The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
A Talk Given at the Buddha Saasana Yeikthaa
Severn Bridge, Ontario, Canada
by Venerable Sayadaw U Siilaananda
The opening Passage from the Mahaasatipa.t.thaana Sutta:
"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 Nibbaana, namely, the Four Foundations of
"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 Vipassanaa 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 Paa.li Canon. The instructions given at Vipassanaa
retreats are all based on the Mahaasatipa.t.thaana 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 Paa.li word for this translation is "Ekaayano".
"Ekaayano" is composed of two parts, "eka" and "ayana".
Ayana means way, path or road, and eka means one. So, ekaayano 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 Nibbaana. 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 Nibbaana. 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 Nibbaana, 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
"ekaayano", 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
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
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 Nibbaana
directly, seeing Nibbaana face to face, at the same time. As a person practices Vipassanaa
meditation and progresses from one stage to another, to higher and higher stages, as the
result of this Vipassanaa 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 Nibbaana 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 Nibbaana 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
Nibbaana as object.
"This is the only way for the realization of Nibbaana". 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 Nibbaana as
object, that is when he/she is said to have realized Nibbaana. So, reaching the Noble Path
and realization of Nibbaana 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 Nibbaana, 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 Paa.li word "sati". This
discourse is called, "Satipa.t.thaana" 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 Paa.li word "satipa.t.thaana" 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 Vipassanaa
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 Vipassanaa 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 Vipassanaa 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 Vipassanaa 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
Paa.li word "aataapii".
Sometimes we lose something when we translate from one language to
another. The word "aataapii" comes from the word "aataapa".
"AAtaapa" 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 "aataapa" in Paa.li
and one who has aataapa is called aataapii, the "ii" denoting possession. So one
who possesses aataapa is called aataapii. When we read the Sutta in Paa.li and when we
read the word aataapii 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 aataapii 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 "aataapii"
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
aataapii in the Paa.li 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 Paa.li 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
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
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, Vipassanaa or Satipa.t.thaana 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 Paa.li 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 Paa.li. They are called latencies or anusayas in Paa.li, 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
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, Vipassanaa or mindfulness practice removes mental
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 Vipassanaa the covetousness and grief are removed in
that way. You get out of Vipassanaa 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 jhaanas. When a person gets jhaanas, or
experiences jhaanas, 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 Paa.li 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
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 Vipassanaa 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 Vipassanaa.
Vipassanaa can achieve only these two kinds of removal -- momentary
removal and temporary removal. But Vipassanaa 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 Paa.li 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
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 Paa.li 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
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 Vipassanaa 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 Vipassanaa 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
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 Vipassanaa. What is important in Vipassanaa 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 Vipassanaa. If you practice
Vipassanaa you must see these three characteristics because the word
"Vipassanaa" 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 Mahaa Satipa.t.thaana
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
Venerable Sayadaw U Siilaananda
Source: Tathagata Meditation Center, San Jose, California,