Notes on the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness

The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, and the Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone are three extremely important discourses of the Buddha and are fundamental to the practice of meditation; they refer to mindfulness practice as the main gate to awakening. The 4 methods are: 1. mindfulness of body, 2. mindfulness of feelings, 3. mindfulness of the mind, 4. mindfulness of the objects of the mind (dharmas).

In the Establishment known as the body, the practitioner is fully aware of the body, the various parts of the body, the four elements that comprise the body, and the decomposition of the body as a corpse.

In the Establishment known as the feelings, the practitioner is fully aware of pleasant, painful, and neutral feelings as they arise, endure, and disappear. He is aware of the feelings which have a psychological basis and feelings which have a physiological basis.

In the Establishment known as the mind, the practitioner is fully aware of states of mind such as desire, hatred, confusion, concentration, dispersion, internal formations, and liberation.

In the Establishment known as the objects of mind, the practioner is fully aware of the 5 aggregates which comprises a person (form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness; the sense organs and their objects, the factors which can obstruct understanding and liberation, the factors which lead to Awakening, and the Four Noble Truths concerning suffering and the release from suffering.

The word satipatthana (Sanskrit: smrtyupasthana) is a compound of sati which means “mindfulness” or “remembering” and upatthana which means “place of abiding,” “establishment, or “application.”

Body, Feelings, Mind, and Objects of Mind

Methods of Practice

To practice meditation is to look deeply in order to see into the essence of things. Due to our insight and understanding we can realize liberation, peace, and joy. Our anger, anxiety, and fear, are the ropes that bind us to suffering and if we want to be liberated from them we need to observe their nature, which is ignorance, the lack of clear understanding. When we misunderstand a friend, we may become angry at him, and because of that we suffer but when we understand the other person and his situation then our suffering disappears and peace and joy arise.

The first step is awarenss of the object and the second step is looking deeply at the object to shed light on it, therefore mindfulness means awareness but also looking deeply.

The Pali word, sati, (Sanskrit: smrti) means “to stop” and “to maintain awareness of the object.” The Pali word vipassana (Sanskrit: vipasyana) means “to go deeply into that object to observe it.” While we are fully aware of and observing deeply and object the boundary between the subject who observes and the object being observed gradually dissolves, and the subject and object become one. This is the essence of meditation. Only when we penetrate the object and become one with it can we understand it. That is why the sutra reminds us to be aware of the body in the body, the feelings in the feelings, the mind in the mind, and the objects of mind in the objects of mind.

Mindfully Observing the Body

Establishment of mindfulness in the body includes the breath, the positions of the body, the actions of the body, the parts of the body, the four elements of which the body is composed and the dissolution of the body.


“He goes to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty room, sits down cross-legged in the lotus position, holds his body straight, and establishes mindfulness in front of him. he breathes in, aware that he is breathing in. He breathes out, aware that he is breathings out.”

The first practice is full awareness of breathing. To succeed, we must put our whole mind into our breath and nowhere else. As we follow our in-breath, for example, we need to be watchful of distracting thoughts. As soon as the thought, “I forgot to turn off the light in the kitchen” arises our breathing is no longer conscious breathing as we are thinking of something else. We must stay focused on the entire length of each breath. As we breathe our mind is ONE with our breath and as this happens we understand the meaning of mindfulness of the body in the body.

This practice is valuable because:

1. Conscious breathing aids us in returning to ourselves. In everyday life we get lost in forgetfulness and our mind chases after thousands of things and we rarely take time to come back to ourselves. When we are aware of our breath we come back to ourselves, we feel the warmth of our heart and we find ourselves again.

2. The second result of conscious breathing is that we come into contact with life in the present moment, the only moment when we can touch life. We should not be imprisoned by the past or future. When we follow our breathing we are already at ease. As we breathe consciously, our breath becomes more regular, and peace and joy arise and become more stable with every moment. Relying on our breathing we come back to ourselves and are able to restore the oneness of our body and mind. This integration allows us to be in real contact with what is happening in the present moment, which is the essence of life.


“When he breathes in a long breath, he knows, ‘I am breathing in a long breath.’ When he breathes out a long breath, he knows, ‘I am breathing out a long breath.’ When he breathes in a short breath, he knows, ‘I am breathing in a short breath.’ When he breathes out a short breath, he knows, ‘I am breathing out a short breath.'”

