Buddha on the Life Changing Practice of Mindfulness

Art by Himalayan Art Resources

“Whoever, mendicants, should practice these four foundations of mindfulness for just one week may expect one of two results: either complete deliverance in this life or, if there is a residue of clinging, the state of a non-returner.”

On one occasion, the Buddha was staying in the Kuru kingdom near a marketplace called Khammasadhamma. The Kuru kingdom was the center of Vedic culture and the dominant political and cultural center of the area. The local culture was committed to brahmanic rituals and rites of purification and the society maintained a strict social hierarchy. The marketplace would have been filled with artisans working on their craft, traders doing business, and local religious and political leaders lobbying for power and control. It was a culture not much different than our own.

At that time and in that place, the Buddha spoke to his disciples about the practice of mindfulness, teaching what is known as the Mahāsatipatṭhāna Sutta, the Great Sutra on the Foundations of Mindfulness. This work of his revealed the core practice of mindfulness, which is central to the Buddha’s teachings and a core principle of living life according to the Dharma.

The practice of mindfulness is for those practitioners who are committed to living mindfully in order to realize inner freedom. It is a practice to overcome busyness and distraction, teaching us to let go of preoccupations and focus the mind in the present. This practice of being mindful and aware frees us from suffering, fear and anxiety, giving us the capacity to be present and engaged, to look deeply and discover the insight needed to transform our life and the world around us. Accessible and relevant to the modern world, this teaching reveals four qualities of the mind necessary for embarking on a lifetime of practice. This practical yet profound practice teaches us how to maintain mindfulness of the body, how to experience sense perceptions and the influences of the inner and outer world, how to recognize thoughts and various mental states, and how to carry mindfulness through the varieties of our lived experience.

In the Digha Nikaya, the Long Discourses of the Buddha, the Buddha taught the practice of the foundations of mindfulness.

There is, mendicants, this one way to the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and distress, for the disappearance of pain and sadness, for the gaining of the right path, for the realization of Nirvana- that is to say the four foundations of mindfulness.

During the Buddha’s time, the local culture would have been obsessed with purifying the body, improving its condition and making it more pleasing for the sake of everyday concerns. They would have yearned for a way to purify their minds of negative thoughts and mental states, reaching out to their local Brahmin for a method of cleansing the mind and spirit. In this regard, ancient India is not much different than our own modern day world. People are always looking for an easy fix to their problems. People spend countless resources on ways to cleanse the body and make it healthier. They seek out methods that all promise to lead to happiness and a life of meaning and purpose. Celebrities of the moment all have the solution of the day available to you.

Knowing the local culture and the concerns of his audience, the Buddha taught the foundations of mindfulness as the single authentic way to purify our own body, speech and mind. He taught the practice of mindfulness as the only way to overcome sorrow and distress, pain and sadness. This single practice sets us out on the right path, on the path of inner freedom.

Here, mendicants, a mendicant abides contemplating body as body, ardent, clearly aware and mindful, having put aside hankering and fretting for the world. She abides contemplating feelings as feelings; she abides contemplating mind as mind; she abides contemplating phenomena as phenomena, ardent, clearly aware and mindful, having put aside hankering and fretting for the world.

Four Qualities for Engaging in the Practice

The Buddha taught that when we are contemplating these foundations of mindfulness, we should be ardent, clearly aware, mindful and put aside any hankering and fretting for the world. These four qualities are essential if our practice is to be fruitful.

Ardent (Pali. Ātāpī) means to burn. It is to be passionate and enthusiastic about the task at hand. One who is not ardent lacks energy. Thus, the Buddha taught that to engage in the practice of mindfulness we need to be passionate about our work. Who among us is passionate about the work they do?

Amateurs are passionate, to be an amateur is ‘to love’. Amateurs are curious and have lots of questions, and the answers to those questions lead to more questions resulting in a constant state of wonder. Approaching the practice with a beginners mind, we are fueled by wonder and fascination. Amateurs are passionate enough to do the work it takes to orientate themselves to the worlds in which they inquire. Their passion allows them to build the framework necessary to explore deeper. Their passion carries them beyond the superficial layers, it fosters depth and the depth feeds the passion. Passion coupled with orientation, a framework for exploration and the ability to see deeper are the prerequisites for becoming an expert. Being ardent, we start as amateurs in the practice and end up as masters.

Clearly aware (Skt. samprajanya) is a vigilant awareness that is fully alert to the present moment. The Buddha describes this vigilant awareness in the Satipatthanasamyutta:

And how, mendicants, does a mendicant exercise clear comprehension? Here, mendicants, for a mendicant feelings are understood as they arise, understood as the remain present, understood as they pass away. Thoughts are understood as they arise; perceptions are understood as they arise…It is in this way, mendicants, that a mendicant exercises clear comprehension.

Being clearly aware means being present in a non-reactive and non-judgemental way. It is like a watchmen in the tower, looking out over his domain, knowing who is coming and going. It is sharp, attentive and focused.

The next quality of the mind that must be developed is mindfulness itself. Mindful in this sense means to be mindful of the object of our intention. Attention follows intention, so we need to be clear about what we are being mindful of. Once we have set a clear intention, mindfulness maintains our attention on that focus. When the mind wanders and becomes distracted, mindfulness brings us back. Mindfulness can be described as a rope that ties a monkey to a stake. As the monkey of the mind moves and jumps around, the rope always brings the monkey back.

The last quality of the mind required for this practice is to put aside hankering and fretting for this world. Set aside your attachment and aversion, your craving and fixation. Remain in a state free from judgment and speculation. Let go of reactions to whatever is coming up in your experience, simply maintain the continuity of mindfulness and vigilant awareness with curiosity and enthusiasm.

Cultivating these four mental qualities of being ardent, clearly aware, mindful and setting aside our reactions to our experience, we can move through each of the four foundations of mindfulness, contemplating the body as body, feelings as feelings, mind as mind, and phenomena as phenomena; simply being aware of our experience in a non-reactive and non-judgemental way.

These four qualities of mind are the way in which we engage in the practice of mindfulness. Next time, we will look into the practice as it pertains to contemplating one’s own body, feelings, mind and experience.