The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, part 1
The Satipatthana Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 10) is a central text in early Buddhism, and one which contains a whole host of powerful insight practices that can bring us to a radical shift in the way we see the world. So over the next couple of months, interleaved with the on-going series of Zen-themed articles on the Gateless Barrier, we'll take a look at this fascinating text and see what it has to offer.
Skippable section mainly for people who are into suttas
Strictly speaking there are two Satipatthana Suttas - Middle-Length Discourse 10, mentioned above, and its slightly larger cousin the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, Long Discourse 22. The only difference between the two, however, is that DN22 contains a detailed exposition of the Four Noble Truths which is absent in MN10. Otherwise, the texts are identical.
I'll be using Bhikkhu Analayo's translation for these articles, even though I linked to Thanissaro's translation above, and I've tweaked the language for gender neutrality, because the original discourse is framed as if addressed to a group of monks, but of course there's no reason at all why these practices can't be explored by anyone at all.
What's the text all about, then? (If you skipped the previous bit, start here)
The 'sati' part of Satipatthana is the Pali language word which is most commonly translated as 'mindfulness' nowadays. The word literally means something like 'remembering', and can be interpreted in myriad ways. For our purposes, we'll take it to mean something like 'paying careful attention to an aspect of our present moment experience'.
The 'patthana' part is usually translated as 'foundations' or 'establishments'. There's a whole area of scholarly debate here, but to keep things simple, we can simply take it to mean something like 'various ways to practise mindfulness'.
The Satipatthana Sutta is an anthology of practices - and boy, there are a lot of practices in the version we're going to look at! Actually, there are many different versions of the text which can be found in the canons of different Buddhist traditions, and by comparing them we can get a sense of which might have been the 'original' practices and which might have been added later by Buddhist practitioners who'd thought up even more interesting ways to practise mindfulness and decided to wedge them into this text so they were all collected together in one place.
Honestly, though, I'd suggest not getting too hung up on which are the 'original' practices and which were 'added later'. As we'll see, there are multiple ways to interpret the instructions for each of the practices, and for my money a better question than 'Yes, but which is the right one?' is 'OK, which of these possible interpretations leads to useful insight practices?' Unless you're determined to be precious about only practising the earliest of early Buddhism (and good luck with that - I look forward to seeing your PhD thesis), it's much more effective just to jump in and start trying things out to see what happens.
So what we're going to find is a whole range of practices, arranged into four categories (you'll sometimes hear this text called 'the four foundations of mindfulness' even though the word 'four' doesn't appear in the title). There are enough practices that we'll need several articles to get through them all - so enough preamble, let's get started!
The opening of the discourse
Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living in the Kuru country at a town of the Kurus named Kammāsadhamma.
Early Buddhism was an oral tradition, and so discourses begin 'Thus have I heard' - because the monk or nun reciting the discourse had literally learnt it by hearing it from someone else.
Often, the discourse will then say where and when the talk was given. Sometimes this is useful information. The Buddha would typically give deeper teachings to a monastic audience than to a group of householders, for example. In this case, the audience is monastic, so we can infer that we're getting the good stuff.
There he addressed the monks thus: 'Monks.' 'Venerable sir,' they replied. The Blessed One said this:
'Monks, this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of dukkha and discontent, for acquiring the true method, for the realization of Nibbāna, namely, the four satipaṭṭhānas.'
The phrase 'this is the direct path' has been the subject of much debate. The Pali words literally mean 'one going path', and the commentaries offer no fewer than five explanations:
Personally, I'm not a really big fan of sectarianism. That attitude was easier to pull off in the days when you only had access to the spiritual teacher in your valley and only had his or her word for it, but in the age of the internet it's a bold person who can claim with a straight face that their particular style of practice is the only valid route up the mountain. Good people (and not-so-good ones!) show up in every tradition throughout history - nobody has a monopoly on wisdom.
In any case, what's being offered here is a path that will lead us to such positive outcomes as overcoming sorrow, lamentation and discontent, and achieving the inner peace of Nibbana - basically, a path to awakening. You have to walk the path yourself - nobody else can walk it for you - but if you're willing to put in the hours, you'll get the results. Can't say fairer than that.
The four satipatthanas
The discourse continues:
What are the four? Here, monks, in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to feelings [one] abides contemplating feelings, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to the mind [one] abides contemplating the mind, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to dhammas [one] abides contemplating dhammas, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world.
So we have four ways to practise mindfulness:
So that's the table of contents, if you will - the four buckets into which all of the subsequent practices will be sorted.
For the remainder of today's article, we'll look at the first three practices in the 'body' section, and then in future articles we'll explore the rest.
Anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing
And how, monks, does [one] in regard to the body abide contemplating the body? Here, gone to the forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut, [one] sits down; having folded [one’s] legs crosswise, set [one's] body erect, and established mindfulness in front of [oneself], mindful [one] breathes in, mindful [one] breathes out.
We start with some general instructions for how to set up a meditation practice. First, we find a suitable place for practice - somewhere that you're unlikely to be disturbed by someone wanting to talk to you. Maybe you don't live near a forest or an empty hut, but nevertheless it's extremely valuable to have some kind of space for practice, and an agreement with the beings (human and animal) who share that space with you that you'll be left alone for the duration of the practice.
