Where Buddhism Meets Gendlin

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From the Samyutta Nikaya

iv.360; p.1372 of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation:

At Savatthi. “Bhikkhus, I will teach you the unconditioned and the path leading to the unconditioned. Listen to that…

“And what, bhikkhus, is the unconditioned? The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion: this is called the unconditioned.

“”And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? Mindfulness directed to the body: this is called the path leading to the unconditioned.

“Thus, bhikkhus, I have taught you the unconditioned and the path leading to the unconditioned. Whatever should be done, bhikkhus, by a compassionate teacher out of compassion for his disciples, desiring their welfare, that I have done for you. These are the feet of trees, bhikkhus, these are empty huts. Meditate, bhikkhus, do not be negligent, lest you regret it later. This is our instruction to you.”

Contemplating the less aesthetic side of things

Continuing with MN 119, Kāyagatāsati Sutta…

In the next section of the sutta, we are invited to consider the less aesthetic aspects of the body. This hardly needs any commentary. Two easy observations arise, straight away: a culture which is obsessed with the external appearance of the body, is unlikely to be inclined to acknowledge the basic biological actualities. This portion is not a rap-song for the cat-walk set.

Secondly, regular contemplation of this kind will definitely impress the contemplative with the truth of their mortality, providing the reflection is loving and kind, and especially if it brings an ‘inner smile’ to the organs of the body – Thich Nhat Hanh-style,for example. This contemplation needs to be balanced with positivity, so that it doesn’t affect the yogi morbidly. It can be the ground for a realistic care of one’s fragile life; and being positive and realistic is can bring to light our narcissistic constructions based our lack of grounded knowledge of the body.

The sutta:

“Again, Seekers, up from the soles of the feet, down from the hair on the head, this very body bounded by skin and full of various impurities, the practitioner contemplates thus: “There is in this body: head-hair and body-hair, nails and teeth, skin and flesh, ligaments, bones and marrow, kidneys, heart and liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, intestines and mesentery, the stomach, faeces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, the fat, tears, grease, saliva, mucus, synovial fluid and urine.” Just as if there was a bag opened at both ends, full of various grains – such as, fine rice and paddy, green peas and beans, sesame and husked rice – and a man with eyes to see were to reflect, as he emptied the bag, that, “This is fine rice; this paddy; these are green peas; these are beans; this is sesame; and this is husked rice. In just the same way does the seeker contemplate this very body, up from the soles of the feet, down from the hair on the head, bounded by kind and full of various impure things: “In this body there are head-hair and body-hair, nails and teeth, skin and flesh, … synovial fluid and urine.”

As she dwells thus, ardent, diligent and committed, her thoughts about mundane concerns are abandoned and hence the mind becomes inwardly steadied, quieted, unified and collected. In this way a seeker develops mindfulness of the body.”

This is another marvellous aspect of mindfulness of the body. There is an irony in this, of course. Contemplating the less beautiful side of our bodies, we can engender a respect for the beautiful intricacy of biological processes. What science has taught us about the workings of these organs – their intricately dynamic conditions – is staggeringly wondrous. Let’s leave that wonder in place, and even celebrate the awesome creativity of nature. However, none of it establishes that the body can provide the mind with unassailable peace, with true fulfilment – only the discovery of an unconditioned element (nibbāna) can provide this.


I’m in the process of a major transition, having completed my separation from the town that I’ve lived in for the last twenty-three years. Hopefully, I will be able to regularly write in this blog from here on.

I’ve been re-reading the Udana, and this translation (by John Ireland) if from that Pali collection:

3.5 Mahāmoggallāna
Thus have I heard. At one time the Lord was staying near Sāvatthī in the Jeta Wood at Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. On that occasion the venerable Mahāmoggallāna was sitting cross-legged not far from the Lord, holding his body erect, having mindfulness with regard to the body well established within him.

The Lord saw the venerable Mahāmoggallāna sitting cross-legged not far away, holding his body erect, having mindfulness with regard to the body well established within him.
Then on realising its significance, the Lord uttered on that occasion this inspired utterance:

With mindfulness of the body established,
Controlled over contact’s sixfold base,
A bhikkhu who is always concentrated
Can know Nibbāna for himself.


In Whatever We are Doing

Continuing with MN 119, Kāyagatāsati Sutta… In the following passage I took the liberty of replacing the usual “carrying her robe and bowl” with a more neutral reference, “in respect of clothing.”

