Debugging the Source Code of the Dharma

Mudita is not “sympathetic joy”

Person kneeling in front of a giant Buddha statue in a temple

This is an extract from the introduction to my current course on Mudita, which is part of a longer series of teachings on the brahma-viharas — also known as the “immeasurables.”

The third of the Brahmaviharas, after lovingkindness and compassion, is mudita. Mudita is usually translated as sympathetic or empathetic joy, and is described as “feeling happy because others are happy.”

This is an interpretation I profoundly disagree with.

A first century text called the Path to Freedom describes the cultivation of mudita like this:

When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: “Sadhu! Sadhu! May he continue joyful for a long time!”

(Sādhu, by the way, means something like “Yay!” or “Alright!” or “Great!”)

The records we have of the Buddha’s teachings don’t define mudita, and the text above is the earliest I know of that gives us an indication of what mudita is and how it’s to be cultivated. There are several things that are significant here.

  • We’re asked to call to mind someone whose skillful qualities are developed to the point where others esteem them. Having mudita involves recognizing what’s skillful.
  • We’re not just being asked to call to mind someone who is happy, but someone who is happy (and at peace) as a result of having those skillful qualities. So when we have mudita we see the connection between skillful actions and their beneficial results.
  • Appreciation is involved. We appreciate skillful qualities, and the peace and joy they bring, as being good things.
  • Love is involved. Because we want what is good for them, we encourage this person’s future joy and happiness, by supporting, rejoicing in, and encouraging their skillfulness.
  • By valuing this other person’s skillfulness, and the peace and joy that come from it, we ourselves become joyful. So we’re cultivating a state of appreciation that’s joyful.

This all goes far, far beyond “being happy because someone is happy.” That much more mundane experience is actually fraught with spiritual difficulties, because a lot of the apparent happiness we see around us arises on the basis of unskillful actions. We shouldn’t be glad that someone is happy because they’ve just defrauded an old lady of her life savings, for example.

In summary, when we practice mudita we appreciate skillful attributes, speech, and actions, and this brings joy. And so mudita is “joyful appreciation.”

A Progression

There is a progression in the first three brahma-viharas.

Metta is kindness. We want what is best for others’ long-term happiness and well-being. We want them to be happy. We want them to feel supported and to know that they matter. We speak and act kindly, and think about others kindly as well.

Karuna, or compassion, is what happens when we want beings to be happy but are aware that they are suffering. In order for them to be happy we want to remove their suffering, or at least support them while the suffering persists.

When we have mudita we want others to be happy, but now we recognize that happiness is not something that happens randomly. The happiness we’re interested in is the kind that comes from having skillful qualities. And so, wanting beings to be happy, we recognize the skillful qualities within them that give rise to happiness, and we appreciate, rejoice in, and encourage the development of those qualities.

To have mudita we have to be able to recognize conditionality, which is the way in which certain conditions and actions give rise to suffering, while others free us from suffering. Mudita is therefore at least in part a wisdom practice.

Just as we can define compassion as metta meeting suffering, we can define mudita as metta meeting skillfulness. This meeting is a joyful experience, or at least is capable of arousing joy.

The Stages of the Mudita Practice

As with the lovingkindness and compassion practices, there are five stages in joyful appreciation meditation.

  1. We start with cultivating appreciation of ourselves, or at least establish kindness towards ourselves. This stage is not found in the earliest description of the practice, but is a healthy place to begin, given that many of us often lack appreciation of our own skillful qualities.
  2. We then call to mind a person who embodies skillful qualities and experiences peace and joy as a result.
  3. Then we do this for a relative stranger (“neutral person”).
  4. Then for person we have difficulty with.
  5. And then finally we wish that all beings develop skillful qualities and experience calm and joy as a result.

As with the compassion practice, there is no “friend” stage. The person with skillful qualities in the second stage may be a friend, or we can include friends in the final stage.

For the first few days, we’re going to focus on self-appreciation.

Today I’ve chosen an exercise from “Living With Appreciation.” It’s on “Taking time to savor the positive..” The guidance begins with a short talk and is 10 minutes long in total.

Meditation Isn’t Enough

Although mudita bhavana is a meditation practice, developing joyful appreciation is something we can and should do in daily life as well. We can recognize skillful words and actions that we encounter, and we can also be more generally appreciative — recognizing and being glad for anything whatsoever that bring benefits to us or others.

An Exercise

Today, carry around an attitude of appreciation as best you can. As you encounter others, or even just think of them, be aware that they contain the seeds of goodness. When good things happen to you, however minor they seem dwell on them appreciatively.


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What the heck is “the unconditioned”?

close up of a sparkler, with two blurred hands in the background

I often hear Buddhists talking about “the unconditioned.”

I’m extremely suspicious of this expression. In fact think it’s positively unhelpful, in that brings about a sense that Enlightenment is something that happens far, far away. “The unconditioned” becomes a sort of mystical realm — some kind of mysterious entity or metaphysical reality. Sometimes people call it “the Absolute.”

Why I’m Skeptical of the Unconditioned

I started thinking about this when I made the discovery that a well-known Buddhist teaching on suffering: that there is ordinary pain, the suffering of reversal (e.g. loss) and the suffering inherent in “conditioned existence” said no such thing.

Actually, the teaching says that there are (in this order) inevitable physical suffering (the first arrow), suffering we create through reacting to the first kind of suffering (the second arrow), and suffering that hits us if we try to immerse ourselves in pleasure as an escape from these other forms of suffering (I call this “the third arrow”).

A Calamitous Error

My own teacher, Sangharakshita, makes what I regard as a calamitous error when he says “there is conditioned reality and Unconditioned reality – or more simply, there is the conditioned and the Unconditioned.”

But there cannot be two realities. Only one of these things can be real, although one single reality can be looked at in different ways, and perhaps that’s what he meant.

The habit Sangharakshita had — shared by many others — of capitalizing “Unconditioned” reinforces this idea of the term referring to something very special and abstract. If you say “in reality” you’re simply describing what happens. If you say “in Reality” there’s a very different implication. We start wondering where and what this “Reality” is.

See other articles in the “Debugging the Source Code of the Dharma” series:

What Is this Term?

Let’s look at this  expression, “unconditioned” or “the unconditioned,” or even (heaven help us) “the Unconditioned.”

One of the key places it’s found are in translations of a famous Udāna verse:

There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.

There are several other places in the scriptures where this saying is found.

This passage is invariably interpreted in a metaphysical way — as if the Buddha is talking about different worlds. “The unconditioned” sounds even more mysterious now, because it’s accompanied by other terms: “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made.” How mystical! Surely the Buddha is talking about some otherworldly realm, other than the one we find ourselves in — the world where we are born, brought into being, etc.

What Does It Really Mean?

Remember, first, that there’s no direct or indirect article in Pāli. The text just says “there is not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned.” That already sounds quite different.

These four terms (not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned) are synonyms, so asaṅkhata, “not-conditioned” or “unconditioned”) means the same as “not-made.” Saṅkhata can mean “made” or “produced” and so asaṅkhata here can simply mean that something hasn’t yet come into being or no longer exists.

In the Saṁyutta Nikāya, the Buddha actually explains what he means in using the term “uncreated” (asaṅkhata).

“And what, bhikkhus is not-created? The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion: this is called not-created.”

So now we have states of mind that are “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-created.”

Creating or Destroying Mental States

It’s actually, I think, a very practical statement that the Buddha is making. He’s simply saying that things (specifically the experience of suffering, which is what he was most interested in, and the mental states that are the causes of suffering) are sometimes created, and sometimes they are not. They can be “de-created.”

