Mahasatipatthana Sutta (DN 22)

Talk presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Sunday, March 22, 2015.

The Manual of Cultivating the Great Attention

Digha Nikaya 22


 I. Theory

Tree of LifeThis week’s talk is widely regarded as one of the most important suttas in the Pali Canon, if not the most important. It appears again in nearly identical language in the Majjhima Nikaya as the Satipatthana Sutta. Since this sutta is so important, I’d like to start by taking the time to analyze the title, which happens to include the central concept of the sutta, satipatthana. PED defines satipatthana as — ‘intent contemplation and mindfulness, earnest thought, application of mindfulness.’

Mahasatipatthana breaks down into maha + sati + patthana:

MAHA: Great

* SATI: Memory, mindfulness; recollection; active state of mind, fixing the mind strongly on any subject, attention, attentiveness, thought, reflection, consciousness.

SATI is the most important word here.

paṭṭhāna (nt.) Setting forth; putting forward; a starting point.

PATTHANA: Aiming at; aspiration; desire.

The Sanskrit equivalent is smṛtyu + pasthāna:

* SMRTYU: Memory, awareness, remembering, remembrance, reminiscence, thinking of or upon memory, calling to mind, mindfulness

PASTHANA: Leading or guiding cattle, formed, modelled, wrought

My proposed title for the sutta therefore is the Manual of Cultivating the Great Attention, based on sutta, ‘discourse,’ plus patthana, ‘a setting forth or a putting forward,’ combined with ‘aiming at the starting point, or beginning,’ of what is clearly a system of practice, thus a manual for cultivating awareness that aims at or aspires to the starting point or goal by means of the practice of attention or attentiveness. The word “attention” can also be readily pluralized (i.e., the Four Attentions). To my mind, this title incorporates all of the meanings summarized above in the broadest yet most succinct and accurate way. This sutta has the appearance of an early comprehensive guide to meditation for practitioners, including theory and practice that works through a series of graduated insights that cultivates the dual practice of meditation and wisdom in order to achieve final emancipation.

The Buddha is staying in a market town of the Kurus called Kammasasdhamma. This is the same place as in Mahanidana Sutta, the Great Discourse on Origination (DN 15). Kuru was the name of an ancient Vedic tribal union in the n.w. region of the mahajanapadas. They became the first known South Asian state about 1000 BCE. There the Vedic hymns were arranged in collections, developing the orthodox rituals of Brahmanism. The legends and traditions of the Mahabharata are based on the Kurus.  Its culture and politics dominated the Middle Vedic period, but after about 850 BCE its influence waned, and by the Buddha’s time, it had become something of a backwater.  It’s significant that two major doctrines of the Buddhadharma, dependent origination and mindfulness, were taught here. Bhikkhu Nanamoli remarks that Kammasadhamma may have been near modern Delhi.

Unlike most other suttas, the Buddha is not represented as conversing with a visitor, but rather delivering a sermon directly to the monastics. The sutta simply records his sermon. No other sutta in the Digha NIkaya is like this, except for the 26th sutta, which presents the Buddha’s famous advice to the monastics to be islands and refuges unto themselves with no other refuge other than the dharma, affirming that the path to emancipation, like emancipation itself, is individual. Interestingly, the Buddha says in the 26th sutta that the way to do this is by cultivating the four foundations of mindfulness!

The Buddha declares the ekayano maggo that leads to the purification of beings from angst, the woe of existence, dukkha in Pali. This was of course the Buddha’s original purpose when he abandoned the life of the world at the age of 29. This phrase is a compound of eka + yano + maggo:

EKA: Same; certain; unknown (used for the indefinite article). One.

YANA (YANO): Carriage, vehicle, going.

MAGGO: Trace , track ; road , path , course , passage.

This fascinating phrase has been variously translated as ‘this one way,’ ‘the only way,’ ‘the one and only way,’ ‘one going,’ and ‘a path that goes one way only.’ (cf. “direct path,” “right path”). Star Trek fans may note with satisfaction that the Pali word naya, here translated as ‘the right path’ can also be translated as ‘logic.’  It has long been my contention that Mister Spock (who died recently) was a Buddhist and Vulcan, Tibet. This ‘singular way’ consists of “the four foundations of mindfulness,” so-called. The Pali word is satipatthana, which we discussed above. The word “foundation” is an interesting interpretation, but lacks the directed aspect of the Pali that surely characterizes the ‘certain going.’ – setting forth, putting forward, starting point. I have therefore preferred to refer to the Four Attentions, or consciousness vectors. These consist of directing attention to the body, the feelings, the mind, and mind objects.