“Furthermore, seekers, a practitioner is fully aware when going forward or stepping backward. When looking at (something) or looking away – she is fully aware. When moving or extending her limbs – fully aware. In respect of clothing – fully aware. In eating and drinking – fully aware. While chewing and tasting – fully aware. While urinating and defecating – fully aware. Walking, standing, sitting; asleep or awake; speaking or silent – she is fully aware.

As she dwells thus, ardent, diligent and committed, her thoughts about mundane concerns are abandoned and hence the mind becomes inwardly steadied, quieted, unified and collected. In this way a practitioner develops mindfulness of the body.”

Mindfulness of the Fragility of the Body.

Going into hospital this week for a small operation on this body. How fragile, how vulnerable, it is to the illnesses typical of old age. I think of that description by the Buddha of his body before he died. Ananda suggested he stay longer, don’t die now, but the Buddha said:

“Now I am frail, Ananda, old, aged, far gone in years. This is my eightieth year, and my life is spent. Even as an old cart, Ananda, is held together with much difficulty, so the body of the Tathagata is kept going only with supports. It is, Ananda, only when the Tathagata, disregarding external objects, with the cessation of certain feelings, attains to and abides in the signless concentration of mind, that his body is more comfortable.

“Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.”

I find that so moving, that he counsels Ananda to take up his practice, at this point.

(By the way, often this and similar passages are rendered as “be a light unto yourselves.” However, I go with Thanissaro’s translation, here: ‘island.’ The ‘island’-translation is not only more likely, but it has phenomenological and psychological implications that are more helpful to our practice. One of the issues met on the path is the unwillingness to feel the separation that comes with increasing differentiation. “Island” raises the issue of ‘independence.’)

Anyhow, all that said, off to hospital to have them cut up this composite body of organs.

Breathing with Whole Body

So, in the Kāyagatā Sutta, in response to the monks’ discussion, the Buddha expands on the practice of mindfulness of the body. And to begin with he describes a person who accustoms herself to unifying breath and whole-body awareness.

This passage is relatively straight-forward, though translators often leave the phrase, “parimukhaṃ satiṃ upaṭṭhapetvā” unclear (in this and in other suttas, such as the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta). It’s translated usually as, ‘setting up mindfulness in front of him.’ What can this mean? The scholars don’t know. Some practitioners take it to mean that one should concentrate on the nostrils in breathing meditation. I like the Lord Chalmers translation (1926-27), where he says: the bhikkhu sits at the foot of a tree “with mindfulness as the objective he set before himself.” Of course, we sit down with the intention to be present for our experience.

Chalmers also translates the lines about knowing the length of the breath sensibly: “[the bhikkhu] knows precisely what he is doing when he is inhaling or exhaling a long breath or a short breath.” This instead of the usual “Breathing in long, he understands that he breaths in a long breath.” This last has been taken by some to be an instruction to take long and short breaths deliberately. So, to me, the Chalmers translation makes it clearer.

Notice also that, just as in the Anapanasati Sutta, after the initial simple awareness of the breath, then the attitude of ‘schooling’ the mind (Chalmers expression) comes in. The form of the Pali verbs changes to give the idea of making the effort to teach the mind a skill. The language changes from ‘He knows the breath,’ to ‘He trains thus: I shall breath [in or out] experiencing [such and such].’

I think this means that we take a less passive approach after initially contacting the breath. There is a gentle tending of the will toward (what is for it) a new kind of knowing, a non-habitual knowledge. This, by the way, is best be done without losing our intimate entry into the experience – knowing the whole body from inside the body, not from some detached distance.

So, translating freely and with an adjustment of the usual male pronouns, and translating ‘bhikkhu’ as ‘practitioner’:

The Blessed One said, “Take a practitioner who goes to the forest, or the foot of a tree, or to some empty hut, and who sits crosslegged with her body erect – setting foremost the intention to be mindful, she is ever mindful. She knows if she is breathing in, or if she is breathing out; and she knows if she is breathing a short breath or if she is breathing a long breath. She trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in and breathe out while experiencing the body as a whole. I shall breath in and out, knowing the calming of the bodily activity.’ As she dwells thus, ardent, diligent and committed, her thoughts about household life are abandoned and hence the mind becomes inwardly steadied, quieted, unified and collected. In this way a practitioner develops mindfulness of the body.”

