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The Four Foundations of Mindfulness: A Summary
Venerable Sayadaw U Sīlānanda
A Talk Given at the Buddha Sāsana
Severn Bridge, Ontario, Canada
|The opening Passage from the Mahāsatipatthāna
"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 Nibbāna, 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."
Today I will explain the passage that we read every morning. This is from the Discourse called The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This passage is just a summary of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. But it is important that those who practice Foundations of Mindfulness or Vipassanā Meditation understand this passage correctly and clearly.
As I have said, the method of the practice of Mindfulness or the Four Foundations of Mindfulness was discovered by the Buddha. He practiced it himself and got the best results from this practice and then for forty-five years he taught the Four Foundations of Mindfulness many times. After his death these methods were collected and recorded in what is known as the Pāli Canon. The instructions given at Vipassanā retreats are all based on the Mahāsatipatthāna Sutta which contains this passage.
The first sentence is, "This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings ... namely, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness." So, at the very beginning the Buddha said, "This is the only way". The Four Foundations of Mindfulness or the Practice of Mindfulness, is the only way for the purification of beings ... Here the Buddha said, "This is the only way".
Now, the Pāli word for this translation is "Ekāyano". "Ekāyano" is composed of two parts, "eka" and "ayana". Ayana means way, path or road, and eka means one. So, ekāyano literally means one way. This one way is interpreted to mean one way which has no forks, no branches. There is just one way and if you tread this way you will surely reach your destination. There are no misleading branches of this way. The other meaning is that this is the way to be taken by one, 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 because you make progress or you do not make progress depending on your own capabilities.
Also, this word is interpreted to mean "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" and this is the way discovered and taught by the Buddha, so this is called the Way of The One. Also, it is interpreted to mean the only way, this is the only way, there is no other way for the purification of beings and so on. Now, with regard to the translation "the only way" there are two questions. One is that here, Four Foundations of Mindfulness mean mindfulness only. But, there are other factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. So, are they also not the way to purification of beings ...? The answer is that they are also the way to purification of beings ..., but they do not exist without mindfulness. So when mindfulness is mentioned, they are virtually mentioned, i.e., although mindfulness alone is mentioned here, we should understand that all the other seven factors that are concomitant with the Noble Path are also implied.
The other question raised by people, especially of the West, is "Why did Buddha say, "This is the only way"? Aren't there other ways to the purification of beings? They argue that there are different roads to reach a city and just as there are different roads to a city there must be different ways to reach purification of beings or to reach Nibbāna. Some people do not like this or they thought the Buddha would not have said this, "The only way". Some times analogies are not really correct. It is true that there are different roads to reach this town. (I am not familiar with this country so I do not know which roads reach this town.) But they are roads, they are not marshes or forests. And so the road is the only way to reach this town. There may be different roads but they are roads. In the same way, there may be different ways of practicing mindfulness but they must be mindfulness. Only mindfulness can lead us to the attainment of Nibbāna. Also, if we say physical exercise is the only way to build big muscles, I think no one would object to that. If you want to build big muscles you have to do physical exercise. Without physical exercise, you cannot hope to build muscles. 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 Nibbāna, but mindfulness may take different forms. Even in this discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, mindfulness practice is taught in twenty-one ways. There are twenty-one different kinds of mindfulness practice to choose from. Therefore, I think it is correct to say that this is the only way. So mindfulness is the only way.
People may argue here because the word used here is "ekāyano", one way. But in another place–in the Dhammapada–Buddha said clearly, "This alone is the way and there is no other way for the purity of wisdom." So we cannot argue that Buddha said there is any other way. He expressly said that this alone is the way and there is no other way. So I think we must accept that this is the only way for the purification of beings. If we consider it with reference to the practice it becomes clear.
I have said that mindfulness is like a guard, and once the guard is removed anything can come in. 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 lose mindfulness, all these mental defilements come in. So mindfulness is the only way to keep the mind pure. Please note here also that mindfulness is one of the eight Factors of the Path described in the Dhammapada, and if the Eightfold Path is the "only way", then mindfulness surely is the only way too.