Body, feelings, mind, and mind-objects seem to be associated purposely, in a kind of sequence that leads form the most “outward” level of experience, including our intuition of “embodiment”; to feelings, sentient mind itself, and finally the mental corollary and polarity of “body” – mind-objects, referring to such things as numbers, logic, the Jungian archetypes, UFOs, patterns of experience, meanings, etc., that are definitively “real” but intrinsically non-physical, although they may influence the physical through a kind of feedback loop. Jung called these four qualities the four functions and the totality that they embody the psyche. Thus, body is sensation; feelings are feelings of pleasure, pain, and moral and aesthetic judgments; mind is thinking; and mind-objects are intuitions, immediate mental apprehensions that, like sensation, are simply “given.”

There is also a somewhat forced correlation of the Four Attentions with the Five Aggregates of form, feeling, consciousness, perception, and mental formations, so-called.

The sutta is a meditation manual. One might even liken it to a ngondro. It lists and describes no less than 21 different specific meditations, organized according to the Four Attentions – body, feelings, mind, and mind-objects in what appears to represent an intentional progression towards a goal. The core message of the sutta, however, appears in a recurring “insight,” as Walshe, Nanamoli, and Bodhi all call it, which is repeated at the end of each meditation as a kind of refrain:

[1] So he abides contemplating body as body internally, contemplating body as body externally, contemplating body and body both internally and externally. [2] He abides contemplating arising phenomena, abides contemplating vanishing phenomena in the body, he abides contemplating both arising and vanishing phenomena in the body. [3] Or else, mindfulness that “there is body” is present to him just to the extent necessary for knowledge and awareness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. And that, monks, is how a monk abides contemplating body as body. (emphases added)

This text is repeated nine times throughout the sutta, thus dividing the practices up into the following divisions:

  1. Breathing
  2. {Four Postures, Clear Awareness, Reflection on the Body, Four Elements, Nine Charnel Ground Contemplations}
  3. Feelings
  4. Mind
  5. Five Hindrances
  6. Five Aggregates
  7. Six Sense Bases
  8. Seven Factors of Enlightenment
  9. Four Noble Truths

1 and 2 pertain to the body, 3 to feelings, 4 to mind, and 5 through 9 refer to mind-objects.

As one can see from the description, the starting point is the grossest level – the body – of what is immediately apprehensible – the internal. As I have mentioned in previous talks, making this the basis of meditation is an innovation of the Buddhadharma, as pointed out by Buddhaghosa.  As one becomes established in one’s meditation at each level, one progresses from the internal to the external, thence to both internal and external, in a sort of dialectic by which one realizes the underlying unity in duality. In the second exercise one converts the intuition of embodiment to the processes that constitute its content, contemplating phenomena as processes in their appearance and disappearance, and finally in both as complementary poles of a single process. Finally, one realizes the same meditation as the direct apprehension of body without any additional thought or consideration, i.e., without content. In this state, one experiences dispassion.

The same methodology is applied to the body, feelings, mind, and mind objects through a series of 21 practices. This is an example of the graduated path, by which one cultivates the qualities of enlightenment individually in the same manner in which one might build a house.

The final exercise in this path is the Fourth Jhana, which is a state of mindful equanimity characterized by indifference toward feelings of pleasure/pain, gladness/sadness, and all similar emotional dichotomies. This state is identified with dispassion and emancipation itself.

Thus, this sequence of tasks lays bare the whole structure of the Buddhist path as understood by the anonymous redactors of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta.

II. Praxis 

  1. Mindfulness of the Breathing 

The first group of practices is called contemplation of the body, and the first exercise in this group is called mindfulness of breathing. This exercise is frequently mentioned in the Pali Canon and has a big reputation. The Buddha referred to it as “the Tathagata’s dwelling,” and practised it himself, even after his enlightenment experience. The Buddha said that the practice of mindfulness of the breathing is sufficient by itself to carry the aspirant all the way to emancipation, which raises the question of why the Buddha taught 84,000 meditative techniques, including the 21 highlighted in this sutta? The traditional answer is that different techniques are suited to different types of people, based on their personal needs and where they are on the path, i.e., their karma. For example, not all techniques lead to the highest goal. Thus, metta meditation only leads to rebirth in the Brahma realm. However, the fact that one technique alone is sufficient for enlightenment qualifies our understanding of the gradual path, which includes the notion that a sequence of yogas must be mastered before advanced practice can even begin (e.g., the Tibetan approach). While such a hierarchical structure may have value for some people, it is going too far to say that it is mandatory. At best, one might say that progressive practices are valuable and effective for some people. Others may pursue a single essential practice with equal efficacy.