Once you have your place, the Buddha recommends sitting down cross-legged and holding the body erect. What you do with your legs is actually not so important - the main thing is that the hips should be higher than the knees, to enable the core of the body to relax. Sitting in a chair is fine if you find that easier than sitting on the floor.
It is helpful to have an upright spine, however. Holding the body in an upright, aligned posture helps to keep us awake and alert during the practice, and once the postural muscles have strengthened sufficiently to allow us to sit without back support, it can actually become a comfortable and relaxed way to be. That said, if you have trouble with back pain, do what you gotta do. The key is to find a posture which balances comfort and relaxation with alertness. If you can do that, you're good to go.
Once your posture is set up, establish your mindfulness - that is, become clearly aware of what's going on right here and now. Bring your attention to your breathing, and feel what happens as you breathe in and as you breathe out.
Where should you focus on the breathing? It depends what you're trying to do, and to a certain extent personal taste comes into it as well. If you're interested in samadhi, stabilising and focusing the mind, my teacher Leigh would always recommend using a small area of focus, such as the sensations of breath at the nostrils. If you're interested in insight - and we'll talk more about this shortly - then wherever the breath sensations are clear to you will be fine as a starting point. It's worth experimenting and finding out what happens if you focus in different places - but don't jump around during a single meditation session, just pick a place and stay there, then try somewhere else next time. Jumping from place to place can be an outlet for the mind's boredom and an excuse not to settle down and focus, and thus ultimately counterproductive.
The discourse continues:
Breathing in long, [one] knows ‘I breathe in long,’ breathing out long, [one] knows ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, [one] knows ‘I breathe in short,’ breathing out short, [one] knows ‘I breathe out short.’ [One] trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body,’ [one] trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.’ [One] trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in calming the bodily formation,’ [one] trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out calming the bodily formation.’
So now we get some more specific instructions for the kind of relationship we should have with the breath. Experienced readers may notice the similarity with another famous meditation discourse of the Buddha's, the Anapanasati Sutta (MN118, the discourse on mindfulness of the in-breath and out-breath). The instructions here represent the first four of sixteen steps given in that discourse.
First, it's clear that we're supposed to notice the details of the breath, not just the mere fact of 'in-breath, out-breath'. We're invited to recognise when our breath is long, when it's short. (The 'long' and 'short' here may be a reference to the way the breath tends to start out a little deeper, and then gradually become shallower as the mind becomes settled. That might be the opposite way round to what you'd expect if you have the idea that 'meditation' means 'breathing deeply', but if you meditate for a while and simply watch your breath without manipulating it in any way, you can see it for yourself.)
What about 'experiencing the whole body'? Some teachers argue that this means we should be aware of the breath throughout the whole body, while the traditional commentaries interpret it as 'the whole body of the breath', i.e. noticing every part of the breath rather than just touching in with it from time to time.
And what about 'calming the bodily formation'? My teacher Leigh takes this to mean that one simply holds the intention of allowing the body to settle while continuing to focus on the breathing, rather than breathing in a particular way in order to cause the body to become relaxed.
Finally, we have a simile, which underscores the attitude one should take toward the breath:
Just as a skilled turner or [their] apprentice, when making a long turn, knows ‘I make a long turn,’ or when making a short turn knows ‘I make a short turn’ so too, breathing in long, [one] knows ‘I breathe in long,’ … [continue as above].
When a woodworker is carving something, it's very important to pay attention to what's being done. If you carve a long turn when a short one is required, the piece is ruined! So a diligent artisan will pay close attention to the details of the work at hand, sensitive to the changes, following along carefully rather than allowing the mind to wander freely. That's how we should follow the breathing in this practice.
So those are the instructions for mindfulness of breathing as found in the Satipatthana Sutta (as I mentioned, there are more instructions in the Anapanasati Sutta). But we're not quite done yet! After every practice in the Satipatthana Sutta, there's a section known as the 'refrain', kind of like the chorus in a song. It goes as follows:
In this way, in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body internally, or [one] abides contemplating the body externally, or [one] abides contemplating the body both internally and externally. [One] abides contemplating the nature of arising in the body, or [one] abides contemplating the nature of passing away in the body, or [one] abides contemplating the nature of both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in [oneself] to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And [one] abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world.
That is how in regard to the body [one] abides contemplating the body.
We have three important points here.
Opinion is divided as to what the Buddha meant by this. Fortunately, both interpretations give us interesting and helpful practices, so you can try both and see which you prefer.
One interpretation is that 'internally' means 'your breathing', and 'externally' means 'the breathing of others'. If you've ever been in a meditation hall and there's that one person with the loudest breath in the world - well, that's your chance to practise mindfulness of breathing externally. How nice!
Another interpretation is that 'internally' means 'internal to me' while 'externally' means 'external to me'. In this case, we might regard the 'internal' aspect of breathing as the physical sensations felt in the body (which are not available to other people), while the 'external' aspect is the sound of the breathing and perhaps the visible movements of the body. So you can pay attention to the physical sensations of your breath, the sound of your breath, or both.