Again, mindfulness may take different forms, such as mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feeling, mindfulness of consciousness, mindfulness of dhamma objects or mindfulness of parts of the body and so on. So, if it is mindfulness it is the only way for the purification of beings. For the purification of beings means for the purification of the minds of beings. Because Buddha is more concerned about the purification of mind than the purification of the physical body–although it does not mean that we do not take care of the cleanliness of the physical body– what is more important for us is the cleanliness of our minds. So, the purification of beings here means purification of minds of beings.
In the Commentaries, it is said that personal cleanliness or cleanliness of the body as well as the cleanliness of the place are conducive to concentration and wisdom. So we also need to keep our bodies clean and keep the place where we meditate clean. Although we are not to neglect the cleanliness of the body we should be more concerned about the cleanliness of our minds. So here the Buddha said that mindfulness is the only way for the purification of minds of beings.
With this passage Buddha mentioned the benefits we will get from the practice of mindfulness. The first benefit the Buddha mentiond is purification of mind. Then Buddha said, "for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation". If we want to overcome sorrow and lamentation or crying aloud we should practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is the only way to overcome sorrow and lamentation. Here sorrow is a mental state. Lamentation is crying aloud through sorrow and saying this thing or that. To overcome sorrow and lamentation also we should practice the Foundations of Mindfulness.
"For the disappearance of pain and grief": Pain here means physical pain, pain in the body, and grief means mental pain, depression, ill will, hatred; all these are included in the word "grief". For the overcoming and disappearance of pain and grief we should practice the Foundations of Mindfulness. As I said you may not conquer pain, you may not overcome pain altogether, pain may not disappear altogether. But, if you practice mindfulness you will be able to live with pain and accept it. Like that of the Venerable Anuruddha, 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. So, for the disappearance of pain or the overcoming of pain, we should practice mindfulness meditation. For the overcoming of grief, overcoming of ill will, depression and so on we should practice mindfulness meditation.
Grief is a mental state and sorrow is also a mental state. They are actually connected with each other. These are mental states and so these mental states can be overcome or made to disappear or can be avoided by the practice of mindfulness.
Mind cannot take two things or more than one thing at a time. Mind can only take one object at a time. I think we are lucky. If mind could take two or more things at a time our suffering would be much greater. Since mind can take only one thing at a time, we can overcome sorrow and grief by the 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 be getting 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–the moment I turn my mind to anger itself–Mr. A does not exist for me at that time. He has already disappeared from my mind. When my mind is on the anger itself and when the source of anger has disappeared, anger has to disappear also.
That way, we treat such mental states with mindfulness, with just simple but strong or forceful mindfulness. This is how we deal with what are called emotions such as attachment, anger, hatred, depression, and sorrow. Whatever the mental state, we just treat it with mindfulness and try to be mindful of it. When our mindfulness is really strong, they will surely disappear. So Buddha said, "This is the only way to overcome sorrow and lamentation and to overcome pain and grief."
"This is the only way for reaching the Noble Path." When you read books on Buddhism, you will see this word "Path" many times. Sometimes it is spelt with a lower case ‘p’, but mostly with the upper case ‘P’. "Path" as a technical term is a name for the combination or group of the eight Factors of the 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". The word "enlightenment" is another technical word whose meaning is not easy to understand. People use this word quite freely, but only a few might understand its meaning properly. Without definition it is vague. It may mean different things to different persons or different religions: enlightenment for a Buddhist may be quite different from enlightenment for a Christian.
When we talk about enlightenment, we should first define it. According to Buddhism, enlightenment means the eradication of mental defilements and seeing Nibbāna directly, seeing Nibbāna face to face, at the same time. As a person practices Vipassanā meditation and progresses from one stage to another, to higher and higher stages, as the result of this Vipassanā practice, a time will come when in his mind a type of consciousness arises 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, not to come back again. At the same time it takes Nibbāna as object. So, what we mean by enlightenment is " what happens at that moment"–a moment, when that consciousness arises, eradicates mental defilements and takes Nibbāna 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 to understand this fully. So for reaching the Noble Path simply means for gaining enlightenment. When you really reach the Noble Path, you become enlightened and you are able to eradicate mental defilements and take Nibbāna as object.
