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The 37 Aids to Awakening - Part 3

The Four Applications of Mindfulness (Satipatthana)

As the title explains, these four aids to Awakening tell us where to apply our mindfulness. And this mostly refers to where to be mindful during our formal meditation practice.

Prior to this we focused on the first two of the Four Right Efforts to purify our minds enough to be settled for meditation. Of course, this purification is temporary at first. Then meditating continues the process of purifying our minds, allowing us to experience stillness - samadhi. The ultimate stillness is the jhana states.

Both samatha (calm abiding....i.e. when our minds are settled on our meditation object and no longer jumping around) and vipassana ( gradual insight.....a result of our Investigation) are needed to enter the jhanas. Satipatthana develops both of these.

And the condition for both samatha and vipassana to arise is the same: letting go of the hindrances.

It is from this stillness that we are able to really see reality and Awaken, also known as Enlightenment.

That is the big picture. Now, back to the applications of mindfulness. Before listing the applications, the Buddha mentions three qualities to hold while being mindful:

1. being keen (ardent),

2. clearly comprehending

3. mindfulness

Being keen refers to starting with some enthusiasm and effort. Later, less effort is needed as energy arises. Energy arises by itself because we have put in the necessary conditions for it.

Clearly comprehending means we know what we are doing and we know this is what we're suposed to be doing and that what we are doing is suitable to our purpose. The Pali term for this is sampajāno.

Mindfulness (sati) means awareness plus memory i.e. remembering what we have chosen to focus on and remembering what is skillful and remembering the meditation instructions. So when our mind wanders, we remember what to bring it back to


These three qualities are followed by the instruction, "having put aside wanting and dislike for the world". These are the hindrances of wanting and dislike or ill will. The gross aspects of these were dealt with by the efforts before we sat down to meditate.

In addition to these three qualities, the Buddha goes on to mention several prerequisites to support our mindfulness:

  1. Right View. This means seeing reality. Right View is summed up as the Four Noble Truths: seeing that there is suffering in the world, seeing that it is wanting (to have or to not have/be) that leads to this suffering, knowing that this suffering can cease and knowing the Path to the end of suffering i.e. the Noble Eightfold Path.

  2. A major aspect of reality is impermanence. Everything that is near and dear to us is impermanent. The sensory world is unable to give us lasting satisfaction. When we fully understand this we can enter deep samadhi readily.

  3. Morality

  4. Generosity

  5. Seclusion. We need to take time out of our busy lives to meditate. Not only is the act of meditating a pleasant experience, it also settles our mind so we can see clearly. This allows us to make more skilful choices in life.

So, if our meditation practice stalls, we reflect on whether the above factors are in place or not.

  1. the body

  2. feeling tone

  3. mind states

  4. teachings of the Buddha

The first application of mindfulness is of the body. Our current translation of the Satipatthana Sutta mentions many different body meditations. However, Buddhist scholars have determined that the most authentic body meditation objects are:

- the four elements: earth, water, fire and air. Sometimes space and consciousness are added as elements.

There is less support for the cemetary contemplations and very little support for the other categories. So these were added by translators over the centuries.

Breath meditation, as taught by the Buddha in the Anapanasati Sutta has four tetrads, corresponding to the four applications of mindfulness.

The second application of mindfulness is vedana. Vedana is the immediate reaction we have to any sensory experience as either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. If we can be mindful of vedana arising, we can prevent the more elaborate emotions, like wanting and ill will, from arising. Once we have let go of the hindrances, it will be pleasant vedana that arises with the breath. This intensifies into joy, then settles into a deep happiness.

The third application of mindfulness is to the mind. We contemplate what states of mind arise. These include our emotions, both positive and negative.

The fourth application of mindfulness is to the teachings of the Buddha. The focus in the Satipatthana is on the hindrances and the factors of Awakening. As we let go of the hindrances, our mind starts to gladden, then evolves into stillness as we experience complete (but temporary, until Awakening) liberation from the hindrances.

This is when we are ready to slip into the jhanas. This may be preceded by a perception of light. If so, once it becomes strong and steady, we can switch our attention from the breath to the light. If we switch too soon it will disappear. If the light is dull it means hindrances are present. The Buddha describes his perception of lights in MN 128. Not everyone experiences light before entering the jhanas.

Until one is practiced in entering the jhanas, it usually takes 2-3 hours of meditation to enter the jhanas. Often pain arises and prevents sitting for this length of time. So walking meditation is interspersed with sitting to ease the body. But it's important to not disturb the mind during these walking breaks. We stay in seclusion, keep stimulation low and stay mindful of the movement of walking. Then we are not starting from scratch when we sit again. Once we enter the jhanas, there is no awareness of the body, so pain is not an issue.

The fourth application of mindfulness has many parts that translators added over the years. But the authenic parts are being mindful of what the condtions are for the hindrances and the seven factors of Awakening to arise and what the conditions are to let go of the hindrances and the condtions to further develop the factors of Awakening.

Suttas on satipatthana: MN 10, SN 47. (There are many more)

Photo by Grey Man Images

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