Bhikkhu Anālayo’s Study Practice retreats 

By John McIntyre

A number of us with connections to BMIMC were fortunate enough to attend a week-long study-practice retreat with Bhikkhu Anālayo, who is well-known for his commentary on Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realisation. An esteemed scholar with a gift for lucid expression, he is also an inspiring teacher and practitioner. In a number of books since Direct Path he has explored the ‘thought world’ of early Buddhism. We owe a great debt of gratitude to Jill Shepherd for bringing about Anālayo’s visit and singlehandedly organising and managing the retreats.

The retreat involved mornings of study of texts, employing a group process examining the implications for practice. Anālayo’s scholarly methodology followed his Perspectives on SatipatthanaThis compared the Theravadan text of the Sutta with later versions preserved in Chinese, making it possible to estimate what was added and changed over the centuries. The point of this scholarly work is primarily to inform meditation practice, by revealing the earliest elements of the Suttas.

We were privileged to be given an entirely fresh understanding of Satipaṭṭhāna meditation, an approach that challenged some commonly accepted and fixed ideas about the practice, including those we have inherited through the Goenka or Mahāsī traditions.

Anālayo’s approach emphasises Satipaṭṭhāna meditation as a practice of open awareness informed by a range of specific contemplations of the body, mind and dhammas included in the four Satipaṭṭhāna domains. The afternoons and evenings were given over to practice with guided meditation of these specific contemplations, growing ever more complex as each day introduced more elements.

New insights into Satipaṭṭhāna practice emerged in small group discussion of the texts, and the various philosophical issues that arose. There was an emphasis on recovering an understanding of the Satipaṭṭhāna meditation as an open and flexible practice. It was striking how mindfulness was understood as ‘embodied mindfulness’ and ‘knowing the presence of the whole body’ as the ‘hub’ of an entire schema of Satipatthana practice in ten specific contemplations.

As an example, Anālayo recommends a specific contemplation of the anatomical parts of the body simplifying the classical ‘32 parts’ in a series of body scans contemplating ‘skin, skin’, ‘flesh, flesh’, ‘bone, bone’, with awareness of the unattractiveness of the body. There are further contemplations of the elements in the body, and its impermanence, culminating in the contemplation of death. Details on these practices with guided meditations by Anālayo are generously made freely available.

A sense of Satipatthana as an open and dynamic field of practice was (in passing) contrasted with the way the Theravada over centuries systematised the Buddha’s teachings, as in our own time, the ‘modern vipassana movement’ has further systematised the teachings on Buddhist meditation. Thus Anālayo challenges the strict Theravadan distinction between samatha (tranquillity) meditation and insight (vipassana) meditation, as a restriction not found in early Buddhism. It is a later development to simplify transmission.

In any system, there is a reification of qualities. This certainly seems to be true of mindfulness, in our own time, when it is abstracted from its doctrinal context to play a part in Western psychotherapy. There is a loss of the understanding of the dynamic relationship of sati to other qualities in different contexts (as a Faculty, as an Awakening Factor, as a factor of the Noble Eightfold Path). This complex understanding of sati is well-developed in The Direct Path to Realisation and one of the book’s distinguishing features. It was a joy to have this come out in the discussion.

In another philosophical aside, Anālayo  remarked that in early Buddhist thought, mindfulness’ (sati) and ‘clear knowing’ (clear comprehension, sampajañña) were regarded as distinct and cooperative qualities, just as they appear in the Sutta’s refrain, whereas in later Buddhism, these qualities became conflated (literally, fused). It has been observed (I think by Joseph Goldstein in his talks on the Satipatthana) that the Sutta mentions mindfulness in the beginning, but it is the ‘clear knowing’ of the meditator that is continuously emphasised in the various contemplations.

Also in this philosophical vein, Anālayo remarked that early Buddhist thought did not hold, as our thought-world does, with a mind-body dualism where mind is equated with brain rather than the entire nervous system, There is an important implication for practice—what understanding can replace Cartesian dualism? Anālayo held up the five fingers of his right hand, and signified it was the Five Aggregates (form, feeling, perception, volition and consciousness).

In the treatment of the other three Satipaṭṭhānas, Anālayo gives some emphasis to the contemplation of feeling (vedanā nupassanā), recommending a body scan, exploring pleasant, unpleasant and neither pleasant nor unpleasant feeling, its impermanence and therefore dukkha.  The third and fourth domains are practised together. Contemplation of Mind  in terms of the presence of mindfulness, the presence or absence of distraction due to desire, aversion or delusion, leads on to Contemplation of  Dhammas, the investigation of the Five Hindrances and the transition (with their overcoming) to the contemplation of  the Seven Awakening Factors. This focus finds justification in textual criticism that reveals that certain doctrinal elements, notably the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, were later inclusions in the Sutta.

There is much more to be told, but happily this is to be found in full in Anālayo’s most recent book on Satipatthana Meditation: A Practice Guide. Again, we thank Jill Shepherd for making this rare experience available, and hope that Bhikkhu Anālayo will return in the future.









John McIntyre has a long association with BMIMC since his first introduction to the Mahāsī tradition thirty years ago. He now lives in Canberra and assists Lesley Lebkowicz with the Canberra Insight Meditation Group and coordinates its Dhamma Discussion.