Foundations of Mindfulness, Mindfulness of the Body – Bodhi Pakshika Dharma – Talk 2


[Overview of Bodhi Pakshika Dharma]
Starting into the particulars of the 37 steps of the Bodhi Pakshika Dharma. In this talk we heard from the Buddha on the importance places on dedicated practice of these training steps and started into the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. I didn’t get to the end of my notes but they are pasted in below in case they are helpful to anyone. As it seems to go in my talks lately the spoken and the written diverge a lot. Who knows which is more helpful?

To download the 37 steps as a PDF in the form of a home practice ceremony use this link:  Bodhi Pakshika Dharma Ceremony

Here’s a few paragraphs from the sutra describing the Buddha’s death – which is called the Parinirvana in Buddhism, the final, or ultimate, entry into the stillness of nirvana:

…”Oh monks and nuns, I say to you that these teachings of which I have direct knowledge and which have made known to you-these you should thoroughly learn, cultivate, develop, and frequently practice, that the life of purity may be established and may long endure, for the welfare and happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, well-being, and happiness of gods and humans.

And what, oh monks and nuns, are these teachings? The are the four foundations of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four constituents of power, the five faculties, the five powers, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the noble eight-fold path. These, are the teachings of which I have direct knowledge, which I have made known to you, and which you should thoroughly learn, cultivate, develop, and frequently practice, that the life of purity may be established and may long endure, , for the welfare and happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, well-being, and happiness of gods and humans.”

Then the Blessed One said to the monks and nuns, “I exhort you: All compound things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness. The time of the Tathagata’s Parinirvana is near. Soon the Tathagata will utterly pass away.”

And having spoken these words, the Happy One, the Great Master, spoke again saying in verse:

My years are now full ripe, the life span left is short.

Departing, I go hence from you, relying on myself alone.

Be earnest, then, O bhikkhus, be mindful and of virtue pure!

With firm resolve, guard your own mind!

Who so untiringly pursues the Dharma and the Discipline

Shall go beyond the round of births and make an end of suffering.”

And so in there he listed off seven lists which were later called in Mahayana Buddhism the Bodhi Pakshika Dharma.  Bodhi means awakening, Pakshika means things relating to, and Dharma has the wonderful double meaning of both the Buddha’s teaching and the actual flow of our experience. So Bodhi Pakshika Dharma means the way of working with Buddha’s teaching in accordance with the reality of our actual lives that leads to awakening. And my sense is to leave that phrase untranslated. I’ve been reading two different books on this – one by the wonderful contemporary American monk in the Thai tradition Thanissaro Bhikkhu and other by the great 20th century Chan master Shen Yen. Thanissaro calls this path “The Wings to Awakening” which is wonderful , and Sheng Yen’s translators decided on the less prosaic but more literal “Things Pertaining to Bodhi”. But I think skillful use of non-English terms can help us to open up a little so let’s see if we can engage with the Bodhi Pakshika Dharma together. We will see if it’s helpful to us individually and as a community. I think it will be.

The first section is the four foundations of mindfulness. The source text on this is a whole teaching on mindfulness in the Pali canon called Satipatthana Sutta –  literally the sutra on the foundations of mindfulness – which is to large extent also the basis for the secular mindfulness movement which is unfolding around us including in this room where we have 20 people practicing in that style that just this morning. So the importance of this first little list of four items is hard to understate.

Mindfulness shows up many times in the list of 37 as you’ve probably noticed. So what is mindfulness?

The Pali word being translated as “mindfulness” is sati which primarily means remembering. To remember. So it’s a process not a state. You hear people say “be mindful” or “be more mindful” but in a traditional sense the question is mindful of what? Remembering is great, but what are you remembering exactly? And so this first list in the Bodhi Pakshika Dharma gives some suggestions and in itself these first four points are a valuable practice one could work on for many years.

Foundation here could be likened to something to stand on, like the foundation of a house. It’s a deliberate choosing of an area of our experience for this practice of remembering and discernment. Thanissaro has an interesting translation of “foundation of mindfulness” – he says “frame of reference” in his teaching. So to take up a frame of reference ora foundation – a kind of container or category of our experience to examine carefully and accurately with the tools of meditation and awareness.

