Mindfulness Sutta

Introduction to the Mindfulness Sutta: Modern Western Use of Mindfulness

Translation from the Pali by Christopher Ash (McLean)

This text has had a major influence on the development of Buddhist contemplative and meditation practice in all schools. The word satipaṭṭhāna is the name for an approach to self awareness aimed at establishing sati, remembrance or mindfulness. The term sati comes from the Vedic (Sanskrit) word smrti, and is related to the verb sarati = to remember or to keep in mind. The point is: in the practice of Buddhism, mindfulness is a contemplative practice.

‘Sati’ is sometimes interpreted by Western meditation teachers as non-judgemental awareness, or bare attentiveness; and so, too, in this light, Western psychotherapy has tended to emphasise mindfulness as the skill of being present with whatever arises in one’s immediate experience. Of course, psychotherapists (a town of which I count myself a member) do also commonly see mindfulness as a support for changing our life in positive directions; in particular, as a support for cultivating healthier patterns of thinking and feeling. This is beneficial.

And, naturally enough, non-judgemental awareness and the capacity to cultivate good mental health are important aspects of satipaṭṭhāna. However, our primary text the satipaṭṭhāna-sutta goes further. It has, as its context, the desire for a distinctive kind of freedom, freedom from the deepest conditioning of human perceptivity. This is the subject of the fourth topic, the fourth placement of mindfulness. This context is also explicitly stated at the beginning of the sutta, and in its conclusion.

Hence, the original text, presents the processes of mindfulness with this specific guiding intention: the desire for full awakening; the desire for realisation of the unconditioned, the deathless, or nibbāna. The role of Buddhist cultivation of mindfulness, then, is to keep consciousness grounded in the present moment in a specific, appropriate way, a way that will keep it on the path of this full awakening.

Note on the translation: I name this the ‘shorter’ sutta, because there is another longer version of the Mindfulness Sutta; it is called the ‘Maha’ or Great Sutta on the Placements of Mindfulness. (See Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of this, the Digha Nikaya 22). That version greatly amplifies the section in the present sutta which is presented here as: ‘Contemplating mental processes in the light of the teaching of the four ennobling verities.’ The ‘Maha’ version, by exploring in more detail what the four ennobling verities are, goes more thoroughly into this issue of the particular ‘remembrance’ that is intended by the specifically Buddhist use of the English word ‘mindfulness.’ It is important to remember why you are doing what your doing, in terms of nibbāna.

The most cogent evidence for this emphasis, to me, is in the sutta itself. In the fourth section on contemplating phenomena, many things could be contemplated, such as the origin of one’s personality patterns in childhood experiences. Or, one can explore and give healthy input into one’s bodily health, in mindfulness and mindfulness-meditation, if you like. One can develop super-normal powers, if you so wish. This is possible. However, of all the things that it is possible to contemplate in mindful awareness, and in meditation, the Buddha of the Satipatthanasutta presents for contemplation only those phenomena which are the most conducive to enlightenment (true freedom, liberation, or nibbāna). They all culminate in contemplation of the four ennobling verities – which are about dukkha (stress) and the ending of dukkha. He once said that of all the leaves in the forest, he has only offered a handful. That ‘handful of leaves’ is precisely about dukkha  and the ‘ending of dukkha’ (liberation).

This translation will be an on-going revision.  Feedback on the translation is welcome.

Christopher Ash (McLean),

Blackheath, NSW, Australia
June 2015

curlycue

Sutta on the Placement of Mindfulness
MN 10: Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta

(Also known as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness)

Translated by Christopher J. Ash

Introduction

Thus have I heard: On one occasion the flourishing one was living in the Kuru country, at the Kuru town named Kammasadhamma. There he spoke to the mendicants:

“Mendicants!”

“Sir,” they replied.

This way is the direct way

“Mendicants, this is the direct way for the purification of individuals, for going beyond sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of mental disturbance and dejection, for the study of the right path, for experiencing nibbāna – namely, the way of the four placements of mindfulness.

“What are the four? Here, Mendicants, a contemplative, ardent, mindful, having put away longing and distress regarding the world, in full understanding, dwells contemplating: the body in the body, feeling-tones in the feeling-tones, the psyche’s states in those same states; and, the dynamics of phenomena in the phenomena themselves.