The practitioner follows his breathing very closely and becomes one with his breathing for the entire length of the breath, not allowing any stray thought or idea to enter. This method is called, “following the breath.” While the mind is following the breath, the mind IS the breath and only the breath. During the process of this practice, our breathing becomes more regular, harmonious, and calm, and our mind also becomes more and more regular, harmonious, and calm and this brings feelings of joy, peace and ease in the body.


“Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body.”

In this practice you use the breath to bring the body and mind into harmony. The object of our mindfulness is no longer simply the breath, but the whole body itself, as it is unified with the breath. The practitioner should use breathing to bring body and mind together as one, so the object of concentration is simultaneously body, mind, and breath–total integration. In our daily lives we often find our mind and body separated


“Breathing in, I calm the activities of my body. Breathing out, I calm the activities of my body.”

This is a continuation of the third practice and uses the breath to realize peace and calm in our whole body. When our body is not at peace then our mind will have difficulty being at peace. Our in-breaths and out-breaths should flow smoothly and lightly. Our breath should be light, smooth and not audible. The more subtle our breath the more peaceful will be our body and mind. When we breathe in we can feel the breath entering our body and calming our cells and when we breathe out we feel the exhalation taking with it all our tiredness, irritation, and anxiety.  We can recite this gatha as we breathe: Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.

The essence of meditation practice is to come back to and dwell in the present moment and to observe what is happening in the present moment. “A wonderful moment” means that the practitioner can see the wonders of life in her body, mind, and breathing can make the feelings of peace and happiness stable and strong. We should also strive to renew ourselves in each moment and become fresh.


“Moreover when a practitioner walks, he is aware, ‘I am walking.’ When he is standing, he is aware, ‘I am standing.’ When he is sitting, he is aware, ‘I am sitting.’ When he is lying down, he is aware, ‘I am lying down.’ In whatever position his body happens to be, he is aware of the position of his body.

Meditation is not just practiced in the meditation hall but all day long to help the practitioner remain in mindfulness. Before beginning any kind of walking meditation, you can recite this gatha: The mind can go in a thousand directions, But on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, a gentle wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms. When you sit you can recite: Sitting here is like sitting under the Bodhi tree. My body is mindfulness itself, entirely free from distraction. We can use our breathing in order to be aware of the positions of sitting and standing.


“Moreover, when the practitioner is going forward or backward, he applies full awareness to his going forward or backward. When he looks in front or looks behind, he bends down or stands up; he also applies full awareness to what he is doing. He applies full awareness to wearing the sanghati robe or carrying the alms bowl. When he eats or drinks, chews or savors the food, he applies full awareness to all this. When passing excrement or urinating, he applies full awareness to this. When he walks, stands, lies down, sits, sleeps or wakes up, speaks or is silent, he shines his awareness on all this.”

This practice is the observation and awareness of the actions of the body. Practicing breathing in combination with reciting a gatha helps us dwell more easily in mindfulness. Mindfulness makes every action of our body more serene, and we become masters of our body and mind, it nurtures the power of concentration in us. Many gathas in “Gathas for Everyday Use” a text by Chinese master Du Ti were taken from the Avatamsaka Sutra. Without mindfulness our actions are often hurried and abrupt.


“Further, the practitioner meditates on his very own body from the soles of the feet upwards and then from the hair on top of the head downwards, a body contained inside the skin and full of all the impurities which belong to the body: ‘Here is the hair of the head, the hairs on the body, the nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, bowels, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, mucus, synovic fluid, urine.'”

This exercise brings us into even deeper contact with our body. We use conscious breathing in order to observe mindfully all parts of the body. “Breathing in, I am aware of the hair on my head. Breathing out, I know that this is the hair on my head.” Why do we need to observe in mindfulness the different parts of the body? To establish harmony with our bodies. If our body is not happy then we are not happy. You should touch each part of your body with love. The second reason for mindfully observing the different parts of the body is that each part can be a door to liberation and awakening. Observing the interdependent nature of a single hair can help you to see into the nature of the universe.


“Further, in whichever position his body happens to be, the practitioner passes in review the elements which constitute the body: ‘In this body is the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element.'”

