Western Buddhist Review

Valuable New Perspectives on Mindfulness

Posted by dhivan thomas jones on Tue, 3 June, 2014 - 12:15
dhivan thomas jones's picture
dhivan thomas jones
Here is a very thorough and appreciative review of Anālayo’s fine new book concerning mindfulness in early Buddhist teachings.

Anālayo, Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna
Windhorse Publications, Cambridge, 2013, 319pp., £15.99pb, also in ebook format

Review by Dh Ālokadhāra

It is now just over ten years since Windhorse published Anālayo’s book Satipaṭṭhāna: the direct path to realization, described at the time by Christopher Titmus as ‘an indispensable guide… surely destined to become the classic commentary on the Satipaṭṭhāna.’ Many dharma practitioners and scholars have subsequently attested to its worth. I myself found that the book brought a depth of examination and clarity to the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta far beyond anything that I could have discerned for myself. It has been an invaluable guide into previously uncharted territory helping to make clear what had previously been unclear. In short it made sense of the Buddha’s utterance that Satipaṭṭhāna was ‘the direct path to realization’. The American meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein was so inspired by Anālayo’s commentary that it moved him to conduct his own line-by-line analysis of the text, resulting in a whole lecture series and book (Mindfulness: A Practical Guide, 2013; Sounds True). On one occasion, preparing to lead study on mindfulness, I mused whether the participants would be able to afford to purchase Anālayo’s book. A friend’s immediate response was, ‘can they afford not to?’.

Now Windhorse have published a sequel: Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna. Anālayo had initially thought of simply revising the earlier work but eventually concluded that a new publication would be a better solution. In this latest work he examines discourse parallels to the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta that have been preserved in Chinese translations of the Madhyama-āgama and the Ekottarika-āgama. The Madhyama-āgama was probably transmitted by the Sarvāstivāda reciters and, whilst the origin of the Ekottarika-āgama is uncertain, Anālayo suggests that the likeliest affiliation is with the Mahāsanghika tradition. Both collections were translated into Chinese towards the end of the fourth century of the present era. Anālayo makes the point that ‘in general terms none of the Āgamas or Nikāyas can be considered to be invariably historically earlier than others… [consequently] the material preserved in the Āgamas has in principle a similar claim to being an authentic record of the teachings of the Buddha and his disciples as found in the four Pāli Nikāyas’ (p.3–4). His stated aim in comparing these parallel versions ‘is not to reconstruct the original Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta… [but rather] to explore the perspective that emerges when emphasis is given to those instructions that are common ground among the three canonical versions and thus can reasonably expected to be early’ (p.4) .This would then point towards ‘a common early core’ of the Buddha’s teaching in this area.

The new book shares many of the positive attributes of its predecessor, including a rather attractive cover by Dhammarati. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the first book was the extensive footnotes, which both were informative and provided a comprehensive subtext to the main body of the work. Indeed they provided an accessible doorway for an exploration of the Nikayas themselves. The new book similarly contains comprehensive footnotes and, as with its predecessor, the book is very clearly laid out with an extensive References section. One new feature is that at the end of each chapter there is a brief summary. This is invaluable as a quick reference point. Apart from the fact that the scope of the new book is broader in that it is examining material from the Āgamas, there are a number of structural differences. The main one is that there are four chapters on the body as compared to the one in the earlier work. In the first of these ‘contemplations of the body’ Anālayo highlights the variations between the three versions, and in the three subsequent chapters he explores those areas which appear in all versions, namely, the anatomical parts, the elements, and a corpse in decay.

In respect of the variations the only addition in the Ekottarika-āgama is that there is contemplation of bodily orifices not found in the Majjhima-nikāya and Madhyama-āgama versions. Similar reflections are, however, found in the Gaṇḍa-sutta of the Aguttara-nikāya. It is another positive feature of the book that Anālayo traces correspondences found in other texts outside of the three satipaṭṭhāna texts. The Madhyama-āgama has an additional four reflections as compared to the Majjhima-nikāya version. These are: countering of unwholesome mental states, forceful mind control, experience of the four absorptions, perception of light and reviewing sign. Again he suggests that these aspects can be found in other suttas in the Pali Nikāyas but that their presence in the Madhyama-āgama version is probably more as a result of their association with the main body of the work rather than its original rendition.
The purpose of reflecting and meditating on the anatomical parts of the body is to overcome sensual desire for other bodies and any sense of conceit or ownership in respect of one’s own body. With regard to the nature of sensual attraction Anālayo refers to the striking similes found in the scriptures of the leper trying to alleviate his sores by cauterization over a hot fire and the starving dog who tries to assuage its hunger by gnawing on a meatless bone. It is the clinging to sense pleasures that bars the way to the higher states of enjoyment and happiness which come through beautifying the mind. ‘A chief aim of the practice is to counter the contagious disease of sensual desire, which in a way disfigures the natural beauty of one’s mind and threatens to turn one into a mental leper’ (p.80).