Contemplating the body – mindfulness of breathing

“And how, Mendicants, does a contemplative dwell contemplating the body in the body? Here a contemplative, having gone to a forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty dwelling, sits down, and folding her legs crosswise, she sits with her body upright, and putting mindfulness to the fore, she breathes in and out mindfully.

“When breathing a long in-breath or out-breath, or a short in-breath or out-breath, she knows: ‘I breathe in long’, ‘I breathe out long.’ Or, ‘I breathe in short’, ‘I breathe out short.’ And she trains in this way: ‘I shall breathe in, experiencing the whole body’; ‘I shall breathe out, experiencing the whole body.’ And, she trains: ‘I shall breathe in, calming my bodily energy’; ‘I shall breathe out, calming my bodily energy.’

“Just as a skilled wood turner or his apprentice, when making a long sweep, knows: ‘I make a long sweep’; or, when making a short sweep, he knows: ‘I make a short sweep.’ So too, breathing in or out, long or short, a contemplative knows: ‘I breathe in long’, ‘I breathe out long,’ and so on. She trains in calming bodily energy: ‘I shall breathe in, calming the body,’ and, ‘I shall breathe out, calming the body.’

Insight Refrain

“In this way she dwells contemplating the body in the body with reference to the inner, or with reference to the outer, or with reference to both inner and outer. Or, she dwells contemplating either presenting in bodily experience, or vanishing in bodily experience; or she dwells contemplating both presenting and vanishing in bodily experience. Otherwise, the mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is simply established in her, so that discernment and attentiveness are established. She is one who dwells independent, not clinging to anything in the world. This is how a contemplative dwells contemplating the body in the body.

Contemplating the body – bodily activity

“Further, Mendicants, when walking, a contemplative knows: ‘I am walking.’ When standing, he knows: ‘I am standing.’ When sitting, he knows: ‘I am sitting.’ When lying down, he knows: ‘I am lying down.’ Or, whatever his body’s disposition, he knows it accordingly.

Insight Refrain

“In this way he dwells contemplating… not clinging to anything in the world. This, too, is how a contemplative dwells contemplating the body in the body.

Contemplating the body – full awareness

“And moreover, Mendicants, a contemplative is one who acts with full awareness when going backward and forward. She acts with full awareness when looking ahead or about her, when bending and stretching her limbs, when dressing, and when carrying things. She acts with full awareness when eating and drinking, chewing and tasting; and when defecating and urinating. When walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent, she acts with full awareness.

Insight Refrain

“In this way he dwells contemplating… not clinging to anything in the world. This, too, is how a contemplative dwells contemplating the body in the body.

Contemplating the body – the many substances

“And further, Mendicants, a contemplative contemplates this same body, bounded by the skin, up from the soles of the feet and down from the top of the head, as full of many kinds of substances, saying: ‘In this body there are: head-hair, body-hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, small intestines, bowels, the stomach and its contents, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, oils, saliva, mucus of the nose, lubricants of the joints, and urine.’

“Just as though there were a bag – perhaps with an opening at both ends – full of many sorts of grain, such as hill rice, red rice, beans, peas, millet, and white rice – and a man with sound eyes were to open it and contemplate it thus: ‘This is hill rice, this is red rice, these are beans, these are peas, this is millet, this is white rice.’ So too, a contemplative contemplates this same body, bounded by the skin, up from the soles of the feet and down from the top of the head, as full of many kinds of substances: ‘In this body there are: head-hair, body-hair, nails, teeth, skin, and so on.’

Insight Refrain

“In this way he dwells contemplating… not clinging to anything in the world. This, too, is how a contemplative dwells contemplating the body in the body.

Contemplating the body – primary elements

“And further, Mendicants, a contemplative views this same body, however it is placed, whatever it’s activity, as consisting of elements, saying: ‘In this body there are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element.’

Just as though a skilled butcher or his apprentice had killed a cow and was seated at the crossroads with it cut up into pieces; so too, a contemplative considers this same body as consisting of elements: ‘In this body there are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element.’ However the body is placed, whatever her activity, she contemplates it thus.

Insight Refrain

“In this way he dwells contemplating… not clinging to anything in the world. This, too, is how a contemplative dwells contemplating the body in the body.

