audiobooks

Perspectives on Satipatthana: an interview with Bhikkhu Anālayo

Perspectives on Satipatthana

An interview with Bhikkhu Anālayo, author of Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization.Bhikkhu Anālayo’s latest book, Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna, uses a comparison of three different versions of the Satipatthana Sutta to reveal what the original core teachings are likely to have been.

Hannah Atkinson: Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna is a companion volume to your earlier publication, Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization. How are the two books distinct and how do they work together?

Bhikkhu Anālayo: My first book, Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization, came out of a PhD I did in Sri Lanka. It was the product of my academic study of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the practical experience I had gained in meditation, and what I had read about the experience of other meditators and teachers – I tried to bring all that together to come to a better understanding of the text itself.

At that time I was working on the Pali sources of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta because the Buddha’s teachings were transmitted orally from India to Sri Lanka and then eventually written down in Pali, which is fairly similar to the original language or languages that the Buddha would have spoken. However, the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings also went in other directions, and we have versions of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta in Chinese and Tibetan. So after completing my PhD I learnt Chinese and Tibetan so that I could engage in a comparative study of parallel textual lineages, and this is the focus of my new book, Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna.

Although this was, at the outset, mainly an academic enterprise, what I discovered really changed the focus of my practice. When I took out the exercises that were not common to all three versions of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, I was left with a vision of mindfulness meditation that was very different to anything I would have expected. Contemplation of the body, which is the first of the four satipaṭṭhānas, for example, is usually practised in the form of the mindfulness of breathing and being mindful of bodily postures, but these exercises are not found in all versions. What I found in all three versions were the exercises that most of us do not like to do: seeing the body as made out of anatomical parts and thus as something that it is not beautiful, as something that is made up of elements and thus does not belong to me, and the cemetery contemplations – looking at a corpse that is decaying.

So then I understood: body contemplation is not so much about using the body to be mindful. It is rather predominantly about using mindfulness to understand the nature of the body. As a result of these practices one will become more mindful of the body, but the main thrust is much more challenging. The focus is on insight – understanding the body in a completely different way from how it is normally perceived.

Normally we look at the body and see it as ‘me’, but these texts are asking us to take that apart and see that actually we are made up of earth, water, fire and wind, of hardness, fluidity and wetness, temperature and motion. They are asking us to directly confront our own mortality – to contemplate the most threatening thing for us: death.

Bhikkhu Anālayo is a Buddhist monk (bhikkhu), scholar and meditation teacher. He was born in Germany in 1962, and ‘went forth’ in 1995 in Sri Lanka. He is best known for his comparative studies of early Buddhist texts as preserved by the various early Buddhist traditions.

Bhikkhu Anālayo is a Buddhist monk (bhikkhu), scholar and meditation teacher. He was born in Germany in 1962, and ‘went forth’ in 1995 in Sri Lanka. He is best known for his comparative studies of early Buddhist texts as preserved by the various early Buddhist traditions.

I found a similar pattern when I looked at the last satipaṭṭhāna, which is contemplation of dharmas. The practices that were common to all three versions were those that focused on overcoming the hindrances and cultivating the awakening factors. The emphasis is not so much on reflecting on the teachings, the Dharma, but really on putting them into practice, really going for awakening. As a result of this discovery I have developed a new approach to the practice of satipaṭṭhāna which I have found to be very powerful, and this would never have happened if I had not done the academic groundwork first.

HA: Your books are a combined outcome of scholarly study and practical experience of meditating. Do you find that these two approaches are generally compatible with each other, or do they ever come into conflict?

BA: It is not easy to be a scholar and a practitioner at the same time. If you look throughout Buddhist history, it is more usual to find Buddhists who are either practitioners or scholars than Buddhists who are both. However, for a while I have been trying to achieve a balance between these two sides of me, and I have found a point of concurrence: the main task of meditation is to achieve ‘knowledge and vision of things as they really are’ and actually this is the main task of academics as well. We use a different methodology, but the aim of both is to understand things as they really happen. If I take that as my converging point, then I am able to be both a scholar and a meditating monk, and this has been a very fruitful combination for me.

Both of my books are aimed at people who, like me, are interested in academic study and meditation. They are academic books where the final aim is to help people develop their meditation practice. They are not books for beginners, and the second book builds on the first book, so one would need a basic familiarity with what I covered in Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization in order to fully engage with Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna.