What he’s saying is that because suffering can be not created or destroyed that the experience of suffering can be escaped. If we can create suffering, then we can also not create suffering.

If we had previously created certain mental states of suffering, like craving or hatred, and, through practice, we let them die away. They’d no longer be “born, brought-to-being, made, created,” but would now be “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-created.” And that would be the state of nibbāna, which is literally the “burning out” of suffering. When suffering’s fuel burns out, suffering burns out, or is “not-created” (asaṅkhata).

“The Unconditioned” is not a thing.

“The Unconditioned” (asaṅkhata) is not a thing. It’s not some kind of “absolute.” It’s not a “reality.” It’s not even “the unconditioned,” because both the “the” and the “unconditioned” parts aren’t right. What it refers to is the  “non-creating of things that would otherwise be created.” Practically, it’s the non-production of suffering, through the non-production of that which causes suffering.

I think that’s all the Buddha is saying.

The Traditional Interpretation Is a Distraction

All this metaphysical stuff about “the Unconditioned” is a million miles away from how the Buddha actually taught, and presumably also from how he thought. I want to know the mind of the Buddha. I want to see things they way they saw him. And having a goal which is not the Buddha’s goal just isn’t helpful in that regard. In fact it’s a positive distraction.

Making the Buddha’s teaching metaphysical leads us into realms of nebulous speculation. It takes us away from the here and now. It takes us away from our direct experience. It diverts us from actually practice.

We don’t need to try to conceive of, let alone strive to attain, some mystical state called “the unconditioned.” We just need to keep working on letting greed, hatred, and delusion die away, so that they are no longer things that are born, brought-to-being, or made within us. Instead they are not-born, not-brought-to-being, not made.

To be very simple and concrete, we stop creating greed, hatred, and delusion, and destroy them instead.

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The strange myopia of Buddhist teachings on suffering

woman having caesarian section

I wanted to draw attention to a strange myopia that affects many people who comment on the Buddha’s teachings about suffering.

In the four noble truths, the first truth is that of suffering (dukkha), and it’s described in the following manner:

Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the disliked is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.

Here the Buddha lists a number of occasions for suffering that arise in life. Some, like birth and death, don’t happen in our lives very often. Others, like sickness, are quite frequent. Some, like separation from what we like and being in the presence of things we don’t like take place multiple times in the course even of just one day.

The first instance of suffering that the Buddha gives is birth. It’s a natural place to start, perhaps.

What I find curious is that many, many writers on Buddhism interpret “birth is suffering” solely in terms of “being born is suffering.” This is a long-standing tradition. Fifteen hundred years ago, or so, Buddhaghosa, in his treatise, “The Path of Purification,” listed several ways in which birth is painful. He tells us it’s painful:

  • to be confined in a womb
  • to be physically jarred in the womb when your mother moves around
  • if your mother has a miscarriage
  • to be forced through the birth canal
  • to have your sensitive skin touched after you’ve been born

You’ll notice that this is all focused on the one being born.

Was your birth painful? I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember. Presumably it was traumatic at the time, but my brain wasn’t developed enough to commit the details to memory.

Now, would your mother say that birth was painful? Probably! She experienced much more pain than anyone else involved. Was it psychologically painful for her? Probably. It’s a worrying thing to give birth.

Was it painful for your father? Not physically, but he was probably anxious about the health of your and your mother.

Lots of other people were probably anxious too, and relieved when you were born, hopefully healthily.

The Buddha was of course born at a time and place where birth was much more dangerous than it is for most of us reading these words. His own mother is supposed to have died not long after he was born, presumably from complications of childbirth. In many parts of the world, death during or just after childbirth is still common. In fact both of my adopted children’s birth-mothers died this way.

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For me, the most bizarre part of Buddhaghosa’s list is the bit about miscarriages. To consider the suffering involved in such a thing and not give any thought to the experience of the mother is just bizarre.

Buddhaghosa remains an important influence on Buddhism to this day. A lot of Buddhist teaching is essentially what I call “warmed-over Buddhaghosa.” And so his myopia becomes the myopia of contemporary Buddhist teachers — or many of them, at least. Just today I listened to a teaching on suffering by a very talented contemporary teacher who explained “birth is suffering” as “being born is suffering.”

Probably because Buddhaghosa was a man who had lived all his life in cultures where men were the focus of attention, he just didn’t give much thought to the experience of women. And he was talking to men. But even those men had mothers and sisters who gave birth, so there’s a kind of misogyny, or at least myopic gender-bias, in operation.

Part of what’s going on here is how people tend to pass on presentations of the Buddha’s teachings in much the same way they had first learned them — including the mistakes and the myopic omissions. So you learn from a book or a talk that “birth is suffering” means “it’s painful to be born,” and that lodges in your brain. And then having learned what this, you stop thinking about the subject. You don’t reflect on it. You don’t compare it to the lived experience of people around you. It’s just a “factoid” that inhabits your brain, in some way isolated from everything else you know.

This lack of reflection on what the Buddha taught bothers me. Not connecting what the Buddha taught to your own lived experience (a teacher may not have given birth, but they’ve surely heard women say how painful it is) bothers me. And of course ignoring the painful experience of half of humanity bothers me. Aren’t empathy and compassion meant to be part of the Buddhist path?

Buddhism is about suffering, and responding wisely and compassionately to suffering. And yet most of the suffering around the topic, “birth is suffering,” gets ignored. That’s kind of weird.

Similar things can be said about death, although that’s a less gendered topic. There’s a form of myopia where “death is suffering” becomes “dying is suffering.” But it’s not just dying that’s painful. It’s painful to have a loved one die. It’s painful to think that one day they will die.

There are many other ways in which Buddhist teachings are passed on from generation to generation in a habitual, unreflecting way. In another article here I tackled a few recurring myths about the Buddha’s life. I’ve written about another mistaken teaching about suffering that is commonly passed on. I could write a book full of these.

All of these repeated misconceptions weaken and dull the teaching of Buddhism. The less teachers (and their students) are able to connect Dharma teachings to their lived experience and to the experience of others, the more abstract the teachings seem. They exist as the “factoids” I mentioned, floating in the mind, untethered to our real lives.

So the next time you hear a teacher talking discussing “birth is suffering” purely in terms of the suffering a fetus and baby go through, I’d suggest that you gently bring up the topic of all the others involved in birth who suffer in more significant ways — the mother above all. It might end up changing Buddhist culture in the west.

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Debunking seven myths about the Buddha

Depiction of the Buddha in a carved stone frieze

Some of the misconceptions about the Buddha are so common that you’ll find them in just about every book on Buddhism. The problem is that most of these books are merely rehashes of other books on Buddhism, so that misconceptions get passed on for decades and even centuries.

So here I’d like to debunk some myths about the Buddha. I’m not talking about myths like “The Buddha was a god” (he was a historical human figure) or that the Buddha was fat (that’s an entirely different figure, Budai, who was a Chinese monk). I’m going to debunk things that even many savvy Buddhists believe to be true because they’ve read them so often.

So here we go:

Myth #1: The Buddha Was Indian

The country of India didn’t exist at the time of the Buddha, of course, but when people talk about the Buddha being Indian they mean that he was born in a place that is now part of present-day India. However, he was born (according to tradition) in a town called Lumbini, which was in the Sakyan country. Lumbini is in present-day Nepal, not India. Of course the Buddha spent much of his life in what is now India, but he wasn’t Indian. He was Nepalese—or at least he was born in a part of the world that is now known as Nepal.

Myth #2: The Buddha’s Name Was Siddhartha Gotama

In the scriptures the only name given to the Buddha is “Gotama.” This is usually understood to have been his family name, but it was probably his personal name. We know the personal names of his father, mother, son, aunt, cousins, and so on, and it would be weird if we don’t know the Buddha’s own given name.

