In Asoka’s Footsteps

by Nina Van Gorkom | 1999 | 27,079 words

Ashoka (or Aśoka, asoka) was an Indian emporeor reigning the Maurya dynasty from 268 to 232 BCE. In Asoka’s Footsteps; Dhamma in India; October 1999; by Nina Van Gorkom...

Chapter 3 - Satipatthana

The Buddha taught satipatthana, the development of right understanding of paramattha dhammas. When there is mindfulness, sati, of a reality right understanding of that reality can be developed. Sati is a sobhana cetasika which accompanies each sobhana citta, it is non-forgetful of what is wholesome. There are different levels of sati: there is sati when we  perform deeds of generosity, dana; there is sati of the level of sila, which is non-forgetful to abstain from akusala; there is sati with mental development, which includes the development of samatha, calm, the study of the Dhamma and the development of insight. When samatha is developed, sati is mindful of the meditation subject, and when insight, vipassana, is developed, sati is mindful of the nama or rupa appearing through one of the six doors. The term satipatthana (The Pali term patthana means foundation. Satipatthana is the foundation of mindfulness.) has three meanings. It can mean the object of which sati is mindful, classified as the four Applications of mindfulness, including all conditioned namas and rupas (Mindfulness of the body, including all rupas, mindfulness of feeling, mindfulness of citta and mindfulness of dhammas, including all dhammas which are not classified under body, feeling or citta. Thus, all objects of mindfulness are included in these four Applications of Mindfulness.). It can mean sati cetasika which is mindful of realities. It can also mean the Path the Buddha and his disciples followed towards the realization of the four noble Truths

When we hear the word “mindfulness” we should remember that its meaning in the Buddhist sense is different from what we used to understand by mindfulness or awareness. When we say in conventional language that we are mindful, we mean that we know what we are doing, and such a way of thinking may be accompanied by lobha, attachment. Sati cannot accompany akusala citta. Sati of satipatthana is wholesome, and it is mindful of one nama or rupa at a time. When there is mindfulness of the characteristic of a reality which appears direct understanding of that reality can gradually develop, until the truth of non-self can be realized. 

We may have theoretical understanding of cittas which experience objects through the six doorways, but when there are conditions for the arising of sati it can be directly aware of the characteristic of the nama or rupa which appears. Theoretical understanding of realities is the foundation for the development of satipatthana, but if there is no sati one’s knowledge is only superficial; there is no development of panna which directly penetrates the true nature of realities so that the clinging to the “self” can be eradicated.

During this journey Khun Sujin stressed time and again the immense difference between theoretical understanding and direct understanding. We may have learnt that citta and cetasika are different. Citta is the leader in knowing an object and cetasikas have each their own characteristic and function. Citta and cetasikas arise together, but they have different characteristics. We may believe that we notice akusala citta with anger, but that is only thinking, and there is still an idea of “my anger”. Theoretical knowledge is not the direct understanding of realities. When panna has been developed in vipassana there can be direct understanding of the nature of citta and cetasika, of kusala and akusala, without an idea of self. It takes an endlessly long time, many lives, to develop satipatthana, but even if there is a short moment of right understanding of nama and rupa we are on the right way.

Khun Sujin said that when we begin to develop understanding we should not think too much of the words satipatthana or stages of insight, because then we are likely to cling to something for which there are no conditions yet. The objects of sati are ordinary realities of daily life like hearing, sound, hardness or feeling. We believe that we see this or that person, we are forgetful of the characteristic of visible object. What appears through the eyes is a reality, a rupa, but it falls away very quickly. We recognize people, they seem to be there all the time, they do not seem to fall away. At such a moment we are thinking of concepts, and the concepts hide the paramattha dhammas. It seems that we hear the sound of hammering or the sound of birds because time and again thinking of conventional terms arises. In between thinking sati can arise and realize the characteristic of sound: that which can be heard, which has a degree of loudness. At that short moment there is no notion of people or things in the sound, sati can be directly aware of its characteristic. When sound appears there must also be the nama which experiences it; if there were no citta how could sound appear? There could not be thinking of birds if there were no hearing of sound. We can learn the difference between the moment of sati and the moment of forgetfulness. We need to listen time and again so that we can understand the difference between these moments. Only in that way can we come to know the characteristic of sati and when we know this sati can be accumulated.