The first step in the first practice is to enter into a state of seclusion, whether in the forest, at the foot of a tree, or in an empty place. Second, one sits down cross-legged, in the archetypal yoga posture that goes back to Indus Valley Civilization (2600-1900 BCE). One holds the body erect, and “establishes mindfulness before him.” Walshe suggests that this means focusing the attention on the breath, long associated with the vital principle of life, energy, and creativity in many primordial traditions (e.g., Sanskrit prana). Thus, “mindfully he breathes in, mindfully he breathes out.” Without restraining or interfering with the breathing in any way, he observes the length of the breaths as he breathes in and out, whether long or short. To this awareness, he adds awareness of the whole body, calming the whole bodily process.   This is the practice of mindfulness of the breathing.

  1. The Four Postures

The second exercise applies the principle of mindfulness of the body to the activities of walking, standing, sitting, and lying down. This may be the origin of the famous walking meditation.

  1. Clear Awareness

The third exercise, Clear Awareness, extends this principle of mindfulness to going or looking forward or back, bending, stretching, carrying objects, eating, drinking, chewing, savouring, defecating, urinating, walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, speaking, and staying silent. Clear Awareness appears to be a development of the Four Postures, both in terms of range of activities and in terms of intensity. For example, Walshe uses the word “know” in the Four Postures,  whereas in Clear Awareness he uses the phrase “clearly aware of what he is doing” (sampajana-kari hoti).

  1. Reflection on the Parts of the Body

The reflection on the parts of the body consists of an incisive and exacting self-analysis. In other suttas, the cultivation of revulsion towards the body is recommended. It may however be argued that revulsion or repulsion is simply another form of attachment (active dislike as distinct from indifference), in which case this exercise would have to be regarded as compensatory and intermediary rather than cultivating a final goal or state.[1]

  1. The Four Elements

This exercise continues the foregoing by analyzing the body in terms of its elemental states – extension, cohesion, temperature, motion (distension), corresponding to earth, water, fire, and air. A more intuitive interpretation might be to regard the body as consisting of solids, liquids, heat, and breath.

  1. The Nine Charnel Ground Contemplations

Finally, in the context of the contemplations of the body, the nine charnel ground contemplations refer to the progressive contemplation of corpses in varying states of decay, ranging from a few days dead to the bones rotted away to powder, and all the intermediate states of decay that one can imagine. In contemplating the corpses in these states, one reflects on and realizes the fact that there is no essential difference between one’s own body and fate and the bodies and fates that one observes. The presumed goal of this practice is the development of revulsion towards the body, culminating in indifference.

  1. Contemplation of Feelings

The second contemplation is directed toward the feelings, in the exact Jungian sense of “sensations” of pleasure, pain, or neutral. Here he simply identifies continuously a feeling as pleasure, painful, or neutral and as sensual or non-sensual.

  1. Contemplation of Mind

This practice is very similar to the previous one on feelings, except that here one cultivates awareness of mental states, including lust, hatred (including therefore what we would call emotions apparently), delusion, contraction, distraction, developed, surpassed, concentrated, and liberated or their opposites. The sequence of states seems to be progressive.

  1. Contemplation of Mind-Objects

As I have mentioned in previous talks, Buddhism considers the mind to be a sense, exactly as the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body are. Each sense has its correlative objects, which are all equally real (in the conventional sense). Accepting that the mind is a sixth sense, rather than merely an epiphenomenon of the other five, the mind must also have its correlative objects, which are as real as what we call matter is. These are the dhammas, phenomena as they are. Today we might call this philosophy patternism.

Thus, each sense is threefold, consisting of the internal or subjective aspect (which is merely a thought and has no more reality than a mirage), the external or objective aspect (the object itself, as we would say), and the phenomenological moment that joins the two like glue and constitutes experience.