"This is the only way for the realization of Nibbāna". This is 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 Nibbāna as object, that is when he/she is said to have realized Nibbāna. So, reaching the Noble Path and realization of Nibbāna mean the same thing.
Buddha said that the practice of mindfulness is the only way to purify our minds, the only way to overcome sorrow and lamentation, to overcome pain and grief, to reach the Noble Path and to realize Nibbāna, namely, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
Here also we have the words "foundation" and "mindfulness". First, let us understand what mindfulness is. All of us have been practicing mindfulness for, may be, years but sometimes when we are asked, "What is mindfulness?" we may not be able to give a satisfactory answer. "Mindfulness" is the translation of the Pāli word "sati". This discourse is called, "Satipatthāna" so you have the word "sati" there. This "sati" is translated as mindfulness. Maybe there is no better word for it. "Sati" literally means remembering, but it covers more than remembering actually. 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, "full awareness of the object," or "thorough awareness of the object." Sati is said to have the function of not losing the object. As long as there is sati, or mindfulness, we do not lose that object, we do not forget that object. Mindfulness has the function of not losing or forgetting the object. It is like a guard at the gate. So, that is what we call mindfulness. Mindfulness is not superficial awareness, it is a deep and thorough awareness of the object.
"Foundations of Mindfulness" means actually, "setting up" of mindfulness or "firmly established mindfulness" or "mindfulness firmly established". The Pāli word "satipatthāna" is translated as foundations of mindfulness but we must understand that it means setting up of a firm mindfulness or establishing a firm mindfulness. So, the practice of establishing firm mindfulness is called the "foundations of mindfulness." In this discourse, Buddha said that there were four foundations of mindfulness. When you practice Vipassanā meditation at a retreat like this, you 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. That is because when you practice Vipassanā meditation you have to be mindful of the object at the present moment. You cannot afford not 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, you have no choice. That is why sometimes Vipassanā 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 when you practice Vipassanā meditation.
Here in the summary the Buddha taught us how to practice the four foundations of mindfulness. So what are the four? "Herein, a monk dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, overcoming or removing covetousness and grief in the world." It is a very short sentence but it has many meanings.
"Contemplating the body in the body": That means when a monk practices mindfulness of the body he is precise. He contemplates the body in the body and he does not contemplate the feeling in the body or he does not contemplate the person in the body and so on. He contemplates the body in the body. In order to have a precise object the Buddha repeated the words "body, feeling, consciousness and dhamma" 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. With regard to the word "ardent" I do not know what other meaning it carries in English. This word is the translation of the Pāli word "ātāpī".
Sometimes we lose something when we translate from one language to another. The word "ātāpī" comes from the word "ātāpa". "Ātāpa" means "heat of the sun." Heat of the sun can heat up things so that things become withered and even they may burn. So in the same way the effort heats up the mental defilements or burns them up. So it is called "ātāpa" in Pāli and one who has ātāpa is called ātāpī, the "ī" denoting possession. So one who possesses ātāpa is called ātāpī. When we read the Sutta in Pāli and when we read the word ātāpī we have that in our mind, we see the effort burning up the mental defilements. When you translate this word into English as "ardent" you lose that image. So ātāpī means he/she makes real effort, not a slack effort, he makes a real effort to be mindful and to clearly comprehend.
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." So to make the right effort means you have to make a really good effort, not a slackening effort. This word "ātāpī" implies all these meanings. To right effort to be understood here is the Right Effort that is one of the eight factors of the Path. You may have read about Right Effort in other books. Right Effort means 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 effort you cannot resist evil. Effort is very useful in resisting or removing unwholesome mental states and also to cultivate wholesome mental states. To develop wholesome mental states you need effort. If you do not make effort you do not come here, if you do not want to make effort you do not go to a retreat at all. So you need a real, strong effort to practice the Foundations of Mindfulness. Here also the Buddha described the monk as being ardent which means he has that kind of effort that burns up the mental defilements. That is indicated by the word ātāpī in the Pāli text.