This practice shows the interrelationship of our body and all that is in the universe. It is one of the principal ways of witnessing for ourselves the nonself, unborn, and never-dying nature of all that is. We should be aware of the presence of earth, water, fire, and air elements in our body.


The Nine Contemplations (nine stages of decomposition of a corpse):

1.    The corpse is bloated, blue, and festering.

2.    The corpse is crawling with insects and worms. Crows, hawks, vultures, and wolves are tearing it apart to eat.

3.    All that is left is a skeleton with some flesh and blood still clinging to it.

4.    All that is left is a skeleton with some blood stains, but no more flesh.

5.    All that is left is a skeleton with no more blood stains.

6.    All that is left is a collection of scattered bones—here and arm, here a shin, here a skull, and so forth.

7.    All that is left is a collection of bleached bones.

8.    All that is left is a collection of dried bones.

9.    The bones have decomposed, and only a pile of dust is left.

The practitioner observes mindfully in order to see the corpse at each of these stages and to see that it is inevitable that his or her own body will pass through the same stages. Its intention is to help us see how precious life is; not to make us pessimistic, but to help us see the impermanent nature of life so that we do not waste our life. When we see the impermanent nature of things we appreciate their true value. The 9 contemplations help us see the preciousness of life. They teach us how to live lightly and freshly, without being caught by attachments and aversions. The Buddha because he was not attached to things, lived in peace, joy, and freedom with a healthy and fresh vigor. He always had a smile on his lips and his presence created a fresh atmosphere around him.

Mindfully Observing Feelings


The purpose of this exercise is to bring about ease, peace, and joy; to heal the wounds of the body as well as of the heart and mind; to nourish us as we grow in the practice of joy; and enable us to go far on the path of practice.

You can practice according to the exercises which follow:

1.    I am breathing in and making my whole body calm and at peace. I am breathing out and making my whole body calm and at peace.

2.    I am breathing in and feel joyful. I am breathing out and feeling joyful.

3.    I am breathing in and feeling happy. I am breathing out and feeling happy.

4.    I am breathing in and making my mind happy and at peace. I am breathing out and making my mind happy and at peace.

When the state of happiness is really present, the joy of the mind settles down to allow happiness to become steadier and deeper. For as long as the joy is still there, there goes with it, to a greater or lesser extent, conceptualization and excitement. “Joy” is a translation of the Sanskrit word, piti, and “happiness” is a translation of sukha. Someone traveling in the desert that sees a stream of cool water experiences joy. When he drinks the water, he experiences happiness.

The function of this exercise is to nourish us with joy and happiness and to heal the wounds within us. But we have no doubts about letting go of this joy in order to embark on the work of observation. Joy and happiness come about because of physical and psychological conditions, and are as impermanent as all other physical and psychological phenomena. Only when, thanks to mindful observation, we realize the impermanent, selfless, and interdependent nature of all that is, can we achieve freedom and liberation.


There are 3 sorts of feelings: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. The teaching of this exercise is to identify and be in touch with these feelings as they arise, endure, and fade away. When there is an unpleasant feeling the practitioner is not in a hurry to chase it away. She comes back to her conscious breathing and observes, “Breathing in, I know that an unpleasant feeling has arisen within me. Breathing out, I know that this unpleasant feeling is present in me.” She is neither drowned in nor terrorized by that feeling, nor does she reject it. This is the most effective way to be in contact with feelings. If we call a pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feeling by its name, we identify it clearly and recognize it more deeply. Our attitude of not clinging to or rejecting our feelings is the attitude of letting go and is an important part of meditation practice. When we are mindful of our feeling, the situation begins to change. The feeling is no longer the only thing present in us, and it is transformed under the light of our awareness. If we are able to observe the feeling mindfully we will be able to see its substance and its roots. This empowers the observer.


When he experiences a pleasant feeling based in the body, he is aware, ‘I am experiencing a pleasant feeling based in the body.’ When he experiences a pleasant feeling based in the mind, he is aware, ‘I am

This exercise is a continuation of the eleventh exercise and has the capacity to help us see the roots and the substance of the feelings we have. Our feelings—pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral—can have a physical, physiological, or psychological root. When we mindfully observe our feelings, we discover their roots. We have to look deeply in order to see how these feelings manifest and to understand their true substance. To know a feeling is not just to see its roots but also to see its flowering and its fruits. We should continue to observe the pleasant feeling brought about by those words of praise. The work of mindful observation helps us avoid pride or arrogance—the two things which above all obstruct our progress on the path. We can use conscious breathing to assist us in carrying out this work of mindful observation. Every time she sees the substance, roots, and effect of her feelings, she is no longer under the control of those feelings. The whole character of our feelings can change just by the presence of mindful observation.