The chapter on the elements highlights the fact that that the Madhyama-āgama lists six elements including space and consciousness as compared to the four material elements listed in the other two versions. This, Anālayo suggests, is something of a misfit in terms of satipaṭṭhāna, as consciousness would not usually be considered in the context of contemplation of the body. Consequently he sees it as a later addition. Reflection on the elements is of course designed to break up one’s sense of the body as a compact discrete entity and thereby undermine one’s identification with it, and there is a thorough discussion of this aspect as set out in the three renditions. The chapter also contains an interesting discussion about not-self (which still appears to be widely misunderstood by practitioners in the west) and in particular with how that principle coheres with the notions of karma and ethical responsibility. The chapter also offers a re-interpretation of Māra, that rather than being merely the inner uncertainties of the practioner he ‘personifies challenges posed to members of the Buddhist community by outsiders’ (p.90), and in particularly from other spiritual traditions.

The chapter on a corpse in decay is rich with observations and reflections. The purpose of reflecting on a corpse in decay of course is to deeply impress upon the practitioner his or her impermanent nature. The Buddha contrasts a corpse in decay with the beauty of a young person. Beauty in ancient India was exemplified by the young female form and Anālayo makes the interesting observation that this is the form that both sexes tend to look at as the source of beauty. For the male, ‘beauty expresses itself in predominantly voyeuristic manner towards other bodies while a female concern with beauty has a more narcissistic leaning’ (p.103). Consideration of death is given a full airing with sections on recollection of death, the inevitability of death, death as a divine messenger, and dying. There is also an interesting discussion about the notion of momentariness. Anālayo identifies this as a later development in Buddhist thought standing in contradistinction to the earlier Buddhist notion that impermanence ‘includes a period of continuous change that comes between the previous arising and passing away’ (p.107). There is also an interesting section on the impermanent nature of consciousness, recognition of which Anālayo suggests is particularly challenging:

‘The experience of a constant form of awareness in the background of experience, independent of the actual content or affective mode of what is taking place in the mind, can easily be mistaken for a subtle form of awareness or mental luminosity that does not change. Close inspection, however, shows that even the most subtle form of awareness or being conscious is definitely subject to the law of impermanence… However stable it may appear, consciousness is just a flux of conditionally arisen moments of being conscious’ (p.108–9).
This is the standard Theravāda view, and it is interesting to contrast it with later developments in Zen, Mahāmudra and Dzogchen.

Like the earlier book there is a very detailed chapter on feelings. While there is some overlap Anālayo finds plenty of new areas to explore. In particular the Madhyama-āgama draws out the distinction between bodily and mental feelings and sensual and non-sensual feelings which are not present in the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta. There is a section on dependent arising and the central role that feeling plays in this together with a useful discussion about the twelve links as spread over three lifetimes or one moment. The early three lifetime model Anālayo suggests, according to modern scholarship, appears to involve a criticism of a Vedic creation myth, while the single mind moment interpretation was a development in the Abhidhamma traditions. There is an interesting section on ‘commendable feelings’, that is, broadly speaking those conducive to progress on the path in contrast to those associated with regress. Commendable feelings are associated with renunciation and the joy arising in dependence upon detachment from clearly seeing the impermanent and unsatisfactory nature of sense objects. He makes the interesting point that feelings which arise in dependence upon attachment are related to the nature of sense objects while feelings which arise in dependence upon renunciation ‘being related to insight, go beyond and transcend the limitations of the object they experience’ (p.132). Feelings are likened to guests visiting a house who come and go all the time, hence they are impermanent and cannot be taken as integral in terms of a sense of self. This is followed by a section on pain and disease where contemplation of feelings as impermanent helps prevent the infamous second dart taking from taking hold and undermines the tendency to irritation. The Buddha was clear that contemplation of feelings in terms of their impermanence, their rise and fall, dispassion towards them, their eradication, cessation and letting go leads to full awakening.

