2022-02-09 Satipaṭṭhāna (27) Body Free of Stories
4:18PM Feb 9, 2022
Today will be the last talk on this fourth exercise of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. I think it is easy to overlook this part – I did for many, many years. It is easy to be dismissive, especially for a western audience, because it refers to the body parts as unclean. It is not the original text, but later editors added a title for this exercise, that refers to the repulsiveness of the body. Many people in the West are even more reactive to that, "Why would you see the body as repulsive or unclean?"
Perhaps we should not try to guess at what the ancients were doing and thinking when they said this. I do know that the Buddha sometimes talks about our bodily form, our bodily feelings, our perceptions, mental activity, concoctions, creations, and something that we often call consciousness in the West. He sometimes has very negative language for it. Sometimes he says it is impermanent, empty, vain, a tumor, an illness, a burden – a long list of things that are very negative.
If you read it out of context, it is like, "Wow, these Buddhists are completely world negating, opposed to the body, and treat the body as some kind of a boil, a blister, just a sore." But these teachings, about how these things are a sickness or illness, use the words "as if," and do so in a particular context. The context is the deep sense of well-being, happiness, and joy that can be experienced in meditation. The joy of being deeply absorbed and concentrated, that comes with deep, concentrated meditation.
For some people, this is the highest pinnacle of joy and happiness they have ever experienced in their life in a sustained way, when they are able to drop into these deep, concentrated states. In that context, where there is so much well-being and happiness, be careful then not to be attached to the body, perceptions, or even consciousness. Any attachment, preoccupation, or fixation in that context just feels like a drag. It feels like, "Why would I agitate, muddy, or lose this deep sense of well-being? The whole body feels like it is beautiful, glowing, alive, and settled. Finally, I'm at home in my body, and it seems like a wellspring of well-being. Why would I separate myself into the world of concoctions, stories, ideas, or shoulds and shouldn'ts? Even ones that are celebrating the body, when the celebration of the body is also a separation from it all."
In that context, the Buddha said, in all this well-being, relate to these parts, these areas, as if they are a drag, so that you can stay connected. Do not get attached to the body, so that you can stay connected to the well-being that is onward leading – to liberation from all attachments.
In terms of these 31 parts of the body – this fourth exercise where it talks about being unclean – I interpret it in that way. It is in a context of developing greater and greater well-being, happiness, being at home in the body, feeling comfortable in one's skin, settling in, and experiencing the body independent of the concoctions, stories, interpretations, and opinions we have. It feels so good to do that. Why get involved in opinions? Why get involved in all these things?
When is it that it is helpful, in being present for the body, to see that there are certain ways of relating to the body that are undesirable? Maybe "unclean" because it mires or dirties the waters of attention and our experience.
As we get into the 31 parts of the body, more and more we are beginning to free ourselves from concoctions. We are using our imagination, visualization, and inner sense to focus. If you do the practice steadily, systematically going through each body part, you are developing greater embodiment, presence in the body, and a greater sensitivity to the way that the mind concocts stories and ideas. Learning how we could let go of that – and just stay with the body.
This is phenomenally useful – as the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta keeps going deeper and deeper into the the basic practice of mindfulness of body, feelings, mind, and dhammas. We are beginning to loosen up the grip of stories and ideas. Some of them are very connected to the body. One of the functions of the 32 parts of the body is to free us from that grip. Also to begin appreciating, and become increasingly sensitive to the concocting nature of the mind, the story making of the mind.
As we go deeper and deeper in Satipaṭṭhāna practice, we are becoming freer and freer of this concocting nature of the mind. We will see though, that when we start tomorrow on the four elements, we are still using the imagination to some degree. We are still learning these lessons.
Tomorrow we will do the four elements – start there, the fifth exercise. The vipassana instructions, the mindfulness instruction, which much of the western vipassana movement is based on – the insight movement that comes out of Jack, Joseph and Sharon – came from those of us who went to Asia to study a particular form of vipassana practice called Mahasi practice. It is named after the teacher Mahasi Sayadaw.
His practice was really centered on the four elements. He was not explicit about it always. It was not conveyed to the western practitioners. But the foundation of the modern western whole experience – Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, teachings of Spirit Rock and IMS, and all that – was the four elements meditation. It has a pedigree. The lineage we are in is one that centers on this. We will start talking about that tomorrow.
One last thing about the 31 parts of the body meditation. There is a wonderful vipassana teacher in Santa Cruz named Bob Stahl. Every year he does almost a year long course on the 32 parts of the body meditation. It is very popular with people in Santa Cruz. Not that many of you are close to Santa Cruz, but there are people who do this practice and find a great love for it. Maybe you will try it out. Memorize the list, or some of the list. Usually people memorize the body parts in groups of five or six. And then just practice it the way we did today, with skin, flesh, bones, but using the different parts.
A couple of announcements – today I posted on YouTube, under the video, the text for this 31 parts of the body. Also there is a link, which we will keep there, to go directly to the page on IMC's website where we have my translation of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. As we go through this, if you want to see the reference point that I am using for this, and my understanding of this text in the translation, you can find it there. You can also find it under the Resources menu in IMC's website, as well as directly.
Thank you, and I look forward to starting the four elements tomorrow.