The next word is "clearly comprehending". Clearly comprehending means clearly seeing. Whatever object he puts his mind on, he sees it clearly. What does "clearly" mean? 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 out-breath and out-breath distinctly from in-breath; and also he sees that the breath arises and disappears and that 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 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 just the thing observed and the mind that observes and none other which you could call a person or an individual, a man or a woman. Seeing in this way is called clear comprehension. This clear comprehension will come only after some time, not right at the beginning. You practice mindfulness, but right at the beginning 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'll see the objects more and more clearly and then also 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 one more thing and that is concentration. Without concentration clear comprehension cannot come. What is concentration? Concentration is a mental state or a mental factor, which keeps the components of mind squarely on the object, and does not let them go to other objects. That is what we call concentration. 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 mind is always on the breath and the mind does not go anywhere else. That is what we call concentration. Actually, at every moment also the mental factor or state which is called concentration keeps the mind and its components unified on the object, it keeps them together and does not let them go to another 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 get concentration, our mind calms down and becomes quiet and that is the time when we begin to see things. It is like, say, water. At first there is dirt or mud in the water and so we cannot see through the water. But when the dirt or mud settles down and the water becomes clear we can see through it. So, mind needs to be like the water, settled, because there are many dirt or many mental defilements in our mind. 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 settle down so that we can see clearly.
When we get concentration we will be able to keep these mental hindrances settled. When the mental hindrances are subdued or settled, mind becomes clear and it is the time when clear comprehension or the true knowledge of things arises.
In order to get clear comprehension we need concentration and concentration is not mentioned here. But we must take that concentration is also included in this passage because without concentration we cannot get clear comprehension. Sometimes some words may be left out but we have to understand them as mentioned through inference. Let's say there is a flat rock and a hunter is following a deer and he sees foot prints on one side, but on the flat rock itself he does not see any footprints, and again he sees the footprints on the other side. So from this he infers that the deer must have run across the flat rock. He sees the beginning and he sees the end and so he infers the middle, that the deer must have run on the rock. In the same way here, to be mindful is the beginning and clear comprehension is something like the end. So, when these two are mentioned the middle is also virtually mentioned because without the middle– concentration–there can be no clear comprehension.
Then the last word here is "mindful": Mindfulness is put last here but actually, in practice it should come after "ardent". We make effort, so we have mindfulness. We have mindfulness, so we have concentration and concentration leads to clear comprehension. We have "mindfulness" here, but I have already defined mindfulness so I do not need to define it again.
A monk dwells contemplating the body in the body. A monk practices the foundation of mindfulness on the body, being ardent, making true effort, being mindful and being thoroughly aware of the object and having concentration and clear comprehension.
How many components do we now have? Ardent is one component, clearly comprehending is another component, concentration is yet another and mindfulness, another. So we have four mental states here. These four mental states are the components of the practice. When we practice there must be these four mental states working together harmoniously. But, there is one more mental state which is not mentioned here, and that is faith or confidence. Confidence or faith is also an important factor because if we do not have confidence in this practice we would not practice. We do not really have blind faith but we have faith or confidence in the Buddha and His teachings. We believe that just by paying attention to these objects we will be able to see the true nature of these things, the impermanent, suffering and non-soul nature. So we should have that much confidence because without confidence no work can be successful. Confidence, therefore, 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, altogether we get five factors and these are the five factors that are called five Mental Faculties. In Pāli they are called Indriyas. Meditation teachers are fond of talking about these five factors. These five factors must be working simultaneously and harmoniously with each other if we are to have a good practice of meditation.
As I said, in the beginning we may be lacking in clear comprehension but later when our concentration develops we will be able to see things clearly and so on and these five components will be working in harmony. What if they do not work in harmony? We are lost! When we are practicing, especially important is the balance of effort and concentration. If they are not balanced, if there is an excess of one or the other, we are lost, our meditation is nothing. The effort we make must be just enough, not too much, and not too little. Sometimes we tend to make too much effort because we want to achieve something; we become a little greedy and so we make more effort. When we make more effort, we become restless, agitated and then we lose concentration. So, too much effort will not work. What if there is too little effort? We become sleepy, lazy and we cannot concentrate and cannot practice either. So, the effort we make must be neither too much nor too little. When there is excess of effort there is not enough of concentration. Among effort and concentration, when one goes up the other goes down. Too much effort, and concentration will go down. When you make too little effort, again concentration goes down. Concentration also must not be too much. When we have too much concentration we tend to become lazy. We tend to take it easy or we tend to slacken our effort.
