Mindfulness Sutra 2
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 2001
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
As I was saying last time, mindfulness is not
a species of self-consciousness. It is not making an effort to do
mindfulness right. In a sense, trying to be mindful would not be being
mindful, because there would be a gap. Just letting go and entering the
present moment of what is going on is mindfulness. So it is a kind of
paradoxical thing. There is an intention, and there is an effort, but
real mindfulness is just entering the moment. Not thinking about entering
the moment, or being determined to enter the moment, or constructing an idea of
mindfulness as a tool to enter the moment, but just being present in the moment
without holding anything back. It is the mind itself and the mind’s
brightness and allowing that brightness to shine.
Mindfulness implies a kind of warmth or intimacy or closeness with the object – a willingness to let the object in, whether the object is a thought, a feeling, or a perception. We turn toward it. As we all know from observing our own minds, we are not turning toward what arises. We are turning away, protecting ourselves. If we are forced to confront the object, we are facing it by holding ourselves back from it and not being willing to turn toward it completely.
Buddha was staying in the town of Kammàssadhamma in the Kuru country. After addressing the bhikkhus (meaning monks, but also someone devoted to the path), the Buddha delivers the text of the Mindfulness Sutra:
There is only one way for the purification of beings, for ending grief and lament, to overcome unpleasantness and displeasure and to realize nirvana, and that is the four foundations of mindfulness.
This “one way” has several possible senses to
it. It could mean, “Mindfulness is the only way.” It could mean,
“Mindfulness is the path that only goes one way.” It also implies that it
is a solitary path. Mindfulness is the path that we all walk alone,
because no-one can be aware for you. The brightness of your consciousness
is something absolutely unique to you.
Practice really starts with the realization of the pervasiveness and the inevitability of suffering. Until that really comes home to us, we are approaching practice, but we haven’t begun. So many of us are drawn into practice by other things, but somewhere along the way we recognize the immensity of our own suffering and human suffering. When that happens, we realize that there is no other choice but to practice, because there is no escape outside of some spiritual transformation from suffering.
So the Buddha is saying that the way of mindfulness is the way of overcoming suffering and that it leads to the realization of nirvana. Nirvana means many things: union, oneness. It literally means “to blow out,” like a candle flame. The candle flame means the flame of suffering, of painfulness. Blowing out the candle flame means release, coolness, peace.
What are the four foundations of mindfulness? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body, ardent, fully aware and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world.
That is the formula which is repeated for the other foundations:
A bhikkhu abides contemplating the feeling in the feeling, the mind in the mind, contemplating mind objects as mind objects, ardent, fully aware and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world.
First I want to discuss the different words used in this formula, and then I will define the four foundations. Why does the sutra say, “a body as a body?” Why doesn’t it just say, “Contemplating the body?” Because the implication here is that usually we don’t contemplate the body as the body. We contemplate the body as “my body.” We contemplate the feelings as my feelings. “Are these good feelings? Should I be having these feelings? Are these the feelings that a good Buddhist – after all I am a Buddhist – should be having?” Usually we don’t contemplate the feelings as the feelings and the body as the body. In other words, just taking a look at what’s there, without making more of it than it requires.
So that’s one reason why it says, “the body as the body,” and “the feelings as the feelings,” getting down to what is just there, what is actually experienced, rather than our conceptual overlay of it. Also, if we are mindful of the body as the body, it implies – and this is a very important thing – that mindfulness does not mean that we are standing to one side looking at the body. Actually, if we are really mindful of the body, we just merge with the awareness of a sensation of the body, or whatever it is that we are mindful of in the body – the breath or whatever it may be. We become the experience of the body, or the feelings, or the mind, without standing outside of the experience to evaluate it, or to appreciate it, or to complain about it. I think you all know that experience that comes when you are just aware of something. There is no thought; there is just the experience of the awareness. A moment later there may be a thought, but when you are really aware of something, it is just this experience of awareness.
Then the sutra says, “fully aware and mindful.” When you are fully aware and mindful, there is always a pleasure in mindfulness. There is a delight, not like ecstasy, but an easygoing delight in the clarity of just being mindful, even when the object that you are mindful of is not one you like. This is a very liberating fact, because so much of what we find really painful in life would actually not be as painful as we find it, if we were mindful of it. Usually what is painful is our aversion, our expectation, our desire. We say, “I don’t want this!” That’s what is painful. In mindfulness we could forget about “I don’t want this” and just be with it. There is strength in mere mindfulness, even if we acknowledge its unpleasantness.
When covetousness or grief arises in the mind, we turn towards those emotions as objects, with some warmth and some ease, and admit them for what they are. We allow them to do what every single thing in this world will unfailingly do, which is to pass away, melt away. When we resist or grieve or covet, we are producing habit energies and seeds for further production of that negative difficulty. We are not letting things fade away.
It’s interesting that a little loving-kindness is necessary for our bad mental states and for all of our confusion. The first step in the practice of mindfulness is a good dose of self-forgiveness – forgiving yourself for your confused mental states, your jealousy, your anger, your fear. As long as you are caught by these mental states, there is no way to be mindful. Self-forgiveness and allowing things to flow lightly and easily seem to be a real necessity for mindfulness practice. Imposing mindfulness is really not possible. Mindfulness is releasing to the flow of things, whether they are good or bad.
