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The four foundations of mindfulness

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Edited by Richie Cuthbertson, Saturday, 25 Dec 2021, 15:08


Here is a summary of the four foundations of mindfulness that I chant every day to help me remember the Satipatthana Sutta (The Buddha's famous teachings on mindfulness).

I find chanting to be a powerful tool for instructing mindfulness on what it needs to be paying attention to. After practising a while you will find that sati (mindfulness) works on its own volition like a trusted guard at the gate, a powerful ally, working independently of the narrator mind. I find the phrases I regularly chant  will often pop up out of the blue during the day to remind me of important teachings.

It is important to also bear in mind that simply being aware of these four foundations isn't all there is to the practise. One does so in combination with Right effort. Which in a nutshell is about four practise principles 1. Preventing unwholesome states of mind arising. 2. If prevention doesn't work, one abandons unwholesome states of mind as soon as one notices they have arison. 3. One generates and brings into being wholesome states of mind. 4. One cultivates those wholesome states of mind so that they grow and develop and become continuous, i.e. one's default behaviour. 

I have borrowed heavily from the Birken forest monastery chant book. And changed it in places, adding some extra bits that I find helpful in my own spiritual practise. Particularly in mindfulness of the body, where I have added an extra three elements (space, consciousness, and interdependence) to the traditional four primary elements of earth, water, fire, and air. I also simultaneously practise awareness of the seven chakras that correspond with the seven elements found in kundalini yoga. Which is not what the Buddha taught, but is something I find helpful in my own practise.

 I have also changed the part on cemetary contemplations, to the five remembrances, as in the West we don't have charnel grounds to visit where we can observe a rotting corpse and reflect on death. But I have added a bit extra to the chant to help with the contemplation of death. 

I have also added the eight worldy winds and the brahma viharas to mindfulness of feelings.

Be aware this is very much a chant I have tailored to help me on my spiritual journey, and it may not be right for others, so please bear in mind that some of it has deviated from the original sutta in places. So I would advise the reader to check out the original sutta if they find it interesting. Or read the summary in the Birken forest monastery chant book. 

The four foundations of mindfulness

The Buddha addressing the sangha:

'This is the direct path for the purification of beings. For the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation; the disappearance of pain and grief. The true attainment of the way and the realisation of nibbana. Namely the four foundations of mindfulness: '

Foundation one - mindfulness of the body

  • Mindfulness of the four postures: walking, standing, sitting, and lying down.
  • Mindfulness of the breath.
  • Mindfulness of the present moment.
  • Reflection on the different parts of the body. Hair, nails, teeth, eyeballs, skin, muscles, blood vessels, mucous, nerves, internal organs: brain, heart, lungs, stomach, kidneys, liver,  gallbladder, spleen, pancreas, intestines, bones, bone marrow. 
  • Contemplation of the seven elements:
    Earth element both inside the body and outside the body.
    Water element both inside the body and outside the body.
    Fire element both inside the body and outside the body.
    Air element both inside the body and outside the body.
    Space element both inside the body and outside the body.
    Consciousness both inside the body and outside the body.
    Interdependence both inside the body and outside the body.
  • The five reflections:
    I am of the nature to grow old, I have not gone beyond ageing.
    I am of the nature to become sick, I have not gone beyond ill health.
    I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond death.
    I could die at any moment, and that is normal; people die at all different ages. And when I die I will become a rotting corpse and return to the four primary elements (earth, water, fire, air), this is a natural process and the fate of all living beings. Every body has an expiry date. I should not fear death.
    Everything I hold dear and everyone that I love will become separated from me due to the nature of change and impermanence.
    I am the owner of my karma, the heir of my karma, born of my karma, related to my karma, abide supported by my karma. Therefore should I frequently recollect that whatever actions I do for good or for bad - that is the karma I will inherit.

Foundation two - mindfulness of feelings 

(n.b. in Buddhism feelings also means physical sensations as well as mental ones.)

  • Mindfulness of pleasant feelings.
  • Mindfulness of unpleasant feelings.
  • Mindfuness of neutral feelings (something that you are neither grasping for nor pushing away).
  • Mindfulness of worldly feelings. The eight wordly winds: pain and pleasure; wealth and misfortune; success and failure; praise and blame.
  • Mindfulness of unworldly feelings: metta (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (joy in another's happiness), upekka (equanimity), samhadi (deep state of stillness, focus, absorption), jhana (profound state of samhadi), nibbana (liberation of mind that cannot be reversed).­­­­­

Awareness of the manifestation, arising and disappearance of feelings.