I said to Khun Sujin that I become nervous when I hear that we should know the difference between the moment of sati and the moment without sati. When we become nervous it shows that there is clinging to sati and then it cannot be developed. It is of no use to worry about lack of sati or to wonder what we can do so that sati can arise. Someone thought that considering the characteristics of impermanence, dukkha and anatta would be a favorable condition for the arising of sati. That may be only thinking with the desire for sati and this will not be helpful. Right understanding of the realities appearing through the doors of the senses and the mind-door should be developed until panna can realize the three characteristics of impermanence, dukkha and anatta. Merely thinking about birth, old age and death is not the realisation of the truth. The conditioned dhammas which arise fall away immediately but we should not have desire for the direct experience of the arising and falling away of nama and rupa. This is only realized at the fourth stage of insight, which is the first stage of maha-vipassana (principal insight) (The first stage is knowledge of the difference between nama and rupa; the second stage is knowledge of the conditions for nama and rupa; at the third stage panna realizes the succession of nama and rupa as they arise and fall away very rapidly. At the fourth stage panna realizes more clearly the arising and falling away of nama and rupa, one at a time.). We are forgetful of the nature of anatta of sati and of the stages of insight. When sati does not arise we cannot do anything to cause its arising. Jack said: “Don’t worry about sati, just develop understanding.” We should listen and consider the Dhamma and understand each time a little more what rupa is and what nama is.

Khun Sujin explained the difference between the moment there is sati and the moment without sati several times. We may touch different things which are hard, but the characteristic of hardness does not appear when there is no sati. The thinking of conventional truth comes in all the time when we touch a book, a glass or a table. When there are conditions for mindfulness, sati can be aware of the characteristic of hardness, but this moment is extremely short. When it has fallen away there may be thinking again. Because of sanna, remembrance, we think immediately of the thing we touch and do not consider the characteristic of hardness. Hardness is a characterstic of a rupa which can be directly experienced through the bodysense. We do not have to think about it in order to experience it.

What appears through the bodysense is real but it falls away immediately. When sati arises, it may be aware of hardness, but only very shortly; at that moment understanding of that reality can develop so that it can be seen as just a kind of rupa, and there is no notion of a glass or table which is hard. In this way we can learn that being aware of hardness is different from touching hardness without awareness. When sati arises the reality it is aware of is not different from what appears at this moment, but instead of forgetfulness there is sati which is non-forgetful of realities. We can begin to know that such a moment is a moment of sati. When we understand the characteristic of sati it can be accumulated. But when we cling to sati, when we try to have sati or make an effort to separate realities from concepts we are on the wrong way. When sati arises we cannot help having sati, it is anatta. A moment of sati falls away immediately and after that there may be doubt about realities or ignorance. We cannot help having doubt and ignorance, they are anatta.

Hearing Khun Sujin’s explanation about sati only once is not sufficient; we should not expect to grasp the meaning of her words immediately. We have to listen again and again and then gradually we can learn the difference between the moment of sati and the moment there is no sati. When sati is aware of a reality, there will be more understanding from moment to moment, we are on the right way.

Rupas such as sound and hardness appear time and again in daily life, their characteristics can be directly experienced. Nama is more difficult to understand, it is more subtle. We know in theory that when sound appears there must also be hearing which experiences sound, but it is difficult to know the true nature of hearing, to know it as an element which experiences, a kind of nama, different from rupa. We do not have to call it nama, it has the function of experiencing an object. We are so used to taking it for “I”, it is difficult to eradicate the idea of self from seeing or hearing. When we learn to be aware of the reality appearing at this moment there can be some understanding, even if it is very little. It is useful to know that only at the first stage of insight knowledge, vipassana nana, the difference between the characteristics of nama and of rupa are clearly distinguished. Before that stage has been reached we cannot expect to understand nama as nama, completely different from rupa. For example, at this moment there is seeing which sees visible object, but it is difficult to clearly distinguish the difference between seeing and visible object. When sati arises there can be a beginning of right understanding of nama and rupa.

