2022-02-22 Satipatthana (34) Intro to Second Foundation
3:59PM Feb 22, 2022
Good morning, everyone. I appreciated your comments about Paul Farmer and his unfortunate passing. I was thinking yesterday how happy I am that, as a community, we raised over $30,000 last summer for his organization, to aid their work in Haiti. I am glad we could do that while he was still alive. May his work continue, and may our work caring for others continue as well, inspired by him.
The topic of the second foundation of mindfulness is quite a profound topic. The simple explanation of what it is does not clearly indicate how profound it is. It builds on a continuing theme in the teachings of the Buddha around the idea of omniscience. There were people who wanted spiritual leaders to be omniscient back in the time of the Buddha. And there were apparently some spiritual teachers who claimed a certain kind of omniscience. The Buddha was someone who did not tend to push such ideas away or deny them. Instead, he would accept them, and then redefine them in his own terms.
He did not say this exactly the way I am saying it, but I am building on his statement that he was omniscient, and all of us can be omniscient in a specific way. We can know something about everything – we can know the feeling tone of every experience we have. No matter what the experience is, it is either pleasant, or unpleasant, or neither pleasant or unpleasant. In terms of the hedonic tone, those are the three options. There might be many other features of our experience besides the hedonic tone, but that tonality has those three characteristics.
So you know something about everything if you know its feeling tone. To get a handle and to recognize feeling tone as it arises in all kinds of situations, some of which can be very complicated. Then you realize, "Oh, this is a very unpleasant situation. It is just unpleasant." Recognizing the unpleasantness of it gives mindfulness a place to land, to settle or to open, so that the mind is not jumping around, or confused, or chasing after it, trying to understand it, analyze it, or track what is going on. Knowing the feeling tone can allow something to settle. The same way with something that is pleasant: "Oh, this is really pleasant. No wonder I am leaning forward so much." To be able to recognize the reactions we have to pleasant and unpleasant feeling tones is tremendously useful.
It turns out that a very high percentage of human reactivity – of wanting and not wanting – is not based on a sophisticated analysis of the situation. But rather, it is based on the very simple, almost amoeba-like tendency to go towards what is pleasant and away from what is unpleasant. If we can watch that movement for – and against and see it clearly before we're living in it and pushed around by it – there is a lot of freedom to be found. More than freedom, there can be a lot of deep understanding about ourselves. Seeing that movement opens a door or window to a deeper understanding of ourselves.
This is what the second foundation is about. My understanding and my interpretation is that there is a transition here in the second foundation – from attention to the body, to attention to the mind. The mind – the citta – is something deep inside. There is a movement from that which is a little more peripheral to what is deeper inside.
In the first foundation, we were involved with the breathing, the postures and activities the body does. Then we used the imagination and reflection to consider the parts of the body and the elements of the body, and to consider what it is like for the body to be there without any sensations at all.
Now, we are seeing a kind of rebirth in the second foundation – where, following the corpse meditation we did last week, I think there can be a heightened sensitivity and interest in the sensations that are evidence that we're alive. There can be a heightened sense that this is something to appreciate and value. As we explore the feeling tones, we are actually beginning to get into the deeper functioning and deeper qualities of the mind.
In the next day or two, we will see that this very foundation of feeling tones makes a distinction between that which is of the flesh – that which is surface – and that which is dharmic. The dharmic feelings involve what is going on in a deeper way. The transition from what is more surface – sensual feelings – to what is more non-sensual, or deeper in the mind – deeper in our inner life – is a phenomenal transition that happens in this second foundation.
At first, we just want to understand these three tones – pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. The word for "pleasant" is sukha. "Unpleasant" is dukkha. Often we translate that as "suffering". The most literal meaning of dukkha is "pain," and sukha is "happiness." Because the words cover such a broad range of feeling tones, rather than translating them as "pain and happiness" or "pain and pleasure," we use "pleasant and unpleasant," in order to capture the subtlety. But you have to remember the words also apply to the most intense versions of those feelings.
At first, the focus is much more on the sensual experience of pleasant and unpleasant. The difference between "pleasant" and "pleasure" probably has a lot to do with how much we lean into it – how much we get caught in it and involved in it. There may be less involvement with "pleasant and unpleasant" than with "pleasure and pain."
But "pleasant and unpleasant" is understood in Buddhism to be a quality of the mind. It is not just purely physical. This was a confusion I had in my early years of studying Buddhism. I thought "pleasant, unpleasant" was a purely a physical reaction to things that had nothing to do with my evaluation of it. But deeper in the suttas, this is actually a little more complicated. We are not innocent bystanders of "pleasant and unpleasant." There can be a subtle leaning into it, or mental formation, or prioritization of it, or preference in the very idea of "pleasant and unpleasant." It is not completely or only a physical phenomena. The mind participates in the formation of "pleasant and unpleasant."
This points to how we are now beginning to dip our toe into the deeper well of our inner life. The feeling tone is not just physical and mechanical. It involves mutuality – a reaction. Mental processes are touched as well as we feel pleasant and unpleasant. We do not have to understand how all this works. But we do want to be able to appreciate that "pleasant and unpleasant" comes off the tongue quite easily as something that seems hedonistic – or distant from the full, sophisticated life we live, or the full range of happiness and unhappiness we might experience.
But we can begin by keeping it simple, and recognizing how often and how much we are reacting to pleasant and unpleasant. Sometimes we are reacting to what is neither pleasant or unpleasant. We begin finding we have more choice to not react – or to step back into a broader awareness, where the awareness is not the reaction. The awareness just knows the reaction. Doing this develops and strengthens mindfulness a lot.
This is the direction we are going towards in Satipaṭṭhāna. We are moving in the direction of cultivating awareness that can observe the experience – and can be wide enough to hold the experience. Pleasant and unpleasant, liking and not liking, wanting and not wanting, can all be seen through awareness – through mindfulness – and known. It makes a world of difference to see and to know feeling tones.
Finally, I'll say that I suspect that, because of the way I am teaching this today, you might not get a sense of its full value. The Buddha points to vedanā (the Pali word for "feeling tone") as one of the most important pivot points for our experience. It is as if there is a funnel or an hourglass, and the neck is where the feeling tones are. Everything goes through that neck. There are many different things that go through, but everything has to go through the neck of feeling tones before it fans out again in the hourglass.
The Buddha pointed to feeling tones as having a central foundational role for mindfulness practice – for getting a handle on our experience and becoming free. He also pointed to this as an alternative to getting wrapped up in the philosophical enterprises of his time – like philosophies, interpretation, and speculation about metaphysics and spirituality. He was pointing to direct experience. In particular, he pointed to the importance of feeling tones in helping us to become free and to understand what is going on in a deeper way.
Finally, in the structure of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, feeling tone is the seventh exercise. There are six before and six afterwards, and so feeling tone is right in the middle – it is the pivot. In the next few days, we will see other ways that feeling tone is the pivot, as we get deeper into the feeling tones of our experience. So here we go – the second foundation of mindfulness. I hope that you will appreciate how wonderfully significant it is to bring mindfulness to this part of our life. Thank you.