Introduction

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (pp. 1-10)

The Satipatthana Sutta

“This sutta (teaching) is one of the most widely commented upon texts in the Pāli ecanon and continues to hold a central place in the modern VIPASSANĀ movement. The sutta was preached by the Buddha to a gathering of disciples in the town of Kammāsadhamma in the country of the Kurus. The discourse enumerates twenty-one meditation practices for the cultivation of mindfulness (Pali. sati), a term that refers to an undistracted watchfulness and attentiveness, or to recollection and thus memory. In the text, the Buddha explains the practice under a fourfold rubric called the four foundations of mindfulness (Pali. satipaṭṭhāna)”.  (Buswell  Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton University Press.)

In this teaching, the Buddha addressed the community of bhikkhus (monks and nuns) who had dedicated their lives to spiritual practice.  Today, a bhikku can mean anyone who has a serious intention to follow the spiritual path.

In this series, our basic text will be The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana, Wisdom Publications, 2012.  Other references will include: The Four Foundations of Mindfulness by Venerable U Silananda, Wisdom Publications, 2002, Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization by Analayo, Windhorse Publications, 2003, Mindfulness:  A Practical Guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein, Sounds True, 2013, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism by Robert E. Buswell Jr.and Donald S. Lopez Jr.. (Princeton University Press.)

Notes on the Introduction (The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English)

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (FFM) state the underlying principles of mindfulness practice.  These principles have the benefits of improving our daily lives, deepening our mindfulness and moving us farther along the spiritual path.

Mindfulness is defined by Bhante Gunaratana (Bhante G.) as “paying attention moment to moment to what is”.  As we develop this awareness, we gain more insight to what we are doing.  We can see if our motivations and subsequent actions are skillful or unskillful.  Skillful motivations include generosity, loving kindness, compassion and wisdom.  Unskillful motivations include greed, ill-will or delusion (ignorance).  Knowing which motivations and actions are skillful or unskillful is important because of the law of cause and effect (karma) which states that skillful actions bring happiness and peace and unskillful actions bring suffering.  Actions include speaking, thinking or acting.  To be skillful, “When we practice mindfulness, before we speak we ask ourselves:  “Are these words truthful and beneficial to me and 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 be beneficial for me and for others or will it cause suffering?”” (p.2)

Without mindfulness, we get distracted by all that is going on.  Our mind cannot be still, always wanting to see what is next, what is next, what is next.  Mindfulness allows us to be in the present and see the constant flow of change and realize that all is impermanent and that to cling to all of these impermanent distractions is to suffer.  “Resting comfortably in awareness, we relax into things as they are right now in this very moment, without slipping away into what happens in the past or what will happen in the future…. 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.”  (p. 3)

The Four Foundations

At the beginning of the sutta, the Buddha tells us the purpose of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: “Monks, this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of dukkha and discontent, for acquiring the true method, for the realization of nibbāna, namely, the four satipaṭṭhānas.”

He goes on the define the four satipatthanas: “What are the four? Here, monks, in regard to the body a monk abides contemplating the body, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to feelings he abides contemplating feelings, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to the mind he abides contemplating the mind, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to dhammas he abides contemplating dhammas, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world.” Goldstein, Joseph. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (pp. 365-366)

The term, dhamma or dharma , has as many as ten translations. “ In Buddhism, dharma has a number of distinct denotations. One of its most significant and common usages is to refer to “teachings” or “doctrines,” whether they be Buddhist or non-Buddhist.”  The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism

Note that the Buddha defines how we contemplate each of the foundations:  diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In essence, we have to be persistent and energetic, mindful (paying attention moment to moment to what is), and without attachment or judgment.

In practicing mindfulness of the body, we can realize that the body is impermanent, unable to provide lasting satisfaction and of selfless nature.  It is a body, not my body.  Similarly In practicing mindfulness of feelings and mindfulness of the mind, we can realize that the same characteristics apply.  In practicing mindfulness of the dhammas, we realize the principles that help us to understanding suffering and the cessation of suffering.

Significant Spiritual Accomplishments

As noted in the beginning, studying the Four Foundations has the benefits of improving our daily lives, deepening our mindfulness and moving us farther along the spiritual path. We become more fully aware of what is going on in the mind and body in the present moment, we are able to evaluate more clearly the purpose and suitability of everything we say and do and we see our body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness more clearly.  We see the world around us without distortion.  Most importantly, we learn to dedicate ourselves fully to reflection and meditation.

The Buddha’s Prediction

At the end of the sutta, the Buddha stated his promise:  “Monks, if anyone should develop these four satipaṭṭhānas in such a way for seven years, one of two fruits could be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or, if there is a trace of clinging left, non-returning. Let alone seven years . . . six years . . . five years . . . four years . . . three years . . . two years . . . one year . . . seven months . . . six months . . . five months . . . four months . . . three months . . . two months . . . one month . . . half a month . . . if anyone should develop these four satipaṭṭhānas in such a way for seven days, one of two fruits could be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or, if there is a trace of clinging left, non-returning. So it was with reference to this that it was said: [DIRECT PATH] “Monks, this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of dukkha and discontent, for acquiring the true method, for the realization of nibbāna, namely, the four satipaṭṭhānas.” That is what the Blessed One said. The monks were satisfied and delighted in the Blessed One’s words.”  Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (p. 375).

In summary, the study and exploration of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness will be most beneficial if you practice with persistence, energy, mindfulness and without attachment or judgment.  The potential rewards are bountiful!

Reflection

  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.
  • Practice being mindfulness in speaking, thinking and doing. Ask the questions for each activity as noted above. What do you experience?

Meditation

  • Meditate as usual in your daily practice with concentration and mindfulness.

Next: MIndfulness of the Body: Clear Comprehension Previous: Mindfulness of Dhammas: The Five Aggregates of Clinging I