The grasshopper at my feet
My first awareness of mindfulness came as a I watched the Kung Fu TV series. David Carradine was the Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine wandering the American West in search of his brother. In flashbacks to Caine’s training in the monastery. Master Po would ask: ‘Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?’ Caine: ‘Old man, how is it that you hear these things?’ Master Po: ‘Young man, how is it that you do not?’ Buddhism was a romantic other world, not something I ever imagined could be practiced in Britain in the 1970s. It was alive in Japan but it was inconceivable that I would ever travel there and join a monastery. It was too big a step. As an unhappy teenager I took refuge in science, becoming absorbed in the logical challenges it provided and studied physics at the University of Manchester. Manchester was alive, looking out towards to world, it was the birthplace of the industrial revolution, it was where George Best the footballer and ‘fifth Beatle’ lived in a futuristic glass house. Something about Coronation Street drew me in, it portrayed a warm community, and I really needed that. The city had an acute social conscience that permeated every strata of Mancunian society, and I strongly approved of that.
Manchester University changed my life. The stands in freshers’ week represented an explosion of possibilities. It was 1973. It was the era of the ‘politicised’ hippy. Social change was in the air. Ideas were coming over from the East. I read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and did a course in Transcendental Meditation (TM). I was particularly intrigued by Maharishi’s exposition of ‘the Science of Creative Intelligence’: showing how TM altered consciousness.
University had been exciting but lacked any real context for me to build a life upon. After an exciting period living in in ‘backpacker’ hostels, and a bleak period ‘in the wilderness’ and in therapy, in 1988 I came across West London Buddhist Centre (WLBC), run by the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), now the Triratna Buddhist Community (TBC).
The FWBO was founded by Urgyen Sangharakshita. Ordained as a Theravadin Buddhist monk in 1950 in India, his preceptor had asked him to stay in Kalimpong, in the foothills of the Himalayas, and work for the good of Buddhism. Meeting various Tibetan lamas escaping the Chinese invasion, European explorers, Buddhist scholars, and hermits, he gained a broad knowledge of the schools of Buddhism. Having returned to the UK, Sangharakshita founded the FWBO in 1967: an ecumenical Buddhist movement designed to suit the Western temperament.
At this time I wasn’t particularly looking for Buddhism, I was lonely and seeking any kind of social life. I went along to an Open Day at the West London Buddhist Centre, which was based in a flat in Colville Houses, one block away from the Portobello Road in Notting Hill Gate. Here I received a warm and friendly welcome and was introduced to the mindfulness of breathing and the mett? bh?vana (the cultivation of universal loving kindness) meditation practices. Colville Houses always seemed to have a sunny aspect. On a shrine comprising a beautiful wooden platform was seated a westernized Buddha figure (with Vidal Sassoon haircut), the walls a warm yellow. From the centre’s bookshop, which glowed a warm orange, I used to hire cassettes of Sangharakshita’s lectures, vigorously devouring them as I worked my night shifts. I have been part of the Triratna Buddhist Community ever since.
Sangharakshita delivered a lecture series on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. In the Pali Canon, Perfect Mindfulness is said to consist of the practice of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. A Buddhist teacher has to use their best judgment when it comes to what teachings they choose to deliver, and faced with the option of teaching the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as the Theravada taught them, knowing in his own experience how their narrow focus on mindfulness sometimes led to alienation, I imagine he had second thoughts. In his lecture Sangharakshita chose to speak of Perfect Mindfulness instead in terms of his own Four Levels (Dimensions) of Awareness – Mindfulness of Environment; of Self (in terms of Body, Feelings and Thoughts); of Other People; and of Reality.
The cultivation of loving kindness is explicit in the Buddha’s teaching, and thus takes precedence over all interpretive teachings, which are particular to different traditions and not universally agreed. In teaching his ‘Four Dimensions’ Sangharakshita has asserted the place of loving kindness within the domain of mindfulness (as ‘Mindfulness of Other People’) over the Theravada interpretation that mindfulness prevails over kindness.
Sangharakshita exemplified mindfulness more than anyone I had come across; he encouraged us to do one thing at a time, and to ‘complete our cycles’ by returning the cup to where we had gotten it from when have had tea, having washed it; just as the Buddhist monk leaves no trace behind him. In his talks on mindfulness Sangharakshita particularly emphasised sampajanna or mindfulness of purpose; that we should know what we are doing, and why we are doing it. He also strongly emphasised emotional cultivation, friendship, building community, and nurturing an aesthetic sensibility through appreciation of the Arts, all to counteract the Western tendency to alienation, isolation and individualism.
Having been impressed with the order members I met, I too asked for ordination into the Western Buddhist Order (WBO) in 1990, and entered into a period of intensive training. I moved back to Manchester in 1994 to help convert a city centre warehouse to the new Manchester Buddhist Centre (MBC), and in 1997 I was ordained and given the name Mahabodhi, meaning ‘Great Enlightenment. The daily meditation practice, or sadhana, I took up as an order member was that of Avalokitesvara, in his one thousand-armed and eleven-headed form, representing the compassion of the Enlightened mind. Initially I worked within a team of order members to develop Buddhist festivals and rituals at the MBC, and later joined a similar team at the Buddhafield festival in Devon.