As you sit gently being intimate with your breathing, and then as you intentionally include the whole body in consciousness with the breath, it naturally follows that after a short time there is a change in the body’s condition. It’s traditionally spoken of as the calming of the ‘bodily formations.’ It’s enough to know that this simply means that the body calms down after a period of this kind, whole-body attention.

This opens up new dimensions of bodily-based experience.

Kāyagatā Sutta (MN 119) – the Mindfulness of the Body Sutta

Mindfulness of the Body is often underrated. The disbelief or surprise – I imagine, even the skepticism – at this practice and teaching, the teaching of the power of mindfulness of the body, is hinted at in the beginning of the Kāyagatā Sutta, the Mindfulness of the Body Sutta, MN 119. I’m going to see if I can make the time to slowly translate it, with a commentary.

In the beginning of the sutta, the scene is set. This introduction is something like the later scene beginning the short Heart Sutra. The Buddha is meditating, and Avolokitesvara looks into the five skandhas and sees they are empty.

In this earlier Pāli sutta, the Kāyagatā Sutt, the morning almsround has has been completed and the monks are sitting around in the main hall talking after their meal. The Buddha, the Blessed One, is meditating in his hut, and the conversation in the hall turns to discussion of the Buddha’s claims about the power of mindfulness of the body. The monks’ are generally exclaiming, “Amazing! Wonderful! Marvellous! What the Blessed One says about mindfulness of the body is amazing.” One translation has it that they were in awe of the depth to which the Buddha had developed mindfulness of the body. We might well be astonished at the depth of his embodiment. So let’s add that into the atmosphere in the hall, as the Buddha, having risen from his meditation, enters the hall. The one who has seen into the nature of the body, the Blessed One, enters, and the monks go quiet.

Touching Enlightenment

The expression ‘touching enlightenment with the body’ (used by Reggie Ray in his excellent book) is not modern; it has its antecedents in the Pali canon. (If anyone wanted to track them down, I’d refer them to Ch.4 Richard Gombrich’s ‘How Buddhism Began’ for lots of examples.)

For example, in the Kītagiri Sutta (MN70) we hear of “a certain kind of person who touches with her body those tranquil , immaterial states of release, states transcending form, and dwells in them…” (My translation, not Gombrich’s.) Therewith, her “taints are destroyed by insight.”

Another example, elsewhere, from Gombrich: Maha Cunda speaks of those who “touch the deathless state with their bodies and stay there.”

My point here is that it is important and very valuable to invite the meditating body to receive the formless states when they arise; to have them both there, both form and formlessness. The formless states bring a corresponding feeling which permeates the body, transforming it. My oral instruction to students, at such a time, goes something (à la Gendlin) like: “Let yourself have the kind of body that goes with this experience.”

Mind-Made Body

In the Sāmaññaphala Sutta we read that a meditator at some stage develops a ‘mind-made body’ (manomayakaya):

“And with [her] mind thus concentrated… imperturbable, [she] applies and directs her mind to the producing of a mind-made body. Out of this body [she] produces another body, having form, mind-made, complete in all its limbs and parts.”

What are we going to make of this? I haven’t ever heard anyone in the Pali-based field teach on this. Yet, it is squarely there in the progression of the Buddhist meditator’s path. We Westerners tend to take what makes sense to us and leave the rest, as though it was irrelevant. What if the mind-made body was more relevant than our cultural lenses could fathom?

Sue Hamilton (I of the Beholder, 2000): “Though what are commonly thought of as body and mind are thus equally integral to one’s experiencing apparatus, in early Buddhism it is accepted that it is possible for one’s body or physical locus to take different froms from that with which we are familiar. In particular, it is accepted that one’s body might be, or become, ‘subtle’, what to us in the West might be terms ‘ghostly’ or ‘ethereal’: not visible in the normal way that our dense physical bodes are visible.”

I think, when reading this, of the development of awareness of the subtle body in several disciplines, including in tantra (and, in particular, in Theravadan Tantra – see Kate Crosby on the Yogāvacara, 2000).

I hope to come up with a way into this topic of the subtle body (mind-made body), but if anyone has any suggestions, I’m welcoming of such.


Mindfulness directed to the body is no small thing, in the Buddha’s dispensation:

“They have not comprehended the Deathless who have not comprehended mindfulness directed to the body. They have comprehended the Deathless who have comprehended mindfulness directed to the body.” (AN.I.xxi)

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