The Satipatthana Sutta is generally regarded as the single most important text expounding the Buddha’s teaching on mindfulness, and systematically takes us through a series of reflections on mindfulness of the breath and the body, mindfulness of actions, and mindfulness of impermanence.
Adapted from recordings of Sangharakshita in seminar with his students, this book is a sheer delight — rather like listening to a favorite, well-traveled and extremely knowledgeable uncle chatting by the fireside. Because of the adapted nature of the text, this commentary is somewhat of a ramble around the Satipatthana Sutta, although Sangharakshita deals with the text with great thoroughness.
Sangharakshita’s many years of experience as a practitioner and teacher are evident in the practicality with which he discusses exactly how to go about developing the various aspects of mindfulness. And mindfulness has many aspects, he points out. While many contemporary teachers of meditation stress that mindfulness is awareness in the moment, Sangharakshita emphasizes that it is indeed awareness in the moment but that it is also an awareness in the moment with reference to the past and present. As Sangharakshita puts it, “Everything we do should be done with a sense of the direction we want to move in and of whether or not our current action will take us in that direction”. Mindfulness integrates our experience so that we recognize the effects of the past on our present (and can thus learn to live more skillfully) and also integrates the present with the future, so that we act now with reference to where we would like to end up.
In the course of discussing the Sutta, Sangharakshita demonstrates his ample skill as a storyteller, drawing on tales from the Buddhist tradition, from his own personal experience, and from western literature. I doubt anyone could read this book without wanting to rush out and buy a few volumes of Charles Dickens, having had some of the perhaps unexpected spiritual wisdom in his writings pointed out to them. These digressions, rather than being a distraction, are actually a highlight of the book, and I can imagine that the editors had their work cut out for them deciding which of the divagations should be consigned to the cutting room floor, and which should remain.
Particularly striking as an example of Sangharakshita’s lucid thinking is a chapter on how to reflect — a topic on which many of us need guidance. Amongst other things we are advised to set aside specific time for sitting down and thinking, seeking out the company of people with differing views from our own in order to learn to organize and articulate our thoughts more clearly, and to practice reflecting through writing. This chapter could well stand alone and I can well imagine it becoming a minor classic in its own right.
For anyone interested in exploring the practice of mindfulness more deeply I would highly recommend this book.