By Bhikkhu Anīgha
“Bhikkhus, this is the one-way path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and grief, for the attainment of the true way, for the realisation of Nibbāna—namely, the Four Foundations of Recollection.
“What are the four? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu abides contemplating a body within the body (kāye kāyānupassī), ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having curbed longing and aversion for the world. He abides contemplating a feeling within feelings (vedanāsu vedanānupassī), ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having curbed longing and aversion for the world. He abides contemplating a mind within the mind (citte cittānupassī), ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having curbed longing and aversion for the world. He abides contemplating a phenomenon within phenomena (dhammesu dhammānupassī), ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having curbed longing and aversion for the world.―MN 10, Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta
In every conceivable experience, there are phenomena that are “farther” and phenomena that are “closer”. For an undeveloped mind, what is “closer”, more subtle, less defined and less changeable tends to be regarded as “me” and “mine”, given that it’s not even seen and is taken for granted, and attention rests on what is “over there” in the form of sense objects and the world. The usual way of practicing satipaṭṭhāna which involves keeping one’s attention on bodily sensations and objects of various kinds, only serves to maintain this lack of development of the mind, and all the seemingly beneficial results it may provide will still be obtained within the framework that puts “me” at the center of experience, and thus are not truly beneficial in the quest for the freedom from suffering.1
Instead, the goal of right recollection (sati) is to establish and sustain the memory of a more accurate picture, that does not overlook that which is “closer”, and takes into account its true nature of being liable to change and deterioration, just like everything that is “further away” from the point of view.
Seeing a “a body within the body”, as the satipaṭṭhāna refrain goes, and which has been translated in a myriad ways that miss the central point, means that you see your experience as a whole at any time, the entire six-sense field, as a body that is less fundamental, secondary to body. “Within” means just that: body is at the “center” of body, because it’s more primordial.
Body can be anything that is a simultaneous foundation or necessary basis for body, which is whatever aspect of the body you see, use, and are attached to, as well as anything in the world you perceive. Most importantly, this body is what your sense of self can call “me” and “mine”. Body is the material things that determine your body, such as your organs, the Four Great Elements, your breathing, or material “stuff” that is no more special than that which makes up a corpse (the practices mentioned under Body Contemplation in MN 10).
An analogy to illustrate the relationship between these “two bodies” can be made by borrowing from science for a moment. At the center of each galaxy, there is a black hole which the other celestial bodies orbit around, owing to the black hole’s immense gravitational pull. But this black hole cannot be seen or measured directly. Rather, the presence of the black hole is implied in the movement of the surrounding stars and planets. But, if unaware of the existence of black holes or how they work, one will have to assume that there is some mysterious force orchestrating all that movement. Similarly, whenever you don’t indirectly know the presence of the true “center” of experience—of body, which equally cannot be perceived directly because that would put it within body—then you are already assuming your sense of self to be that center, or the orchestrator of the movements, and this is the perpetual state of whoever lacks the Right View. For as long as you don’t discern body within body, which is what makes you a sotāpanna, your contemplation that “this is impermanent” or “this is not mine” is, to extend the analogy, just another star that you regard as orbiting around you.
In the case of feeling, there’s always a feeling in your experience that’s more “central” than all the others, which are comparatively fleeting. An example of this is when you’ve having a good day, and all the particular things you encounter, some of which may be quite unpleasant, don’t disturb you as much. Conversely, when that general feeling is unpleasant, even the things that would usually give you joy fail to do so.
If you see that at the core of all those other more particular feelings, determining them, lies that more primary feeling, you don’t then need to go and “manually” remove the sense of ownership and tell yourself that this or that feeling is not yours. None of it will be yours because you’re no longer the “center” whether you like it or not, but rather that “core” feeling is (and always was), since it is because of it that all the other particular feelings either pleased you or bothered you, regardless of your desire to always be pleased.
With “a mind within the mind”, it’s the same. A more primordial state of mind always simultaneously underlies all the more particular moods that may arise, and so you must discern that at the “core” of all the other moods and emotions that you’re experiencing. Particularly relevant in this case is, as the satipaṭṭhāna Sutta describes, recognizing a mind that is either affected with or free from lust, aversion, and delusion. This is how you would begin to see what actually determines something as unwholesome, which is when that “core” has lust, aversion and delusion in it and you’re taking it for granted and acting out of it. Without seeing that “center” as that which determines your more particular experiences and actions, you would fall into the common idea that it’s the way you move, talk and the specific thoughts you’re having which serve as the criteria for what is unwholesome. You could then become perfectly restrained, gentle and polite in your outward expression, even never really have lustful or hateful thoughts, but you would fail to see that at the “center” of all that is a state of mind affected with craving whose sway you are still under.
