Contemplation of the Body

I’ve noticed that in many of the mindfulness retreats I’ve attended over the years that the primary instruction of all the teachers has been to use the breath as an anchor to increase concentration. Very rarely are instructions in the other satipatthanas given. This may either be due to lack of time, the feeling of many teachers that breath concentration is enough to generate mindfulness or both. It is certainly true that breath mindfulness, by transference, trains us to be mindful in other areas of life.

Breath awareness is, however, only the first object for contemplation in the Buddha’s system of four approaches to realization of nibbana. The four approaches or contemplations are commonly known as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. As Ven. Analayo points out in Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization, foundations may not be a good translation for what these approaches actually are. That is, the four approaches do not underpin mindfulness but rather represent objects which, if properly understood, will lead the practitioner to enlightenment–guaranteed.* Analayo says and my practice experience verifies that instead of these contemplations happening in a linear fashion, any one of these (body, feelings, mind and dhammas*) may be an object both on the cushion and in daily life and it is possible that all four may be present in a single sit. In other words, though they are represented as a linear progression, actual experience is likely to be more complex.

Buddhist stupas or pagodas often have four gates or doors on opposing sides of the structure. It is thought that these symbolically represent the four approaches to realization and that one can enter [awaken] through any one of them.

Door number one is contemplation of the body, beginning with breathing. But we are also to contemplate postures, activities, body parts, body composition and the decay of the body. This last is not mentioned much in Western practice but it is important if we are to fully understand impermanence, especially our own.

Four Gates Pagoda, China

Four Gates Pagoda, China

In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha mentions, as part of contemplation of the body, that we are to be aware of activities. This clearly seems to suggest that mindfulness must be cultivated in all areas of life, not just on the cushion. Meditation is called “practice” for a reason.

*”Monks, if anyone should develop these four satipatthanas in such a way for seven years, . . . seven months, . . . seven days, one of two fruits could be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or, if there is a trace of clinging left, non-returning.”  ~Buddha

*My understanding is that contemplation of phenomena is the same as contemplation of dhammas. The insight that comes from contemplation of phenomena is the emptiness of any inherent self or, as Ven. Analayo puts it, “I-dentification.”

Posted by Deb.