As far as I know, the only places in the Pali scriptures where the Buddha is given the name Siddhattha (Siddhatta in Pāli) are in some very late texts called the āpadānas, and other late texts like the Jātakas. Here’s a text, for example, where “Siddhatta” is being recalled by a monk who had been a crocodile in a past life when the two had met! These texts seem to have been added to the canon centuries after the Buddha died. Since this one’s recalling the Buddha in a past life, it must have been very late.

So what was the Buddha’s name? In one very early text, in the Sutta Nipāta collection, the Buddha talks about his family:

Their clan name is Ādicca ,
the name of their lineage is the Sakyans.
I have gone forth from that family—
I do not yearn for sensual pleasure.

So it seems that the Buddha’s family name was Ādicca, which means “sun.” That family was, as we know, part of the Sakyan people. He was often referred to as Ādiccabandhu, usually rendered as “Kinsman of the sun.”

Now, Gotama was a brahmin family name. It’s very unlikely that the Buddha would have had a brahmin family name. In the early scriptures, brahmins are usually referred to by their family name. However, members of the Buddha’s family, who were not brahmins, are referred to by their personal names: Ānanda, Nanda, Devadatta, etc. It would be weird if the only member of the family who wasn’t referred to by his first name was the Buddha. So Gotama was probably his first name, and Ādicca his family name. He was likely “Gotama Ādicca,” not “Siddhatta Gotama” (Siddhartha Gautama). Gotama can definitely be a personal name as well as a family name. The Buddha’s aunt’s name was Gotami, and in fact Gautama is still a first name in India today.

Confusion seems to have arisen because of Gotama being a family name (although only for brahmins). People likely started thinking Gotama must be his last name, leaving him without a personal name. The title, Siddhartha, was used to fill that apparent gap.

Myth #3: The Buddha Was Born Hindu

There was no religion called Hinduism at the time the Buddha was born, and so it would be anachronistic to say that the Buddha was born a Hindu. There were many religious traditions that were around at that time. There was one common one that we call Brahminism, which was a hereditary sacrificial tradition based on ancient Indian texts called the Vedas. This is one of the traditions that evolved into contemporary Hinduism. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Buddha followed this Vedic tradition at any time in his life. In fact he probably didn’t. We know that the Sakyans argued that they were superior to the Brahmins, and so it seems unlikely that they followed their religious tradition.

There’s mention in the scriptures that in Kosala and Magadha (territories close to Sakya) there were “Brahmin villages.” According to Bronkhorst (“Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism”) there is evidence that Brahmins tended to cluster together in villages. I thought I’d at some point seen a reference to a Brahmin village in Sakya, although I haven’t been able to track that down. Whether or not there was such a village, the implication is that if Brahminism was present in Sakya it wasn’t ubiquitous and probably wasn’t the dominant religious tradition.

In one discourse a Brahmin talks about visiting the Sakyan capital, Kapilavatthu, and being shocked that brahmins were not honored there. It is “neither fitting, nor is it seemly, that the Sākyas, menials as they are, mere menials, should neither venerate, nor value, nor esteem, nor give gifts to, nor pay honour to Brahmans,” he complains. It’s all too easy for us to think that India is a Hindu country. Therefore it has always been a Hindu country. But in doing so we’re projecting the present (and a rough approximation of the present at that) into a very different past.

In the scriptures there’s simply no mention of the Buddha practicing any religion until after he left home and became a follower of first Alara Kalama and then Uddaka Ramaputta. These teachers were not followers of the Vedas. They seem to have rejected Vedic authority and ran forest renunciate communities based on seeking the truth through meditation. There were presumably philosophical aspects to Alara and Uddaka’s teachings, however, since the Buddha talks about having “memorized” them and having mastered “lip-recital and oral recitation.”

The Vedic tradition was not meditative, but involved rituals of sacrifice and purity in order to influence the gods. There’s no evidence, either, that the Buddha ever worshipped any of the Brahmins’ gods, which are now Hindu gods.

So there’s no evidence that the Buddha was ever a Hindu, or a follower of any tradition rooted in the Vedas, or a worshipper of Hindu deities.

Myth #4: The Buddha Was a Prince

The Sakyan territory was one of a number of republics in the north of the Indian subcontinent. These republics had no kings, and instead were governed by representatives of the people. Some of them may have been democratic, but as far as we know the Sakyans were governed by a council of the heads of the major families that lived there. The Buddha’s father was not a king, but more like a senator.

There are a few reasons why people might have later assumed that the Buddha was the heir to a kingdom. Even during the Buddha’s lifetime, the small republics started being swallowed up by neighboring monarchical kingdoms. After a few generations of being ruled by kings, people may have tended to assume that things had always been like that, and assumed that if his father had been a Sakyan ruler, he must have been a king.

But there’s also a tendency for religious traditions to want to see their founders as having had extraordinary lives and pedigrees, and it’s much more grand to say that the Buddha was the son of a king than heir to the head of one of the leading Sakyan families.

And in trying to obtain patronage from actual kings (who could make or break a religious tradition) it would have been a good PR move to say that your founder was also of royal stock.

I can think of one discourse where the Buddha is referred to as a prince, but it’s an odd one. The sutta is in two parts, the first—with the prince reference—being heavily mythological and narrated by some unknown person. The second part is a question from a disciple followed by a very practical response from the Buddha. There’s no reference in the second part to the Buddha being from a royal family. Given that historically the Buddha could not have been a prince, it seems likely that the mythological introduction was added later. Moreover, the word translated as “prince” is “kumāra”, which merely meant “boy.” The Buddha’s father isn’t referred to as a “king” here, so I assume it’s just habit that leads people to translate kumāra as “prince.” The term for a royal prince would be “rājakumāra”.

There’s another discourse, principally about the previous life of a mythical Buddha called Vipassi—see Myth #5—where the Buddha is portrayed as describing his parents as a king and queen. Again, this is at odds with the historical reality, and it’s interesting that once again we have a mythical context for this royal reference. And here again there’s a translation issue. The word for a royal king was “mahārājā,” while the Buddha’s father is called a “rājā” in this sutta. At the Buddha’s time the word rājā was (according to the Pali Dictionary) “primarily an appellative (or title) of a khattiya [member of the aristocratic warrior class], and often the two [khattiya and rājā] are used promiscuously.

Myth #5: The Buddha Saw Four Sights

Just about every book on Buddhism will tell you about the so-called Four Sights that prompted the Buddha to leave home on a spiritual quest. It goes like this: The Buddha was brought up in three palaces and not allowed to go outside. However, he insisted on going on a series of chariot rides to explore the capital, and saw 1) an old person, 2) a sick person, 3) a dead person, and 4) a beatific homeless wanderer. These Four Sights provoked a spiritual crisis, and so he left home in search to find a way to overcome suffering.

This story is certainly found in the scriptures. It’s even told by the Buddha himself. But he tells it about someone else! This is a tale that the Buddha tells about a legendary former Buddha called Vipassi. So these events are clearly not presented as something that happened to the Buddha himself. Sometimes people try to make sense of the story as it applies to be Buddha by psychologizing it: it was as if he saw an old person, sick person, and so on for the first time. But there’s no need to interpret this supposed episode from the Buddha’s life, since there’s no reason to think it ever happened.

The Buddha talks very movingly in one scripture about the spiritual crisis that provoked him to leave home:

I’ll tell you about the dreadful fear
that caused me to shake all over:

Seeing creatures flopping around,
Like fish in water too shallow,
So hostile to one another!
— Seeing this, I became afraid.