The Buddha teaches us not to repress anger, fear or unpleasant feelings but to use our breathing to be in contact with and accept these feelings, knowing that they are energies which originate in our physiological or psychological make-up. Mindful observation is based on the principle of nonduality. To repress our feelings is to repress ourselves. We have to be in contact with and accept feelings before we can transform them into the kinds of energy which are healthy and have the capacity to nourish us. Our work of mindful observation helps us see that experiencing unpleasant feelings allows us insight and understanding.

Mindfully Observing the Mind

The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness lists only 22 mental formations including desire, anger, ignorance, disturbance, narrowness, limitedness, lack of concentration, lack of freedom, dullness and drowsiness, agitation and remorse, doubt; their opposites: not desiring, not hating, non-ignorance, non-disturbance, tolerance, unlimitedness, concentration, freedom, absence of doubt; absence of dullness and drowsiness, absence of agitation; as well as mindfulness, distaste, peace, joy, ease, and letting go.

We mindfully observe the arising, presence, and disappearance of the mental phenomena which are called mental formations. We recognize them and look deeply into them in order to see their substance, their roots in the past, and their possible fruits in the future, using conscious breathing while we observe. We should remember that when the lamp of mindfulness is lit up, the mental formation under observation will naturally transform in a wholesome direction.


Desire means to be caught in unwholesome longing. Form, sound, smell, taste, and touch are the objects of the five kinds of sense desire, which are desire for money, sex, fame, good food, and sleep. These categories produce obstacles on the path of practice as well as many kinds of physical and mental suffering.

Whenever the practitioner’s mind and thoughts turn to desiring, he or she immediately gives rise to awareness of the presence of that mind. “This is a mind longing for wealth.” The Satipatthana Sutta also teaches that when desiring is not present, the practitioner also needs to observe that it is not present. “This is the sense of ease which accompanies the absence of mind desiring reputation etc.”

According to the Buddha, true happiness, is a life with few desires, few possessions, and the time to enjoy the many wonders in us and around us.


When anger is present in him, he is aware, ‘Anger is present in me.’ When anger is not present in him, he is aware, ‘Anger is not present in me.’ When anger begins to arise, he is aware of it. When already arisen anger is abandoned, he is aware of it. When anger already abandoned will not arise again in the future, he is aware of it.

This exercise is to observe our anger with awareness. In Buddhism, we learn that a person is comprised of the Five Aggregates of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Anger belongs to the aggregate of mental formations, and the unpleasant feeling which goes along with anger belongs to the aggregate of feelings. The first benefit of mindfully observing the presence and absence of anger is that we see that when anger is not present we are much happier. Anger is like a flame blazing up, consuming our self control, making us think, say, and do things that we will probably regret later. The second benefit of mindfully observing our anger is that by just identifying our anger it loses some of its destructive nature. When we are angry, our anger is our very self. To suppress or chase away our anger is to suppress or chase away yourself. When we are joyful, we are joy. When we are angry, we are anger. When anger is born, we can be aware that anger is an energy in us, and we can change that energy into another energy. If we want to transform it first we have to learn how to accept it. When anger arises, other mental formations, which are lying latent in the depths of our consciousness, are not arising. This deep consciousness is called alaya by the Vijnanavada school. Joy, sadness, love, hate, are present in alaya when we are angry but they are lying beneath the surface without manifesting like seeds in the ground. When the mental formation of mindfulness arises from alaya, it can become the spiritual friend of the mental formation of anger. As we follow our breathing and sponsor our anger with mindfulness, the situation becomes less and less dangerous.

The point of meditation is to look deeply into things in order to be able to see their nature. Seeing and understanding are the elements of liberation which allows us to be free of the suffering which always accompanies anger.