Suppose we are practicing and we have good concentration. When we have good concentration we do not have to make much effort and so we tend to slacken the effort. When we slacken our effort the degree of effort goes down and we become lazy or sleepy. In that case we have to step up our effort, by making more effort and paying closer attention or sometimes by adding some things to note like three or more objects in succession at a time. So, the effort and concentration must be balanced so that we have good meditation and clear comprehension.
Sometime, say, we are practicing and we have good concentration and all of a sudden we lose concentration. Probably we have made more effort than is needed. We want to make it better and so we make more effort and the result is the opposite of what we want. Sometimes you are practicing meditation, your concentration is good and even though your concentration is good, you tend to go sleepy or nodding. That means you have too much concentration. If there is too much concentration you have to make the level of concentration go down by stepping up effort, by taking more objects at a time and so on.
So, meditation is not easy. I do not want to discourage you but meditation is not easy. It is very delicate. Just a little bit of an unbalanced mental state can destroy the concentration you have built up with great effort. So, these five mental states 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. 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 work of meditation is thrown out of balance. Therefore, each one of these five mental factors must be working properly and harmoniously with other factors.
Here comes the value of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a regulating mental factor. So it helps to keep effort from becoming too much, it helps concentration from becoming too much and so on. So, 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 be no excess of mindfulness. Mindfulness is needed everywhere like the seasoning of salt in all dishes and like a Prime Minister who does all the work of a 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.
When the five mental factors are working in balance and a yogi is clearly comprehending, then what is the result? The result is overcoming covetousness and grief in the world. That is the result a yogi gets from clearly comprehending in the practice of mindfulness meditation.
Now here, most English translations missed the point. They translate it 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, Vipassanā or Satipatthāna meditation is "for overcoming" covetousness and grief.
If a person has already overcome covetousness and grief he/she does not need to practice. For this very purpose we are practicing mindfulness, but 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 Pāli 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. We see one object and we can be attached to that object. If we come to the conclusion that it is beautiful, or it is good, we will be attached to it; and we can have anger, or hatred, etc., towards that object if we decided it was ugly or disgusting. So, these mental defilements can come into our minds when we experience something.
In order to prevent them from arising, we need to make some protection and that protection is mindfulness. When we are mindful, they 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 come and go, these objects are impermanent and so 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" or whatever, actually we are avoiding or preventing them from arising. Not that they have come and then we overcome them, or we remove them after they have come. The meaning really is preventing covetousness and grief from arising in our minds. If we do not practice mindfulness on the object they will surely come, either covetousness or grief, or attachment or hatred. These mental states can come, but by the practice of mindfulness we can prevent them from coming. Preventing them from arising in our mind is what is meant by overcoming them. (But if they have arisen, of course, we should make them the object of our attention to eliminate them.)
When we talk about enlightenment we say, "at the moment of enlightenment" mental defilements are eradicated. What mental defilements are eradicated at that moment? The present ones, or past ones or the future ones ? The past is already past, we do not have to do anything to get rid of them, and the future defilements are not here yet, so you cannot do anything about them. What of the present defilements? If they are present there can be no enlightenment. Because enlightenment is a wholesome state and those 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 of the past, not of the future and not of the present. Then what defilements are eradicated?
Actually, strictly speaking, those that are eradicated are not called defilements, or kilesas in Pāli. They are called latencies or anusayas in Pāli, which means the potential to arise. What the enlightenment consciousness eradicates is that potential. That means when something is always with us we say we have that thing. Take, for example, smoking. Suppose you smoke but right now you do not. If I ask you, "Do you smoke? " you would say, "Yes, I do." Because you smoked in the past and you will smoke in the future and you have not given up smoking. So although you are not smoking at the very moment, you say, "Yes, I smoke."
In the same way, now right at this moment, I hope I have no mental defilements in my mind and you have no mental defilements in your mind. But after the talk you go out and you step on something sharp or someone pushes you and you get angry and thus the mental defilement comes when there are the conditions for them. So we say we have mental defilements. I have mental defilements, you have mental defilements, but not right at this moment. So, that "liability to arise" is what is eradicated by enlightenment.