One way I’ve been explaining mindfulness and how it fits into consciousness is to use the analogy of a spotlight in the theater. Let’s say it’s a dark scene and most of the stage can’t be seen. Then they turn on the spot light and illuminate one actor. So you are aware of that actor but not the rest of the stage even though you know the rest of the stage still exists

Awareness is what the spotlight reveals to you. It’s what your cognizant of. And then the spotlight moves to another part of the stage and you are aware of something else – another actor, a different area of the set, totally different information moves into awareness – that moving of the spotlight is attention. You can direct your attention in different ways and change what you are aware of. Or something else seems to grab your attention and move that spotlight for you popping something new into awareness. Sometimes it makes us a little dizzy right? The spotlight zooming around – attention being shifted this way and that by our circumstances or our sticky thinking. Pay attention to me! A thought says or a sudden noise startles us.

And mindfulness is the remembering that actually we are standing right behind that spotlight.  We are sitting on a stool entranced by the show, but then we notice we’re there holding the handles of the spotlight. That kind of “oh yeah!” remembering. We can deliberately direct our attention to a larger extent than we thought.  So mindfulness is that remembering.

And focus works in a couple of dimensions. There is also way a spotlight  can focus the light into a tight narrow circle of light, a fine, one-pointed kind of attention, or you can open it up wide and see a lot of the stage all of once. So part of the point of mindfulness practices is to become more able to work with focus in that way.

The last piece for this metaphor is concentration. That’s holding out focus steadily on one object. So with our spotlight concentration is steady hands.

The mindfulness sutra and our Bodhi Pakshika Dharma list show four areas of focus. For frames of reference for mindfulness studies. And the idea is you take up one at a time for a while. Very similar to how we study precepts by taking up one at a time and using it as a kind of lens for looking at our experience in a fresh way.

And I’m really happy because I’ve just worked out some new translations of the four which are really making sense to me.

1) is the body – very straight forward in a way, but very subtle too. Because we tend to view the body from a distance. We interact to some extent with the idea of the body, not the actual felt body. The sutra says that we should be mindfulness of “the body in the body” or Thanissaro says “the body in and of itself” in his translation. Here we include sensations in the body, the feeling of the body, and also our attitude and understanding of the body. Having a realistic and true sense of the body in and of itself. Noticing how the fundamental confusions of desire, anger, and ignorance are at play in our thinking and emotions around the body. Do we want the body to be a way other than it is? That’s desire, or greed. Are we annoyed with the body when things don’t work, or the natural changes – like these reading glasses – happen? That’s anger. And do we expect the body to give us lasting happiness and satisfaction in some way, that’s ignorance.  So we’re working on our attitude and understanding of the body from the point of view of the actual felt body. And appreciating that this is our body, our only body, our only way of being alive and practicing and loving and finding the way.

And there are a variety of practices we can do to study the body – our culture is funny in that have a kind of cult of the body – all these gyms and yoga classes and so on – and yet we hold the body at arms length to some extent to. The practice of this foundation of mindfulness is deeply entering our embodied nature, moment by moment. And naturally we pay more attention to how we hold the body, how we care for the body, and the many messages the body is sending us.

2) is what are usually translated “feelings” – vedana – in Pali and I remember once I gave a talk about this and afterwards someone said “Well, since we can’t really understand that because it’s too subtle” so I realized I’d not presented it very clearly. So here’s my new translation of this foundation of mindfulness: sensations and reactions. The idea is that through our six senses we have immediate experience, before mind can even attach concepts and ideas to them, and that in this early stage of experiencing the mind very quickly leans in one way or another. Into liking, into disliking, and sometimes into neither – neutrality. The words usually used are pleasant and unpleasant. But often what we describe as what we like or dislike is a much more elaborated construct that is built up later. This is very immediate. A gut reaction. Like, don’t like. And it’s seen as a kind of engine that drives us or operates underneath the level of our thinking.

So with meditation practice we can actually be more and more aware of this subtle leaning in, leaning away, that’s operating constantly and keeping us a little on edge, a little agitated maybe all the time. And we entering into this understanding through the senses. Really noticing in a raw and simple way: what is seen? What is heard? What is felt? What is tasted? And remember that in Buddhism the 6th sense is the mind that cognizes thought so learn to do a kind of listening there too: what thoughts are arising?

