The Satipatthana Sutta

Probably the most influential yet misunderstood sutta in the canon, at least over the last century, has been the Satipatthana Sutta. It is considered the founding document of the mindfulness meditation movement, the sine qua non of the Buddhist path. I am dubious.

The Satipatthana Sutta in my reading is a collection of meditation subjects appropriate for fulfilling the 7th step of the 8-fold path — Right Mindfulness. This is a good thing, but it is only one aspect of the path. If you limit your practice, even your meditation, to satipatthana, it is a spiritually impoverished path. Meditation should begin with Right States of Mind. I’ve spoken about this many times and won’t belabor it, but anyone who approaches mindfulness without first developing Right States of Mind is simply doing it wrong. The result will probably be frustrating, painful, and not nearly as helpful as it could otherwise be.

Once Right State of Mind is established, only then should you progress to Right Mindfulness, Satipatthana. But, Satipatthana is not intended to be the source of insight directly. Only when the yogi has developed the meditation all the way to jhana, Right Samadha, combined with Right Understanding does insight occur.

But it’s more than that. This sutta, taken by itself outside of the context of the rest of the suttas, has generally been read in a confusing, misleading way. By itself, it seems to imply that one should do all of the things listed here. If not in a single sit (yeesh), then perhaps over the course of a retreat. This is definitely not the case. While someone might find benefit over the course of a life of practice in several of the meditation subjects here, any one of these is enough to fulfill the whole of the path. After all, the usual translation the suttas is “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”. A house doesn’t need four foundations. One is enough. I’ve decided to go with, “the four kinds of subjects for meditation.”

All of this may sound like I don’t appreciate this sutta. Not at all. It is what it is: the definitive collection of subjects for meditation in the early Buddhist texts. So here is my translation of the Satipatthana Sutta.

The Satipatthana Sutta

Once the Buddha was living at Kammasadamma, a village of the Kuru people. There he offered this teaching:

There is one path of purification, to end pain and suffering, for reaching Nibbana. It includes mindfulness of the four kinds of subjects for meditation. A meditator may take as a subject the body, feelings, consciousness, or the  Buddha’s teachings. Determined, clear-headed, and mindful, the meditator overcomes all desire and suffering.

MEDITATIONS ON THE BODY: BREATH MEDITATION

How should you meditate on the body? Go to the woods, to the root of a tree, to an empty spot. Sit with your legs crossed, body erect, mindful. Mindfully breathe in. Mindfully breathe out.

When breathing in deep, mindfully observe, “I am breathing in deep.”

When breathing out deep, mindfully observe, “I am breathing out deep.”

When breathing in shallow, mindfully observe, “I am breathing in shallow.”

When breathing out shallow, mindfully observe, “I am breathing out shallow.”

Breathe in, experiencing the whole body.

Breathe out, experiencing the whole body.

Breathe in, relaxing the whole body.

Breathe out, relaxing the whole body.

Just as a skilled potter would know, “Now I am making a long turn” or “Now I am making a short turn,” a skilled meditator mindfully observes as they breathe in or out, deep or shallow, experiencing the whole body, relaxing the whole body.

In this way, meditate on the body inside or out, beginning or end. Or simply be aware: “This is the body.” Live free and unattached, clinging to nothing in this world. This is a way to meditate on the body.

 

THE POSITION OF THE BODY

When one is walking, mindfully observe, “I am walking.”

When one is standing, mindfully observe, “I am standing.”

When one is sitting, mindfully observe, “I am sitting.”

When one is lying down, mindfully observe, “I am lying down.”

Whatever position the body takes, mindfully observe it.

In this way, meditate on the body inside or out, beginning or end. Or simply be aware: “This is the body.” Live free and unattached, clinging to nothing in this world. This is a way to meditate on the body.

 

MINDFULNESS WHILE DOING THINGS

When going here and there, be mindfully aware.

When looking here and there, be mindfully aware.

When bending and stretching, be mindfully aware.

When dressing and carrying a bowl, be mindfully aware.

When eating, drinking, chewing, and tasting, be mindfully aware.

When walking, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, speaking, and keeping silent, be mindfully aware.

 

MEDITATION ON THE DISGUSTING ASPECTS OF THE BODY

Then, meditate on the fact that this body is wrapped in skin and full of many disgusting things. Be aware of the body from the soles of the feet to the hair on your head. Consider, “There is head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinew, bone, marrow, kidney, heart, liver, belly, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, stomach, shit, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spit, mucus, oil in the joints, and piss.”

If there were a bag with a hole at each end filled with various types of grains — brown rice, wheat, mung beans, peas, millet, and white rice — one could carefully examine the bag and identify each type of grain. In this way, notice and identify each part of the body.

 

MEDITATION ON THE PHYSICAL MAKEUP OF THE BODY

Then, meditate on the physical makeup of the body. Notice that various parts of the body are solid, liquid, gas, or energy. Like a skilled butcher having broken down the body of a cow into the various cuts and pieces and laid them out according to their makeup, so one should meditate carefully noting whether each part of the body is solid, liquid, gas, or energy.

 

NINE CEMETERY MEDITATIONS

Image a body in a cemetery:

 

  • dead a few days, swollen, blue and rotting;
  • being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals, and worms;
  • a skeleton held together by tendons with a bit of skin and blood still hanging on;
  • a skeleton held together by tendons with only a little blood smeared on the bones;
  • a skeleton with no flesh or blood, held together by tendons;
  • only scattered bone (here a hand bone, there a foot bone, a shin bone, a thigh bone, the pelvis, some vertebrae, a skull);
  • some scattered bones bleached white;
  • a pile of bones more than a year old; and
  • rotten bones slowly turning to dust.

 

In each case consider, “My own body is the same. It too will become like this no matter what I do.”

