Part Two

Chapter Five

Mindfulness of Reading

The two discourses in the Pāli Canon that provide the most extended treatment of the practice of satipaṭṭhāna are DN 22, the Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (The Great Establishings of Mindfulness Discourse), and MN 118, the Ānāpānasati Sutta (The Mindfulness of In-&-Out Breathing Discourse). Because these two discourses offer so much information, they are worth reading and analyzing in detail.

Of the two, DN 22 provides the longer discussion of the establishings of mindfulness in and of themselves. However, it gives only a sketchy treatment of how the establishings of mindfulness fit into the rest of the path. MN 118 provides a more complete picture of the larger context: giving the Canon’s most precise explanation of a meditation practice covering all four establishings, and showing how the four establishings fit into the larger frame of the practice, leading first to the seven factors for awakening and, through them, to the goal of clear knowing and release. Because this larger context provides a better sense of the role and purpose of satipaṭṭhāna, we will discuss MN 118 first, here in Part Two, and DN 22 in Part Three.

There’s an irony here, though, in that even though these two discourses provide more detail and a larger context than any other canonical discourses dealing with mindfulness, they still leave out a lot, both in terms of larger context and in terms of finer details. For instance, in terms of context, neither provides a definition of mindfulness; neither gives a full picture of how the practice of satipaṭṭhāna works together with the other seven factors of the noble eightfold path. In terms of detail, MN 118 lists sixteen steps in mindfulness of in-and-out breathing, but many of those steps require extra explanation as to what, in practice, they entail. At the same time, it gives no explicit indication of whether the sixteen steps have to be practiced in the order in which they are listed. DN 22 names various types of feelings and mind states that can be noticed in the course of developing feelings and mind as frames of reference, but it doesn’t describe what to do with them. In fact, it gives almost no explicit attention to the role of ardency in the establishing of mindfulness at all. In other words, it leaves unexplained an important part of the satipaṭṭhāna formula. For this extra information, we need to look elsewhere.

One of the most fruitful places to look for that missing context and guidance is in the other canonical discourses. Some of the information to be found in those discourses we have already covered in Chapters One and Two. Here is a good place to review a few of the most salient points, as they will determine how we approach the act of reading and interpreting both MN 118 and DN 22. The major points are these:

1) Mindfulness is primarily the ability to remember, to hold something in mind.

2) Right mindfulness is a complex process called the establishing of mindfulness, in which you undertake the practice of remaining focused on a particular frame of reference in and of itself—body in and of itself, feelings in and of themselves, mind in and of itself, or mental qualities in and of themselves—ardent, alert, and mindful, subduing greed and distress with reference to the world. Of the three qualities applied to this process, mindfulness remembers from the past what should be done; alertness notices what is happening—and what you are doing—in the present; ardency generates the desire to deal skillfully with the raw material from which present experience can be formed, so as to lead to wellbeing both in the present and on into the future. Without this desire, right mindfulness would not be established.

3) There are two primary descriptions of how right mindfulness relates to the other factors of the noble eightfold path:

(a) In one, right mindfulness follows on right effort and leads to right concentration. There is actually some overlap between right mindfulness and these other two factors. Ardency in right mindfulness is equivalent to the desire motivating right effort, and the act of subduing greed and distress with reference to the world falls under two of the duties of right effort: preventing unskillful mental qualities from arising, and abandoning any unskillful qualities that have already arisen. As for right concentration, the four establishings of mindfulness are the themes of right concentration; the successful practice of the establishing of mindfulness in line with the satipaṭṭhāna formula is identical to the first jhāna; when further refined, the development of the establishing of mindfulness is a concentration practice that can lead through all the jhānas.

(b) In the second description of how right mindfulness relates to the other factors of the noble eightfold path, right mindfulness is one of a set of three factors that circles around the abandoning of wrong view, wrong resolve, wrong speech, wrong action, and wrong livelihood, and the development of the five right versions of these factors in their place. The set of three circling factors are: right view, right mindfulness, and right effort. The duty of right view in this set is to recognize the right from the wrong factor; the duty of right mindfulness is to keep in mind the need to abandon the wrong factor and develop the right, along with any knowledge gained from listening or from experience as to how this is to be done; and the duty of right effort is to generate desire and uphold your intent to follow the dictates of right view and right mindfulness.

This description covers the first seven factors of the path; MN 117 states that these seven factors then act as supports for right concentration.

