Smṛtyupasthāna -The Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness – is often referred to as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The term Smṛty means to remember the dharmas, which allows one to see the true nature of phenomena or reality. The foundation of mindfulness are: the body (kāyasmṛtyupasthāna), feeling or sensations (vedanā), that of mind (citta – consciousness, life force, or discernment) and dharma (the Buddha’s teachings, however dharma has a vast range of meanings depending on the context).

In Nikāya Buddhism this is referred to as Satipaṭṭhāna. There are key differences in how Nikāya and Mahāyāna Buddhisms translate and practice the sūtra. No need to go into that at this time.

The Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness provides insight into the relationship between corporality, of humans and all living beings, consciousness, and our behaviors. The behaviors may be neutral, exemplary or corrupted.

Observing this is simple if we pay attention to it, not only to ourselves but in the world around us. The key is to be ‘mindful’ of it.

A favorite activity of mine is watching birds at the feeders from our kitchen table. We have a tube feeder for the smaller birds such as various finches, Titmouse, and Phoebe’s. A platform feeder which is better for birds such as, Juncos, Catbirds, and Blue Jays and squirrels. There is a hopper feeder that suits the ground feeders, Mourning Doves, pigeons, Cardinals, crows, etc. The Chickadees, Cowbirds, Blue Jays, other birds, and squirrels scatter the seeds from the various feeders onto the ground, from which the ground feeders are the beneficiaries. We also have a suet feeder, from which the woodpeckers and other insect inclined birds eat.

The type of feeding pattern of the birds is based on their body size and type, their beaks, and food preferences. Their preference for which type of food they eat is largely dependent on their digestive systems and beaks. In other words, their corporality.

Preferences may also be dependent on their taste buds. Is a seed coated in animal fat (in the suet block) more delectable for insect eaters because of their inherent need for animal protein which resulted in taste buds adapted to that type of meal? Sensation or feeling.

As I sit and watch our feathered cohabitants on the feeders or the ground they grab a seed or morsel, fly off, to return a few minutes later. Maybe they stay awhile consuming as much as they wish until they are sated. They may react suddenly to a more aggressive bird plopping down beside them by flying off and decide to come back when the neighborhood is more hospitable. How does their consciousness fit into this picture? Ethologists inform us that their responses are primarily reactive to prewired neural stimuli. How does that fit with the term ‘free as a bird’ if in fact birds are acting in what we might characterize as instinctive behaviors?

Every animated sentient being is similarly constrained by their corporality which gives rise to sensations, leading to the mind. Humans have a slight edge because we have direct access to the Buddhadharma.

Being aware of the birds around us is just one way we can commune with the natural world around us and that has a positive effect on our lives. Taking a walk in the woods or in a city park has a similar effect. In this case be aware of the consciousness that resides in the trees and the rocks as well as the squirrels etc.

For a good part of my life I was a recreational runner, typically running at least 5 miles (8 km) a day and on occasion 15 miles (24 km). Since I’ve not done that in a number of years now I really miss it. I didn’t do it for health reasons, I enjoyed being in the zone, “…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” (Csikszentmihalyi,1990, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience)

Purposeful ritual can have a similar effect. One can lose that provisional sense of self, loss of ego, suspension of time, when the ritual is intentionally done for devotion, as an offering, without self-consciousness, but of sharing and gratitude.

Being with birds, running, purposeful ritual, any number of other experiences are ways that we can be more fully aware of life outside of our mundane experiences. Dr. Andrew Weil would characterize these activities as alternate states of consciousness. (The Natural Mind: An Investigation of Drugs and the Higher Consciousness, 1998) Such activities are great. We need them. They allow us to transform our corporality.

They also give us a glimpse into the nature of the consciousness that is within and all around us. Regarding the Avataṃsaka or Flower Garland Sūtra, Paul Williams, states that all things are empty of inherent existence and also of a “pure untainted awareness or consciousness (amala-citta) as the ground of all phenomena”.

Buddhist Meditation is another altered state of consciousness. This should not be confused with the previous activities. So called ‘mindfulness meditation’ might be grouped with the forgoing; birdwatching, walking in the forest, and ritual. The distinction is that Buddhist meditation has as its intention becoming awakened or enlightened.

The methods are different, and the results are distinct. Shikan (śamatha and vipaśyanā: calming the mind, discerning the real) may have some of the same characteristics; ego falls away, time dissolves, and sometimes a feeling of elation. Shikan is intended to, and may, bring about a transformation, some contend a transcendence, toward buddhahood, toward being a bodhisattva.

A bodhisattva is anyone who has generated bodhicitta and a compassionate mind for the benefit of all sentient beings. Karuṇā (compassion) using prajñā (wisdom) through upāya (skillful mean) are the intended results of a Buddhist meditation. These qualities do not spontaneously occur in one who watches birds or is ‘in the zone’.

Being in the zone, communing with nature, or ritual is great and can be an important adjunct to meditation. It is also a healthy way to cope with the world. However, birdwatching, running and ritual alone do not have the same effect regarding how we change our behaviors to be compassionate, the ultimate practice of Buddhism.

Watching birds, playing jazz, undertaking ritual are great ways to start being aware of consciousness around us. Adding consistent Buddhist meditation is a way to experience this cosmic consciousness.

With Love and Gassho . . . Monshin