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The Four Foundations of Mindfulness: A Summary

Venerable Sayadaw U Sīlānanda

A Talk Given at the Buddha Sāsana Yeikthā
Severn Bridge, Ontario, Canada


The present book is an edited transcript of a talk given by the Venerable Sayadaw U. Silananda the Buddha Sasana Yeiktha at Severn Bridge, Ontario, Canada, entitled "The Four Foundations of Mindfulness." It is an explanation of a discourse on the importance of mindfulness given by the Buddha called "Mahasatipatthana Sutta" in the Pali language.

Venerable U. Silananda is the abbot of the Dhammananda Vihara in Daly City, California. He is also the Spiritual Director of the Dhammachakka Meditation Centre in Berkley. He went to America in 1979 and was selected by the Most Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, a renowned Burmese meditation Master, to teach the Dhamma and meditation in America.

Venerable U. Silananda has delivered numerous lectures and public talks on meditation, in particular on the Buddha's Mahasatipatthana Sutta. His lectures and talks have been compiled into a collection published in a book called "The Four Foundations of Mindfulness" (Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1990, ed. Ruth-Inge Heinze).

The present talk has previously been printed in book form by Buddha Sasana Yeiktha in 1999.


The Opening Passage from the Mahasatipatthana Sutta

"This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and grief, for reaching the Noble Path, for the realization of Nibbana, namely, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

"Herein (in this teaching) monks, a monk dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, overcoming covetousness and grief in the world;

"He dwells contemplating the feeling in the feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, overcoming covetousness and grief in the world;

"He dwells contemplating the consciousness in the consciousness, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, overcoming covetousness and grief in the world;

"He dwells contemplating the dhamma in the dhammas, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, overcoming covetousness and grief in the world." (Translated from Pali by Sayadaw U. Silananda)

The above passage is taken from one of the Buddha's Discourses called "The Four Foundations of Mindfulness". In the Pali language, the Discourse is called the "Mahasatipatthana Sutta".

Although it is the opening passage of the Discourse, it summarises succinctly the entire Discourse.

The Buddha himself practised it and realised the benefits it would give to the practitioner. Subsequently, He encouraged His monks and disciples to practice it and during the forty-five years of expounding the Dhamma, He referred to and emphasized the importance of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness many times. After the passing away of the Buddha, these methods were collected and recorded in the Pall Canon.

Those who practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, or Vipassana Meditation, must understand this passage correctly and clearly. In fact, the instructions given at Vipassana retreats are all based on the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. So in order to reap the full benefits, those who practise Vipassana meditation must understand this passage correctly and clearly.

Objects of the four Foundations of Mindfulness

According to the Sutta, there are four foundations of mindfulness. Its four kinds of objects are:

1) Body

The term `body' in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta does not mean just the entire physical body but a group of some material properties. It refers to the different parts of the body or everything that is associated with the physical body. For example, breathing is also called the body.

2) Feelings

What is "feeling"? It is a mental state. There are three kinds of feelings -pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. Take physical pain, for example. We experience physical pain with our mind. So when there is physical pain, the mental state is that of the painful feeling. When Buddha said. "A monk contemplates feeling in the feeling", He means that the monk is contemplating on that mental state of feeling. Thus, in the practice of Mindfulness, when we experience physical pain, we should be mindful that it is the mental state of feeling the pain in the body.

3) Consciousness

The Pali word for consciousness is "citta". This Pali word is often translated as "mind". But I think "consciousness" is a better translation. Note that although we use the word "consciousness" for the word "citta", it is still not an exact translation. "Consciousness" is defined as awareness of an object. Only when there is awareness of an object can there be contact with the object, feeling of the object, liking of the object, disliking of the object and so on. So, these mental aggregates are subordinate to consciousness. But they are also components of the mind.

Sometimes confusion may arise between the terms "mind" and "consciousness". In Buddhist psychology, mind is composed of four mental aggregates, namely, consciousness and three mental aggregates.

As defined above, consciousness is the awareness of an object. Here awareness is not like awareness in the practice of meditation. It is just mere awareness. For example, I am aware of someone there although I am looking this way. That kind of awareness is called consciousness. At least, it is called consciousness in the Abhidhamma. Another example is when we practise meditation and we say "sorrow, sorrow"; we have a consciousness accompanied by sorrow. It could be a contemplation on consciousness. When I say, "angry, angry", I am also engaged in contemplation of consciousness.

Mental factors, on the other hand, refer to contact, feeling, perception, attention, like, dislike and so on. According to the Abhidhamma there are fifty-two of these factors, and these fifty two are grouped into three main groups - feeling, perception and mental formations.

