79 - Buddha's Teachings 10: The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
81 – Five Steps for Positive Change without Waging War on the Self

In the last episode, I introduced the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as the Buddha taught them. Mindfulness means to remember something, or keep something in mind. The Four Foundations are the four categories of things you keep in mind if you want to walk the path to spiritual liberation. In this episode I talk about how the Four Foundations of Mindfulness are actually practiced, and then about how this teaching relates to Zen.

Read/listen to The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Part 1, Buddha’s Teachings)



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Actual Practice of the Four Foundations
Training the Mind Like a Wild Elephant
Concentrated Investigation
Meditative Absorptions (Jhanas)
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Zen: Meditation
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Zen: Insight


In the last episode, I mentioned a number of times an analogy offered by Thanissaro Bhikkhu: You’re traveling on a road leading to a mountain (that stands for spiritual liberation), and mindfulness is what keeps your eye on the road. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, in this analogy, is the road itself – the four kinds of things the Buddha said you ought to pay attention to in order to make progress on the spiritual path, namely your body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities. (Be sure to listen to/read the last episode before this one if you don’t already understand what the Four Foundations of Mindfulness are.

Actual Practice of the Four Foundations

How do modern Buddhists practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness? To answer this question, we can look to lineages that identify either as Theravadin or Vipassana. Just to explain a little about the terminology: Theravadin lineages more or less try to preserve Buddhist practice the way it was practiced in the Buddha’s time, and focus on the teachings in the Pali Canon. Buddhist communities that identify as “Vipassana” usually also think of themselves as based in Theravadin Buddhism, but generally trace their origins back to a modern “Vipassana Movement” that arose in the 20th century. “Vipassana” can be translated as “clear seeing” or “insight,” and the most influential part of this movement involved westerners such as Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield studying with Burmese teachers – including S.N. Goenka and Mahasi Sayadaw – who were trying to revitalize the Buddhist meditative tradition. Western teachers then brought Vipassana practice back home, and presented it in ways westerners found very accessible – in a manner you might describe as more secular than traditional Theravada, and with less of its emphasis on monastics and monasticism.

Anyway, “Vipassana” can refer to Buddhist communities in this modern Vipassana movement lineage, or to the approach to meditation taught by the Buddha. As Theravadin monk Bhante Gunaratana states, “Vipassana is the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices. The method comes directly from the Satipatthana Sutta [Foundations of Mindfulness], a discourse attributed to the Buddha himself.”[i]

Naturally, there’s going to be a great deal of variety among different Theravadin and Vipassana teachers and communities in how they practice with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, and even in how explicitly they focus on that particular teaching. However, generally speaking, their approaches to meditation, and practice as a whole, are going to be based on the view that your mind starts out unruly and subject to negative habit patterns, and it needs to be disciplined in a gradual and systematic manner so you can use it as an effective tool in spiritual practice.

Training the Mind Like a Wild Elephant

Ayya Khema, a Theravadin teacher and nun, pointed out how some people are able to physically perform amazing feats most people can’t – not because they inherently have greater ability, but because they’ve deliberately undergone physical training. Then she says, “Meditation is the only training there is for the mind… The mind needs mental discipline, practice in meditation.”[ii]

A common (and ancient) analogy used in Theravadin Buddhism is comparing an undisciplined mind to a wild elephant. Whereas a trained elephant is incredibly useful, a wild elephant will simply run all over the place, and at times even be dangerous. How do you tame a wild elephant? First you somehow catch it (a difficult proposition), and then chain its foot to a stake. After a struggling against the stake for a while, the elephant begins to realize that no matter how often it tries to wander off, it keeps having to return to the stake. Eventually, it starts to settle down (or, you might say, give up), and sooner or later you only need thin rope to bind the elephant to the stake. At some point the creature is tame and ready to be employed in important tasks.

