The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English - Introduction



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The Four Foundations of Mindfulness is a talk or perhaps a collection of talks said to have been given by the historical Buddha. Mindfulness or insight meditation is based on the Four Foundations. Now very well known in the West, this comprehensive set of meditation topics and techniques is probably the preeminent style of meditation taught today in the Theravada Buddhist world.

Mindfulness has also been the focus of my books. In Mindfulness in Plain English, I present a practical step-by-step guide to mindfulness meditation. If you are new to insight practice, this book is a good place to start. In Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, I show how mindfulness is used to progress along the Buddha’s eight-step path to happiness. You could say that the Four Foundations are the details of the seventh step of the Buddha’s path. In fact, the last three steps—effort, mindfulness, and concentration, which we in the West call “meditation”—are all covered in the Four Foundations. In Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English, I explain the principles and techniques of deep concentration meditation. Concentration meditation or samatha is parallel and complementary to mindfulness meditation or vipassana, since the Four Foundations are the basis of all concentration.

Now, in this book, i write directly about the Four Foundations, the underlying principles of mindfulness practice. in simple and straightforward language, I share what the Buddha said about mindfulness in his instructional talks or suttas and how we can use these principles to improve our daily lives, deepen our mindfulness, and move closer to our spiritual goals.

The basic premise of mindfulness is simple. The body does many things without our awareness. When germs invade, our white blood cells attack the invaders without our knowledge. However, we can train ourselves to become aware of the things we do consciously with the body, such as walking, standing, talking, eating, drinking, writing, reading, playing, and other physical activities. We can also develop moment-to-moment awareness of our emotions, sensations, thoughts, and other mental activities. Mindfulness trains us to do everything we do with full awareness.

You may be wondering, “Why is full awareness important?” As anyone who tries mindfulness practice quickly discovers, the more aware we are of our actions and of the feelings, thoughts, and perceptions that give rise to them, the more insight we have into why we are doing what we are doing. awareness allows us to see whether our actions spring from beneficial or harmful impulses. Beneficial motivations include generosity, friendliness, compassion, and wisdom; harmful actions are caused primarily by greed, hatred, and delusion. When we are mindful of the deep roots from which our thoughts, words, and deeds grow, we have the opportunity to cultivate those that are beneficial and weed out those that are harmful.

The Buddha is very clear that the primary aim of all his teachings is “the end of suffering.” Mindfulness helps us to recognize that beneficial actions bring peace of mind and happiness to our everyday lives. They also help us progress on the Buddha’s path toward nibbana—liberation, complete freedom from suffering. Similarly, mindfulness teaches us that actions motivated by greed, hatred, and delusion make us miserable and anxious. They imprison us in samsara, the life-after-life cycle of repeated suffering.

When we practice mindfulness, before we speak we ask ourselves: “are these words truthful and beneficial to me and to others? Will they bring peace, or will they create problems?” When we think mindfully, we ask: “Does this thought make me calm and happy, or distressed and fearful?” Before we act, we ask: “Will this action cause suffering for me and for others?” Being mindful gives us the opportunity to choose: “Do I want joy and contentment or misery and worry?”

Mindfulness also trains us to remember to pay attention to the changes that are continually taking place inside our body and mind and in the world around us. Normally, we forget to pay attention because the countless things that are happening simultaneously distract our minds. We get carried away by the superficial and lose sight of the flow. The mind wants to see what is next, what is next, and what is next. We get excited by the show and forget that it is, indeed, simply a show.

The Buddha taught: “That which is impermanent is suffering.” The truth of these words becomes clear when we simply pay attention. Eventually, the mind gets tired of moving from one impermanent thing to the next. losing interest in the futile pursuit, the mind rests and finds joy. In pali, the word for “to remember” is sati, which can also be translated as “mindfulness.” Remembering is simply paying direct, nonverbal attention to what is happening from one moment to the next.

Resting comfortably in awareness, we relax into things as they are right now in this very moment, without slipping away into what happened in the past or will happen in the future. Normally, because we do not understand, we tend to blame the world for our pain and suffering. But with sati, mindful remembering, we understand that the only place to find peace and freedom from suffering is this very place, right here in our own body and mind.

Memory is very natural to our body, almost automatic. Our hearts pump blood without our reminding them to do so. The mind can also be taught to act the same way. Training the faculty of mindfulness is like breathing oxygen continuously to remain alive. as mental events occur, mindfulness helps us see whether they hurt our mind and body. We have the choice: Do we merely suffer from pain, or do we examine the pain to understand why it arises? if we ignore the causes, we continue to suffer. Living with awareness requires effort, but following the Buddha’s example, with practice anyone can master it.

Mindfulness practice has deep roots in Buddhist tradition. More than 2,600 years ago, the Buddha exhorted his senior bhikkhus, monks with the responsibility of passing his teachings on to others, to train their students in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

“What four?” he was asked.