The Buddha prescribes five exercises for contemplation of mind-objects: the five hindrances, the five aggregates, the six internal and the six external sense bases, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the four noble truths. All of these refer to psychic facts – laws, if you like – that constitute the metaphysical fabric of experience and are the primary object of dharma, just as physical laws, the laws of nature, co-called, constitute the experiential fabric of metaphysics and are the primary object of science.

Practising mindfulness of the hindrances educates one to ignore the emotions of sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, worry and flurry, and doubt that hinder one from attaining emancipation. Ignored, they disappear, because they are created by the mind. The meditator cultivates awareness of each hindrance, e.g., sensual desire. One discerns whether or not it is present in oneself, its arising and vanishing, and how to abandon attachment to the hindrance that in turn results in its ceasing to come about in the future. In other words, one interrupts the karmic causal sequence by consciously interrupting the flow.

The practice of the five aggregates similarly cultivates awareness of the arising and vanishing of the aggregates that are the objects of grasping, craving, or desirous attachment. These are forms, feelings, perceptions, mental formations (sankhara-khandha), and consciousness.  The mental formations are of course the factors that underlie karma, including volition (cetana) or intention.

I’ve already explained the threefold character of the senses in Buddhism. The practice of the six internal and external sense bases is simply the cultivation of awareness of this structure, especially the significance of the phenomenological moment in which subjectivity and objectivity are joined. The text refers to ten fetters that arise in connection with this “joining,” viz., sensuality, resentment, pride, wrong views, doubt, desire for becoming, attachment to rites and rituals, jealousy, avarice, and ignorance. Ditthi, ‘wrong views’ can also mean ‘dogma.’ Having identified each fetter as it arises in the space between subjectivity and objectivity, one abandons it.

Having abandoned the fetters of the senses, the aggregates of grasping, and the five hindrances, the practitioner learns to identify and cultivate the seven factors of enlightenment through self-observation.  Thus, he observes the presence, absence, arising, and development of mindfulness, investigation of states, energy, delight, tranquility, concentration, equanimity. “Energy” is Pali viriya, lit. ‘manliness,’ same root as virile and virtue. The oldest known representation of the cross-legged posture by what appears to be a shaman or yogi also exhibits an erect phallus. Similarly, the word ‘jhana’ can be translated as ‘ecstasy.’ The first three jhanas are characterized as states of delight, pleasure, or happiness. Nirvana itself is clearly an ecstatic state. Viriya also refers to Right Effort, the sixth limb of the Noble Eightfold Path and the first of the final three limbs that designate the end of the path.

Finally, the exercises of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta conclude with the application of the Four Noble Truths to experience: this is suffering, this is the cause of suffering, this is the cessation of suffering, and this is the cause of the cessation of suffering. The Buddha describes the various kinds of suffering, including birth, aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain and sadness, distress, being attached to the unloved, being separated from the loved, and not getting what one wants.

Given so much suffering, it is not surprising that one might not wish to be born ever again, but, the text informs us, “this cannot be gained by wishing.”

Craving can only be extinguished by dispassion, not by desire directed to existence or non-existence. This text refutes the widely held but mistaken notion that the Buddha advocated the pursuit of non-existence.

Escape becomes possible through the realization of the universal fact of transitoriness, consciousness of which has been cultivated by the foregoing practices on mindfulness of the arising and non-arising of phenomena. Since everything is transitory, the experience of samsaric bondage itself must be transitory. 

The Origin of Craving 

The Buddha identifies how the craving that leads to rebirth arises and establishes itself wherever there is anything agreeable and pleasurable, including the senses, sensory consciousness, sensory contact, feeling, perception, volition, craving itself, thinking, and pondering. Including craving in the list of the causes of craving indicates a profound awareness of what today we would call a “feedback loop.” The peculiar intensification of craving is due to the way in which craving takes itself as its own fuel.

The cessation of suffering arises in the abandonment (not repression, note) of craving, resulting in dispassion. The Buddha reviews the list of places where craving establishes itself, this time in relation to cessation, the opposite of craving.   

