The following explanation of the Buddhist practice of mindfulness has been drastically abridged from the begining of the text SATIPATTHANA VISPASSANA MEDITATION 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. At present times 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 mindstuff. The Buddhist method of 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.
The body consists solely of the two distinct groups of matter and mind. The solid substance of body a mass of matter. Matter changes its form under physical conditions of heat, cold, etc., and because of this fact of changeableness under contrary physical conditions it is called Form (rupa). It does not possess any faculty of knowing an object. In the Abhidhamma, 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 dhamma and anarammana dhamma) 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.
A Yogi [meditator] 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. But people have a general idea that material elements of a living body the faculty of knowing an object irrespective of the fact whether, it is in a dead or a living body.
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 Mind (nama) 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.
While it has a wide field of action by running throughout the whole length of body, inside and outside, the sense of sight, hearing, smell, or taste can on the other hand come into being respectively in its own particular sphere, such as eye, ear, nose, and tongue, which occupies a very small and limited space of the body. These senses of touch, sight, etc. are nothing but the elements of mind. Also there comes into being the mind-consciousness (i.e., thoughts, ideas, imaginations, etc.) depending on mind-base. All of these are elements of mind. Mind as a rule knows an object while 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 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 and there is no separate entity such as "I" or "Ego." There is only the fact of "seeing" coming into being depending on eye.
People who are without the training and knowledge of the Meditational Development of Insight (vipassana bhavana) hold the view that seeing belongs to or is "self, or ego, or living entity, or person." They believe that "Seeing is 1; 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. For more clarity it will be explained further as to the manner of holding the wrong view or belief. At the moment of seeing, the things that are in actual existence are the eye and visual object of material group, and the seeing which belongs to mental group. These two kinds are in actual existence. Yet people hold the view that this group of elements is "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, seeing," on every act of seeing. (By the terms of note or observe or contemplate it means the act of keeping the mind fixedly on the object with a view to knowing clearly.) Because of this fact of keeping the mind fixedly by noting as "seeing, 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, basing 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, seeing" on every occasion of seeing.
Similarly, in the case of hearing, there are only two distinct elements of matter and mind. The sense of hearing arises depending on ear. While ear and sound are two elements of matter, the sense of hearing is an element of mind. In order to know clearly any one of these two kinds of matter and mind it should be noted as "hearing, hearing" on every occasion of hearing. So also it should be noted as smelling, smelling" on every occasion of smelling, and as "knowing, knowing" on every occasion of knowing the taste.
Similarly, 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 collision with Nerve Tissue and there arises a Touch Consciousness (kaya-vinnana) which feels or knows the touch on each occasion. It will now be seen that at every time of touching there are two elements of matter, viz, sense-organ and impression of touch, and one element of mind, viz, knowing of touch. In order to know these things distinctly at every time of touch the practice of noting as "touching, touching" has to be carried out. This merely refers to the common form of sensation of touch. There are special forms which accompany painful or disagreeable sensations, such as, to feel stiff or tired in the body or limbs, to feel hot, to feel pain, to feel numb, to feel ache, etc. Because Feeling (vedana) predominates in these cases, it should be noted as "feeling hot, feeling tired, painful, etc." as the case may be.
It may also be mentioned that there occur many sensations of touch in hands and legs, etc., on each occasion of bending, stretching, or moving. Because of mind wanting to move, stretch or bend, the material activities of moving, stretching, or bending, etc., occur in series. (It may not be possible to notice these incidents for the present. They can only be noticed after some time on gaining practice. It is mentioned here for the sake of Knowledge.) All activities in movements and in changing, etc., are done by these minds. When the mind wills to bend, there arises a series of inward movements of hand or leg; when the mind wills 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 at the very point of occurrence. (One will notice these incidents later on.)
In every case of bending, stretching or other activities, there arises in the foremost a series of intending or willing minds, and on account of which there occur in the hands and legs a series of material activities, such as stiffening (or being hard), bending, stretching, or moving to and fro. These activities.ties come up against other material elements, nerve tissue, and on every occasion of collision between material activities and sensitive qualities, there arises Touch Consciousness, which feels or knows the sensation of touch. It is, therefore, clear that material activities are the predominating factors in these cases. It is necessary to notice these predominating factors. If not, there will surely arise the wrong view of holding these activities in the sense of "I or I am bending, or I am stretching, or 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, imaginations, etc." it may be mentioned that depending on mind-base there arise a series of mental activities, such as thinking, imagining, etc., or to speak in a general sense, a series of mental activities arise depending on this body. In reality each case is a composition of matter and mind; mind-base or body is matter, while thinking, imagining, etc. are mind. In order to be able to notice matter and mind clearly, it should be noted as "thinking, imagining, etc." 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 fixedly on the object to which it is directed. At the same time the power of noticing has considerably developed. On every occasion of noting he 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 is noted every time as it arises; it then vanishes. Immediately another arises, which is again noted and which then 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 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, feeling hot, painful, aching, and at the time of noting these sensations he generally feels that this body is a collection of sufferings. This is also 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: they are not governable: they are not person or living entity. This is Insight into the Absence of a Self (anattanupassana-nana). On having fully acquired these knowledges 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 realization of Nirvana is won. By winning the realization of Nirvana in the first stage, one is freed from the round of rebirth in the unhappy life of lower existence. 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, etc., 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. The incidents of seeing, hearing, etc. 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 healing 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, sitting."
Sitting is an erect posture of body consisting of a series of physical activities which are induced by the consciousness consisting of a series of mental activities. It is just like the case of an inflated rubber ball which maintains its round shape through the resistance of the air inside it: so 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, tlesh, bones are nothing but material elements. The element of stiffening which keeps the body in an erect posture belongs to the material group and arises in the sinews, flesh, blood, etc. 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 (bhavana). 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, sitting, 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 forin 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, sitting, 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; sitting, touching; 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.
The more simplified and easy form of exercise for a beginner is this: At every time of breathing there occur movements in the form of rising and falling of one's abdomen. A beginner should start with this exercise of noting or observing these movements. It is easy to observe these movements because they are coarse and prominent and are more suitable for a beginner. As in schools where simple lessons are easy to learn so is the case in the practice of Vipassana Meditation. A beginner will find it easier to develop Concentration and Spiritual Knowledge with a simple and easy exercise. Again, the purpose of the Vipassana Meditation is to begin the exercise by contemplating prominent factors in the body. Of the two factors of mind and matter, the mental element is subtle and less prominent while the material element is coarse and more prominent.
Therefore the usual procedure for one who practices the 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 Satipatthana Sutra, the discourse of the Buddha, dealing with the practice of mindfulness, 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 mindful of other bodily activities as each of them occurs. In this connection it is stated in the commentaries that one should be mindful 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