“Come, friends,” the Buddha answered. “Dwell contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, unified, with concentrated one-pointed mind, in order to know the body as it really is. Dwell contemplating feeling in feelings . . . in order to know feelings as they really are. Dwell contemplating mind in mind . . . in order to know mind as it really is. Dwell contemplating dhamma in dhammas . . . in order to know dhammas as they really are.”

The practice of contemplating (or as we might say, meditating on) the Four Foundations—mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind, and dhammas (or phenomena)—is recommended for people at every stage of the spiritual path. As the Buddha goes on to explain, everyone—trainees who have recently become interested in the Buddhist path, monks and nuns, and even arahants, advanced meditators who have already reached the goal of liberation from suffering, “should be exhorted, settled, and established in the development of these Four Foundations of Mindfulness.”

In this sutta, the Buddha is primarily addressing the community of bhikkhus, monks and nuns who have dedicated their lives to spiritual practice. Given this, you might wonder whether people with families and jobs and busy Western lives can benefit from mindfulness practice. If the Buddha’s words were meant only for monastics, he would have given this talk in a monastery. But he spoke in a village filled with shopkeepers, farmers, and other ordinary folk. Since mindfulness can help men and women from all walks of life relieve suffering, we can assume that the word “bhikkhu” is used to mean anyone seriously interested in meditation. in that sense, we are all bhikkhus.

Let’s look briefly at each of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as a preview of things to come.

By asking us to practice mindfulness of the body, the Buddha is reminding us to see “the body in the body.” By these words he means that we should recognize that the body is not a solid unified thing, but rather a collection of parts. The nails, teeth, skin, bones, heart, lungs, and all other parts—each is actually a small “body” that is located in the larger entity that we call “the body.” Traditionally, the human body is divided into thirty-two parts, and we train ourselves to be mindful of each. Trying to be mindful of the entire body is like trying to grab a heap of oranges. If we grab the whole heap at once, perhaps we will end up with nothing!

Moreover, remembering that the body is composed of many parts helps us to see “the body as body”—not as my body or as myself, but simply as a physical form like all other physical forms. Like all forms, the body comes into being, remains present for a time, and then passes away. Since it experiences injury, illness, and death, the body is unsatisfactory as a source of lasting happiness. Since it is not myself, the body can also be called “selfless.” When mindfulness helps us to recognize that the body is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and selfless, in the Buddha’s words, we “know the body as it really is.”

Similarly, by asking us to practice mindfulness of feelings, the Buddha is telling us to contemplate “the feeling in the feelings.” These words remind us that, like the body, feelings can be subdivided. Traditionally, there are only three types—pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and neutral feelings. each type is one “feeling” in the mental awareness that we call “feelings.” at any given moment we are able to notice only one type. When a pleasant feeling is present, neither a painful feeling nor a neutral feeling is present. The same is true of an unpleasant or neutral feeling.

We regard feelings in this way to help us develop a simple nonjudgmental awareness of what we are experiencing—seeing a particular feeling as one of many feelings, rather than as my feeling or as part of me. as we watch each emotion or sensation as it arises, remains present, and passes away, we observe that any feeling is impermanent. since a pleasant feeling does not last and an unpleasant feeling is often painful, we understand that feelings are unsatisfactory. seeing a feeling as an emotion or sensation rather than as my feeling, we come to know that feelings are selfless. Recognizing these truths, we “know feelings as they really are.”

The same process applies to mindfulness of mind. Although we talk about “the mind” as if it were a single thing, actually, mind or consciousness is a succession of particular instances of “mind inmind.” As mindfulness practice teaches us, consciousness arises from moment to moment on the basis of information coming to us from the senses—what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch—and from internal mental states, such as memories, imaginings, and daydreams. When we look at the mind, we are not looking at mere consciousness. The mind alone cannot exist, only particular states of mind that appear depending on external or internal conditions. Paying attention to the way each thought arises, remains present, and passes away, we learn to stop the runaway train of one unsatisfactory thought leading to another and another and another. We gain a bit of detachment and understand that we are not our thoughts. in the end, we come to know “mind as it really is.”

By telling us to practice mindfulness of dhammas, or phenomena, the Buddha is not simply saying that we should be mindful of his teachings, though that is one meaning of the word “dhamma.” He is also reminding us that the dhamma that we contemplate is within us. The history of the world is full of truth seekers. The Buddha was one of them. Almost all sought the truth outside themselves. Before he attained enlightenment, the Buddha also searched outside of himself. He was looking for his maker, the cause of his existence, who he called the “builder of this house.” But he never found what he was looking for. Instead, he discovered that he himself was subject to birth, growth, decay, death, sickness, sorrow, lamentation, and defilement. When he looked outside himself, he saw that everyone else was suffering from these same problems. This recognition helped him to see that no one outside himself could free him from his suffering. so he began to search within. This inner seeking is known as “come and see.” Only when he began to search inside did he find the answer. Then he said:

Many a birth I wandered in samsara,
Seeking but not finding the builder of this house.
Sorrowful is it to be born again and again.
Oh! house builder thou art seen.
Thou shall not build house again.
All thy rafters are broken.
Thy ridgepole is shattered.
The mind has attained the unconditioned.