This world completely lacks essence;
It trembles in all directions.
I longed to find myself a place
Unscathed — but I could not see it.

Seeing people locked in conflict,
I became completely distraught.
[Attadanda Sutta]

This, in my eyes, is much more human and relatable than the legend of the four sights.

We know that the Buddha’s people, the Sakyans, had contentious relations with some of their neighbors, and there were battles over things like access to water for irrigation. They literally were like fish fighting over too small a quantity of water, and that may be what he was referring to here. It was probably this kind of strife that impelled the Buddha to leave home. He certainly didn’t see four sights in any literal way, although he did talk about how he saw through the “intoxication” of youth, wellness, and life, which correspond to the first three sights.

Myth #6: The Buddha Lived in Three Palaces

Although the scriptures have the Buddha talking about how in his youth he lived in three “palaces,” this almost certainly isn’t the case. Excavations of Kapilavastu show the dwellings there to have been rather modest. Sakya wasn’t a rich country, and there seem to have been no palaces. The word translated as “palace” (pāsāda) can mean anything from the residence of a king, to a building on high foundations, all the way down to a “raised platform.” The “palace” translation is probably shaped by the myth that the Buddha was from a royal family. In fact Bhikkhu Sujato translates pāsāda as “stilt longhouse,” which is historically and archaeologically more accurate, although admittedly less grand.

Myth #7: The Buddha Left Home In the Middle of the Night

Legends detail how the Buddha “went forth” in the middle of the night, tiptoeing through the sleeping concubines who were strewn over his harem so as not to wake them up. He left without saying goodbye to anyone—not even his father, step-mother, or his wife, who had a young child to take care of. How rude!

In the scriptures, however, he talks about how he said farewell to his parents. It’s less dramatic, but again more human and believable. We can’t know for sure, but he probably spent a lot of time talking over his desire to leave home.

When I was still young, black-haired, endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life, having shaved off my hair and beard — though my parents wished otherwise and were grieving with tears on their faces — I put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness. [Mahasaccaka Sutta and Ariyapariyesana sutta.]

The reference to “parents” is interesting, since the Buddha’s mother is supposed to have passed away not long after giving birth to him. It could be that “parents” refers to his father and stepmother (his dad married his mother’s sister). Or it could be that the legend of the Buddha’s mother dying after his birth is just that—a legend.

Anyway, the story of the Buddha sneaking out in the middle of the night just doesn’t match with what’s in the early scriptures.

People Get Mad About This Sort of Stuff

When I’ve written about this kind of thing in the past I’ve ended up getting a fair amount of hate mail. Some Hindus don’t like it if you say there’s no evidence that the Buddha was ever a Hindu. Some Buddhists don’t like it if you say the Buddha wasn’t a prince, or in fact contradict anything they believe in. I get called names.

One of the emphases in the Buddha’s early teachings was not clinging to views. When we cling to beliefs, he pointed out, we end up disputing and fighting with each other.

It’s not that we shouldn’t have views, but that we should hold them lightly, not fight over them, and be prepared to change our views in response to new evidence. You might want the Buddha to have been a prince, for example, because that’s what you’re used to hearing. And you might get angry when you hear otherwise. But if the scriptural and historical evidence points in other directions then it’s wise for us to change our views.

If you found yourself getting indignant while reading this article, that’s a fair indication that there’s some clinging going on. That’s normal. But clinging leads to suffering. So let go. Adapt. You’ll be happier!

PS. Here’s an article by scholar Peter Harvey, called In Search of the Real Buddha, that covers some of the same ground and debunks some of the other mythology surrounding the Buddha.

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Three forms of suffering, reinterpreted

Photograph of Buddhist figure holding a trident

From time to time one of the teachings from the Buddhist tradition will niggle at me for one reason or another. Often it’s because my mind, on some level, is dissatisfied with the traditional interpretation.

Even some of the most common teachings of Buddhism, like the four foundations of mindfulness or the twelve links of dependent origination have sometimes struck me as being a bit off, and I’ve ended up reinterpreting them in a way that makes more sense to me.

This recently happened with a teaching on “Three forms of suffering (dukkha)” The traditional interpretations struck me as being a bit random, and I could feel that niggle deep in the belly.

Here’s one interpretation of this teaching (edited for length):

Suffering or Pain (dukkha-dukkhatā). Ordinary suffering, as defined by the English word, is one form of dukkha. This includes physical, emotional and mental pain.

Impermanence or Change (vipariṇāma-dukkhatā). Anything that is not permanent, that is subject to change, is dukkha. Thus, happiness is dukkha, because it is not permanent.

Conditioned States (sankhāra-dukkhatā). To be conditioned is to be dependent on or affected by something else. According to the teaching of dependent origination, all phenomena are conditioned. Everything affects everything else. This is the most difficult part of the teachings on dukkha to understand, but it is critical to understanding Buddhism.

The last form of suffering is often described as “the suffering of conditioned existence,” meaning that unenlightened life is inherently unsatisfactory.

I wasn’t sure at first what was bothering me about this teaching, but eventually I realized that it was repetitive. The third category of suffering encompasses the other two. Impermanence or change (this isn’t change as such but change in the sense of “reversal of fortune”) is just an example of “conditioned states.” So is ordinary suffering.

I dislike this untidiness.

Also adding to my unease is the fact that the author I’ve quoted above has done something that’s common when there’s some uncertainty about the meaning of a Buddhist formula; she’s changed the order of the terms. (Actually, it’s not strictly speaking her that’s switched the order around; she’s just following a tradition of earlier teachers who have done the same thing.)

In the scriptures the order is always dukkha-dukkhatā (ordinary pain), sankhāra-dukkhatā (“conditioned states”), and then vipariṇāma-dukkhatā (the pain of reversal of fortune). The later commentarial tradition, including this author, has flipped the last two terms, presumably since “conditioned states” is the most general term, referring to some supposed “universal” kind of suffering. It makes sense that the most universal form of suffering should go at the end. Remember, though, that that’s not what happens in the scriptures, so that’s a puzzle.

As it happened, this teaching of three forms of suffering and another teaching on dukkha collided one day in my mind. In the Sallasutta (Discourse on the Arrow) the Buddha talked about two “arrows” of suffering: our initial pain and the pain we give rise to in response to that by resisting, whining, and wishing things were otherwise.

As the Buddha put it:

When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.

The first of these forms of pain is unavoidable. The second is not. So as they say, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

But the same passage talks about how clinging to pleasure can be another response to the first arrow, and how this too leads to suffering:

…the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure. As he is delighting in sensual pleasure, any passion-obsession with regard to that feeling of pleasure obsesses him. He does not discern, as it actually is present, the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, or escape from that feeling…

So it seems to me that we have here three forms of suffering.

  1. We have initial pain, the first arrow, which is dukkha-dukkhatā. This can be physical or mental. In the teaching of the two arrows, the first pain is physical, of course, but much of our pain is mental. For example when we have “hurt feelings” we feel physical pain, but it’s mediated by the mind. In other words we need to have interpreted some experience as being harmful to us before we can feel this hurt.
  2. Then we have constructed pain — the second arrow. This would be sankhāra-dukkhatā. Sankhāra can certainly mean “conditioned” but the most basic meaning of sankhāra is “that which has been put together.” Hence it can mean “fabricated” or “constructed.” So this is the suffering that we construct through our reactions to physical or mental pain. As the Buddha puts it, “When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught.”
  3. Then we have a third form of pain, which is delayed. Someone experiences something painful, and then, “Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure.” So we avoid pain by pursuing pleasure, but there’s a “but” … the “but” being that the pleasure arising from clinging must come to an end. That in itself is painful, but we will almost certainly have to deal with the pain that we were initially running from. This is the pain of reversal — vipariṇāma-dukkhatā.