In my recent article on insight contemplation, I mentioned the Three Characteristics, three aspects of reality which are commonly suggested as topics for insight practice. One of the three is anicca, impermanence or inconstancy. (We'll discuss the other two, dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) and anatta (essencelessness) in future articles in this series,)
So here we have an explicit instruction to investigate impermanence. This is seen as a critical insight in early Buddhism - so much so that one of the standard ways in the Pali canon to describe someone attaining stream entry, the first stage of awakening, is to say that so-and-so saw for themselves that 'Whatever is subject to arising is subject to passing.'
We should check this out! Here are some ways to explore the theme of impermanence while working with the breath:
There's a balance to be struck here. If we bring too much effort to our practice, the mind will become tight and unpleasant, easily distracted and skittish. But if we don't apply enough effort, the mind will be lax, dull and lazy, not seeing what's going on with sufficient clarity to make any headway. So we need to find the sweet spot in the middle - enough focus to stay on topic, but enough relaxation to keep things light and open rather than unpleasantly contracted.
Generally speaking, you'll probably oscillate between the two extremes - and to make matters worse, it's something of a moving target, because as the mind settles it becomes capable of greater subtlety, which means you need a gentler and gentler touch over time. I go into all this in some detail in my article on the Elephant Path, so check that out if you want to know more.
The intention of samadhi vs the intention of insight
At this point it's worth taking a step back. I said at the start of the article that the practices in the Satipatthana Sutta are for insight, but you may well have encountered meditations on the breath being used for concentration/samadhi. What's going on?
Simply put, the breath is just an object. We can use pretty much any object for meditation - the breath, the body, a candle flame, a mantra, a visualisation, you name it. What makes the difference is how we work with that object.
For samadhi, we're interested in settling and stabilising the mind. As we work with the breath, we thus focus on the continuity of the breathing. The breath is like a wave, coming and going, but we have a sense that the breathing process continues from moment to moment, whether we're breathing in or out, or whether we're in a gap between breaths. That sense of continuity gives us a kind of stability on which the mind can rest, allowing it to settle and become stable. If we take an interest in the sensations that make up the breathing, it's as a kind of 'texture' that makes the breathing a more interesting subject for the mind to rest on, rather than because we're particularly interested in dismantling the breath into its component parts.
By comparison, for insight into impermanence, we're actually going in the opposite direction. We're concerned with the coming-and-going nature of the breath sensations, not the continuity of breathing. Our practice is likely to deconstruct rather than stabilise the sensations, ultimately disintegrating subjective experience rather than unifying it. We focus on the parts rather than the whole, and the parts of the parts, and so on, all the way down to whatever we find at the deepest level of experience.
It can be interesting to try both approaches in a single meditation period. For the first half of the time, focus on samadhi - settling the mind, stabilising and calming, emphasising continuity. Then for the second half, focus on insight - exploring arising and passing, deconstructing the breath. Notice the effects that both modes of practice have, and what you notice in each case.
Finally, it's worth saying that the division between samadhi and insight isn't absolute by any means - insights may arise during 'samadhi' practice and the mind may become stable and focused during 'insight' practice. Generally speaking, though, you tend to get what you aim for in this practice, so it's helpful to be clear about what you're trying to do.
Two more practices
To close out this article, we'll also look at the next two practices in the 'body' section. Both of these are 'off-cushion' practices, i.e. something to be explored when you're not in formal meditation.
Here's the first, mindfulness of postures:
Again, monks, when walking, [one] knows ‘I am walking’; when standing, [one] knows ‘I am standing’; when sitting, [one] knows ‘I am sitting’; when lying down, [one] knows ‘I am lying down’; or [one] knows accordingly however [one’s] body is disposed.
This is a (seemingly!) simple mindfulness practice. Basically, notice when your posture changes - when you go from sitting to standing, from standing to walking, from walking to standing, and so on.
Mindfulness off the cushion is hugely important, and can be under-emphasised in systems where meditation is highly valued. If we're mindful on the cushion but mindless off the cushion, all the concentration, calmness and stability we build up in our meditation will dissipate rapidly, and we will tend to lose our presence of mind. If you find yourself wondering why the benefits of your meditation practice don't seem to be translating to your daily life, this is the number one place to look.
An exercise like mindfulness of postures can be a great one to keep the continuity of practice going on retreat. It's a bit more difficult in daily life, however, where we often have a lot of different things to do. Which brings us to the third (and, for today, final) practice in the 'body' section, mindfulness of activities:
Again, monks, when going forward and returning [one] acts clearly knowing; when looking ahead and looking away [one] acts clearly knowing; when flexing and extending [one’s] limbs [one] acts clearly knowing; when wearing [one’s] robes and carrying [one’s] outer robe and bowl [one] acts clearly knowing; when eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting [one] acts clearly knowing; when defecating and urinating [one] acts clearly knowing; when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent [one] acts clearly knowing.
Taken literally, this is epic-level daily-life mindfulness - it's an invitation to maintain continuous awareness throughout all of your activities, from dawn 'til dusk.
This is perhaps best seen as an aspiration. Of course, if you can be mindful of everything all day long, don't let me stop you. But particularly when you're new to the practice, it's an unachievably high bar.
