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Satipatthāna: The Objective Observation

Bhikkhu T. Seelananda, Bhavana Society Forest Monastery, High View, WV, USA

A wonderful characteristic of Buddhism, the teaching of the Buddha, is “come and see” (ehipassiko). This singular teaching of the Dhamma, invites everyone to ‘come and see’. In order to understand and see things, one should have clear eyes and a clear mind. Only then can one see things as they really are, otherwise, one could see but have misperceptions or a misconception.  For this reason, one should see things objectively, should see that objective observation is the way to realize the real nature of the whole world system. This is the way for the attainment of the final goal, Nibbāna by eradicating the whole mass of defilements.  Buddhism always encourages us to see things objectively. 

Satipatthana (Establishment of Mindfulness)

Here, the writer's endeavor is to give some idea of what Satipatthāna really means and thereafter to show how to practice it as a method of objective observation in order to see the object as it is, so that one could see reality in oneself and the whole universe.

This characteristic of objective observation is clearly and categorically depicted from the beginning to the end of the Mahā Satipatthāna Sutta (The Great Discourse on the Establishment of Mindfulness.) This is one of the most important discourses delivered by the Buddha as a manual of mental development (bhāvana). In this discourse, the Buddha described four kinds of contemplations. They are:

Mindfulness of the body (Kāyānupassanā)
Mindfulness of sensations (Vedanānupassanā)
Mindfulness of consciousness (Cittānupassanā )
Mindfulness of mind-objects ( Dhammānupassanā)
These four are further classified into 44 objects of meditation. All these 44 objects are to be observed objectively for the successful development of meditation and the attainment of perfect peace, Enlightenment. When one practices objective observation it is nothing but simple calmness and insight (samatha and vipassanā). Satipatthāna deals with the fourfold development of mental qualities. Mindfulness is the most significant factor to be developed and cultivated by practitioners who really want to live happily, peacefully, and eventually to attain Nibbāna. So mindfulness is the key word, the watchword in the teaching of the Buddha. Mindfulness is to be developed and cultivated by everyone for the understanding and realization of the Dhamma. There is no meditation without mindfulness, no attainment of Nibbāna without mindfulness. Establishment of mindfulness is the way, the direct way, the correct way for the purification of all beings.  


Mindfulness is the seventh factor of the Noble Eightfold Path. Here it means practicing and developing the four establishments of mindfulness. When developed, cultivated and properly established, it gradually becomes a spiritual faculty, a mental power, and a factor of enlightenment that leads one to the realization of the Four Noble Truths and the attainment of enlightenment. Indeed, it has been called by the Buddha the “Ekāyano maggo” the one way, or the direct way, to the attainment of Nibbāna. 

From the average man’s point of view, mindfulness is also a very desirable quality. Common sense will tell us that the practice of mindfulness makes us more alert and minimizes the possibility of errors, mistakes, lapses and accidents. Common sense also tells us that the habit of mindfulness will induce a healthy balance, a sense of proportion and a sense of mental alertness, and keep us constantly on our guard.

As the Buddha said, mindfulness has the effect of purifying beings, overcoming sorrow, and giving entry to the Noble Eightfold Path ultimately realizing Nibbāna. These results are attainable if the mindfulness practiced is not merely mundane or worldly, but mindfulness of a spiritual or supra-mundane nature. Once mindfulness is fully developed and cultivated all the promised results can be realized; seeing things objectively and not subjectively. 

Subject and Object Perception

According to the teachings of the Buddha, it is very important to understand and grasp the distinction between objective and subjective perception. Whenever a person sees things subjectively he has self-centered thinking. However, if a person sees things objectively he/she can see things as they really are. This is the teaching of the Buddha.

Once when Pythagoras was asked to define who a philosopher is, he said something to this effect: “When all are invited to the feast of life some go there to enjoy, some go there to win name and fame, and there are yet others who go there just to look on. These others are the philosophers.” What is meant by this is that the philosopher does not identify himself with life. He looks at life standing, as it were, outside of life. That is how the practitioner of mindfulness should look at things. That is the Buddhist way of practicing mindfulness.

When one looks at a thing subjectively, there is mental affinity between oneself and the thing that one is looking at. Then one brings oneself mentally very close to what one is looking at.  However, if one looks at a thing objectively, one keeps oneself mentally far removed from the object.  In short, the practitioner is a bare observer, as distinguished from an interested observer. The observer should be always uninfluenced by the observation. That is the real observation. When the observer has observed a thing, if the observer is influenced by emotions, the observation becomes a completely distorted process. Then the facts are definitely distorted, discolored and disorientated.