Some people may wonder what the result is of listening to the Dhamma. I have been listening for more than thirty years and someone asked of what use this was to me. What has it brought me? I find that each moment of listening is most beneficial, since it brings a little more understanding. The Buddha has taught the Dhamma which was unknown to us before. The Dhamma is deep and difficult to understand. We should listen again and again and understand a little more. Thirty years is nothing compared to the aeons it took to bring me to the present day when I can hear the Dhamma again. It took the Bodhisatta an infinitely long time to accumulate understanding to the degree that he could become a Buddha. Each moment of accumulating understanding is beneficial, we do not have to think of the future. The reason that people become bored of hearing the same words about realities is that they hope for something, for the stages of vipassana nana and for enlightenment. In the scriptures the person who has attained enlightenment, the ariyan, is called “someone who has heard much”, in Pali: bahussutta. He has not only listened much but he also has considered and investigated realities and he has developed satipatthana. Thus, we should value each moment of listening, whatever we learn is very precious. I appreciate it immensely that Khun Sujin always brings the listener back to the present moment, when she for example says: “We have intellectual understanding of nama and rupa, but what about this moment? There is the rupa which is seen at this moment. There can be some understanding, even if it is very little. It is only visible object.”

We read that nama and rupa are elements, dhatus, and that they can be classified as eighteen elements: the five rupas which are the sense-organs, the five sense-objects experienced through these sense-organs, the five sense-cognitions, mind-element (mano-dhatu) (including adverting-consciousness and receiving-consciousness, arising wthin a sense-door process of cittas.), dhamma-dhatu (cetasika, subtle rupas and nibbana), mind-consciousness element (mano-vinnana dhatu, including all cittas except the sense-cognitions and mind-element). When we read this it is not too difficult to have theoretical understanding. But the Buddha taught the elements to help people to understand that they arise now, that they are anatta, that they have no owner and are beyond control. The whole of his teaching points to the development of satipatthana, because what he teaches can be realized by panna. We read in the “Dialogues of the Buddha” (III, no. 33, The Recital, Sangiti Sutta, Double Doctrines, 10) one sentence, full of meaning:

Proficiency in elements and in understanding them”. The Commentary to this sutta, the “Sumangala Vilasini”, explains: “Proficiency in elements”. Eighteen elements, the element of eye, etc. ...the element of mind-consciousness. When it is said that there is with regard to these elements proficiency in the elements, understanding of them, it means that there is defining of the characteristics of these eighteen elements, panna based on listening, on bearing in mind, panna which comprehends and realizes (pativedha).

The Pali term “pativeda” means the realization of the truth by panna. There is a beginning of the realization of the truth when the stages of insight arise, but it is completed when enlightenment is attained: when the path-consciousness (magga-citta) arises which eradicates defilements and experiences nibbana, and the fruition-consciousness (phala-citta) arises which is the result of the magga-citta. Pativeda is the result of the study of the Dhamma (pariyatti) and the practice of vipassana (patipatti). The practice has to be in conformity with the study of the Dhamma. Through the practice we begin to verify what we learnt. Pativeda is the realisation of the truth of what we learnt. 

When we were in the Jeta Grove Khun Sujin stressed the difference between theoretical knowledge and the understanding acquired through satipatthana. She explained this with reference to the knowledge of kamma and vipaka. In the scriptures we read about kamma and vipaka, for example in the “Gradual Sayings” (Book of the Tens, Ch V, § 8, Conditions). In this sutta we read that the monk should contemplate again and again ten conditions. One of these is the knowledge that kamma is one’s own, kammassakata (Saka means one’s own. Kammassakata means: kamma which is one’s own.) nana. We read: I myself am responsible for my deed, I am the heir to my deed, the womb of my deed, the kinsman of my deed, I am he to whom my deed comes home. Whatever deed I shall do, be it good or bad, of that shall I be the heir...

We may think about kamma and vipaka, but we cannot really grasp the deep meaning of the Buddha’s teaching if we do not have right understanding of nama and rupa, acquired through satipatthana. We may still have doubt about the truth of kamma and vipaka. When the first stage of insight arises panna realizes the true nature of nama and rupa without thinking or naming realities. When seeing is the object of vipassana nana, it is realized as the element which experiences, no self who experiences. It is conditioned, it is vipaka conditioned by kamma. Seeing is also conditioned by eyesense which is a rupa produced by kamma (Rupas can be conditioned by four factors: by kamma, citta, temperature and nutrition. Rupas such as the sense-organs are conditioned by kamma.), and by visible object. When there are no conditions dhammas cannot arise. Seeing can be realized as it is by panna and then there is no need to think about it. Panna immediately knows its nature as different from kusala citta or akusala citta. At this moment we have to think about realities and we think with an idea of self. We cannot clearly distinguish different cittas such as vipakacitta and akusala citta. We cannot imagine how panna can directly understand the truth when we have not reached that stage yet. At the moments of vipassana nana there is no self and no world full of people and things. Panna realizes that seeing arises when there are conditions, that nobody can cause the arising of seeing. It realizes that there is no self who receives the result of kamma. Panna can realize that whatever appears is only an element, no self. Khun Sujin explained that at each stage of vipassana nana there is kammassakata nana, understanding of kamma and vipaka. At the second stage of vipassana nana there is the direct understanding of the conditions for nama and rupa, but even at the first stage there is kammassakata nana when panna realizes nama as nama and rupa as rupa, as non-self. At each subsequent stage of insight the understanding of the true nature of nama and rupa grows deeper.

