F E A T U R E D ᐧᐧ T A L K

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Dharma Door opens to the life and work of Dharmachari Kamalashila, a senior disciple of Urgyen Sangharakshita who enjoys communicating Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness in London and on retreat, has founded Dharma centres, lived four years in Wales as a hermit, and written
Buddhist Meditation: Tranquillity, Imagination & Insight which you can get in print and digital editions via Windhorse Publications at Triratna centre bookshops, Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble etc.

Mindfulness of Empty Clouds dharma training in its fullness: an overview of the Buddhist path as outlined in the Satipatthana sutta, the traditional source of teaching on Mindfulness

Recall, whenever you remember, that everyone will die. It doesn’t have to be morbid, and it affects how you appreciate life. Contact with death just reminds us there is a bigger picture. There is a touch of awe, a renewed respect for people that I think makes us a little kinder. For everyone is vulnerable like this. Everyone we know is alive for just this short time.

A ‘big picture’ perspective is essential for understanding Buddhist practice in the modern world. Originally, Buddhist practices weren’t particularly designed to enhance the quality of life. They might well do that, but that was not what was attractive: they were intended for people who are moved deeply by the nature of existence. In the modern world we are looking for ways to regain the mental health, social connection, and personal fulfillment we lack, and Buddhist practices like mindfulness are very useful for that. However mindfulness was not originally focused on achieving ‘a sane mind in a healthy body’, and it’s not necessarily the best way for everyone to achieve that. Its point is to realise the nature of existence, which is not quite the same as being socially well-adjusted.

The original technical term for mindfulness is
sati-sampajanna, sati meaning something like ‘present moment awareness’ of our actions: so being present to our experience and mind states rather than at a distance from them. And sampajanna roughly means ‘awareness of purpose,’ or knowing the motive behind our thoughts and deeds. Being more present and acknowledging one’s motives naturally bring strength, positivity and health to the mind.

In traditional mindfulness practice mental health is its provisional, medium term aim, the necessary healthy basis for the deeper, more powerful mindfulness methods that look into the nature of reality, life and death. To question fundamentally one’s personal identity, the reality of the world, and the stability of things is emotionally challenging. Given the right conditions though, the practice is transformative, resulting in the realisation of a profound tranquillity, wisdom and compassion.

The traditional training in mindfulness is far fuller than the material offered in a typical mindfulness course, though the latter is also based in the original four
satipatthanas or ‘establishments’ of mindfulness (sati): (1) we become aware of our body; (2) we become aware of our feelings; (3) we become aware of our mind state; (4) we work with our habitual reactions within these three dimensions of awareness to gain insight and become a fully awakened human being. This fourth more complex aspect of the traditional teaching is usually not explored in any detail; indeed a large amount of detailed instruction in all four satipatthanas is left aside. Mindfulness courses focus on the pith teachings of present awareness, purpose awareness, and emotional responsiveness.

It sounds simple enough to become aware of our body, our feelings and our mind states. I mean, most people are already very well aware of these things, though not usually in very a helpful way. We are more likely to become aware of our body when it doesn't do what we want it to do. We often become aware of our feelings only when we are upset by them, or when we are having some kind of strong, obvious feeling. There isn't much subtletly about it.

Let us look in more detail, starting with (1) the body. We take this, i.e. our body, totally for granted. In a way it is understandable: this thing has been with us since we were born, in fact from before we were born. It has also been changing constantly all that time, aging, getting weaker or stronger, adjusting to all kinds of conditions, taking in sounds, sights, smells, tastes and touches. It's been moving here and there, working, sleeping… in short, it has been the basis for what we call our life. For most of us the body is simply our life.

Yet it is a mystery we carry around with us, and an unexamined one too. Most of us are hardly aware of our body in any detailed way, and don’t have much sense of respect for it. We tend to see it as a machine, a slave for carrying out our wants. There’s a clear chain of command: our body is to do this, do that, carry this, walk there, drive here, look good, work hard. If the body doesn't comply, we can get emotional about it. Its lack of obedience can make us angry, disappointed, and sad.

Buddhism does not have these emotional reactions because it does not view the body as in thrall to a separated self. Very much to the contrary, for Buddhism the body is a special kind of experience, a source of teachings about the nature of reality. In this spirit the Buddha’s main teaching on mindfulness, the Satipatthana sutta, begins with a recommendation to observe the following six aspects of the body: (1) the breathing, (2) the physical postures our body adopts, (3) the different activities we engage in with the body, (4) the body’s anatomy, (5) the fundamental elemental makeup of the body, and (6) what the body looks like after death.

Starting immediately with awareness of breathing eliminates the temptation to mere theoretical contemplation. In our actual experience, body is a tactile sensation; to fully experience it involves going inside, dwelling on what is found. Giving all our attention and time to our breathing has a calming effect not only in the body, but on the mind as awareness clarifies. As you continue to relax the attention within the
anapāna, the in-out breathing, and to enjoy the experience, you become increasingly aware of three aspects of it: the subtle inner physical experience of the body, the various ways the breath is touching you, and the shifting, cloud-like transformations of the mind.