It’s important to note that these two descriptions are not mutually exclusive. In other words, they are not based on two separate, alternate definitions of right mindfulness. This is because right mindfulness as described in MN 117 comes under the fourth frame of reference described in the standard formula for the establishing of mindfulness: mental qualities (of the right and wrong path factors) in and of themselves. This means that the two descriptions can be combined to expand on each other.

When we do that, we see that the relationship between right mindfulness and right effort is reciprocal: Just as right effort tries to engender and maintain right mindfulness in the first description of the path, right mindfulness informs right effort in the second one. In this way they work together to lead seamlessly to right concentration.

4) The establishing of mindfulness has a second stage, called the development of the establishing of mindfulness. In this stage, you remain focused on the phenomenon of origination, passing away, or origination-and-passing-away with regard to any of the four frames of reference. Because the term “origination” here means causation, this requires your active, ardent participation in developing skillful states of mind and abandoning unskillful ones so that you can see precisely which factors are causally interrelated and which ones are not. The proactive nature of this exercise is confirmed by the fact that the development of the establishings of mindfulness is accomplished by actively developing all eight factors of the noble path, including right concentration.

This means that there is a reciprocal relationship between right mindfulness and right concentration, just as there is between right mindfulness and right effort. Confirmation of this fact is contained in the standard description of the four jhānas, in which mindfulness becomes pure only in the fourth jhāna.

5) The practice of right mindfulness doesn’t end with the attainment of jhāna. Through its connection with right view, it builds on jhāna in a way that leads to dispassion for all fabricated phenomena, opening to an experience of the deathless, free from fabrication of every sort.

These five points have a strong bearing on how MN 118 and DN 22 should be read, showing what information to look for in them and how that information is best understood and put into use:

1) Because mindfulness is an activity of memory, MN 118 and DN 22 are concerned with things a meditator should hold in mind when engaging in the practice. On one level, there is nothing strange here: All the discourses in the Pāli Canon are meant to be read in this way. In a standard description of how the act of listening to the Dhamma—which, at present, would include reading the Dhamma—fits into the practice, the first step after hearing the Dhamma is to remember it. The other steps listed in the description give helpful insights into how this memory is best used.

“When, on observing that the monk is purified with regard to qualities based on greed… aversion… delusion, one places conviction in him. With the arising of conviction, one visits him & grows close to him. Growing close to him, one lends ear. Lending ear, one hears the Dhamma. Hearing the Dhamma, one remembers it. Remembering it, one penetrates the meaning of those dhammas. Penetrating the meaning, he comes to an agreement through pondering those dhammas. There being an agreement through pondering those dhammas, desire arises. With the arising of desire, one becomes willing. Willing, one compares. Comparing, one makes an exertion. Exerting oneself, one both realizes the ultimate meaning of the truth with one’s body and sees by penetrating it with discernment.” — MN 95

This description shows that the first steps in approaching the Dhamma are to find someone of trustworthy character and to spend time with that person. These steps serve as a reminder that the modern act of reading a text gives only a shallow impression of what can be learned from personal contact with an experienced meditator. In the initial pattern, you would spend time with the teacher, first to gauge his reliability, then to pick up his habits. Only in the context of a relationship of trust does the act of listening to the Dhamma yield its full benefits.

Once you have listened to the Dhamma and remembered it, you think it over and come to an understanding that encourages you to practice: First you analyze the teaching on its own to penetrate its meaning, then you ponder and compare it with other Dhamma teachings to see that it agrees with what you already know. According to DN 16 and DN 29, this is the stage at which you learn to identify what counts as genuine Dhamma and what doesn’t. Only if the teachings new to you agree with what you already know with certainty should you accept them as genuine.

This agreement is what gives rise to a desire and willingness to practice, for you can see that the Dhamma makes sense. The desire here, as we have already noted, is what allows the path to happen. Based on this desire and willingness, you “compare,” which apparently means (a) that you compare your own behavior in body, speech, and mind to the standards set forth in the teaching; and (b) that you compare the differences in the various aspects of your behavior to see which sort of behavior is skillful and which sort is not. (On this point, see Chapter Six in Skill in Questions, and the passage on analysis of qualities as a factor for awakening in SN 46:51, below.) Then you exert yourself to abandon unskillful behavior and develop skillful behavior to the point where you have a direct experience of the truth toward which the teaching is aimed.

