“Bhikkhus, this is the only way for the purification of beings, for overcoming sorrow and lamentation, for the cessation of physical and mental pain, for attainment of the Noble Paths, and for the realization of Nibbana. That is, the four satipatthanas.”
(The Buddha, in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta)
The four foundations, or focuses, of mindfulness are known as cattari satipatthana in Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism. They are extensively described in two discourses (suttas) of the Buddha in the Tipitaka (Buddhist Scriptures): the Satipatthana Sutta and the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. ( ‘Maha’ means ‘larger’ in this context, as it is slightly longer than the other version of the discourse.) The four satipatthanas are:
- Contemplation of the body
- Contemplation of feelings
- Contemplation of the mind
- Contemplation of mind objects
In exploring the four satipatthanas, we have an experienced guide with us. His name is Ajahn Brahm, and he’s been a Buddhist monk for over three decades. He has described himself as a “meditation junkie”. He also emphasizes the importance of jhana (meditative absorption) in meditation practice. There are four levels of jhana, as taught by the Buddha, which enable increasing levels of concentration to be developed, which in turn supply what Ajahn Brahm calls the “superpower mindfulness” necessary for such progress.
In the two suttas mentioned above, the Buddha began by describing the various aspects of the body that can be used for this practice. Bear in mind that not every meditator is expected to fully develop all of the following reflections, but to use at least one of them in conjunction with the other three types of satipatthana. There are fourteen different bodily functions for contemplation in the two suttas, which are the breath, posture, activity, composition, the four elements, and nine kinds of corpse.
Ajahn Brahm has taught that the various contemplations of the body reveal the impersonal nature of the body, that it is subject to natural laws rather than our whims, getting old, sick and eventually dying. Reflecting on the thirty-two parts of the body, for instance, shows the reality of the human form as a collection of various parts, not a person. (For more on this focus of mindfulness, click this link: Buddhism by Numbers: 32 Parts of the Body.)
Contemplation of feeling involves reflecting on pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings, whether mental or physical. As Ajahn Brahm has pointed out, qualities such as being beautiful, ugly, melodious, unmelodious, etc. aren’t inherent in things, but are our feelings towards them. (Otherwise, everyone would agree who is the most beautiful woman in the world, and there would be many disappointed wives around!)
Mind contemplation is observing the mind (citta) as it is, without the distractions of the five physical senses. Ajahn Brahm insists that this is to be done after jhana is achieved, so that the deep level of focus required to penetrate the nature of the mind is present. The forest ajahn compares a mind distracted by the physical senses with a fully-clothed person that has every inch of their body covered – if you want to see them as they really are then all their clothes must be removed first! Only then will they be revealed, and only when the mind has let go of physical distractions will it be able to be seen as it is.
The fourth satipatthana is that of mind objects. Those taught by the Buddha are the five hindrances, the five aggregates, the six senses, the seven enlightenment factors, and the Four Noble Truths. Other subjects for focusing mindfulness on are thoughts and emotions, according to Ajahn Brahm and other forest ajahns. Using superpower mindfulness gained through jhanic meditation, these various mental phenomena can be viewed as not self (anatta). The five aggregates, for instance, can be seen as forms, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness, none of which consist of a self. This is the enlightenment of the Buddha, to see beyond the delusion of self, understanding life as it is, rather than as we interpret it.