The Foundations of Mindfulness is the Buddha’s original manual for the training of attention. 2500 years on, it is still the most lucid and comprehensive explanation of mindfulness available to us. Both the modern mindfulness movement and 10-day Vipassana retreats draw their authority from this text. Unfortunately, almost no one nowadays reads it. The common translation is in Victorian English that is virtually indecipherable to non-experts. As a result, modern mindfulness owes more to the Zen practice of ‘Just Sitting’ and knows little about the Buddha’s more sophisticated approach.
In 1975, I translated this text into workable English and made it the basis for my personal practice and my career as a meditation teacher. The translation below comes from Chapter 12 of my recent commentary on this text (published as The Foundations of Mindfulness by The Experiment, New York, 2017). This website also includes Chapters 14 and 15 of the same book.
The Foundations of Mindfulness
When the Buddha was in the land of the Kurus, he told the monks: The systematic four-stage training of attention is the only way to overcome suffering, to purify the mind, to enter the true path and attain Enlightenment. What are these four?
The monk lives intently contemplating his body, clearly understanding and mindful of it, having abandoned all desire and aversion towards the world. Likewise he lives examining his emotions, his states of mind and his thought. He lives alone, reliant on no-one, attached to nothing in the world.
Mindfulness of the Body (Kaya)
How does a monk live contemplating the body? He goes to the forest, to the foot of a tree or to an empty hut. He sits down cross-legged, holds his body erect and focuses on the breath in front of himself.
Mindfully he breathes in and mindfully he breathes out. When inhaling a long breath, he thinks: “I am inhaling a long breath.” When exhaling a long breath, he thinks: “I am exhaling a long breath.” Likewise, he knows when he is breathing in or out a short breath. He is like a skilled turner who knows when he is making a long or short turn on the lathe.
He trains himself thinking: “Conscious of the whole body, I breathe in. Conscious of the whole body I breathe out. Calming the whole body, I breathe in. Calming the whole body I breathe out.”
He carefully observes his own body and the bodies of others. He observes how bodily sensations arise and pass away, and what causes them to do so. He focuses on his body solely for the purpose of understanding its true nature. And he lives alone, reliant on no-one, attached to nothing in this world.
Furthermore when walking a monk thinks: “I am walking.” When standing, he thinks: “I am standing.” Likewise he knows when he is sitting or lying down. He calms his breathing and his body in each of these postures.
He is equally mindful when coming and going; when looking forward or around him; when bending and stretching; when wearing his robes and carrying his bowl; when eating, drinking, chewing and tasting; when defecating and urinating; when walking, standing, sitting and lying down; when falling asleep and waking up; when talking and remaining silent.
He surveys his body upwards from the soles of his feet, or downwards from the hairs of his head. He examines the thirty-two constituent parts of the body and sees them all as repulsive. He analyses the body in terms of the four elements. If possible, he will examine a corpse throughout the nine stages of decay, thinking: “My body is just like that one and cannot escape its fate.” In these ways a monk contemplates the nature of the body.
Mindfulness of Emotion (Vedana)
How does a monk observe the valences of phenomena? When he experiences a pleasant feeling, he knows: ‘This is pleasant.’ When he experiences an unpleasant feeling, he knows: ‘This is unpleasant.’ He also recognises those valences that are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Likewise, he is aware of the positive, negative and neutral valences that accompany thoughts.
He carefully observes how valences arise and how they pass away, and what causes them to do so. He observes this both in himself and in others. He pays attention to valences solely for the purpose of understanding their true nature. And he lives alone, reliant on no-one, attached to nothing in this world.
Mindfulness of States of Mind (Citta)
How does a monk contemplate his states of mind? He recognises the mind that is caught in desire and the mind free of desire. He recognises the mind that is caught in anger and the mind free of anger. He recognises the mind that is caught in delusion and the mind free of delusion. He recognises the shrunken mind and the distracted mind; the undeveloped mind and the supreme mind; the restless mind and the settled mind; the mind that is not free and the liberated mind.
He carefully observes how these states of mind arise and pass away, and what causes them to do so. He observes this both in himself and in others. And he lives alone, reliant on no-one, attached to nothing in this world.
He lives observing The Five Hindrances. When his mind is caught in Desire, he knows: “This is Desire.” When his mind is free of Desire, he knows: “This is the mind free of Desire.” He carefully observes how desire arises and passes away, and what causes it to do so. He learns how to extinguish desire when it arises, and how to prevent it arising in the future.
In the same manner, he examines the four other Hindrances, namely Anger, Lethargy, Anxiety and Despair. He sees how they arise and pass away, and what causes them to do so. He learns how to extinguish them when they arise, and how to prevent them arising in the future.
He lives observing The Seven Factors of Enlightenment. When he is Mindful, he knows it. When he is not Mindful, he knows it. He carefully observes how mindfulness comes and goes, and what causes it to do so. He learns how to strengthen mindfulness when it is present, and how to bring it forth when it is not present.
Likewise, he contemplates the other Factors of Enlightenment. He carefully observes how Investigation, Energy, Bliss, Stillness, Absorption and Equanimity arise and pass away, and what causes them to do so. He learns how to strengthen each one of these qualities when it is present, and how to bring it forth when it is not present.
He carefully observes how the Seven Factors of Enlightenment arise and pass away, and what causes them to do so. He observes this both in himself and in others. And he lives alone, reliant on no-one, attached to nothing in this world.
Mindfulness of Thought (Dhamma)
How does a monk live fully conscious and in control of his thoughts? He contemplates the five aggregate parts that make up his sense of self. He understands how the body, perceptions, feelings, action tendencies and consciousness arise and pass away. He investigates how attachment occurs through the contact of sense organs and sense objects, and understands how to break free from that attachment.
The monk reflects on The Four Noble Truths that lead to Nirvana. He understands by direct experience that: “Life is suffering. The cause of suffering is desire. Desire can be extinguished. The Eightfold Path of training extinguishes desire and leads to the end of suffering.”
Anyone who practices these four Foundations of Mindfulness for seven years or seven months or even seven days may expect one of two outcomes: complete enlightenment in this life or, if some trace of clinging to the world still remains, no rebirth after death.
The systematic four-stage training of attention is the only way to overcome suffering, to purify the mind, to enter the true path and attain Enlightenment.