The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Satipatthana, is called the direct path to realization. Over the past sixteen months we have thoroughly explored these teachings and done the traditional practices to make them real in our own experience.
We have come now not only to the end of the Eightfold Path, but to the end of the Four Noble Truths, and the end of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Wow! Such an achievement!
But in truth there is no end to the learning of the Buddha’s way to end suffering through the practices of meditation and metta. Once we step into the stream of these studies and practices, we understand that we are not questing after some future reward, but savoring the fullness of the experience of being in this moment, not longing for some imagined future, nor missing some remembered past, nor pushing away or blocking out this present experience, wishing it were different than it is.
This exploration we have been on, has been rooted primarily in my reading and working with the book Satipatthana, The Direct Path to Realization by the Ven. Analayo, a Buddhist monk with a Ph.D. from the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. This book was his PhD dissertation, and contains half-page long footnotes on many pages. Though my main teacher was the one who suggested I teach the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, she was surprised that I planned to teach it based on this book, which is highly regarded in the Buddhist community as being the most authentic and thorough. She felt that this was not a book one could teach in a class, and she was right. I would have no students left if I had tried to teach directly from this book. Instead, with each chapter I spent a lot of time coming to an experiential understanding of what was being transmitted. When a particular concept was too cryptic or opaque, I also went to other sources, such as occasional talks online by western Insight Meditation teachers. If the topic became too dense, I slowed it down, broke it down into smaller parts, but I never skipped or tried to dilute the teachings. Of course, I could only bring my understanding of the teachings to my students, but this understanding is based not just in reading and studying, but in 35 years of experiential learning through meditation. So if you have been with me on this journey, have heard the dharma talks, participated in the dharma discussions, and/or read my posts on this blog, combined with regular meditation and experiential practices as led or suggested, then you have delved deeply into the dharma, my friend!
My teacher had suggested I teach instead from the book The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. I bought it and read parts of it, and I could see why she felt this would be appropriate. If I were to simply quote from a book to my students, this one was certainly accessible. But it didn’t speak to me. I didn’t like the language that it used. My students are mature women who have an overload of ‘should’ and ‘strive’ and prods to change themselves, and they don’t need more of the same! But more importantly, I wanted to work as closely to the source as I could go without knowing either pali or sanskrit. For the first time in my life I was happily engrossed in the delicious details of footnotes! Why would I accept anything less when I was apparently ready to spend as much time as it took to study and savor these teachings in this way?
There is a new book out now by Joseph Goldstein titled Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening. I look forward to reading that, as he has a very accessible way of sharing wisdom. For anyone who is interested in further exploration of this core of Buddhist teachings, you might want to check it out as well.
As always, study is only a companion to experience. A regular practice of meditation and the addition of longer periods of retreat is important to provide the full experience. It is the only way the mind can truly take in the concepts presented and in a way that creates joy. Without the experience, the concepts sound good, but they become just one more distant goal to achieve, rather than a helpful guidance to understand what it is we are experiencing in our practice.
Analayo says that satipatthana is not only the direct path to awakening, but the perfect expression of that awakening. The fully-awakened being enjoys meditation as a most pleasurable pastime.
So if meditation is a struggle, something to be gotten through, stop trying so hard! But don’t stop meditating. Find the joy in the meditation itself, in this moment fully alive. Even in a moment of pain, there is joy in awakening to being present for it, to learning how to hold all of life’s experience with equanimity, one moment at a time.
In Buddhism we are said to be stream-enterers as we undertake the teachings and the practices of the Buddha. There are other states of becoming along this path, but to focus on them is to fall out of awakening within this moment. It is to set up a yearning to be some perfect image of a meditator, or to get caught up in attempting to create a wise or holy self-identity. More struggle that is counter to all that we are learning, both through the teachings and through our direct experience.
Now we continue the practice and the exploration of the dharma. The teachings will be offered to expand and deepen our understanding. Just as a stream at each twist and turn seems new to us, just so does the dharma. But it is all the same stream, and wherever we step in we have the capacity to awaken.