In Vipassana meditation, as in many forms of Buddhist meditation, you begin taming your elephant (training the mind) by tying it to stake (meditative object). The first meditative object you focus on is almost always the breath, which is the very first object of meditation mentioned in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. As Bhante Gunaratana explains in his article, “What Exactly Is Vipassana Meditation?” in Tricycle magazine:

“We use breath as our focus. It serves as that vital reference point from which the mind wanders and is drawn back. Distraction cannot be seen as distraction unless there is some central focus to be distracted from. That is the frame of reference against which we can view the incessant changes and interruptions that go on all the time as a part of normal thinking.”[iii]

Over time, according to Gunarantana, you get better and better at this:

Vipassana is a direct and gradual cultivation of mindfulness or awareness. It proceeds piece by piece over a period of years. The student’s attention is carefully directed to an intense examination of certain aspects of his own existence… Essentially, Vipassana meditation is a process of retraining the mind. The state you are aiming for is one in which you are totally aware of everything that is happening in your own perceptual universe, exactly the way it happens, exactly when it is happening; total, unbroken awareness in present time.”[iv]

Concentrated Investigation

Then, with your tamed and trained mind, you’re able to investigate thoroughly the subjects recommended by the Buddha as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The teachings in the Pali Canon about this process are very detailed, explaining how you explore each of the foundations deeply, using different kinds of approaches. For example, in remaining focused on your breathing, you train yourself to do so while sensitive to the simple spiritual pleasure of meditation; then while sensitive to mental fabrication; then while learning to calm mental fabrication. Later you breathe while focusing on inconstancy, dispassion, cessation, and then relinquishing. (There’s actually a whole Sutta about mindfulness of breathing, which says, “Mindfulness of in-&-out breathing, when developed & pursued, brings the four establishings of mindfulness to their culmination.”[v])  There are many different meditation and techniques recommended by the Buddha, but essentially they all lead to a recognition of what causes suffering versus what brings peace, happiness, and wisdom, and the ability to abandon what causes suffering and cultivate what leads to positive outcomes.

I realized as I was writing this episode, I had no idea whether Theravadin Buddhists engaged in the kind of concentrated investigation described in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness while meditating. Indeed, at least some of them do! I called Matthew Grad, a teacher at my local Theravadin temple, Portland Friends of the Dhamma. I grilled him for 40 minutes on the Satipatthana Sutta, mindfulness, and how they practice with these things in his lineage. He said mindfulness and investigation is not, by any means, limited to the meditation seat, but in his lineage it’s made clear that there’s no substitute for time spent in long, intensive meditation retreats (typically 10 days or longer). It’s only in such a setting the mind can settle enough for truly concentrated investigation.

Matthew described retreats in which participants are guided gradually through a series of exercises over the course of the retreat, generally starting with mindfulness of the breath or some kind of body awareness to build concentration (or settle the mind, however you prefer to think of it). Then people will be asked to practice with different “frames of reference” (another way to refer to the “foundations of mindfulness”), such as feeling tones, mental states, and so on. At some point the retreatants may be encouraged to “open up” their frames of reference and pay attention to whatever is most salient in their experience. Throughout, these investigative practices are often anchored in awareness of the breath.

On thing Matthew pointed out was that, in practice, approaches to meditation and mindfulness in Theravadin Buddhism may be more or less systematic, depending on the lineage. For many teachers, following the particular structure of the Buddha’s four categories of things-to-be-mindful-of is less important than the underlying process, especially because just about any experience you can think of will fit somewhere within those four categories.

Meditative Absorptions (Jhanas)

It’s important to note that practice as taught by the Buddha doesn’t end with mastery of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Of course, for many of us that will be more than enough. However, complete liberation occurs through the jhanas, or deep meditative states. As Bhante Gunratana describes them, “the jhanas are states of deep mental unification which result from the centering of the mind upon a single object with such power of attention that a total immersion in the object takes place.”[vi] According to Ayya Khema, once we’ve mastered keeping our mind on a meditation subject such as the breath:

“It is possible to eventually have the kind of concentration where the meditation subject is no longer needed. The meditation subject is nothing but a key, or we can also call it a hook to hang the mind on, so that it will not attend to worldly affairs. When concentration has arisen, it can be likened to the key having finally found the keyhole and the door being unlocked. When we unlock the door of true samadhi we find a house with eight rooms, which are the eight meditative absorptions (jhanas). Having been able to enter the first room, there is no reason why, with practice, determination and diligence, we cannot gradually enter into all of them…”

