Foundations of Mindfulness

Flower BouquetThe Way of Mindfulness: The Satipatthana Sutta

The Satipatthana Sutta, the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, is generally regarded as the canonical Buddhist text with the fullest instructions on the system of meditation unique to the Buddha’s own dispensation.

The practice of Satipatthana meditation centers on the methodical cultivation of one simple mental faculty readily available to all of us at any moment. This is the faculty of mindfulness, the capacity for attending to the content of our experience as it becomes manifest in the immediate present. What the Buddha shows in the sutta is the tremendous, but generally hidden, power inherent in this simple mental function, a power that can unfold all the mind’s potentials culminating in final deliverance from suffering.

To exercise this power, however, mindfulness must be systematically cultivated, and the sutta shows exactly how this is to be done. The key to the practice is to combine energy, mindfulness, and clear comprehension in attending to the phenomena of mind and body summed up in the “four arousings of mindfulness”:

  • body
  • feelings
  • consciousness
  • mental objects

Note: The Satipatthāna-sutta (‘The Setting-up of Mindfulness’) [No. 22 of the Digha-nikaya, or No. 10 of the Majjhima-nikaya] is the most important discourse ever given by the Buddha on mental development (‘meditation’). The mindfulness described in this discourse is not cut off from life, nor does it avoid life. It is connected with our life, our daily activities, our sorrows and joys, our words and thoughts, our moral and intellectual occupations. There are four main sections: (1) our body (kaya); (2) our feelings and sensations (vedana); (3) the mind (citta); and (4) various moral and intellectual subjects (dhamma). In all of these, the essential thing is mindfulness or awareness (sati), attention or observation (anupassana). [Based on Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. With a foreword by Paul Demiéville. Revised edition. New York: Grove Press, 1974. Pages 68-69.]

Most contemporary meditation teachers explain Satipatthana meditation as a means for generating insight (vipassana). While this is certainly a valid claim, we should also recognize that satipatthana meditation also generates concentration (samadhi). Unlike the forms of meditation which cultivate concentration and insight sequentially, Satipatthana brings both these faculties into being together. Though naturally, in the actual process of development, concentration will have to gain a certain degree of stability before insight can exercise its penetrating function.

In Satipatthana, the act of attending to each occasion of experience as it occurs in the moment fixes the mind firmly on the object. The continuous attention to the object, even when the object itself is constantly changing, stabilizes the mind in concentration, while the observation of the object in terms of its qualities and characteristics brings into being the insight knowledge.

To practice Satipatthana successfully a student will generally require a sound theoretical knowledge of the practice along with actual training, preferably under the guidance of a qualified teacher. The best source of theoretical knowledge, indeed the indispensable source, is the Satipatthana Sutta itself.

However, though the sutta is clear and comprehensible enough as it stands, the instructions it offers are extremely concise, often squeezing into a few simple guidelines directions that might need several pages to explain in a way adequate for successful practice.

For this reason, from an early period, the ancient masters of Buddhist meditation began to supply more detailed instructions based on their own practical experience. These instructions eventually evolved into a lengthy commentary on the Satipatthana Sutta, which was then incorporated into the complete commentaries on the two collections in which the sutta appears, namely, the Digha Nikaya and the Majjhima Nikaya.

The two commentaries that have come down to us today, based on the older Sinhala commentaries, are called the Sumangala-vilasini (on the Digha Nikaya) and the Papañca-sudani (on the Majjhima Nikaya). These commentaries are ascribed to Acariya Buddhaghosa, an Indian thera who worked in Sri Lanka in the 5th century A.C., but are securely based on the old commentaries which record the explanations devised by the ancient masters of the Dhamma.

The commentary has in turn been further elucidated by a sub-commentary, or tika, by Acariya Dhammapala, who worked in South India, near Kancipura, perhaps a century or two after the time of Buddhaghosa.

The book, The Way of Mindfulness, contains all the authorized instructions on Satipatthana meditation passed down in the Theravada tradition: the Satipatthana Sutta stemming from the Buddha himself (in the more concise version of the Majjhima Nikaya, which omits the detailed analysis of the Four Noble Truths found in the Digha Nikaya’s Maha-satipatthana Sutta); the commentary by Buddhaghosa; and selections from the tika by Dhammapala.

While the volume of material found here (see reference to the complete article, “The Way of Mindfulness: The Satipatthana Sutta and Its Commentary”, by Soma Thera at the end of the page) will certainly exceed the amount a beginner needs to start the practice, the book will prove itself useful at successive stages and will eventually become a trusted friend and advisor in all its manifold details. Thus the reader should not be intimidated by the detail and the sometimes formidable technical terminology, but should continue reading, selecting whatever material is found useful and leaving until later whatever presently seems difficult to grasp.

The book was originally compiled in the late 1930s by Ven. Soma Thera (1898-1960), a bhikkhu of Sri Lanka, and has been maintained in print since the early 1940s. The Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy has published the work since 1967 in several editions. This latest version contains several minor changes in terminology authorized by the present writer. Christine Chan and her friends in the Buddhist Communities in Malaysia, as well as Rev. Suddhinand Janthagul from Thailand, who helped in the proof-reading of the Pali texts, deserve our congratulations and appreciation for their hard work in transcribing the book and for making it available for free distribution.

I am sure this book will prove an invaluable road map for anyone who has entered the steep and rugged road of Satipatthana meditation, leading to final deliverance from suffering.

A Message by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Kandy, Sri Lanka)
©1998 Buddhist Publication Society.

You may copy, reformat, reprint, republish, and redistribute this work in any medium whatsoever, provided that: (1) you only make such copies, etc. available free of charge and, in the case of reprinting, only in quantities of no more than 50 copies; (2) you clearly indicate that any derivatives of this work (including translations) are derived from this source document; and (3) you include the full text of this license in any copies or derivatives of this work. Otherwise, all rights reserved. Documents linked from this page may be subject to other restrictions. Transcribed from the print edition (sixth revised edition) in 1998 by Christine Chan, with the kind permission of the Buddhist Publication Society. Last revised for Access to Insight on 30 November 2013.

Source: “The Way of Mindfulness: The Satipatthana Sutta and Its Commentary”, by Soma Thera. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wayof.html .