The bare awareness refrain

In the famous sutta on the four pillars of mindfulness (Mahasatipatthana) we find a passage which is repeated throughout the text as some kind of refrain, summarizing the quintessence of samma sati, or right mindfulness/awareness:

“In this way he remains focused internally on mental objects when it comes to mental objects, or externally on mental objects when it comes to mental objects, or both internally and externally on mental objects when it comes to mental objects. He remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to mental objects, on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to mental objects, or on the phenomenon of origination & passing away with regard to mental objects. His mindfulness ‘These are (just) thoughts‘ is maintained to the extent of experiential insight knowledge & established attention/awareness only. Thus he remains non-relying/non-leaning/non-resting on anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on mental objects when it comes to mental objects with reference to/examplified by the four noble truths (MN, 10)

‘‘Iti ajjhattaṃ vā dhammesu dhammānupassī viharati, bahiddhā vā dhammesu
dhammānupassī viharati, ajjhattabahiddhā vā dhammesu dhammānupassī
viharati. Samudayadhammānupassī vā dhammesu viharati, vayadhammānupassī
vā dhammesu viharati, samudayavayadhammānupassī vā dhammesu viharati.
‘Atthi dhammā’ti vā panassa sati paccupaṭṭhitā hoti yāvadeva ñāṇamattāya
paṭissatimattāya anissito ca viharati, na ca kiñci loke upādiyati. Evampi kho,
bhikkhave, bhikkhu dhammesu dhammānupassī viharati catūsu ariyasaccesu.

The same of course is true to being mindful about the body, feelings, mental states and here, finally, even thoughts/concepts. If you will a meditator could start out with the obvious, the body, like in many contemporary vipassana systems, but eventually, he would even have to establish bare attention at mental objects, concepts….

Note 1: He remains focused … In pali it says ānupassī viharati We could also say: He remains/dwells/abides (i.e. continues, uninterrupted for longer stretches of time at least, almost like in a state) watching (anupassi), literally “looking at”, “looking onto”… strikes as synonymous expression for “yoniso manasikaro” or “yathabhutam pajanati”

Note 2: This is how a monk remains
focused on mental objects when it comes to mental objects with reference to the four noble truths

EVEN ‘Buddhist teaching concepts’ will NOT make him grasp but he will simply NOTE them as MENTAL OBJECTS (atthi dhamma ti)- at this stage in the game… and this really is the sticky stuff most difficult to un-identify. Especially tricky as an object to note with pure mindfulness are meditation related thoughts… 🙂 For the Buddha an important reason to include in the Satipatthana Sutta a couple of examples what a monk might get hooked on. Interestingly though, many think, that those “mental objects” mentioned in this sutta are supposed to be the intentional topic for meditation. Hmmm, what do you think? If you still wonder, you might get a clearer picture if you have a look at the second refrain i will point out further below…

Note 3: What does internally and externally stand for? Especially when it comes to bare awareness towards mental objects (i.e. thoughts, concepts, ideas)? How can you note them externally? Looking into other peoples mind, as the commentaries second-guess?

Many articles and books have tried to explain and discuss this passage. As obscure as its meaning might seem at first, if we put it into context and compare it with another frequent ‘refrain’ found in numerous suttas dealing with insight meditation, all of a sudden, we might find that it relates a very simple but fundamentally important description of what insight meditation is all about: Compare it to this one:

Now suppose that a magician or magician’s apprentice were to display a magic trick at a major intersection, and a man with good eyesight were to see it, observe it, & appropriately examine it. To him — seeing it, observing it, & appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in a magic trick?

In the same way, a monk sees, observes, & appropriately examines any body/feeling/perception/intentions/consciousness be it past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near. [i.e. it is completely irrelevant how you ‘subjectively’ perceive the object at hand – as long as your attention becomes aware of it.]

To him — seeing it, observing it, & appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in consciousness?

Seeing thus [Seeing – not thinking!], the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with form, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with fabrications, disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted, he grows dispassionate. Through dispassion, he’s released. With release there’s the knowledge, ‘Released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'”

This being the essence of insight meditation would explain why this passage re-appears like a refrain, a summary of what the listener has to understand as the make it or break it of his insight technique.

If we look at both ‘refrains’ made by the Buddha himself which summarize his insight technique we see a couple of fundamental parallels  suggesting proper insight practice:

  1. Establish strictly bare awareness…
  2. By using a form of labeling your experience…
  3. Coming closer to the ‘atoms of concepts and reality’
  4. Do so gradually, best based on virtue and concentration
  5. Do not start classifying or categorizing your experience
  6. Try to stay with this very deep attention at the source of the sensual stream of life as long as possible
  7. Eventually you will discover a rising and a falling. A coming and going. An appearing and vanishing.
  8. Eventually insight will generate disenchantment. Disenchantment will generate dispassion. Dispassion will lead to liberation. Nibbana.

Let us close with this beautiful verse:

Uddhaṃ, tiriyaṃ apācinaṃ,
yāvatā jagato gati
samavekkhitā va dhammānaṃ
khandhānaṃ udayabbayaṃ.

Above, across or back again,
wherever the wakeful went
let him carefully observe
the rise and fall of compounded things.

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1 comment

  1. nicely written…. so what’s your take on “bare awareness”?… Is this a Buddhist practice… Some venerables state that the Buddha never taught or encouraged a “bare awareness” exercise where one lets ‘anything come up” in their meditation practice

    much metta

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