To give an example of these three forms of dukkha: I feel lonely right now because my wife and kids are away for the weekend on a family visit. The loneliness is “dukkha-dukkhatā.” It’s what we would call “mental” pain, but it’s experienced as heart-ache and a sense of emptiness in the pit of my belly, so it’s really what the Buddha is talking about as “physical”.

But then I find myself moping around, telling myself how sucky my life is, or perhaps telling myself I should be more “detached.” Either way I suffer again. This is fabricated suffering, or sankhāra-dukkhatā.

Alternatively, I might try to suppress my loneliness by eating too much potato salad (confession: this is exactly what I did!). And while I’m spooning the potato salad into my mouth, I experience pleasure. (It’s really delicious — flavored with shallots.) But the potato salad comes to an end, and I’m still feeling lonely. That’s the suffering that comes when our avoidance mechanisms reach the end of their course: vipariṇāma-dukkhatā.

There’s one fairly well-known discourse that illustrates these three forms of suffering using examples, much as The discourse is the Cūḷadukkhakkhandhasutta, or “The Shorter Discourse on the Mass of Suffering.” In this sutta the Buddha teaches his fellow countryman, Mahānāma the Sakyan, about the importance of finding skillful alternatives (in the form of meditative happiness) to the pleasures of the senses. And at one point he explains who suffering arises from sensual pleasures.

[1] And what is the drawback of sensual pleasures? It’s when a gentleman earns a living by means such as computing, accounting, calculating, farming, trade, raising cattle, archery, government service, or one of the professions. But they must face cold and heat, being hurt by the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and reptiles, and risking death from hunger and thirst. This is a drawback of sensual pleasures apparent in this very life, a mass of suffering caused by sensual pleasures.

[2] That gentleman might try hard, strive, and make an effort, but fail to earn any money. If this happens, they sorrow and pine and lament, beating their breast and falling into confusion, saying: ‘Oh, my hard work is wasted. My efforts are fruitless!’ This too is a drawback of sensual pleasures apparent in this very life, a mass of suffering caused by sensual pleasures.

[3] That gentleman might try hard, strive, and make an effort, and succeed in earning money. But they experience pain and sadness when they try to protect it, thinking: ‘How can I prevent my wealth from being taken by rulers or bandits, consumed by fire, swept away by flood, or taken by unloved heirs?’ And even though they protect it and ward it, rulers or bandits take it, or fire consumes it, or flood sweeps it away, or unloved heirs take it. They sorrow and pine and lament, beating their breast and falling into confusion: ‘What used to be mine is gone.’ This too is a drawback of sensual pleasures apparent in this very life, a mass of suffering caused by sensual pleasures.

The first of these paragraphs (I’ve added numbers for convenience) corresponds to dukkha-dukkhatā. It’s the inevitable suffering that a businessperson, looking for happiness through there work, would experience. It’s very simple things like being too hot, being too cold, being bitten by insects, and so on. This is the first arrow.

The second paragraph corresponds to sankhāra-dukkhatā. Here the businessperson is seeking wealth through their work, but sometimes that’s not going to arise. And the result is the self-pity that was described as being the second arrow.

The third paragraph corresponds to vipariṇāma-dukkhatā. Even if the businessperson is successful in gaining wealth, there will be fear involved, because they might lose it. And if they lose their money through a reversal of fortune, any pleasure they’d had would be replaced by suffering. This is the suffering of reversal.

You might notice that the concept of sensual pleasure is broader than we might think. It’s not just being surrounded by nice things, eating tasty food, or having sex. It’s the pleasure we get from wanting material things, and the pleasure we get from possessing them.

These teachings in the parable of the two arrows and the three forms of suffering from the Sallasutta and the Cūḷadukkhakkhandhasutta match up perfectly. The terms are in the same order in both teachings. The redundancy of having the pain of “conditioned states” as well as two specific kind of painful conditioned states is removed. And we are able to take sankhāra to have its very basic sense of “constructed” rather than taking it to refer to the entirety of the phenomenal universe, which makes the whole teaching more practical and down-to-earth.

I think this interpretation makes more sense than those commonly given, and in fact I suspect that the teaching of the two arrows and the teaching of the three forms of suffering were originally related. Perhaps the parable of the two arrows was given as a way of illustrating the teaching of three forms of suffering, or perhaps the three forms of suffering were a distillation and explication of the essence of the parable. But to my mind they are the same teaching, expressed in a different fashion.

It’s a minor realignment of the teachings rather than any kind of deep insight, but it’s good to get rid of these niggles.

There’s a lesson in here about how our exposure to commentarial literature (including contemporary books and websites) can make it hard for us to appreciate what the Buddha taught. Most of us first learn about Buddhism from books about Buddhism, which are often based on other books about Buddhism (and so on, and so on). We believe that there are three forms of suffering, with the third being “the suffering inherent in conditioned existence.” That’s not what the Buddha taught, but because we’ve been indoctrinated we either don’t look at his teachings or we fit what we see into what has become a preconception.

Note how this phenomenon of the commentaries blinding us also happens with the teaching of the “two arrows.” Dozens of books explain these, but neglect to mention the third form of suffering. And so even if we read the sutta we’ll likely not pay as much attention to the third kind of suffering as we do to the other two.

Finally, I find it a relief, in this instance, to get rid of the rather slippery teaching of “the conditioned.” This term makes me very uncomfortable because people use it as if it refers to a kind of metaphysical realm which is opposed to another metaphysical realm called “the unconditioned.” If the Buddha, in the Sallasutta was not speaking metaphysically, but was simply saying “there is suffering that we fabricate for ourselves,” then I wonder in how many other places we’re misinterpreting the terms “conditioned” and “unconditioned” (which are really “fabricated” and “unfabricated”? Maybe in other places those terms simply mean “something is created” or “something is not created”? Maybe those teachings too are not metaphysical?

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The four foundations of mindfulness as a dynamic process

Four foundations of mindfulness

The other day I was preparing for the fifth session of a six-week Introduction to Meditation and Buddhism class I’m teaching at Aryaloka, my local dharma center. I’d been running through the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, which of course is a key teaching, and in glancing over some of the suttas (scriptures) that deal with mindfulness — the seventh aspect of the Eightfold Path — I had a series of thoughts about the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (cattāro satipaṭṭhāna), which are the standard explanation of “Right Mindfulness.”[1]

The Problematic Satipaṭṭhānas

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are a crucial teaching in the Buddhist tradition. As well as constituting the definition of Right Mindfulness in the Eightfold Path, they feature in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10) and the Mahā-Satipatthana Sutta (DN 22). The four Satipaṭṭhānas form an important part of the Ānāpānasati Sutta, which is itself a key teaching. Additionally there is whole section on the satipaṭṭhānas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, containing 104 discourses. The satipaṭṭhānas are of course frequently referred to by many teachers, and entire books have been based around them. Lastly, the practice of the four satipaṭṭhānas is described in the canon as the “direct path” to Nibbāna, emphasizing their importance.

We might expect that such a key teaching would be clearly and consistently understood, but despite their central importance in Buddhist practice, the four satipaṭṭhānas are problematic. One only has to look at the variety of translations of the four terms kāya, vedanā, cittā, and dhammā, in various accounts of this teaching. The following are chosen more-or-less randomly:

  • Bhikkhu Thanissaro has Body, Feelings, Mind, and Mental Qualities
  • Joseph Goldstein (One Dharma): Body, Feelings, Mind & Mental States, and Dharma
  • Bhikkhu Bodhi (Middle Length Discourses): Body, Feeling, Mind, and Mind Objects
  • Bhikkhu Bodhi (A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma): Body, Feelings, States of Consciousness, and Mental Objects
  • Sangharakshita (Know Your Mind): Body, Feelings & Emotions, Thoughts, and Ultimate Reality

Even one author will not be consistent in their explanations. Bhikkhu Bodhi has two subtly different version above, and Sangharakshita has also parsed the Four Foundations as Body, Feelings, Thoughts, and Objects of the Mind’s Attention.

