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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > Comparison of Buddhist Traditions > The Four Close Placements of Mindfulness According to Mahayana

The Four Close Placements
of Mindfulness
According to Mahayana

Alexander Berzin, February 2002
(based on explanations by His Holiness
the Fourteenth Dalai Lama,
compiled and edited by Ven. Thubten Chodron)

The Thirty-seven Factors Leading to a Purified State

The four close placements of mindfulness (dran-pa nyer-bzhag, Skt. smrtyupasthana, Pali: satipatthana) are the first four of the thirty-seven factors leading to a purified state (byang-chub yan-lag so-bdun). There are three purified states (byang-chub, Skt. bodhi) – that of a shravaka arhat, a pratyekabuddha arhat, and a bodhisattva arhat or Buddha.

The thirty-seven are:

  • the four close placements of mindfulness (dran-pa nyer-bzhag bzhi), on the body, feelings of levels of happiness, the mind, and phenomena;
  • the four factors for (attaining) correct riddances (yang-dag spong-ba bzhi, four pure abandonments): generating constructive (virtuous) phenomena not generated before, generating constructive phenomena already generated, stopping the further increase of destructive (nonvirtuous) phenomena already generated, and preventing the generation of destructive phenomena not yet generated;
  • the four legs for (attaining) extraphysical powers (rdzu-‘phrul-gyi rkang-pa bzhi): intention (‘dun-pa), joyful perseverance, pondering (sems-pa, thinking), scrutiny (dpyod-pa, analysis);
  • the five powers (dbang-po lnga): belief in fact (dad-pa, faith), joyful perseverance, mindfulness, absorbed concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin), and discriminating awareness (shes-rab, wisdom);
  • the five forces (stobs-lnga): belief in fact, joyful perseverance, mindfulness, absorbed concentration, and discriminating awareness;
  • the seven (causal) factors for (attaining) a purified state (byang-chub yan-lag bdun): mindfulness, thorough sorting of phenomena (chos rab-tu rnam-par ‘byed-pa), joyful perseverance, zest (dga’-ba, fresh joyous interest), sense of physical and mental fitness (shin-sbyangs), absorbed concentration, and even-mindedness (btang-snyoms, equanimity);
  • the eight branches of an arya pathway mind (‘phags-lam yan-lag brgyad, eightfold noble path): right view, right thought, right speech, right boundary of action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right absorbed concentration.

The thirty-seven summarize practices progressively undertaken by shravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas in common as they develop the five pathway minds (lam-lnga, five paths). They are directed at the four noble truths – true suffering, causes, stoppings (true cessations), and pathway minds (true paths) – and are aspects of an exceptionally perceptive state of mind (lhag-mthong, Skt. vipashyana, Pali: vipassana).

[See: The Five Pathway Minds (Five Paths): Basic Presentation.]

A Building-Up Pathway Mind

The four close placements of mindfulness are practiced from first achieving the first of the five pathway minds, a building-up pathway mind (tshogs-lam, path of accumulation), all the way through the attainment of a purified state of arhatship or Buddhahood. We may practice a facsimile of the four, however, before achieving a building-up pathway mind.

With a building-up pathway mind, we build up the networks of positive force (bsod-nams-kyi tshogs, collection of merit) and of deep awareness (ye-shes-kyi tshogs, collection of wisdom). They are liberation-building or enlightenment-building, depending on the motivation that accompanies them: renunciation (nges-‘byung) or both renunciation and the enlightening aim of bodhichitta (byang-sems). Meditation on the four close placements builds up a network of deep awareness, while the accompanying motivation builds up a network of positive force. The meditation and motivation reinforce each other.

Shravaka and pratyekabuddha pathway minds practice the four close placements while simultaneously having manifest unlabored renunciation (rtsol-med nges-‘byung). Several cognitions can be manifest simultaneously, each focused on a different object and cognitively taken in a different manner. For example, we can see someone’s face while simultaneously hearing the person speak. We do not necessarily pay equal attention to all our simultaneously occurring cognitions. Absorbed concentration on an object within a single cognition is free of all mental wandering, but that does not mean that the concentration occurs without having other simultaneous cognitions. We are merely not distracted by them.

Renunciation is the determination to gain liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth (samsara), with the willingness to give up the suffering of samsara and its causes. Accompanying it is the conviction that it is possible to do so, that we are personally capable of doing so, and that we shall work to do so. Thus, renunciation has a basic understanding of the four noble truths. Determination to gain liberation understands the third and fourth noble truths: true stoppings and true pathway minds. Willingness to give up suffering and its causes understands the first and second noble truths: true sufferings and their true causes. "Unlabored" means that renunciation arises without having to build it up through relying on a line of reasoning. Always being manifest means that we never lose our conviction and intention.

