The Radical Inquiry of Buddhist Mindfulness

One of the most prolific and brilliant Buddhist scholars of our generation is the German Theravāda monastic, Ven. Anālayo. His vast research on the texts and doctrines of Early Buddhism has transformed both the academic study of Early Buddhism and the practice of meditation and mindfulness in lineages connected to it, especially Insight Meditation.

His dissertation on Satipaṭṭhāna is the most solid (if dry) commentary on traditional Early Buddhist mindfulness and inquiry around, and his follow-up book comparing the Pāli discourses on Satipaṭṭhāna with their Chinese parallels has assembled the clearest picture scholars have yet proposed around what the historical Buddha may have taught.

And in his latest book exploring the practice of Satipaṭṭhāna meditation, he offers an elegant and precise set of meditations that bend intractably toward the renunciation-based insight the early tradition so beautifully lays out. I’ve been practicing these meditations for some time now and love their directness, simplicity, and uncompromising clarity of vision.

This is a mindfulness practice with its gaze set firmly on insight and liberation. It deconstructs the body and mind in crisp and kind ways, indulging little of the postmodern western conceits to which popular mindfulness has become accustomed, as well as none of the Mahāyāna mysticism that has become embedded in western Theravāda—no Buddha Nature, no Being Here Now, no non-judgmental self-acceptance, no cuteness about how you’re already perfect but just need a bit of work. (You probably need more than a bit. Just saying. I sure do.) This a Buddhism that lays bare the animal body, the elemental body, the death-inevitable body, and the mind that mostly plays out restless, craving-fueled ego habits.

It unfolds as a series of 7 contemplations that take the meditator through all 4 Foundations of Mindfulness, or satipaṭṭhānas:

  1. Anatomy
  2. Elements
  3. Death
  4. Feeling
  5. Mind
  6. Hindrances
  7. Awakening

Ven. Anālayo lays out the practice in this book, and offers guided meditations on the series of practices on the publisher’s website here. He also has a good guided meditation on YouTube here, and one on the Death Contemplations (maraṇasati) here.

We’ll look at each of the practices in turn, week by week through March & April.


Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation 1: Anatomy

Meditation: Body scans as inquiry into the parts of the body, using skin, flesh, and bones as an abbreviated form of the classical list of the 32 Parts. (3.5.19)

Talk: Body mindfulness, ideas, and inquiry. How to think about body parts practice as non-monastics. Also some background to the whole series. (3.5.19)


Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation 2: Elements

Chant: I mostly don’t record the opening chanting we do, but I did this evening. (3.12.19)

Meditation: Continuing with the simple body scan structure, this time sweeping once each for the sensations and core qualities associated withe the Four Great Elements:

  1. Earth: solidity, hardness-softness, pressure. Sensing earth based on the hardness of the skeleton. The body pervaded by earth.
  2. Water: liquidity, cohesion. Sensing earth based on the liquidity of flesh, and the liquids of the body. The body pervaded by water.
  3. Fire: heat-coolness, temperature. Sensing fire based on temperature at the skin. The body pervaded by fire.
  4. Wind: movement. Sensing wind based on the movement of the body with breathing. The body pervaded by wind.

Talk: Mindfulness of the elements. How understanding ourselves as expressions of these universal qualities found in nature opens toward identification with nature, as nature. The insight into selflessness and emptiness. (3.12.19)


Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation 3: Death

Meditation: this one we often do lying down. Sweeping attention through the body to sense its nature as a body, as the elements, then seeing the image of the skeleton, flesh dried up and blown away. This is a simplified version of the sequence of visualizations given in the classical sequence (and you can find a full version of Anālayo guiding the Death Contemplations (maraṇasati) here). Then resting with full-body awareness, and the breath, aware that each in-breath could be one’s last, and each out-breath a letting go. (3.19.19)

Talk: discussion on the implications and experience of the death contemplation. (3.19.19)


Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation 4: Affect

Coming soon… (Tue 3.26.19)

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