An interview with Bhikkhu An?layo, author of Satipa??h?na: The Direct Path to Realization.Bhikkhu An?layo’s latest book, Perspectives on Satipa??h?na, uses a comparison of three different versions of the Satipatthana Sutta to reveal what the original core teachings are likely to have been.
Hannah Atkinson: Perspectives on Satipa??h?na is a companion volume to your earlier publication, Satipa??h?na: The Direct Path to Realization. How are the two books distinct and how do they work together?
Bhikkhu An?layo: My first book, Satipa??h?na: The Direct Path to Realization, came out of a PhD I did in Sri Lanka. It was the product of my academic study of the Satipa??h?na Sutta, the practical experience I had gained in meditation, and what I had read about the experience of other meditators and teachers – I tried to bring all that together to come to a better understanding of the text itself.
At that time I was working on the Pali sources of the Satipa??h?na Sutta because the Buddha’s teachings were transmitted orally from India to Sri Lanka and then eventually written down in Pali, which is fairly similar to the original language or languages that the Buddha would have spoken. However, the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings also went in other directions, and we have versions of the Satipa??h?na Sutta in Chinese and Tibetan. So after completing my PhD I learnt Chinese and Tibetan so that I could engage in a comparative study of parallel textual lineages, and this is the focus of my new book, Perspectives on Satipa??h?na.
Although this was, at the outset, mainly an academic enterprise, what I discovered really changed the focus of my practice. When I took out the exercises that were not common to all three versions of the Satipa??h?na Sutta, I was left with a vision of mindfulness meditation that was very different to anything I would have expected. Contemplation of the body, which is the first of the four satipa??h?nas, for example, is usually practised in the form of the mindfulness of breathing and being mindful of bodily postures, but these exercises are not found in all versions. What I found in all three versions were the exercises that most of us do not like to do: seeing the body as made out of anatomical parts and thus as something that it is not beautiful, as something that is made up of elements and thus does not belong to me, and the cemetery contemplations – looking at a corpse that is decaying.
So then I understood: body contemplation is not so much about using the body to be mindful. It is rather predominantly about using mindfulness to understand the nature of the body. As a result of these practices one will become more mindful of the body, but the main thrust is much more challenging. The focus is on insight – understanding the body in a completely different way from how it is normally perceived.
Normally we look at the body and see it as ‘me’, but these texts are asking us to take that apart and see that actually we are made up of earth, water, fire and wind, of hardness, fluidity and wetness, temperature and motion. They are asking us to directly confront our own mortality – to contemplate the most threatening thing for us: death.
I found a similar pattern when I looked at the last satipa??h?na, which is contemplation of dharmas. The practices that were common to all three versions were those that focused on overcoming the hindrances and cultivating the awakening factors. The emphasis is not so much on reflecting on the teachings, the Dharma, but really on putting them into practice, really going for awakening. As a result of this discovery I have developed a new approach to the practice of satipa??h?na which I have found to be very powerful, and this would never have happened if I had not done the academic groundwork first.
HA: Your books are a combined outcome of scholarly study and practical experience of meditating. Do you find that these two approaches are generally compatible with each other, or do they ever come into conflict?
BA: It is not easy to be a scholar and a practitioner at the same time. If you look throughout Buddhist history, it is more usual to find Buddhists who are either practitioners or scholars than Buddhists who are both. However, for a while I have been trying to achieve a balance between these two sides of me, and I have found a point of concurrence: the main task of meditation is to achieve ‘knowledge and vision of things as they really are’ and actually this is the main task of academics as well. We use a different methodology, but the aim of both is to understand things as they really happen. If I take that as my converging point, then I am able to be both a scholar and a meditating monk, and this has been a very fruitful combination for me.
Both of my books are aimed at people who, like me, are interested in academic study and meditation. They are academic books where the final aim is to help people develop their meditation practice. They are not books for beginners, and the second book builds on the first book, so one would need a basic familiarity with what I covered in Satipa??h?na: The Direct Path to Realization in order to fully engage with Perspectives on Satipa??h?na.
HA: Both of your books mention the idea of satipa??h?na as a form of balance, and the title of your new book suggests that there are many different perspectives on satipa??h?na that could be taken into account. Is the very essence of satipa??h?na practice a balance of perspectives or is there one particular perspective on satipa??h?na that has been most useful in the context of your practice?
BA: I think that balance is an absolutely central aspect of mindfulness practice. If you look at the Awakening Factors, the first one is mindfulness and the last one is usually translated as ‘equanimity’, but in my opinion it would be better to understand it as balance or equipoise. To be balanced means to be mindful and open to the present moment, to be free from desire and aversion, and this is what the Satipa??h?na Sutta continually comes back to.
