A guide to the Mahasatipatthana Sutta
The Buddha taught that the practice of mindfulness (P. – sati or S. – smrti) has four foundations: concentration on the body (kayasati), concentration on feelings or sensations (vedanasati), concentration on mental processes (cittasati), and concentration on the phenomenal (dhammasati). This guide is a brief summary taken from the work of Bhikku Ayalano, an expert on the Satipatthana.
FIRST FOUNDATION: MINDFULNESS OF THE BODY
The First Foundation of Mindfulness is mindfulness of the body. This foundation is broken up into six sections: breath, posture, clear comprehension, the reality of the body, the elements, and the nine cemetery contemplations.
1. Mindfulness of the Breath
“When practicing mindfulness of breathing, attention should be focused between the nostrils and the upper lip, where the current of air can be felt. The meditator’s attention should not leave this focal point whence the inhalations and exhalations can be easily felt and observed. The meditator may become aware of the breath’s route through the body but he should not pay attention to it. At the beginning of the practice, the meditator should concentrate only on inhalations and exhalations and should not fall into any reflections about them. It is only at a later stage that he should apply himself to the arousing of knowledge and other states connected with the concentration.
“When counting, the meditator should first count when the inhalation or exhalation is completed, not when it begins. So taking the in-breath first, he counts mentally ‘one’ when that inhalation is complete, then he counts ‘two’ when the exhalation is complete, ‘three’ after the next inhalation, and so on up to ten, and then again from one to ten, and so he should continue.
“After some practice in counting at the completion of a breath, breathing may becoming faster. The breaths, however, should not be made longer or shorter intentionally. The meditator has to be just mindful of their occurrence as they come and go. Now he may try counting ‘one’ when he begins to inhale or exhale, counting up to five or ten, and then again from one to five or ten. If one takes both the inhalation and exhalation as ‘one’, it is better to count up to five.
“Counting should be employed until one can dispense with it in following the sequence of breaths successively. Counting is merely a device to assist in excluding stray thoughts. It is, as it were, a guideline or railing for supporting mindfulness until it can do without such help. There may be those who will feel the counting more as a complication than a help, and they may well omit it, attending directly to the flow of the breathing by way of “connecting the successive breaths.”
“After the counting has been discarded, the meditator should now continue his practice by way of connecting (anubandhana); that is, by following mindfully the inhalations and exhalations without recourse to counting, and yet without a break in attentiveness. Here too, the breaths should not be followed beyond the nostrils where the breath enters and leaves. The meditator must strive to be aware of the whole breath in its entire duration and without missing one single phase, but his attention must not leave the place of contact, the nostrils, or that point above the upper lip where the current of air touches.
“While thus following the inhalations and exhalations, they become fainter and fainter, and at times it is not easy to remain aware of that subtle sensation of touch caused by the breath. Keener mindfulness is required to keep track of the breaths then. But if the meditator perseveres, one day he will feel a different sensation, a feeling of ease and happiness, and occasionally there appears before his mental eye something like a luminous star or a similar sign, which indicates that one approaches the stage of access concentration. Steadying the newly acquired sign, one may cultivate full mental absorption (jhana or dhyana), or at least the preliminary concentration as a basis for practicing insight.” (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanasatta/wheel019.html)
2. MINDFULNESS OF POSTURES
In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha directs his monks to maintain their concentration in any posture.
3. CLEAR COMPREHENSION
Clear comprehension is defined as comprehension of the purpose, suitability and utility of the activity, and comprehension of the reality of the body. We are to maintain clear comprehension while we are engaged in any activity: going forwards and backwards, looking straight ahead and looking to the side, bending and stretching, getting dressed, eating and drinking, urinating and excreting, walking and standing, sitting, sleeping, waking, and speaking.
COMPREHENSION OF PURPOSE
Is the purpose of an activity a skillful means? (e.g., giving, meditation)
COMPREHENSION OF SUITABILITY
Is the activity suited to the purpose? (i.e. Is walking suitable for meditation?)