4) Dhammas

The word "dhamma" is one Pali word that is most difficult to translate for it cannot be translated adequately. This word means different things in different context. Here I would like to introducethe term "dhamma objects ".

If you are concentrating or contemplating on anger, for example, then you are doing contemplation on the dhamma. Here dhamma does not mean the teachings or the Buddha's discourse or other things. Similarly, if you see something and you are mindful of seeing, then you are doing dhamma object contemplation. Here, dhamma can mean the objects that are mental hindrances, the five aggregates, the twelve bases, the seven Factors of Enlightenment or the Four Noble Truths. So, the dhamma object contemplation is very wide. They are called dhamma in this Discourse. Therefore it is better to use the word "dhamma" rather than a translation in order to avoid confusion.

You cannot translate the word "dhamma" with just one English word. If you do, you will be wrong. Frequently, it is translated as "mind object" or "mental object", but each of these translations alone is not satisfactory. If we translate it as "mind object" and we take it to mean "mind as object", then what about some objects which are not "mind"? If we translate it as "mental object", then everything is the object of mind. Body is also object of mind. Since we cannot get a satisfactory and adequate translation, it is better to leave it untranslated.

The meaning of "ekayano"

In the Pali version, the Sutta begins with the word "Ekayano". This Pali word is composed of two parts, "eka" and "ayana". "Eka" means "one" and "ayana" means "way", "path" or "road". So, "ekayano" literally means "one way". Hence the term "one way" may be interpreted to mean one way which has no forks, no branches. Thus there is just one way and if you tread this way you will surely reach your destination. There are no misleading deviations along this way.

Another interpretation of "ekayano" is that this it refers to the way which one should take, i.e. the way which is to be taken by the individual only. That means when you are treading on this path or on this way you are alone, you have no companion to accompany you. Whether you make progress or you do not make progress depends on your own capabilities.

Yet a third interpretation of the word "ekdyano" is "The Way of The One". "The One" here means the Buddha. The Buddha was the best of the beings and so he was called "The One". Since He discovered and taught the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the method is called "The Way of The One".

"This is the only way"

The first sentence in the Sutta is translated as: "This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings . . . namely, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness."

So, right at the very beginning of the Discourse the Buddha categorically stated "This is the only way". This means that the Four Foundations of Mindfulness is emphatically the only way for the purification of all beings. But, the factors of the Noble Eightfold Paths are also the way for the purification of beings. The answer is that these factors do not exist without mindfulness. So, when mindfulness is mentioned, the seven factors, which are concomitant with the Noble Eightfold Path, are also implied.

Is there no other way?

People in the West often ask: "Why did the Buddha say: `This is the only way"'? Are there no other ways leading to the purification of beings? They argue that there are different roads which one can take to reach a town or city. So, just as there are different roads leading to a city, there must be different ways which one can follow to achieve purification or to reach Nibbana.

You must remember that sometimes analogies are not entirely correct or appropriate. It is true that there are different roads leading to a town or city. Let us say that the road is the only means by which one can reach a town. So, even if there are several roads which lead to the town, they are still roads.

In the same way, there may be different ways of practicing mindfulness. But in the final analysis, these ways are practices of mindfulness. Only mindfulness can lead us to the attainment of Nibbana.

We know that we need physical exercise to build big muscles. So if you want to build big muscles you have to do physical exercise. But, physical exercise can take different forms such as weight lifting or using machines and so on. In the same way, mindfulness is the only way to reach Nibbana, but mindfulness may take different forms. In this discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha taught that mindfulness can be practiced in twenty-one different ways. There are twenty-one different kinds of mindfulness practice to choose from. But, whatever the technique, in the end it is still essentially mindfulness, that is important, for mindfulness is the only way leading to the purification of oneself.

In the Dhammapada (274) - the Buddha said even more clearly, with reference to mindfulness, "This alone is the way and there is no other way for the purity of wisdom." The Buddha expressly said that this alone is the way and there is no other way. So I think we must accept that mindfulness is the only way leading to the purification of beings.

Mindfulness as a guard for the mind

Mindfulness is like a guard. Once the guard is removed, our sense-doors are unprotected. So, as long as mindfulness is at the sense doors, our minds are pure. No unwholesome mental states can come into our minds because mindfulness is there, guarding the sense doors. Once mindfulness is removed, or once we are less mindful, all various mental defilements can arise. So mindfulness is the only way to keep the mind pure. Note here also that mindfulness is one of the eight Factors of the Noble Eightfold Path.

