If you are someone who loves scholarly analysis of the Pali suttas, have I got the book for you. Ven. Analayo’s Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization is a lucid and authoritative textual examination of this core discourse. The book is an academic doctoral dissertation, but because it is so clearly written, many serious meditators will find it highly informative, a pleasure to read, and inspiring.
Surely in Theravada Buddhism, if not in all Buddhist traditions, the Satipatthana Sutta, the discourse on mindfulness, is a foundation of doctrine. In this early, concise discourse, the Buddha lays out what many believe is the essence of the path to freedom—mindfulness meditation.
The Satipatthana Sutta divides the realm of meditative experience into four sections, or satipatthanas: mindfulness of the body, of feelings, of mental experience, and of the dhammas. And because within these four sections the sutta covers all of the core doctrine of early Buddhism, we have in this book clear, full, nondoctrinaire explanations of central ideas such as mindfulness of breathing, of the senses, and of the mind; the hindrances; the aggregates; the seven factors of awakening; dependent origination; impermanence; the Four Noble Truths and nibbana.
Before exploring the four sections of the sutta, the author first places the Buddha’s teaching within the context of preexisting approaches to knowledge prevalent in ancient India. Then he delves into the underlying meanings of fundamental concepts central to the sutta. Drawing on the Pali discourses and commentaries, he presents the imagery, similes and variety of usage of terms such as sati (mindfulness), samadhi (concentration), sampajana (clearly knowing) and atapi (diligence, effort).
To give you a taste of the author’s style, consider his treatment of an issue that’s always puzzled me—the seeming contradiction between mindfulness of phenomena and mindfulness of concepts. In my meditation training, the instructions always emphasized that meditation is a nondiscursive attention to the simplest elements of experience—seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching and thinking—simply noticing that each is occurring. Teachers asserted, “For the purpose of meditation, nothing is worth thinking about.”
But as I read the Satipatthana Sutta, I encountered instructions in the fourth section (dhammas) to be mindful of ideas such as the hindrances, the seven factors of awakening, and the Four Noble Truths. So how can one meditate on such high-level abstractions without thinking about or reflecting on them? Analayo offers this thoughtful perspective:
The Pali term dhamma can assume a variety of meanings, depending on the context in which it occurs. Most translators take the term dhammas in the Satipatthana Sutta to mean “mental objects,” in the sense of whatever can become an object of the mind. . . . In regard to satipatthana, however, this rendering appears strange. . . . In fact, the dhammas listed in the fourth satipatthana, such as the hindrances and the aggregates, etc., do not naturally evoke the classification “mental objects.”
What this satipatthana is actually concerned with are specific mental qualities (such as the five hindrances and the seven awakening factors), and analyses of experience into specific categories (such as the five aggregates, the six sense-spheres, and the four noble truths). These mental factors and categories constitute central aspects of the Buddha’s way of teaching, the Dhamma. These classificatory schemes are not in themselves the objects of meditation, but constitute frameworks or points of reference to be applied during contemplation. During actual practice one is to look at whatever is experienced in terms of these dhammas. Thus the dhammas mentioned in this satipatthana are not “mental objects,” but are applied to whatever becomes an object of the mind or of any other sense door during contemplation. . . .
Contemplation of dhammas skillfully applies dhammas (classificatory categories) as taught in the Dhamma (the teaching of the Buddha) during contemplation in order to bring about an understanding of the dhamma (principle) of conditionality and lead to the realization of the highest of all dhammas (phenomena): Nibbana.
This broadening of the meaning of mindfulness—to include reflection—is in fact an example of one of Analayo’s main points: that the instructions in the four sections of the sutta comprise a comprehensive training. Comprehensive not only because it covers all the fundamental areas of practice and doctrine, but also because it instructs us to use our intellects to reflect upon meditative experience as well as to be phenomenologically mindful of it.
Never compromising his academic purpose, Analayo combines a rigorous scholarly approach to his subject with the love of a practitioner, his hope being to inspire readers to engage in actual practice. This book is invaluable for those who want a profound understanding of meditation as developed in the Satipatthana Sutta. It will be widely read.