If Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught introduced me to the thought of the early texts, this one introduced me to their practice. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to it until I was already in Asia and losing some of my attraction for Zen. Since I’d been reared on Sanskrit terminology, the existence of this other language (Pali) and its corpus remained somewhat hidden from me, despite my earlier exposure. I remember the weird feeling just reading the world “satipatthana” gave me…
Many of the compliments I paid to Rahula’s work I can pay to this one as well. In fact, the two are even structured in a similar fashion–a dense yet lucid, non-sectarian exposition followed by an expertly translated and arranged set of selections from the suttas. The chief difference lies in the more focused and practical thrust of this book. If Rahula’s is for orientation, a gazeteer or general map, as it were, Nyanaponika’s is like the car you get in to travel to your destination.
The book’s focus is the Satipatthana Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 10), which is the same discourse as the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (Digha Nikaya 22) only minus the exposition of the four noble truths. In effect, Nyanaponika’s little book is a commentary upon this great teaching. The first chapter, “The Way of Mindfulness,” discusses the centrality of mental culture in the Buddha’s teaching, and places mindfulness (sati) at the heart of the practice of mental culture.
Chapter two, “Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension,” is the critical part. Here the notion of “bare attention” is defined, and for those who are entirely new to meditation, this may be a difficult concept to wrap the head around precisely because it is not a concept. The teaching of Right Mindfulness is described within the context of bare attention. Clear comprehension (sampajañña), the second aspect of Right Mindfulness, is discussed in various ways per the sutta commentaries, such as awareness of what one is doing, the suitability of one’s actions, etc.
Chapter three, “The Four Objects of Mindfulness,” dives into the discourse proper, examining the various bases or foundations of practice, the body (breath, postures, contemplation of disgust for the body, etc), feelings (i.e. what is felt or sensed internally and externally), mental states (sleepy, clear, distracted, etc) and mental objects (thoughts and emotions that arise and pass away).
Chapter four attempts to counter charges that these practices are “coldly intellectual,” “dry,” or “indifferent,” charges that have at times been leveled at Theravadin teachings in general (though to be exact, these teachings are pre-Theravadin). I have to confess I’ve always found such objections to the Pali teachings rather hard to understand. They clearly derive from people armed and ready with preconceived ideological agendas who are eager to avoid any evidence to the contrary.
The last two chapters of Nyanaponika’s exposition cover the Burmese satipatthana method (the Mahasi style of practice) and anapanasati, which is mindfulness of the breath, traditionally as it passes through the nasal passages. Here you get detailed instructions for how to put everything you’ve learned into practice. It must be noted that these are simply instructions on “how to”–they are not equivalent to having an actual teacher who will tell you what to expect, or what you should do if–god forbid–you actually get enlightened!
Part II of the text is a translation with extensive notes of the Satipatthana Sutta. I have only one bone to pick here, and that is with the translation of ekayano maggo in the first sentence of the third paragraph as “sole way,” as if satipatthana was the only way to nibbana. Numerous translators have done this, but it has been pointed out by many others that a better translation of this phrase is “a road that goes one way” or has “one direction”–meaning that satipatthana is a path that leads inevitably toward a single goal. Maurice Walshe, in his note to the passage (from The Long Discourses of the Buddha, p. 589, n. 626), points out even the commentary is confused about how exactly to interpret it. Part III, “Flowers of Deliverance,” collects other passages from the suttas and even the Mahayana sutras that concern mental culture, with particular attention to satipatthana and its related concepts.
While the book can at times perhaps be faulted for a somewhat dated prose style, this is in no way to say its contents are dated. It is throughout a clear and intellectually rigorous work, quite complete as regards its subject matter, and represents an excellent starting point for anyone interested in Buddhist meditation practice.
My Amazon rating: 5 stars