Forms of Mindfulness

Mindfulness may take different forms - mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feeling, mindfulness of consciousness, mind-fulness of dhamma objects or mindfulness of parts of the body and so on. These are enumerated in this Discourse (see below). So, the practice of mindfulness is the only way for the purification of beings. Note that the term "the purification of beings" also means "the purification of the minds of beings".

Importance of purification of the mind

Why is there such a great emphasis on the mind? This is because the Buddha pays a great emphasis on the purification of mind. This does not mean that we can neglect the cleanliness and health of our physical body. But what is more important for us is the cleanliness of our minds. So, the purification of beings here means purification of minds of beings.

How important is cleanliness of the body then? In the Commentaries, it is said that personal cleanliness or cleanliness of the body as well as the cleanliness of the place of abode are also important because they are conducive to achieving concentration and wisdom. So we also need to keep our bodies clean and keep the place where we meditate clean. The implication here is that while we should not neglect the cleanliness of the body, we should be even more vigilant with the cleanliness of our minds.

What are the benefits that we can derive from the practice of mindfulness?

1. "Purification of mind"

In the Sutta, the Buddha enumerated the benefits which we will get from the practice of mindfulness. The first benefit the Buddha mentioned is the purification of mind.

2. "Overcoming of sorrow and lamentation"

The second benefit the Buddha mentioned is the over-coming of sorrow and lamentation. If we want to overcome sorrow and lamentation, the Buddha said that we should practice mindfulness.

Here, sorrow is a mental state. Lamentation is crying aloud through sorrow and with verbal expression.

3. "For the disappearance of pain and grief"

"Pain" here means physical pain in the body. "Grief' means mental pain, depression, ill will, hatred. The practice of the Foundations of Mindfulness helps us to overcome pain and grief and make it disappear. Even if you are not be able to conquer pain or not be able to overcome pain altogether or the pain may not disappear altogether, you will be able to live with pain and accept it if you practice mindfulness. Your mind will not be disturbed or perturbed by the physical pain. If your mind is not perturbed by physical pain, pain is virtually non-existent. Likewise, to overcome grief, i.e. to overcome ill will, depression and so on, we should practice mindfulness meditation.

Mind is not able to attend to more than one thing at a time. Mind can only take one object at a time. As such, we can make use of this in overcoming sorrow and grief in our practice of mindfulness. Let's take anger, for example. Suppose I am angry with Mr. A. So long as my mind is on Mr. A, my anger will increase and I will get more and more angry with him because I am taking him as the object of my consciousness or mind. But once I turn my mind from Mr. A, who is the source of my anger, to anger itself, Mr. A does not exist for me at that time. From the moment I turn my mind to anger itself, Mr. A has already disappeared from my mind. When my mind is on the anger itself and when the source of anger no longer exists, anger too will disappear.

In this way, we attend to such mental states with mindfulness, with just simple but strong or forceful mindfulness. This is how we should deal with emotions such as attachment, anger, hatred, depression, and sorrow. Whatever the mental state arises, we just treat it with mindfulness and try to be mindful of it. When our mindfulness is really strong, such mental states will disappear. That is why the Buddha said, "This is the only way to overcome sorrow and lamentation and to overcome pain and grief."

4. "This is the only way for reaching the Noble Path."

a. The meaning of "Path"

When you read books on Buddhism, you will come across the word "Path" many times. Sometimes it is spelt with a lower case `p', but often with the upper case `P'. "Path" is a technical term which refers to the combination or group of the eight Factors of the Noble Eightfold Path - Right Understanding, Right Thought and so on - that arise at the moment of enlightenment. The type of consciousness that is accompanied by these factors is called "Path Consciousness".

b. The meaning of "enlightenment"

The word "enlightenment" is another important word, the meaning of which is not easy to understand. People use this word quite freely, but only a few understand its meaning fully. Without definition it is vague. It may mean different things to different persons or different religions. Thus, the meaning of "enlightenment" to a Buddhist may be quite different from that to a Christian. Thus, when we talk about enlightenment, we should first define it.

According to Buddhism, "enlightenment" means the eradication of mental defilements and seeing Nibbana directly, seeing Nibbana face to face, at the same time. As a person practices Vipassana meditation and progresses from one stage to another, to higher and higher stages, as the result of this Vipassana practice, a time will come when a type of consciousness arises in his mind which he has not experienced before. That type of consciousness, along with its mental concomitants is so powerful that it can eradicate mental defilements altogether, never to let them come back again. At the same time it takes Nibbana as object. So, what we mean by "enlightenment" is "what happens at that moment" - a moment of arising of that consciousness which eradicates the mental defilements and takes Nibbana as object. That consciousness is called "Path Consciousness".