The chapters concerning contemplation of the body are followed by one on the mind. Anālayo begins the chapter by comparing the instructions for contemplation of the mind in each of the three texts. The version in the Majjhima-nikāya has the fewest instructions while the version in the Ekottarika-āgama has the most and these include some interesting distinctions. There is a set of distinctions common to all. These cover both unwholesome mental states and their absence, that is, lustful or not, angry or not, deluded or not, distracted or not, together with states of mind that have arisen in dependence upon successful meditative cultivation, namely, great or not, concentrated or not, and liberated or not. The task is to recognise in one’s own experience what has been successfully cultivated and what more needs to be done. Anālayo makes the point that ‘from an early Buddhist view point, enquiring if one has reached some degree of attainment is considered an integral part of knowing the nature of one’s condition’ (p.145). This he suggests is a middle way between overly goal directed practice purely concerned with attainments and an attitude which is disdainful of any wholesome aspiration towards the higher goal. He goes on to examine the distinction between wholesome and unwholesome thoughts, referring back to the first verse of the Dhammapada and its implications in respect of progress on the path. He explores the different methods for dealing with unwholesome thoughts, the gradual stilling of thoughts and the cultivation of positive states of mind leading to mental freedom. A process where ‘eventually the beauty of the still mind gradually emerges from the furnace of meditation’ (p.163).

In respect of contemplation of dhammas it is interesting that these differ in each rendition. In the Ekottarika-āgama these are: the awakening factors and the four absorptions. In the Madhyama-āgama they are: the sense spheres , the hindrances and the awakening factors. Whilst in the Majjhima-nikāya they are: the hindrances, the aggregates, the sense spheres, the awakening factors and the four noble truths. Anālayo devotes a chapter each to the hindrances and the awakening factors which are common to all three whilst exploring the differences in a separate chapter. These were thoroughly examined in the earlier book but he still has some very interesting observations to make including Vasabandhu’s correlation of the four satipaṭṭhānas with the four noble truths. One new factor is the presence of the four absorptions in the Ekottarika-āgama. He contrasts the difference between absorbed meditation based on a unification of mind around a single object and satipaṭṭhāna contemplations which take place within the realm of variety. According to the tradition only the latter lead to liberating wisdom and he concludes that the presence of the four absorptions is a textual error.

The chapter on the hindrances covers familiar ground in terms of the need to be aware of their presence and how they may be removed by using appropriate antidotes. The awakening factors receive a thorough and comprehensive treatment. One area that I found particularly interesting was that in the Ekottarika-āgama the cultivation of each of the awakening factors should be ‘supported by insight, supported by dispassion and supported by cessation.’ Although this instruction does not appear in the other two versions Anālayo draws on corresponding descriptions in the Pali discourses and Chinese Āgamas to support the principle. In the Samyutta-āgama it is stated that the cultivation of the awakening factors needs to be ‘supported by seclusion, supported by dispassion, and supported by cessation, leading to letting go.’ Although I have appreciated the value of solitary retreat I had previously been unaware that seclusion itself was part of a conditional sequence leading to the full development of the awakening factors. He then goes on to examine each of the awakening factors and how they arise out of satipaṭṭhāna meditation. In this respect in the following chapter he makes a detailed examination of the Ānāpānasati-sutta where there is clearly set out the progressive conditionally-arisen sequence by which each of the awakening factors arise supported by the previously-mentioned factor.

At 319 pages, Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna is uncannily exactly the same length as the earlier book. Not unreasonably some may question whether this new book is really necessary since the earlier book was comprehensive. However the new book provides plenty of new material to consider, but perhaps more importantly does what its title suggests: it offers new, fresh perspectives on those areas with which we may already be familiar. It provides the opportunity to sift, consider and reflect upon satipaṭṭhāna in more and more depth. Indeed one could say it is an indispensable aid to cultivating the three levels of wisdom in relation to satipaṭṭhāna. It is reasonably priced and the question any serious dharma practitioner should be asking themselves is not whether they can afford to purchase a copy but can they afford not to.

Ālokadhāra lives in Norwich and has an MA in Buddhist Studies from the University of Sunderland.
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akasapriya's picture
Maybe a link to the book wouldn’t be out of place: http://windhorsepublications.com/perspectives_on_satipatthana
Centre Team's picture
Added a link - thanks, Akaspariya!