What are the four foundations of mindfulness? There is kayasati – mindfulness of the body; vedanasati – mindfulness of the feelings; cittasati – mindfulness of the mind; and dhammasati – mindfulness of mental objects.
What is meant here by “the body” is not what we usually think of as the body. The truth of the matter is that if you really consider this closely, when you think of the actual body, you are thinking of “my body” or “your body.” It is not really the body you are thinking of. It’s your idea of your body. This is true for everybody. We all have ideas and concepts of the body. Mindfulness is about the actual experience and sensations of the body. There isn’t any experience without consciousness, so awareness of the body is really about the actual experience of what it is to be embodied. This is a very rich and complicated experience, because there are so many sensations always arising in the body, like pleasure or pain. In Buddhism there is no idea of the body as an experience outside of consciousness. You can’t really separate the body and the mind. The body is an experience that registers in consciousness, and there is no consciousness without a body. The body is the basis of consciousness.
So having access to our feelings and thoughts as they actually are requires that we bring into focus the experience of the body. Meditation on the body as the body is so important, because unless you establish an actual connection to the body as the body, it is very hard to establish a clear connection to the feelings as the feelings and to the mind as the mind. That’s why the body is given in the first foundation. It’s not an accident. Not only that, there are more words about mindfulness of the “body in the body” than the other three foundations, because it is so basic and so important. To think without some sense of physical awareness is to think too abstractly. To think too abstractly is apt to turn into attachment and aversion-driven thinking. Mindfulness of the body slows the mind down, grounds the mind, and anchors it. Once you establish mindfulness of the body, then you have a whole different relationship to your thoughts and your moods and your consciousness.
The second foundation is awareness of “the feelings in the feelings.” Feelings here, as most of you know, don’t mean what we usually mean in English – emotions. “Feelings” here is a technical term in the twelvefold chain of causation. First is karma, and then the formation of consciousness, then the organs of perception, and then the organs of perception meeting objects of perception. This is a kind of evolution of awareness and being. At the point where the organs of perception meet an object, immediately is the pivotal link feeling. On the heels of feeling, immediately comes attachment and clinging. That is where the suffering is. So immediately on perc
experience comes feeling, and immediately on feeling comes suffering.
It is important to be clear about feeling and to be able to experience and be aware of feeling, without letting the confusion set in immediately. In the Abhidharmakośa, it is said that feelings are karmic results. In other words, the way that we react to something at a gut level comes from our habit from what has happened to us over time. We build up a powerful habit of feeling a certain way whenever a certain object arises. Then we become slaves to those reactions, without ever knowing what they are or where they came from.
Once we establish mindfulness of the body, then it becomes possible to discern the feelings – these gut reactions – and see how they work, how they arise, and how they create suffering. Once we begin to notice our aversion and attachment as such, instead of going on with it, we notice an immediate feeling of aversion or attachment or confusion. Then we can slow down the mind enough to stop reacting so quickly on the heels of those feelings. Maybe we can have a little more space for awareness, for choice, for clarity. Then the habit can change.
The third foundation is cittasati, mindfulness of consciousness. Ayya Khema – one of my heroes and a great dharma teacher – defined citta here as “mood,” the general mood of our mind. So what is a mood, exactly? I use an analogy to explain this. You are walking into a dark room, and there is stuff in the room, furniture and different things. You walk in, and you have no idea what the room is like. You turn on the light, and when the light goes on, you don’t have a chance to see everything in the room, but you get an immediate, general feeling of what the room is like: this is a dark room; this is a cluttered room; this is a spare room. You get a general feeling of the room before you examine exactly what’s in the room.
This general sense of the tone or tenor of the mind is the third foundation: mindfulness of mind, or mindfulness of consciousness. That’s why Ayya Khema’s translation “mood” is pretty good. I am in a good mood so everything looks good. I am in a bad mood, and everything seems awful. So if I am angry, and my whole mood is colored by my anger, then I know that. If I am full of unrequited desire, I know it. This may seem very obvious. Don’t we always know that? If we are in a bad mood, don’t we know we are in a bad mood? Actually not, I think. When we are really in the grip of these states of mind, we go galloping along with them without an appreciation of what they are.
Mindfulness gets you to see more accurately and appreciate fully what is going on, rather than galloping along without really knowing what’s happening. It makes your mind pliable and wide and deep enough so that eventually you don’t have to stop. You are in tune with yourself, and you know what’s going on, and what the consequences of your mood are. You can have some sense of choice and feeling of workability in the knowing of your state of mind.
The fourth foundation, mindfulness of dharma – mindfulness of objects of mind – is the same room. You walk in; you turn on the light; you are aware of the general feeling of the room, and then you are aware of the details. You see that there is a couch over there, a window here. The third and the fourth foundation are not so different. One is a general sense of what is going on. The other begins to discern the details of it and begins to see the pattern of it. In this foundation, there is an awareness of our commitment and our purpose, a clarity of what we are doing in our lives.
when the sutra talks about the objects of mind, it begins with the hindrances,
the negative states of mind. It goes through an analysis of mind all the
way up to The Four Noble Truths. This section of the sutra ends with a
long discussion of The Four Noble Truths. In other words, the more aware
of the mind you are, the more you are moving from the dominance of negative
states of mind to seeing the details and patterns within your own mind.