The mental defilements that are said to be eradicated at the moment of enlightenment are actually nothing but that ability or liability to come up. When they come up 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. We make effort, we apply mindfulness and we have concentration and we see things clearly. When we see things clearly there is no chance for these mental defilements to come into the mind. In this way, Vipassanā or mindfulness practice removes mental defilement.
This removal or overcoming 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. That will last for only a moment. The next moment they may come back.
At the moment of Vipassanā the covetousness and grief are removed in that way. You get out of Vipassanā and you meet some conditions for them to arise, and they will arise.
There is another kind of abandonment called "temporary abandonment." Abandonment by pushing away. When you push something away it may stay there for sometime, it may not come back quickly, like plants 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. That is achieved by jhānas. When a person gets jhānas, or experiences jhānas, 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 in this case too they can come back.
The third removal is called total removal. The Pāli word is "samuccheda = cutting off", i.e., removal by cutting off. It is like 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 never comes back to that person.
An Arahant has eradicated all mental defilements. He has no attachment, no anger, no pride, no jealousy and other unwholesome mental states. Even though they are provoked Arahants will not get angry. Even though they may see a very, very attractive and beautiful object, they will not feel any attachment or desire for that object. Those are the persons who have eradicated mental defilements by totally cutting them off.
These are the three kinds of removing, and here we can understand the two kinds of removing. I have already explained the first removing. There can also be the second kind of removing here. That is, if you have practiced meditation well and you are able to avoid covetousness and grief with regard to the objects you observe, you will find that you are able to avoid covetousness and grief even with regard to those objects that you do not observe. Here "do not observe" means do not treat with mindfulness.
Naturally, the objects we come across can cause covetousness and grief in our minds. If we do not practice mindfulness on the object, then we will have attachment or ill will towards that object. That happens to most people. If you are good at Vipassanā 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 Vipassanā.
Vipassanā can achieve only these two kinds of removal–momentary removal and temporary removal. But Vipassanā cannot achieve the third one, the total removal; that will be done by enlightenment or Path Consciousness.
When Buddha said "overcoming covetousness and grief in the world", he meant that the monk was able to avoid 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 and they are attachment, anger and ignorance. Among these three, two are mentioned here. Covetousness is actually the first one which is "lobha" or attachment and the second one is "dosa". So, by covetousness we mean all shades of lobha and by grief we mean all shades of dosa. Moha (ignorance) is not included here because moha is very difficult to prevent and eradicate. So, in this sentence we must understand that a monk practices body contemplation making effort, applying mindfulness, getting concentration and clearly comprehending and at the same time he is able to avoid covetousness and grief from arising. It is the same with regard to feelings, to consciousness and to dhamma objects. (The Commentary says that the statement ‘overcoming covetousness and grief’ refers to the overcoming of all the five mental hindrances, because when covetousness and grief that are the strongest of the five hindrances are mentioned, we must understand that the other hindrances are also mentioned.)
You know the four foundations of mindfulness, four kinds of setting up of mindfulness. There are four because there are four kinds of objects.
The first one is body. Sometimes body does not mean the whole physical body, but a group of some material properties. Breathing is also called the body. Different parts of the body are also called the body. By the word "body" we must understand anything that is associated with the body.
The second is feelings. Feeling is a mental state. Now we have pain here, physical pain and we experience that physical pain with our mind. In our mind there is a mental state called feeling. Since it is pain, feeling is the painful feeling. When Buddha said a monk contemplates feeling in the feeling, He means the monk is contemplating on that mental state and not necessarily on the pain there. In practice, when we have pain we have to concentrate on the pain and be mindful of it because that is practical. But actually, when we are making notes as, "pain, pain", we are really making notes of the mental state that feels the pain in the body. That feeling is of three kinds– pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.
The third is consciousness. It is usually translated as mind, but I think consciousness is a better translation. The Pāli word is "citta". This means consciousness. In Buddhist psychology, mind is composed of four things. So what we call "mind" is a group of or combination of four things. Sometimes there may be confusion regarding these terms: mind and consciousness. Let us say mind is composed of two things first, consciousness and mental factors. Consciousness is defined as the awareness of an object. Here awareness is not like awareness in the practice of meditation. It is just mere awareness. It is like 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 Abhidhamma. The English word may mean more or less than that, I am not sure.