Bodhisattva pathway minds practice the four close placements of mindfulness while simultaneously having two manifest cognitions: unlabored renunciation and unlabored bodhichitta. Bodhicitta focuses on our future enlightenment and has two intentions accompanying it: to achieve that enlightenment and to benefit others by means of that attainment. Bodhicitta has understanding of the four noble truths in the same way as renunciation has, but now in terms of enlightenment and Buddha-nature. unlabored bodhichitta does not require building up to it through steps such as recognizing everyone as having been our mother, and so forth. Always being manifest means that we never lose our aim and intentions.

Although the actual four close placements of mindfulness are with unlabored renunciation and bodhichitta, we can begin with labored (rtsol-bcas) levels of them before attaining a building-up pathway mind. For this, we need to work ourselves up to generating and feeling sincere renunciation and bodhichitta by relying on lines of reasoning.

Types of Subsidiary Awareness Involved with Close Placement of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a subsidiary awareness (sems-byung, mental factor) that holds on to an object of focus and prevents forgetfulness or loss of it. It functions somewhat like mental glue. The strength of the mental hold can vary. It needs to be neither too tight nor too loose.

Introspective alertness (shes-bzhin) is the subsidiary awareness of an object that checks the quality of the mental hold of mindfulness. The hold may be too loose due to flightiness of mind (rgod-pa, agitation) or mental dullness (bying-ba). When alertness notices a fault in the quality of mindfulness, it triggers restoring attention (chad-cing ‘ jug-pa’i yid-byed) to correct it.

Attention or taking to mind (yid-la byed-pa) is the subsidiary awareness that engages mental activity with a specific object. It may engage the mental activity in a painstaking, restoring, uninterrupted, or spontaneous manner. It may also take to mind or consider the object in a certain way – either concordantly (tshul-bcas) or discordantly (tshul-min) with their actual natures.

The four close placements of mindfulness are practiced to correct the four discordant ways of paying attention to the five aggregate factors of our experience (phung-po lnga, five aggregates).

With the proper mental hold of mindfulness, we practice regarding

  • our bodies as unclean (impure, ugly), rather than as clean (pure, beautiful),
  • our feelings as suffering (unsatisfying), rather than as happiness (satisfying),
  • our minds (referring to our six types of primary consciousness – seeing , hearing, and so on) as nonstatic (impermanent), rather than static (permanent),
  • all phenomena (referring to the various types of subsidiary awareness and to the five aggregate factors in general) as lacking an impossible soul of a person (gang-zag-gi bdag-med), rather than as having one.

Preparatory Practice of Shamatha

Close placement of mindfulness is a vipashyana practice. Definitional practice of vipashyana requires the achievement of shamatha (zhi-gnas, stilled and settled mind, calm abiding) first; otherwise we cannot concentrate properly. Vipashyana practiced without shamatha is merely a facsimile of the real thing. As a serenely stilled and settled state of mind, shamatha has, in addition to perfect concentration, an exhilarating sense of mental and physical fitness and pliancy (shin-sbyang). This is based on the ability to concentrate on anything, for as long as we wish, with no physical or mental resistance or pain. Vipashyana adds to that a second exhilarating sense of fitness, based on the ability to discern and understand anything.

We may achieve a stilled and settled state of shamatha and an exceptionally perceptive state of vipashyana through focus on a wide variety of objects. Their attainment does not require prior attainment of a building-up pathway mind, nor does it even require following Buddhist methods. Non-Buddhist Indian schools also teach methods for achieving the two. Buddhist practitioers only achieve shamatha focused on the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths, however, with the attainment of an advanced level of a building-up pathway mind. We only achieve joint shamatha and vipashyana similarly focused with the attainment of the second of the five pathway minds, an applying pathway mind (sbyor-lam, path of preparation).

Two major obstacles to gaining shamatha are longing desire or attachment (‘dod-chags) and rambling thought (rnam-rtog). They are the primary causes of flightiness of mind (rgod-pa) to desirable objects. As preparation for the close placement of mindfulness meditation, we meditate on the ugliness of the body to counter desire and on the breath to counter rambling thought.

