Fractal teachings & deepening spirals

The Satipatthana Sutta is a brilliant roadmap to meditation practice.  It encapsulates the Buddha’s method of self inquiry–allowing the practitioner to fully come to know themselves, how to abandon that which leads to suffering, and develop the qualities and skills that lead to freedom. I’ve come to see that it may very well encapsulate the whole of the Buddha’s teaching.

The teachings themselves are woven together, not like a flat tapestry, but rather like a fractal design. If you study one of them fully, you encounter all of the others. The last of the Four Noble Truths, for instance IS the Eight-fold path. The Eight-fold path contains “right mindfulness” which leads one naturally to study the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness”, which is the Satipatthana Sutta. The final foundation of mindfulness in the Satipatthana is the “contemplation of Dhammas”, which then contains the Four Noble Truths.

Seeing how these teachings fold into one another, it is clear that it is no accident. In fact, it points to an elegant solution to a problem that has arisen in my own mind while studying this text*.  The method described by the Buddha here is so complete and thorough. It is simple, yet it contains many pieces. While the text is meant to be read, as with any other text, and the words are meant to form perceptions in the mind to extract the meaning–the real purpose of the Sutta is to bring the practice to life. One has to DO the practices, not just read the words. The perceptions that arise from the concepts are important, but mindfulness of that actual flow of a particular category of experience is where the juice is.

The joy that comes from reading the instructions and hearing such a clear interpretation of them is great. The intellectual mind wants to devour it. I want to read to the next section, listen to the next talk. There is a grasping. There is a desire for getting or gaining the knowledge. The practice of any one piece of this technique, however, requires a great deal of time. You have to literally “sit with” each piece in order to bring it to life–to allow mindfulness of that element to deepen. So at once, I have the desire to sit with each piece and go slowly, as well as to forge ahead and hear what comes next!

At times this has led me to re-listen to a talk or re-read a chapter. I also like to re-read the original text from time to time, which is only a few pages long. But what I’m realizing is that the process is going to find it’s own pace. I won’t gleam 100% of the insights along the way on any one reading– or by sitting with a single section until it’s insight has been unlocked. It will have to be the case that each reading will bring a little bit of understanding, each sitting will deepen the mindfulness of it; the different techniques will support each other and at the end of one text– lies the complete body of another, which in turn leads back to the beginning of this one again. I guess that’s why realization is often compared to a deepening spiral that goes down and down in ever widening circles… I think Rumi had a poem about that. If I’m coming to that conclusion by studying the Buddha and Rumi said the same– I must be on the right track.


*I have to clarify, that by “text” I am referring to the Satipatthana as a written text, but also the commentaries by Analayo’s book and Joseph Goldstein’s series of talks).


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