The only one of the satipaṭṭhānas that is universally straightforward is the first: the body (kāya). While I’ll describe each of the four satipaṭṭhānas in more detail later, we can note that the second, vedanā, is best described as “feeling” and not as “sensation”[2] (as is sometimes seen) or (with the greatest respect to Sangharakshita) “feelings and emotions.” The third satipaṭṭhāna, cittā, means “mind” and of course this involves both thought and emotion. It’s the last term, dhammā, that causes most confusion. For one thing, the word dhammā is famously broad. For example, it can refer to “reality,” or it can refer to the system of paths and practices that lead to the perception of that reality, or it can refer to something more like “things” or “phenomena.” Some interpreters (Goldstein, Sangharakshita) have chosen to go with the interpretation of “dhammā” as meaning “reality.” Others (Thanissaro, Bodhi) have gone with the interpretation of dhammā-s as being mental phenomena. Some writers leave it untranslated, which may or may not be helpful.

The Purpose of the Teaching

I will review the canonical account of the satipaṭṭhānas to get a clearer idea of what the four foundations are, but before doing that I want to look at how the four satipaṭṭhānas are understood collectively. What, in other words, is the point or purpose of the teaching of the four foundations of mindfulness?

In Wings to Awakening, Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains them as “a set of teachings that show where a meditator should focus attention and how.”

Narada Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi, in A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma have them as “a complete system of meditative practice for the development of mindfulness and insight,” and in The Middle Length Discourses Bhikkhu Bodhi describes them as a “comprehensive system … designed to train the mind to see with microscopic precision the true nature of the body, feelings, states of mind, and mental objects.”

Sangharakshita describes them as a tool for “the development of a continuity of mindful positivity across the whole field of human consciousness.”

Joseph Goldstein describes them as “four comprehensive fields of attention.”

Nyanaponika Thera, in The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, refers to the satipaṭṭhāna method of being an “all-comprehensive domain.”

While these descriptions are selective, the four satipaṭṭhānas seem to be regarded primarily as a handy way of breaking down the totality of our experience so that mindfulness can be developed in a comprehensive manner. The word “comprehensive” is in fact used frequently to describe the four foundations. While it’s true that the satipaṭṭhānas are comprehensive, I think that to see them primarily in this way is a distortion of their true nature, which is as a way of observing a process.

But before returning to how the satipaṭṭhānas can be seen as a way of observing a process, I want to examine what each satipaṭṭhāna is, or at least how it is described in the suttas.

The Traditional Account of the Satipaṭṭhānas

1. Body (kāya)

The monk is to “remain focused on the body in and of itself.” According to Thanissaro “in and of itself” means “viewing the body on its own terms rather than in terms of its function in the context of the world.” In other words we see the body without reference to our judgments of whether others may see the body as strong or weak, ugly or beautiful, etc. This means that we are primarily sensing the body, and also reflecting on the impermanent nature of the body. This involves, according to the Satipaṭṭhāna and Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Suttas, of paying attention to the breathing, to the body’s postures, movements, and anatomical parts, as well as to the elements of which is composed and its impermanence (through comparison of one’s own body with decomposing corpses).

It’s not always explicitly noted in the suttas, but in paying attention to the body we are of course paying attention to the sense organs — both the internal sense organs that allow us to know the breathing, etc, and the sense organs that allow us to perceive the external world.[3]

2. Feelings (vedanā)

Feelings include painful, neutral, and pleasant feelings that may be “of the flesh” or “not of the flesh.”[4] But this brings up the question of what feelings (vedanā-s) are.

The two things vedanā-s need to be distinguished from are sensations and emotions. The coolness and firmness experienced in touching a cool surface on a hot day are sensations. These are direct sense impressions. However, such a contact will tend to be experienced as pleasant, and the pleasant quality of such a contact is a vedanā. And so on with the other physical senses. (Nocioception — the perception of pain — as when one pricks one’s finger would be a painful vedanā “of the flesh,” but is also a sensation. However, sensations more generally are not themselves vedanā, although they may be accompanied by them).[5]

Vedanā-s “not of the flesh” are represented by what we would call “gut feelings.” Vedanā-s are our way of telling ourselves what value we see in particular experiences. Daniel Goleman explains, in his recent The Brain and Emotional Intelligence, how the part of the brain that encodes our internalized “rules” about what is right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable — a primitive piece of circuitry called the basal ganglia — has no direct connection with the verbal centers in the cortex. How the basal ganglia communicate with the higher centers in the brain is via nerve centers in the gastrointestinal tract. Vedanā-s “not of the flesh” seem quite literally to be “gut feelings.”

3. Cittā

Cittā means “mind” but not in an exclusively intellectual sense, since it includes emotions as well as mental qualities such as expansiveness, concentration, etc.

In mindfulness of cittā we are told that the monk knows when the mind has has passion or is without passion, has aversion or is without aversion, has delusion or is without delusion, is constricted, scattered, enlarged/unenlarged, surpassed/unsurpassed, concentrated/unconcentrated, released/not released. Cittā might best be described as “the mind and mental states” or just as “mental states” since it doesn’t seem to be possible to experience the mind independently of its constituent mental states.

4. Dhammā

We now begin to encounter one reason why understandings of the satipaṭṭhānas are so variable, for the details we’re given of the dhammā-s we’re to notice seem partly to duplicate the category of cittā. According to Thanissaro, in the Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga and in the Sarvāstivāda version of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, only the five hindrances and the factors for Awakening (bojjhaṅgā) are enumerated as objects of mindfulness. But what are these if not factors of cittā, the earlier satipaṭṭhāna?

In the Pāli Satipaṭṭhāna and Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Suttas, other lists are also given in addition to the hindrances and bojjhaṅgā-s: the five aggregates and the six senses (the usual five plus the mind sense). Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out that some scholars consider the Sarvāstivāda and Vibhaṅga accounts to be closer to the original understanding of the dhammā satipaṭṭhāna, the Pali sutta accounts having been expanded. It strikes me as quite likely that those scholars are correct.[6]

The term “dhammā” is sometimes translated in this context as “Reality” — perhaps in order to overcome this duplication — but more often commenters realize (correctly, I think) that it is mental factors that are being referred to, even though this would seem to add redundancy to the list. And perhaps it’s that redundancy that leads some writers to ignore the traditional descriptions of the satipaṭṭhānas; after all, it’s natural to assume that the satipaṭṭhānas are a coherent system, and therefore to make them systematic, even if that means fudging the terminology.

The First Three Satipaṭṭhānas as Awareness of a Process

If we bear in mind that the body is the seat of the sense organs, and therefore is the vehicle for phassa (sense contact) we have a sequence that is perhaps beginning to look familiar: contact, feeling, mental events.

