Welcome to the beginning of a journey we will take through the Buddha's teachings on the four foundations for mindfulness – the four ways of establishing awareness. I will use these words mostly synonymously – awareness and mindfulness. If I do not, I will try to indicate that.
This journey uses a very famous text attributed to the Buddha, which is the foundational text for the whole mindfulness movement and which has spread across the world. It is also the foundational text in the Theravadan Buddhist world for the vipassana movement that arose over the last 100 years in places like Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand where vipassana practice became very important. We trace ourselves to that lineage – teaching insight meditation. This text is central to it all.
It is interpreted in many different ways. Different teachings, different practices of vipassana, of insight, or mindfulness will choose different parts of this text to emphasize or to select as their primary practice. Some people do just the breathing. Some people do just the four elements, or the different parts of the body. Some people will do the mind states, and some people will do the mental processes. And then some like to do all of it.
One approach is one that is comprehensive. Even though the text does not say this, it is pointing to the idea that we would be mindful of everything – everything in its own due time. There is nothing outside the scope of what can be included in mindfulness practice – 360 degrees of awareness.
The way the text is set up – and the way I believe, or at least interprete it – is that it involves a progression to deeper states. To say it differently – a progression to a deeper connectivity to oneself. Going from the outer parts of ourselves progressively to the deeper, more subjective aspects – subjective in the sense of coming from deeper within – a source from which we operate and create the actions of mind, the activities of mind, which then spill out in the way that we experience the rest of ourselves and the world around us.
The journey is inward. I like to think of it as a journey home. Home being where we are free and liberated. The text opens up with a very dramatic kind of promise or statement. It says, "There is a direct way for the purification of beings; for the overcoming of grief and lamentation; for the overcoming of pain and sorrow; for the realization of nibbāna, of freedom."
They say there is a direct way. One way of understanding this is with these four areas of practicing mindfulness. If you want to dive right into a path to freedom and liberation, dive right into an intimate connection to the present moment where we can find our freedom, this is the direct way.
There are indirect ways, which are both valuable and foundational. For example, the Buddha considered living an ethical life as a foundation for this direct path. If we jump into this direct path before we have laid the preparation for it, it can be harder. The ethical foundation is that our life is virtuous and peaceful. We are not agitated, worried, scared, or struggle with guilt or remorse for what we have done. There is ease with our inner ethical life, and so we can have ease entering into this direct path.
There are four foundations for doing this. The word foundation is an important word. Some people, nowadays, translate it as four establishments. They are the basis upon which awareness grows – a basis upon which awareness becomes clarified, revealed, and freed. If we are aware without a strong foundation – awareness probably will be scattered, unstable, and can easily disappear with the slightest ruffle in the environment or in the mind, when we are caught up again.
We want to create a strong foundation, but it needs a basis. The four bases that the Buddha offers here are: a careful grounded attention to the body, a grounded attention to what is called feelings, a grounded attention to mind states, and a grounded attention to mental processes.
In September, I went through each of these four foundations. If you want, you can go back and listen to those talks, to get a bit of background or introduction from them. But for this series, I will be going through in a different way – going more slowly through the text itself, with the idea that the text is a practice text. We will practice with what goes on in the text, rather than this just being a textual study.
We say in English, it is a text that is a written body of work. We are such a written culture. Or we have been until the web. But now, maybe we are switching to being a more oral culture again. Originally, this text was not composed as a literary work, but as an oral record. They had no writing at the time of the Buddha, or they had it, but very few people used it, maybe accountants and people like that. In the time of the Buddha, all the teachings were composed orally, and then memorized, and transmitted from one generation to the next by passing on the memorization of it.
When we read a text as a literary work, modern audiences will often look for something different than what people were looking for, or listening for in an oral text. Repetition in a written text is boring, and puts us to sleep, or our attention wanders. Repetition in a chanted text, in a recited text adds a kind of rhythm to the text – a momentum to the text. It evokes because people are participating in the recitation. It taps into the places of memory. It is like a song. We are going over the chorus, the refrain. Everyone is carried along in the wave, and the familiarity. There is so much in our body that participates in a refrain of a song that we can do it hundreds of times and it is still just as engaging for us, whereas reading it a hundred times won't be.
I want to try to give you a sense of the journey of this text. I think the oral participant in the text would feel it. They feel a rhythm in the text – a rhythm of wave after wave after wave, coming, surging and passing. A movement into something, through it, and then to the other side of it, where there is peace. There is a freedom that is found, and that rhythm goes again, and again – thirteen times in the text. I think that rhythm is giving the aural listeners, the ancient people chanting it a sense of participation in what is being talked about in the text.
The medium of the text itself is demonstrating or evoking in people, what is actually talked about in the text. That is one of the things that makes this text quite brilliant. The very way it is organized allows the aural listener or the chanter, to experience what is being said in certain kind of way – in an embodied way, a full way.
I have simplified the text so that I can give you a sense of this repetition that goes on. There are a few key words, that you should know before I read it, so you can feel it more. First is the word "abiding", sometimes translated in English as dwelling. To abide is to live in a place as if it is your home. You are fully there. This is a very important word, "viharati", in the ancient texts, to abide. It is used in particular, for abiding in wonderous and beneficial states of mind.
The other important word is "observing." The word observing in the text is used for very deep states of meditation. It is a nonreactive awareness that sees, but does not influence, does not affect, or is not fixated on touching or manipulating our experience. You just sit back and observe in a very spacious, open way. There are four areas to abide in observing: the body, feelings, mind states, and mental processes.
The text begins, "There is a direct way for the realization of nibbāna." And it ends, "Observing in this way leads to liberation." Between, "this is a direct way," and "this leads to liberation," there is this journey. The surge and the repetition of the same phrase is a very important part – maybe the most important part: "Observing change. Abiding, not clinging to anything." You will hear this repeated thirteen times.
"There is a direct way for the realization of nibbāna. Abiding, observing the body. Mindful of breathing. Observing change in the body. Abiding, not clinging to anything. Mindful of posture. Observing change in the body. Abiding, not clinging to anything, Mindful of bodily activities. Observing change in the body. Abiding, not clinging to anything. Mindful of parts of the body. Observing change in the body. Abiding, not clinging to anything. Mindful of the four physical elements. Observing change in the body. Abiding, not clinging to anything. Mindful of decaying corpses. Observing change in the body. Abiding, not clinging to anything."
"Abiding, observing feelings. Mindful of feelings. Observing change in the feelings. Abiding, not clinging to anything."
"Abiding, observing the mind. Mindful of mind. Observing change in the mind. Abiding, not clinging to anything.
Abiding, observing mental processes. Mindful of the hindrances. Observing mental processes change. Abiding, not clinging to anything. Mindful of the aggregates of clinging. Observing mental processes change. Abiding, not clinging to anything. Mindful of being knotted up with sense experience. Observing mental processes change. Abiding, not clinging to anything. Mindful of the constituents of awakening. Observing mental processes change. Abiding, not clinging to anything. Mindful of four insights. Observing mental processes change. Abiding, not clinging to anything. Observing in this way, leads to liberation."
This is my simple summation of the whole text. It gives special emphasis to the idea of abiding, observing, seeing change, and coming to a place of not clinging to anything. Going through the process of connecting to all these things, being mindful of all these things, and in doing so, opening up to the world of change in a particular way, so that it leads us to this place of non-clinging, which is basically synonymous with liberation and freedom. nibbāna.
That was a general introduction to this series we are going to do. Hopefully we will practice with it during the thirty minute meditation and then have some teachings around it each of these weekdays for the next few weeks. So, thank you all very much.