78 – The Ten Oxherding Pictures: Stages of Practice When You’re Going Nowhere
80 - Four Foundations of Mindfulness Practice and Similarities in Zen

One of Buddha’s central teachings was the Four Foundations of Mindfulness – basically, how you walk the Eightfold Path to liberation. Mindfulness, or sati, means to remember or keep in mind, and the four foundations are the four things you should keep in mind (or focus on) if you want to progress on the spiritual path. In this first episode of two on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, I’ll introduce the teaching as given by the Buddha. In the next episode, I’ll reflect on actual practice of this teaching, and how all its elements are included in Zen but parsed out differently.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
An Overview of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness
What Is Mindfulness in the Traditional Buddhist Sense?
Mindfulness of the Body
Mindfulness of Feelings
Mindfulness of Mind
Mindfulness of Dhamma, or Mental Qualities
Action, Not Just Mindfulness

 

I’ve been studiously working my way through the Buddha’s foundational teachings on this podcast, and I’ve been subtly dreading having to do an episode on his teachings on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Many people love this teaching, and for many Theravadin and Vipassana lineages it’s central. The Buddha mentioned it over and over again, as recorded in the Pali Canon.

Why my ambivalence about the Four Foundations of Mindfulness? I’ll go into it more in the next episode, but basically, it’s because it presents Buddhist meditation as willful, directed activity, and that’s never worked for me. Some small part of me, despite my faith in my own Zen path, wonders if I’m just a Buddhist failure in this regard – that I was just too weak to discipline my own mind. Another part of me believes the Zen approach is much more subtle and profound: Allowing the mind to settle until its true nature manifests. But the wisest part of me knows the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and the Zen way of silent illumination are simply two paths up the same mountain. Actually, creating this episode helped me see, in a way that’s never occurred to me before, how the two reflect each other.

In this first episode of two on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, I’ll introduce the teaching as given by the Buddha. In the next episode, I’ll reflect on actual practice of this teaching, and how all its elements are included in Zen but parsed out differently.

An Overview of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness

As I introduce the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as the Buddha taught them, I can’t claim to have profound personal insight into the subtly and efficacy of this teaching. It hasn’t been my path, at least not exactly as described by the Buddha. I’m also aware that many diligent and talented practitioners have made it the focus of a lifetime. If you want to explore the Four Foundations more deeply, I recommend anything written by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (available for free on dhammatalks.org), and The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. However, I understand classic mindfulness training enough to explain it at a basic level.

Here’s a cursory overview: Whenever the Buddha wanted to explain how to attain liberation, he gave a teaching on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (translated as the four “establishings” of mindfulness by Thanissaro Bhikkhu). Certainly, the Buddha also mentioned you should pay attention to your circumstances (ideally, not be too wrapped up in the drama of the world) and behave morally, but once you had those basic prerequisites taken care of, you should practice mindfulness.

Here’s the Buddha’s own words on the practice of mindfulness (from the “Satipatthana Sutta” of the Pali Canon, or the “Establishing of Mindfulness Discourse” as translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, from which all the quotes in the episode will come):

“This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow & lamentation, for the disappearance of pain & distress, for the attainment of the right method, & for the realization of unbinding [nibbana, or nirvana]—in other words, the four establishings of mindfulness. Which four?

“There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings… mind… mental qualities in & of themselves—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world.”[i]

FYI, in this Pali Canon passage, a kind of shorthand is used to convey that the full description of the practice (that is, remaining focused on the meditative subject in and of itself while being ardent, alert, and mindful, and putting aside all greed and distress about the world) applies equally to each of the meditative subjects listed (the body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities). Ellipses (three dots) are used in the list of subjects rather than repeating the whole description for every subject.

What Is Mindfulness in the Traditional Buddhist Sense?

What is mindfulness, anyway? I’ve tried to answer that question many times, for myself and for others. On the one hand, the definition is simple, but on the other hand we’re talking about trying to parse out and define a mental experience and/or faculty, and, generally speaking, concepts and words always fail to pin down reality the way we’d like them to. I’ll do my best to explain here, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering again, fairly soon, “What is mindfulness, anyway?”

