Venerable Bhikkhu Analayo on the Satipatthana Sutta
in Conversation with Phillip Moffitt
In April 2015 Venerable Bhikkhu Analayo — renowned German Buddhist monk, scholar, author, and teacher — led an 11-day meditation retreat for advanced practitioners at Spirit Rock centered around his comparative studies of the canonical versions of the Satipatthana Sutta (the Buddha's Four Foundations of Mindfulness). Prior to the retreat, Spirit Rock Co-Guiding Teacher Phillip Moffitt interviewed him about the subtle teachings contained in the Satipatthana Sutta and the role of body awareness in both formal mindfulness practice and daily life.
Phillip Moffitt: I want to start by thanking you on behalf of the entire Spirit Rock community for your practice and your work. Your books have been very important to practitioners at Spirit Rock. From your perspective, why did the Buddha start with the body in the Satipatthana Sutta?
Bhikkhu Analayo: From my understanding, one reason is to build our capacity for awareness based on body awareness. This is a central aspect of the way I teach Satipatthana. Whole-body awareness allows a continuity between formal practice and everyday activities. It enables you to find a middle path approach between just trying to be mindful in general, which can lead to losing your awareness for lack of a support, and having too strong a focus, such as mindfulness of breathing, which can close out other things in your field of experience.
Also, many of our attachments and defilements are related to the body. Paying attention to the anatomy of the body divests obsession with beautification of its unrealistic foundations. Contemplation of the elements helps us realize that this body and the nature outside are not separate from each other. The cemetery contemplation, the basic realization that we are going to die, can help us overcome a whole host of projections, fear and dogmatic holding onto identity constructs. All of this can be worked on with mindfulness of the body as a basis.
The whole Satipatthana scheme works from the gross to the subtle, so it’s very obvious to start with the gross part. To some extent, the Satipatthana of contemplating the body mirrors the First Noble Truth because with the body you can really experience and understand the unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) of the body.
PM: Lay teachers often emphasize the importance of knowing the direct or "felt" sense of an experience rather than having a concept of it. Thus, we say, “the body feels like this,” “knee pain feels like this,” “a mind that’s restless feels like this.” Would you say that the body is the easiest place to first experience the felt sense?
BhA: Yes, and I would clarify this felt sense as vedana. I think what you’re saying is very important. It is precisely why we don’t just have body contemplation being followed by contemplation of mind states, but in between these two we have the second Satipatthana, vedana. So working with the felt sense is precisely what to my mind is the rationale underlying the progression from body to feeling. Then, as feeling is not confined to the body aspect but also takes in the mental aspect, it becomes natural to move on to the mind. That is a beautiful progression.
PM: Vedana has two characteristics — the characteristic of being pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and the characteristic of worldly or unworldly. How do these characteristics relate?
BhA: The main instruction for working with vedana is making the distinction between pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. The potential of mindfulness is to make us aware of this first evaluative significance of pleasant/unpleasant in particular, or this neutral kind of feeling, and to see how it triggers our reaction. For example, when somebody new comes into a room, based on the first words they say, the way we feel will build up our entire construction of who this person is, whether they are a nice or a bad person and how we are going to interact with them.
Then as we move from contemplation of feeling to contemplating mental states, we make the distinction between wholesome and unwholesome states of mind. Distinguishing between what is wholesome and what is unwholesome serves as feedback to worldly and unworldly feeling. Basically it is a way to refine the contemplation of feeling and be aware of the ethical context of the feeling. So, if I have a feeling of pleasure because I have hurt somebody and I have really showed it to them, this is not a wholesome feeling. But the feeling of pleasure I have when I have been compassionate and I helped somebody is a wholesome kind of feeling.
This worldly and unworldly terminology can at first seem a bit obscure, but I think the main message is to introduce this ethical distinction and to make the basic point that not all pleasure needs to be shunned and not all pain is helpful. Sometimes there is this attitude that the more painful it is, the better it will lead you forward, but that is not really the point. There is pain that will help us to progress, but there is also pain that will prevent us from progressing.