With dhammas it’s more varied, but to give an example, you would see the sense bases as the “center” and everything else as surrounding that. Only by not seeing that that’s the actual center that is just being “hit” by sense objects, and thus automatically being the center oneself, can there be lust or aversion towards sense experiences. And that’s also how the hindrances work: they hinder you because you don’t even recognize their “center”, thus everything you do is blindly going with the grain of those hindrances, even the Dhamma practice. It’s not because of the center itself or what “surrounds” that center, which is why it’s futile to try to stop one’s thinking, concentrate on something else, etc., intentionally arouse feelings of joy, etc.2
And how, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu abide contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects? Here a bhikkhu abides contemplating a phenomenon within phenomena in terms of the five hindrances. And how does a bhikkhu abide contemplating a phenomenon within phenomena in terms of the five hindrances? Here, there being sensual desire internally, a bhikkhu understands: ‘There is sensual desire internally’; or there being no sensual desire internally, he understands: ‘There is no sensual desire internally’; and he also understands how there comes to be the arising of unarisen sensual desire, and how there comes to be the abandoning of arisen sensual desire, and how there comes to be the future non-arising of abandoned sensual desire. [and so on for the rest]’—MN 10, Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta
When that simultaneous relationship is seen,3 whether in terms of the body, feelings, mind or phenomena, it becomes inconceivable to exercise a sense of ownership over both thing and thing, the sum of which nothing can possibly be outside of. You now see that you cannot be that center even if you wanted to, and body, which is clearly not yours, becomes the “center” instead. Same principle applies to the other satipaṭṭhānas. They render ownership redundant and inconceivable.
This “ownership becoming inconceivable” point cannot be emphasized enough, given that it’s possible for people to think that, because they can now apparently overcome the sense of self by “applying” some practice, they therefore have right mindfulness or became sotāpannas. This is not it. It is entirely out of the question for the assumption of self and its associated suffering to ever arise again if “body within the body”, etc., has been understood—even if one doesn’t do any meditation for the rest of one’s life4. This is precisely the reason that the Buddha had to constantly urge Noble disciples not to become complacent, which would be unimaginable for one whose idea of sati hinges on habits and practices (sīlabbataparāmāsa), without which the progress they made collapses. The capacity to see “a body within the body” makes such things lose all importance.
“But, venerable sir, in what way can a bhikkhu be called skilled in what is possible and what is impossible?”
“Here, Ānanda, a bhikkhu understands: ‘It is impossible, it cannot happen that a person possessing right view could view any formation as permanent—there is no such possibility.’ And he understands: ‘It is possible that an ordinary person might view some formation as permanent—there is such a possibility. ’ He understands: ‘It is impossible, it cannot happen that a person possessing right view could view any formation as pleasurable—there is no such possibility.’ And he understands: ‘It is possible that an ordinary person might view some formation as pleasurable—there is such a possibility.’ He understands: ‘It is impossible, it cannot happen that a person possessing right view could view anything as self—there is no such possibility.’ And he understands: ‘It is possible that an ordinary person might view something as self—there is such a possibility.’—MN 115, The Various Elements
Being able to see a body within the body, a feeling within feelings, a mind within the mind, and a phenomenon within phenomena is also what puts an end to the four fundamental assumptions in regard to the aggregates, one of which a puthujjana will inevitably have at any given time.
“How, householder, is one afflicted in body and afflicted in mind? Here, householder, the uninstructed worldling, who is not a seer of the Noble ones and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, who is not a seer of superior persons and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, regards form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as within self, or self as within form. He lives stuck in the notions: ‘I am form, form is mine.’
As he lives stuck in these notions, that form of his changes and alters. With the change and alteration of form, there arise in him sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair. He regards feelings… perceptions… intentions… consciousness…”―SN 22.1, Nakula’s Father
On the other hand, the instructed Noble disciple, the stream-enterer or higher, is “well-instructed” and “Noble” because they’ve seen that what is “within” form cannot be anything but form, and that even if they chose to embrace either of them and call it “mine and mine alone”, it would not actually be assumed (upādāna) as such on the level that matters, because, even in a mundane sense, assuming things is made possible only by the lack of knowledge. Once you know, you cannot fool yourself again even if you try.
“Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: Within the seen, there will be only the seen. Within the heard, only the heard. Within the sensed, only the sensed. Within the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there is only the seen within the seen, only the heard within the heard, only the sensed within the sensed, only the cognized within the cognized, then, Bāhiya, you will not be “that by which” [the “center”; the master]. When you are not “that by which”, there is no “you” there. When there is no “you” there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This itself is the end of suffering.”