In this way, contemplate the body, inside or out, beginning or end. Or mindfully observe: “This is the body.” Live free and unattached, clinging to nothing in this world. This is a way to meditate on the body.

 

MEDITATION ON FEELINGS

How should one meditate on feelings?

When you experience a pleasant feeling, mindfully observe, “I am experiencing a pleasant feeling.”

When you experience an unpleasant feeling, mindfully observe, “I am experiencing an unpleasant feeling.”

When you experience a neutral feeling, mindfully observe, “I am experiencing a neutral feeling.”

In this way, contemplate feelings, inside or out, beginning or end. Or simply be aware: “These are feelings.” Live free and unattached, clinging to nothing in this world. This is the way to meditate on feelings.

 

MEDITATIONS ON MIND

How should one meditate on mind?

When your mind is filled with lust, mindfully observe, “My mind is filled with lust.”

When your mind is free from lust, mindfully observe, “My mind is free from lust.”

When your mind is filled with hate or love, mindfully observe.

When your mind is filled with ignorance or insight, mindfully observe.

When your mind is constricted or vast, mindfully observe.

When your mind is distracted or collected, mindfully observe.

When your mind is developed or undeveloped, mindfully observe.

When your mind is in a worse state or better state, mindfully observe.

When your mind is unified or not unified, mindfully observe.

When your mind is liberated or not liberated, mindfully observe.

In this way, contemplate your mind, inside or out, beginning or end. Or simply be aware: “This is my mind.” Live free and unattached, clinging to nothing in this world. This is a way to meditate on your mind.

 

MEDITATIONS ON THE TEACHINGS OF THE BUDDHA

How should one meditate on the Buddha’s teachings?

 

THE 5 HINDRANCES

 

When you are filled with sense desire or free from sense desire,

filled with anger or with calm,

filled with laziness and lethargy or with energy,

filled with anxiety or guilt or free from anxiety or guilt,

filled with doubt or free from doubt, mindfully observe.

Learn why sense desire, anger, laziness, anxiety, or doubt arises and passes away and how to avoid it in the future.

In this way, contemplate the Buddha’s teachings, inside or out, beginning or end. Or simply be aware: “These are the Buddha’s teachings.” Live free and unattached, clinging to nothing in this world. This is a way to meditate on the Buddha’s teachings.

 

THE THINGS WE WRONGLY TAKE TO BE OUR TRUE SELF

Consider: “This is my body. This is how it comes into being and passes away.

“These are feelings. This is how they arise and pass away.

“This is perception. This is how it arises and passes away.

“This is compulsion. This is how it arises and passes away.

“This is consciousness. This is how it arises and passes away.”

In this way, contemplate the teachings of the Buddha, inside or out, beginning or end. Or simply be aware: “These are the teachings of the Buddha.” Live free and unattached, clinging to nothing in this world. This is a way to meditate on the teachings of the Buddha.

 

THE SIX SENSES

 

Observe the eye, sights, and the problems that come from seeing.

Observe the ear, sounds, and the problems that come from hearing.

Observe the nose, smells, and the problems that come from smelling.

Observe the tongue, flavors, and the problems that come from tasting.

Observe the body, touch, and the problems that come from touching.

Observe the mind, thoughts, and the problems that come from thinking.

Learn why these problems arise and pass away and how to avoid them in the future.

In this way, contemplate the teachings of the Buddha, inside or out, beginning or end. Or simply be aware: “These are the teachings of the Buddha.” Live free and unattached, clinging to nothing in this world. This is a way to meditate on the teachings of the Buddha.

 

FOUNDATIONS OF LIBERATION

 

Mindfully observe when you are mindful, and mindfully observe when you are not mindful.

Learn how to arouse and perfect mindfulness.

Mindfully observe when you are investigating the teachings of the Buddha, and mindfully observe when you are not not investigating the teachings of the Buddha..

Learn how to arouse and perfect a mind for investigating the teachings of the Buddha.

Mindfully observe when you are energetic, and mindfully observe when you are not energetic.

Learn how to arouse and perfect energetic striving.

Mindfully observe when you are joyful, and mindfully observe when you are not joyful.

Learn how to arouse and perfect joy.

Mindfully observe when you are peaceful, and mindfully observe when you are not peaceful.

Learn how to arouse and perfect peace of mind.

Mindfully observe when you have a unified mind, and mindfully observe when you do not have a unified mind.

Learn how to arouse and perfect a unified mind.

Mindfully observe when you are serene, and mindfully observe when you are not serene.

Learn how to arouse and perfect serenity.

In this way, contemplate the teachings of the Buddha, inside or out, beginning or end. Or simply be aware: “These are the teachings of the Buddha.” Live free and unattached, clinging to nothing in this world. This is a way to meditate on the teachings of the Buddha.

 

THE 4 NOBLE TRUTHS

One sees, “This is the truth of suffering. This is the cause of suffering. This is the end of suffering. And this is the path leading to the end of suffering.”

In this way, contemplate the teachings of the Buddha, inside or out, beginning or end. Or simply be aware: “These are the teachings of the Buddha.” Live free and unattached, clinging to nothing in this world. This is a way to meditate on the teachings of the Buddha.

If you diligently practice any of these subjects for mindfulness for seven years, then you should expect full Liberation, or at least achieving the State of Non-Returning. But if one is truly diligent, Liberation can be achieved not in 7 years but in 7 days.

This is why it is said, “There is this one path of purification, to end pain and suffering, for reaching Nibbana. It is the four types of subjects for meditation. A meditator may take as a subject the body, feelings, thoughts, or the Buddha’s teachings. Determined, clear-headed, and mindful, the meditator overcomes desire and suffering.

-Majjhima Nikaya 10

 

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