It's best to start out small - perhaps commit to being mindful when you brush your teeth, bringing your full attention to the present moment, feeling the sensations of the toothbrush in your hand, tasting the toothpaste, hearing the running water and so on. Focus initially on establishing the habit of bringing mindfulness to teeth-brushing, and let yourself off the hook the rest of the time. Then, once you have a foot in the door, start building on it. Perhaps you could add being mindful as you get dressed, or as you wash the dishes (or load the dishwasher), or as you walk down the road. Little by little, increase the duration and number of moments of mindfulness throughout the day, until over time they begin to string together, and mindfulness becomes more and more your natural state of being.
And in the meantime, keep your formal meditation practice going as well! It isn't one or the other - both support each other. So why not give mindfulness of breathing a try right now, and then once you're done, go and make a cup of tea or coffee as mindfully as you can. Good luck!
Sometimes doing nothing at all is the right response
This week we're looking at case 17 in the Gateless Barrier, a classic collection of Zen koans. This story, titled 'The National Teacher's Three Calls', simultaneously holds up an ideal of Zen practice, and poses some interesting practical questions. So without further ado, let's get into it!
Who is the National Teacher, and what is he up to here?
Nanyang Huizhong was a Zen teacher who lived in the Tang dynasty in China, and became known as the 'National Teacher' because he served as teacher to two Tang dynasty emperors, Suzong and Daizong. Needless to say, this is a high office, and the Tang dynasty is regarded as the golden age of Zen in China, so we're either dealing with the best of the best, or at the very least an individual in a very influential place at just the right time. So we should probably take him seriously!
Nevertheless, he isn't going out of his way to endear himself to his attendant. The role of attendant typically involves looking after the teacher - fetching water and tea, packing the luggage when going on a trip, basically seeing to their every need. Attendants are typically expected to be at the beck and call of their teacher most or all of the time; as a result, they have an opportunity to spend perhaps more time with that teacher than anyone else, and see them in a wider range of circumstances. This can be both good and bad! The present-day Chan (Chinese Zen) teacher Guo Gu has written and spoken at length of his time serving as attendant to his teacher Sheng-Yen - for example, in this Guru Viking interview. It's fascinating stuff!
In the case of today's koan, the National Teacher appears, for want of a better term, to be trolling his poor attendant. Perhaps it unfolded something like this:
National Teacher: Attendant! Come quickly!
Attendant: *arrives* What do you need, sir?
NT: Oh, nothing. You can go.
NT: Wait, wait, come back!
Attendant: *arrives* What do you need, sir?
NT: Ah, nothing. Never mind. Please leave.
NT: Where have you gone?! I need you! Come here at once, it's urgent!
Attendant: *arrives* What do you need, sir?
NT: You know what, never mind.
What an annoying thing to do!
Haven't we seen something like this before?
Yes! Those of you who've been following this series of articles on the Gateless Barrier may recognise the call-and-response format that's implied here - we've seen it most explicitly in case 10, and also alluded to in cases 2 and 12. I won't repeat the material from my article on case 10 - check out that article if you're interested - but in a nutshell, the call-and-response format is designed to evoke a natural, spontaneous response, just as you naturally turn your head when you hear your name being called.
In this case, however, the National Teacher is turning up the heat. He expects his attendant to respond promptly with compassion and equanimity - both qualities of a flourishing Buddha Nature - but today he's putting his attendant under some pressure to see what happens.
How would you react to this situation? If it were me, I know I'd fail the test! The first time the teacher called and then decided he didn't want anything after all, I'd probably be puzzled, perhaps a bit irritated if I'd been interrupted in the middle of doing something important. The second time, I'd definitely be annoyed. And the third time? As I was sitting with this koan, I was amused to realise that three repetitions of an annoyance is my personal internal threshold for 'OK, that's enough, something has to be done about this.' So after that third call, I'd be looking to start some kind of conversation along the lines of 'Teacher, could you perhaps think for a moment whether you really need me before calling me like that? It's hard for me to get my other work done when I'm being interrupted. It's fine if you need me, but these three times you didn't need anything, so it's just a waste!' (At least, that's how the conversation would go on a good day. On a bad day, the language might be a little different...)
Fortunately, the attendant is a much stronger practitioner than I am, as is reflected in the National Teacher's admission of defeat. 'I had thought I was disappointing you,' he says - in other words, I was doing my best to bait you into getting annoyed with me. 'Actually, it is you who are disappointing me,' he continues - in other words, despite my best efforts to get a rise out of you, I failed!
Why the National Teacher gotta be like that, though?
But why would the National Teacher want to treat his attendant in this seemingly rather unkind, perhaps even cruel, manner? As strange as it might sound, the root answer is actually 'compassion'.
At a certain point in practice, we can get to a point where life is pretty good. We've developed our equanimity to the point that a whole range of things that used to bother us don't really get to us any more. If we've also had some insights into topics like emptiness, we can start to feel like we're pretty good at this Zen thing - we can take our foot off the pedal of our practice, and start coasting along, telling ourselves (and perhaps everyone else) how enlightened we are.
The role of the teacher at this point is to expose the areas where we haven't yet woken up - to find those places where we can still get caught, where we still need to practise. At this stage, the most annoying people in our lives become our best teachers, because they effortlessly push the very buttons that we most urgently need to find and explore for ourselves. And if there isn't an annoying person handy to do that organically for you, the teacher's job is to step up and take on that role. (Again, check out that interview with Guo Gu for multiple examples of Sheng-Yen's efforts to press Guo Gu's buttons.)