Contemplating the body – nine charnel ground contemplations

“And further, Mendicants, as though a contemplative were to see a skeleton in a charnel ground – a corpse one, two, or three days dead, bloated, discoloured, and oozing matter – he would compare his own body with that body, saying: ‘This body, too, is of such a nature. It will be like that. It is not free from that.’

“And further, Mendicants, as though a contemplative were to see a skeleton in a charnel ground, being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals, and all kinds of worms, he compares his own body with that body, saying: ‘This body, too, is of such a nature. It will be like that. It is not free from that.’

“And further, Mendicants, as though a contemplative were to see a skeleton in a charnel ground with flesh and blood, held together with tendons; or, a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, held together with tendons; or, a skeleton without flesh and blood, held together with tendons; or, as though he were to see disconnected bones scattered in all directions – here a hand-bone, there a foot-bone, here a ankle-bone, there a shin-bone, here a thigh-bone, there a pelvis, here a back-bone, there a rib-bone, here a breast-bone, there a neck-bone, here a jaw-bone, there a tooth, and there the skull – so a contemplative compares his own body with that body, saying: ‘This body, too, is of such a nature. It will be like that. It is not free from that.’

“And further, Mendicants, as though a contemplative were to see, in a charnel ground, bones bleached white, the colour of shells; or, bones heaped up, more than a year old; or, bones rotted and crumbled to dust, so a contemplative compares his own body with a corpse, saying: ‘This body, too, is of such a nature. It will be like that. It is not free from that.’

Insight Refrain

“In these ways, too, she dwells contemplating the body in the body with reference to the inner, or with reference to the outer, or with reference to both the inner and outer. Or, she dwells contemplating presenting in bodily experiences, or vanishing in bodily experiences; or she dwells contemplating both presenting and vanishing in bodily experiences. Otherwise, the mindfulness that ‘There is a body’ is simply established in her. To the extent that discernment and attentiveness are established in her, so she is a contemplative who dwells independent, not clinging to anything in the world. So, to contemplate death, this, too, is how a contemplative dwells contemplating the body in the body.

Contemplating the feeling-tones

“And how, Mendicants, does a contemplative contemplate feeling-tones in feeling-tones? Here, when feeling a pleasant experience, a contemplative knows: ‘I am feeling a pleasant feeling-tone.’ When feeling an unpleasant experience, he knows: ‘I am feeling an unpleasant feeling-tone.’ When feeling a neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant experience,’ he knows: ‘I am feeling a feeling-tone which is neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant.’

“And further, when experiencing a bodily pleasant experience, he knows: ‘I am feeling a bodily pleasant feeling-tone.’ When experiencing a psychical pleasant experience, he knows: ‘I am feeling a psychical pleasant feeling-tone.’

“When experiencing an bodily unpleasant experience, he knows: ‘I am feeling an bodily unpleasant feeling-tone.’ When experiencing a psychical unpleasant experience, he knows: ‘I am feeling an psychical unpleasant feeling-tone.’

“When experiencing a bodily experience which is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, he knows: ‘I am feeling a bodily neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant feeling-tone.’ When experiencing a psychical experience which is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, he knows: ‘I am feeling a psychical neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant feeling-tone.’

Insight Refrain

“In this way he dwells contemplating the feeling-tones in the feeling-tones with reference to the inner, or with reference to the outer, or with reference to both the inner and outer. Or, he dwells either contemplating presenting in the feeling-tones, or vanishing in the feeling-tones. Or he dwells contemplating both the presenting and vanishing in the feeling-tones. Otherwise, the mindfulness that ‘There is a feeling-tone’ is simply established in him. To the extent that discernment and attentiveness are established, he is one who dwells independent, not clinging to anything in the world. This, then, is how a contemplative dwells contemplating the feeling-tones in the feeling-tones.

Contemplating the states of the psyche

“And how, Mendicants, does a contemplative dwell contemplating the states of the psyche in the states of the psyche? Here, a contemplative knows a psyche affected by longing as a psyche so affected. And psyche unaffected by longing as a psyche not affected in that way. She knows the psyche affected by ill-will as a psyche affected by ill-will, and the psyche unaffected by ill-will as unaffected by such. She knows a psyche affected by delusion as a psyche affected by delusion, and a psyche unaffected by delusion as a psyche unaffected by such.

