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The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Part 1

A practitioner who wishes to attain the state of omniscient Buddha has to travel along five spiritual paths. The first of these five spiritual paths are 'tsog lam' in Tibetan, which means “the path of accumulation.” On this path is the practice of the four foundations of mindfulness. Most practitioners belong to this path.

While we are still traveling on the path of accumulation, we must understand what the main practice is. If you do not understand the practice on the path of accumulation, you will be to trying to climb a rock without hands. This is tremendously risky, and it is obvious that such a person should not attempt to climb a mountain. If you do not properly understand the practice, do not do it.

The four wrong views and the four right views that we discussed yesterday have a very close connection with the teaching on the four foundations of mindfulness. Based on our physical existence and our feelings, on our mind and the content of our mind, we develop discursive thoughts and conflicting emotions. During the practice of the four foundations of mindfulness, we utilize the intelligent mind, the sword of wisdom, to penetrate the reality of the physical existence as well as feeling, mind, the content of mind, and phenomena to arrive at the actual nature of these realities.

The cultivation of the four foundations of mindfulness leans more towards the practice of vipashyana rather than shamatha. These days, many Buddhist practitioners practice the four foundations of mindfulness and experience a diminished impact of the conflicting emotions. If you grasp the meaning of the practice of the four foundations of mindfulness and implement them in your training, you will be transformed.

Living beings are tremendously attached to and possessive of their physical existence. But we are not able to cultivate that much love and compassion about to the physical existence of others. This is why we don’t refer to this attachment as compassionate and loving – it is an attachment towards one’s own physical existence without regard for that of others.

Attachment distinguished oneself from others; compassion bridges the gap between oneself and others. Peace and joy cannot arise in a mind that distinguishes itself from others. The mind that divides the reality into self and others experiences misery and other sorts of turmoil. Therefore, it is essential to cultivate the compassion that does not distinguish between oneself and others.

The first of the four foundations of mindfulness is mindfulness of our physical body. Here we need to realize that our own physical existence is impermanent. It is empty, without self, and has a suffering nature. We should not fixate on our own body as if the body is permanent, with a self, and having a happy nature.

In the beginning you should relax one’s body, and then you should try to turn your mind inwards and observe your physical existence with mindfulness. If you cannot observe your own physical existence because of discursive thoughts, try to release these disturbing emotions with the practice of the breath awareness. You can practice breath awareness five or ten times. If the discursive thoughts persist, you should further practice breath awareness and then if attachment is still very strong, you can meditate on the aspect of ugliness.

If there is a strong disturbing emotion of hatred, you should mediate on the law of interdependent origination. If there is a strong disturbing emotion of ignorance, you should mediate on the interdependent origination. Your mind is not hidden from you; therefore you should identify what kind of disturbing feeling is the strongest and apply the appropriate antidote.

It is hard to accept that we are victims of disturbing emotions. We might deny this, and therefore it becomes very difficult to feel remorse when we have done something wrong. If we do not undertake the practice of confession and develop a sense of regret, then purification of bad actions and disturbing emotions cannot take place. Human beings hide their bad qualities and display their admirable ones.

While we practice, whatever disturbing emotion becomes dominant, we should try to eliminate. It is futile to wage a war without knowing who the enemy is. One will not be able to defeat an enemy in such a manner. In the beginning, it is to be important to recognize and accept the disturbing emotions when they arise, and on the basis on this, try to practice the antidotes to eliminate them.

During the practice of mindfulness of one’s body it is essential to look carefully at one’s body. We fixate on our body as something being extremely clean. But don’t take a bath for three days, and you will come to know the state of your body. It will be smelly. From this perspective is there is not much sense in generating attachment to one’s body.

We also assume that the nature of our body is health, but in reality the body is suffering. The Buddha says that our body does not transcend the three levels of misery: the misery of misery, the misery of change, and the all-pervasive misery. Fixation upon our body’s cleanliness and healthiness is inconsistent with its fundamental nature.

Similarly, we insist that our body is permanent. It is strange that we regard our body as permanent, because it is impermanent, and even if we know this we still latch onto it as if it will last. If our body is not permanent, it must be impermanent; therefore it will go through constant change, and hence it does not make sense to be possessive of and attached to the body.