So, ultimately, the National Teacher is being cruel to be kind - or at least attempting to! But the attendant has perhaps played this game many times in the past, and they're wise to the National Teacher's tricks. And so they don't take the bait.
Skilful responses to suffering
There's a broader question here. Does this story suggest that, no matter what happens to us, we're simply supposed to grin and bear it? Is Zen promoting a blind, quasi-militaristic obedience to hierarchy, where we're obliged to do whatever our superiors demand without ever questioning it?
Well, no. What we're seeing here is a teaching device which is being employed in a specific relationship for the purpose of helping the attendant to cultivate their practice. The National Teacher isn't simply being an abusive boss - he's employing a strategy for a particular effect. Once the attendant has become truly immune to these tricks, they'll stop. (Perhaps this is even the turning point in their relationship, where the National Teacher concludes that the game is finally played out.)
However, there's a broader and subtler question here, and one which is perhaps more relevant to those of us who don't live in a training monastery. When should we simply accept sources of discomfort in our lives, using them as grist for the mill of practice, and when should we do something about them?
(All of these are questions which have come up for me personally; the latter is a live situation for me right now.)
Much as I'd like to have figured this out and be able to give you a neat flow chart for deciding when and how to take action, I don't think there's ultimately any one strategy which will fit all situations. (Indeed, this 'no size fits all' is a recurring theme in Zen koans which we'll see later on in the Gateless Barrier.) The skilful response in a given situation will depend on many factors - what else is happening in our lives at the time, our own capacity to withstand suffering versus act on it, the tractability of the problem (scratching an itch is easier than changing someone's opinion!), and no doubt all sorts of other considerations too. (An interesting insight exercise might be to explore what other factors play into a decision like that - give it a try sometime!)
Another important question to consider is whether what we're about to do in the face of suffering is an intentional response, coming from a place of spaciousness and choice, or whether it's a knee-jerk reaction to a source of discomfort. Generally speaking, the former tend to be better than the latter in the long run - but, depending on the circumstance, we won't always have the choice! Nevertheless, it's useful to have a sense of a helpful direction of travel as we grow in our practice, even if the ideal standard isn't necessarily achievable.
Working with suffering
Let's say that we've decided to allow a particular source of discomfort to remain so that we can work with the attendant suffering, rather than taking action to resolve it. How do we do that?
One approach, very common in early Buddhism, is what my teacher's teacher Ayya Khema called 'substitution' - the deliberate application of an antidote to replace the experience of suffering with a wholesome experience. For example, if experiencing anger toward someone, we might deliberately bring up loving kindness toward them instead, replacing an unskilful mental factor with a skilful one.
Another approach, typified by Zen master Huangbo, is to use awareness itself. Huangbo's observation is 'that which sees suffering is not itself suffering', and this is something we can check out directly for ourselves. If you find yourself experiencing something unpleasant - a mild physical pain, a difficult emotion - see if you can redirect your attention to the awareness of the unpleasant sensation. Notice that the unpleasant sensation arises within awareness, but the awareness itself is not unpleasant. The awareness just is - it's like a mirror, effortlessly reflecting what's in front of it, without taking sides or rendering judgements. Furthermore, awareness is always a little 'bigger' than whatever it's holding - the space of awareness is large enough to hold whatever is arising for you, and then some.
If we can tune in to this quality of spaciousness around the difficult experience, and notice that the spaciousness itself is not difficult at all, then we can allow ourselves to hold all manner of suffering in our awareness without immediately needing to take action to 'fix' it or make it go away. We aren't ignoring or suppressing what's going on - we're actively allowing it to remain in our awareness - but we're holding it in such a way that we don't slip into resisting the experience. Perhaps paradoxically, resisting an unpleasant experience actually supplies it with energy which tends to perpetuate it - or, more pithily, 'whatever you resist persists'. Simply through holding it in our awareness, openly and non-judgementally, we can give space for our suffering to unwind itself, be fully felt and processed, and then to release itself.
As strange as it may sound, sometimes doing nothing at all with our suffering, but simply holding it in the light of our awareness, can be the most transformative thing we can do.
Meditation's less-known counterpart
First, I should say that this week's article is a break from what we've been doing so far this year, going case-by-case through the collection of Zen stories called the Gateless Barrier. So if you were hoping to read about case 17, please come back next week! The fact is that this summer I'll be assisting my teacher Leigh Brasington with a retreat at Gaia House, and my role in this retreat has recently expanded, so I have quite a few talks to prepare between now and then. I also work a full-time job, so, rather than try to fit in retreat prep in addition to my regular class planning - and run the risk of phoning in some of my weekly classes and articles - some weeks I'll use the Wednesday night class and the corresponding article to do some of my retreat preparation. Fear not, the material I'll be presenting here (and on Wednesdays) will still be accessible to people who are not experienced meditators on a 10-day retreat!
An outline of the Buddhist path
At a high level, we can divide the Buddhist path into three areas, or 'trainings'. We have sīla, the training in ethics, which focuses on living a life which avoids causing harm to others; samādhi, the training for the mind and heart, where we learn to settle and focus the mind and open the heart; and pañña, the training in wisdom, where we learn to see clearly what's going on.