I believe that balance is also an essential element of academic study. If, through my mindfulness practice, I am cultivating openness and reception then how can I say that one approach to a topic is totally right and another one is completely wrong? If I do that, I have to exclude all of the other approaches from my vision. Often, when we get into very strong opinions, we have tunnel vision – we see only one part of reality, one side of it, but that is not how things really are. So, in my academic work, if I find one approach that seems more reasonable to me, I keep it in the foreground, but I have to keep the other approaches in the background, I cannot just cut them out.
HA: Satipa??h?na: The Direct Path to Realization and Perspectives on Satipa??h?na both mention the importance of combining self-development with concern for others. Does satipa??h?na practice lead naturally to a person becoming more compassionate or is it necessary to engage in other practices to achieve this? Is satipa??h?na practice a solitary activity or is it important that it is undertaken in the context of a Sangha?
BA: I think that compassion is a natural outcome of Satipa??h?na practice, but it is also good to encourage it in other ways as well. There is a simile from the Satipa??h?na Samyutta of two acrobats performing together on a pole – we need to establish our own balance in order to be in balance with other people and the outside world, but other people and the outside world are also the point at which we find out about our own balance. I can be practising alone, sitting in my room, feeling that I am so incredibly balanced and equanimous, but let me get out into the world and have some contact with people, come into some problems, and see how balanced I am then! Of course, time in seclusion and intensive meditation is essential, but there must always be a wider context to our practice.
Republished with permission from Windhorse Publications.
Recently I wanted to buy some herbal tea in bulk. I did my research on Amazon, found the brand I wanted, and then promptly headed over to the manufacturer’s website to make my purchase. This cost me a little more, but I was happy to pay the extra expense. Why, you may wonder?
Whether we consider it or not, every penny we spend has some effect on the direction our society takes. We can choose to spend our money at businesses that are exploitative and socially harmful, or at businesses that make a more positive contribution to our world. We collectively create the world we live in.
I’ve stopped shopping at Amazon. In some ways the company is wonderful. It’s an amazing example of entrepreneurialism. It offers a huge range of goods, often at significantly lower prices than can be found elsewhere. I have to admit I’ve shopped there a lot in the past. And there’s a benefit to that. I’ve definitely saved some money (and time — let’s not overlook the convenience of shopping from home). In theory the money I’ve saved is of benefit to me.
But there’s a bigger picture too. Amazon thrives in part by employing people at rock bottom wages. In the US, workers are forced to toil in huge warehouses where temperatures can be over 38°C (100°F) in the summer. Many have collapsed with heat exhaustion. The work is brutal, involving constant movement, bending, stooping, lifting, and fast-paced walking for miles on hard concrete floors. Even young and fit employees find themselves in constant pain. Workers are electronically monitored in a way reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, and even bathroom breaks are strictly timed. Staff have to queue up for long periods of time in order to pass through security checkpoints when leaving at the end of their shifts, and Amazon refuses to pay them for that time, on the basis that it’s not an “integral” part of their work. Is this the kind of world we want to build for ourselves?
There’s also the financial pressure that the company puts on suppliers, including the tactics they used in their recent dispute with the publisher Hachette, such as increasing the shipping times of Hachette’s titles, refusing to take pre-orders, or simply removing the “buy” button. This was all in an effort to force the publisher to drive down its prices.
And then there’s Amazon’s highly effective (although legal) tax avoidance strategies. They’re a company that benefits from the infrastructure and services that taxes fund, and yet gives little or nothing back to the tax system.
We have choices. We can choose to support other retailers, online or off. So that’s why I decided to boycott Amazon. I feel better giving my money to a small herbal tea company that, I’m pretty sure, treats its workers with more respect and, like most small businesses, pays into the taxation system. I consider that the extra costs I incur by avoiding Amazon aren’t really costs. After all, if Amazon isn’t paying the taxes that support our national infrastructure and essential services, then someone else is. That someone else is me, and you.
We may think our economic choices don’t make a difference, but as someone who runs a small online store, I have to tell you that that’s not the case. Every order for a CD, or for incense, or for a Buddha statue that we receive on Wildmind’s store is received with gratitude — and sometimes relief. And our suppliers, many of them artisans in the developing world, being paid fair wages for their work, are grateful too.
So this is the point of #ethicalchristmas. Over the next few weeks you’ll have plenty of opportunities to spend your money at small companies, some of whom make a positive contribution to the world. You have a choice. I’d suggest you choose with wisdom, and with compassion. Choose to create a better world.