Immediately following that Path Consciousness are two or three moments of "Fruition Consciousness". You have to understand Abhidhamma in order to understand this fully. But, simply put, reaching the Noble Path is simply a means for gaining enlightenment. When you really reach the Noble Path, you become enlightened and you are able to eradicate mental defilements and take Nibbana as object.

5. "This is the only way for the realization of Nibbana".

This means the same thing as reaching the Noble Path. So, when a person reaches the Noble Path, when the Path Consciousness arises in him/her and that consciousness takes Nibbana as object, he/she is said to have realized Nibbana. So, reaching the Noble Path and realization of Nibbana mean the same thing. Hence the Buddha said that the practice of mindfulness, namely, the Four Foundations of Mindfullness, is the only way to overcome sorrow and lamentation, to overcome pain and grief, to reach the Noble Path and to realize Nibbana.

What is the significance of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness?

The two key words here are "foundation" and "mindfulness". Before we can discuss the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, we must first understand what "mindfulness" means. Even if we have been practicing mindfulness for years, sometimes when we are asked this question: "What is mindfulness?" we may not be able to give a satisfactory answer.

a. The meaning of "sati"

"Mindfulness" is the translation of the Pall word "sati". This discourse is called "Satipatthana". Here, "Sati" is translated as "mindfulness". Maybe because there is no better English word for it. Literally, "sati" may be translated as "remembering". But it actually covers more than remembering. This is because etymologically, "sati" means "remembering", but in normal usage "sati" means more than that. Sati is defined in the Commentaries as "remembering" and its characteristic is said to be "non-wobbling", that means "not floating on the surface". If it is sati, it must not be superficial, it must go deep into the object. That is why I always say that sati implies "full awareness of the object," or "thorough awareness of the object." Sati is also said to have the function of not losing the object. As long as there is sati, or mindfulness, we do notlose that object, we do not forget that object. Sati is not superficial awareness but a deep and thorough awareness of the object. .

b. The meaning of "foundation of mindfulness"

Now let us consider the term "Foundations of Mindfulness". It means actually the "setting up" of mindfulness or "firmly established mindfulness" or "mindfulness firmly established". The Pali word "satipatthana" is translated as" foundations of mindfulness" but it actually means the "setting up of a firm mindfulness" or "establishing a firm mindfulness".

c. The practice of the "four foundations of mindfulness"

In this Discourse, Buddha said that there are four foundations of mindfulness. When you practice Vipassana meditation, you should practice all these four foundations of mindfulness, but you practice them at random and not one after another in the order given in the Discourse. This is because when you practice Vipassand meditation you have to be mindful of the object at the present moment. The object at the present moment can be any one of these four - sometimes the body, sometimes feelings, sometimes consciousness, and sometimes dhamma objects. You have to take these objects as they come because you have no choice. That is why sometimes the practice of Vipassana meditation is called "choiceless awareness". That means you have no choice; you just have to take what is presented to you. So you practice these four foundations of mindfulness at random, as and when each appears to your mind, when you practice Vipassana meditation.

"Herein, a monk dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, overcoming or removing covetousness and grief in the world."

This sentence has many significant meanings. I shall now proceed to analyse them in detail.

What are the Four Foundations of Mindfulness?

They are:

1) contemplation of the body in the body
2) contemplation of feeling in the feelings
3) contemplation of the consciousness in the consciousness
4) contemplation of the dhamma in the dhammas

How should we practise mindfulness?

In the opening passage of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta given above, we read that the Buddha taught that for each of the four contemplations we must be ardent in our effort, we must comprehend clearly and we must be mindful to overcome covetousness and grief.

1. "Contemplating the body in the body"

This means that when a monk or a lay person practices mindfulness of the body, he has to be precise. He contemplates only the body in the body; he does not contemplate the feeling in the body or the person in the body, and so on. In order to have a precise object the Buddha repeated the words "body, feeling, consciousness and dhammas" in these sentences. So that means he is precise in his mindfulness of the body, feelings, consciousness and the dhammas. When he practices body contemplation he is ardent, he is clearly comprehending and he is mindful.

2. We must be "ardent" in our practice

The word "ardent" is not the literal translation of the Pali word "atapi". The problem is that when we translate a word from one language to another, we lose something in the meaning. The word "atapi' is derived from the Pali word, "atapa". "Atapa" means "heat of the sun." We know that the sun can heat up things until that they become withered and may even be burned. So, in the same way, the effort put in by the meditator heats up the mental defilements and burns them up. A person who has "atapa" is called "atapi ', the `i"denoting possession. So "atapi ' means that one is making a real effort, not a slack effort. One makes a real effort to be mindful and to clearly comprehend. When we read the Sutta in Pali and come across the word "atapi" we should have this meaning in our mind. We should see our effort burning up our mental defilements. Now you can see why when you translate the word "atapa" into English as "ardent", you lose this concept.

