The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

A guide to the Mahasatipatthana Sutta

The Buddha taught that the practice of mindfulness has four foundations: Mindfulness (sati or smrti) of body (kayasati), of feelings or sensations (vedanasati), of mind or mental processes (cittasati), and of physical and conceptual things (Sanskrit: dharma) (dhammasati).

FIRST FOUNDATION: MINDFULNESS OF THE BODY

The First Foundation of Mindfulness is mindfulness of the body. This foundation is broken up into six sections: mindfulness of the breath, mindfulness of posture, clear comprehension, mindfulness of the reality of the body, mindfulness of the elements, and the cemetery contemplations.

Mindfulness of the Breath

“When practicing mindfulness of breathing, attention should be focused at the tip of the nose or at the point of the upper lip immediately below where the current of air can be felt. The meditator’s attention should not leave this “focusing point” from where the in-coming and out-going breaths can be easily felt and observed. The meditator may become aware of the breath’s route through the body but he should not pay attention to it. At the beginning of the practice, the meditator should concentrate only on the in-breaths and out-breaths, and should not fall into any reflections about them. It is only at a later stage that he should apply himself to the arousing of knowledge and other states connected with the concentration.

“When counting, the meditator should first count when the in-breath or the out-breath is completed, not when it begins. So taking the in-breath first, he counts mentally ‘one’ when that in-breath is complete, then he counts ‘two’ when the out-breath is complete, ‘three’ after the next in-breath, and so on up to ten, and then again from one to ten, and so he should continue.

“After some practice in counting at the completion of a breath, breathing may becoming faster. The breaths, however, should not be made longer or shorter intentionally. The meditator has to be just mindful of their occurrence as they come and go. Now he may try counting ‘one’ when he begins to breathe in or breathe out, counting up to five or ten, and then again from one to five or ten. If one takes both the in-breath and out-breath as ‘one,’ it is better to count only up to five.

“Counting should be employed until one can dispense with it in following the sequence of breaths successively. Counting is merely a device to assist in excluding stray thoughts. It is, as it were, a guideline or railing for supporting mindfulness until it can do without such help. There may be those who will feel the counting more as a complication than a help, and they may well omit it, attending directly to the flow of the respiration by way of “connecting the successive breaths.”

Connecting

“After the counting has been discarded, the meditator should now continue his practice by way of connecting (anubandhana); that is, by following mindfully the in and out breaths without recourse to counting, and yet without a break in attentiveness. Here too, the breaths should not be followed beyond the nostrils where the breath enters and leaves. The meditator must strive to be aware of the whole breath in its entire duration and without missing one single phase, but his attention must not leave the place of contact, the nostrils, or that point of the upper lip where the current of air touches.

“While following the in-breaths and out-breaths thus, they become fainter and fainter, and at times it is not easy to remain aware of that subtle sensation of touch caused by the breath. Keener mindfulness is required to keep track of the breaths then. But if the meditator perseveres, one day he will feel a different sensation, a feeling of ease and happiness, and occasionally there appears before his mental eye something like a luminous star or a similar sign, which indicates that one approaches the stage of access concentration. Steadying the newly acquired sign, one may cultivate full mental absorption (jhana) or at least the preliminary concentration as a basis for practicing insight.” (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanasatta/wheel019.html)

MINDFULNESS OF POSTURES

In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha directs his monks to maintain awareness when they are moving, when they are standing, when they are sitting, and when they are lying down.

CLEAR COMPREHENSION

The sutta directs us to practice clear comprehension when we are going forwards and backwards, looking straight ahead and looking to the side, in bending and stretching, in getting dressed, in eating and drinking, in urinating and defecating, in walking and standing, in sitting, in sleeping, in waking, and in speaking.

Clear comprehension is defined as comprehension of purpose, comprehension of suitability, comprehension of resort, and comprehension of reality.

Comprehension of Purpose

Is the purpose of an activity a skillful means? (e.g., dana, sila, nekkhamma, khanti or ksanti, metta—giving, moral conduct, renunciation, suffering all ills patiently, love)

Comprehension of Suitability

Is the activity suited to the purpose? (i.e. is the activity true charity, with no thought? Is it true humility?)

Comprehension of Utility

Can the activity be turned into the practice of mindfulness? (e.g., Hui-neng treading round and round the rice mill with a stone tied to his waist for eight months)

ancient rice mill China

Comprehension of Reality

This is contemplation of the body as impermanent, egoless (not real), and being the source of suffering.

