In the Mahayana tradition, mindfulness is regarded as wisdom, transcendental knowledge, which is known in Sanskrit as prajna. Mindfulness is also a method of working with our mind. It is the method of recollection, of watchfulness, which develops into the stage of awareness. But if you look at this mindfulness and awareness, you will see that there is not much difference between them. Once you have developed the discipline of mindfulness, awareness is simply the continuity of that mindfulness.
There are several stages we progress through in our study and cultivation of prajna. These become the means for integrating our understanding into our experience, and progressively developing that experience into the full state of realization. In this article, I will discuss the four foundations of mindfulness as they are understood and practiced in the general Buddhist approach and in the Mahayana tradition.
Four Objects of Mindfulness Practice
In the path of the four mindfulnesses, there are four objects of meditation. The first is the body, the second is feeling, and the third is mind. The fourth object is called phenomena, or dharmas in Sanskrit.
We have different samsaric relationships with each of these four objects. Through clinging to these four objects and relating to them in a most neurotic way, the whole universe, the whole world of samsara, is created. But by using these four objects as the objects of our meditation, we can develop a sane relationship with them. We can transcend our usual relationship with these four objects and develop more direct and profound ways of dealing with them.
The object of body serves as the basis of clinging to oneself as an existent, permanent ego. To that we add feeling, something to be experienced by this self. Then we have mind, which is what we relate to as the real self. When we try to point to the self, the ego, we usually point to our consciousness, our basic sense of mind. That is the actual object of self-clinging, which cannot exist without body (or form in general) and feeling. Mind cannot really express itself without the body and feeling. Therefore mind, in the third stage of mindfulness, is the basic idea of consciousness, of awareness.
Finally, we have the fourth object, phenomena. Ordinarily, we relate to phenomena as the basis of confusion. However, from this perspective, phenomena are seen as the basis of both confusion and liberation, of samsara and nirvana. Samsara and nirvana appear and are experienced on the basis of phenomena.
Our misunderstandings and unhealthy relationships with these four objects lead us into the vicious circle of samsara. Samsara’s game of illusion arises from a lack of prajna in our relationships with these four objects. Therefore, we develop prajna so we can relate with them more profoundly, as well as more basically.
The Essence of Mindfulness
What is mindfulness? The essence of mindfulness is the prajna of seeing—the wisdom that understands and experiences the true nature of form, the true nature of feeling, the true nature of mind, and the true nature of phenomena. To practice this means to focus, place or relate your mind closely with these four situations or objects. Relating with these four objects directly with our prajna means experiencing them without any labels. This is what we call the practice of mindfulness.
The essence of these practices is experiencing these four objects without any barrier between you as the knower and the experienced object. The absence of any barrier is prajna. Prajna is also without coloring; therefore, we see the objects’ basic state and relate with that. The fundamental simplicity of the object is the essence or nature of mindfulness.
If you examine these four mindfulnesses, you will recognize that they involve working with the five skandhas. The mindfulness of body relates to the skandha of form. The mindfulness of feeling relates to the skandha of feeling. The mindfulness of mind relates to the skandha of consciousness, which is the fifth skandha. And the mindfulness of dharmas, or phenomena, relates to the other two skandhas, which are perception and formation, or concepts. Keeping this in mind helps us to understand these four mindfulnesses.
First Foundation: Mindfulness of Body
The method of practicing the four foundations begins with mindfulness of the body. There are two ways of viewing the practice of the mindfulness of body. The first is the general Buddhist approach, which is the most fundamental way of looking at this mindfulness. The second approach specifically reflects the Mahayana point of view.
The mindfulness of body, or form, relates to our fundamental sense of existence, which is normally unstable and ungrounded due to our samsaric tendencies. Our existence is very wild, like a mad elephant. That’s why we work with form as the first stage of mindfulness practice. In particular, we work with three different levels of form. These are the outer form of our physical existence, the inner form of our perceptions, and the innermost form, which is related to the Mahayana understanding of the selflessness of body.