We don't talk a lot about ethics in these articles - maybe that's a shortcoming. But basically the idea is to lead a life which gives us as little cause for regret, shame and worry as possible, treating one another with kindness and compassion. People wishing to become Buddhists formally may go through a precept-taking ceremony in which they commit to upholding at least the Five Precepts - not to kill, not to steal, not to misuse sexuality, not to misuse speech, and not to misuse intoxicants. (Zen has five more precepts for lay practitioners, which you can read about on the Zenways website.)
The second training, for the mind and heart, is where meditation makes its first appearance. Developing samādhi can be accomplished through jhana practice, or more generally through any kind of focused attention practice, where the emphasis is on placing the mind on an object and returning whenever the mind wanders. Heart-opening practices such as the Brahmaviharas are also included under this training, since the focus is on stabilising and cultivating the positive qualities of the heart that those practices open up for us.
The third training, in wisdom, is the domain of insight practice, and that's the focus of today's article.
The intention of cultivating wisdom
In the traditional stories of the Pali canon, the Buddha often presents the teachings in what has become known as the 'gradual training' - first, a monk or nun undertakes the training in ethics, then cultivates the jhanas to develop a stable, focused mind. Finally, 'with a mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, one directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision.'
So in the third training, we shift our intention from stabilising the mind or cultivating the heart qualities of the Brahmaviharas, toward seeing clearly what's going on, as it really is. We can examine our experience in many, many ways - and some suggestions from the early Buddhist tradition are provided on my Insight practice page, while koan study offers a Zen-based approach to insight.
Some insight techniques look superficially pretty similar to samādhi practice. For example, we might pay attention to the sensations of the breathing, or the body. However, the difference is in the intention. In a samadhi practice, we emphasise the continuity of awareness of the object, allowing the mind to settle and stabilise over time. In an insight practice, we might instead choose to examine the breath through the lens of one of the Three Characteristics - impermanence (anicca), essencelessness (anatta) or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and in future articles we'll look at how to do exactly this.
For today, however, I'd like to talk about a different approach to the cultivation of insight, which is perhaps a little less widely discussed - the practice of contemplation.
What is contemplation?
In contemplation, we take a theme of interest - perhaps the Four Noble Truths, or Dependent Origination - and examine it in detail. We consider it from many angles, look to see whether we agree with what's being proposed, how it manifests in our lives, and what the implications might be for us.
Whereas meditation tends to be primarily a wordless experience (although see the caveat below), contemplation can involve plenty of thinking. We can also contemplate through journalling, talking to a spiritual friend, or pretty much anything else you can come up with. The only real 'rule' in contemplation is to try to stay on topic - so if you find that you've drifted away from contemplating Dependent Origination and have started to plan what you're doing at the weekend, it's time to come back to the contemplation.
(The caveat: especially for people coming from the Christian tradition, this way of using the words 'contemplation' and 'meditation' might feel back-to-front. In most cases, 'meditating on a subject' means 'thinking about it' - see, for example, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - whereas 'contemplating something' often points to a more wordless experience, such as when we contemplate a sunset or a work of art. Unfortunately, however, when Buddhism first came to the West, the translators chose the word 'meditation' to describe the wordless practice, and it's so firmly established now that probably more people associate 'meditation' with something like mindfulness practice than with thinking deeply and carefully about a subject. That leaves us with a 'spare' word, contemplation, and a practice which involves thinking about a subject that we can't call 'meditation' because that's already taken - and so here we are. Sorry about that.)
Enough theory - let's contemplate something!
There's a classic set of five contemplations in the early Buddhist tradition, taken from AN5.57 in the Numerical Discourses in the Pali canon. The Buddha presents these as 'five themes that should often be reflected on by a woman or a man, by a householder or one gone forth' - in other words, by everyone. 'Often' came to be interpreted as 'every day', and these became known as the Five Daily Reflections or Five Daily Recollections.
There are many ways to work with these. One option, which I'll present below, is to take all five themes and spend some time contemplating each one, say five to ten minutes on each theme. (Adjust the length of time to taste, but less than five minutes on a single contemplation probably won't get you very far.) Another approach is to read through the whole list right away, and notice which of the five stands out the most for you, either positively (perhaps it seems interesting) or negatively (perhaps it seems like something you really wouldn't want to contemplate!), and then spend the rest of your practice time on that one. A third approach is to take one of the five and spend a week or more just working with that one - personally, I've found that, like working with a koan, these contemplations tend to bring up a bunch of stuff pretty much right away, after which things go quiet for a while, but then another wave of material will start to come up after a while, and so the contemplation goes deeper and deeper over time.
What I'll present in the remainder of the article is pretty close to the way my teacher Leigh does things on retreat. For each of the five themes, we'll start with the headline statement, which you're encouraged to say out loud to yourself to begin the contemplation. Then I'll include a variety of other statements and questions designed to help you probe into the subject matter. If these aren't helpful, there's no need to use them - just stay focused on the theme you're contemplating. But some of these probes might help to open up aspects of the contemplation which wouldn't otherwise have occurred to you straight away. I'll also include some additional reflections on each theme from the Buddha which come a little later in the discourse.
