’re doing mindfulness and the reason that it’s so focused on what can be experienced objectively is because mindfulness counteracts ignorance”
(opening meditation guidance)
Sitting in meditation, a lot of our intention will come into play.
If there’s any part of the mind that’s trying to get something or trying to get away from something, we’ll see that tendency repeated over and over again in a variety of forms. And so, often I start by trying to just be aware. I try to “center” and actively let go of what I’ve been doing, whatever that is, whether it’s something simple or whether I’ve been very busy.
Take note; see what kind of lingering resonance there might be in the mind.
Set up a strong intention to practice, to not think about the future or plan for the future.
Because the future’s not here yet.
This is the present moment.
And the most important thing we could bring with us going into the future would be mindfulness. But we can’t cultivate that and plan at the same time.
The Buddha encourages beginning meditation with “letting go” as the focus, rather than trying to “get an experience” or looking for some sort of peace.
We’re trying to actively let go of the attachments in the mind, trying to come to a place of acceptance with the mental patterns that are active.
Just like if there’s a noise, like the hum of a computer or a refrigerator or car is out on the street, there’s nothing we can do to change the noise.
The place of peace will be in softening our relationship to the noise. Not trying to shut it out, but just letting it wash over us. Letting it stay in the world, not bringing it into our mind as an object.
As the mind begins to settle… it’s a lot like setting up a scene in a play. We start to notice the things around us. We also start to notice the character that we’re choosing to be, in this play. This too, is something we can’t quickly change.
Instead we work to “soften” to our thoughts and our feelings and our habits until they too are allowed to become part of the scene rather than a source of distress or attachment.
(end of guided meditation)
The next three parts of mindfulness of the body are all different flavors of the same thing in a way, a sort of investigation. My hope is that we’ll have more time for discussion. I’ll kind of go over what they are and why they are important to this kind of investigation.
Then we can kind of open it up. Because for some of you, what’s being suggested in these investigations might be exceedingly alarming and gross. And for others it might be like, “Well, I mean, I work on a farm. This is like, this is daily life. This is nothing exciting. Uh, I can’t believe this is spiritual practice.” And so we’ll meet in the middle there, because both are right.
The next three chapters deal with Mindfulness of the Body.
There’s six sets of instructions, and the fourth deals with bodily composition. That means looking at bodies in terms of their anatomy, their component parts. The next set deals with looking at bodies in terms of material forces. So the forces of solidity, cohesion, vitality or warmth, and motion or energy. And then the final is looking at bodies in terms of their decomposition.
Each one of these is its own set of instructions. You don’t necessarily have to do all six. For instance, I’ve based a lot of my practice on the fourth set of instructions, that is, anatomy. And this can be used as a meditation subject that brings you into full concentration. You can take a single bodily component and focus on it, and the mind becomes so bright and energized and enthused that you get concentration, which lets you develop all kinds of insights.
Any one of these, if you give your time to it, will yield incredible results. The basic premise is dealing with delusions that we have about the body. This is actually very practical. Like if you’re spending a lot of money trying to moisturize your skin, and then you do some contemplation about skin and you realize, “Oh… why am I spending so much money moisturizing this patch of leather that I’ve got wrapping up my organs?”
Then you would be like, “Well, that’s not very practical.”
The reason we’re doing mindfulness, and the reason that it’s so focused on what can be experienced objectively, is because mindfulness counteracts ignorance.
What is ignorance? Well, ignorance is based on deluded ideas we have about things being permanent, things being pleasant or satisfying, and things being ours or ourself. These are the basic fundamental delusions.
How do we look at things objectively?
Take something like a fingernail. When it’s attached to us it’s very personal and we want it to look nice and we don’t want it to get smashed in a door.
But if it were on the floor, we would have none of those emotions towards it. We’d be like, “That’s gross. That’s somebody’s fingernail.”
We’d sweep it up and we’d throw it out. This is the reality. The fingernail is no different.
The problem is that when we misunderstand a fingernail, we leave the door open for the belief that this is my fingernail. That this fingernail’s gonna stay attached to the body and it’s gonna stay safe.
Sometimes the fingernail will be very pleasant, like once it’s painted and perfect, and the cuticles are all healthy and all that… but it’s still a fingernail. If we begin to look at what’s objectively there, there is no room for those delusions to arise. So we’re not caught off guard.
It’s not to say that we have to look at fingernails as this foreign thing attached to our hands, but coming to understand and investigate what a fingernail actually is, means that we’re not going to get caught unaware by distress and confusion and anger when something happens to our fingernail.
We’ll be able to just feel the pain. And we won’t elaborate on that with ideas of, “This is happening to me. I can’t believe this, this always happens to me.” And on and on and on.
My friend just came back from a meditation retreat with a teacher named Beth Upton, who was formerly an ordained bhikkhuni in Burma. After many years of practice, she disrobed and she became a lay teacher who recently taught at the forest refuge for a month, and she was teaching in Austin, Texas.
