Four applications of mindfulness

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Four applications of mindfulness (Skt. catuḥ-smṛtyupasthāna; Tib. དྲན་པ་ཉེ་བར་བཞག་པ་བཞི་, Wyl. dran pa nye bar bzhag pa bzhi) sometimes translated as the four foundations of mindfulness refers to the close application of mindfulness to:

  1. the body (Skt. kāya-smṛtyupasthāna, Tib. ལུས་དྲན་པ་ཉེ་བར་བཞག་, lus dran pa nye bar bzhag)
  2. feelings (Skt. vedanā-smṛtyupasthāna, Tib. ཚོར་བ་དྲན་པ་ཉེ་བར་བཞག་, tshor dran pa nye bar bzhag)
  3. the mind (Skt. citta-smṛtyupasthāna, Tib. སེམས་དྲན་པ་ཉེ་བར་བཞག་, sems dran pa nye bar bzhag)
  4. phenomena (Skt. dharma-smṛtyupasthāna, Tib. ཆོས་དྲན་པ་ཉེ་བར་བཞག་, chos dran pa nye bar bzhag)

Commentary

The Buddha's most detailed teaching on mindfulness is to be found in the Satipatthana Sutta [Pali]. ‘Sati’ means ‘mindfulness’ and ‘patthana’ means application or ‘foundation’. There are four of these ‘Applications or Foundations of Mindfulness.’

Training in the four applications or foundations of mindfulness enjoys a special place in the Theravadin tradition. But, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness also form part of the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment on the Mahayana path.

If one practises these four applications of mindfulness according to the basic vehicle, “one meditates on:

  • the impurity of the body,
  • on the feelings of suffering,
  • on the impermanence of consciousness, and
  • on the fact that mental objects are ‘ownerless’ (there is no self to which they belong).

If one practices according to the mahayana, during the meditation session one meditates on the same things as being spacelike, beyond all conceptual constructs. In the post-meditation period one considers them as illusory and dreamlike.

Between the basic yana and the Mahayana approach to this meditation, we may observe a threefold distinction:

  • 1. In the basic yana, the focus is on our own body, feelings, and so forth, while in the mahayana, the focus is also on the bodies, feelings, and so forth, of others.
  • 2. Again, in the basic yana, the focus is on the impurity aspect and so on, while in the mahayana the meditator concentrates on emptiness.
  • 3. Finally, with regard to the purpose of this meditation, in the basic yana the practice is performed with a view to liberation from the impure body and so on, while in the mahayana this meditation is performed in order to attain complete enlightenment.

Khenpo Namdrol says:

"When the shravakas practise the application of mindfulness of the body, they meditate on their body in the form of a skeleton, and concentrate on its impermanence, impurity and suffering nature. By contrast, the bodhisattvas meditate on their own bodies and the bodies of others, focussing on their insubstantiality, their emptiness and their selflessness."

This meditation is termed literally ‘close mindfulness’ because the practitioner discerns the general and particular characteristics of the body and so forth with uninterrupted attention.

Further Reading

  • Chögyam Trungpa, Heart of the Buddha
  • Nyanaponika Thera, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation,
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press
  • U Silananda, Four Foundations of Mindfulness
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