If the Satipatthana Sutta were to conclude after describing the first three foundations of mindfulness, what would we lose? Mindfulness of breathing, bodily movements and positions, feelings, and states of mind will be more than enough for most people to work on over several decades and still feel they haven’t exhausted the practice. We would gain closeness to our own experience: a refined awareness of all that is going on in our bodies, an understanding of how feelings work and how craving arises, a developed intuition for states of mind in ourselves and in others, a diminishing of compulsions and attachments, and all round — just by becoming more aware and self-aware — greater effectiveness in our activities. Becoming more open to experience and more calmly intelligent about what really goes on, we will naturally suffer less because our expectation and demands will be more realistic; we might even find ourselves happier, because we are struggling less with people and situations, and because in paying attention we will start to find our own lives more interesting, more abundant. It could well be that knowledge of what we have to do and how we have to live will emerge naturally from understanding ourselves better — just as children who read and who thus spend many hours a day getting into the minds of literary characters will expand their powers of empathy without having to be taught.
The Buddha himself made his great spiritual discoveries wholly empirically, through observing and comprehending what is present in body, feelings, and mind; no one told him where the practice was going to lead him. It takes tremendous trust in the process to be able to give oneself up to the lessons of experience, without being guided by a framework reassuringly provided by a wise teacher. Similarly, it takes an unusually trusting teacher to let the student loose in the laboratory of life to figure out for himself what works and what doesn’t. What if the student accidentally blows himself up? On the other hand, a real teacher — knowing that he is not omniscient — is always delighted when a student surprises him with a question or discovery that he hasn’t yet thought of. Throughout the Discourses the Buddha has emphasized “knowing for yourselves”; we only know the things that we find with our own senses and intelligence, and the Buddha’s teaching style — terse, dry, understated — is designed to give us space to question and investigate. It is also why the Satipatthana starts with meditations in which we develop confidence in our own powers of insight. In the words of the refrain in this Sutta, the practitioner “lives independent and clings to naught in the world” — not even the words of his teacher. In the cultivation if mindfulness, the Buddha is scrupulous not to introduce the conceptual frame too early, for premature reliance on someone else’s interpretation of phenomena always undermines our own ability to experience honestly.
Only as the fourth foundation of mindfulness do we get contemplating the dhammas — often confusingly translated “mental objects,” because it deals with ideas and emotions, and consists of a series of formulaic encapsulations of the Buddha’s system that need to be thought through and understood. To oversimplify, the first three foundations of mindfulness cultivate accurate but passive awareness, a kind of wise receptivity to what is; by themselves, they have little power of active transformation, little capacity to take us further along the path that leads to the final destruction of suffering. In the first three mindfulness practices, we ward nothing away, repress nothing, and entertain with open arms both positive and negative equally; in the fourth mindfulness practice, we must now work to nudge away the negative and develop the positive, since we now understand vividly what negative and positive are.
The martial sport of fencing offers a useful analogy. A budding fencer might be fond of swords, and while using the finest sports blades he might be thinking all the time of his home collection of beautifully crafted antique rapiers: mindfulness of the blade, an intimate knowledge of everything about swords, motivates and excites this student’s practice. Another fencer might be on fire from the historical romance of fencing, and in each practice session he remembers real duels and the accounts of ancient combats. A third fencer, perhaps coming from a background in dance or gymnastics, might enjoy the technical drills more, and appreciate the science of movement: here we see a certain kind of mindfulness of body. None of these interests is wrong, and each of them brings into the foreground one aspect of the sport. The aspect that is foregrounded may be in itself endlessly fascinating and rewarding, but the fencer who is “lost” in this aspect will not become a good fencer. What is required in he making of a real fencer is the harnessing of a host of subordinate aspects into the ability to win bouts agains skilled antagonists, and this involves progressions of learning directed towards a specific end. The training is vigorous and prescriptive — do this, don’t do that — as the student is actively transformed into a real fencer who might survive in an actual sword fight.
The contemplation of dhammas (“mental objects”) takes place in accordance with five numerical frames that are given more detailed treatment in other Suttas: the five hindrances, the five aggregates of clinging, the six internal and external sense bases, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the four noble truths. Each of these is a concise, standard schema of ethical, intellectual, and psychological soul-work; they are compressions of the Buddha’s experience that need to be carefully considered and unpacked for ourselves — like seeds of wisdom, which grow only if watered, by our own hands, with our blood. The first three foundations of mindfulness were necessary propaedeutics to this, for without developed attentiveness to our own experience the contemplation of dhammas would be entirely out of our reach. The Four Noble Truths make only superficial, hypothetical sense to one who does not know how to be mindful of body and feelings. Indeed, many people who are suffering believe that they are fine, and many who think they are suffering badly are in fact better off than most — how would we know how to recognize and gauge our own state, if our powers of awareness are nothing more than rudimentary and blunt, like sticks that small boys use as pretend-weapons?
I am not going to explore all the contemplations of dhammas here, because they require longer and more detailed exploration, and because I am unqualified. Whereas the first three foundations make a lot of sense to me, the fourth requires trust and commitment to the Buddha’s system — trust and commitment that is backed up by seeing, in the practice of the first three foundations, that the Buddha always has a reason for saying what he says in the way he says it. The contemplation of dhammas is for students who have already committed to the path, but here too the articulations make sense to an ordinary thoughtful human being who seeks to be wiser.