The great discovery of the Buddha is that the truth is within us. The entire Dhamma that he taught is based on this realization. When we look inside, we come to understand the significance of the Four noble Truths—the Buddha’s essential first teaching. Where do we find suffering? We experience it within ourselves. and where is the cause of our suffering, craving? It, too, is within us. and, how can we reach the end of it, the cessation of suffering? We find the way within ourselves. and where do we develop skillful understanding, thinking, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration, the Buddha’s noble eightfold path—the method for ending suffering? We develop all of these qualities within our own body and mind. The roots of suffering are within us. and the method for eliminating suffering is within us as well.

When we practice mindfulness, we follow the Buddha’s example and look inside. We become aware that our own greed, hatred, and delusion are the causes of our unhappiness. When we replace these poisons with generosity, loving-friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy, patience, cordiality, gentleness, and wisdom, we find the happiness and peace of mind we have been seeking. As I always remind my students, “The meditation you do on the cushion is your homework. The rest of your life is your fieldwork. To practice mindfulness, you need both.”

The other meaning of dhammas is simply “phenomena.” When we follow the Buddha’s advice and “dwell contemplating dhamma in dhammas,” we come to understand that each individual phenomenon within reality as we experience it, including physical objects, feelings, perceptions, mental activities, and consciousness, comes into being, remains, and then passes away. In the same way, the deep-rooted negative habits of the unenlightened mind that bind us to one unsatisfactory life after another, known as the fetters, are impermanent. With effort, each fetter—including greed, hatred, and belief in the existence of a permanent self or soul—can be recognized and removed. In essence, the dhamma path is quite straightforward. We eliminate our harmful habits one by one and cultivate beneficial qualities based on our understanding of each of the Buddha’s teachings. In the end, the last fetter falls away, and we achieve liberation from suffering.

So how do we get started with mindfulness meditation? I always recommend meditation focused on the breath as the best way to begin mindfulness training. In Mindfulness in Plain English, I explain the basics of breath meditation and other essential mindfulness practices. Similar instructions for sitting meditation and walking meditation can be found in this book in the chapters on mindfulness of the body. In the section that follows this introduction, I suggest ways to include the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness sutta in a simple daily practice.

While many people are drawn to meditation because of its wonderful benefits for relaxation, relief from stress and pain, and the general health of the body and mind, in the context of the Four Foundations, it’s important to keep another set of goals in mind. With dedicated effort and regular practice, we can look forward to five significant spiritual accomplishments:

First, meditation helps us become fully aware of what is going on in the mind and body here and now. All too often, we sleepwalk through our days, musing about the past or daydreaming about the future. Mindfulness teaches us to cut through the fog and bring our focus to the present moment.

Second, because of this new awareness, we are able to evaluate more clearly the purpose and suitability of everything we say and do. As a result, we make wiser and more beneficial choices.

Third, meditation trains us to see our own body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness exactly as they are, from moment to moment. seeing ourselves clearly is the essential first step to making positive life changes.

Fourth, as our practice deepens, we see the world around us in a special way, without distortion. We come to understand that everything that exists—including us—is interdependent with everything else, and that everything is always changing. For this reason, we realize, no person, place, thing, or situation can ever be permanently satisfying.

And finally, we learn to dedicate ourselves fully to reflection or meditation, recognizing that only by following the Buddha’s example can we hope to find lasting happiness and peace.

In a nutshell, insight meditation trains the mind to be aware twenty-four hours a day. With this new clarity, we begin to perceive material objects as less solid than our ordinary senses tell us they are. In fact, we discover, they are only as real as a mirage shimmering in the desert. In the same way, we recognize that our thoughts and feelings are always in flux. In truth, they are only as permanent as soap bubbles. Awareness frees us from the desire to grasp on to things and other people with the thought “this is mine” and to view our own body and mind as fixed and unchanging with the thought “this I am” or “this is my self.”

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness is a powerful teaching. In fact, the Buddha promises that anyone who practices his mindfulness instructions, exactly as they are given, without leaving anything out, can attain enlightenment—permanent liberation from suffering—in this very life, even in as short a time as seven days!

Amazing as that guarantee sounds, it makes perfect sense. Imagine how clear your mind would be if you were mindful during every waking moment for just one day from morning to evening. Then imagine how clear it would be if you spent two days with mindfulness, three days, four days. When we remain mindful all the time, it’s easy to make good choices. The mind is purified and becomes luminous. every day that we practice mindfulness moves us closer to liberation.


How to cite this document:
© Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English (Wisdom Publications, 2012)

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