Deep tranquility in meditation, according to Ayya Khema, is “the underlying factor needed for profound insights, which can change an ordinary worldling to a noble one, which is the goal of our practice.” She describes how the critical insights that result in spiritual liberation occur as a result of a calm, clear mind, rather than from discursive thinking or analysis. When our minds are truly calm and stable, we can use them for “concentrated investigation” which will reveal the deepest truths of Buddhism to us and allow us to relinquish all grasping after this life.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Zen: Meditation

If you’ve listened to many episodes on this podcast, you’ll probably be thinking that this Theravadin/Vipassana description of meditation, mindfulness, and the path of practice sounds very different than Zen as I usually present it. Does Zen relate at all to this “oldest of Buddhist meditation practices… directly from the Satipatthana Sutta [Foundations of Mindfulness], a discourse attributed to the Buddha himself?”[vii] After all, I called Episode 69 “The Soto Zen Goal of Goallessness: How to Awaken Without Trying,” and I’ve confessed that a willful, directed effort in meditation has never worked well for me.

I’ll spend the rest of this episode explaining, briefly, how we practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Zen, even if we don’t often refer to the teachings specifically, and even though we take a different approach to meditation. I won’t go into great detail or talk about the scholarly or historical aspects of how Zen relates to Theravada, I’ll just reflect on how I see the Buddha’s original teachings honored and followed in Zen.

First, what about disciplining the mind? Basically, a Mahayana tradition like Zen has a different view of human nature than Theravada – or probably than the Buddha himself. Rather than seeing our minds and bodies as more or less neutral ground in which either good or bad seeds can sprout and grow (and what kind of garden you have is up to you), the Mahayana proposes we have a natural tendency toward the good. If only we can see through our delusions (one of those being a belief in an enduring, inherent, separate self-nature), our true nature can manifest. Subsequently, our meditation is more about letting go of doing, or letting go of thoughts, desires, etc.

Instead of seeing our mind as a garden to be actively tended and cultivated, in Mahayana Buddhism we tend to see our mind as being like a pond full of muddy water; if we can just be still, the mud settles out of the water and we can see clearly. In terms of the elephant analogy, you might say this is like sitting patiently in the forest until the wild elephant gets used to you and naturally becomes tamed without a big struggle. You and the elephant are meant to work together, and at some level it is drawn to you and your ability to have a larger view and a plan for liberation.

The just-sit-and-let-your-nature-manifest approach may sound simple or easy, but it’s actually not. As I discussed in Episode 69 “The Soto Zen Goal of Goallessness: How to Awaken Without Trying,” you really do have to make a strong and diligent effort – you just have to make an effort that throws aside all concern for yourself. In the end, in Zen we also emphasize the fact that the critical insights resulting in spiritual liberation arise within a calm, clear mind, rather than from discursive thinking or analysis. As Zen master Keizan says in his essay “Zazen Yojinki,” “An ancient master said, ‘When delusive thoughts cease, tranquility arises; when tranquility arises, wisdom appears; when wisdom appears, reality reveals itself.’”[viii] In Zen, we just have a different method for arriving at that tranquility, but we recognize the need for it.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Zen: Insight

Second, what about directed mindfulness, or concentrated investigation, leading to insight? There are all kinds of things mentioned in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness that we benefit from focusing on and investigating carefully: The ephemeral and not-self nature of the body and other skandhas, the impermanence of feelings, the experience of dukkha and what exactly causes it to arise and disappear, etc… We definitely explore these things in Zen, perhaps just not as explicitly or systematically as Theravada.

In Zen traditions that use formal koans, the koans focus the practitioner on questions meant to open them to insight based on their own direct experience. While you couldn’t create a straightforward concordance of traditional koans with references to which Foundation of Mindfulness they’re dealing with, the idea is for a full koan curriculum to wake you up to all the essentials. In Soto Zen, we engage in what Dogen calls “studying the self,” which means, more or less, learning to pay close attention to what’s going on in with our body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities – with the aim of, eventually, forgetting the self and being actualized by everything.

