(336 pp., Windhorse Publications, 2014)
Bhikkhu Anālayo’s modestly titled and clearly written Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna shows how a scholar, who also practices, can help us go beyond the well-worn paths of superficial understandings of mindfulness to inhabit all the dimensions of the Buddha’s teachings.
The idea of sati, or mindfulness, as a sufficient summary for all of classical Buddhism has been popularized and repeated so often that many important aspects of practice have been pushed into the shadows. By comparing the original Pāli texts to parallel texts preserved in Chinese and Tibetan (mainly the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta and the Chinese Āgamas), Bhikkhu Anālayo has performed a vital service to those of us who use these texts as the basis for our practice.
As when seeing by the light of the full moon, we must let our perceptions adjust to the subtleties here. In his painstaking comparison, Anālayo stresses that he is not trying to decide which texts are the best, earliest or most authentic, but instead to brighten our view, to help us understand the texts less as philosophical doctrine and more as instruction for practice.
Perhaps most helpful for the experienced practitioner is the clear sequence of first establishing mindfulness as a preparation for the awakening factors. Although “foundations of mindfulness” is the better-known translation of satipaṭṭhāna, “establishings” (as in “The Four Establishings of Mindfulness”) is more helpful, if a bit awkward. The sutta provides four methods (using the body, feeling tone, the mind and dharmas) to establish mindfulness, using each as objects of meditation to create continuous direct knowledge of the details of experience. In the fourth, dharmas, we also find sati as the first of the Seven Factors of Awakening. The Seven Factors themselves progress from sati to upekkhā (“equanimity”), which is usually equated with awakening itself. Thus the techniques of satipaṭṭhāna lead directly to sati itself, the first awakening factor.
Another helpful finding of Anālayo’s analysis is how each of the satipaṭṭhānas—individually—can lead to establishing the mindfulness needed to ignite the awakening factors and thus lead to liberation.
One of the well-worn paths of misunderstanding involves the English phrase “nonjudgmental awareness.” While this may be useful instruction at a particular point in practice, ultimately we must learn to be discerning. “Clear discrimination between what is wholesome and what is unwholesome is, according to all versions [of the texts], the nourishment for investigation-of-dharmas.” Anālayo lays out the activities required for satipaṭṭhāna meditation, which are that a practitioner “knows” (pajānāti), “examines” (paccavekkhati) and “compares” (upasaṃharati).
Anālayo insists that this knowing/ examining/comparing is vital for countering the hindrances and allowing the investigation of the dharmas (the workings of our experience) to counter doubt. He writes, “Overcoming doubt does not so much require faith, but instead calls for thorough investigation.”
He expands this role of judgment by discussing meditations on the body: “satipaṭṭhāna meditation . . . involves a clear element of deliberate evaluation. Whether ‘impure’ or ‘unattractive,’ contemplation of the body from the perspective of its anatomical parts combines mindfulness with the use of concepts that clearly involve a value judgment. That is, mindfulness in early Buddhist thought is not just nonjudgmental. Needless to say, such deliberate evaluation for the sake of progress on the path to liberation is quite different from compulsory reacting to experience in a judgmental way.”
Again, this adds a much-needed layer of subtlety to the popular gloss of mindfulness as “nonjudgmental awareness.” In fact, it indicates that this description of sati is simply wrong, in the sense of being incomplete. “When mindfulness is established, one becomes fully aware of what is present, without getting carried away by mental reactions. Being mindful in this way, in what is seen there will truly be only what is seen. The task is not to avoid seeing things altogether, but to see them without unwholesome reactions.”
The final chapter of the book provides Bhikkhu Anālayo’s full translations of the main texts, the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya and its two Chinese parallels in the Madhyama-āgama and the Ekottarika-āgama. These shine out with new meaning, read in the light of Anālayo’s work.
One overall lesson this book offers is that we cannot escape the need to analyze any text for ourselves. Anālayo’s deep experience of study and practice provides valuable guidance in carrying out this unavoidable step in our growth, and even shows how it can be part of an “unworldly pleasure” of its own, resting in the space created in our minds by adding new perspectives to our understanding.
Chris Talbott has been practicing in the classical tradition of the Pāli canon for about twenty years. For the last ten of those, he has lived and worked at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, wearing many hats, of which his favorite is editor of Insight Journal.
From the Fall 2014 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 31, No. 1)
© 2014 Chris Talbott