  • Similarly, Theravada practice of the four close placements of mindfulness teaches the attainment of absorbed concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin, Skt. samadhi, Pali: samadhi) through letting go of restlessness and distracting rambling thought. Restlessness (rgod-pa, Skt. auddhatya, Pali: uddhacca) is the same technical term that Mahayana defines as flightiness of mind.

[See: Theravada Practice of the Four Close Placements of Mindfulness.]

  • In the eighth chapter of Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, concerning far-reaching mental stability (bsam-gtan phar-byin, Skt. dhyanaparamita, perfection of concentration), Shantideva also emphasizes eliminating longing desire, attachment, and rambling thought about desirable objects, particularly the body, in order to gain perfect concentration. This is in preparation for his ninth chapter on the far-reaching discrimination of voidness (shes-phyin, Skt. prajnaparamita, perfection of wisdom), which he describes developing partly through the four close placements of mindfulness.

[See: Overview of the Ninth Chapter of Bodhicharyavatara on Voidness.]

Meditation on the Ugliness of the Body

Since sexual desire is the strongest form of longing desire and attachment for most people, the object of focus for countering flightiness of mind is the ugliness of the body. The point is to develop a sense of repulsion, to counter longing desire and attachment. This does not deny the superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, conventional truth, relative truth) that to a mind valid for cognizing superficial truths, the body may be attractive, according to a certain social or personal convention. But we also need to view the body with a mind that validly sees deeper truths about it.

The standard meditations are extremely strong. Some practitioners may approach them already with neurotic repulsion for the body, either based on teachings of other religions or on psychological factors. For them, repulsion and aversion to the body are disturbing emotions (nyon-mongs, afflictive emotions). Such persons need great care when wishing to undertake this type of practice. If meditation on the ugliness of the body would only serve to increase neurotic fear and aversion, the practice needs to be tempered with strong meditation on the precious human life. We must remember that the aim of choosing a repulsive object of meditation for gaining shamatha is to counter the mental wandering that comes from longing desire and attachment. It might be more effective for such persons to choose whatever other types of objects trigger their desire and attachment the most, such as food or cigarettes.

The meditation focuses on desire and attachment for four aspects of the body: its color, its shape, the physical sensation of touching it, and deriving pleasure or use from it. First, we focus on the four aspects of the body of someone we find attractive. Then we apply the same focus on our own bodies. We begin each phase by reflecting that the other person or we will die one day. No matter how good looking his, her, or our bodies might have been while alive, as corpses they will be ugly and repulsive.

  • To counter attachment to the beautiful color of someone’s body, we think how, as a rotting corpse, its color will turn dark blue and then black. Even while alive, the bodily color can become ugly when black and blue with multiple injuries or when red or black with a severe burn. We visualize the body looking like this and use it as an object of focus for concentration, paying attention to it in this way with the mental glue of mindfulness.
  • To counter attachment to the beautiful shape or figure of someone’s body, we imagine it bloated and swollen as a corpse, with maggots and worms eating it, and pieces rotting off. Even while alive, bodily shape can change due to illness, gain or loss of weight, or aging.
  • To counter attachment to the tactile sensation of touching and caressing someone’s body, we imagine it as a corpse being devoured by insects or its flesh decomposing and falling off. Even the idea of touching it, let alone embracing it, is repulsive. Even while alive, when someone’s skin is covered with oozing sores, a contagious rash like poison ivy, or rotting with leprosy, we lose all desire to touch it.
  • To counter attachment to gaining pleasure or use from someone’s body, either as a sexual object or as an instrument to exploit for work, we think of it as a corpse. It’s incapable of doing anything for us then and would we really feel like making love to a rotting stinking corpse?
  • To counter attachment to all four aspects, we conclude by meditating on someone’s body as the skeleton that it will become. We then repeat the five steps with regard to our own bodies.

As a general antidote to mental dullness, and as a further aid for reducing attachment to our bodies and to the endless quest for sensual gratification, we practice three additional meditations on our bodies in the form of its skeleton.

  • Starting from our mid-brows, we imagine that our flesh falls away from our skeletons, one piece at a time. When our whole skeletons are exposed, we imagine the entire room, outside our homes, and then the whole world filled with bones – steadily growing more full. We then retract the bones, one step at a time, until only our bodies as skeletons remain, and focus single-pointedly on our skeletons.
  • We follow the same procedure, but at the end, dissolve our skeletons from the bottom upwards until only the upper half of the skull remains. We then focus on that.
  • We repeat the procedure once more, but carry the dissolution further until only a tiny fragment of bone remains at our mid-brows, and then focus on that. These three meditations do not eliminate attachment, but they help to reduce it.