Sometimes people try to find ways to express their anger in a less dangerous way. They may go into their room, close the door behind them, and pound a pillow with all their might. Eventually they will feel exhausted and their anger will subside but the roots of anger remain untouched and anger can arise again when the conditions arise. The method of mindful observation in order to see and to understand the roots of our anger is the only method that has lasting effectiveness.

Mindfulness embraces the feeling as a mother holds her crying child in her arms and transmits all her affection and care.


When anger is not present in him, he is aware, ‘Anger is not present in me.’ When already arisen anger is abandoned, he is aware of it. When anger already abandoned will not arise again in the future, he is aware of it…When his mind is not attached, he is aware, “my mind is not attached. When his mind is not hating, he is aware, “My mind is not hating.”

In the Angutarra Nikaya (V. 161), the Buddha teaches, “If a mind of anger arises, the bhikku can practice the meditation on love, on compassion, or on equanimity for the person who has brought about the feeling of anger.” Love meditation is a method for developing the mind of love and compassion. Love is a mind which is intent on bringing peace, joy, and happiness to others. Compassion is a mind which is intent on removing the suffering which is present in others. That is the meaning of the phrase, “Love is the capacity to give joy. Compassion is the power to relieve suffering.” When love and compassion are sources of energy in us, they bring peace, joy, and happiness to those dear to us and to others also. The essence of love and compassion is understanding.

In the Satipatthana Sutta we are taught to be one with the object of our observation. If we sit with someone and follow our breathing and observe mindfully we can be in contact with his or her suffering. The physical and psychological suffering of that person will be clear to us in the light of our mindful observation.

We can begin our meditation on compassion with someone who is undergoing suffering of a physical or material kind because that kind of suffering is easy to see. We observe it deeply and have to observe until the mind of compassion arises, and the substance of the mind of compassion penetrates deep into our being and the mind of compassion will envelop the object of our observation. If we observe in this way, the mind of compassion will naturally be transformed into action. We will not just say, “I love her very much,” but instead, “I must do something so that she will suffer less.” The mind of compassion is truly present when it has the capacity of removing suffering.

The person who has made us suffer is suffering too. We only need to sit down, follow our breathing, and look deeply and naturally we will see her suffering. The suffering has been transmitted from generation to generation, and it has been reborn in her. If we can see that, we will no longer blame her for making us suffer, because we understand the way in which she is also a victim. To look deeply is to understand. Once we understand, it is easy to embrace the other person in our mind of compassion. To look deeply into the suffering of those who have caused us to suffer is a miraculous gift.

After we experience the fruit of the meditation of compassion, the meditation on love becomes relatively easy. Just as with the mind of compassion, the mind of love brings peace, joy, and happiness to the practitioner first.

We must be careful not to think that the meditations on love and compassion consist in just sitting still and imagining our mind of love and compassion will spread out into space like waves of sound or light. Like sound and light, love and compassion can penetrate everywhere. It is only in the midst of our daily life and in our actual contact with people and other species, including the object of our meditation, that we can know whether our mind of love and compassion is really present and whether it is stable.

One word, one action, or one thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring him joy. One word can give confidence and comfort, destroy doubt, help someone avoid a mistake, reconcile a conflict, open the door to liberation, and show him the way to success and happiness. One action can save a person’s life, or help him take advantage of a rare opportunity. One thought can do the same, because thoughts lead to words and action. If love and compassion are in our hearts, every thought, word and deed can bring about a miracle. We must always remember that love is none other than understanding.

Mindfully Observing the Objects of Mind


When the factor of awakening, investigation or phenomena, is present in him, he is aware, ‘Investigation-of-phenomena is present in me,’ He is aware when not-yet-born investigation-of-phenomena is being born and when already-born investigation-of-phenomena is perfectly developed.

In order to correct our wrong perceptions, the Buddha teaches us a method of discriminative investigation, which relates to the Establishment of the mind and the Establishment of the objects of mind. The objects of mind are also called dharmas (all that can be conceived of as existing. They include: 6 sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind), 6 sense objects (form and color, sound, smell, taste, tactile objects, and mind-objects–every concept and everything which belongs to the sphere of memory and mental experience), six consciousness (sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, mind consciousness). All dharmas are contained within these 18 realms, which include all psychological, physiological, and physical aspects. All 18 realms are also called objects of mind, including mental formations. When mind is observing mind, the mind becomes an object of mind. The basic characteristic of all dharmas is interdependent origination; all dharmas arise, endure, and fade away according to the law of interdependence. This teaching is crucial because in our daily lives we tend to perceive things as real and independent of each other.

