The Satipatthana Sutta and the limitations of Twitter discussions

Posted by on Nov 21, 2012 in Buddhism | No Comments

Today on Twitter, someone challenged me about something I said in one of my blog posts.

They said: ‘”Suspend thinking” is not a Buddhist approach to cultivating awareness’

I didn’t actually suggest suspending thinking. I suggested that suspending thinking about past and future for short periods throughout the day could be good for developing awareness.

I said as much on Twitter.

My challenger replied with “which teacher or tradition teaches this method?”

I replied that I didn’t think Twitter was a suitable place for this kind of conversation and I would write a blog post.

My challenger said he’d had lots of long conversations on Twitter.

I haven’t, and I don’t intend to.

Debate in Buddhism

In Tibetan Buddhism, there’s a strong tradition of debate as a way to sharpen one’s mind and increase one’s clarity about Buddhist ideas, commentaries on Buddhist ideas, and how different commentaries on Buddhist ideas differ and why.

When debating, the monks make specific gestures, so it’s clear whether they’re making a point or refuting one. Again, I imagine this sharpens the mind.

I think this would be a great thing to get involved with, and think that it couldn’t result in anything but a crisper understanding of what different schools have to say about Buddhism.

But I don’t think the same can be said for Twitter.

The chances of increasing confusion are at least as high as the chances of increasing clarity. This is why I’m not going to get into debating stuff on Twitter.

If you have a question you’d like me to answer, by all means ask on Twitter or drop me an email. It’s great when I don’t have to think up a subject for a post because someone thought it up for me!

Anyway, here it is. I hope he likes it.

What I was trying to say was…

As to the point I was making, I was trying to bring the ideas from the Satipatthana Sutta into everyday life, using plain English.

Sure you can lose some of the subtlety that way, but my hope is that it makes things more accessible for people who don’t have the time or inclination to get into the detail, but who nonetheless want to learn about Buddhist tools and ideas and make use of them in their lives.

Suspending thinking about past and future for short periods

In the Satipatthana Sutta, it says the following:

The Satipatthana Sutta: Modes of Deportment

The Modes of Deportment

“And further, O bhikkhus, when he is going, a bhikkhu understands: ‘I am going’; when he is standing, he understands: ‘I am standing’; when he is sitting, he understands: ‘I am sitting’; when he is lying down, he understands: ‘I am lying down’; or just as his body is disposed so he understands it.

“Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things, in the body. Or indeed his mindfulness is established with the thought: ‘The body exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.” Thus, also, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the body in the body.”

The Four Kinds of Clear Comprehension

“And further, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu, in going forwards (and) in going backwards, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in looking straight on (and) in looking away from the front, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in bending and in stretching, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in wearing the shoulder-cloak, the (other two) robes (and) the bowl, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in regard to what is eaten, drunk, chewed and savored, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in defecating and in urinating, is a person practicing clear comprehension; in walking, in standing (in a place), in sitting (in some position), in sleeping, in waking, in speaking and in keeping silence, is a person practicing clear comprehension.

“Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally… and clings to naught in the world. Thus, also, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the body in the body.”


Are you still with me? Not really standard blog fodder is it? And that was just an extract. And from there of course we need a commentary, of which there are LOADS.

But my take on it is this

In order to develop mindfulness (‘sati’ means ‘mindfulness, and ‘patthana’ means something like ‘foundations’) the first thing we need to do is become aware of our body. When we’re aware of our body, we need to become aware of the ‘coming and going’ of our body – and the different postures we take throughout the day.

What that means is we need to come out of our heads, out of the past and the future, and into what’s going on RIGHT NOW in the present moment.

One way of saying this is “suspend thinking about past and future”. Perhaps it’s not the most eloquent way of putting it, and I’m certainly not suggesting you do that as a matter of course forever (because thinking is necessary and useful – and thinking about the past and future most certainly has its place). But as a way of approaching the cultivation of mindfulness when you’re off the cushion, I think it kind of gets the point across.

Invoking tradition

I’ve spoken elsewhere about the place of tradition. Buddhism is, traditionally speaking, quite radical. We shouldn’t be afraid of innovating. And that’s certainly and unashamedly why I use the style and tone I do in this blog.

But if you want to know the tradition, the Satipatthana Sutta comes from the Theravadin tradition. This is older (and therefore ‘more traditional’) than the Mahayana tradition to which the Tibetan schools adhere.

The Tibetans are the new kids on the block compared with the Theravada. Mahayana Buddhism is most certainly an innovation, and Tibetan Buddhism is a further innovation compared with the Mahayana Buddhism of ancient India.

Now please don’t think I’m dissing the Mahayana or Tibetan Buddhism here. I have the utmost respect for Buddhism in all its forms. I’m just pointing out that just because something’s traditional doesn’t mean it’s good. And just because something’s not traditional it doesn’t mean it’s not the Dharma.

My Twitter friend

My Twitter friend is right to challenge. There’s a lot of nonsense out there (quite possibly some of it is on this blog!) and we must be discerning in what we take on.

Asking for sources is one way of doing it (I chose one here, but really there are loads I could’ve used to back up what I said).

But really, at the end of the day it’s you who has to live your life and you who has to die when the time comes. I can make suggestions, but it won’t be me who reaps the rewards or takes the fall if you decide to follow them.

So test this stuff against your own experience. No matter how traditional or well respected it is, if it ain’t working, ditch it.

And by the way, that’s a highly traditional Buddhist position 😉



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