3. We must put in effort

When Buddha, still a Bodhisatta, sat down under the Bodhi tree to practice to become the Buddha he made a very firm resolution in his mind. "May my skin, sinews and bones remain, and may my flesh and blood dry up, but I will not desist from or give up this superhuman effort until I reach Buddhahood. I will not get up from this seat until I reach Buddhahood. I will make every effort to achieve my aim." Such an effort is called the "Right Effort."

To make the Right Effort means you have to make a really good effort, not a slackening effort. The right effort referred to here is the same as the Right Effort that is one of the eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. Right Effort means an effort to remove or avoid unwholesome mental states and to acquire and cultivate wholesome mental states. In order to resist unwholesome mental states, in order to resist evil, you need mental effort. If you do not make the effort you cannot resist evil. Similarly, you need real, strong effort to practice the Foundations of Mindfulness.

4. "Clearly comprehending"

The next word is "clearly comprehending". Clearly comprehending means "clearly seeing". Whatever object the meditator puts his mind on, he sees it clearly. What does "clearly" mean? It means that he sees it thoroughly, he sees it with wisdom. When a yogi concentrates on breathing, for instance, he sees the breath clearly. He sees the in-breath distinctly from the out-breath and the out-breath distinctly from the in-breath. He also sees that the breath arising and disappearing. He sees at the moment there are only the breaths and the awareness of the breaths and no other thing to be called a person or an individual. Such an understanding is called "clear comprehension."

When you have clear comprehension about something, you know that thing and all its aspects. And also according to the teachings of the Buddha, you know that there are only the thing observed and the mind that observes it and none other which you could call a person or an individual, a man or a woman. Seeing things in this way is called clear comprehension. This clear comprehension will come to you only after some time, not right at the beginning.

At the beginning of your practice of mindfulness, you may not even see the breaths clearly. Sometimes they are mixed together and very vague. Little by little, with the growth of your concentration and practice, you will see the objects more and more clearly including their arising and disappearing, and so on. So this clear comprehension comes not right at the beginning but after one has gained some experience.

In order for this clear comprehension to arise, we need one more thing, although it is not mentioned in this Discourse. We need concentration. Without concentration, clear comprehension cannot be achieved.

5. We must develop concentration

What is concentration? Concentration is a mental state or a mental factor, which keeps the components of mind squarely on one object and does not allow them stray to other objects. It is usually described as the mind being able to be on an object for a long period of time. For example, if you take the breath as an object, your concentrated mind is always on the breath and the mind does not stray. At every moment, concentration keeps the mind and its components unified on the object. This concentration is essential for clear comprehension to arise. Without this concentration, we cannot hope to see things clearly, we cannot hope to get clear comprehension.

When we achieve concentration, our mind calms down and becomes quiet. That is the time when we begin to see things. It is like dirty or muddy water in a pond. Initially, when there is dirt or mud in the water, we cannot see the bottom of the pond through the water. But when the dirt or mud settles down and the water becomes clear we can see through it. So, mind is like the muddy or dirty water because it contains much dirt or mental defilements. So long as our minds are contaminated by mental defilements we cannot see things clearly. We need to suppress or let these mental defilements, which are called mental hindrances, to settle down before we can see things clearly.

When we develop concentration, we will be able to keep these mental hindrances at abeyance. When the mental hindrances are subdued, the mind becomes clear. Only then will clear comprehension or the true knowledge of things arise.

Although concentration is not mentioned in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, we must assume that the need for concentration is implied because without concentration we cannot get clear comprehension. Let me give you a simple example. Suppose a hunter is chasing after a deer. He sees a large flat rock and he sees footprints on the two opposite sides of the rock, but not on the top of the rock or around the rock. So from this observation he infers that the deer must have run across the top of the flat rock in order to go from one side to the other. This means that he sees the beginning and he sees the end and he infers the middle, i.e. that the deer must have run on the rock. In the same way here, to be mindful may be akin to the beginning and clear comprehension to the end. The middle is concentration for without concentration there can be no clear comprehension.

The four essential mental states

How many components have we mentioned now? We have four- and these constitute the four mental states which are essential components in the practice of mindfulness. The first is being ardent, the second is clear comprehension, the third is concentration, and the fourth is mindfulness. These four mental states are the components of the practice. When we practice meditation, these four mental states must work together and harmoniously. But, there is one more mental state which is not mentioned in the Sutta, and that is faith or confidence.