The role of listening to and thinking about the Dhamma portrayed in this description covers the first three factors for awakening: mindfulness (remembering), analysis of qualities (penetrating, pondering, and comparing), and persistence (desire, willingness, and exertion). In this way, even the act of remembering a discourse and trying to put its teachings into practice gives a rudimentary first-hand experience of the connection between mindfulness and the factors for awakening—a fact noted in SN 46:3. As MN 118 states, this connection is then brought to culmination in the actual practice of mindfulness of breathing.

The implications of these points for the act of reading MN 118 and DN 22 are clear. You should try to understand both what each text means on its own and how it fits into the rest of the Dhamma. This should then give rise to a desire and willingness to compare your own practice with what the text says, to see how its instructions can give you guidance in becoming more skillful in your own practice. For this reason, as we look at these two discourses in the following chapters, we will pay attention not only to what they say, but also to how they fit in with—and are amplified by—other relevant passages from the Canon.

2) Although all the discourses are meant to be remembered and applied in practice, the particular nature of the establishing of mindfulness shows what sort of practical guidance we should look for in MN 118 and DN 22. Especially relevant here are the two qualities that accompany mindfulness in the act of keeping a particular frame of reference in mind: alertness and ardency. We will expect these discourses to give advice on (a) what to be alert for in the present, and (b) what efforts to make in light of the ardent desire to shape the present and future in a skillful direction. We’ll find that these discourses provide frames of reference for distinguishing which phenomena and distinctions among phenomena are skillful to pay attention to. This, in fact, is where they provide their most detailed information. We’ll also find, though, that they are less than consistent in providing detailed instructions as to the duties of ardency in light of these frames of reference, and to the task of subduing greed and distress with reference to the world. These are areas where we will have to look to other discourses to fill in the missing instructions.

3) The fact that right mindfulness plays the role of remembering to abandon the wrong version and to develop the right version of every path-factor confirms that we should look to these discourses for guidance in how to use mindfulness in proactively shaping experience into a path, rather than simply passively taking note of things arising and passing away. Because right mindfulness is so intimately connected with right view, we can use the duties that right view assigns to each of the noble truths as guides for how to understand this proactive role when looking for information from other discourses in cases where MN 118 and DN 22 provide little or no explicit guidance.

4) Because right mindfulness and right concentration are so intimately related, we’ll pay special attention to the ways in which the establishing of mindfulness is illuminated by the Buddha’s instructions elsewhere in the Canon on the practice of jhāna.

5) We will also look at the role played by right mindfulness in building on the practice of jhāna to develop the dispassion leading to a direct experience of total release. MN 95 describes this aspect of the practice as “realizing the truth with one’s body and penetrating it with discernment.” These two ways of describing the experience of total release parallel a distinction made in AN 9:43–45: To touch the truth with one’s body is to master any of the levels of jhāna in such a way as to experience any of the psychic abilities to which they open (see AN 5:28). (Apparently this description relates to the way in which the increased sensitivity to the body obtained in jhāna allows some people to use the body as a means to access information on the psychic level.) To penetrate with discernment is to master any of the jhānas without that added experience, but to understand the fabrication of that jhāna thoroughly in a way that leads to dispassion. In either case, full release requires the act of penetrating with discernment; and as AN 9:44 shows, penetrating with discernment, even without “touching with the body,” is sufficient for release. Because this discernment is the crucial factor in gaining release, we will focus primary attention on the way mindfulness plays a role in giving rise to it.

Looking at all five of these points in light of dependent co-arising, we can see that the ideal reading of MN 118 and DN 22 is one that takes the ignorance that causes fabrication to lead to suffering and replaces it with knowledge in terms of the four noble truths. This knowledge in turn motivates the reader to master the skills dictated by the duties appropriate to each of the four noble truths, which take bodily, verbal, and mental fabrication—the breath; directed thought and evaluation; feeling and perception—and turn them into the path to total release. These points relate to the three aspects of right view that right mindfulness must keep in mind: the right framework for viewing experience, the motivation for adopting that framework, and knowledge of the duties and skills prescribed by that framework. A mindful reading of these discourses is one that keeps these points in mind while reading. It also takes any lessons learned from the act of reading in this way and keeps them in mind while training the mind to master those skills. That is the approach to reading MN 118 and DN 22 that will be encouraged in the following chapters.