The Four Foundations of Mindfulness Part 1

For a brief background note, “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” is the 22nd Sutta (discourse) from “The Long Discourses of the Buddha.” The original language these discourses were written in is Pali. “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali term the Satipatthana Sutta. The Long Discourses of the Buddha is a translation of the Pali Phrase the Digha Nikaya. Pail is a simplified version of Sanskrit and it is the language used in the writing of the original Buddhist texts.

Wisdom Publications offer a volume of “The Long Discourses of the Buddha,” translated by Maurice Walshe. This translation is considered by many senior scholars and teachers to be the best English translation to date of these important Buddhist texts.

One way to think of these Four Foundations is to view them as a separate ways to study four different aspects of the mind/body continuum: sensations, feelings, general State of mind, and specific thoughts and desires.

The Satipatthana Sutta is the most systematic exposition of mindfulness training in the Buddhist suttas. It is one of the most important suttas in the Pali Canon. It is a seminal text of Theravada Buddhism, which is better known in the west as Vipassana Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is the oldest form of Buddhism we know about. It is the primary tradition that Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, & Bhante Gunaratana were trained in.

Another way to think of this work is that it offers four different ways to further develop mindfulness and insight in both formal silent meditation practice and in the active hours of life.

The first foundation is to be mindful of the sensations of the body.

The second foundation is to be mindful of the feelings, although the Theravada Buddhists are not using the term feelings in quite the same way we do in modern times. I will expand on these comments later in this series. For now it is enough to be aware they are referring to one of three very basic mood tones. Is the basic mood tone satisfying, unsatisfying, or neutral?

The third foundation is to be mindful of the states of mind. Is the state of mind relaxed and open, or tense and constricted? Is the state of mind clouded and hazy, or clear or lucid? There are a number of other basic descriptive terms referenced in the Sutta.

The fourth way is to be mindful of mind-objects. This term mind objects refers to different perceptions, thoughts, urges, or hungers of the mind. These mind objects might be the presence or absence of one of the five hindrances, or one of the ten fetters. Other categories are the presence or absence of one of the seven factors of enlightenment, or the six aggregates.  One of the benefits of a careful study of this Sutta is that it is necssary to gain a better definition and understanding of these different terms, all of which are central to Buddhist practice, as one seeks to apply the teachings of this Sutta.

There are many important nuances and aspects to each of these four fields of study as one seeks to apply these skills during times of formal meditation and in the active hours of one’s life. Over the next few weeks, I will offer what I hope are useful comments on each of these four aspects of the mind/body continuum.

What is helpful is these practices can be adapted to your meditation practice whether you practice is a God Centered Path, an atheist path, or a practice centered in “not sure what to believe,” path. Although I can also add that many orthodox Theravada Buddhists would not agree with my views on this point as they are committed atheists. All I can say about this is to offer a suggestion that you be just as wary of Orthodox Theravada Buddhists as you would with anyone who thinks their form of Orthodoxy is the “Only Way.”  Over the next few decades and generations, the limitations and narrowness of each of the world’s orthodox traditions will become more and more apparent. What we need to be careful of is to not get so carried away with reform that we miss the irreplaceable value of the various ancient orthodox traditions of the world. But neither should be be blind to the simple fact that orthodox Buddhists might be just as mistaken about some aspects of their teachings as Orthodox Jews, Christians, Muslims, Scientists, Atheists, or Hindus.

In closing, I think a careful study of the Satipatthana Sutta, is a great way to understand how Theravada Buddhists think and talk about sensations of the body, core emotional mood tones, states of mind, and the various thoughts and appetites generated by the mind and body.

As I have looked into various commentaries on this Sutta, I feel I am gaining a far better understanding of both basic and advanced applications of Theravada Buddhist practice.

As I have become more familiar with how to apply the teachings in this Sutta, I continue to be impressed at the depth and sophistication of this ancient work.


Will Raymond

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