When one meditates on the impermanence of one’s physical existence, one should meditate on the body as a collection of grosser limbs consisting of more subtle components; these components are themselves conglomerations of many atomic particles. One should then dissect these atomic particles until one arrives at the partless particle.

It is wrong to hold onto the notion of a self. This self does not exist with regard to the body of one self or others. This is how it is. Our notion of the self is based on our own body. The body is taught to be single. Hence, when we talk about self, we think of the self as one, since the body is one. When you meditate on the mindfulness on the body, you can contemplate the Bodhicharyavatara, which says, “the head is not the body, the arms are not the body, the nose is not the body" and so forth. Through a process of negating one’s body one finally concludes that there is actually no body to be discovered. Then one simply allows one’s mind to rest in the state of not finding one’s own body.

In this way, you should look profoundly into your body and try to see its impermanent nature. In the same way, you should try to understand the suffering nature of your own body, the emptiness of your body, and the no-self nature of your body. If you attain all these understandings concerning your body, you will achieve the insight of the vipashyana meditation.

It is vital to distill the essence of all teachings that you have heard and put them into practice. When you involve yourself with dharma or meditation practice, it is important to remember that you should strike a balance between excessive tension and excessive relaxation. It is therefore recommended to alternate analytical meditation and concentrative meditation. If you practice only concentrative meditation there is a risk of falling asleep. When you feel drowsy you should switch to analytical meditation. If you begin to feel a headache or some kind of tension while you are doing analytical meditation, you should switch to concentrative meditation. It is very good to alternate between these two meditations.

The second of the four foundations of mindfulness is the mindfulness of feeling. The Buddha chose meditation on the mindfulness of feeling because human beings use their feelings to quarrel with each other. For example, most people like to feel healthy and happy for themselves, but are happy to inflict sorrow and miseries upon others. This happens between countries, religious traditions, races, and families.
Our fixation on feelings is the source of disputes, but when the Buddha looked for the existence of feeling, he could not find it. Instead, Buddha discovered impermanence and emptiness. But most living beings perceive feeling as permanent and real. Because of this, problems like quarrels, disputes, and wars arise.

If we get some soar, then merely dealing with the soar will not be very useful, but if we find the cause of the soar and do something, we will be able to prevent the soar from recurring. If we try to do something about disputes, wars, and quarrels, our effort will not be very active, whereas if we remove to the source of the conflict or controversy, then we can prevent future wars and quarrels.

If feeling were truly existent, then it should truly exist either in the objective phenomena or in the subjective mind. Consider three different people meeting a fourth person. One person might like the fourth; another might not; the third might not care one way or the other. This shows that these feeling cannot be found independently in one single person. Similarly, a single dish taste different ways to different people. The same applies to clothes. Also, some people have higher standards of cleanliness than others.

A Tibetan story described about a man who fell in love with a woman. This man asked his friend, “Is my girlfriend truly pretty or not?” His friend replied, “No, your girlfriend is not pretty.” The man argued, “When you look at my girlfriend from where you are standing, is you are not able to see her beauty, but if you were to saw her through my eyes, you would see her the way I do.” Objective reality does not possess attributes such as cleanliness, filthiness, happiness or sorrow; rather, these attributes are created by the subjective mind.

Buddha said that sentient beings of the six realms of existence can perceive one reality in six different ways. Forget about the perception of the creatures in the six different realms, even within in the single sphere of humans we have a vast difference in perception. For example, when the sun shines on my mother, then the sun has no conception of her as a mother, whereas when my father looks at my mother, he has the notion of a wife.

Feelings do not truly exist with regard to objective phenomena. We need to understand that feelings are devoid of true existence, gain certainty and implement it our practice. Do you doubt that feelings are empty? You should not let your doubt remain, because otherwise you will not be able to enter into the depth of meditation. You should try overcoming the doubt. With a doubtless mind you are able to perform miracles. If you develop doubt when you want to jump across a small brook, you will probably land in the middle of it. The doubt will sap your strength and confidence, whereas if you have a very trusting mind when you leap, you will make it to the other side. This is because a trusting mind generates confidence. We should have confidence that we are able to meditate, and that we are able to enter into the depth of meditation.