In addition, in Zen we explore the Four Foundations of Mindfulness off the cushion. Actually, Theravadin practitioners do the same. In her discussion of the Four Pathways to Power (concentration of intention, concentration of energy, concentration of consciousness, and concentration of investigation), Ayya Khema says:

“None of the pathways… only apply to meditation. While they benefit us greatly in the context of meditation, they are useful and practicable in all other moments of our lives… [for example] Concentrated investigation of phenomena is an aspect of our moment to moment mindfulness, which enables us to see anicca (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) or anatta (corelessness) wherever we look. Everything that exits proclaims these three characteristics, so that we need never be without Dhamma consciousness… We are never without an object for investigation. Our thoughts and feelings are full of these three characteristics. When there is a pleasant feeling, can we keep it? Do we feel unhappy when it is gone? Are we beginning to see this whole person we are so concerned with, as nothing but flux and flow, with no solid core to be found anywhere? When we look at ourselves again and again, we will eventually realize that we cannot find an unchanging substance within.”

Bless her, this Theravadin nun describes Zen mindfulness practice perfectly! Yes, we use the term too – but usually to refer to paying attention to what’s happening right here, right now, off the meditation cushion. We’re not all that systematic about it… basically, we learn the foundational Buddhist teachings so they frame our experience and we can wrestle with them (as I discussed in Episode 68), and then we practice mindfulness as much as we can. Over time, mindfulness leads to insight about our lives and about the deeper reality in which everything participates.

What about the jhanas, or many levels of deep meditative absorption, and Zen? There’s a huge amount of variety within different Zen (and Chan, and Son) lineages, so it’s difficult to generalize. Some lineages emphasize deep meditative states a lot, particularly those that use koans. They don’t tend to be as explicit as the Buddha was about particular levels of jhana and exactly what you experience in each, but in meditation retreats they’ll definitely strive for “states of deep mental unification which result from the centering of the mind upon a single object with such power of attention that a total immersion in the object takes place.” In so-called “pure” Soto lineages (in reality, most lineages contain influences of more than one school of Buddhism), we relate to states of meditative absorption, or samadhi, as being like cats. In our zazen we sit very still and make a lap, and sometimes a samadhi cat will come sit on our lap for a while. We definitely want the cat to settle on our lap and stay, but we don’t find forcing the cat works very well. Turns out, in practice, some Theravadin approaches aren’t so different: When I talked with Matthew Grad, he said in his lineage they often emphasize “creating conditions for jhanic factors to arise naturally.” Such conditions include joy, gratitude, and patience.

Whatever our approach to meditation, it’s understood in Zen that only when the mind is very, very still or concentrated are we able to see through the fog of concepts and attachments we’re usually in – and consequently awaken to reality in a truly liberative way.

In conclusion, then, it may not be so obvious how the Four Foundations of Mindfulness teaching relates to Zen. It might even appear that we’ve thrown out one of the Buddha’s core teachings and made up something of our own. However, the way Zen approaches meditation and insight is a classic example of how, over the millennia, different forms of Buddhism have diverged not so much in terms of the essence of the teachings or in the goal, but in how we practice and enact them. Different strokes for different folks, if you will. If Buddhist liberation is a mountain, there are different roads to that mountain, and different approaches to traveling those roads, but we’re all ultimately headed for the same thing. (Well, actually we also have divergent ideas about what liberation looks like, but I’ll save that discussion for another day!)


[i] “What Exactly Is Vipassana Meditation?” By Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, https://tricycle.org/magazine/vipassana-meditation/
[ii] Ayya Khema “To Be Seen Here and Now,” on the Vipassana Fellowship website: https://www.vipassana.com/meditation/khema/hereandnow/index.php
[iii] “What Exactly Is Vipassana Meditation?” By Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, https://tricycle.org/magazine/vipassana-meditation/
[iv] Ibid
[v] Mindfulness of Breathing/Ānāpānasati Sutta  (MN 118), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/MN/MN118.html
[vi] “The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation”, by Henepola Gunaratana. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/gunaratana/wheel351.html .
[vii] “What Exactly Is Vipassana Meditation?” By Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, https://tricycle.org/magazine/vipassana-meditation/
[viii] “Notes on What to be Aware of in Zazen” by Keizan Jokin (https://terebess.hu/zen/denko-roku.html#z1)

Photo credit: Novies Meditating from Wikimedia (Author Honey Kochphon Onshawee, https://pixabay.com/en/thailand-buddhists-monks-and-453388/,  Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication


79 - Buddha's Teachings 10: The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
81 – Five Steps for Positive Change without Waging War on the Self