Book on ritual
The quest to understand has always been a strong part of my personality, constantly seeking explanations, and trying to create them where there are none. Regarding Buddhist ritual, I was feeling my way with it, and trying to work out explanations regarding the challenges and pitfalls of ritual and symbolism. With no books about the actual mechanics of ritual to draw upon I embarked upon writing one, although some time later I came to realise that it wasn’t enough to spell out the mechanics, it was necessary to discuss the meditative atmosphere that essentially underpins ritual. And this in turn is underpinned by mindfulness, hence the book on ritual morphing into one on mindfulness.
The Satipatthana Sutta is the central Buddhist text on mindfulness, which teaches the Four Foundations of Mindfulness; body (kaya), feelings (vedana), mind (citta) and mental objects (dhammas), as the direct path to Nirvana. Researching Buddhist books on mindfulness, I realised that there were very few, and none that I felt provided a comprehensive and coherent explanation of the Four Foundations, nor how they interacted in terms of the central Buddhist doctrine of Conditionality, which states that phenomena arise in dependence on conditions.
I did feel encouraged by Nyanaponika Thera’s The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, which suggested that Buddhist mindfulness ‘comprise(s) the entire man and his whole field of experience’. He suggests that the Four Foundations of Mindfulness cover the entire personality, avoiding onesidedness, and aspiring to completeness, harmony and depth, where nothing unconscious is overlooked.
Analyo’s 2004 commentary, Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization was well received and praised as a comprehensive and encyclopaedic review and study of the Sutta, and is still respected and highly regarded as an authority on Buddhist mindfulness. Whilst it is impressive in seemingly presenting every recorded opinion on the Sutta, my quarrel is that it stops somewhat short of a coherent theory on how the Four Foundations interact to bring about Nirvana. The book revisits some familiar Theravada positions, such as the idea that in order to change a mental state it is enough to simply bring mindfulness to it.
I was looking for a coherent explanation of the Sutta, but was often dissatisfied by the interpretations that I found. It seemed that, firmly embedded within their respective traditions, no-one seemed willing or able to ‘think outside of the box’ and investigate experience from first principles.
Where are the books that explore Conditionality, in terms of how it practically works with Buddhist practices, such as mindfulness or loving kindness (metta)? Perhaps it is understandable. Is it audacious to take up the Buddha’s words and attempt to create a contemporary theory for modern times that encompasses all of his teachings; Conditionality and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness being significant among them? This is the challenge that I have taken up.
Many Buddhist commentators tend to emphasise the destructive aspect of Conditionality, that phenomena are impermanent whenever the conditions that support them cease. Analyo refers to the impermanence of the Four Foundations, he explores how the individual Foundation are governed by the law of Conditionality, but the discussion focuses on how the Foundations are conditioned by external factors, not on how Conditionality operates between them; how the body conditions the mind; the mind conditions feeling, and so on. It is important to keep in mind this constructive aspect of Conditionality, that positive qualities – including Enlightenment – can be brought into being when the conditions that support them are right; this is the central theme of my book.
Whilst Sangharakshita’s teachings on ‘Dimensions of Awareness’ are a highly regarded guide to practising mindfulness in the Triratna tradition, his teachings would be unfamiliar and thus likely to be unaccepted by many Buddhists in the world. With this in mind, and in order to reach across all Buddhist traditions, I am using the interpretation of mindfulness as found in the Satipatthana Sutta; the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Having made this decision, however, I have found that the commentarial interpretations have often thrown up more questions than answers;
What does the Sutta mean by ‘internal’ and ‘external’?
The Sutta teaches mindfulness of an internal and an external aspect to each Foundation, for instance ‘the monk is mindful of the body internally, externally, and both internally and externally.’ Many commentators propose that ‘internal’ referred to a Foundation belonging to oneself and ‘external’ to one belonging to another, but is this explanation convincing, is it comprehensive enough?
What is vedana (feeling)?
Translators have often rendered vedana as ‘sensation.’ Surely feelings are not only physical but also mental? Why is mental feeling not mentioned in the Satipatthana Sutta, despite it being present in other Sutras? Worldly and spiritual feeling are spoken of as feelings ‘of’ and ‘not of’ the flesh,’ but little more is said about them.
How does emotion fit into the Sutta?
It isn’t clear how emotion is included within the Foundations. If we believe that citta is ‘thought,’ as interpreted by the Theravadins, emotion cannot be included within citta. But equally it cannot be an aspect of vedana, as emotion is active and vedana is not, vedana being solely the experience of pleasure or pain.
What exactly are dhammas?
Dhammas are translated as ‘mental objects’ or ‘mental concommitants’, but where are the explanations as to what these actually are?
All these questions and more left me looking around for answers, maybe missing links; really I wanted a comprehensive and watertight map of every aspect of the human psyche, which I was certain was encompassed in the Satipatthana Sutta. This is what I hope to present in my work.
The Mindfulness Movement
My work to understand Buddhist mindfulness has coincided with the rapid growth of the mindfulness movement, which I hope will be helped to understand this important phenomenon.