Mindfulness is a translation of the Pali word sati. According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “The term sati is related to the verb sarati, to remember or to keep in mind… The role of mindfulness is to keep the mind properly focused in frames of reference that will give it guidance in what present events to develop, and which ones to abandon, so as to keep it on the path.”[ii] Contrary to the recent popular understanding of mindfulness as nonreactive, nonjudgmental awareness, Thanissaro argues, mindfulness is active and purposeful. He uses the analogy of driving a car toward a mountain you want to reach; mindfulness is what keeps you focused on the road – enabling you to actually get to the mountain – rather than distracted by views of the mountain or other roads. Mindfulness isn’t meaningful or useful unless you’re making a conscious choice to pay attention to something that will lead to progress on the spiritual path.

In a similar analogy, I think of mindfulness as being like the ability to aim your binoculars at a subject you’re trying to study and keep them there. Boredom or distraction are likely to cause you to look around instead, but then you remember what it is you’re meant to be focusing on and you return the binoculars to the subject – and ideally keep them there long enough to actually see something happen. Note that mindfulness is far from being the only factor required for Buddhist practice. You also need things like concentration (that would be like focusing your binoculars carefully to see fine detail), persistence (sticking with the whole task instead of giving up), and calm (holding the binoculars still).

I won’t go into the challenges of actually practicing mindfulness here – how most of us find ourselves, to keep using the binocular analogy, aiming our focus at a million other subjects than the one we’ve supposedly chosen to be watching, or even putting our binoculars down and forgetting to even try to focus. I’ll get into some discussion of the realities of mindfulness practice in the second part of this episode, but for now let’s return to the Buddha’s teachings about the four foundational things we should be mindful of if we want to walk the “direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow & lamentation, for the disappearance of pain & distress, for the attainment of the right method, & for the realization of unbinding” [nibbana, or nirvana].

Mindfulness of the Body

According to the Buddha, the first of the four ways to establish mindfulness is to practice mindfulness of the body. The teachings describe this as “mindfulness of the body in the body,” and this means you’re aware of the body with the body. You’re not thinking about the body, you’re practicing direct awareness of your physical embodiment and experience. With effort and practice, you learn to pay close attention to the body – your body – until you’re continuously aware of what’s going on with and within it. This sounds simple, but it takes effort to deepen this practice and sustain your mindfulness long enough to notice physical experiences begin, persist, change, and then disappear – a critical part of the practice.

In the Buddha’s words (these are excerpts, as the section on mindfulness of the body is quite long):

“And how does a monk remain focused on the body in & of itself? …Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body’; he trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’ …And further, when walking, the monk discerns, ‘I am walking.’ When standing, he discerns, ‘I am standing.’ When sitting, he discerns, ‘I am sitting.’ When lying down, he discerns, ‘I am lying down.’ Or however his body is disposed, that is how he discerns it.”

There’s really no end to the ways you can practice mindfulness of the body, according to the Buddha. In the Satipatthana Sutta, he describes a monk discerning his very awareness of having a body. He describes cultivating awareness of every last movement and activity of the body, including carrying things, flexing your limbs, chewing, urinating, walking, and talking. Mindfulness of the body includes becoming aware of each and every part of the body, and of the “phenomenon of origination with regard to the body, on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to the body.” (This last part is really about recognizing the ephemeral nature of the body, realized as vividly as if you were observing corpses on a charnel ground, so this isn’t just about some kind of new-age body appreciation.)

Mindfulness of Feelings

After mindfulness of the body, the Buddha describes practicing mindfulness of feelings in and of themselves. In a Buddhist sense, “feelings” aren’t complicated emotions. Instead, they’re your first and rather primal reactions to stimuli, including your own thoughts. Feelings fall into the basic categories of positive, negative, and neutral. In other words, you have a more or less instant reaction of like, dislike, or indifference to everything you encounter or experience.

In the Buddha’s words:

“And how does a monk remain focused on feelings in & of themselves? There is the case where a monk, when feeling a painful feeling, discerns, ‘I am feeling a painful feeling.’ When feeling a pleasant feeling, he discerns, ‘I am feeling a pleasant feeling.’ When feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, he discerns, ‘I am feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.’”