There’s been a rapid evolution of how Wildmind runs online courses. For years we held online courses with anything from half a dozen to 20 participants. Then we decided to start 2013 with a more public 100 Day Meditation Challenge, followed by another 100 days exploring the four Brahmaviharas. For these events I wrote a daily (or almost daily) article on Wildmind’s blog, accompanied by guided meditations.
When Mark joined the team, we decided to develop that model yet further, in order to create a year-long schedule of meditation events for 2014. This became our first Year of Going Deeper. We offered a program of eight online courses, covering everything from learning basic meditation techniques, to cultivating absorption (jhana), to developing insight.
We’ve learned a lot on the go! With the two events in 2013 we didn’t know how many people were participating; we guessed it was a few hundred, but we were simply posting material on the blog and hoping that people were paying attention! So for our first Year of Going Deeper we decided to run the events via email. This gave us a clear idea of how many people were participating. As it happened, we had over 1,200 people sign up for each of the eight events!
We’re building on that success by offering another Year of Going Deeper in 2015 with an even larger program.
One thing we’ve learned is to have shorter events. For example, instead of a 100 day event exploring the four Brahmaviharas, we have one 25 day event for each of the four practices. This is less daunting for potential participants, and allows people to join at different times.
We’ve also learned not to use the “f-word” — that is, the word “free”! We’d said that our first Year of Going Deeper was “free,” but that donations were welcome. That turned out to be a mistake! The word “free” is very attractive, but it sets up an unhelpful expectation: last year only around five percent of participants donated.
Like any organization we have financial needs, and we’ve really struggled this year because of our missteps in communicating them. So for 2015 we’re encouraging participants to donate when they enroll, being more upfront about our needs while (we hope) avoiding being pushy.
Our first event of next year — a 28 day meditation challenge called “Sit Breathe Love” — starts on January 1, and so far the indications are good. It’s quite likely that we’ll end up the same number of participants as last year, and so far about 50% of those who’ve enrolled have made a donation: a ten-fold increase on last year. We’re hopeful that this is going to bring us some much-needed financial stability.
Wildmind, I think, does an amazing job in reaching out and making meditation instruction available on a mass scale. We’ve literally touched millions of lives through our website. I’m looking forward to the day when no longer have to do this on a shoestring and with an anxious eye on our cash-flow, but instead have an abundance of resources to draw on!
I’m sure that 2015 won’t be our last Year of Going Deeper. In fact I’d like to keep running these events and for them to grow. Wouldn’t it be inspiring to have 10,000 people participating in each of these events? Or even 100,000? I hope you can join us for one of them!
- Learn more about Wildmind’s Year of Going Deeper
- And if you feel moved to give a general donation to Wildmind you can do so here!
Sometimes I find it hard to set up a good habit. Other times it’s easy. I’ve been wondering if I could look at a habit I’ve found easy to set up, and then apply those principles in other areas. Now I already meditate daily, but perhaps this is something you’ve found difficult and could use some pointers with, or maybe, like me, you’re already a regular meditator but have other areas you need to be working on (and let’s face it, who couldn’t). So I thought I’d share my observations and reflections.
One good habit I’ve been successful in setting up is going out running three times a week, with the aim of building up to running a 5k. I’ve been going out very regularly, and have been enjoying a sense of joy during every run and a glow of satisfaction afterward. I’m not even deterred by bad weather!
Now I’ve tried to get into running before, but I’ve never enjoyed it so consistently. What’s different this time?
First, I have a running buddy. If he’s not available for some reason, I’ll still go running on my own, but I’m more motivated to go running with a friend because it’s much more fun when we’re together and we keep each other accountable.
What’s the lesson for meditating regularly?
You may not be able to meditate with others every day in the flesh, but you can use an app like the Insight Timer, which shows you how many other people are meditating at the same time as you. Or you can have a meditation buddy that you can text or email each other with a brief message confirming that you’ve meditated. If you haven’t heard from your partner you can send her a quick reminder. At times I’ve meditated with a friend on Skype. Of course we’re in silence, but there’s a real sense of being with another person.
The second difference from my usual attempts at running is that this time I’m using an app. We have a “Couch to 5k” app that provides a structured nine-week program of running, gradually building up to a solid 30 minute run, which is easily enough time to cover 5 kilometers.
What’s the lesson for meditating regularly?
Set short but attainable targets for yourself. It’s OK to do a short meditation each day to begin with. There are lots of meditations of about eight minutes in length (I’ve made a CD of them myself) and that’s enough to make a subtle difference to our day.
And for most people, the equivalent of a meditation app is a timer or a guided meditation. Both will give you a sense of structure. A guided meditation not only gives your practice some structure, but is also like having a meditation buddy who walks you through the meditation.