The Outer Form of Body
In the general Buddhist approach, we work with the outer form of our physical existence. We try to understand what this existence is, what this physical form is. Usually, we experience our physical body as existing “out there” somewhere. We feel that our body exists outside of our mind. Also, we feel that it exists in a definite, very solid way. That is our fundamental experience of body, and it goes wild in our usual situation of life. Through the practice of mindfulness, we calm down the wildness of our physical existence and bring it to a certain level of groundedness. By bringing it into the present, we bring it to what it actually is, rather than thinking about what it is.
For example, we may ponder such questions as, “Is the body matter or mind?” However, forget about such philosophical or theoretical divisions. At this point, we simply relate with our physical sense of existence—that is the mindfulness of body. If we approach this with too much philosophy or analysis, it becomes complicated. Trying to see if body is mind or matter, if it’s a projection or not, prevents us from relating directly to what it is. The Buddha talks about this basic approach in the sutras, when he says things like, “When you see, just see. When you smell, just smell. When you touch, simply touch. And when you feel, simply feel.”
We are using very basic logic here to relate to the most fundamental level of our experience. For example, when we sit down on a meditation cushion, we experience various physical sensations, such as gravity, which are basic to our existence. Just being there with that is what we call mindfulness of body, and that mindfulness also involves a certain prajna, an understanding what it actually is.
The Inner Form of the Body
That experience takes us to the inner state of physical existence, which is seeing the reality of the relative existence of self. That is a very simple experience. In the general Buddhist approach, we simply sit and be with our body, not with our mind, so to speak. In this exercise, it’s possible for us to have a sense of the profound presence of our body, the profound experience of just being whatever it is. That experience is the inner experience of the physical self.
At this stage, we go further into the subtlety of our physical nature. We see our own impermanent nature, which is the subtle experience of the mindfulness of body. That experience is a profound realization. The Buddha said that of all footprints, the deepest imprint is the footprint of the elephant. Similarly, the Buddha said, the most precious and deepest impression that any thought can make on the progress of our path is the thought of impermanence. Therefore, the realization of the impermanence of our body is a very profound mindfulness practice.
The Innermost Form of the Body
At the Mahayana level, we go beyond the simple physical presence of body. At this point, we relate to the way the body is experienced. The way we experience our body is simply our perception, our reflection, our projection. As far as the Mahayana path is concerned, there is nothing solid beyond that—there is no real existence of an outer physical body.
Through the practice of reflecting on our physical existence, our discipline of mindfulness develops into seeing with awareness—we are seeing a much deeper level of the physical self. We’re discovering the true nature of the experience of body. Here, we’re approaching the level of absolute reality, rather than remaining on the relative level where we see only the relative nature of mind, body and mindfulness. We are going to the depths of mindfulness, which is the absolute truth. Therefore, when we talk about this mindfulness in the Mahayana sense, we are talking about the selflessness of the body, which is very different from the general Buddhist approach.
The Dream Example
At this level we are dealing with our projections. We see that the physical world we experience is not necessarily solid and real. This can be understood clearly through the example of a dream. When we are dreaming, we have subject, we have object, and we have the action between the subject and the object. This is the experience of the threefold situation. As long as we remain in the dream state, we experience these three things as solid and existing.
But these three exist only in the dream state—if you look back at your dream after waking up, they do not exist. And if you look back at yesterday’s experience of life, it does not exist. Neither your dream of last night nor your experience of yesterday is solid, as far as today is concerned. There’s no sound basis for saying that yesterday’s events were more solid than last night’s dream. There’s no logical reason, except that we cling to our dreamlike experience of yesterday more than to our experience of last night’s dream.
Therefore, in the Mahayana path, our whole experience of the body and the physical world is seen as simply a projection of our mind. It is a production of our karmic mind and will remain as long as we remain in this dream of samsara.
Maintaining the discipline of seeing the dreamlike nature of our body is mindfulness of body in the Mahayana path. But in order to really practice this mindfulness of body, we must begin with the Theravadin approach of simply being there in the physical sense, experiencing the presence of our body. Then, going further into the experience of body, we see the illusory, dreamlike nature of our body as a reflection of our mind. Finally, going into the depth of that experience, we see body as emptiness.
That is the complete practice of mindfulness of body. Practices such as sitting or walking meditation are situations where we can have strong experiences of this mindfulness. In contrast, we usually go about our regular existence in the world mindlessly, and we do not really experience our own presence on the physical level.
