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The following explanation of the Buddhist practice of mindfulness has been abridged from the beginning of the text Satipatthana Vipassana by The Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw Agga Maha Pandita.

The method of developing wisdom is to observe matter and mind, which are the two sole elements existing in a body, with a view to know them in their true form. Experiments in the analytical observation of matter are usually carried out in laboratories with the aid of various kinds of instruments. Yet these methods cannot deal with mind stuff. The Buddhist method does not, however, require any kind of instruments or outside aid. It can successfully deal with both matter and mind. It makes use of one’s own mind for analytical purpose by fixing bare attention on the activities of matter and mind as they occur in the body. By continually repeating this form of exercise, the necessary concentration can be gained and when the concentration is keen enough, the ceaseless course of arising and passing away of matter and mind will be vividly perceptible.

Meditation Meditation
The body consists solely of two distinct groups of matter and mind. The solid substance of the body constitutes a mass of matter. Matter changes its form under physical conditions of heat and cold. Under such contrary physical conditions, it is called Rupa (form). In the Abhidharma, the proper name for the third division of the Buddhist scriptures dealing with the metaphysical and psychological, the elements of mind and matter are classified differently as ‘Things Which Possess Consciousness’ and ‘Things Which Lack Consciousness’ (Sarammana Dharma and Anarammana Dharma) respectively. The element of mind has an object, or holds an object, or knows an object while that of matter does not have an object, nor holds an object, nor knows an object. There is no faculty of knowing an object in the element of matter.

Meditation Meditation
A Yogi (mediator) also perceives in like manner, that is, “Material element has no faculty of knowing”. Logs and pillars, bricks and stones and lumps of earth are a mass of matter, they do not possess any faculty of knowing. It is the same case with material elements consisting in a living body, they have no faculty of knowing. The material elements in a dead body are like those of a living body, they are without the faculty of knowing.

Meditation Meditation
Then what is that which knows the objects now? It is the element of mind, which comes into being depending on matter. It is called Name (mind) because it inclines to an object. Mind is also spoken of as “Thought” or “Consciousness”. Mind arises depending on matter as will be described hereafter. Depending on the eyes, eye consciousness (seeing) arises, depending on the ears, ear–consciousness (hearing) arises, depending on the nose, nose–consciousness (smelling) arises, depending on the tongue, tongue–consciousness (taste) arises, depending on the body, body–consciousness (sense of touch) arises. There are many kinds, either good or bad, of the sense of touch.

The senses of touch and sight are nothing but elements of the mind. There also comes into being, the mind–consciousness (i.e., thoughts, ideas, imagination, etc.) depending on the mind–base. All of these are elements of the mind. The mind as a rule knows an object which matter does not know. People generally believe that, in the case of seeing, it is the eye which actually sees. They think that seeing and the eye are one and the same thing. They also think, “Seeing is I: I see things: eye and seeing and I are one and the same person”. In actual fact this is not so. Eye is one thing and seeing is another. There is no separate entity such as “I” or “Ego” There is only the fact of “Seeing” coming into being depending on the eye.

People who are not trained in the knowledge of Meditational Development of Insight (Vipassana Bhavana) hold the view that seeing belongs to or is the self, ego or a living entity or person. They believe that “Seeing is I, or I am seeing, or I am knowing”. This kind of view or belief is called the erroneous view that “There is a Self” (sakkaya–ditthi). Sakkaya means the group of matter (rupa) and mind (nama) as they exist distinctively. Ditthi means to hold a wrong view of belief. The compound word of Sakkaya–ditthi means to hold a wrong view or belief on the dual set of Matter and Mind, which are in real existence.

At the moment of seeing, the things that are in actual existence are the eye and the visual object of the material group, including the seeing which belongs to the mental group. These two kinds are in actual existence. Yet people hold the view that this group of elements is the “Self or ego or living entity”. They consider that “Seeing is I, or what is seen is I, or I see my own body”. Thus this mistaken view is taken on the simple act of seeing as “Self” which is Sakkaya–ditthi.

One should practice by constantly noting or observing every act of seeing, hearing, etc., which are the constituent physical and mental processes of the body, till one is freed from Sakkaya–ditthi. For these reasons, advice is always given here to take up the practice of Vipassana Meditation.

In this respect, the exercise is simply to note or observe the existing elements in every act of seeing. It should be noted as “Seeing” on every act of seeing (By the terms of note or observe or contemplate, it means the act of keeping the mind fixed on the object with a view to knowing clearly). Because of this fact of keeping the mind fixedly by noting as “Seeing” at times a visual object is noticed, at times consciousness of seeing is noticed, or at times it is noticed as eye–base or as a place from which it sees. It will serve the purpose if one can notice distinctly any one of the three. If not, based on this act of seeing there will arise the erroneous view of self which will view it in the form of a person or belonging to a person and in the sense of permanence, happiness and selfhood (nicca, sukha and atta), which will arouse attachment and craving. The defilements will in turn prompt deeds, and the deeds will bring forth rebirth of new existence. Thus the process of dependent origination operates and the vicious circle of Samsara revolves incessantly. In order to prevent this from the source of seeing, it is necessary to note as “Seeing” on every occasion of seeing.