For example, one of the contemplations of dhammas takes on the “five hindrances” (nivarana), those complexes of thoughts and emotions that interrupt and obstruct our efforts at mental clarity and tranquillity in whatever work we may be doing. They are difficult to deal with, because by the time we become aware of the presence of one of them, our work has already been disturbed. Because our foundations in mindfulness are now strong, we can nonetheless pull back and look at the disturbance.
“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances.
“How, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances?
“Here, O bhikkhus, when sensuality is present, a bhikkhu knows with understanding: ‘I have sensuality,’ or when sensuality is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no sensuality.’ He understands how the arising of the non-arisen sensuality comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen sensuality comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sensuality comes to be. When anger is present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have anger,’ or when anger is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no anger.’ He understands how the arising of the non-arisen anger comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen anger comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned anger comes to be. When sloth and torpor are present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have sloth and torpor,’ or when sloth and torpor are not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no sloth and torpor.’ He understands how the arising of non-arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sloth and torpor comes to be. When agitation and worry are present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have agitation and worry,’ or when agitation and worry are not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no agitation and worry.’ He understands how the arising of non-arisen agitation and worry comes to be; and he understands how the abandoning of the arisen agitation and worry comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned agitation and worry comes to be. When doubt is present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have doubt,’ or when doubt is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no doubt.’ He understands how the arising of non-arisen doubt comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen doubt comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned doubt comes to be.”
(Tr. Soma Thera, 1998)
Each of these hindrances hides a world of complex causation. “Sensuality” is not just sexual desire, but all those desires that come from an underlying belief that material pleasures can make us happy; “anger” expresses disappointment, dissatisfaction, and a sense of betrayal, stemming from some belief that people and the world “should” be other than they are, and from a concealed assumption that we are competent to judge their inadequacy; “sloth and torpor” encompass our various ways of resisting what we know we must do, ranging from not being to get up or to stay awake, to seeking distraction in trivial entertainments, to depressive paralysis; “agitation and worry,” which can creep in insidiously at any moment, can come from regret for things done, not done, or done poorly, as well as the anxiety that is generated by the knowledge of unfinished business, and general anxiety for loved ones and the world; and “doubt,” which is not just lack of faith in the Buddha’s path, includes philosophical disbelief as well as crippling lack of confidence in one’s own abilities and in the project as a whole. The Buddha has seen clearly — in himself and in his students — that whenever we find ourselves unsettled and derailed, it is usually because of one or more of these five hindrances. We also know from experience that the hindrances are addictive by nature: each time we indulge them, we make them stronger and more frequent in the future. Consequently, learning how to handle the hindrances is crucial to progress along the path, and mindfulness of the hindrances comes under the category of contemplating the dhammas in the dhammas. While good, encouraging advice from a teacher and close friends is usually our best help in dealing with the hindrances once they have arisen and once we find ourselves wriggling in their clutches, we still have to learn to manage them ourselves by experiencing them directly and seeing what they are.
Let’s look at just one of them: When anger is present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have anger,’ or when anger is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no anger.’ The first step is to be able to recognize when it is there or not there. Often we can go for days in a bad mood without consciously realizing that we are angry; or we can find in the midst of our meditations that we are being swept along on a flash flood of grumbling, not having noticed when it started. This part of the contemplation requires skill in bare mindfulness. But what do we do, once we have noticed? He understands how the arising of the non-arisen anger comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen anger comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned anger comes to be. We have to study where the anger comes from, and be able to recognize it at its origination as it arises — and not only when it has already become full-fledged passion. Once we understand how it arises, we need to understand how it is abandoned. As in the other contemplations, we do not repress or force the hindrance out — because that will only give it more power. Sometimes seeing, hearing, and understanding are sufficient to calm an emotion, but most often we have to learn how to reroute or sublimate a thought that might grow into a hindrance. For example, when we are angry with a person, we might go straight to them and talk; or we might try putting ourselves in their shoes. When we have grasped this, we will be in a better position to understand how to live in such a way that anger never just arises. This work involves dedicated self-reflection, awareness of our emotions, and creative intelligence with regard to our toughest, trickiest mental tendencies.
Notice, too, how impersonal the Buddha’s phrasing is: when anger is present, not when he is angry. No one “owns” the anger or “is” the anger; rather, anger is carried by an inertia that we surely contributed to but that we are not sole agents of. For this reason, the hindrance can be calmly worked on, as a sculptor works on granite, and there is no extraneous emotion of blame or resistance that comes from disliking “being like this.” The first three foundations of mindfulness have trained us to find this work interesting and productive, and we can now approach the work like skilled craftsmen. One other benefit of this serene engagement is that we will find that other people no longer irk us much, and because we understand the hindrances in ourselves, we are likely to be more understanding and compassionate towards the hindrances as they appear in others.
The Satipatthana Sutta, in about 20 pages, gives us a complete curriculum for what can truly be called self-study, with the aim of understanding the origin of suffering and how to end it. Each of the four foundations of mindfulness requires dedicated, concentrated practice, and if we consider how difficult it is to be mindful of only breathing for a single hour, we will have a clear picture of how accomplished we would have to be to sustain mindfulness in all four dimensions for a whole week. But should any person maintain these Four Arousings of Mindfulness in this manner for a week, then by him one of two fruitions is proper to be expected: Knowledge here and now; or, if some form of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning. In purely secular terms, it is possible to see how even a little time devoted every day to these meditative exercises will result in a happier, more effective human being, capable of helping himself and others, and more directly attuned to his own experience. The curriculum laid out in the Satipatthana may well be, as the Buddha claims, the one path to self-knowledge and happiness.
For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see: