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Copyright 2001 Realization.org.



Satipatthana Vipassana
By the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw


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[Page 2]
The Beginner's Exercise

IT HAS ALREADY been explained that the actual method of practice in vipassana meditation is to note, or to observe, or to contemplate, the successive occurrences of seeing, hearing, and so on, at the six sense doors. However, it will not be possible for a beginner to follow these on all successive incidents as they occur because his mindfulness (sati), concentration (samadhi), and knowledge (˝ana) are still very weak. The moments of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking occur very swiftly. It seems that seeing occurs at the same time as hearing, that hearing occurs at the same time as seeing, that seeing and hearing occur simultaneously, that seeing, hearing, thinking and imagining always occur simultaneously. Because they occur so swiftly, it is not possible to distinguish which occurs first and which second.

In reality, seeing does not occur at the same time as hearing, nor does hearing occur at the same time as seeing. Such incidents can occur only one at a time. A yogi who has just begun the practice and who has not sufficiently developed his mindfulness, concentration and knowledge will not, however, be in a position to observe all these moments singly as they occur in serial order. A beginner need not, therefore, follow up on many things. He needs to begin with only a few things.

Seeing or hearing occurs only when due attention is given to their objects. If one does not pay heed to any sight or sound, one may pass the time without any moments of seeing or hearing taking place. Smelling rarely occurs. The experience of tasting can only occur while one is eating. In the case of seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting, the yogi can note them when they occur. Body impressions, however, are ever present. They usually exist distinctly all the time. During the time that one is sitting, the body impression of stiffness or the sensation of hardness in this position is distinctly felt. Attention should therefore be fixed on the sitting posture and a note made as "sitting, sitting, sitting."


Sitting is an erect posture of the body consisting of a series of physical activities, induced by consciousness consisting of a series of mental activities. It is just like the case of an inflated rubber ball which maintains its round shape through the resistance of the air inside it. The posture of sitting is similar in that the body is kept in an erect posture through the continuous process of physical activities. A good deal of energy is required to pull up and keep in an erect position such a heavy load as this body. People generally assume that the body is lifted and kept in an upright position by means of sinews. This assumption is correct in a sense because sinews, blood, flesh and bones are nothing but materiality. The element of stiffening which keeps the body in an erect posture belongs to the group of materiality and arises in the sinews, flesh, blood, etc., throughout the body, like the air in a rubber ball.

The element of stiffening is the air element, known as vayo-dhatu. The body is kept in an erect position by the air element in the form of stiffening, which is continually coming into existence. At the time of sleepiness or drowsiness, one may drop flat because the supply of new materials in the form of stiffening is cut off. The state of mind in heavy drowsiness or sleep is bhavanga, the "life-continuum" or passive subconscious flow. During the course of bhavanga, mental activities are absent, and for this reason, the body lies flat during sleep or heavy drowsiness.

During waking hours, strong and alert mental activities are continually arising, and because of these the air element arises serially in the form of stiffening. In order to know these facts, it is essential to note the bodily posture attentively as "sitting, sitting, sitting." This does not necessarily mean that the body impression of stiffening should particularly be searched for and noted. Attention need only be fixed on the whole form of the sitting posture, that is, the lower portion of the body in a bent circular form and the upper portion held erect.

It may be found that the exercise of observing the mere sitting posture is too easy and does not require much effort. In these circumstances, energy (viriya) is less and concentration (samadhi) is in excess. One will generally feel lazy and will not want to carry on the noting as "sitting, sitting, sitting" repeatedly for a considerable length of time. Laziness generally occurs when there is an excess of concentration and not enough energy. It is nothing but a state of sloth and torpor (thina-middha).

More energy should be developed, and for this purpose, the number of objects for noting should be increased. After noting as "sitting," the attention should be directed to a spot in the body where the sense of touch is felt and a note made as "touching." Any spot in the leg or hand or hip where a sense of touch is distinctly felt will serve the purpose. For example, after noting the sitting posture of the body as "sitting," the spot where the sense of touch is felt should be noted as "touching." The noting should thus be repeated using these two objects of the sitting posture and the place of touching alternately, as "sitting, touching, sitting, touching, sitting, touching."

The terms "noting," "observing" and "contemplating" are used here to indicate the fixing of attention on an object. The exercise is simply to note or observe or contemplate as "sitting, touching." Those who already have experience in the practice of meditation may find this exercise easy to begin with, but those without any previous experience may at first find it rather difficult.


A simpler and easier form of the exercise for a beginner is this: With every breath there occurs in the abdomen a rising-falling movement. A beginner should start with the exercise of noting this movement. This rising-falling movement is easy to observe because it is coarse and therefore more suitable for the beginner. As in schools where simple lessons are easy to learn, so also is the practice of vipassana meditation. A beginner will find it easier to develop concentration and knowledge with a simple and easy exercise.

Again, the purport of vipassana meditation is to begin the exercise by contemplating prominent factors in the body. Of the two factors of mentality and materiality, the former is subtle and less prominent, while the latter is coarse and more prominent. At the outset, therefore, the usual procedure for an insight meditator is to begin the exercise by contemplating the material elements.

With regard to materiality, it may be mentioned here that derived materiality (upada-rupa) is subtle and less prominent, while the four primary physical elements (maha-bhuta-rupa) -- earth, water, fire and air -- are coarse and more prominent. The latter should therefore have priority in the order of objects for contemplation. In the case of rising-falling, the outstanding factor is the air element, or vayo-dhatu. The process of stiffening and the movements of the abdomen noticed during the contemplation are nothing but the functions of the air element. Thus it will be seen that the air element is perceptible at the beginning.

According to the instructions of the Satipatthana Sutta, one should be mindful of the activities of walking while walking, of those of standing, sitting and lying down while standing, sitting and lying down, respectively. One should also be mindful of other bodily activities as each of them occurs. In this connection, it is stated in the commentaries that one should be mindful primarily of the air element, in preference to the other three elements. As a matter of fact, all four primary elements are dominant in every action of the body, and it is essential to perceive any one of them. At the time of sitting, either of the two movements of rising and falling occurs conspicuously with every breath, and a beginning should be made by noting these movements.

Some fundamental features in the system of vipassana meditation have been explained for general information. The general outline of basic exercises will now be dealt with.

Outline of Basic Exercises

When contemplating rising and falling, the disciple should keep his mind on the abdomen. He will then come to know the upward movement or expansion of the abdomen on breathing in, and the downward movement or contraction on breathing out. A mental note should be made as "rising" for the upward movement and "falling" for the downward movement. If these movements are not clearly noticed by simply fixing the mind on them, one or both hands should be placed on the abdomen.

The disciple should not try to change the manner of his natural breathing. He should neither attempt slow breathing by the retention of his breath, nor quick breathing or deep breathing. If he does change the natural flow of his breathing, he will soon tire himself. He must therefore keep to the natural rate of his breathing and proceed with the contemplation of rising and falling.

On the occurrence of the upward movement of the abdomen, the mental note of "rising" should be made, and on the downward movement of the abdomen, the mental note of "falling" should be made. The mental notation of these terms should not be vocalized. In vipassana meditation, it is more important to know the object than to know it by a term or name. It is therefore necessary for the disciple to make every effort to be mindful of the movement of rising from its beginning to its end and that of falling from its beginning to its end, as if these movements are actually seen with the eyes. As soon as rising occurs, there should be the knowing mind close to the movement, as in the case of a stone hitting a wall. The movement of rising as it occurs and the mind knowing it must come together on every occasion. Similarly, the movement of falling as it occurs and the mind knowing it must come together on every occasion.

When there is no other conspicuous object, the disciple should carry on the exercise of noting these two movements as "rising, falling, rising, falling, rising, falling." While thus being occupied with this exercise, there may be occasions when the mind wanders about. When concentration is weak, it is very difficult to control the mind. Though it is directed to the movements of rising and falling, the mind will not stay with them but will wander to other places. This wandering mind should not be let alone. It should be noted as "wandering, wandering, wandering" as soon as it is noticed that it is wandering. On noting once or twice the mind usually stops wandering, then the exercise of noting "rising, falling" should be continued. When it is again found that the mind has reached a place, it should be noted as "reaching, reaching, reaching." Then the exercise of noting "rising, falling" should be reverted to as soon as these movements are clear.

On meeting with a person in the imagination, it should be noted as "meeting, meeting," after which the usual exercise should be reverted to. Sometimes the fact that it is mere imagination is discovered when one speaks with that imaginary person, and it should then be noted as "speaking,speaking." The real purport is to note every mental activity as it occurs. For instance, it should be noted as "thinking" at the moment of thinking, and as "reflecting," "planning," "knowing," "attending," rejoicing," "feeling lazy," "feeling happy," "disgusted," etc., as the case may be, on the occurrence of each activity. The contemplation of mental activities and noticing them is called cittanupassana, contemplation of mind.

Because people have no practical knowledge in vipassana meditation, they are generally not in a position to know the real state of the mind. This naturally leads them to the wrong view of holding mind to be "person," "self," "living entity." They usually believe that "imagination is I," "I am thinking, " "I am planning," "I am knowing," and so forth. They hold that there exists a living entity or self which grows up from childhood to adulthood. In reality, such a living entity does not exist, but there does exist a continuous process of elements of mind which occur singly, one at a time, in succession. The practice of contemplation is therefore being carried out with the aim of discovering the true nature of this mind-body complex.

As regards the mind and the manner of its arising, the Buddha stated in the Dhammapada (v.37):

Durangamam ekacaram
asariram guhasayam
ye cittam sa˝˝amessanti
mokkhanti marabandhana.

Faring far, wandering alone,
Formless and lying in a cave.
Those who do restrain the mind
Are sure released from Mara's bonds.

Faring far. Mind usually wanders far and wide. While the yogi is trying to carry on with the practice of contemplation in his meditation room, he often finds that his mind has wandered to many far-off places, towns, etc. He also finds that his mind can wander to any of the far-off places which he has previously known at the very moment of thinking or imagining. This fact is discovered with the help of contemplation.

Alone. Mind occurs singly, moment to moment in succession. Those who do not perceive the reality of this believe that one mind exists in the course of life or existence. They do not know that new minds are always arising at every moment. They think that the seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking of the past and of the present belong to one and the same mind, and that three or four acts of seeing, hearing, touching, knowing usually occur simultaneously.

These are wrong views. In reality, single moments of mind arise and pass away continuously, one after another. This can be perceived on gaining considerable practice. The cases of imagination and planning are clearly perceptible. Imagination passes away as soon as it is noted as "imagining, imagining," and planning also passes away as soon as it is noted as "planning, planning." These instances of arising, noting and passing away appear like a string of beads. The preceding mind is not the following mind. Each is separate. These characteristics of reality are personally perceptible, and for this purpose one must proceed with the practice of contemplation.

Formless. Mind has no substance, no form. It is not easy to distinguish as is the case with materiality. In the case of materiality, the body, head, hands and legs are very prominent and are easily noticed. If it is asked what matter is, matter can be handled and shown. Mind, however, is not easy to describe because it has no substance or form. For this reason, it is not possible to carry out analytical laboratory experiments on the mind.

One can, however, fully understand the mind if it is explained as that which knows an object. To understand the mind, it is necessary to contemplate the mind at every moment of its occurrence. When contemplation is fairly advanced, the mind's approach to its object is clearly comprehended. It appears as if each moment of mind is making a direct leap towards it object. In order to know the true nature of the mind, contemplation is thus prescribed.

Lying in a cave. Because the mind comes into being depending on the mind-base and the other sense doors situated in the body, it is said that it rests in a cave.

Those who do restrain the mind are sure released from Mara's bonds. It is said that the mind should be contemplated at each moment of its occurrence. The mind can thus be controlled by means of contemplation. On his successful controlling of the mind, the yogi will win freedom from the bondage of Mara, the King of Death. It will now be seen that it is important to note the mind at every moment of its occurrence. As soon as it is noted, the mind passes away. For instance, by noting once or twice as "intending, intending," it is found that intention passes away at once. Then the usual exercise of noting as "rising, falling, rising, falling" should be reverted to.

While one is proceeding with the usual exercise, one may feel that one wants to swallow saliva. It should be noted as "wanting," and on gathering saliva as "gathering," and on swallowing as "swallowing," in the serial order of occurrence. The reason for contemplation in this case is because there may be a persisting personal view as "wanting to swallow is I," "swallowing is also I." In reality, "wanting to swallow" is mentality and not "I," and "swallowing" is materiality and not "I." There exist only mentality and materiality at that moment. By means of contemplating in this manner, one will understand clearly the process of reality. So too, in the case of spitting, it should be noted as "wanting" when one wants to spit, as "bending" on bending the neck (which should be done slowly), as "looking, seeing" on looking and as "spitting" on spitting. Afterwards, the usual exercise of noting "rising, falling" should be continued.

Because of sitting for a long time, there will arise in the body unpleasant feeling of being stiff, being hot and so forth. These sensations should be noted as they occur. The mind should be fixed on that spot and a note made as "stiff, stiff" on feeling stiff, as "hot, hot" on feeling hot, as "painful, painful" on feeling painful, as "prickly, prickly" on feeling prickly sensations, and as "tired, tired" on feeling tired. These unpleasant feelings are dukkha-vedana and the contemplation of these feeling is vedananupassana, contemplation of feeling.

Owing to the absence of knowledge in respect of these feelings, there persists the wrong view of holding them as one's own personality or self, that is to say, "I am feeling stiff," "I am feeling painful," "I was feeling well formerly but I now feel uncomfortable," in the manner of a single self. In reality, unpleasant feelings arise owing to disagreeable impressions in the body. Like the light of an electric bulb which can continue to burn on a continuous supply of energy, so it is in the case of feelings, which arise anew on every occasion of coming in contact with disagreeable impressions.

It is essential to understand these feelings clearly. At the beginning of noting as "stiff, stiff," "hot, hot," "painful, painful," one may feel that such disagreeable feelings grow stronger, and then one will notice that a mind wanting to change the posture arises. This mind should be noted as "wanting, wanting." Then a return should be made to the feeling and it should be noted as "stiff, stiff" or "hot, hot," and so forth. If one proceeds in this manner of contemplation with great patience, unpleasant feelings will pass away.

There is a saying that patience leads to Nibbana. Evidently this saying is more applicable in the case of contemplation than in any other. Plenty of patience is needed in contemplation. If a yogi cannot bear unpleasant feelings with patience, but frequently changes his posture during contemplation, he cannot expect to gain concentration. Without concentration there is no chance of acquiring insight knowledge (vipassana-˝ana) and without insight knowledge the attainment of the path, fruition and Nibbana cannot be won.

Patience is of great importance in contemplation. Patience is needed mostly to bear unpleasant bodily feelings. There is hardly any case of outside disturbances where it is necessary to exercise patience. This means the observance of khantisamvara, restraint by patience. The posture should not be immediately changed when unpleasant sensations arise, but contemplation should be continued by noting them as "stiff, stiff," "hot, hot," and so on. Such painful sensations are normal and will pass away. In the case of strong concentration, it will be found that great pains will pass away when they are noted with patience. On the fading away of suffering or pain, the usual exercise of noting "rising, falling" should be continued.

On the other hand, it may be found that pains or unpleasant feelings do not immediately pass away even when one notes them with great patience. In such a case, one has no alternative but to change posture. One must, of course, submit to superior forces. When concentration is not strong enough, strong pains will not pass away quickly. In these circumstances there will often arise a mind wanting to change posture, and this mind should be noted as "wanting, wanting." After this, one should note "lifting, lifting" on moving it forward.

These bodily actions should be carried out slowly, and these slow movements should be followed up and noted as "lifting, lifting," "moving, moving," "touching, touching," in the successive order of the process. Again, on moving one should note "moving, moving," and on putting down, note "putting, putting." If, when this process of changing posture has been completed, there is nothing more to be noted, the usual exercise of noting "rising, falling" should be continued.

There should be no stop or break in between. The preceding act of noting and the one which follows should be contiguous. Similarly, the preceding concentration and the one which follows should be contiguous, and the preceding act of knowing and the one which follows should be contiguous. In this way, the gradual development by stages of mindfulness, concentration and knowledge takes place, and depending on their full development, the final stage of path-knowledge is attained.

In the practice of vipassana meditation, it is important to follow the example of a person who tries to make fire. To make a fire in the days before matches, a person had to constantly rub two sticks together without the slightest break in motion. As the sticks became hotter and hotter, more effort was needed, and the rubbing had to be carried out incessantly. Only when the fire had been produced was the person at liberty to take a rest. Similarly, a yogi should work hard so that there is no break between the preceding noting and the one which follows, and the preceding concentration and the one which follows. He should revert to his usual exercise of noting "rising, falling" after he has noted painful sensations.

While being thus occupied with his usual exercise, he may again feel itching sensations somewhere in the body. He should then fix his mind on the spot and make a note as "itching, itching." Itching is an unpleasant sensation. As soon as it is felt, there arises a mind which wants to rub or scratch. This mind should be noted as "wanting, wanting," after which no rubbing or scratching must be done as yet, but a return should be made to the itching and a note made as "itching, itching." While one is occupied with contemplation in this manner, itching in most cases passes away and the usual exercise of noting "rising, falling" should then be reverted to.

If, on the other hand, it is found that itching does not pass away, but that it is necessary to rub or scratch, the contemplation of the successive stages should be carried out by noting the mind as "wanting, wanting." It should then be continued by noting "raising, raising" on raising the hand, "touching, touching" when the hand touches the spot, "rubbing, rubbing" or "scratching, scratching" when the hand rubs or scratches, "withdrawing, withdrawing" on withdrawing the hand, "touching, touching" when the hand touches the body, and then the usual contemplation of "rising, falling" should be continued. In every case of changing postures, contemplation of the successive stages should be carried out similarly and carefully.

While thus carefully proceeding with the contemplation, one may find that painful feelings or unpleasant sensations arise in the body of their own accord. Ordinarily, people change their posture as soon as they feel even the slightest unpleasant sensation of tiredness or heat without taking heed of these incidents. The change of posture is carried out quite heedlessly just while the seed of pain is beginning to grow. Thus painful feelings fail to take place in a distinctive manner. For this reason it is said that, as a rule, the postures hide painful feelings from view. People generally think that they are feeling well for days and nights on end. They think that painful feelings occur only at the time of an attack of a dangerous disease.

Reality is just the opposite of what people think. Let anyone try to see how long he can keep himself in a sitting posture without moving or changing it. One will find it uncomfortable after a short while, say five or ten minutes, and then one will begin to find it unbearable after fifteen or twenty minutes. One will then be compelled to move or change one's posture by either raising or lowering the head, moving the hands or legs, or by swaying the body either forward or backward. Many movements usually take place during a short time, and the number would be very large if they were to be counted for the length of just one day. However, no one appears to be aware of this fact because no one takes any heed.

Such is the order in every case, while in the case of a yogi who is always mindful of his actions and who is proceeding with contemplation, body impressions in their own respective nature are therefore distinctly noticed. They cannot help but reveal themselves fully in their own nature because he is watching until they come to full view.

Though a painful sensation arises, he keeps on noting it. He does not ordinarily attempt to change his posture or move. Then on the arising of mind wanting to change, he at once makes a note of it as "wanting, wanting," and afterwards he returns again to the painful sensation and continues his noting of it. He changes his posture or moves only when he finds the painful feeling unbearable. In this case he also begins by noting the wanting mind and proceeds with noting carefully each stage in the process of moving. This is why the postures can no longer hide painful sensations. Often a yogi finds painful sensations creeping from here and there or he may feel hot sensations, aching sensations, itching, or the whole body as a mass of painful sensations. That is how painful sensations are found to be predominant because the postures cannot cover them.

If he intends to change his posture from sitting to standing, he should first make a note of the intending mind as "intending, intending," and proceed with the arranging of the hands and legs in the successive stages by noting as "raising," "moving," "stretching," "touching," "pressing," and so forth. When the body sways forward, it should be noted as "swaying, swaying." While in the course of standing up, there occurs in the body a feeling of lightness as well as the act of rising. Attention should be fixed on these factors and a note made as "rising, rising." The act of rising should be carried out slowly.

During the course of practice it is most appropriate if a yogi acts feebly and slowly in all activities just like a weak, sick person. Perhaps the case of a person suffering from lumbago would be a more fitting example here. The patient must always be cautious and move slowly just to avoid pains. In the same manner a yogi should always try to keep to slow movements in all actions. Slow motion is necessary to enable mindfulness, concentration and knowledge to catch up. One has lived all the time in a careless manner and one just begins seriously to train oneself in keeping the mind within the body. It is only the beginning, and one's mindfulness, concentration and knowledge have not yet been properly geared up while the physical and mental processes are moving at top speed. It is thus imperative to bring the top-level speed of these processes to the lowest gear so as to make it possible for mindfulness and knowledge to keep pace with them. It is therefore desirable that slow motion exercises be carried out at all times.

Further, it is advisable for a yogi to behave like a blind person throughout the course of training. A person without any restraint will not look dignified because he usually looks at things and persons wantonly. He also cannot obtain a steady and calm state of mind. The blind person, on the other hand, behaves in a composed manner by sitting sedately with downcast eyes. He never turns in any direction to look at things or persons because he is blind and cannot see them. Even if a person comes near him and speaks to him, he never turns around and looks at that person. This composed manner is worthy of imitation. A yogi should act in the same manner while carrying out the practice of contemplation. He should not look anywhere. His mind should be solely intent on the object of contemplation. While in the sitting posture he must be intently noting "rising, falling." Even if strange things occur nearby, he should not look at them. He must simply make a note as "seeing, seeing" and then continue with the usual exercise of noting "rising, falling." A yogi should have a high regard for this exercise and carry it out with due respect, so much so as to be mistaken for a blind person.

In this respect certain girl-yogis were found to be in perfect form. They carefully carried out the exercise with all due respect in accordance with the instructions. Their manner was very composed and they were always intent on their objects of contemplation. They never looked round. When they walked, they were always intent on the steps. Their steps were light, smooth and slow. Every yogi should follow their example.

It is necessary for a yogi to behave like a deaf person also. Ordinarily, as soon as a person hears a sound, he turns around and looks in the direction from which the sound came, or he turns towards the person who spoke to him and makes a reply. He does not behave in a sedate manner. A deaf person, on the other hand, behaves in a composed manner. He does not take heed of any sound or talk because he never hears them. Similarly, a yogi should conduct himself in like manner without taking heed of any unimportant talk, nor should he deliberately listen to any talk or speech. If he happens to hear any sound or speech, he should at once make a note as "hearing, hearing," and then return to the usual practice of noting "rising, falling." He should proceed with his contemplation intently, so much so as to be mistaken for a deaf person.

It should be remembered that the only concern of a yogi is the carrying out intently of contemplation. Other things seen or heard are not his concern. Even though they may appear to be strange or interesting, he should not take heed of them. When he sees any sights, he must ignore them as if he does not see. So too, he must ignore voices or sounds as if he does not hear. In the case of bodily actions, he must act slowly and feebly as if he were sick and very weak.



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This page was published on Realization.org on November 23, 2000.

Copyright 2001 Realization.org. All rights reserved.