When you practice mindfulness of feelings, you become more and more aware of feelings until – once again – you can watch them arise, have a duration, and pass away. You practice direct awareness of feelings, learning to identify them and distinguish various feelings from one another.

However – and this is tricky – mindfulness isn’t about intellectual analysis or engaging in prolonged thoughts about feelings (or the body, or other subjects). It’s like you were listening closely to music and noticed something about its rhythm. This would be a direct observation you made through listening, not an idea you formulated while daydreaming about the music and therefore oblivious to the actual sound. Mindfulness is direct awareness of what’s going on. At the same time, the meditative path to awakening described by the Buddha definitely involves a measure of discernment and discrimination; just as you would notice whether music was loud or quiet, you would notice whether your feelings were painful, pleasant, or neutral. Mindfulness does not exclude the other mental faculties, but it does keep the actual subject in view rather than letting you wander off into mental abstraction.

Mindfulness of Mind

Then there’s the third foundation of mindfulness, awareness of mind. The Satipatthana Sutta isn’t explicit about needing to master the first foundation of mindfulness before the second, and second before the third, but that’s definitely implied. In general, the body provides the most straightforward meditative subject because the content of our physical experience is less likely than feelings or mental experiences to activate our abstract thinking processes or self-concern, resulting in us losing our mindfulness. Feelings are a little trickier, but it definitely gets even more challenging to be mindful of your mind in and of itself without getting lost in what you’re thinking.

The idea is that once you’re pretty good at maintaining sustained awareness of the body, and then you’ve learned to be mindful of feelings, you practice mindfulness of the qualities and states of your mind. Again, this doesn’t mean paying lots of attention to the content of your mind. That’s what you usually do. Instead, when you become mindful of mind, you notice what’s going on with the mind in and of itself. Is it dull, excited, concentrated, or distracted? Is it contracted, expansive, liberated, or stuck?

Again, in the Buddha’s words:

“And how does a monk remain focused on the mind in & of itself? There is the case where a monk, when the mind has passion, discerns, ‘The mind has passion.’ When the mind is without passion, he discerns, ‘The mind is without passion.’” [The same for the presence and absence of aversion, and delusion.] “When the mind is constricted, he discerns, ‘The mind is constricted.’ When the mind is scattered, he discerns, ‘The mind is scattered.’” [And so on, for discerning whether the mind is enlarged, surpassed, concentrated, or released, all terms that have specific meanings in this context.]

Although I agree with Thanissaro Bhikkhu that mindfulness as the Buddha taught it isn’t merely nonjudgmental, aimless awareness, it’s worth taking a moment here to note why secular mindfulness teachings make the recommendation to be nonreactive and nonjudgmental when practicing mindfulness. If you’re observing your mind and notice it’s full of aversion, for example, it won’t help your mindfulness practice to react to that by thinking, “Oh no, bad!” And trying to get rid of the aversion. That’s actually losing mindfulness of your mind state and getting caught up in concern about yourself in a small-minded kind of way: You want to be free from the discomfort of aversion, or able to feel you’re spiritually adept enough to avoid getting caught in aversion.

The mindfulness taught by the Buddha requires us to be more objective and dispassionate than this. Sure, ultimately we are trying to be free from aversion (for example), but the way to achieve that isn’t to get involved in an immediate struggle with it. That would be like driving toward our mountain but getting overly concerned about the state of your car, such that you pull over to the side of the road and start monkeying with it. In an emergency that might be necessary, but for the most part, to get to the mountain, you have to keep going and keep your eye on the road. In the case of practicing mindfulness of mind, this means remaining focused on the mind in and of itself regardless of what’s going on in it.

