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  • Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Foundations of Mindfulness

Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Foundations of Mindfulness

  • Thursday, September 21, 2023
  • 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM

Nomon Tim continues the discussion of the early Buddhist text The Sutta on the Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipattha) with an exploration of the fundamental attitudes and approaches towards mindfulness practice that are brought up.

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Tim's talk notes:

As Chris mentioned last week the teachings we've been exploring for much of this year around the 8-fold noble path of practice come from early Buddhism. You won't find Zen teachings about them in particular, I don't know of sayings of Zen masters or koans that reference them directly but all of these practitioners would have been quite familiar with the early teachings as they are a basis of all things Buddhist. And there is a huge huge variation in style, emphasis, and language between the different forms of Buddhism. I usually think about Buddhisms plural.

I was thinking to explore the early teachings beyond the four noble truths and u-fold path to close out the year. It's a huge amount of material and easy to get lost. As I started preparing for this talk I myself got a little lost. Some of the early teachings are very intricate and can be hard to make total sense of in our context here and now too.

Chris was talking about the "Pali Canon" - what that's about is that the oldest complete collection of Early Buddhist teachings were written down in the south Indian language of Pali which became a kind of Church Latin of Early Buddhism. We're talking about a movement that probably began about 500 BCE and was written down right about the time of Christ - that's a big old gap of 500 years in which the teachings were passed on orally. 

I was in a meeting recently in the early afternoon and when one of the members of that meeting sent out some notes about what we talked about there were a few mistakes at least least based on my memory and that was only in a few hours!

And on the other hand the monks and nuns who memorized and recited these teachings were quite devoted and most of them full time monastics so it was a primary focus of their lives not just one more thing to keep track of like sangha life can be for us. I have a full time job with Mindfulness Northwest in addition to my sangha ilfe. It also makes me think about visiting a Waldorf classroom one time and listening to the 5th graders recite together a fairly long Norse poem of some kind. They had it down. If we focus on memorization we can do pretty well. If we focus on Googling everything not so much.

But, all that being so a scholar I respect says unequivocally: "the exact words of the Buddha are unrecoverable" - we will never really know. But at the same time there is a lot of consistency in tone and content in the thousands of pages of the Pali canon. Surely lots of changes happened over the centuries as the monks and nuns practiced and learned and grew, I would hope so - the Buddha clearly had amazing insight into the human condition and a deep skill in how to guide people to practice but everything changes and everything needs to adapt to change including sacred teachings.

Later Buddhisms that arose in northern India from the 1st or 2nd centuries until Buddhism was wiped out in India in the 12th century were much more literary, not oral tradition as much, and were written down in Sanskrit so sometimes you hear about Sanskrit Buddhism. 

Another term you might here is "Theravada Buddhism" which refers to one of the 11 or so schools in the century or so after the Buddha's death which is the one of the early schools that survived to this present day. 

In the vast array of early Buddhist teachings one sutra - sutra means a talk by the Buddha - really stands out and is studied like crazy. Chris mentioned it briefly and I love it too so I'll go into some depth in a series of talks. And that's the Sutra on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Satipatthana in Pali. When Jon Kabat-Zinn created the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class this sutra provided a kind of background framework for him and that all worked out very well. I'm teaching that class right now actually and people really benefit from it.

Tonight I want to share with you the opening of the sutra and a few remarks from the American Vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein about qualities of mind that support the kind of mindfulness the sutra talks about. There is also a wonderful commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh which I've studied many times.

And I have a handout to help us stay oriented. At the end of the evening you can either pass that back in and I'll bring them next time or take yours home.

[Goldstein 405 - middle of 406 w/ first breath awareness exercise but in the mind qualities replace diligent with ardent]

Goldstein points out something important that I'm excited to dive into more deeply this time around with this sutra with each foundation the practitioner "abides contemplating it, ardent, clearly knowing and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world."

[Summarize his chapters 1 & 2

Ardency - being ardent supported by 

        1) reflect on the preciousness of the dharma

        2) reflect on impermanence

        3) reflect on karma

Clear knowing (Smapanañã) - clear intentions, aware of what we're doing, what motivates you to come to practice


        1) strong present moment awareness

        2) the practice of remembering (including remembering our ethical intentions, best selves)

        3) protector of the mind - knowing when we stran into unhealth mind states and find skillful ways to deal

free from desires and discontent in regard to the world

Meaning a concentrated and stable mind, not pulled by desire or aversion (In attachment flowers fall, in aversion weeds spread).

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