We must have faith or confidence

Faith or confidence is also an important factor because if we do not have confidence in this method taught by the Buddha, we would not practice it. Without confidence, no work can be successful. In Buddhism, we do not have blind faith. But that is not to say that we do not have faith. We do have faith or confidence. We have faith or confidence in the Buddha and His teachings. We believe that just by paying attention to these objects in the practice of satipatthana we will be able to see the true nature of these things - that they are impermanent, that they lead to suffering and that they are non-soul in nature.

Confidence is also a part of the practice of meditation and although it is not actively operating at the moment of meditation or practice of mindfulness, it is still there working harmoniously with the other factors. So, if we add the factor of confidence to the previous four discussed earlier, we now get five factors and these are the five factors that are called the Five Mental Faculties. In Pall they are called Indriyas. Meditation teachers are fond of talking about these five factors. These five factors must work simultaneously and harmoniously with each other if we are to have a good practice of meditation. What if they do not work in harmony? Then we are lost!

Balance between effort and concentration

When we are practicing mindfulness, especially important is the balance between effort and concentration. If they are not balanced, i.e. if there is an excess of one or the other, we will experience difficulty in our meditation. The effort we make must be just enough, not too much and not too little. Sometimes we tend to put in too much effort because we want to achieve something earnestly. As a result, we become impatient and we put in even more effort. When we make more effort, we become restless and agitated. As a result, we lose concentration. So, too much effort will not work to our advantage. Conversely, what happens when we put in too little effort? We become sleepy, lazy and we cannot concentrate and cannot practice meditation either. So, the effort we put in must be neither too much nor too little. When there is excess of effort there is not enough of concentration. If you put in too little effort, there will also be insufficient concentration.

Suppose we are practicing meditation and we have achieved good concentration. After achieving good concentration, we will slacken in our effort, we will then become lazy or sleepy. When this happens, we have to step up our effort again and pay closer attention to our meditation. Sometimes, we have to include more objects, one at a time, for noting in our meditation practice. So, effort and concentration must be balanced so that we have a good practice of meditation and clear comprehension.

Sometimes, when we practice meditation with good concentration, we may suddenly lose our concentration. Why is this so? One probable reason is that we might have put in too much effort. In our desire to make our practice better, we might have put in too much effort. The result is the opposite of what we want to achieve. Sometimes, during your practice of meditation, your concentration is good and even though your concentration is good, you tend to feel sleepy or nod. Why is this so? It means you might have put in too much concentration. If there is too much concentration you will have to reduce the level of concentration and step up your effort.

So, meditation is not easy. I do not want to discourage you but meditation is not easy. It is very delicate. A little bit of imbalance in the mental state can destroy the concentration you have built up with great effort. So, the five mental states described above should be working simultaneously and also they should be working in harmony. Meditation practice is like a machine. There are many parts in a machine and each part must work properly and in harmony with each other. If one part does not work properly, the whole machine goes out of control. In the same way, if any one of the factors does not work properly, the whole practice of meditation is thrown out of balance. Therefore, each one of these five mental factors must be working properly and harmoniously with each other. (other factors)

The value of mindfulness

Now it is time to consider the value of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a regulating mental factor. It helps to keep effort from becoming too much; it helps concentration from becoming too much and so on. Thus the mindfulness factor is a regulating factor among these five components in the practice of meditation. That is why it is said that mindfulness is always needed. There can never be an excess of mindfulness. Mindfulness is needed everywhere like the use of salt to season food and is akin to a Prime Minister who does all the work for the king. Mindfulness is a very important factor in these five factors but every factor is important and everyone must be working in harmony and in balance with the other factors.


1. Overcoming covetousness and grief in the world

When the five mental factors are working in balance and a person is clearly comprehending, then what is the result? The result is the overcoming of covetousness and grief in the world. That is the result a person gets from clearly comprehending in the practice of mindfulness meditation. Now here is where most English translations miss the point. It is often translated as "having overcome" or "having abandoned", or "having removed" covetousness and grief in the world. What is the practice for? What is this mindfulness practice for? It is for overcoming covetousness and grief. Covetousness means attachment and grief means ill will or anger. So, Vipassana or Satipatthana meditation is "for overcoming" covetousness and grief. It is for this very purpose that we are practicing mindfulness. If we have already achieved this purpose we do not need to practice mindfulness. So, here we should translate it as "overcoming (at the same time) covetousness and grief in the world," and not "having overcome." That means the yogi overcomes covetousness and grief as he practices mindfulness. I want you to be aware of this. (Here an explanation with reference to Pali grammatical construction would be helpful; but since it would be too involved I have no choice but to ignore it.)