I tend to shy away from doing these contemplations in class because I often get beginners and new people showing up who I don't know anything about, and the subject matter of the contemplations is pretty stark at times. We're going to examine old age, sickness, death and loss, and these subjects can hit us hard. A certain amount of discomfort is likely to come up in the practice, but if you start to feel overwhelmed, remember that you can come out of the practice at any time - open your eyes, stand up, go for a walk, take a shower. If you have a history of trauma and it starts to come up in this practice, it's generally best to work one-on-one with a trauma-aware professional rather than trying to 'meditate through it' on your own.
Getting started with the contemplation practice
It can be helpful to begin with a period of samādhi practice - perhaps a few minutes, perhaps longer if you have time. Remember the Buddha's advice: insight practice is best done with a mind that is 'concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability'. You can meditate on the breath, on the body sensations, do some loving kindness practice, or whatever else you find has a calming, stabilising effect on the mind.
Once you're ready to move into the contemplations, read the first contemplation aloud and see what comes up for you. As mentioned, the subsequent questions and statements are offered as options to help the contemplation, but there's no need to use them if you get enough out of the primary statement.
1. I am subject to old age; I am not exempt from old age.
2. I am subject to illness; I am not exempt from illness.
3. I am subject to death; I am not exempt from death.
4. All that is dear and delightful to me will change and vanish.
5. I am the owner of my actions, the recipient of my actions, born from my actions, bound to my actions, inseparable from my actions. Any action that I take - whether it is good or evil - I will receive its result.
What is freedom, anyway?
This week we're looking at case 16 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Putting on a formal vestment at the sound of a bell.' And unlike last week's koan, there's not much to decipher in this one, so we can get pretty much straight into exploring the deep and profound question that's at the root of the story here.
The koan at face value
Master Yunmen showed up in the previous koan, where he told poor old Dongshan that he deserved a damn good thrashing for answering Yunmen's questions at face value. Thus, it's with a certain trepidation that I approach this koan in literal terms. Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere.
We might imagine that Yunmen is speaking to an assembly of monks, all adorned in their 'formal vestments' - other translations say 'the three-piece robe', which is the traditional garment for monks in training. Perhaps this is the first talk of the morning - the wake-up bell has just rung, and so the monks have quickly dressed in their robes and hurried to the teaching hall to hear Yunmen speak.
When he does speak, he opens with a direct challenge. 'The world is so wide, so vast' - there are so many possibilities in this life. You could be anywhere, doing anything! And yet here is a group of monks, voluntarily submitting to the notoriously hard life and rigorous schedule of a Zen monastery - little sleep, little food, lots of hard work, little in the way of comfort. Why would anyone choose this?
Perhaps this is a hard question for us to relate to - after all, presumably most people reading this article are not Zen monks. (I'm not!) But we can rephrase the question in a way that keeps the original meaning intact but broadens it out to a wider range of life circumstances.
Why are you here?
Given all the things you could possibly be doing with your life, why are you here, at this moment, reading these words? What calls you to this practice?
This question invites us to examine and clarify our intention. My Zen teacher Daizan likes to say that we tend to get out of this practice whatever it is that we want to get out of it - and so it's important to be clear about that! If our intentions are muddled, or we're just doing it because someone else suggested it and we're going along with it, we can practise for a long time without achieving much of anything. By comparison, having a clear intention is a powerful thing. Daizan likes to tell a story of a student of his who found himself suddenly unemployed, with a few months on his hands before his next job. The student declared to Daizan that he wanted to achieve kensho - the initial awakening in the Zen tradition - before Christmas, which was a few months away at the time. He got it the next day.
You can't always get what you want
Now, earlier I said 'you could be anywhere, doing anything.' But how true is that, really?
The world of human society is governed by many rules. Some of these are explicit - we call them laws, and we formalise systems of punishment for people who contravene those rules. It doesn't mean you can't break the rules, but there will be consequences if you're caught. Other rules are implicit - social conventions, for example. We expect people to dress, speak and behave in certain ways, and there are plenty of alternatives which are not explicitly illegal but nevertheless carry severe social consequences if we violate them. We find that factors such as wealth, ancestry and class are tremendously important in society, and open certain doors to us while closing others, in ways that can be extremely difficult to overcome. And then, over time, we impose rules on ourselves as well, internalising criticism from parents or teachers - perhaps we learn not to talk so much, or that nobody wants to hear us sing, or whatever it might be.
When we undertake the practice of insight meditation, we start to see the structures in our views, beliefs and habitual thought patterns which have hitherto been implicit. As they become conscious, we have the opportunity to decide whether these structures are really serving our interests, or whether they're simply getting in our way. In the long run, we can drop the ones that are limiting our potential, and gain some freedom in the process.
As the practice deepens, we begin to see the emptiness - the arbitrariness, the fundamentally fabricated nature - of more and more of the structures in our lives. We understand that even laws are not absolute truths of the universe - they're simply very well understood and widely upheld agreements, and at any time we can choose to adhere to them or not. Even our sense of who we are is just a story that we repeat to ourselves and others, a way of making sense of the disparate events of our lives and packaging it in a neat form, but one which can become self-limiting if held too tightly.