The Noble Eightfold Path 

The Noble Truth of the Way of Practice Leading to the Cessation of Suffering is, of course, the Noble Eightfold Path.  I don’t think anyone here needs an explanation of the Noble Eightfold Path, consisting of View, Thought, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration, or Wisdom, Morality, and Meditation. In this sutta, View is equated with the Four Noble Truths just discussed. Thought is equated with renunciation. Speech is equated with the Fourth Precept of Pansil. Action summarizes the first three precepts, whereas once again as I have discussed in other talks we see that the Fifth Precept, prohibiting alcohol, is absent here as it frequently is in the Pali Canon. The inclusion of Livelihood in the NEP is very interesting, since monastics are forbidden from carrying on a livelihood because of receiving alms. The only possible interpretation of this fact is that the path is accessible to householders, whereas the livelihood of the monastic may be non-livelihood. Since the Buddha says that nirvana is only present where the NEP is present, and vice versa, this is an extraordinarily significant fact that has not been mentioned by anyone else as far as I know. Some might argue that the three stages of meditative practice are above livelihood, and therefore restricted to monastics, but the ubiquity of householders attaining emancipation throughout the Pali Canon argues against this, as does the Buddha’s preaching against the “closed fist.” However, I have mentioned in previous talks how the evidence of the stories of the Pali Canon themselves, taken as a whole, without necessarily implying that any of the stories is historically factual, is that householders were very involved with the sangha and were able to aspire in their own right and even attain emancipation, at which time they would conventionally enter the sangha.  Therefore, we really need to get past the notion, prevalent in some sects of religious Buddhism, which assigns a secondary or inferior status to the householders, and an exaggerated status to the monastics, many of whom were and are still puttujana monastics. There are also Buddhist schools that do not do this. This view of householders may be compared to the view of women, another group that is virtually excluded by certain Buddhist groups but not by the Buddha himself.

Right Effort is vayama in Pali, the mental factor behind which is viriya, which we have already encountered as the third of the seven factors of enlightenment, generally translated as ‘energy.’ Right Effort refers to striving and will. Right Mindfulness is identified with the Four Attentions that we have discussed – body, feeling, mind, mind-objects. Finally, Right Concentration is identified with the Four Jhanas, the process of the progressive refinement of consciousness that we have also discussed in past talks. The First Jhana is produced by the cultivation of detachment. The Second Jhana is produced by the cultivation of concentration. The Third Jhana comes about because of the fading away of delight. The Fourth Jhana is brought about by the abandonment of pleasure and pain, the two characteristics of feeling. Thus, by abandoning feeling, one attains Right Concentration and the Cessation of Suffering.

Here we see the incredible cohesion of early Buddhist thinking. The Buddhadharma is not merely a haphazard collection of lists. Rather, it is a profoundly coherent philosophy that implies an original philosopher, the Buddha, which was then carried forward by his immediate disciples much as Plato carried forward the ideas of Socrates.

III. Seven Days to Emancipation 

In conclusion, the Buddha explores the relationship between meditation, emancipation, and time (samsara), and declares that if one were to practice the exercises of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta for seven years, one will definitely attain either the state of an arhant or the state of a non-returner. Here we see very clearly that the sutta is a kind of manual for monastics and meditators. We have discussed these states before of course.  The arhant has attained final release from the process of rebirth, i.e., time itself, and has attained the non-temporal, trans-dual, immortal deathless state to which the Buddha frequently alludes. The Buddha himself is the highest type of arhant, thus introducing the concept of “types of arhant,” just as there are types of Buddhas. This topic has come up from time to time in past talks also. The non-returner will never again be reborn as a human being, but is born in the Five Pure Abodes, the five highest planes of the Rupaloka from which he will attain arhantship in the future, after he completely purifies himself.

It would, however, be a mistake to read the reference to “seven years” as the time required to complete the 21 meditations of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, which would work out to four months per practice, although it is easy to misread the text in this way. It is, rather, the maximum time. For then the Buddha says that if one were to practice for six years one’s attainment of the state of an arhant or a non-returner is guaranteed. But then he says, wait, even five years is enough time to attain one of these two states. He continues in this vein, whittling the required time down to four years, three years, two years, one year. That means that each exercise can only take seventeen days. Perhaps seventeen days is long enough one were to meditate all day. But wait, the Buddha is still counting: seven months (note the adhesion to the symbolic number “7,” whereas one might have expected him to start at 12 months). The Buddha then mentions 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 month and half a month. 21 practices in a month is only one practice a day! Maybe even that is doable by a monastic or on a retreat. But the Buddha hasn’t stopped counting: “whoever should practice these four foundations of mindfulness for just one week may expect one of two results: either Arahantship in this life or, if there should be some substrate left, the state of a Non-returner.” This statement parallels other suttas in which the Buddha says that one week (or even five days) of practice is sufficient to attain emancipation.