Meditation on the Breath to Counter Rambling Thoughts

  • Counting the breath. To reduce and then eliminate distracting rambling thought, we first count the breath. Relaxing the body and mind, we count the cycles of exhaling and inhaling, up to ten, and then repeat. If we count more than ten at a time, our minds may become too tight, trying to remember the number we are at. If we count less than ten at a time, we face the danger of our minds being too loose since we are not paying attention to the number. It is important not mix up counting the out-breath first and then the in-breath as constituting a cycle. This requires mindfulness, which is the whole point. As the next part of this step, as we breathe we think, "Now I am about to exhale; now I am exhaling; now I have finished exhaling; now I am about to inhale; now I am inhaling; now I have finished inhaling"; and then the count – one. If we concentrate on keeping track of all these details, other extraneous thoughts will disappear.
  • Following the breath. Next, breathing slowly, but without counting, we imagine, as we exhale, the breath going from the soles of our feet to our thighs, to our navels, to our hearts, to our throats, and out our nostrils a short distance. As we inhale, we imagine the breath coming back in our nostrils and passing down to our throats, to our hearts, to our navel, to our thighs, and to the soles of our feet. We then repeat the procedure.
  • Placing the breath. Breathing normally, we no longer concentrate on breathing out and in. Instead, we concentrate on the internal flow of the breath in our bodies as if the course it follows is like a thread running from our nostrils to the soles of our feet. We examine the sensations that the breath causes along the thread – hot, cold, comfortable, uncomfortable, and so on. Analyzing the breath as we breathe, we consider how the breath is not just air. It is in the nature of the four elements of earth, water, fire, and wind (solid dust, liquid moisture, heat temperature, and wind) and the four derivative elements of shape, odor, taste, and tactile sensation. We consider further how our various kinds of primary and subsidiary awareness are dependent on these elements and how they all interrelate and affect each other.
  • Transforming the breath. Even after we have quieted our minds of all distracting rambling thoughts and gained shamatha, we can practice further with the breath as we progressively develop the pathway minds. Based on what we have analyzed, we examine the four noble truths in the context of the breath and the interrelation between it and our minds. We examine this relationship in terms of the true suffering of rebirth, its true causes, true stopping, and the true pathway minds that lead to that stopping. In this manner, we progress through the building-up and applying pathway minds.
  • Purifying in the context of the breath. We continue the last step nonconceptually, with seeing (mthong-lam, path of seeing) and accustoming pathway minds (sgom-lam, path of meditation).

Details of the Four Close Placements of Mindfulness

The objects on which to closely place mindfulness span all nonstatic and static phenomena. The nonstatic phenomena can be included in the five aggregate factors of our experience.

  • Mindfulness closely placed on the body refers to our aggregate of forms. We focus on three kinds of body: internal (our own bodies), external (the physical objects around us), and both internal and external (the bodies of others).
  • Feelings refer to our aggregate of feelings: happiness and pleasure, unhappiness and pain, and neutral.
  • Mind refers to our aggregate of consciousness: the six types of primary consciousness (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling physical sensations, and thinking).
  • Phenomena include our aggregates of distinguishing (recognition) and other affecting variables, and also static phenomena.

The necessity for there being four is to help us overcome the various aspects of grasping for an impossible soul of "me" as a person (gang-zag-gi bdag-‘dzin). We incorrectly imagine that "I" exist as a static, monolithic "me," independent of our aggregates.

  • We misconceive our bodies to be the bases or homes inhabited by such an independent "me"; and it feels like that. We feel, "I am here, inside my body."
  • We misconceive our feelings to be what that "me" enjoys and experiences, as in, "I feel happy. I feel unhappy. I feel indifferent."
  • We misconceive our minds actually to be "me."
  • We misconceive phenomena, particularly our emotions and attitudes, as what give "me" my personality or true identity. "I am someone with problems of anger or attachment, " "I am someone with great intelligence or love."

Gelug Prasangika explains these four misconceptions in terms of incorrectly imaging that "I" exist as a findable, self-sufficiently knowable "me."

The Meditation

To gain an exceptionally perceptive state of vipashyana through the four close placements of mindfulness, we analyze the four in terms of the characteristics common to them all and then in terms of their individual characteristics.