Mindfulness of Dhamma, or Mental Qualities

On to the fourth foundation: Mindfulness of Dhamma. This foundation can be translated different ways and there’s some debate about exactly what its name refers to. The word “Dhamma” could refer to the Buddha’s teachings, or lower-case dhamma could refer to phenomena. Ajahn Thanissaro translates the fourth foundation as “mental qualities,” because the list of subjects to be mindful of in this fourth type of practice makes it clear we’re talking about your own inner experience of pivotal aspects of the Buddha’s teachings, including:

  • The presence or absence of the five hindrances within you (sensual desire, ill will, sloth, restlessness, and doubt).
  • The ephemeral, not-self nature of the five aggregates of which you’re composed (your body, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness).
  • The presence or absence of the seven factors of awakening within you (mindfulness, analysis of qualities, persistence, rapture, calm, concentration, and equanimity).
  • The Four Noble Truths (the presence of dukkha, seeing what causes it to arise, recognizing how it can end, and the path of practice that allows you to end it).

Here are the Buddha’s words describing practicing mindfulness of dhamma with respect to the Four Noble Truths:

“And further, the monk remains focused on mental qualities in & of themselves with reference to the four noble truths. And how does a monk remain focused on mental qualities in & of themselves with reference to the four noble truths? There is the case where he discerns, as it has come to be, that ‘This is stress…This is the origination of stress…This is the cessation of stress…This is the way leading to the cessation of stress.’”

The Satipatthana Sutta goes on to outline the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths, including dukkha (stress or dissatisfactoriness) and the many real ways it manifests for human beings, the karmic process of the arising of dukkha, how to end the craving that leads to dukkha, and a detailed description of the fourth Noble Truth, which is none other than the Eightfold Path.

So what does this mean? When you practice the fourth foundation of mindfulness, do you work on an intellectual understanding of Buddhist teachings? No. Of course, you have to know and understand the teachings to some extent in order to investigate the way they play out in your own direct experience, but that direct experience is what we’re after. You need to observe for yourself the workings of dukkha and karma in your life and moment-by-moment experience. You need to recognize harmful actions of body, speech, and mind and their negative repercussions, and alternatively recognize the positive results of skillful actions.

Action, Not Just Mindfulness

Now you know the four core mindfulness practices, but before I wrap up this episode, I should explain a little more about what a diligent practitioner is expected to do with each of them. As Ajahn Thanissaro is fond of pointing out, the meditation the Buddha taught (that is, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness) is not the non-judgmental, bare awareness taught in some other forms of Buddhism, or in modern-day secular mindfulness. The whole point is for you to be able to cultivate the ability to pay attention to all of these objects of mindfulness in a sustained and concentrated way so you can see exactly what leads to suffering versus what leads to happiness and liberation. Then you renounce what leads to suffering and cultivate what leads to happiness and liberation.

The classical Buddhist teaching of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness assumes you have a goal. To return to Thanissaro’s analogy of driving to a mountain, the mountain is awakening or liberation. Mindfulness is keeping your attention on the road to liberation, not learning to be more aware, appreciative, and accepting of where you already are. Nice benefits like becoming more aware and appreciative of your life just as it is may come with mindfulness practice, but from the classical Buddhist point of view those would be side benefits, not the main point.

What is the goal of Buddhist practice? According to the Buddha, it’s pretty clear. He laid out an elaborate process of refining your own mind and body in order to progress on a spiritual path culminating in complete spiritual liberation from all suffering, clinging, and delusion. You may not reach the end of the road in this particular lifetime, but you try to get as far as you can. I’m sure most modern Theravadin and Vipassana communities offer a broader and more complex picture of practice than this, particularly for lay practitioners. However, there remains a real difference between Buddhist traditions grounded firmly in the Buddha’s original teachings, like Theravada and Vipassana, and Mahayana traditions like Zen. I’ll go more into this in the next episode, when I continue my discussion of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, how they’re actually practiced, and how the practice of the four foundations manifests in Zen.

Read/listen to The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Part 2, Actual Practice and Similarities in Zen)


Endnotes

[i] The Establishing of Mindfulness Discourse, Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta  (MN 10). From dhammatalks.org, Talks, Writings, and Translations of Thanissaro Bhikkhu. https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/MN/MN10.html
[ii] Ibid

 

78 – The Ten Oxherding Pictures: Stages of Practice When You’re Going Nowhere
80 - Four Foundations of Mindfulness Practice and Similarities in Zen
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