3) is another tricky one to translate – the original here is mindfulness of mind. And what does that mean? How is the mind mindful of the mind? So my new translation here is mindfulness of thought and emotion. To be grounded enough in the practice that it’s possible to notice a thought as a thought and not identify with it so strongly. To start to see and understand patterns in the thinking and emotion. And most importantly to see how thoughts and emotions can lead to more suffering or more awareness.  We really have to be practicing meditation regularly for this to work, there’s no way around that. Without the deliberate mind training of letting thoughts go and returning to an present-moment object like the breath we just don’t have the perspective we need. We get caught by our thinking, we think it’s us, we think it’s justified, we elaborate on it, we defend it, we are upset by it, it just has too much charge. But little by little with practice and with deliberately taking up this foundation of mindfulness we can start to see thoughts and emotions arising and fading away in the mind. Like clouds, like smoke. They are still interesting and important, but not as much as they were. And they drive less suffering. So this is a real taking responsibility for our mind. And of course this is built directly on the first two foundations. Body awareness provides spaciousness, refuge, and steady platform. And awareness of sensations and reactions gives us a sense of a flow of process is happening here, it’s not just a monolithic “me” machine that’s moving around trying to get what it needs. That there are many interacting and overlapping processes here and we can start to learn to dance with them.

4) is also tricky! So a very basic teaching but subtle too. At first this foundation of mindfulness made no sense to me. In the original it’s awareness of dharmas. Dharma that interesting double meaning word. It means both moments of experience and the Buddha’s teachings. Suggestion that the Buddha’s teachings are a kind of overlay on reality but a more skillful description and understanding of reality that leads to awakening. But in the sutra it doesn’t explain that particularly but launches into several more Buddhist lists. It says mindfulness of dharmas is understanding the four nobles truths, then it says that it’s understanding the five hindrances, then it’s understanding the eight-fold noble path. And you’re like – what? That sounds like a whole bunch of stuff to learn, like they slipped the whole of Buddhism into this one foundation of mindfulness. And then this time around I realized something.


We’re talking about patterns here. The Buddha is describing patterns of reality the big D dharma interacting with the little d dharma. And so my new translation of this foundation of mindfulness is mindfulness of patterns and habits. What are the patterns and habits in your life, in our world. How does it seem to go, and does it really always go that way? And certainly studying these big Buddhist pattern-descriptions like the 4 Noble Truths can help us to analyze and understand our own experience of patterns and habits but memorizing these other lists isn’t the point. The point is studying our own life. Or maybe it’s  one of these spiral practice patterns where you get a little more skillful at noticing your own habits and patterns and then you study something like the five hindrances which talks about laziness and energy and doubt and that provides new tools and new ways of studying experience so you take that back to your own life and see how it is. And so on.


The way the four foundations are described in the sutra there’s a repeated pattern that talks about HOW to study each one. I’ll let Thanissaro Bhikkhu who is a great scholar of Pali tell us about that:

Each of the four objects of mindfulness is said to be sufficient for bringing about Awakening [§44]. This point is easy to understand if we look at the approach taken to each of the objects, for then it becomes clear that the approach ultimately involves the development of mental qualities in and of themselves, regardless of what object is first taken up for meditation.

That approach falls into three stages. The first stage—here taking the body as an example—is simply called the frame of reference [§29]:

There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself— ardent, alert, & mindful—putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world.

Four terms in this passage are key. “Remaining focused” (anupassin) can also be translated as “keeping track.” This denotes the element of concentration in the practice, as one tries to stay with one particular theme in the midst of the welter of experience. “Ardent” (atapi) denotes the factor of effort or exertion in the practice; the Commentary equates this with right exertion, which contains an element of discernment in its ability to distinguish skillful from unskillful mental qualities. “Alert” (sampajano) means being clearly aware of what is happening in the present. This, too, relates to discernment. “Mindful” (satima) literally means being able to remember or recollect. Here it means keeping one’s task in mind. The task here is a dual one—remaining focused on one’s frame of reference, and putting aside the distractions of greed and distress that would come from shifting one’s frame of reference back to the world. In other words, one tries to stay with the phenomenology of immediate experience, without slipping back into the narratives and world views that make up one’s sense of the world. In essence, this is a concentration practice, with the three qualities of ardency, alertness, and mindfulness devoted to attaining concentration. Mindfulness keeps the theme of the meditation in mind, alertness observes the theme as it is present to awareness,  and also is aware of when the mind has slipped from its theme. Mindfulness then

remembers where the mind should be focused, and ardency tries to return the mind to its proper theme—and to keep it there—as quickly and skillfully as possible. In this way, these three qualities help to seclude the mind from sensual preoccupations and unskillful mental qualities, thus bringing it to the first jhana.

So that’s a thumbnail sketch of the four foundations of mindfulness. What’s neat about working with the whole Bodhi Pakshika Dharma is that the different lists interact in really neat ways. So with the four foundations of mindfulness we can apply the four proper exertions. I want to speak super briefly about those and we’ll come back to it later.




About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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