Overcoming covetousness and grief in the world means avoiding craving or attachment or anger or ill will concerning the object the yogi is observing. "In the world" means in the world of body, feelings and so on, concerning that object. When we see an object and we can become attached to that object. If we come to the conclusion that it is beautiful, or it is good, we will be attached to it. Conversely, we can develop anger or hatred, etc., towards that object if we decide it is ugly or disgusting. So, these mental defilements can come into our minds when we experience something.

2. The deeper meaning of "covetousness"

When Buddha said "overcoming covetousness and grief in the world", he meant that the monk was able to prevent covetousness and grief from arising with regard to that object which he is observing.

Here "covetousness" means all kinds of attachment, greed, lust, and other similar mental states and "grief' means not just grief but anger, hatred, depression, sorrow; all are included in grief. There are three roots of unwholesomeness. They are: attachment, anger and ignorance. Among these three, two are mentioned here. Covetousness is actually the first one, which is attachment. In Pali, it is called "lobha" The second one is called "dosa" in Pali. So, by covetousness we mean all grades of lobha and by grief we mean all grades of dosa. Ignorance, which is called "moha" in Pali, is not included here because moha is very difficult to prevent and eradicate. So that is why the Buddha exhorted His monks to put effort, to apply mindfulness, to develop concentration and clear comprehension when he practices body contemplation so that he will be able to avoid covetousness and prevent grief from arising. This technique also applies when he practices contemplation on feelings, consciousness and dhamma objects.

Protection against mental defilements

In order to prevent such mental defilements from arising, we need some form of protection. That protection is mindfulness. When we are mindful, such defilements will not get a chance to get into our minds. When we are mindful, when we comprehend clearly, and when we see the objects clearly, we know that these objects will come and go and that they are impermanent. We realise that we should not to be attached to them. So, we can avoid covetousness or attachment and grief or hatred regarding that object by the practice of mindfulness.

Whether we say "overcoming" or "removing", actually we are avoiding or preventing the defilements from arising. It does not mean that we overcome them or we remove them only after they have arisen. The meaning really is preventing covetousness and grief from arising in our minds. If we do not practise mindfulness on the object they will surely arise, either covetousness or grief, or attachment or hatred. These mental states can arise, but by the practice of mindfulness we can prevent them from arising. Preventing them from arising in our mind is what is meant by "overcoming them". (But if they have arisen, of course, we should i make them the object of our attention to eliminate them.)

When we talk about enlightenment we often refer to the phrase "at the moment of enlightenment" mental defilements are eradicated. What mental defilements are eradicated at that moment? The present ones, the past ones or the future ones? The past is already past; we do not have to do anything to get rid of them. With regard to the future, the defilements have not arisen yet; so you cannot do anything about them either. What of the present? If the defilements are present, there can be no enlightenment. Why?

Because enlightenment is a wholesome state and mental defilements are unwholesome states. Wholesome states and unwholesome states cannot exist together. They do not coexist. So the defilements that are said to be eradicated at the moment of enlightenment are not those of the past or of the future or of the present.

1. What defclements are eradicated?

Actually, strictly speaking, those that are eradicated are not called defilements, or kilesas in Pall. They are called "latencies" or anusayas in Pali. The word "anusayas" means the potential to arise. What the enlightenment consciousness eradicates is this potential. Consider, for example, smoking. Suppose you are a smoker. Right at this moment you are not smoking. Supposing if I ask you, "Do you smoke?" and you answer, "Yes, I do." This means that you have smoked in the past and that you will smoke in the future. In other words, you have not given up smoking. So although you are not smoking at this very moment, you say, "Yes, I smoke."

In the same way, now right at this moment, let us say that I have no mental defilements in my mind and that you have no mental defilements in your mind. But after this talk you go out and you step on something sharp or someone pushes you and you get angry. The mental defilements manifest themselves because now there are the conditions necessary for them to arise. It is this "liability to arise" is what is eradicated by enlightenment.

2. How to prevent mental defilements from arising

The mental defilements that are said to be eradicated at the moment of enlightenment are actually nothing but that ability or liability to arise. When they arise, they are already there. In the same way here, overcoming covetousness and grief means avoiding or preventing them from arising in our minds. How? By the practice of mindfulness. If we make effort, if we apply mindfulness and if we have concentration, we will see things clearly. When we see things clearly there is no chance for these mental defilements to arise in our minds. In this way, Vipassana or mindfulness practice removes mental defilements.

Is this removal of mental defilements permanent?