PM: So, in addition to the ethical dimension, is it the unworldly that leads toward liberation?
BhA: Yes, that would be the same. What is skillful or wholesome leads forward and what is unskillful and unwholesome does not lead to liberation. This basic two-way distinction is precisely what underlies contemplation of mind: with lust, without lust; with anger, without anger. In the case of feeling, I suppose the terminology “wholesome” and “unwholesome” is not used because after all feelings are not intentional, so the terms “worldly” and “unworldly” draw attention to the mental context in which a feeling arises, and that context can then be either wholesome or unwholesome.
Contemplation of the mind then continues into the realm of tranquility — concentrated, unconcentrated. The same basic distinction that has been introduced at a felt level continues with contemplation of the mind. In this way we have this feedback between contemplation of feeling and contemplation of the mind. For some it is easier to recognize present moment’s condition on a conceptual level. Mind with lust, without lust. But for others it is more the feeling, and they can really feel how that lust is coming up or the not-lust is there. It is the same thing seen from two complementary perspectives and in this way these two contemplations really work together.
PM: In your recent book Perspectives on Satipatthana, you talk about the gradual refining of the mind to realize the gold that is hidden there. Students often report that they feel as though they’re not getting anywhere in their practice, that the gold is not getting revealed. Do you have any words of encouragement about taking the gradual path?
BhA: I think that for Satipatthana to lead to this external dimension of practice is really a keystone. I would even recommend to evaluate our practice — even our retreat practice — from the perspective of how much it helps us to deal with daily life situations. Having a profound experience of Samadhi is very beautiful and is part of the practice but this is not really the question. The question is, how much am I able to relate with understanding, patience and compassion in everyday situations?
If I shift my perspective from an expectation of extraordinary meditation experience to a focus on putting the meditation qualities into practice in ordinary circumstances, then a shift occurs and I become able to see family, paying a mortgage, home life as opportunities for this external dimension of practice.
This brings me again back to whole-body awareness. Even now as the two of us are talking, it is possible to have this conversation and at the same time be aware of the body. By building up this continuity of mindfulness, one can then really explore the external dimension of practice. If we invest fully into the idea of continuity of mindfulness, then all of a layperson’s household pursuits have their place as an integral part of the practice. Your practice is carried forward by this external form of mindfulness. When you then go into a retreat, the practice becomes much deeper because it has all this momentum already built up. Thus, from the first moment of the retreat, we should be very clear that retreat is not what we will be doing for eternity. Even the monastic sangha was set up in such a way that the monks and nuns were forced to go begging every day. They were not allowed to go just up into the mountains, live as hermits for the rest of their life, because I think the main point is that this interaction is needed even for monastics as a way of working with the practice.
When we have the clarity that comes from being on retreat, we realize that the purpose of retreat is not just to create special experiences but instead to recharge our batteries so that we can explore the external dimension of Satipatthana. Then there will be more balance between retreat and outside-retreat experience, and in this way everyday life can come to be pervaded by a taste of liberation and compassion.
PM: In daily life and on retreat, you emphasize the importance of acknowledging when there is a lack of a defilement in the mind. Can you describe the wholesome joy that comes when the mind is temporarily without defilements?
BhA: The importance of wholesome joy is easily underestimated. If we acknowledge the wholesome condition of the mind and rejoice in that, this is such a powerful way of moving forward on the path. Especially for us Westerners, it seems so natural to be judgmental about ourselves whenever we are doing something wrong. Then when we do it right, we just take it for granted that we are supposed to be able to do well and we do not pay attention to it any further. This is very sad because it loses half of the potential dynamic of Satipatthana practice, the experience of this unworldly type of joy. Mindfulness of unworldly joy can diminish the attraction of worldly types of joy. It makes such a huge difference. And it is not a question of deluding ourselves and pretending we are all arahants. We are clearly aware of the fact that there is still work to be done, but every step we take is a positive step in the right direction, and we are entitled to the joy of rejoicing in that. We deserve that.