Similar is the case of knowing or feeling the sensation of touch in the body. There is a kind of material element known as Nerve Tissue (kaya–pasada) throughout the body, which receives every impression of touch. Every kind of touch, either agreeable or disagreeable, usually comes in contact with the Nerve Tissue and there arises a Touch Consciousness (kaya–vinnana), which feels or knows the touch on each occasion. At every touch, there are two elements of matter, namely, the sense–organ–impression of touch and an element of the mind the knowing of touch. In order to know these things distinctly at every time of touch, the practice of noting as “Touching” has to be carried out. This merely refers to the form of sensation of touch. There are special forms which accompany painful or disagreeable sensations such as, stiffness or tiredness in the body or limbs, hotness, pain, numbness and aches. Since Feeling (vedana) predominates in these cases, it should be noted as “Feeling hot, feeling tired or feeling pain” as the case may be. It may also be mentioned that there occur many sensations of touch in hands, legs and other parts of the body on each occasion of bending, stretching, or moving. Since it is the mind which wishes to move, stretch or bend, the physical activities of moving, stretching, or bending occur in series (It may not be possible to notice these incidents for the present. They can only be noticed after some time and practice). All activity in the form of movement is done by the mind. When the mind wills the body to bend, there arises a series of inward movements of hand or leg, when the mind wills the body to stretch or move, there arises a series of outward movements or movements to and fro respectively. They disappear or are lost soon after they occur and sometimes at the very point of occurrence (One will notice these incidents later on).

In every case of bending, stretching or other activity, there arises a series of intending or willing minds, on account of which there occur in the hands and legs a series of physical activities, such as stiffening (or being hard), bending, stretching, or moving to and fro. These activities come up against other physical elements like the nerve tissue, and on every occasion of collision between the physical activities and sensitive qualities, there arises touch, consciousness, which feels or knows the sensation of touch. It is, therefore, clear that physical activities are the predominating factors in these cases. It is necessary to notice these predominating factors. Otherwise there arises the wrong viewing of these activities in the form “I or I am bending, or I am stretching, or moving my hands or my legs.” This practice of noting as “Bending, stretching, moving” is being carried out for the purpose of removing such a wrong view.

As regards thoughts and imagination, it may be mentioned that depending on the mind base there arise a series of mental activities, such as thinking and imagining, or to speak in a general sense, a series of mental activities arise depending on this state. In reality each case is a composition of matter and mind, mind base or body is matter, while thinking and imagining are mind. In order to be able to notice matter and mind clearly, it should be noted as thinking and imagining in each case. After having carried out the practice in the manner indicated above for a time, there may be an improvement in concentration. One will notice that the mind no longer wanders about but remains fixed to which it is directed. At the same time the power of noticing has considerably developed. On every occasion of noting the individual notices only two processes of matter and mind. A dual set of object and mind, which makes note of the object is thus coming into existence.

Again on proceeding further with the practice of contemplation for some time, one notices that nothing remains permanent but everything is in a state of flux. New things arise each time, each of them are noted as they arise. They then vanish to immediately give rise to another which is again noted and vanishes. Thus the process of arising and vanishing goes on, which clearly shows that nothing is permanent. One is therefore convinced that “Things are not permanent” because it is noticed that they arise and vanish at every time of noting. This is an Insight into Impermanence (aniccanupassana–nana).

Then one is also convinced that arising and vanishing are not desirable. This is Insight into Suffering (dukkhanupassana–nana). Besides, one usually experiences many painful sensations in the body, such as tiredness, pain and aches. At the time of noting these sensations the individual usually feels that the body is a collection of sufferings. This is also an Insight into Suffering. Then at every time of noting it is found that elements of matter and mind occur according to their respective nature and conditioning, and not according to one’s wish. One is therefore convinced that they are elements which are not governable and are not of a person or living entity. This is Insight into the Absence of a Self (anattanupassana–nana). On having fully acquired this knowledge of Impermanence, Suffering, Absence of Self (anicca, dukkha, anatta), the maturity of Spiritual Knowledge of the Path and Spiritual Knowledge of its Fruition (magga nana and phala nana) takes place and Nirvana is realized. By realizing Nirvana in the first stage, one is freed from the round of rebirth and an unhappy life. Everyone should therefore, endeavor to reach the first stage as a minimum measure.