Many teachings on meditation have been expounded. Meditation should correspond to reality. We do not meditate on something that does not correspond to the reality. It is not required to meditate on something that is false or unreal, because such meditations are performed on a regular basis. For example, we meditate regularly on permanence, or on the self.

We have been meditating on four wrong views for a long time. Because of this, we have managed to create the evolution of the samsaric existence. Here we are trying to meditate on the four correct views that act as an antidote for wrong views, leaving behind the samsaric existence and arriving at nirvana.

It is difficult for busy householders to attain a very profound experience of meditation, but upon hearing teachings and attempting to meditate, they will gain some transformation. During a solitary retreat, we leave behind telephones, TV, and all activities. The meditation practice will then create peace of mind and joy.

If a car is driven, it will move. But if the car is left as it is, it will not move. The five senses can be compared to drivers, the sixth sense, the consciousness, can be compared to the car. A car cannot be driven by many drivers at the same time, but we are driven by five drivers. This is why there are constant accidents. Laughter. When accidents occur and create “inner accidents,” these inner accidents create more complications. Then the police, mental pain and unhappiness will arrive.

In the beginning, when we hear and study the teaching, we have to consider many elaborate instructions, but when it comes down to the practice of meditation, we should simplify these teachings so that the meditation practice can have an affect our being.

Later today I will teach you yoga. The practice of the yoga should be followed by practice of breath awareness. You can count your breath for five, ten or fifteen times. The practice of the breath awareness should be followed by the practice of the first of the four foundations of mindfulness. There are six types of breath awareness. The simplest is to ride the breath. As you exhale, the awareness runs parallel with the breath, same with inhaling. In this way, the breath is constantly embraced by your awareness. Breath awareness can be done five times in the beginning. When you succeed in doing this without becoming distracted, you can double it to ten.

Do you have any questions?

Question: I am wondering about the first mindfulness, the suffering nature of the body. Do you refer to illness and death? Isn’t suffering created in mind?

If there is physical suffering, you need to contemplate your body. If there is mental suffering, then you need to consider the mind.

Question: If you have pain in your body, should you tolerate the pain?

When there is a pain in a certain part of your body, you should try not to focus on that pain; you should focus on the wholeness of your body. If you focus on the pain, the pain may worsen.

Once, a Tibetan was struck by an eye disease. He went to consult a physician, but helping vain. Then he went to another physician who said, “Actually there is no eye disease at all, you do not need to worry. My diagnosis shows that you have a problem with you stomach. If you don’t take care of your stomach you can get serious problems. ” After a while his eye disease was completely cured because he was more worried about his stomach.

Another example will be when you receive a hard massage to relieve a headache. While the masseur presses your head , the hard rubbing on the head is followed by a tremendous relief. This comes from the pain created by the masseur.

Question: But is it not suppression if you try to focus on something else instead of your pain?.

One can also observe the pain in one’s body, but this must be done without fixation, and without hope and fear. Then it is okay. But it is actually better to focus upon the wholeness of one’s body. But as long as there is no expectation, there is no problem observing the pain. But this is difficult to put into practice when one experiences severe pain and illness. It is easy to talk about these things, but difficult to do.

Question: Can you describe the path of accumulation more specifically?

During the path of accumulation one is involved in practices that allow us to accumulate a lot of merits.

Question: Is it not easy to become self-centered when you do this?

The path of accumulation, especially in the practice of the Mahayana, is not done for your welfare. It is done to bring about good for all sentient beings. Therefore there is no question of self-interest.

It is essential to recognize the actual path one is on. If we are on the path of accumulation, we should realize this, and accumulate merit and the practice of the four foundations of mindfulness.

The second is the path of application, also called the path of linking. It link us to the third path: the path of insight. On the path of linking, one attains the most purified mind. The mind is on the verge of becoming wise.

On the path of insight, one gains insight into the ultimate reality. The next path is the fourth path: the path of meditation. On this path, one familiarizes oneself with the insight that was gained on the third path. The fifth path is the path of no more learning. When one enters the path of no more learning, one attains the state of Buddhahood. The five paths are the 37 aspects of the bodhisattva path, so the four foundations of mindfulness belong to the 37 aspects of practices of the bodhisattva.

Shall we do yoga outside?

Oslo, June 2005

Translated by Lama Changchub at Karma Tashi Ling Buddhist Centre, Norway