Wonky: Internally and Externally

This post is a little on the Pali-nerd side, so don’t say you weren’t warned!

The Sattipatthana Sutta is one of the most read and revered suttas in modern Theravada. For a variety of reasons, I think its position is a little over-elevated. But today I just want to mention one small point. I was re-reading Analayo’s brilliant Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization.

The sutta has a refrain section that is repeated for each of the 4 Sattipatthanas. Exactly what is meant by any of this is all up for debate, but basically the sutta is a list of meditation objects such as the breath or the body or the dhamma. For each we are told we should contemplate them 1.) internally, 2.) externally, and 3.) both internally and externally. So the question is, what in the world does that mean? How does one contemplate, say, the body internally and externally? Analayo presents several possibilities:

  • We contemplate the body of ourself and of someone else. This is the interpretation he prefers.
  • We contemplate ourself and the someone else using psychic powers. This is the interpretation prefered by the commentaries.
  • We contemplate internal bodily feelings (say our organs) and external feelings (say the skin). This makes sense for the body, but not so much for the other sattipatthanas such as contemplation of the dhamma.
  • Other suggest is refers to apparent and ultimate truth, but this is a distinction invented long after the Buddha.
  • Bhante Sujato suggests that it might refer to doing meditation inside a hut versus outside in nature. But what does it mean to do both inside and outside?

The reality is that nobody has a totally satisfying answer to this question. All of these interpretations have problems! Maybe the meaning was lost to time. Maybe the redaction of this sutta was problematic. For example, maybe the Theravadan compilers added some repetition that they shouldn’t have, thus confusing the meaning. We just don’t know.

Can we still practice without knowing exactly what is meant? Of course! But it’s sad to reflect that even for people that care the most and really want to know the teachings, that they are slowly crumbling right in front of us. All things are impermanent, including the teachings. We are lucky to have these wonderful teachings, and we would do well to remember that they won’t always be with us.


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