“She knows a tense psyche as a tense psyche, and a scattered psyche as a scattered psyche. She knows an expanded psyche as an expanded psyche, and a contracted psyche as a contracted psyche. He knows a psychic state capable of being surpassed as a surpassable state, and a psychic state not capable of being surpassed as an unsurpassable state. She knows a composed psyche as a composed psyche, and an agitated psyche as an agitated psyche. She knows a released psyche as a released psyche, and an unfree psyche as an unfree psyche.

Insight Refrain

“In this way she dwells contemplating the states of the psyche in the psyche with reference to the inner, or with reference to the outer, or with reference to both the inner and outer. Or, she dwells contemplating presenting in the states of the psyche, or she dwells contemplating vanishing in the states of the psyche; or she dwells contemplating both presenting and vanishing in the states of the psyche. Or else, the mindfulness that ‘There is a state of the psyche’ is simply established in her. To the extent that discernment and attentiveness are established, she is one who dwells independent, not clinging to anything in the world. This is how a contemplative dwells contemplating the states of the psyche in the states of the psyche.

Contemplating the dynamics of phenomena – five blocking processes

“And how, Mendicants, does a contemplative dwell contemplating the dynamics of phenomena in the processes themselves? Here a contemplative dwells contemplating the dynamics of phenomena in terms of the five blocking processes. And how does a contemplative dwell contemplating phenomena in terms of the five blocking processes? Here, there being sensual longing in her, a contemplative understands: ‘There is sensual longing in me.’ Or, there being no sensual longing in her, she understands: ‘There is no sensual longing in me.’ And, when it has not arisen, she is aware how sensual longing arises. When sensual longing has arisen, she knows the abandoning of that sensual longing. And she knows how abandoning the blocking pattern of the sensual longing leads to its non-presenting sometime in the future.

And likewise with: ill-will, sluggishness (or immobility) of the psyche, distraction and worry, and debilitating doubt. When a blocking process is present in her, a contemplative knows it is present in her. And when it is not present in her, she knows that it is not. And, when it has not arisen, she is aware how a blocking process arises. And, when it has arisen, she knows its abandoning. And, she knows how abandoning blocking patterns leads to their non-presenting sometime in the future.

Insight Refrain

“In this way she dwells contemplating the dynamics of phenomena in the processes themselves with reference to the inner, or with reference to the outer, or with reference to both the inner and outer. Or, she dwells contemplating the arising of phenomena in the processes themselves, or she dwells contemplating vanishing of phenomena in the processes themselves; or she dwells contemplating both presenting and vanishing in the processes themselves. Or else, the mindfulness that ‘there are these dynamics of phenomena’ is simply established in her, to the extent that discernment and attentiveness are established. She is one who dwells independent, not clinging to anything in the world. This is how a contemplative dwells contemplating the dynamics of phenomena in the processes themselves: in terms of the five blocking processes.

Contemplating the dynamics of phenomena – five sentient processes subject to clinging

“Further, Mendicants, a contemplative dwells contemplating the dynamics of phenomena in the processes themselves in terms of the five sentient processes subject to clinging, subject to clinging. And how does a contemplative dwell contemplating phenomena in terms of the five sentient processes subject to clinging? Here a contemplative understands: ‘Such is form, such its presenting, such its disappearance. Such is feeling-tone, such its presenting, such its disappearance. Such is perception, such its presenting, such its disappearance. Such are shaping processes, such their presenting, such their disappearance. Such is discernment, such its presenting, such its disappearance.’

Insight Refrain

“In this way he dwells contemplating… not clinging to anything in the world. This, too, is how a contemplative dwells contemplating the dynamics of phenomena in the processes themselves: in terms of the five sentient processes.

Contemplating the dynamics of phenomena – six sense-processes

“Again, Mendicants, a contemplative dwells contemplating the dynamics of phenomena, in the processes themselves, in terms of the six internal and six external sense processes. And how does a contemplative dwell contemplating phenomena in terms of the six internal and six external sense processes? Here a contemplative knows the eye, and she knows forms. And she knows any enslaving mental pattern that arises dependent on both the eye and form. And, she knows how such an enslaving mental pattern not yet arisen can present itself, based on the eye and form. When such an enslaving mental pattern has arisen, she knows the abandoning of it. And she knows how abandoning these enslaving mental patterns leads to their non-presenting sometime in the future.