Through hearing this brief explanation of the Dhamma from the Blessed One, the mind of Bāhiya of the Bark-cloth right then and there was released from the outflows through non-assumption.―Udāna 1.10, Bāhiya Sutta
The well-known “in the seen just the seen”5 employs the same concept of something being “inside” of something else. One must learn to see that that inner “center”, where the notion of self gets established, is actually nothing more than a bundle of subtler phenomena that pertain to—and thus depend on and could not have arisen without6—what is seen. And, in turn, the seen would not be intelligible without these subtler phenomena that are “further back”. These phenomena are simply less palpable, less defined thoughts, intentions, feelings, notions, memories, views, ideas, expectations, etc., which arise as such. If you actually discern that that more ambiguous “center” is also a manifest thing(s), just subtler and on a different plane than the sense objects are, it becomes unthinkable to be the owner of the seen, despite the fact that there are very much still these less-palpable background things you used to assume as “mine” associated with the sights, that arise as “closer” than the sights themselves.
Learn how to see these background things as the center that your sights “orbit” around instead of trying to descend onto the “bare perceptions” of “raw sense data”, which is, to return to the previous analogy, akin to focusing your efforts on the things orbiting the black hole rather than on your ignorance of it.
Lastly, what allows one to truly see those two simultaneous planes and thus get the Right View, be it in terms of the four satipaṭṭhānas or “the seen within the seen”, is to have been practicing the Gradual Training—living virtuously, withdrawn from sensuality and not delighting in the company of others—for a long time. Unrestrained actions (“me here” seeking the pleasant objects “yonder”) and unnecessary company (“me here” and other people “yonder”) automatically abolish right perspective and maintain the sense of self: the notion of me being the center, pressured to act towards the things “around me”. It is because people continue reinforcing the sense of self through such actions that they then feel the need to abolish the “center” altogether when it’s time to practice, and are thus unable to see the Middle Way, devoting themselves to the hopeless battle of denial instead, which can only provide trivial, temporary rewards.
The four establishments of mindfulness, too, I say, have a nutriment; they are not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for the four establishments of mindfulness? It should be said: the three kinds of good conduct. The three kinds of good conduct, too, I say, have a nutriment; they are not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for the three kinds of good conduct? It should be said: restraint of the sense faculties―AN 10.61, Ignorance
Bhikkhus, (1) it is impossible that a bhikkhu who delights in company, who is delighted with company, who is devoted to delight in company; who delights in a group, who is delighted with a group, who is devoted to delight in a group, will find delight in solitude when he is alone. (2) It is impossible that one who does not find delight in solitude when he is alone will acquire the hint of the mind. (3) It is impossible that one who does not acquire the hint of the mind will fulfill the Right View. (4) It is impossible that one who does not fulfill the Right View will fulfill Right Composure. (5) It is impossible that one who does not fulfill Right Composure will abandon the fetters. (6) Without having abandoned the fetters, it is impossible that one will realize Nibbāna.―AN 6.68, Delight in Company
Note: This way of explaining “body within body” is an equivalent alternative to the way used in my essay “The Meaning of Yoniso Manasikāra” and generally in the Hillside Hermitage Dhamma Talks. I opted for this different way of describing the “within” aspect this time around given that it corresponds to the Pāli more literally. However, there is absolutely no relevant difference in the meaning conveyed, and in both paradigms what is actually being pointed at is the simultaneous principle that underlies one’s whole experience and undermines one’s ownership of it, discerning which the view of self would not be able to find room where there isn’t any.
- Contrary to popular belief, anattā is not about there being no center to the experience and no individuality, in which case stark differences in character between two Arahants would be inexplicable. It’s about the fact that the “center” is not yours, not in your control. ↩︎
- See relevant talk: Seeing Through The Hindrances Instead of Denying Them ↩︎
- Relationship which will only be obscured by focusing on an object. This would only serve to sustain the sense of me being at the core of the experience and looking at it. ↩︎
- This is a good litmus test for the Right View and Right Recollection: if you put aside everything you’ve learned about the Dhamma and all the information, habits, and practices you’ve acquired, and abandon all efforts, including your “formal meditation”, is there room to doubt that your inability to suffer and recognition of the nature of things will remain untouched? If yes, then whatever it is, it’s still not the Noble sati that was developed, and it’s important to remind oneself of that as often as possible. ↩︎
- This has nothing to do with the celebrated and fallacious idea of “bare perceptions”, often linked with the practice of “noting” and similar, which is underlain by the wrong view that liberation is when parts of the aggregates have been magically deleted, and there are only the “pure sensations” and “pure present moment” left, as if everything else ― namely thoughts, intentions, plans, preferences, concepts, ideas ― was ever in itself an issue. Ironically, it is also that “everything else” that distinguishes us from animals, and gives us the ability to develop wisdom in the first place. ↩︎
- All that’s explained in this essay is synonymous with seeing paṭiccasamuppāda, the principle of simultaneous dependence. It’s no coincidence that acquiring sammāsati is synonymous with seeing the Dhamma. “Whoever sees paṭiccasamuppāda sees the Dhamma; whoever sees the Dhamma sees paṭiccasamuppāda”—
MN 28. ↩︎