When the body is in a proper meditation posture, the alignment of the pelvis, spine and head enables this more subtle experience of body, breath and mind. It doesn’t have to be a crosslegged posture, but it needs to allow energy to flow in a free and subtle way, so it will probably be some kind of variant of the classic posture.
 Then as you rest your attention in the touch of the breath the body becomes still, and you start to feel the different parts relaxing. First maybe the face muscles soften, then the skin at the forehead and temples, then around the mouth. Then tension behind the eyes maybe starts to relax. And so the process continues right through the body, both inside and on the surface. The whole system starts calming down.

The process is aided by awareness of the breath. The softness of the breath is calming; the way it touches you inside is calming. Your attention is captured by the breath’s movement and there’s an overall rhythm to it all, like waves lapping on a beach. This sense of an overall carrying, holding pattern soothes the mind, and the effect this is a new level of stillness in the body, and through the body the breathing itself. So as the body, breathing and mind become sensitive to one another, the whole body-mind complex becomes composed within itself and awareness becomes brighter and sharper.

The body awareness being indicated by the Buddha arises in these ways out of meditation experience and the sensitivity to subtler aspects of body experience that produces. His instruction in the postures of the body is as follows.

Monks... when standing, he knows, ‘I am standing’; when sitting, he knows, ‘I am sitting’; when lying down, he knows, ‘I am lying down’; ... he knows accordingly however his body is disposed.

“In this way, in regard to the body he abides contemplating the body internally, or ...externally, or ... both internally and externally.
He abides contemplating the nature of arising in the body, or he abides contemplating the nature of passing away in the body, or he abides contemplating the nature of both arising and passing away in the body.
[Or] Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in him [as] necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness.

(Satipatthana Sutta)

e establish a basic, ongoing recognition of how the body is currently positioned, and whenever there is time to contemplate more deeply, we take the opportunity to explore the arising and passing away of its many sensations. This contemplation is not done in the abstract but must proceed from immediately felt body sensation. The Buddha is talking about the body we experience right now, its actual sensations at the time we give it attention. So if for example right now we are sitting, he's referring to the particular experience of sitting we are having right now, in this moment, rather than a hypothetical scenario in which you imagine, from memory, what it is typically like to sit down. We like to think we know that already, so rather than actually looking at our current experience we consider imaginary scenarios in the abstract. As we read the above, the thought may for example pass through our mind that ‘awareness of sitting down’ is likely to be unexciting. But that thought is abstract — an idea, not a direct physical experience now of your body sitting. Mindfulness is only concerned with fresh, direct experience. That is what makes it potent because a living experience, even of a dull moment, contains potentials that can dynamically influence future experiences.

The Buddha proceeds from developing this deep awareness of the experience we refer to as ‘body,’ to developing an equally deep awareness of the sensations of body. It is a category shift rather than a real change: it is the same information as before, but experienced as individual sensations rather than a conglomerised ‘body’ now seen to be an abstract idea. Indeed these are the sensations we have been using all along to construct the normal idea of our body. Everyone has that idea of a body that does this and does that. But when we start examining, practising mindfulness of body, we realise that the experience we call body actually consists of lots of sensations. We may come to realise that our entire experience consists just of various sensations - sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches, plus mental perceptions of various kinds which are essentially no different.

In this way the initial practice of body awareness moves us naturally into this second experience of continual
vedana or ‘sensation.’ Though we need to be clear that in addition to sensation as the immediate impact of light, sound etc., the Buddhist technical term is more complex inasmuch as it includes the unprocessed feeling of each sensation, e.g. as pleasant or unpleasant, prior to any reactions of wanting or not wanting. Vedana is like the mid ground between the body and the mind. Our capacity for feeling is partly in our mind, but mostly comes out of our body and our senses.
In the quoted extract above the Buddha recommends noticing the impermanence of all our experience. That applies to feeling as well, so in a further statement he says
“He abides contemplating the nature of arising in the feelings, or he abides contemplating the nature of passing away in the feelings, or he abides contemplating the nature of both arising and passing away in the feelings.”

Our breathing, our postures, our activities, our anatomy, our elemental makeup, and our decaying body are all changing. It's the same in the domain of feeling: nothing anywhere is fixed or permanent. There are fifty shades of each feeling, a thousand, a million, countless shades. A particular experience may feel painful one day but bring great pleasure on another. On another day it brings neutral feeling. As we apply mindfulness, gradually we realise that
everything is in process and there are no exceptions to this. It can strike us powerfully how strongly programmed we all are by our cultural conditioning to think in terms of fixed things, things which simply interact, unchanged, with other things. But everything is influenced by what it encounters and is changed thereby. We also think of ourselves as things, stable and solid. But awareness eventually shows us that no one has ever existed in such a manner. It is a radical realisation, and not an easy truth to accept. But over time our inquiries reveal these insights into the nature of our existence to be inescapably true, whether we ‘like’ them or not.

