The Satipatthana Sutra, is usually considered to be a definitive account of the Buddha’s teaching on mindfulness. Contemporary scholars translate, satipatthana as: ‘establishment of mindfulness’ – from sati – ‘to recollect’, ‘to bear in mind’; patthana – ‘setting forth’, ‘establishment’.
The Buddha identifies four ‘establishments’ or ‘foundations’ of mindfulness:
- Contemplation of the body – centred on breathing, and radiating out to include all aspects of the body, at rest and in motion – “there is a body”
- Contemplation of feeling – being mindful of feelings as they arise and pass away, in all their subtlety and variety – “there is feeling”
- Contemplation of mind – attending to all aspects of thoughts, imaginings, states, intentions and aspirations that make up our mental activity – “there is mind”
- Contemplation of phenomena (sometimes translated as ‘mental qualities’ or even ‘Dharma’) – including perceptions, forms and appearances – “there are phenomena”
The Buddha emphasises that being mindful is bare attention or bare knowledge – nothing more.
At the end of each of the four sections, a particular refrain is repeated (thirteen times). This refrain includes these four aspects of mindfulness [translation courtesy Joseph Goldstein]:
- Contemplating our experience internally, externally, and both
- Contemplating the nature of impermanence: arising, passing away, and both
- Being mindful enough ‘to realise simply what is unfolding moment-to-moment without mental commentary’
- Without clinging to anything that enters our realm of experience (in relation to the above three points)
To be mindful, and to practice mindful meditation, is to put into action the above advice. It is the characteristics outlined above by the Buddha that distinguishes mindful meditation from other forms of meditation. This is not to say that other forms of meditation may not be useful – only that they are different to mindfulness.
In Theravadan, vipassana meditation, the above ‘four contemplations’ are often separated out into many strands and levels of mindful practice. In the Chinese Chan, and Japanese Zen traditions, they are usually considered in a unified holistic way as one activity: zazen or shikantaza (‘just sitting’)
As Kosho Uchiyama puts it, in zazen “we give up both pursuing thought and trying to chase it away. Then we see everything that arises as the scenery of our lives. We let arise whatever arises and allow to fall away whatever falls away.” We attend to all things equally (toji), without grasping, interference or self-centred reactions. Dogen writes,
Do not think about what is good or evil, and do not try to judge right from wrong. Do not try to control perceptions or conscious awareness, nor attempt to analyse your feelings, ideas, or viewpoints. Let go of the idea of trying to become a Buddha as well.
Dogen compares zazen, mindful meditation, to the “deep blue sky that never obstructs the floating white clouds.” What is necessary in mindful meditation “is to entrust everything to the posture of zazen, letting go of all that comes up without trying to work out solutions for what we should do about this or that.”
Reb Anderson reminds us of these words of the Buddha’s:
Please train yourselves thus: In the seen, there will be just the seen. In the heard, there will be just the heard…. In the thought, there will be just the thought….. When for you, the seen is just the seen, the heard is just the heard, and so on – then you will not identify with the seen, etc. If you do not identify with them…. there will be the end of suffering.
NB. Uchiyama, Dogen and Anderson quotes in, The Art of Just Sitting, ed. John Daido Loori, Wisdom Publications, 2002. Goldstein reference from: https://www.lionsroar.com/the-four-foundations-of-mindfulness-2/ – accessed 21/10/2018.