It has already been explained that the actual method of practice in Vipassana Meditation is to note or to observe or to contemplate the successive occurrences of seeing, hearing or feeling at six points or sense doors. However, it will not be possible for a beginner to follow up all successive incidents as they occur because his Mindfulness, Concentration and Spiritual Knowledge (sati, samadhi and nana) are still very weak. Also these incidents occur very swiftly. Seeing seems to occur at the time of hearing, hearing seems to occur at the time of seeing, it seems that both seeing and hearing occur simultaneously. It seems that three or four incidents of seeing, hearing, thinking, and imagining usually occur simultaneously. It is not possible to distinguish which occurs first and which follows next because they occur so swiftly. In actual fact, seeing does not occur at the time of hearing nor does hearing occur at the time of seeing. Such incidents can occur one only at a time. A Yogi who has just begun the practice and who has not sufficiently developed mindfulness, concentration and Spiritual Knowledge will not, however, be in a position to observe all these incidents singly as they occur in serial order. A beginner need not therefore follow up many things, but should instead start with a few things. Seeing or hearing occurs only when due attention is given. If one does not pay heed to any sight or sound, one may pass the time mostly without any occasion of seeing or hearing. Smelling occurs rarely. Experience of taste occurs only at the time of eating. In the cases of seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting, the Yogi can note them when they occur.

However, body impressions are ever present,they usually exist quite distinctly all the time. During the time that one is sitting, the body impressions of stiffness or the sensation of hardness, in this position are distinctly felt. Attention should therefore be fixed on the sitting posture and a note made as “Sitting”.

Sitting is an erect posture of the body consisting of a series of physical activities which are induced by the consciousness consisting of a series of mental activities. Just as an inflated rubber ball maintains its round shape through the resistance of the air inside it, so also is the posture of sitting, in which the body is kept in an erect posture through the continuous process of physical activities. A good deal of energy will be required to pull up and keep in an erect position such a heavy load as this body. People generally assume that the body is lifted and kept in the position by means of sinews. This assumption is correct in a sense because sinews, blood, flesh and bones are nothing but physical elements. The element of stiffening which keeps the body in an erect posture belongs to the material group and arises in the sinews, flesh and blood throughout the body like the air in a rubber ball. The element of stiffening is vayo–dhatu, the air element. The body is kept in the erect position by the presence of the Air Element in the form of stiffening, which is continually coming into existence. At the time of heavy drowsiness one may drop flat, because the supply of new materials in the form of stiffening is cut off. The state of mind in heavy drowsiness or sleep is Unconsciousness.

During the course of Unconsciousness mental activities are absent, and for this reason the body lies flat during sleep or heavy drowsiness. During waking hours strong and active mental activities are continually arising, and because of these there arises a series of Air Elements in the form of stiffening. In order to know these facts it is essential to note attentively as “Sitting” This does not necessarily mean that the body impressions of stiffening should be particularly searched and noted. Attention need only be fixed on the whole form of sitting posture, that is, the lower portion in a bending circular form and the upper portion in an erect posture.

It will be found that the exercise of observing a single object of sitting posture is too easy and does not require much effort. In the circumstances Vigor (viriya) is less and Concentration is in excess, and one would generally feel lazy to carry on the noting as “Sitting” repeatedly for a considerable time. Laziness generally occurs when there is excess of Concentration and less Vigor. It is nothing but a state of Torpor (thina–midha). More Vigor should be developed, and for this purpose the number of objects for noting should be increased. After noting as “Sitting” the attention should be directed to a spot in the body where the sense of touch is felt and a note made as “touching.” Any spot in the leg or hand or hip where a sense of touch is distinctly felt will serve the purpose. For example, after noting the sitting posture of the body as “sitting” the spot where the sense of touch is felt should be noted as “Touching.” The noting should thus be repeated on these two objects of sitting posture and the place of touching alternately, as “Sitting, touching”.

The terms noting or observing or contemplating are used here to indicate the fixing of attention on an object. The exercise is simply to note or observe or contemplate as “Sitting, touching”. Those who already have experience in the practice of meditation may perhaps find this exercise easy to begin with, but those without any previous experience may find it rather difficult to begin with.

Therefore the usual procedure for one who practices Vipassana Insight Meditation (vipassana–yanika) is to begin the exercise by contemplating the material elements at the outset. As regards material elements, it may be mentioned here that Etheric Matter (upada–rupa) is subtle and less prominent while Dense Physical Matter (maha–buta), the four primary physical elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Air are coarse and more prominent and should therefore have the priority of being placed first in the order of objects for contemplation. In the case of rising and falling the outstanding factor is the Air Element. The process of stiffening and the movements of abdomen noticed during the contemplation are nothing but the functions of this element. Thus it will be seen that the Air Element is perceptible at the beginning. According to the instructions of Satipathana Sutra, the discourse of the Buddha, dealing with the practice of awareness, one should be mindful of the activities of walking while walking, of those of standing, sitting, and lying down while standing, sitting, and lying down, respectively. One should also be aware of other bodily activities as each of them occurs. In this connection it is stated in the commentaries that one should be aware primarily of the Air Element in preference to the other three. As a matter of fact, all four elements of Dense Physical Matter are dominant in every action of the body, and it is essential to perceive any one of these. At the time of sitting, either of the two movements of rising and falling occurs conspicuously at every time of breathing, and a beginning should be made by noting one of these movements.