HA: Both of your books mention the idea of satipaṭṭhāna as a form of balance, and the title of your new book suggests that there are many different perspectives on satipaṭṭhāna that could be taken into account. Is the very essence of satipaṭṭhāna practice a balance of perspectives or is there one particular perspective on satipaṭṭhāna that has been most useful in the context of your practice?

BA: I think that balance is an absolutely central aspect of mindfulness practice. If you look at the Awakening Factors, the first one is mindfulness and the last one is usually translated as ‘equanimity’, but in my opinion it would be better to understand it as balance or equipoise. To be balanced means to be mindful and open to the present moment, to be free from desire and aversion, and this is what the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta continually comes back to.

I believe that balance is also an essential element of academic study. If, through my mindfulness practice, I am cultivating openness and reception then how can I say that one approach to a topic is totally right and another one is completely wrong? If I do that, I have to exclude all of the other approaches from my vision. Often, when we get into very strong opinions, we have tunnel vision – we see only one part of reality, one side of it, but that is not how things really are. So, in my academic work, if I find one approach that seems more reasonable to me, I keep it in the foreground, but I have to keep the other approaches in the background, I cannot just cut them out.

HA: Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization and Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna both mention the importance of combining self-development with concern for others. Does satipaṭṭhāna practice lead naturally to a person becoming more compassionate or is it necessary to engage in other practices to achieve this? Is satipaṭṭhāna practice a solitary activity or is it important that it is undertaken in the context of a Sangha?

BA: I think that compassion is a natural outcome of Satipaṭṭhāna practice, but it is also good to encourage it in other ways as well. There is a simile from the Satipaṭṭhāna Samyutta of two acrobats performing together on a pole – we need to establish our own balance in order to be in balance with other people and the outside world, but other people and the outside world are also the point at which we find out about our own balance. I can be practising alone, sitting in my room, feeling that I am so incredibly balanced and equanimous, but let me get out into the world and have some contact with people, come into some problems, and see how balanced I am then! Of course, time in seclusion and intensive meditation is essential, but there must always be a wider context to our practice.

Republished with permission from Windhorse Publications.

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Coming soon: Sacred Sound – an audio course on mantra meditation

Sacred Sound: Mantra Meditations for Centeredness and InspirationBodhipaksa and Sunada combine forces to bring you Wildmind’s first audiobook — a complete guide to mantra meditation. In it you’ll find everything you need to get started with a mantra chanting practice, including:

  • The “magical” background and history of mantras
  • How mantras can help us develop centeredness and inspiration
  • Preparatory exercises to open the body and free the breath
  • Seven mantras chanted for listening and learning
  • The meaning and symbolism of each of the seven mantras
  • A print-friendly companion guide with images, pronunciation key, and musical notations

Sacred Sound is led by Bodhipaksa, who has been practicing mantra meditation since 1982, and who is the author of Wildmind: A Step-by-Step Guide to Meditation, and the forthcoming Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change, and by Sunada, who is a life-long musician, workshop leader, and founder of Mindful Purpose Life Coaching.

The running time of the audio program is over two hours. The audiobook costs $19.95, but is free to all life members. The Companion Guide to Sacred Sound is available as a free PDF download (2.3Mb).

The official publication date is June 7.

For the moment Sacred Sound is only available as a high quality (320kb/s) MP3 download, although a CD version is planned.

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“Your Breathing Body” by Reginald A. Ray

“Your Breathing Body” by Reginald A. Ray

When Reginald Ray speaks of “touching enlightenment with the body”, he isn’t just saying that we can touch enlightenment with our bodies. What he really means is that there is no other way to do so. Sunada just finished her first pass through his 20-disc meditation CD series, Your Breathing Body, and gives it her ringing endorsement.

I first encountered Reginald Ray’s approach to meditation when I read his most recent book, Touching Enlightenment (excerpted elsewhere on this site), and attended one of his retreats on the same subject. As a yoga practitioner and a kinesthetic learner, I immediately took to it like a fish to water. And so I decided to invest in his CD series, Your Breathing Body – and I have to say I’m hooked.

Title: Your Breathing Body
Author: Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D.
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN Vol 1: 978-1-59179-659-6
ISBN Vol 2: 978-1-59179-662-6
Available from: Sounds True or Amazon.com.

In one sense, we could say that Ray’s perspective is unique. While many meditation teachers speak of working with the body, Ray goes so far as to say that the body is the only gateway through which we can find our most authentic core being and its ultimate connection to all of reality. But that doesn’t mean this is some minor, sideline approach. Ray argues that a somatic tradition has always been embedded in the core of the Buddha’s teachings, but somehow got lost in its translation to our Western culture. So this represents Ray’s efforts to bring meditation back to its intended roots.

