Mindfulness Practice in Mahasatipatthana Sutta

 Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Mindfulness,” a word widely adopted as the English translation of the Pali word sati, has found applications in all sorts of areas in recent years such as business, education, health care, human development, personal transformation, politics, and relationships. The fact that “mindfulness” has been found to be useful in such varied areas of applications is not surprising, considering that sati was a key concept that captures the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. Not only does mindfulness appear as samma sati, or right mindfulness, as one of the eight factors in the Noble Eightfold Path in the Buddha’s first discourse on the Four Noble Truths, it also appears in his extensive discussions of satipatthana, which is usually translated as the Four Foundations (or Establishments) of Mindfulness.

By far the most comprehensive treatment of sati for Buddhist practitioners is to be found in Mahasatipatthana Sutta, or the Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, which is sutta 22 in Digha Nikaya, known as Long Discourses in the Pali canon. This is truly a remarkable discourse in that the Buddha goes into such detail about what it means to practice sati, or mindfulness.

The importance the Buddha places on this sutta among his discourses is made clear immediately when he opens his discourse by saying that cattaro satipatthana, or the four foundations of mindfulness, is “the one and only way for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the extinguishing of suffering and grief, for walking on the path of truth, for the realization of nibbana.” The Buddha goes on to unveil what the four foundations of mindfulness are, saying: “Which four? Here, monks, a monk dwells ardent with awareness and constant thorough understanding of impermanence, observing body in body, having removed craving and aversion towards the world; … observing sensations in sensations, … observing mind in mind, … observing mental contents in mental contents …” Having unveiled that the four foundations of mindfulness are the contemplations of body, sensations (or feelings), mind and mental contents (or phenomena as objects of mind), the Buddha explains in great detail what each of the four foundations entails.

Contemplation of body consist of six parts: (1) anapana, or respiration, (2) iriyapatha, or postures, (3) sampajana, or constant thorough understanding of impermanence, (4) patikulamanasikara, or reflections on repulsiveness, (5) dhatumanasikara, or reflections on the material elements, (6) navasivathika, or nine charnel-ground observations. Of these, the first two on respiration and postures are well known among Buddhist practitioners of meditation today, for they are asked to be mindful about their breathing and posture when they meditate. So, too, is the fifth part about material elements as we are told about the four elements of earth, water, fire and air that constitute the body. The part on reflections on repulsiveness of the body serves to testify the amazing knowledge the Buddha had of human anatomy as he lists as many as 31, or 32 according to some interpreters, parts of the body which are patikula, or repulsive, from external parts such as hair, nails and skin, which are visible to the eye, to internal organs such as heart, kidneys, lung and stomach, which are invisible to the eye. The Buddha further includes such things as excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, tallow, saliva, snot, synovial fluid, and urine among repulsive parts of the body. What is equally, if not more, amazing is his discussion of the nine conditions of the dead body in a cemetery, which we need to be mindful of, such as a corpse eaten by crows or vultures, a skeleton with flesh and blood connected by sinews, a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood connected by sinews, a skeleton detached from the flesh and blood connected by sinews, randomly connected bones scattered in all directions, the bones whitened like shells, the bones piled up a year old, the bone rotted away to a powder and a skeleton detached from the flesh and blood. The whole point about the Buddha’s detailed discussion of the repulsive aspects of the human body, dead or alive, is to draw our attention to the causes and conditions in which the human body comes into the world and passes away.

The thoroughness with which the Buddha discusses kaya, or the body, is repeated with respect to other three foundations of mindfulness: vedana, or sensations (feelings), citta, or mind, and dhamma, or mental contents (phenomena). The Buddha’s discussion of citta, or mind, where he talks about sixteen kinds of mind, starting from lustful and deluded minds to concentrated and liberated minds suggests that the Buddha was well informed about human physiology, but he had a penetrating insight into human psychology as well. In this sense, the Buddha was a complete physician of body and mind whose knowledge about human physiology and psychology is truly astonishing, considering the undeveloped state of medical sciences in the world in his day. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Buddha’s mindfulness practice regarding body and mind has come to be incorporated into modern medicine in the form of mind-body medicine.

The Buddha’s discourse on the four foundations of mindfulness ends with his discussion of dhamma, or mental objects, where he talks about the five hindrances, the five aggregates, the six sense bases and objects, and the seven factors of enlightenment, culminating in another thorough exposition of the Four Noble Truths. In a way, it is natural that the Buddha ends his discourse on the four foundations of mindfulness with another detailed exposition of the Four Noble Truths, which was the first discourse he gave to the five bhikkhus after enlightenment. The Buddha must have wanted to make sure that the whole pint about mindfulness practice in the four foundations of mindfulness is to develop insight into the realities of the world around us and thereby gain enlightenment, which he promises we would do not with years of practice but with just seven days of practice! This, certainly, is an encouraging message for us mindfulness practitioners.