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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > Comparison of Buddhist Traditions > Theravada Practice of the Four Close Placements of Mindfulness

Theravada Practice of the Four Close Placements of Mindfulness

Alexander Berzin, March 2004
(based on Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. Mindfulness with Breathing. Boston: Wisdom, 1996.)

There are four close placements of mindfulness (dran-pa nyer-bzhag, Skt. smrtyupasthana, Pali: satipatthana): on the body, on the feelings, on the mind, and on the true nature of things (chos, Skt. dharma, Pali: dhamma). Mindfulness (dran-pa, Sanskrit: smrti, Pali: sati) is the mental factor which, like a mental glue, prevents us from losing an object of concentration. Although there are several variations in ways to practice them, here we shall examine the Thai Theravada methods as taught by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.

Mindfulness Closely Placed on the Body

Through closely placing mindfulness on the different types of breath, we come to understand that the breath affects the body. We learn that controlling the breath leads to control of the body.

Mindfulness Closely Placed on the Feelings

Through closely placing mindfulness on the different kinds of feelings of happiness and unhappiness, we come to understand that the feelings affect the mind. We learn that controlling the feelings leads to control of the mind.

Mindfulness Closely Placed on the Mind

Through mindfulness closely placed on the different thoughts, we come to recognize when the thoughts are under the control of longing desire (‘dod-chags, Skt. raga, Pali: raga), hostility (zhe-sdang, Skt. dvesha, Pali: dosa) and naivety (gti-mug, Skt. moha, Pali: moha), and when they are not. We come to recognize when the mind is restless (rgod-pa, Skt. auddhatya, Pali: uddhacca, flightiness of mind) or content (bde-ba, Skt. su:kha, Pali: sukkha, happy) and exceptionally perceptive (lhag-mthong, Skt. vipashyana, Pali: vipassana), when it is distracted or concentrated, when it is bound or free. We learn to control the mind by controlling the thoughts, so that our minds can gain a supreme state of being freed. Thus, at this stage, we learn how to gain absorbed concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin, Skt. samadhi, Pali: samadhi). By learning to let go of restlessness and distracting rambling thoughts, we attain absorbed concentration. Such concentration has three qualities of being stable or firm, being purified of any disturbing factor, and being fit for application to anything.

We then apply the skill of letting go to letting go of the four types of objects of the obtainer mental factors (len-pa, Skt. upadana) – the mental factors through which we obtain continuing samsaric rebirth. Through seeing the suffering that grasping on to them brings us, we let go of

  • sense objects to which we are attached,
  • distorted incorrect views, theories, opinions, and beliefs,
  • activities and practices based on religious and secular superstition and incorrect views,
  • everything that we are attached to as "me" and "mine."

Mindfulness Closely Placed on the Nature of Things

Through mindfulness closely placed on the first three objects once more, but now with absorbed concentration, we gain mindfulness closely placed on their natures. We focus mindfulness closely once more (1) on the breath, (2) on the feelings of zest (dga’-ba, Skt. priti, Pali: piti, fresh joyful interest) and the feelings of the happiness (delight) of contentment that results from our absorbed mindfulness, and then (3) on the thoughts. We observe their constant changing, and the constant changing of everything they affect, and thus we realize the nonstaticness (mi-rtag-pa, Skt. anitya, Pali: anicca, impermanence) of all affecting variables (‘dus-byas, Skt. samskara, Pali: sankhara, conditioned phenomena). Affecting variables include the factors that affect other factors, the factors that are affected by them, and the activity or process of something affecting something else. In realizing the nonstaticness of all of them, we also realize their nature of suffering (their never being satisfying) (sdug-bsngal, Skt: du:kha, Pali: dukkha).

We only fully realize the nonstaticness of all affecting variables when we realize, through the continuing close placement of mindfulness and scrutiny of our objects of focus, four further features concerning all affecting variables. The realization of nonstaticness and suffering leads to the realization of the first further feature, realization of the first leads to realization of the second, and so forth.

  • Lack of an impossible soul (bdag-med, Skt: anatmya, Pali: anatta, selflessness, identitylessness). From focusing, with mindfulness and realization, on the nonstatic, unsatisfying affecting variables, we realize that they are beyond our control.
  • Voidness (stong-nyid, Skt. shunyata, Pali: sunnata). From focusing, with mindfulness and realization, on the nonstatic, unsatisfying affecting variables that are beyond our control, we realize that they are devoid of being either "me" or "mine."
  • The accordant nature (de-bzhin-nyid, Skt. tathata, Pali: tathata). From focusing, with mindfulness and realization, on the nonstatic, unsatisfying affecting variables that are beyond our control and devoid of being either "me" or "mine," we realize that they are just like that. That is their accordant nature.
  • Conditionality (de-rkyen-nyid?, Skt. idampratyayata, Pali: idappacayata). From focusing, with mindfulness and realization, on the nonstatic, unsatisfactory affecting variables that are beyond our control, devoid of being either "me" or "mine," and just like that, we realize the state of their having true karmic causes as the conditions for their arising. Namely, we realize the connection of the causal links of dependent arising with the resultant links of the affecting variables of samsaric rebirths that ripen from them.

Only the realization of the nonstaticness of the affecting variables having all these features is the full realization of nonstaticness through close placement of mindfulness.

  • According to the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika traditions of Hinayana, we realize voidness first and then the lack of an impossible soul. Voidness refers to a person (gang-zag) being devoid of one or many self-sufficiently knowable souls (rang-rkya thub-‘dzin-pa’i rdzas-yod-kyi bdag). This we prove with valid inferential cognition, relying on the force of logic. The lack of an impossible soul is the conclusion that we need logically to infer from this: a person is devoid of any such thing as a self-sufficiently knowable soul.

According to Theravada, the full realization of the nonstaticness of the affecting variables gradually dissolves the four kinds of obtainer mental factors.

  • From focusing, with mindfulness and realization, on their gradual fading, we realize nonattachment to them (‘dod-chags med-pa, Skt. viraga, Pali: viraga).
  • From focusing, with mindfulness and realization, on the nonattachment to the variable factors that we experience, we realize even-mindedness toward them (btang-snyoms, Skt. upeksha, Pali: upekkha). We focus on them without attachment, repulsion, naivety, or any other disturbing emotion or attitude.
  • We then focus on the true stopping we have attained (‘gog-pa, Skt. nirodha, Pali: nirodha) of attachment to "me," of the disturbing emotions and attitudes, of all suffering. The stopping of all suffering means the stopping of (1) all fear of birth, aging, sickness, and death, (2) all symptoms of suffering such as pain, sorrow, sadness, and despair, (3) all hopes or desires for attractive or even for unattractive things, and (4) all regard of any of the five aggregate factors as "me" or "mine." This is the attainment of nibanna (Skt. nirvana).

The final step is throwing back (Pali: patinissagga), which means throwing back everything that we have appropriated as "mine." We let go of all the burdens that trapped us in samsaric existence (‘jig-rten-pa, Skt. lokita, Pali: lokiya, worldly existence) and live a completely freed and liberated existence beyond samsara (‘jig-rten-las ‘das-pa, Skt. lokottara, Pali: lokuttara, beyond worldly existence).