Please note that although we use the word consciousness for the word "citta", it is not an exact translation of the word. Consciousness is defined as a mental state which is the awareness of the object. Only when there is awareness of the 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 states are subordinate to consciousness, but they are also components of the mind. So, mind is first divided into two–consciousness and mental factors. Contact, feeling, perception, attention, like, dislike and so on are all called mental factors. According to Abhidhamma there are fifty-two of them, and these fifty-two are grouped into three–feeling, perception and mental formations. So when we add consciousness to these three we get four kinds of mental states. It’s amazing that the Buddha could define and differentiate each of these mental states that arise simultaneously taking the same object.
When we practice meditation and say "sorry, sorry", that means we have a consciousness accompanied by sorrow or something like that. It could be contemplation on consciousness. When I say, "angry, angry", I am doing contemplation of consciousness.
The last one is the dhamma. This is one Pāli word that is most difficult to translate or that cannot be translated adequately. This word means different things in different contexts. You cannot translate the word "dhamma" with just one English word. If you do, you will be wrong. Here, dhamma simply means the objects that are mental hindrances, the five aggregates, the twelve bases, the seven Factors of Enlightenment and Four Noble Truths. They are called dhamma in this discourse. So, we cannot translate this word. Mostly it is translated as "mind object" or "mental object", but each of these translations is not satisfactory. Therefore it is better to keep the word "dhamma" untranslated to avoid confusion.
Dwelling on dhamma objects: if you concentrate on anger, then you are doing contemplation on the dhamma. Here dhamma does not mean the teachings or discourse or other things. If you see something and you are mindful of seeing, then you are doing dhamma object contemplation. So, the dhamma object contemplation is very wide and includes mental hindrances, aggregates, bases, Factors of Enlightenment and the Four Noble Truths.
If we translate it as "mind object" and we take it to mean "mind as object", then some objects are not mind. If we translate it as "mental object", then everything is 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.
I have already told you that you practice these four at random and so when you are really practicing do not try to find out which one you are doing. This is a distraction. As a practitioner of Vipassanā you have to take what is there at the present moment. Do not try to find out whether it is the body, or the feeling, or the consciousness or the dhamma. Whatever there is, your duty is to be mindful of that object so you do not have covetousness and grief regarding that object.
In order not to have covetousness and grief you have to be mindful. You have no time to find out whether it is consciousness or dhamma or other things. When you practice Vipassanā meditation you practice all these four foundations of mindfulness as they come along. So long as you are mindful of the object at the present moment you are doing fine, your meditation is good. What is not good is when you are carried away by your thoughts and forget about meditation for some seconds or maybe minutes. That is not good. But so long as you are mindful, you are doing the right thing, your meditation is going well.
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 meditating and practicing Vipassanā. What is important in Vipassanā meditation is first to be mindful of the object at the present moment. Sometimes you may miss to be mindful and then that missing also becomes the object of meditation. You have to say to yourself, "missing, missing" or something like that before you go back to the home object.
There should be mindfulness always, mindfulness here, mindfulness there; and if you can keep mindfulness intense, then you will make rapid progress and you will begin to see the true nature of things. That is, you will begin to see the objects arising and disappearing. When you see the arising and disappearing you also see that they are impermanent. When you see they are impermanent you also see their suffering nature and also the non-soul nature or that you have no control over these, that they arise and disappear at their own free will. So, when you see them you are said to see the three general characteristics of all conditioned phenomena. Seeing of these three general characteristics of all conditioned phenomena is the essence of Vipassanā. If you practice Vipassanā you must see these three characteristics because the word "Vipassanā" 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.
This is the summary of the discourse called the Mahā Satipatthāna Sutta, the Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness. If you understand the summary this much I think you have a firm understanding of what mindfulness practice is, and so you will understand how to practice mindfulness meditation. There are other detailed instructions for the practice of mindfulness and I hope you are familiar with all these instructions. Following these instructions, making effort, applying mindfulness and seeing things clearly, may all of us be able to overcome covetousness and grief in the world.
Source: Tathagata Meditation Center, California, USA, www.tathagata.org
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last updated: 11-07-2004