My friend went down there and they were all being guided through developing concentration meditation. They were being taught in the way that Buddhist practitioners actually pursue when it’s taken very seriously.
Beth brought a box of bones and she kind of laid them out, to investigate, to investigate the skeleton, to investigate your bone structure, to sit there and think about it.
She didn’t give a rigorous structure. Do this, do this, do this. She’s like, “There are incredible insights here. So take your bone and go off and study”
The reality is we’ve got hundreds of bones that we carry with us all the time, but sometimes we need to actually just stop and do this extra step of investigating to develop understanding about these things.
I can tell you from experience, part of the reason why anatomy is one of my main meditation subjects is because it’s incredibly beautiful and joyful when you remove all the layers of delusion and you’re able to just contemplate something like a skeleton as a skeleton, without all the pain and misery and tingling and numbness that we feel in all the other organs. The skeleton just sits there. This is very peaceful.
Very peaceful. Very solid. We can apprehend that mental sign in our mind and develop it into concentration.
Now, the physical elements, again, it’s the same idea. The body is made of matter and it is solid. You can pay attention to just it’s solidity, and realize that the solidity of a physical object is the same as the solidity of the body.
That wall over there and this body are not much different. You can just look at it objectively.
If you begin to see that this is matter, or mass, it follows the laws of physics — again, you’re not gonna get caught as quickly in, “Why am I always falling over?”
The answer’s gravity. There’s no universal force that’s afflicting you or punishing you; you fall over because you’ve just been clumsy. You’re off balance.
The moment you wake up to that, it is practice.
You and your balance improve because you’re more mindful of your weight.
But also you begin to understand that these are universal, impersonal, across-the-board principles of matter.
Cohesion is the water element. Cohesion makes things stick together. So you can’t see it. You can see water, but the force of cohesion is invisible.
But you can mentally begin to understand things are sticking together because of a level of moisture, a level of cohesion.
Now, heat. As a wandering monk, I’ve meditated on heat a lot. I’ve gone to the other monks and done a whiteboard presentation about the three kinds of thermal loss. Because when monks are out wandering and they’re staying in the woods, it gets cold. You need to know about conduction, convection and radiation. “And let me explain these to you, Venerables, because if you don’t master these, you will freeze to death.”
Right? And it’s like, I don’t know. I didn’t go to college to study thermodynamics, it just became a very practical, important thing to sit and think about when I was freezing in the middle of the night, thinking, “Why is it that if I’m wrapped in a thin layer of nylon that covers all my skin, I might be a bit warmer than if I wrapped one part of my body in thick cloth many times.”
If you’re in a building you don’t die of exposure typically, even if the building is not heated. But if you’re outside, you might. Because you’re radiating heat in all directions, just spilling it out. When there’s walls that contain you, you don’t radiate heat in the same way.
So it’s natural principles.
You might think,”Oh, I’m freezing.” But if you stopped and contemplated the fire element, you’d be like, “No, I’m nowhere near freezing. I’m just … whining … That’s all I’m doing.”
Conversely, this is something that children are really bad at, right? You might realize that you are freezing even though you’re not thinking about it. You might see a young child with snot running down their face and their skin’s turning blue and they’re just out playing in the snow. They won’t put on a jacket because they’re so having so much fun in the snow, and they don’t stop to think, “This is going to have consequences.”
You actually become more mindful in both ways. You think, “Nope, now’s the time to put on another layer. Or, now’s the time to be very careful because I’m soaking wet. This is gonna lead to hypothermia…”
Motion and energy are the wind element. Any time things are moving, there’s velocity, there’s energy involved. We can notice when things are moving and when they’re not, and begin to understand that as a “force”. But it even goes a little deeper.
Solidity (earth) is different than Wind. It has mass but doesn’t inherently have motion. The water element is clumping the earth together, but does it just fly off when we touch it? Our bone structure has earth element obviously but it also has this wind force, a resistant force, because it has these very strong bonds. It’s very stable and each bone is supporting all the other bones. It’s capable of supporting weight without crumbling. So there is potential energy there. It’s not neutral, It takes energy to create motion and separate the things back out. The wind element is locked up in the bones as stability.
A building stays up because of a certain measure of the ability to resist impacts. In this way we can understand Wind in an energy sense, even as a chemistry sense, and not just as motion. When you begin to see that, you start to get really curious about all sorts of things that are going on. That should be a byproduct of this kind of investigation.
It should open the mind, it should brighten the mind. It should make you feel curious, interested, energized. This is not just sitting down and being like, I gotta let it go of everything. Gotta let go of everything. That has its own function. But it’s not the most energetic way to pursue practice.
Because the mind has to be applied to something. You can’t just be breathing out all the time. Sometimes you have to breathe in.