This method of discriminative investigation begins by classifying the dharmas into categories like the 6 sense organs, the 6 sense objects, and the 6 sense consciousnesses, namely, the 18 realms, which can be classified according to the Five Aggregates of form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Form: all physiological and physical phenomena; feelings: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral; perceptions: basic conceptualizations and naming; mental formations: psychological states that arise and manifest in us; consciousness: function of maintaining, cognizing, comparing, storing, and remembering all the seeds.

The Heart of the Prajnaparamita Sutra tells us that the Bodhisattva, Avalokita, thanks to his observation of the 5 aggregates was able to see the interdependent nature of all dharmas and realize their essential birthlessness and deathlessness, and transcend the fear of birth and death.

Through discriminative investigation, we realize the interdependent nature of all that is. This is to realize the empty nature of all things. To be able to end the concept of birth and death is the essential point of discriminative investigation.

The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness also describes the mind which is not in a state of ignorance and confusion, as when we are conscious of impermanence, interdependence, and selflessness; when our mind rests in Right Views, Right View is one of the eight ways of practice called the Noble Eightfold Path.

A student of Buddhism who does not practice the mindful observation of interdependence has not yet arrives at the quintessence of the Buddhist path.


He is aware of the eyes, (ears, nose, tongue, body, mind) and aware of the form, (sound, smell, taste, touch, objects of mind), and he is aware of the internal formations which are produced in dependence on these two things. he is aware of the birth of a new internal formation and is aware of abandoning an already produced internal formation, and he is aware when an already abandoned internal formation will not arise again.

Internal formations can be classified as two kinds: 1. the Five Dull Knots: confusion, desire, anger, pride, and doubt and 2. the Five Sharp Knots: view of the body as self, extreme views, wrong views, pervaded views, and superstitious views (or unnecessary ritual prohibitions). When someone speaks unkindly to us, if we understand the reason and we do not take the words to heart, we will not feel irritated and a knot will not form in our mind. If we do not understand the reason and we feel irritated then a knot will form.

Feelings associated with internal formations are usually unpleasant but sometimes internal formations are associated with pleasant feelings. When we are attached to a form, sound, etc. an internal formation of the nature of desire is formed. Falling in love is also an internal formation, because in it there is the material of blind attachment. The phrase to “fall” in love sounds disastrous. But being in love can be transformed, so that blind attachment, selfishness and domination are replaced by the capacity to understand and bring happiness to the person we love, without demanding specific conditions and expecting something in return. To transform being in love in this way is to transform an internal formation.

If we live according to the teachings of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, we practice mindful observation of the arising, duration, and transformation of internal formations. In our daily life we practice full awareness in order to be able to recognize the internal formations just born and find a way to transform it. When it arises for the first time the know is still very loose and the work of untying it is easy. When we live with another person, we should help each other transform the internal formations that we have produced in each other.


He is aware of the eyes, (ears, nose, tongue, body, mind) and aware of the form (sound, smell, taste, touch, objects of mind), and he is aware of the internal formations which are produced in dependence on these two things. He is aware of the birth of a new internal formation and is aware of abandoning an already, produced internal formation, and he is aware when an already abandoned internal formation will not rise again. (This is the same quote from the sutra as Exercise 17)

The internal formations of desire, regret, anger, fear, feeling worthless have been suppressed in our subconscious for a long time. Although they are suppressed they are always seeking ways to manifest in our feelings, thoughts, words, and actions. Internal formations that are repressed cannot appear in a direct and natural way in the conscious mind. They only disclose themselves indirectly. Thus, we are not aware of their presence although they continue to tie us up and make us suffer in a latent way.

The method of curing the sorrow which comes when mental formations are repressed is the deep observation of these internal formations. But to observe them we first have to find ways to bring them into the realms of the conscious mind. Here we practice conscious breathing in order to recognize our feelings, thoughts, words, and actions, especially those which arise automatically, as reactions to what is happening. Our reactions may have their roots in the internal formations buried inside us. During our sitting meditation, because we have closed the doors of our sensory input in order to stop listening, looking, and reasoning, the internal formations which are buried in us have the opportunity to reveal themselves in the form of feelings or images which manifest in our conscious mind.

