The Four Foundations of Mindfulness Part 16

To recap for those whose may be just joining in, and for those who have been following along these past few months, please read Part 13 of this series, “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”. Part 13 provides a good summary of the first three of the four practices I have been writing about. Part 14 introduces the question, and offers various reflections on the differences between the terms bare attention, mindfulness, and clear comprehension. Regrettably I don’t think Part 14 is as clear as it could be.

Part 15 is an attempt to simplify the question of the differences between these terms by focusing solely on a definition and practical examples of bare attention.

In this section Part 16 I will continue the effort to simplify and clarify my comments on the terms bare attention, mindfulness, and clear comprehension.

Nyanaponika Thera wrote a book about “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” (Sutta 22) entitled “The Heart of Buddhist Meditation”. His book emphasizes the approach to this meditation developed by certain teachers from Burma as popularized by Mahasi Sayadaw of the 20th century. It is important to note this is only one view of how to engage the practices in “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”.  For example, the views of Buddhist teachers of Thailand who speak to this Sutta are often quite different. It is also important to note that some of the comments and perspectives in Nyanaponika Thera’s book are corrupted by a certain chauvinistic approach to Buddhism that is just as distasteful as chauvinistic approaches to the Bible which are offered by certain Christian teachers. Furthermore, some of his more pointed comments may simply be wrong. More on this at another time.

Having noted these exceptions, I want to also affirm that his way of defining bare attention, mindfulness, and clear comprehension seems the most clear, at least to me. Despite the flaws of the book, it is also clear he has a profound understanding of Buddhist meditation and a passionate care for the well being of humanity and all that live in this world.

Regrettably, I did have to read the book 3 times before I could really perceive what he was actually saying. However perseverance often brings rewards.

Nyanaponika Thera sees mindfulness (also referred to as Right Mindfulness) as a term that has two aspects. Bare attention is the first aspect. Clear comprehension is the second. For me, seeing mindfulness as the general, over-arching term and understanding there are two specific aspects of how to apply mindfulness has helped clarify my understanding of the three terms. Suffice it to say other venerable teachers have their own variations on these points, but having one good set of definitions and working understandings is enough for me at present.

Bare attention (see Part 15 of this series) notes the bare facts of what one is perceiving.

While practicing bare attention one is simply making a brief mental note about what is observed. In the first practice of the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness” it might be making a mental note “seeing” or “hearing” or “contact by touch” or “smelling” or “tasting” or “thought”. If a sense impression gives rise to “I like this” or “I don’t like this” or “I have no strong impression about this” a mental note is made to that fact and then one returns to just noting sense impressions. The mind is open and receptive. The mind is neither trying to block impressions from arising, nor is it allowing the mind to get carried away in various evaluations, judgements or actions. One is simply trying to stay focused on naming individual impressions as they appear and pass. Bare attention is focused solely on the microseconds of present experience without elaboration or interpretation or reaction. For a side note bare attention is synonymous with choiceless awareness although it may be used in slightly different ways in different contexts.

The practice of bare attention can also be done and needs to be done with regards to the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th practices of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”. But comments on these applications will have to wait until I convert these blog notes into a workshop.

As noted above, clear comprehension is the second aspect of mindfulness. When one is practicing clear comprehension they are calling to mind basic teachings of Buddhism and then applying them to understand and process phenomena as phenomena arises and passes away. In this way clear comprehension actively engages the memory as well as the cognitive processing functions of analysis, discernment, and response.

I will see if I can get permission from the publisher of “Nyanaponika Thera’s book, “The Heart of Buddhist Meditation” to use his exact quotes. Until then the above paraphrases will need to suffice.

It is in the fourth practice of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” where clear comprehension is applied. In general, the first three practices are just different foci for the application of bare attention and noting.

The first section of the 4th practice begins with the application of bare attention to note if one the five hindrances are present or are absent. The five hindrances spoken about in the “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” (the 22nd Sutta) are: greed, anger, fear and restlessness, torpor, and doubt.

But the bulk of work in the fourth practice is the application of clear comprehension in this general sequence:

First there is an active engagement of the memory as one calls to mind what one has learned about a proper understanding of Right View, Right Action, Right Effort and related teachings. Endeavoring to gain a working understanding of these core teachings is a preparation step needed before one engages “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”.

Second there is an active engagement of the cognitive functions of investigation and analysis into the causes that lead to arising of hindrances and the causes that facilitate their dispersal. This is followed by a third step as one seeks to apply right effort to actually disperse the hindrance and the causes of the hindrance.

In short:

What are the causes that led to the arising of the hindrance? Then, what are the skillful means to respond to help clear the mind of the hindrance so it is no longer a source of stress. In Buddhist practice, and the practices of other religions, there are a variety of skillful means you can apply when greed, anger, or fear is present. These skillful means will lower the stress level caused by these afflictive emotions by addressing the underlying causes that gave rise to the hindrance in the first place. More on these skillful means will be presented in the posts over the next few weeks.

The final stage of the practice of clear comprehension is to gain the insight needed to prevent eruptions of the hindrance from arising in the future. This general process is to seek to understand the fundamental cause that leads to the arising of all of the hindrances. The goal is to gain the decisive insights with sufficient clarity and apply them with sufficient skill so the hindrances no longer arise in the future. This elevated stage of awareness and skill is the ultimate goal of all practice. For a practical recap:

In the context of the 4th practice of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” one uses bare attention to note “greed has arisen within me” or “anger has arisen within me” or “fear and restlessness has arisen within me” or “torpor or sluggishness of mind has arisen with me” or “doubt as to the truth of the teachings” has arisen within me” or words to similar effect. In bare attention there is no judgement that these experiences have arisen. One does not say, “I am a bad meditator or a bad person,” because I am angry or afraid etc. Neither does one act on, let alone over-react to, the anger, fear, or doubt and the other hindrances. One simply notices that the experience has come up.

After the above noting has been made, the work of clear comprehension is applied to understand why this hindrance has arisen and how can you work to shape and mold your experience in such a way that the hindrance is dispersed. After you have learned to do this, the final stage of practice is to delve deeper to understand what you need to know so this hindrance, and the others, do not arise again.

Once the hindrance has passed, whether it is a minute or a month later, one returns to the practice of bare attention to note, “greed is absent within me” or “anger is absent with me”, or “fear has passed” etc. One also makes this note without judgement but rather to observe the experience of greed, anger, fear, torpor, or doubt being absent.

With this clarification of the definitions of bare attention and clear comprehension as two aspects of the proper application of mindfulness, I can proceed next week to more detailed reflections on the fourth practice of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”.

Please email or call with any questions or constructive criticisms. If you wish your response to be published on the site it will be. If not I can respond with a private note.

Will Raymond   774-232-0884

Author of the Simple Path of Holiness

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