This removal or overcoming of mental defilements is just momentary, just by substitution. Next moment they may come back. It is of a very short duration. It is called "abandonment by substitution". That means you abandon the unwholesome mental states by substituting them with the wholesome mental states. When there is wholesome mental state there cannot be any unwholesome mental state. You put wholesome mental states in the place and so unwholesome mental states do not get a chance to arise. That is called abandonment by substitution. But such a state will last for only a moment in most of us. The next moment they may come back. At the moment of Vipassana, the covetousness and grief are removed in that way. When you get out of Vipassana and you meet some conditions conducive for unwholesome mental states to arise, they will arise again.

1. Temporary abandonment of mental defitlements

There is another kind of abandonment called "temporary abandonment." This is abandonment by pushing away. When you push something away it may stay there for sometime or it may not come back quickly, like plants floating in the water. If you push them away they may stay away for some time, but then very slowly they may come back. That kind of removing or abandonment is called "temporary abandonment or removing", or removal by pushing away. It is achieved when one is in a state of ` jhana" or "mental absorption". When a person gets ` jhanas", or experiences jhanas, he/she is able to push these mental defilements away for some time. They may not come to his/her mind for the whole day or maybe a week or a month, but eventually they return.

2. Total removal of mental defilements

The third removal is called "total removal". The Pali word is "samuccheda" = "cutting off', i.e., removal by cutting off. If you cut the root of a tree and it never grows back. So the total removal or removal once and for all is called removal by cutting off and that is achieved at the moment of enlightenment. The mental defilement eradicated at the moment of enlightenment is therefore permanent and never comes back to that person.

3. Who has eradicated all mental defilements?

An Arahant is one such person who has eradicated all mental defilements. He has no attachment, no anger, no pride, no jealousy or other unwholesome mental states. Even if he is provoked, an Arahant will not get angry. Even if he may see a very, very attractive and beautiful object, he will not feel any attachment or desire for that object. Such a person has eradicated all mental defilements by totally cutting them off.

4. Temporary removal by Vipassana

The objects we come across can cause covetousness and grief in our minds. If we do not practice mindfulness on the object, then we may develop attachment or ill will towards that object. That happens to most people.

If you are good at Vipassana practice and you have this experience of avoiding covetousness and grief with regard to objects that are observed, you will find that you are able to prevent them from arising even with regard to those that are not observed. That is what is called "temporary removal by Vipassana ".

Vipassana meditation

Vipassana can achieve only these two kinds of removal momentary removal and temporary removal. But Vipassana cannot achieve the third one, the total removal; that can only be done by enlightenment or Path Consciousness.

Sometimes, yogis think that if they do not concentrate on the main object they are not doing meditation. Sometimes they say, "Oh, we have to spend time or waste time noting the mind going here and there and we do not have much time to concentrate on the main object." Whether you are aware of the main object or the secondary object, so long as you are mindful at that moment you are doing fine. You are actually meditating and practicing Vipassana.

What is important in Vipassana meditation is first to be mindful of the object at the present moment. Sometimes you may miss being mindful and this "missing" becomes the object of meditation. Now you have to be mindful of this "missing" and bring your mind back to the object of meditation.

Mindfulness leads to the realization of impermanence

You should always be mindful. If you can keep your mindfulness intense, you will make rapid progress and you will begin to see the true nature of things. For then only will you begin to see the objects arising and disappearing. When you see them arising and disappearing you will also see that they are impermanent. When you see they are impermanent, you will also see their suffering nature and also the non-soul nature. You will realise that you have no control over them and that they arise and disappear at their own free will. So, when you are able to see them as they are, you will be able to see the three general characteristics of all conditioned phenomena. Seeing these three general characteristics of all conditioned phenomena is the essence of Vipassana. If you practice Vipassana you must see these three characteristics because the word "Vipassana" means "seeing in different ways" and seeing in different ways means seeing in the light of impermanence, in the light of suffering and in the light of non-soul.

What is important in Vipassana is to see these three characteristics and in order to see these three characteristics we need to observe, we need to watch and pay attention to the objects at that present moment. In order to pay attention to the object at the present moment we need to make effort. Without effort nothing worthwhile can be achieved. This is why Buddha said, "ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful." When we can fulfill these conditions - being ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful - and have concentration we will be able to overcome covetousness and grief regarding the object we observe.


What I have done above is to give you a brief explanation of this very important Discourse of the Buddha, Maha Satipatthana Sutta, often translated as the "Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness". If you can understand what I have said above, I think you have a firm grasp of what mindfulness practice is all about. You will also understand how to practice mindfulness meditation. The important thing is that you have to follow these instructions with effort and apply mindfulness so that you may see things clearly. In so doing, may all of you be able to overcome covetousness and grief in the world.


See Vietnamese translation: Sự quan trọng của Chánh Niệm (Tóm tắt Kinh Đại Niệm Xứ)

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