Note the threefold repetition of the number 7: 7 years, 7 months, 7 days. Interestingly, the sum of three sevens is 21, the number of exercises described in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. The number appears in the sutta as the number of the factors of enlightenment. In the Cabalistic tradition, 777 is the number of salvation. The significance of the number 7 is widespread in Buddhism. For example, 7 x 7 is 49, the number of days one remains in the bardo before being reborn.

The literal meaning of this passage, then, is that by the practice of the four foundations of mindfulness, elaborated in the 21 practices of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, one will achieve either emancipation or arhantship after between 7 days and 7 years of practice, depending on the amount of “substrate left.”

The first thing we would note about this passage is the minimum time in relation to the number of exercises. Assuming one slept six hours per day, in seven days one would be able to practice 126 hours at most, allowing just six hours per exercise. This seems impossible. The nine charnel ground meditations alone could not be completed in less than a year. Therefore, the 21 practices must be regarded as adjuvants or aids to the main practice, the cultivation of the four attentions themselves. However, underlying the cultivation of the four attentions is the practice of mindfulness itself. Presumably, this is the essential practice to which the Buddha refers when he says that practising the four foundations of mindfulness can lead to arhantship or the state of a non-returner in as short a time as seven days, which is implicit in all of the practices yet identical with none of them. You will remember that in the beginning the Buddha alludes to the “one way.” I propose then that this phrase has a double meaning: i.e., the singular or essential practice or technique that includes all other practices and techniques, and the key to the nature of this practice itself, which is “oneness’ – self-unification, self-integration, concentration, “one-pointedness,” “at-one-ment,” etc. The practices in this manual of meditation combine the essential technique of attentiveness with the cultivation of wisdom, especially the realization of the nature of the body, feelings, mind, the hindrances, aggregates, senses, enlightenment, the four noble truths, and mindfulness itself, in a progression that culminates in emancipation.

The period of one week also seems very short until we consider two facts: first, the qualification that one may achieve either the state of an arhant or the state of a non-returner, thus enlarging the field significantly, and, second, the reference to a “substrate.” Nanamoli and Bodhi’s translation of the Majjhima Nikaya version of this sutta use the phrase “trace of clinging.”   The Pali word is upadi. The dictionary meaning of this word is the ‘fuel of life.’  PED has ‘stuff of life, substratum of being, khandha (the khandhas are the five sensorial aggregates – forms, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness, which constitute the basis of craving).

The implication is that the “fuel of life” is exhausted by meditation on mindfulness, in which renunciation and the absence of arising of any new craving causes the existing fires of karma to burn themselves out.  I am reminded of a metaphor used by both Padmasambhava and Aleister Crowley, of the master being consumed in the intensity of his attainment, leaving only a residue of ash that is then blown away by the winds of prana.

This implies in return that the state of mindfulness is not the same as complete emancipation, but that one who accomplishes mindfulness must attain final emancipation within seven rebirths. Mindfulness appears as a discrete accomplishment in its own right. Otherwise, it makes no sense to refer to a period of time during which a substrate is “left.” Meditation burns karma, but how long it takes depends on how much karma there is. Of course, the accomplishment of mindfulness might simply be mindfulness itself, so that the reference is to the beginning of practice. In this case, seven days is indeed a short time but would presumably only apply to saints. Here we face a paradox, however, because a saint by definition is a person who is already well advanced in the practice of mindfulness! These are they to whom Sahampati referred when he implored the Buddha to teach for the sake of those whose eyes are covered with only a thin coating of dust.

Thus the suttas refer to a nirvana and a parinirvana, only the second of which constitutes final emancipation. In Gotama’s case, the substrate contained enough karmic “fuel” to sustain his life for another 80 years. For others this period may be extended to seven rebirths. But no one can attain in less than seven days, which is the period that the Buddha remained in continuous ecstasy after his enlightenment.

The Buddha concludes, “There is, monks, this one way to the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and distress, for the disappearance of pain and sadness, for the gaining of the right path, for the realization of Nibbana – that is to say the four foundations of mindfulness, and it is for this reason that it was said.”


1. Cf. Nyanaponika and Hellmuth Hecker (1997), Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy (Boston: Wisdom), p. 284.