Why the big emphasis on the body? Ray explains by taking us back to our prehistoric origins. When we were a hunter-gatherer species, we had to rely on our more intuitive, bodily cognitive functions in order to survive. Sensing predators in the wild, finding prey for the hunt, surviving the vagaries of nature – all this required that we lived rooted in our senses, keenly attuned to our environs. It was also a life in harmonious balance – our bodies and our sense of self were holistically embedded in our larger reality around us.

Ray argues that a somatic tradition has always been embedded in the core of the Buddha’s teachings, but somehow got lost in its translation to our Western culture.

But when we evolved into an agrarian species, our lifestyle changed to one of controlling, planning, and organizing – a more cerebral and disengaged approach to our world. This evolution has continued at a steady pace to the height of disembodiment that we find in our technological society today.

In our modern way of life, we mostly deal with our world through concepts and abstractions and much less, if at all, through experiencing it directly. In fact our society rewards those who are most adept at this kind of thinking and controlling. But of course, neither our bodies nor our world conform to our small-minded plans and desires. Such a view is bound to lead to suffering. And it’s this realization that gave rise to the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths.

The path back to balance is through somatic awareness. And Ray suggests that our capacity for that awareness is still very much in our genetic makeup. Your Breathing Body is like a complete graduate program in reawakening our natural capacity for awareness. It’s a two-box set, each containing ten CDs. You can buy each box individually, or buy them together as a discounted pair. (If you buy the latter from the publisher, Sounds True, they throw in his Touching Enlightenment book as a bonus.)

In total it’s a goldmine of over 20 hours of in-depth teachings and guided meditations that go deeply into the subtleties of perceiving through the body. Many of the practices are based on Tibetan Yoga. If you’re a yoga practitioner, the emphasis on working with the breath and prana (a more subtle form of bodily energy based on the breath) will be familiar territory.

And Ray suggests that our capacity for somatic awareness is still very much in our genetic makeup.

I especially appreciated the very solid foundation and orderly progression of this series. Ray spends a lot of time teaching how to find one’s optimal posture, and then starts us on what are called the Ten Points and Earth Breathing Practices. These are in effect very detailed and extensive body scan and relaxation meditations.

But he leads us much further. It’s not just about bringing our awareness into our bodies. What happens is that by fully relaxing and continually letting go to our present experience, we start peeling away more layers of tension and holding. That holding, we begin to see, is not just physical. As our awareness goes more deeply inward, we find further emotional and psychological layers to release, such as doubt or fear.

When we peel everything away, what’s left is a core of spaciousness, freedom and openness – the place from which all our most pure and authentic impulses arise. This is how we begin to explore who we really are and what’s our unique place in this world. And isn’t this what we took up a spiritual practice for?

My approach in working with this series was to go slowly through all the discs over the period of several months. Ray says that some practices will resonate for us better than others, and that it’s good to follow our instincts to explore those more fully. So I spent longer on some discs than others. I’m now starting on a second pass, and I’m still gleaning insights from it. It’s a mark of an excellent teacher that Ray’s talks can be so clear and inspiring on the first pass, and still have more to give on repeated listening.

When we peel everything away, what’s left is a core of spaciousness, freedom and openness—the place from which all our most pure and authentic impulses arise.

What level meditator should you be to use this series? While he does start from the basics with an extensive talk and guided practice on posture, I don’t think it’s intended for complete beginners. I personally think that embracing these practices requires some degree of stillness and concentration off the bat.

But if you do have experience with breath-oriented/samatha meditations, dive right in! Even if you think you already know all about posture, I would encourage you to start from the beginning. He offers helpful perspectives that are often overlooked by other teachers. Overall, there’s enough depth and richness to keep you going for months, if not years.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Dr. Reginald Ray — he has been practicing for over 40 years and is a master teacher in the Tibetan lineage of Chögyam Trungpa. He is also an academic by training, and has been on the faculty of Naropa University since the beginning. He brings all that depth, knowledge, and clarity of thought to his teaching. I find him a great model of what someone well-grounded in his body should be: he has a warm, inviting, and down-to-earth way of speaking that makes you feel like he’s sitting right there talking to you personally.

So as you’ve probably gathered by now, I found Your Breathing Body to be excellent all around. It’s not only brought more depth and focus to my meditation practice, it’s helped me gain a perspective on my life that I’m sure will continue to unfold with discoveries well into the future. I highly recommend it.

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