MINDFULNESS OF THE REALITY OF THE BODY

Sometimes referred to as “mindfulness of the repulsiveness of the body,” this is about contemplating the true nature as if opening a bag of provisions and taking stock of the different types of grain therein. “Just so, monks, a monk reflects on this very body enveloped by the skin and full of manifold impurity . . .” This is the practice whence comes the Zen reference to the body as a sack of shit. (see footnote 1)

MINDFULNESS OF THE FOUR ELEMENTS

Contemplating the body as composed of the four dhatu: earth (carbon), air (oxygen), fire (energy), and water.

THE CEMETERY CONTEMPLATIONS

Traditionally there are nine cemetery contemplations that offer a sequence of the decomposition of the body. This is the practice whence comes the frequent Zen reference to the body as a corpse.

  1. the festering (decomposition) of the body (by maggots, etc.)
  2. the body being eaten by animals
  3. a skeleton with sinews, flesh and blood
  4. a skeleton with sinews, smeared with blood
  5. a skeleton with sinews only
  6. a clean skeleton
  7. loose bones bleached by the sun
  8. year-old bones lying in a pile
  9. bones crumbling into the ground

Second Foundation of Mindfulness: Vedana

Vedana means feeling or sensation. The first part of this contemplation is being aware of a sensation and noting whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The quality is not inherent to the sensation itself, but created in the mind.

The second part of vedana practice is to note whether the experience is bodily or mental. It will probably be both, since feelings are experienced in the mind and body at the same time.

Finally, we are to note whether the experience is “worldly” or “unworldly.” Worldly experiences are anything related to the six sense-doors (hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, seeing, thinking). An unworldly experience is something not related to the sense-doors, such as spiritual tranquillity.

Third Foundation of Mindfulness: Contemplating States of Consciousness of the Mind (Citta)

The Satipatthana Sutta reads as follows:

Herein, monks, a monk knows the consciousness with lust, as with lust; the consciousness without lust, as without lust; the consciousness with hate, as with hate; the consciousness without hate, as without hate; the consciousness with ignorance, as with ignorance; the consciousness without ignorance, as without ignorance; the indolent state of consciousness, as the indolent state; the distracted state of consciousness, as the distracted state; the form and formless states of consciousness as the form and formless states; the desire state of consciousness as the desire state; the lower state of consciousness, as the lower state; the highest state of consciousness, as highest state; the concentrated state of consciousness, as the concentrated state; the unconcentrated state of consciousness, as the unconcentrated state; the liberated state of consciousness, as the liberated state; and the fettered state of consciousness as the fettered state. [Nyanasatta Thera translation]

Fourth Foundation: Mindfulness of Dharma

The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness is often translated as mindfulness of dharma or the material realm of desire, and counterposing this realm to the enlightened state.

Investigating the dharma-realm consists of studying five lists: the five hindrances, the five aggregates, the six internal and external sense-bases, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the four noble truths. Here is a simple breakdown of the lists:

The Five Hindrances – sense-desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, doubt

The Five Aggregates [skandha] – form, sensation or feeling, knowledge of good and bad, mental formations, consciousness. 

To give an example, a person is bit by a mosquito: this is form (rupa). The sensation is vedana. Knowledge of the unpleasantness of mosquito bites is samjna. In the evening, the person has a thought of mosquitoes—this is samskara. Mosquitoes appear, humming and alighting on the skin—these forms, sounds and sensations are vijnana. They would not appear were it not for the initial thought-formation, which in turn arises from the ‘knowledge’ (samjna) that mosquito bites are unpleasant.

The Six Sense-Bases – eye and appearance, ear and sound, nose and odor, tongue and flavor, body and sensation, mind and idea

The Seven Factors of Enlightenment – investigation, zeal, joy, mindfulness, tranquility, samadhi, perfect equanimity

The Four Noble Truths – suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, the Noble Eightfold Path

Practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness

When practicing with the satipatthana, it is important to remember that our task is just to contemplate these things. In mindfulness practice we observe; attachment and aversion will go away if we bring it into awareness. We observe our judgements of good and bad, right and wrong and let go of them. Judgment only leads to suffering. The objective is to observe with equanimity and detachment.

Resources

Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization, by Analayo
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, by Analayo

1. The thirty-two parts of the body are: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs, bowels, intestines, gorge, dung, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, snot, spittle, oil-of-the-joints, urine, and brain (which was added in the later commentaries).

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