We can recall the well-known “12 nidāna-s” — a series of cyclical conditionality that includes the nidāna-s of contact, feeling, and craving. Contact arises on the basis of the body and its sense organs. Feeling arises on the basis of these sense contacts, as we seek to divine value (positive, negative, or neutral) among those contacts. In the 12 nidāna-s, the mental state of craving is described as arising on the basis of feeling. The craving that arises on the basis of vedanā (as enumerated in the list of twelve nidāna-s) is however just one of many emotional/cognitive states that can arise on the basis of vedanā-s.[7] Typically an unpleasant vedanā will give rise to emotional states of aversion or ill will (and accompanying thoughts). A pleasant vedanā will typically give rise to emotional states of craving (and related thoughts). And neutral vedanā-s will tend to give rise to boredom, restlessness, or confusion (plus, of course, the thoughts that accompany those states).[8]

While the function of vedanā-s is to assign value to sense contacts, the function of our emotional and cognitive states is to generate action. To give just one example, when we see (a sense contact) a driver suddenly pass us at high speed, we may experience a knot of tension or fear (a vedanā) arise, and in response to that we feel anger (an emotion) accompanied by thoughts such as “how dare he!”[9] These thoughts and emotions may lead to our yelling abuse at the vehicle that is by now vanishing into the distance. This ties in with the next link in the nidāna cycle: grasping. Again, grasping is just one example of an action — one that arises on the basis of craving — but all of our actions arise from emotions.

The chain of contact -> feeling -> emotion/thought is the prime driver of our experience, and is arguably the most important contribution that Buddhism has made to the field of psychology. As we’ll see shortly, it’s by first being aware of that dynamic, and second by intervening intelligently in it, that we can shape our experience and move from the generation of unskillful to skillful states of mind and, eventually, from Saṃsāra to Nibbāna.

The point I would like to stress now, however, is that the first three satipaṭṭhānas correspond to the contact-feeling-emotion series. Those three satipaṭṭhānas would then seem to be, at the very least, a training in the recognition of a crucial aspect of psychology. They represent a progressive training in recognizing each of the three stages in the formation of our mental states — our emotional and cognitive “inner climate.” And since it is this inner climate that leads to our actions, cultivating an awareness of the first three satipaṭṭhānas would lead to our being more aware of the process that leads to our actions (kamma, both skillful or unskillful) in the world.

Because the nature of contact is to condition feeling, and the nature of feeling is to condition emotion and thought, and the nature of emotion and thought is to condition action, in cultivating each of the first three satipaṭṭhānas we are in fact cultivating, stage by stage, an awareness of a process. This, I believe, is the true purpose of the first three satipaṭṭhānas. They are not merely a convenient way of slicing up our experience so that we can examine it in a comprehensive way. Rather, they are a way of coming to recognize how we generate action (skillful or unskillful), and the inner climate of experience that leads to our actions.[10]

This may or may not be a novel way of seeing the first three satipaṭṭhānas, but I haven’t come across any previous explanation of the foundations of mindfulness that recognize that we are learning to pay attention to a process, rather than merely to three aspects of our experience.

The Dhamma Satipaṭṭhāna as Awareness of Spiritual Dynamics

But what about the fourth satipaṭṭhāna of focusing on dhammā-s, with its seeming duplication of the contents of the cittā satipaṭṭhāna?

The fourth satipaṭṭhāna, you’ll recall, includes (at least) the five hindrances and the seven bojjhaṅgā-s, or factors of awakening. The five hindrances are a catalog of unskillful mental states (sense desire, ill will, restlessness & anxiety, sloth & torpor, and doubt). These states hinder us from achieving jhāna, or the progressive unification of the mind that ends in the (temporary) experience of deep peace (also known as equanimity, or upekkhā).

The seven factors of awakening on the other hand are a progressive series of skillful mental states (mindfulness, investigation, energy, rapture, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity). These factors are shorthand for a process starting with becoming mindfully aware of one’s experience (whether skillful or unskillful) and cultivating jhāna, which culminates in equanimity. Jhāna itself is a prerequisite for Awakening (bodhi) and so the bojjhaṅgā-s are factors that lead to Awakening. The name bojjhaṅgā is in fact a compound of the two words bodhi (Awakening) and aṅga (factor).

The five hindrances and the seven bojjhaṅgā-s are in several places in the Pali canon seen as antitheses. One set keeps us from jhāna, while the other leads us through jhāna into equanimity. One set represents unskillful states that bind us to Saṃsāra, while the other is comprised of skillful states that lead to Nibbāna. It’s the neatness of this pairing that leads me to wonder whether the dhammā satipaṭṭhāna section of the Pali Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas have been affected by what I’d call “commentator bloat” (i.e. the tendency of commentators and oral reciters of the texts to include other material that they deem relevant to the topic on hand), whether or not it’s strictly relevant.[11]

The Fourth Satipaṭṭhāna as the Observation of Spiritual Dynamics

But we’re still left with the problem that this satipaṭṭhāna appears to duplicate the cittā satipaṭṭhāna, in which we observe the presence of greed, hatred and delusion in the mind, as well as the presence of more positive (skillful) factors such as expansiveness and concentration. The appearance of duplication is just that: an appearance. A crucial aspect of the fourth satipaṭṭhāna is found tucked away at the end of each list. We observe the hindrances and bojjhaṅgā (and, in some sources, other mental qualities) “with reference to the four noble truths.”

What does this mean, to observe the hindrances and positive mental factors with reference to the four noble truths? The Satipaṭṭhāna and Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Suttas tell us:

And how does he remain focused on mental qualities (i.e. dhammā-s) in and of themselves with reference to the four noble truths? There is the case where he discerns, as it has come to be, that ‘This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress… This is the way leading to the cessation of stress.’

The Buddha said he “only taught one thing: suffering and the end of suffering.” The four noble truths are an enlargement of this principle, and point to what causes suffering and what leads to freedom from suffering. Observing the dhammā satipaṭṭhāna thus means not merely recognizing the presence or absence of skillful mental states (the bojjhaṅgā-s) and unskillful states of mind (the hindrances) but in recognizing the dynamic whereby the latter keep us in a state of suffering while the former free us from suffering.[12]

While the first three satipaṭṭhāna are a training in recognizing how sense contact via the body leads to feelings, and feelings lead to the inner climate of mental states, the fourth satipaṭṭhāna is a training in recognizing how our mental states and processes lead us deeper into or lead us away from the experience of suffering. The fourth satipaṭṭhāna involves cultivating mindfulness of both the unskillful dynamics that arise as we cycle among the hindrances, and the skillful dynamic that emerges as we still our mental turmoil and move, via the jhāna-s, toward equanimity.

The essence of the dhammā satipaṭṭhāna, I would argue, is not any particular list of positive or negative mental states, nor any particular combination of such lists. Instead, I believe the essence of the dhammā satipaṭṭhāna is the principle of observing the four noble truths as they manifest in the mind: observing suffering and how it is caused, and observing the cessation of suffering and how such cessation comes about.

There is therefore only an apparent duplication in the third and fourth satipaṭṭhānas. The third satipaṭṭhāna (cittā) involves mindful awareness of mental states as they arise on the basis of vedanā-s. The fourth satipaṭṭhāna is a mindful observation of the process by which these mental states lead toward, or away from, suffering, and toward, or away from, Awakening. While the cittā satipaṭṭhāna involves noticing the mind and its mental states, the dhammā satipaṭṭhāna involves noticing the spiritual-psychological dynamics in which mental states are involved. The five hindrances and the seven bojjhaṅgā-s “work” as examples of these suffering-creating and suffering-overcoming tendencies, but they are just examples, and other examples would be equally useful.

The satipaṭṭhānas are therefore not a simple “comprehensive schema” for the development of mindfulness. They involve the observation of the dynamic whereby contact gives rise to feeling, which gives rise to mental states. They also involve the observation of the dynamic whereby those mental states lead toward or away from liberation.