The teaching of the Buddha is expounded, revealed and made clear for the understanding of things as they really are (yathabhuta). This teaching is to be realized by the wise individual (paccattam veditabbo viññuhi). The Buddha emphatically said that his Dhamma is only for the wise. That means for those who see things objectively or without grasping things as their own.  


Sati, or mindfulness, is the lens of the camera or the microscope through which one sees all objects whether small or large. Without mindfulness, one cannot see things as they really are. This is very significant in the teachings of the Buddha.  This seeing of reality as it is, in the language of the Buddha is called, ‘vipassanā’. This is the understanding of the three characteristics of existence namely impermanence, dissatisfaction and soullessness. These three characteristics of existence are common to all animate and inanimate objects. The purpose of Satipatthāna or the establishment of mindfulness is to observe things objectively and to understand the three characteristics of existence and live in the world with a mind steady and unattached. Those who have really practiced and developed mindfulness and the four establishments of mindfulness for the perfection are the Enlightened Ones in the world.  

Once, a certain recluse named Bāhiya came to the Buddha and asked him for some quick advice to help him practice meditation and attain Enlightenment. He asked this while the Buddha was on his alms round. At first, the Buddha refused to answer him. But as he kept asking, over and over again, the Buddha finally admonished him. “Bāhiya, this is the way you should train yourself: ’In the seeing there is just the seeing. In the heard there is just the heard. In the thought there is just the thought. In the cognizing there is just the cognizing'.” These are certainly deeply meaningful words, but for the practitioner when observing things objectively, it is not that difficult to grasp their deep meaning.  

Objective Observation as Given in the Satipatthana Sutta

With this background we can now come to understand how the Buddha has taught this wonderful method of objective observation in the Satipatthāna Sutta. We see that, from the beginning to the end of the Sutta, it is nothing but objective observation. Once the Buddha said, “Friends, things that are not yours, abandon”. So Satipatthāna is for this purpose. 

As we mentioned earlier, the Buddha categorized mindfulness of body first. In this category there are six subdivisions. First, the Buddha explained how to observe the breath objectively. When it is observed objectively one can see it as it is.

For this objective observation of the breath, one should find a comfortable place and sit properly. The Buddha recommended three types of places that provide peacefulness, seclusion, and extra energy respectively. According to this discourse on the establishment of mindfulness the prescribed three places are as follows:

In the woods (about 300 feet away from any human habitation)
At the foot of a tree (any tree but the environment should be quite calm, and peaceful)
In an empty house (the house may even be in a city or a village, but it has to be secluded). 

With regard to these three places, seclusion is the most important condition. Therefore, any place that offers seclusion is a suitable place for meditation. Then one should sit properly adjusting one’s posture, using full lotus, half lotus, or easy posture and practice mindfulness of breathing. That is the observation. Observe your breath objectively. 


As you breathe in and out you have to give your attention (wise attention) to the breath and strive to understand the breath clearly but also allow it to flow naturally, peacefully and smoothly. Observe the breath objectively. This breath is not yours, it is not you, and it is not yourself. This is impermanent, this is unsatisfactory and this is insubstantial.  That is how one should observe one’s breath objectively. The Buddha of our Era, Gotama, observed natural breathing as the object for his attainment of Buddha-hood. All of the Buddhās in the past observed natural breathing as the meditation object for their attainment of Buddha-hood. The future Buddhās will also follow this same method as the object for their attainment of Buddha-hood. When one observes one’s breath, one can realize different steps of breath. There are a total of sixteen stages of breath (See: Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta No.118).  

Four Postures

Then in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha pointed out how to observe the four postures as meditation objects. The postures here mean the four deportments of the body. Everything that we do, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, we all have only four postures to assume in this body.  They are ‘walking’, ‘standing’, ‘sitting’ and ‘lying down’. The Buddha’s advice to us is to observe these four postures objectively. If anyone has any doubt about another posture, as we are changing our positions all the time, the Buddha further said in his language, “Yathā yathā vā panassa kāyo panihito hoti tathā tathānam pajānāti” which means whatever way that you keep your body, observe it objectively. This observation is the way to the realization of truth in the world.

Clear Comprehension

Next the Buddha explained how to understand clearly the different activities and movements of the body. Here, the Buddha said, “Understand clearly when you go forward,  when you turn and come back, when you bend your limbs, when you extend your limbs, when you take a bowl (any instrument, or tool), when you wear any clothes or ornaments, when you eat, when you drink, when you bite, when you taste; whenever you urinate or defecate, whenever you walk, stand, sit, lie down, and as long as you are awake, clearly comprehend the activities of the body.” The Buddha further said, “Understand them internally and externally, and both internally and externally. Then clearly comprehend the arising of the action and the passing of the action.” This is the way to not attach to anything in the world, but to the complete understanding of things as they are.