And so it is, for: the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and contact, and the mind and mental content. In each case, she knows the enslaving mental patterns that arises dependent on the pair. And, she knows how the not-arisen enslaving mental patterns present themselves. When these enslaving mental patterns have arisen, she knows their abandoning. And she knows how abandoning the enslaving mental patterns leads to their non-presenting sometime in the future.

Insight Refrain

“In this way he dwells contemplating… not clinging to anything in the world. This, too, is how a contemplative dwells contemplating the dynamics of phenomena in the processes themselves: in terms of the six sense-processes.

Contemplating the dynamics of phenomena – seven qualities of the psyche awake

“Again, Mendicants, a contemplative dwells contemplating the dynamics of phenomena, in the processes themselves, in terms of the seven qualities of the psyche awake. And how does a contemplative dwell contemplating phenomena in terms of the seven qualities of the psyche awake? Here, when the quality of mindfulness is present in him, a contemplative understands: ‘There is mindfulness present in me.’ Or, when there is no quality of mindfulness present in him, he knows: ’There is no mindfulness present in me.’ And, he also knows how the not-yet-arisen mindfulness quality comes to be; and how the arisen mindfulness quality comes to fulfilment through development.

“And so it is for the presence in him of: the inquiring quality of the psyche awake, the energy quality, the joy quality, the serenity quality, the quality of being collected, and the equanimity quality of the psyche awake.

Insight Refrain

“In this way he dwells contemplating… not clinging to anything in the world. This, too, is how a contemplative dwells contemplating the dynamics of phenomena in the processes themselves: in terms of the seven qualities of the psyche awake.

Contemplating the dynamics of phenomena – four ennobling verities

“Again, Mendicants, a contemplative dwells contemplating the dynamics of phenomena, in the processes themselves, in terms of four ennobling verities. And how does a contemplative dwell contemplating phenomena in terms of four ennobling verities? Here a contemplative knows, as it actually is: ‘This is dukkha.’ She knows as it actually is: ‘This is the origin of dukkha.’ She knows as it actually presents: ‘This is the cessation of dukkha.’ She knows as it actually presents: ‘This path is the cessation of dukkha.’

Insight Refrain

“In this way she dwells contemplating the dynamics of phenomena, with reference to the inner, or with reference to the outer, or with reference to both the inner and outer. Or, she dwells contemplating presenting in the dynamics of phenomena, or she dwells contemplating vanishing in the dynamics of phenomena; or she dwells contemplating both presenting and vanishing in the dynamics of phenomena. Or else, the mindfulness that ‘There are phenomenal processes’ is simply established in her, to the extent that discernment and attentiveness are established. She is one who dwells independent, not clinging to anything in the world. Thus, a contemplative dwells contemplating the dynamics of phenomena in the processes themselves: in terms of the four ennobling verities.

Conclusion

“Mendicants, if anyone should cultivate these four placements of mindfulness in this way for seven years, one of two outcomes could be expected for them: either highest insight here and now; or if some trace of clinging remains, the stage immediately before full awakening can be expected.

“Let alone seven years, Mendicants, if anyone should cultivate these four placements of mindfulness in this way for six years – for five years, or four, or three, or two, or for one year – then one of two outcomes could be expected for them: either highest insight here and now; or, if there is a trace of clinging left, the stage immediately before full awakening can be expected.

“Let alone one year, Mendicants, if anyone should cultivate these four placements of mindfulness in this way for seven months – or for six months, five months, four months, three months, two months, one month, or for half a month – then one of two outcomes could be expected for them: either highest insight, here and now; or, if there is a trace of clinging left, the stage immediately before full awakening can be expected.

“Let alone half a month, Mendicants, if anyone should cultivate these four placements of mindfulness in this way for seven days, one of two outcomes could be expected for them: either highest insight, here and now; or, if there is a trace of clinging left, the stage immediately before full awakening can be expected.

“So it was with reference to this that I said: ‘Mendicants, this is the direct way for the purification of individuals, for going beyond sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of mental disturbance and dejection, for the study of the right path, for experiencing nibbāna – namely, the way of the four placements of mindfulness.”

That is what the flourishing one said, and those present were delighted and satisfied with what he said.

curlycue

Mindfulness Sutta, © 2015, Christopher J. Ash.

 Alternate translations: Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s with a link to Gil Fronsdal’s. And, you’ll find the most common version – from Ñāṇamoli Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Bodhi – here.