We practice mindfulness in Buddhism as a way of looking after our feelings, being their sponsor in an affectionate, nonviolent way. When we are able to maintain mindfulness, we are not carried away by or drowned in our feelings or in the conflicts within ourselves. We nourish and maintain mindfulness through conscious breathing and try to become aware or our internal formations and conflicts as they manifest. We receive them with love as a mother takes her child in her arms: “Mindfulness is present, and I know that I have enough strength to be in contact with the knots in me.” Without judgment, blame, or criticism for having these feelings or images, we just observe, identify and accept them in order to see their source and their true nature. If there is pain, we feel the pain but we do not lose ourselves in it. Even if we cannot see the roots of our internal formations, the fact that we can greet our pain, our sadness, and our anger in mindfulness already causes the knots to lose some of their strength.


When agitation and remorse are present in him, he is aware, ‘Agitation and remorse are present in me.’ When agitation and remorse are not present in him, he is aware, ‘Agitation and remorse are not present in me.’ When agitation and remorse begin to arise, he is aware of it. When already arisen agitation and remorse are abandoned, he is aware of it. When agitation and remorse already abandoned will not arise again in the future, he is aware of it.

In Buddhist psychology, remorse or regret is a mind function which can be either beneficial or damaging. When it is used to recognize errors and not commit them in the future then it is a wholesome mental formation. If regret creates a guilt-complex which follows and haunts us then it is an obstacle to our practice. We have all made mistakes in the past. We may think that because the past is gone, we cannot return to the past to correct our mistakes. But the past has created the present, and if we practice mindfulness in the present, we naturally are in contact with the past. As we transform the present, we also transform the past. If we can transform ourselves we also transform those we love including our ancestors because they live on through us.

If we take hold of our breathing and live in a mindful way, thus bringing joy and happiness to ourselves and others in the present moment, we can overcome our complexes of guilt so we are no longer paralyzed by the.

Fear is also a dominant mental formation. The ground of fear is ignorance, the failure to understand our “not-self nature.” Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva who has transcended all fear: He offers all beings “abhaya” which comes from mindful observation of the no birth, no death, no increase, no decrease nature of all that is. If we can observe deeply the interdependent and selfless nature of all things, we can see that there is no birth and no death and pass beyond all fear.


When the factor of awakening, joy (ease, letting go) is present in him, he is aware, ‘Joy is present in me.’ When joy is not present in him, he is aware, ‘Joy is not present in me.’ He is aware when not-yet-born joy is being born and when already-born joy is perfectly developed.

The purpose of this exercise is to sow and water seeds of peace, joy, and liberation in us. Buddhist psychology talks of seeds as the basis of every state of mind and the content of our consciousness. Seeds which produce suffering are unwholesome and seeds which produce happiness are wholesome. According to the principle of interdependent origination, seeds do not have a fixed nature. Every seed is dependent on every other seed for its existence, and in any one seed, all the other seeds are present. An unwholesome seed can be transformed into a wholesome seed and vice-versa. This tells us that even during the darkest times of our life wholesome seeds are still within us.

The sutras refer to the mind as a plot ground in which all sorts of seeds are sown. Cittabhumi, “the mind as the earth.” If peace and joy are in our hearts we will gradually bring more peace and joy to the world.

The 7th precept of the Order of Interbeing reminds us to practice conscious breathing in order to stay in contact with the many healing and refreshing elements which are already around us.

The Sutra of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness offers many exercises for living in mindfulness. By the process of conscious breathing, smiling, walking meditation, sitting meditation, by our way of looking, listening and mindfully observing, we help the seeds of happiness flourish. The realms of love, compassion, joy, and letting go are the realms of true joy and happiness. If we have joy and can let go, we can share happiness with others and reduce their sorrows and anxieties.

CHAPTER SIX: Principles for the Practice of Mindfulness


All four establishments of mindfulness (body, feelings, mental formations, dharmas) are objects of mind. Since the mind and the objects of mind are one, in observing its objects, mind is essentially observing mind. The word dharma in this context is understood to mean the object of the mind and the content of the mind. Dharmas are classified as one of the 12 realms. The first six are sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind). The remaining six are form (sound, smell, taste, touch, and dharmas). Dharmas are the object of mind, as sounds are the object of the ears. The object of cognition and the subject of cognition do not exist independently of each other. Everything that exists has to arise in the mind. “All is just mind…Because of consciousness, all phenomena can exist.”