From feeling, the instruction is to look at the one who feels, the one who experiences or who
appears to be experiencing the body and the feelings. We started cultivating awareness of what is apparently an object of our experience: the body. This is gradually revealed not to be something fixed. We then shift to mindfulness of what is apparently the subject. And this subject is also, over days weeks months and years, revealed to be not fixed.

For this the Buddha uses the Pali technical term
citta, refering to our present state of mind or mood. It’s something we often identify with as ‘me.’ The quality of citta is similar to the weather. On some days the citta starts off very grey first thing in the morning; later on the sun comes out. Sometimes on a grey day in Europe the sun only comes out once, there is a gap in the clouds just for a few minutes. At other times there is a lot of heat, thunder and lightning. Our mental states are just like that. The Buddha speaks in terms of how much greed, hate or delusion is in the mixture, how much the mind is narrowed down and contracted, how much the mind is expanded, etc. My experience is that practically speaking, this is the most complete aspect of the mindfulness practice — simply knowing the citta, knowing what the weather is right now. If you want to become mindful, start with noticing how your body is, and then tune into feeling and you’ll have a sense of the whole of your experience. But the citta is what holds it all together.

Having now established awareness of body, feelings and mind, we can work within the whole realm of awareness. A more advanced, active way of practising becomes possible. The emphasis on awareness remains the transforming factor, as clearly seeing a mental obscuration as the obstacle it is, often provides the motivation to let go our habitual attachment and step out of it.

Another even more direct way of achieving the same thing is noticing the impermanent nature of the citta, the continual changes in the weather. In the fourth stage of the satipatthana sutta where the Buddha teaches this more active, applied kind of mindfulness practice, the five hindrances are cited as examples of continual change. Our habituation to easily distracted or angry, over excited, dull or indecisive mind states is as temporary as everything else. Observing mindfully, and seeing clearly that these are just more changing states of the citta, impermanent and conditioned, can affect us deeply. These too will pass, these too are empty with no fixed nature, and just seeing
that produces a potency that allows us to avoid getting caught.

The next teaching in this section is that there is nothing outside the six senses. Look closely at each sense experience in turn, experience the changing data of visual impression, the universe of sounds, all the changing odours, tastes, touches, and mental perceptions, and discover there is nothing in the world that is not seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, or perceived. This can spark a new, radical kind of discovery, a collapse of false ideas as we realise our experience directly without the usual labels or explanations. This is insight or vipashyana.

Next, on the basis of insights like these, we are lifted up by the positive stream of the Dharma, illustrated by what the Buddha calls the Factors of Awakening, which come out of mindfulness. There is a cumulative sequence of uplift as (1) mindfulness brings about an ability to (2) investigate experience, which in turn arouses (3) tremendous energy. The energy produces (4) a joyful mind, and that joyful mind brings (5) a deep sense of tranquillity. This tranquil mind enables (6) a very profound ability to concentrate and this brings (7) great clarity to everything in the form of a deeply equable mind, in which there is a conflict free letting go of craving, hatred and indifference. These seven factors of Awakening represent the energy of Enlightenment transforming us.

The seven factors of mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration and equanimity allow us finally to penetrate what the Buddha called the Four Noble Truths, which in the mindfulness tradition are very simple and direct;
they are not abstract universals, but truths for the one who realises them. First, you see in your direct experience that this experience—whatever it is—is not satisfactory, dukkha, not something you could ever get full satisfaction from. Second, you see in direct experience that this experience arises out of many conditions. Third, you see directly that this experience ceases when those particular conditions cease. Fourthly, you see directly that simply seeing this, in direct experience, is the cessation of unsatisfactoriness, the complete end of dukkha. This is the most radical experience any human being can have, and it is literally not possible to understand it other than in direct personal experience, even though we might get some intuitive sense of what it is from reading this.

But essentially it incredibly simple. There's an experience. You're having one now. Look directly at that. Whatever it is, it is not going to bring real lasting satisfaction is it? Look again. It is changing. It has arisen out of many conditions. Look again. It is changing. It is ceasing because its conditions are ceasing. Look one more time. Seeing this truth as it actually is offers real satisfaction. It offers the end of unsatisfactoriness, nirvana, a completely new way of being in the world.

No doubt this
seeing is something we can achieve only in special moments, but the looking is something everyone can benefit from doing, any time. So much potency and freedom can come from mindfulness of the impermanence, the insubstantiality and the unsatisfactoriness of everything. Nothing is fixed, everything is changing. Nothing is as it seems to be, everything is no more or less than a shimmering mass of changing conditions.

To see that means we don't have to be addicted to experiences, and then when we look deeply, the self who grasps them is seen as equally insubstantial. Having confidence in this allows more letting go.
The things we desire and dislike are not only so unsatisfactory that they are worth letting go, but they are also so impermanent and insubstantial they cannot actually be grasped in the first place. Having confidence in this, also, allows easier acquiescence in letting go. We are grasping at empty clouds, and it's helpful to have real confidence, based on experience, that that is in the nature of our existence.