Nevertheless, just because all of these things are found to be empty upon close examination, that doesn't mean we can ignore them, or simply decide for ourselves how we want things to be. Simply discovering the emptiness of the structures around us may give us a certain amount of freedom from self-imposed limitations, but it doesn't magically free us from the need to earn money to buy food, at least if we continue to live in a capitalist society. And even though, on one level, 'Matt' is not really who I am, but rather just one facet of my experience which arises from time to time, it's still pretty helpful for the people around me if I continue to respond when they call my name, rather than deciding that I'm now too enlightened to come when called.
Indeed, in many ways structure is very helpful. If I compare my life to that of the squirrel I can see sitting on the fence in my back garden, I have all sorts of obligations that the squirrel doesn't - I have to pay my mortgage every month, for example. But there's a trade-off there. The squirrel is free to roam wherever it wants to go, whereas I'm tied to this pile of bricks and mortar. On the other hand, though, the squirrel has to bury its food and hope that it's still there when it comes back later, whereas I have walls and locked doors to protect my possessions. You could view me as limited by association with this physical structure, or you could instead view it in terms of the opportunities that the house provides for me to keep various possessions safely, not to mention running water and electricity. Being 'limited' by my house actually enables many features of my lifestyle that would be much more difficult if I were living in nature like the squirrel.
(OK, that was a whole paragraph about squirrels. Sorry about that. I came up with the analogy a few months back and I've been waiting for an opportunity to use it.)
In the long run, the skill in Zen is not so much in casting off all the structures we discover, but in learning to use structure skilfully, to support our aims and intentions rather than holding us back. We become able to adopt roles, responsibilities and stories as necessary, and then put them down again afterwards. This is a more valuable freedom than the initially appealing but ultimately impractical notion of simply throwing off every rule and convention.
In the end we may well choose to put on a formal vestment at the sound of a bell - not because anyone is forcing us to, but because we see how submitting ourselves to the rigorous discipline of Zen training will ultimately help us get where we want to be in our lives, and so we make the conscious choice to adopt the structure for as long as it serves us.
Coming back to the koan
So far I've provided an interpretation of this koan which is focused on structure and freedom. But if I leave it there, I've only provided you with structure and not offered any freedom! So, in closing, let's take a totally different look at the central question of the story - 'Why am I here?' - as an illustration of the multiple avenues of exploration that a good koan provides for us.
In this case, it can actually be very interesting to take the question apart and examine each word in turn. So let's do that now - I'll offer a suggested route for contemplation in each case, but if something else comes up for you, by all means explore that too, or instead!
How does one answer a 'why' question? Here's a seven-minute video of physicist Richard Feynman explaining at length that it isn't as easy as it might appear to explain 'why' something happens:
I really recommend watching the whole video - it's genius - but in brief, when we answer a 'why' question, we provide a story which describes what's going on in terms of something else that we feel we understand. But that understanding is itself either built on an explanation in terms of something else, or it's simply accepted on faith. Sooner or later, we run out of 'Why?' and end up with 'Just because, OK?'
So it can be very interesting to play the 'annoying child' game, and ask 'Why do I habitually behave this way?' or 'Why do I hold this belief?', and then, when an answer comes back, question that too. See how deep the rabbit hole goes, until you finally get to 'Just because.' It can be eye-opening!
'Am' is the first-person present tense of the verb 'to be'. But what does it mean, exactly, for something 'to be'? What is being? What does it mean for something to exist, and how do we know whether or not something exists? How do I know that 'I am'?
We can also use 'to be' to assert equivalence or identity. 'He is tall,' 'this is really good,' 'Capitalism is good/bad/<insert your political philosophy here>'. We say 'it is' to indicate that something is true - but what is truth? What do we know for certain, and where is the source of our certainty?
My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, used to say that 'All koans are just footnotes to "Who am I?"' This most fundamental of all spiritual questions points us right back at the source of our experience, looking back at our 'original face'.
If you only ever study one koan, make it 'Who am I?'
In a previous article I've written about the strange nature of time, and that popular spiritual concept, the 'present moment'. Generally speaking, we tend to think of time as a kind of line, with 'the present moment' being a point moving along that line. In direct experience, however, it turns out to be more accurate to say that 'the present moment' - or perhaps more accurately 'now' - is all that really exists, and all of our experience of past, present and future is contained within that timeless, endless 'now'.
(Don't just take my word for it, or write this off as typical Zen double-speak. Check it out for yourself!)
It turns out that we can perform a similar analysis of space, and 'here-ness'. What does it mean to be here, as opposed to there? Does space come first, and we occupy a mobile piece of it - or is our experience now and always 'here', and our experience of space flows through and around that ever-present 'here'?
(Again, in the likely event that the paragraph above didn't make a lick o' sense, forget the words and examine 'here-ness' for yourself. It's well worth it.)
Finally, we can, of course, work with the whole question as well. We can interpret it at face value (what bought me to this place at this moment? - which of course has many levels of possible answer), as a more existential question (what is the meaning of life? do I have a purpose, and if so, what is it?), or in any other way that seems fruitful to us.
Whatever approach we pick, it's good to stay with the investigation longer than we think we need to. Often these kinds of investigations will deliver an info dump fairly quickly, then we can enter a kind of dry spell where it feels like we've already answered the question and there's nothing left to discover. Don't be fooled.
There's always more to discover.
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.