The object of our mindful observation can be our breath or our toe (physiological), a feeling, or a perception (psychological), or a form (physical). We observe the object of our mind in the way the right hand takes hold of the left hand. Your right hand is you and your left hand is also you. So the hand is taking hold of itself to become one with itself.


The subject of observation is our mindfulness, which also emanates from the mind. Mindfulness has the function of illuminating and transforming. When our breathing, for example, is the object of our mindfulness, it becomes conscious breathing. Mindfulness shines its light on our breathing, transforms the forgetfulness in it into mindfulness, and gives it a calming and healing quality. Our body and our feelings are also illuminated and transformed under the light of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the observing mind, but it does not stand outside of the object of observation. It goes right into the object and becomes one with it. Because the nature of the observing mind is mindfulness, the observing mind does not lose itself in the object but transforms it by illuminating it, just as the penetrating light of the sun transforms trees and plants. If we want to see and understand we have to penetrate and become one with that object. That is why the sutra says, “Observing the body in the body, observing the feelings in the feelings etc.” The description is very clear. The deeply observing mind is not merely an observer but a participant. Only when the observer is a participant can there be transformation.

In the practice of bare observation, mindfulness has already begun to influence the object of consciousness. When we call an in breath and in breath, the existence of our breath becomes very clear. Mindfulness has already penetrated our breathing. If we continue our observation there will no longer be duality between the observed and observer. Mindfulness and our breath are one. We and our breath are one. If our breath is calm, we are calm. Our breathing calms our body and our feelings. If our mind is consumed by a sense desire mindfulness is not present. Conscious breathing nourishes mindfulness and mindfulness gives rise to conscious breathing. When mindfulness is present we have nothing to fear. The object of our observation becomes vivid, and its source, origin, and true nature become evident. That is how it will be transformed. It no longer has the effect of binding us. When the object of our mindful observation is totally clear, the mind which is observing is also fully revealed in great clarity.


“True mind” and “deluded mind” are two aspects of the mind. Both arise from the mind. Deluded mind is the forgetful and dispersed mind, which arises from forgetfulness. The basis of true mind is awakened understanding, arising from mindfulness. Mindful observation brings out the light which exists in true mind, so that life can be revealed in its reality. Just as the calm sea and rough sea are manifestations of the same sea, true mind could not exist if there were no deluded mind. In the teaching on the Three Doors to Liberation, aimlessness is the foundation for realization. What is meant by aimlessness is that we do not seek after an object outside ourselves. If the rose is on its way to becoming garbage then the garbage is also on its way to becoming a rose. One who observes discerningly will see the non-dual nature of the rose and the garbage.

To be liberated is not to run away from the 5 aggregates (form, feelings, mental formations, perceptions, consciousness). The world of liberation and awakened understanding come directly from this body and this world.


The realization of non-duality naturally leads to the practice of offering joy, peace, and nonviolence. The five aggregates are the basis of suffering and confusion, but they are also the basis for peace, joy, and liberation.

Mindfulness recognizes what is happening in the body and the mind and then continues to illuminate and observe the object deeply. During this practice, there is no craving for, running after, or repressing the object. This is the true meaning of bare observation.

When we accept our body and our feelings, we treat them in an affectionate, nonviolent way. When we are mindful we can see our roots of affliction clearly and transform them. As long as the lamp of mindfulness shines its light, the darkness is transformed. We need to nourish mindfulness in ourselves by the practice of conscious breathing, hearing the sound of the bell, reciting gathas, and many other skillful means.

Mindfulness nourished by conscious breathing takes the feelings in its arms, becomes one with them, calms and transforms them.


The method of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness is observing deeply in the spirit of “not craving and not feeling distaste.” Observe all dharmas but do not have any fixed ideas, just keep on observing mindfully without comment, without assuming any attitude toward the object you are observing.


Mindfulness is the core of Buddhist practice. This practice can be done not only in sitting meditation but also in every minute of our daily life. In order for the practice to be easy and successful, it is very helpful to practice with a community, called a sangha.