On the Common Characteristics of the Four

The characteristics common to all four are that they are nonstatic (impermanent), problematic (unsatisfactory or suffering in nature), void, and lacking an impossible soul. These common characteristics are the four features of the first noble truth of true suffering. They are also the first three of the four sealing points for labeling an outlook as based on enlightening speech (lta-ba bka’-btags-gyi phyag-rgya-bzhi), also known as the four hallmarks of the Dharma (chos-kyi sdom-bzhi):

  • All affected (‘dus-byas, conditioned) phenomena are nonstatic (impermanent).
  • All tainted phenomena (zag-bcas, contaminated phenomena) are problematic. "Tainted" means arising dependently on disturbing emotions and attitudes and karmic urges as their causes and conditions. Gelug Prasangika defines "tainted" as having an appearance of true findable existence.
  • All phenomena are devoid and lacking an impossible soul. "Devoid" means they lack a person ("me") that exists as one or many self-sufficiently knowable souls. The lack of an impossible soul is the conclusion that follows: among all knowable phenomena, there is no such thing as a person existing as a self-sufficiently knowable soul. Chittamatra adds to this Vaibhashika and Sautrantika explanation that deals with the impossible soul of a person the same distinction drawn in terms of an impossible soul of phenomena. The impossible soul that Chittamatra means here is one that is a defining characteristic on the side of an object that serves as a basis or "mental hook" on which to hang the specific name for that object. Madhyamaka explains the same distinction between devoid and lacking an impossible soul in terms of truly established existence.

On the Individual Characteristics of the Four

In terms of their individual characteristics, each of the four objects for close placement of mindfulness is related to one of the four discordant manners of paying attention, mentioned above. Based on this, each is correlated with one of the four noble truths.

  • With close placement of mindfulness on the body, we contemplate that the body is unclean and impure, rather than discordantly considering it clean and pure. We reflect on the causes of the body (the dirty substances of sperm and egg), the nature of the body (its insides as a machine for manufacturing urine, excrement, vomit, and mucous), and the result of the body (a stinking, rotting corpse). Also, while alive, the body is a basis for sickness, physical injury, pain, and old age. It requires hard work to take care of it – we must continually clean, clothe, feed, and make money for it. In this way, we realize that the body is unclean, impure, and suffering in nature. Through this insight, our attachment to the body declines so that we are less worried and obsessed by it. Through such realization, we understand the body as true suffering, the first noble truth. Nevertheless, we must use our precious human lives and our bodies to reach enlightenment.
  • With close placement of mindfulness on the feelings, we also observe that all feelings are in the nature of suffering. Pain is the problem of suffering, happiness is the problem of change (it never lasts and is never satisfying), and neutral feelings characterize the all-pervasive affecting problem (all our experiences, when mixed with confusion, perpetuate our samsaric existence). Understanding the unsatisfactory nature of the feeling link of dependent arising helps us to understand the next two links. We understand the link of craving (sred-pa) to be parted from pain, not to be parted from pleasure, and for neutral feelings not to decline (such as when we are asleep). We also understand how craving leads to the obtainer link (len-pa): the link of the disturbing emotions and attitudes that obtain for us continuing samsaric rebirth. They include (1) obtainer desire for desirable sense objects, (2) obtainer deluded outlooks (such as denying cause and effect, or believing that our happiness and suffering are rewards and punishment from God or the gods), (3) an obtainer attitude of holding deluded behavior as what will bring liberation, and (4) an obtainer deluded outlook toward our transitory collection (‘jig-lta) (such as considering our aggregates to be "me" or "mine.") By realizing that all three links arise from the link of unawareness (ignorance), we come to understand the true causes of suffering, the second noble truth.

[See: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising.]

  • With close placement of mindfulness on the mind (the six kinds of primary consciousness), we focus on the conventional nature of mental activity. We experience that it is naturally free of disturbing emotions and attitudes, and also that any disturbing or even positive emotions that arise are nonstatic. This enables us to see how fleeting and changeable our mental activity is and helps us to recognize that it is devoid of an impossible "me" and of all fleeting stains. Realizing that the nature of the mind is pure and thus that liberation is possible leads us to understand the third noble truth, true stoppings. Based on this understanding, we develop renunciation (the determination to be free) and the strong wish to attain liberation.
  • Through close placement of mindfulness on phenomena, we come to understand which mental factors and behavior to rid ourselves of (abandon) and which to adapt. This develops our understanding of true pathway minds, the fourth noble truth.

The practice of close placement of mindfulness means that first we employ discriminating awareness (shes-rab) and intelligence to understand, through discerning meditation (dpyad-sgom, analytical meditation), the nature of these four objects. We do this within the context of our immediate experience as we sit in meditation. Then, we maintain mindfulness on them, considering them correctly with concordant attention.