COMPREHENSION OF UTILITY
Is the activity effective for the practice of mindfulness? (e.g., Hui-neng treading round and round the rice mill for eight months)
COMPREHENSION OF THE REALITY OF THE BODY
This is contemplation of the body as impermanent, devoid of self-nature, and being the source of suffering.
4. MINDFULNESS OF THE REALITY OF THE BODY
Sometimes called “Contemplation of the repulsiveness of the body,” this is not unlike opening a sack of provisions and taking stock of the contents. “Just so, monks, a monk reflects on this very body enveloped by the skin and full of manifold impurity . . .” Bhikku Ayalano has simplified the contents from 32 (see end note) to three: skin, flesh and bones, while in Ch’an the body is simply referred to as a sack of shit.
5. MINDFULNESS OF THE FOUR ELEMENTS
Contemplating the body as composed of earth, air, fire and water.
6. THE CEMETERY CONTEMPLATIONS
Contemplating the body in various stages of decomposition.
- the festering (decomposition) of the body (by maggots, etc.)
- the body being eaten by animals
- a skeleton with sinews, flesh and blood
- a skeleton with sinews, smeared with blood
- a skeleton with sinews only
- a clean skeleton
- loose bones bleached by the sun
- one-year-old bones lying in a pile
- bones crumbling into the earth
Jose Guadalupe Posada: “Dance Beyond the Grave”
Second Foundation of Mindfulness: Feelings and Sensations (Vedana)
The first part of this contemplation is being aware of a sensation and noting whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Sensations have no inherent quality: they are only unpleasant when we link them to the fear of death or the fear of being all alone.
The second part is to note whether the experience is bodily or mental. Physical pain is only painful because it arouses fear. At the same time, fear often provokes physical pain or discomfort.
Finally, we are to note whether the experience is “worldly” or “unworldly.” Worldly experiences are anything related to the six sense-gates (hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, seeing, thinking). An unworldly experience is related to the higher realms—the form and formless realms.
Third Foundation of Mindfulness: Contemplating states of consciousness
The Satipatthana Sutta reads as follows:
Herein, monks, a monk knows the state of consciousness where there is craving as being covetous; the state of consciousness where there is hatred as being hateful . . . the state of consciousness where there is indolence as being indolent; the state of consciousness where there is distraction as being distracted . . . the concentrated state of consciousness as being the concentrated state; the unfocused state of consciousness as being the unfocused state; etc.
Fourth Foundation: Mindfulness of phenomena (dharmas)
The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness is often translated as mindfulness of dharmas, or the realm of senses and desire, and counterposing this realm to the state of awakening.
Investigating dharmas consists of studying five lists: the hindrances, the aggregates, the internal and external sense-bases, the seven perfections, and the Four Noble Truths. Here is a simple breakdown of the lists:
The Five Hindrances – sense-desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, doubt
The Five Aggregates [skandha] – form, feelings, knowledge of differences good and bad, expectations, consciousness.
The Six Sense-Bases – eye and appearances, ear and sound, nose and odor, tongue and flavor, body and sensation, mind and thought
The Seven Perfections – investigation, zeal, joy, mindfulness, tranquility, samadhi, perfect equanimity
The Four Noble Truths – Suffering, The Cause of Suffering, The Cessation of Suffering, the Noble Eightfold Path
Practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness
When practicing with the satipatthana, it is important to remember that our task is just to contemplate these things. In mindfulness practice we allow feelings to come up into our awareness and let go of them. We observe our judgments of good and bad, right and wrong, and let go of them. The objective is to observe everything with equanimity and detachment.
Bhikku Analayo (2004). Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse Publications. (Exploring_Satipatthana)
Bhikku Analayo (2018). Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse Publications. (Windhorse Publications)
Guided meditation of Exploring Four Satipatthanas (40 min.):
1. The thirty-two parts of the body are: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs, bowels, intestines, gorge, dung, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, snot, spittle, oil-of-the-joints, urine, and brain. Bhikku Analayo has simplified this list to ‘skin, flesh and bones.’