Sometimes you have to point the mind at something. And that’s what this mindfulness is about.
Now, the last reflection might have creeped people out when they read it. The Buddha suggests looking at nine different kinds of corpses. Again, this can be a really important part of practice. Though that’s not to say that my friends went to the Burmese Monastery and they started laying out corpses, necessarily, but a pile of bones is one of the kinds of corpses.
Sometimes people equate looking at anatomy as trying to see things in terms of “repulsiveness”. They’ve maybe heard that this is an antidote to lust, which is true. And the Buddha does use it that way. But it’s not just that.
Looking at corpses is not just to understand death. That will happen naturally, but that’s not its only function. The Buddha says you can develop these to get a sense of dispassion or disgust towards things that were otherwise seen as attractive.
You can do it for the development of equanimity.
Simply understanding these things gives you a sense of calm as things are changing, as they’re shifting, as they’re showing signs of decay.
So even though death is its own form of meditation and its own topic of meditation that’s very, very important in Buddhist practice…. to some degree, looking at death specifically is in the fourth foundation of mindfulness.
It’s looking at dukkha or the First Noble Truth.
But what are the corpses about, then?
I really like the commentaries and analysis of this. Each of the nine kinds of corpses is dealing with a specific delusion we have towards bodies.
For instance, looking at a bloated corpse allows us to understand our attachment to the body being in a particular form. Some part of the body is swollen or it’s kind of bent out of proportion, or somebody’s fat, or they’re extremely rail thin. What is our visceral response to that? Do we have a sort of nested delusion there that says, “no, that’s outside of the balance.” Like what is the normal balance for a body? And what is our response when a body is outside of the “normal balance”?
Looking at the bloated corpse is a way to analyze what kind of deep thoughts we have about things being misshapen. It doesn’t even have to be a corpse – even a living body part with this characteristic will suffice. But the corpse doesn’t feel pain or feel repulsed, and that’s important for equanimity.
One of them is a livid corpse, and that means a corpse that has changed color. A corpse changes color quite quickly. But again, even living bodies change color quite quickly. Somebody eats some ghost peppers: they’re going to change color very rapidly. Now, what is our visceral response when we see somebody turn red? We’re like, something’s wrong. Right? We see a child and their fingers are starting to turn blue… what is our visceral response when the body changes color?
Scientists have been able to document this. They do these incredibly mean experiments, just to demonstrate that people have these visceral reactions. They’ll have a steak and they’ll dye it green, then they’ll invite somebody into a room with a green light on. All they can see is a steak in the green room and everything seems normal. The person will start to eat the steak and at some point the scientists will turn out the green light and they’ll turn on a white light, a normal white light, and the person will be able to see that the steak is green and they’ll immediately vomit. Because green means spoiled, it means poison. We don’t know until we look how much we compartmentalize this knowledge. We haven’t realized because we haven’t investigated it.
You could go to a morgue and you could gather up all these nine kinds of bodies, get your nine bodies in a row, and you could sit there and study it. But you would probably develop some respiratory disease from the stink. You would probably become pretty depressed. I really don’t recommend it. Instead these are visualizations. Or you can get a picture online and study it, and then you can walk away and think, “How do I feel when something is bloated?”
Then the next time you smash your thumb and it starts to swell up, you can just look at it and be like, “Yeah! that hurts. But it’s not that big a deal. It’ll go back to some semblance of the shape it was before. But it’s not ‘not-my-thumb’ because it’s swollen; it just looks different.” It is – just a thumb. Thumbs are sometimes like this and sometimes like that.
We open up the ability for things to change, for them to not be pleasant, and for them to do things that we have no control over. Which means that we’re no longer susceptible to the delusion, the delusion that’s making us not mindful.
These are a basis for continuing mindfulness, continuing awareness of things.
These are the six instructions in the body section of Satipatthana. For each of these six body reflections, the Buddha continues with a set of instructions:
You can look at them internally, externally, or both. You can look at your body, you can look at other bodies, or you can just look at bodies in general, including yourself. You can also look at them in terms of their arising, their passing away, or both their arising and passing away. You can see things as they show up, like the sense of bloating. You can notice when something becomes swollen and you see it wasn’t like that before. Or you can notice something fading like after the swelling has returned to normal.
You can see that your knee was once swollen and it no longer is. And you’d be like, “Huh, that’s interesting.” You see how you once had a lot of mass and now you don’t anymore. And you’re like, “Oh, that’s right. I used to be much larger.” Or both. You can just look around and see things changing state and realize that they do that… they do that quite often.
Whether or not we are watching or paying attention or want them to, things change all the time.
And the Buddha says, at the bare minimum you can develop the mindfulness that simply says there is a body. If you can hold onto just that much, that will counteract a lot of ignorance about this being me, this being mine, this being myself.
Developing just that much mindfulness.