PM: How is it that the human mind so easily fails to recognize the bliss of blamelessness?
BhA: Perhaps there are two main reasons. From our Western and predominantly Judeo-Christian background, there is this tendency for some of us to succumb easily to this feeling of guilt and unworthiness. And so from that perspective, it is more natural to look at one’s shortcomings and not so natural to look at one’s strengths. Then there is also this feeling that since the path quite rightly is about avoiding conceit or arrogance and realizing not-self and the concern that by acknowledging our own wholesome qualities we might be straying into that area. These are perhaps the two main reasons why I think that people easily miss out on this other aspect.
Wholesome and unwholesome mind states both equally require the presence of mindfulness, and that is what it all boils down to. If I’m not aware of, if I get angry at you and I am not aware of being angry, then there is not much I can do about it. And, conversely, if I am not aware of being free from anger, I will also not have the attraction to remain in that condition and will also not be inspired to progress further in that direction.
PM: Maybe we have not sufficiently emphasized the importance of noticing wholesome mind. I can remember in my own early years of practice when I noticed wholesome mind for the first time. It was while I was doing my evening meditation and just by chance I thought, "There’s nothing about today that I feel bad about in any way." And then I was suddenly aware that I actually had this wonderful feeling, and I realized what I was experiencing was the Buddha’s teaching about the bliss of blamelessness.
BhA: Yes, exactly.
PM: How do you teach upekkha (equanimity) as one of the Seven Factors of Awakening?
BhA: In the context of the awakening factors, I would prefer to translate upekkha as equipoise. I feel that for other contexts, equanimity is a very good translation but in this regard I see upekkha more as equipoise.
PM: Would you give me a definition of equipoise for this context?
BhA: Balance of the mind.
PM: And by balance do you mean that the mind does not have disruptions or perturbances, or do you mean that when there are perturbances the mind is not perturbed by perturbances?
BhA: This is both saying the same thing, no? When the mind is in a low energy mode, there are three awakening factors that can energize it — investigation, energy and joy. And when the mind is in a too-energetic mode, there are three awakening factors that can calm it down — tranquility, concentration and equipoise. This is the basic way I think one works with them. The main point is having the ability to monitor one’s own mind during practice because the awakening factors are not the object of the practice. Instead, with awareness as the foundation, we can bring the mind to a balance point. I see the factors in each group as being interrelated. Investigation is really a sense of curiosity and exploration that is maintained by energy. The investigation is of such a type that it is not pushy and leads to joy. In the other group of factors, tranquility leads to a mind that is concentrated and then leads on to equipoise.
PM: After all your years of intense practice, what is your base of mindfulness in daily life activities? When you’re teaching classes or interacting with your colleagues at the university, what is the nature of your mindfulness?
BhA: This whole-body awareness. Trying to maintain the continuity of whole-body awareness. Also, I try to approach any situation from the frame of the four Brahmaviharas — metta (mindfulness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), uppekha (equanimity). The main basis is metta, but based on that keeping the whole set of the four Brahmaviharas ready for use when required, because for any kind of situation one of them will be appropriate.
PM: I have found that under pressure mindfulness of the breath is more likely to desert me than body awareness. Have you found that to be true?
BhA: Yes, I have the same thing, that this focusing on the breath sometimes can exclude other factors. In fact, in the canonical instructions, we do not get this idea to observe the breath when being out doing things; instead, breath contemplation is specified to be done in the sitting posture and in a secluded setting. In contrast, to be aware of the body as “standing” or “walking” is something that is clearly about being in action in some way. I understand this to correspond to proprioceptive awareness, as it is called in psychology. This is something we always have, and as a reference point it is so broad that you can’t really just focus and exclude things. And it is something that is usually there at the background of our mental experience. So we just have to allow this to come into awareness, and it can coexist with anything. It can coexist with focus, with wide awareness, with activities, with quietness, and it can go from writing e-mails all the way to deep concentration and thereby provide continuity of awareness.
PM: Venerable Analayo, thank you so much for your practice and your generosity in sharing your wisdom.