32 Parts of the Body

The Buddha described the next object of meditation to be observed objectively as the loathsomeness of the body. For this purpose, the Buddha classified the body into 32 parts and advised the practitioners to observe those different parts of the body objectively. There are in this body; the head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, stomach, feces, bile, phlegm, puss, blood, sweat, fat, tear, grease, saliva, mucus, oil in joints, urine, and fluid in brain. All of these are to be observed objectively, meaning without grasping them as yours. 

Four Elements 

The fifth subsection of the classification of the contemplation of the body is the observation of the four elements; namely solidity, liquidity, heat and motion. These are also to be observed objectively. In this case the Buddha gave a simile. That is a simile of the cow. When a butcher is feeding a cow or is nourishing it, and then takes it to the slaughtering place, ties it to a post and kills it, he still has the notion that it is a being, a cow.  If someone would ask him what he is doing, he would say. “I am feeding the cow” or “I am killing the cow.” Even after having killed it, before he cuts it up into pieces, he still maintains the same notion that it is a cow. But, after cutting the slaughtered cow into pieces, he takes the pieces and puts them on a table at the crossroad to sell, from that point on, he loses the notion of a cow. If someone were to ask him what he is selling, he would not say, “I am selling a cow.” So, after cutting the cow into pieces, he loses the concept of a cow. In the same way, when practitioners “cut” themselves into four elements, whatever is in their body, just four elements, then they will lose the concept of being, a person.

When practitioners see the elements clearly, they lose the concept of a being; they see that there are just these four elements; four elements going, four elements standing, and so on. When they see only these four elements going and so on, they cannot see a person and therefore lose the concept of a being. This form came to exist as the results of four elements. Everything is composed with these four elements that dissolve to the same elements at the end of death. 

Nine Charnel Ground Observations 

The Buddha enunciated the nine charnel ground observations as the sixth subsection of this Sutta. In this section, one has to observe these objects objectively. Since it was the custom at the time of the Buddha that corpses were thrown into the graveyard, here the Buddha admonished his disciples to observe them objectively and to understand the different stages of a corpse decomposing and to compare it to their own bodies. The practitioners should go to these places and observe the corpses objectively and reflect that one day their bodies would undergo the same fate. That then is another kind of objective observation. When practitioners practice in this manner they contemplate the body as a body. 

Observe Feelings and Mind as They Are

Also while practicing in this manner, if the practitioner feels any sensation that too is to be observed objectively. There are three kinds of sensations; pleasant sensations, painful sensations and neutral sensations. Along with them, there can arise different kinds of mental thoughts like lustful thoughts, hateful thoughts, and deluded thoughts. The practitioner is then advised to also observe those different thoughts objectively. The Buddha has explained nine kinds of feelings and 16 kinds of mental states here in this Sutta.  

Finally, the Buddha described the observation of the Dhammas. In this section of the Sutta, the Buddha explained how the practitioners experience different characteristics of physicality and mentality (namarupa). The Buddha very clearly said that the practitioner then would be able to see clearly the real nature of the five hindrances and completely abandon them all without an iota of hindrances. And then the practitioner realizes the five aggregates of existence as they really are, the twelve internal and external bases as they are. When the practitioner further observes things as they are, he/she can develop the seven factors of enlightenment and eventually realizes the four Noble Truths, dependent origination and the three characteristics of existence. This is the final result of observing objectively, phenomena as phenomena. This is why the Buddha once said, “This Dhamma itself is to be abandoned” (Dhammāpi pahātabbam). These are not to be grasped as ours. So there is nothing to be attached to in the world (naca kinci loke upadiyati). 

At the end of this Sutta, giving a full assurance of attainment, the Buddha said, “Monks, whoever is practicing these four establishments of mindful observation for seven years, he can attain enlightenment (Arahant-hood) or if residue remains the attainment of the stage of Non-returner (Anagami). Then reducing the time frame, the Buddha said that one would be able to attain enlightenment even within six years, ... five … , four …, three …, two …, one year or with in half of a year. Finally the Buddha said, “Monks, if one would practice this objective observation of the four establishment of mindfulness properly one would attain enlightenment within seven days.”

Therefore, let us all understand these four objective observations (establishments of mindfulness) and strive to observe things whether internal or external objectively so that we all can realize the real nature of things, both in ourselves and the universe. 

May we all realize real peace, real happiness of Nibbana !

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