Foundation three - mindfulness of the mind

Understanding the mind as:

  • Greedy or not.
  • Hateful or not.
  • Deluded or not.
  • Vulnerable or not.
  • Conceited or not.
  • Collected or scattered.
  • Developed or not.
  • Focused or not.
  • Liberated or not.

Awareness of the manifestation, arising and disappearance of these states of mind.

Foundation four - mindfulness of dharma categories

­­­­­­The five psychic irritants:

  1. Wordly desire
  2. Aversion
  3. Dullness and fatigue
  4. Agitation and worry
  5. Doubt (lack of confidence)

Awareness of the manifestation, the origination and disappearance of the five hindrances.

The five aggregates of clinging:

Clinging to:

  1. Material form
  2. Feelings
  3. Perceptions
  4. Thoughts, memories and emotions
  5. Consciousness

Awareness of the manifestation, the arising, and the dissolution of the five aggregates of clinging.

The six external and six internal sense bases:

  1. Eye and visual objects
  2. Ear and sounds
  3. Nose and smells
  4. Tongue and tastes
  5. Body and tangible objects
  6. Mind and mental objects

Knowledge of them, of their arising, and of their abandonment (letting go); and the future non-arising of the fetters that originate dependent on both.

The seven factors of enlightenment/awakening:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Investigation of dharma
  3. Energy and perseverance
  4. Joy
  5. Tranquility
  6. Samhadi
  7. Equanimity

Knowledge of their presence, their arising, and their development.

The four noble truths:

  1. Knowledge of suffering
  2. Of its origination
  3. Its cessation
  4. And the path that leads to the end of suffering (the noble eight-fold path)

The noble eight-fold path

  1. Right view: Use the four noble truths and the other dharma categories as a guide/tool to help one spot, prevent, abandon and uproot the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion from the mind.
  2. Right intention: The intention of letting go (renunciation); the intention of non-illwill; the intention of harmlessness (non-cruelty).
  3. Right speech: I will refrain from false speech; I will refrain from malicious/divisive speech; I will refrain from harsh speech; I will refrain from pointless/frivolous speech.
  4. Right action: I will abstain from killing any being (including myself); I will abstain from taking what is not given; I will abstain from sexual misconduct.
  5. Right livelihood: Having abandoned wrong livelihood, one continues to make one's living with right livelihood. A livelihood that does not cause harm to oneself or others.
  6. Right effort: One generates the desire for the prevention of unwholesome states of mind, by making effort, rousing energy, exerting one's mind and persevering.
    One generates the desire for the abandonment of unwholesome states of mind, by making effort, arousing energy, exerting one's mind and persevering.
    One generates the desire for the arising of wholesome states of mind, by making effort, rousing energy, exerting one's mind and persevering.
    One generates the desire for the continuance, non-disappearance, strengthening, increase, and full-development of wholesome states of mind. By making effort, arousing energy, exerting one's mind and persevering.
  7. Right mindfulness: Having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world.
    One abides contemplating the body as a body, ardent, clearly-comprehending and mindful.
    One abides contemplating feelings as feelings, ardent, clearly-comprehending and mindful.
    One abides contemplating mind as mind, ardent, clearly-comprehending and mindful.
    One abides contemplating dharma as dharma, ardent, clearly-comprehending and mindful.
  8. Right samhadi: Quite secluded from worldly pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states of mind. One lets go of the story of self and enters and abides in the first jhana. Which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, and has the rapture and happiness born from seclusion from the world and letting go.
    With the subsiding of applied and sustained thought. One enters and abides in the second jhana, which is accompanied by self-confidence and unification of mind. Is without applied and sustained thought, and has the rapture and happiness born of concentration (samhadi).
    With the fading away as well of rapture, one abides in equanimity. And mindful, clearly-comprehending, still feeling pleasure with the body. One enters and abides in the third jhana. On account of which the noble ones annouce: 'One has a pleasant abiding who has equanimity and is mindful.'
    With the letting go of pain and pleasure and the previous disappearance of sadness and joy. One enters and abides in the fourth jhana. Which has neither pleasure nor pain. And has mindfulness purified and born of equanimity.

The Buddha addressing the sangha: ' If one were to properly practise the four foundations of mindfulness for seven years; or in some cases just seven days. One of two results can be expected for that person. Either one gains final liberating knowledge here and now in this very life. Or if there is a trace of clinging remaining, in the next life one is reborn in the higher heavens and gains final liberating knowledge there. In both instances, one is never again born into this world. '


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