The third difference is that we congratulate ourselves and each other.
Our running app is structured: we’ll run, walk, run, walk, run for 25 minutes or so. At the end of each leg of running we’ll high five each other and give ourselves congratulations on our progress. The boost in mood that we get from doing this is very noticeable.
Remember it’s OK to congratulate yourself. You could get to the end of a meditation and say to yourself “Target achieved! Yay, me! That’s awesome!” and so on. Be your own cheerleader. Some of us have been brought up to be suspicious of self-congratulation, but remember that you’re not praising yourself in order to make yourself look good but so that you can associate a positive habit with feelings of pleasure, and look forward to your practice.
I think these three lessons from my running practice are something I can bring into other areas of my life — and perhaps you’ll find them useful too.
Fundraising Progress since Dec 6
The short story is that we need to raise $12,000 in donations before the end of the year in order to break even. There are more details below, but if you’ve benefitted from the work we do, or appreciate our efforts to make meditation teachings more widely available, please respond by contributing generously so that we can continue to provide our activities for everyone to enjoy. We really can’t afford to sustain a loss this year.
It would be wonderful if you could donate $1000, or $100, or even just $10 — whatever you can afford.
- If you want to use a credit card, you can click here, enter the amount you want to donate, and then click on “add to cart.”
- If you have a Paypal account, you can click here and enter your chosen donation.
- And lastly, checks can be mailed to: Wildmind, 55 Main St. Suite 315, Newmarket NH 03857, USA.
Here’s some background!
We’ve had a challenging couple of years. In 2013 we learned that our tax accountant had not filed our taxes for the previous two years. This created a huge problem with the Internal Revenue Service, and we had to spend around $8,000 sorting things out with them. This, as it happens, was money well spent, because we’d otherwise have faced penalties of $25,000, which we managed to get waived.
We took on Mark Tillotson in order to free me up to teach more, with the assumption that this arrangement would start to pay for itself before the end of the year. We’re making progress in that direction, but we haven’t yet got there. Keeping Mark employed as part of the team is my major priority, since it allows me to do what I’m best at — writing and teaching — rather than be distracted by routine office work.
Thanks to Mark’s presence we were able to launch our Year of Going Deeper, which involved me teaching full-time. On a personal level this was deeply satisfying, but unfortunately on a financial level this didn’t work out. We made a strategic error in saying “these events are free, but donations are appreciated.” Unfortunately this seems to have sent out a signal we didn’t intend, and only around 3% of participants donated.
The financial pressure we’ve experienced has been quite extreme. It saps our energy to be juggling bills and experiencing anxiety about whether we can continue.
Celebrating Our Successes!
But in many ways things have been going well! Here are a few highlights:
- There were 1,500,000 visits to our website in the past 12 months. And our traffic is steadily growing! That’s a lot of meditation teaching!
- We taught meditation to people in every country in the world (except for Western Sahara, for some reason).
- We ran seven online events as part of our Year of Going Deeper, and these events averaged over 1,200 participants each. All these events were by donation.
- The materials I wrote for these events — on cultivating jhana, on the six element practice, and on lovingkindness — are in the process of being edited into book form.
- The very talented Amy Kosh joined our team part-time during the summer, and has been making a wonderful contribution in running our online store, which helps subsidize our teaching work.
- Our base of monthly financial supporters has been growing steadily.
Things are Looking Up!
We think that financial problems this year are just teething problems.
Our tax situation is now sorted out, and our accounting bills will be much lower in 2015.
We’ve changed how we ask for donations, and the percentage of participants who are making a donation has increased tenfold. (The total number is down, but we’re hopeful that on balance we’ll do better).
The material that I wrote for our meditation challenges in 2014 will start going on sale in 2015, which will bring in more income. We’ll also be able to cut some of our costs next year.
In short, we believe we’re on the way to being financially stable. We’re looking forward, one day, and perhaps soon, to having an abundance of resources to draw on, rather than worrying about how to continue. We hope that soon we won’t be in the position of having to ask for help like this!
The Sacred Balance
We’re not just trying to balance our books, but are looking for a sense of balance in everything we do. We believe passionately in the power meditation has to transform lives for the better. We’re doing everything we can, with the resources at our disposal, to help others. We’re seeking a balance where what we give out to the world in energy is met with enough support so that we can flourish and help the world to flourish. We have big plans! We’re not at that point of balance yet, but we believe it’s attainable. Please support us and help us get there!
PS. Again, three ways you can make a donation are:
- Donate by credit card
- Donate via Paypal
- Or mail a check to Wildmind, 55 Main St. Suite 315, Newmarket NH 03857, USA.