At this moment of seeing there can be the development of understanding of the element which experiences. There are the right conditions for the arising of seeing which experiences what appears through the eyes. It is real, it is dhamma. After that we may think about the colour which appears and we live again in the world of people and things. When panna has been developed in vipassana it will understand that there is no world, no thing, no doer of deeds and nobody who receives the results of deeds. We read in the “Sumangala Vilasini”, in the Commentary to the Sangiti Sutta where it deals with higher sila, adhisila, higher citta, adhicitta (citta stands for concentration) and higher panna, adipanna (These will be explained in Ch 6.), that the panna which is kammassakata nana is “vipassana adhipanna”, higher panna of vipassana.

This shows us again that the deep understanding of kamma and vipaka is developed through satipatthana. Knowledge of kamma and vipaka relates directly to daily life, it is no theory. In the “Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint” (of the “Middle Length Sayings” I, no. 28) Sariputta explains the four noble Truths, the five khandhas and the four great Elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Wind. Earth stands for solidity, Water for cohesion, Fire for temperature and Wind for motion. Solidity can be experienced through the bodysense as hardness or softness, temperature as heat or cold, motion as motion or pressure. Cohesion cannot be experienced through the bodysense, it can only be known through the mind-door. Time and again rupas impinge on the bodysense but we are forgetful and we do not realize them as elements which are impermanent and not self. Sariputta explains that if a monk is vexed he should have right understanding of realities. We read that Sariputta said to the monks:

“Your reverences, if others abuse, revile, annoy, vex this monk, he comprehends: ‘This painful feeling that has arisen in me is born of ear-contact, it has a cause, not no cause. What is the cause? Ear-contact is the cause.’ He sees that ear-contact is impermanent, he sees that feeling... perception... the habitual tendencies are impermanent, he sees that consciousness is impermanent. His mind rejoices, is pleased, composed and is set on the objects of the element....”

The monk who is even-minded when he is annoyed has developed satipatthana to the degree that he realizes “kammassakata nana”. He does not think about other people who annoy him and about the unpleasant object he hears, he realizes directly vipaka which is conditioned by kamma. At that moment there is no world, no other people, no self. We then read that Sariputta said:

“If, your reverences, others comport themselves in undesirable,
disagreeable, unpleasant ways towards that monk, and he receives blows from their hands and from clods of earth and from sticks and weapons, he comprehends thus: ‘ This body is such that blows from hands affect it and blows from clods of earth affect it and blows from sticks affect it and blows from weapons affect it. But this was said by the Lord in the Parable of the Saw: “If, monks, low-down thieves should carve you limb from limb with a two-handled saw, whoever sets his heart at enmity, he, for this reason, is not a doer of my teaching.” Unsluggish energy shall come to be stirred up by me, unmuddled mindfulness set up, the body tranquillised, impassible, the mind composed and one-pointed. Now, willingly, let blows from hands affect this body, let blows from clods of earth... from sticks... from weapons affect it, for this teaching of the Awakened Ones is being done.’... 

The monk who follows the Buddha’s teaching realizes without having to think about it that pain is vipaka conditioned by kamma. He can accept any kind of vipaka with evenmindedness. So long as we confuse nama and rupa we are full of the idea of self, of “my mind” and “my body”. When we begin to be mindful of one reality at a time we are on the way to right understanding of nama and rupa. At the first stage of vipassana nana nama and rupa are clearly distinguished from each other and only then their nature of non-self can be realized. But after this first stage panna has to be developed further so that the subsequent stages can arise and the characteristics of impermanence, dukkha and anatta will be penetrated more clearly. As insight develops there will be more detachment from nama and rupa and eventually enlightenment can be attained.