Again, this may or may not be a novel observation, but I’m not aware of other commentators having regarded the satipaṭṭhānas as a training in the observation of psychological dynamics. My interpretation, however, seems to draw greater meaning from the teaching than can be gleaned by seeing them as simply four areas of experience to be examined mindfully. In fact, the more common way of seeing the satipaṭṭhānas results in the confusion of terms that I highlighted above, where it is hard to explain the relative roles or status of the cittā and dhammā satipaṭṭhānas.

It might be objected that the traditional account of the kāya (body) satipaṭṭhāna does not neatly tie in with my contention that this foundation of mindfulness is primarily about observing sensations, or sense contacts, as they arise and pass away. Indeed, this aspect of mindfulness is not highlighted in the Satipaṭṭhāna or Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna suttas. Additionally, some of the approaches to mindfulness of the body outlined in these suttas, such as the cremation ground and four element reflections represent a “higher level” awareness of the overall impermanence of the body. But in general the approach of observing the body in its various postures is nothing more nor less than observing the body’s sensations.[13] I would not be surprised if the kāya satipaṭṭhāna section in the two major Pali suttas on the Satipaṭṭhāna had also suffered from “commentator bloat” in the same way as their dhammā satipaṭṭhāna sections appear to have.[14] In fact, in the Satipaṭṭhāna-vibhaṅga Sutta in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, we are offered a more stripped down version of all the satipaṭṭhānas, where the monk simply

remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the body, remains focused on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to the body, remains focused on the phenomenon of origination & passing away with regard to the body.

It’s likely here that “origination” and “passing away with regard to the body” refers to the ongoing arising and passing away of physical sensations, rather than to the arising and passing of the body as a whole. This more stripped-down account may be closer to the original intent of the teaching of the satipaṭṭhānas, which I would argue focuses on the arising and passing away of sense contacts, which contacts lead to the arising and passing away of feelings, which in turn lead to the arising and passing away of mental states. The arising and passing of mental states would, in the dhammā satipaṭṭhāna, be observed in terms of whether they were trending in a Samsaric or a Nibbanic direction.

No discussion of the sequence of contact, feeling, and mental states would be complete without reference to the “gap” that exists between feelings and mental states. When we are unmindful, mental states tend to proliferate in response to the underlying vedanā-s that are coming into being and passing away. In an example I gave above, the perception of a vehicle passing us on the road at high speed leads to an unpleasant vedanā, which leads to anger and the action of yelling. With the presence of mindfulness — or to be more accurate, with the equanimity to which mindfulness conduces — we are able simply to observe sense contacts and their associated vedanā-s with the mind (cittā) “decoupled” so that our basic tranquillity is not disturbed.[15] An extreme example of this is given in the Mahā-hatthipadopama Sutta (MN 28):

If other people insult, malign, exasperate, & harass a monk, he discerns that ‘A painful feeling, born of ear-contact, has arisen within me. And that is dependent, not independent. Dependent on what? Dependent on contact.’ And he sees that contact is inconstant, feeling is inconstant, perception is inconstant, consciousness is inconstant. His mind […] leaps up, grows confident, steadfast, & released.

And if other people attack the monk in ways that are undesirable, displeasing, & disagreeable — through contact with fists, contact with stones, contact with sticks, or contact with knives — the monk discerns that ‘This body is of such a nature that contacts with fists come, contacts with stones come, contacts with sticks come, & contacts with knives come. Now the Blessed One has said, in his exhortation of the simile of the saw [MN 21], “Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding.” So my persistence will be aroused & untiring, my mindfulness established & unconfused, my body calm & unaroused, my mind centered & unified.

This, then, is the ultimate purpose of the teaching on the satipaṭṭhānas. We learn to observe sense-contacts (sensations) giving rise to feelings, with our mental states “de-coupled,” the mind imbued with equanimity, remaining at peace despite the most extreme provocation. And this outcome arises from first training ourselves to observe the dynamic of contacts giving rise to feelings, and feelings giving rise to mental states, and then observing the dynamics within our mental states, and encouraging the unfolding of jhāna states that support the arising of insight.

The four satipaṭṭhāna-s are not observation of mere categories of experience that, taken together, offer a comprehensive overview of our experience. Rather, they are the observation of two important spiritual dynamics: our unfolding experience, and its movement toward or away from nibbāna.

1. For example, DN 22: “What is right mindfulness? There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves… the mind in & of itself… mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. This is called right mindfulness…”

2. The word sensation, although not inaccurate since feelings are sensed, tends to make one think of the more basic perceptions of color, sound, touch, etc.

3. SN 36.7, for example, tells us that feeling arises in dependence upon the body, but the nearly identical SN 36.8 tells us feeling arises in dependence upon (sense) contact. We can take it that in regard to the arising of feelings, “the body” and “sense contact” are synonyms.

4. Some translators interpret “āmisā” and “nirāmisā” as meaning “worldly” and “unworldly,” but there seems to be no scriptural support for taking them as meaning anything more than being literally “of the flesh” and “not of the flesh.”

5. The Buddha was neither a physiologist nor a neuroscientist, and so it’s not surprising that the categories he used don’t overlap exactly with those of modern science.

6. It actually doesn’t make any difference to my argument whether the list of dhammas has been expanded or whether, in these other sources, a larger list has been pared down. The essential point, as we will see, is that our mental states are to be examined in the light of a mindful awareness of the Four Noble Truths: how does the unfolding of our experience contribute to the presence or absence of suffering?

7. In its essence, this sequence of nidanas should be read as: contact – feeling – emotion – action (including the next nidana of “grasping” and seeing it as just one example of action).

8. e.g., see SN 36.3: “In the case of pleasant feelings, O monks, the underlying tendency [anusaya] to lust should be given up; in the case of painful feelings, the underlying tendency to resistance (aversion) should be given up; in the case of neither-painful-nor-pleasant feelings, the underlying tendency to ignorance should be given up.”

9. Actually, the feeling of anxiety may pass so quickly into an emotion such as anger in this kind of situation that we may not notice the vedana at all. However, with training the vedana can be detected underlying the emotion even after the emotion is established, and with further training the vedana may be detected even before the emotion becomes established.

10. This is not to suggest that the more common way of looking at the satipatthanas — as various aspects of our experience, collectively allowing us a comprehensive overview of ourselves — doesn’t “work.” It’s clearly useful to become aware of the body, the feelings, and the mind. However, it’s even more useful, I would argue, to be aware of the body, and to notice the body’s sensations giving rise to feelings, and those feelings sparking off thoughts and emotional states.

11. Again, it doesn’t affect the point I’m making here even if the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta has been added to. The addition of the khandhas reminds us that that system of analysis is yet another instance of a dynamic process being turned by the commentarial tradition into a “comprehensive” but static overview of our selves (see for example, Matthieu Boisvert’s “The Five Aggregates: Understanding Theravāda Psychology and Soteriology.” And the other list, the “sixfold internal and external sense media” is a vital part of the creation of our experience. Both the khandhas and the senses play important roles in the construction of our experience — including the creation of suffering and of non-suffering.

12. This principle is beautifully spelled out in the first two verses of the Dhammapāda:

1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

2. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

13. See Note 3, above.

14. However, I don’t wish to suggest that these other ways of paying attention tot he body are any less valuable. Mindfulness begins with an awareness of the body and of its sensation, postures, and movements. Awareness of the body helps to still the mind and pacify our more unruly emotions.

15. See, for example, SN 36: “If a monk has given up the tendency to lust in regard to pleasant feeling, the tendency to resistance in regard to painful feelings, and the tendency to ignorance in regard to neither-painful-nor-pleasant feelings, then he is called one who is free of (unwholesome) tendencies, one who has the right outlook. He has cut off craving, severed the fetters (to future existence), and through the full penetration of conceit, [i.e. the conception of having a permanent and separate self] he has made an end of suffering.”

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