The Second Foundation: Mindfulness of Feeling
The practice of the second foundation, mindfulness of feeling, is relating to our basic existence as samsaric beings. In the general Buddhist approach, “feeling” refers to working with our basic fear, which is the fear of suffering, or the fear of fear. Actually, fear itself is not suffering, but the fear of fear is the most troubling presence in the realm of our feeling.
Therefore, mindfulness of feeling relates with the three objects of our existence in the samsaric world: the pleasant object, the unpleasant object and the neutral object. In relation to these three objects, we experience three different states or aspects of fear. Towards the pleasant object, we feel a fear of attachment, a fear of desire. Towards the unpleasant object, we feel a fear of hatred or aggression. And towards the neutral object, we feel a fear of neutral feeling, of numbness or stupidity. We daily experience these three aspects of feeling in surviving our existence in the samsaric world.
To relate with these three feelings, the Buddha taught that we have to relate properly to the three objects—to understand them and work with their nature. He said that when we examine the nature of these three feelings and their three objects, we discover that the fundamental nature of all of them is suffering. The pleasant object, the unpleasant object and the neutral object all have the same nature of suffering, regardless of whether we’re relating to attachment, aggression or ignorance. Consequently, practicing mindfulness of suffering is the mindfulness of feeling, and relating with the three objects is the way to relate with the three levels of suffering.
The Three Levels of Suffering
The practice here is to meditate on the three expressions of suffering and to experience their nature. The Buddha said there is one word that can describe the meaning of suffering, and that is fear. Fear is what suffering means. But what is this fear? It is the fear of losing something that is pleasant, something that is very dear and beloved, something to which you have become attached. It is also the fear of gaining something that is unpleasant and that you don’t want. Overall, you always get what you don’t want, and you don’t get what you really want. Therefore, we have three levels of suffering, which we call the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and all-pervasive suffering.
All-pervasive suffering is the fundamental fear that exists whether we’re feeling happy or down. All of our feelings are pervaded by this fundamental fear, which is why it is called “all-pervasive suffering.” It’s compared in traditional Buddhist literature to developing a fatal disease that has not fully ripened. You haven’t really experienced it yet, but its presence is there all of the time, growing every minute. That kind of fundamental situation is known as all-pervasive suffering, which grows into the suffering of change.
The traditional metaphor for the suffering of change is a very delicious cookie baked with poison. When you eat that cookie, it’s very pleasurable—but it is deadly poisonous. In order to show that more dramatically, Shantideva, in the Bodhicharyavatara, said the suffering of change is like honey on a razor blade. When we lick this honey, it’s very sweet, and because of our desire and attachment, we want more and more all the time. With our poverty mentality, we lick the honey harder each time we experience its sweetness, and the harder we lick the honey, the deeper we cut our tongue on the razor blade. So the suffering of change is experienced initially as a pleasurable, pleasing feeling, but it leads us to suffering.
The suffering of change leads us to the suffering of suffering, which is the most obvious level of suffering. This simply means that, in addition to our fundamental fear, we accumulate further sufferings, one on top of the other. For example, after experiencing the delicious honey, we notice that we have cut off our tongue. When we notice that our tongue is gone, not only do we feel the pain of our wound, we also realize we won’t be able to taste the sweetness of honey again in this lifetime.
As we work with and examine the three levels of experience—pleasant, unpleasant and neutral—we can see they are related with the three sufferings. Pleasurable feelings are connected to the suffering of change, unpleasant feelings connected to the suffering of suffering, and the neutral state of mind is connected to fundamental suffering, all-pervasive suffering. So mindfulness of feeling is being totally watchful and present with every level of our fear. This is the mindfulness of feeling from the perspective of the general Buddhist approach.
Mahayana Approach: Fearlessness and Selflessness
In the Mahayana tradition, mindfulness of feeling means seeing the selfless nature of suffering, which is seeing the true nature of fear as not being fear. On the most fundamental level, our suffering is fear of being in the state of fear. Relating to this fundamental fear without fear is the way to practice Mahayana mindfulness of feeling.
What we are doing here is simply looking at our fear. We experience our suffering—our so-called suffering—nakedly, without any filters of fear. That’s how the Mahayana mindfulness works. Looking at it directly, face-to-face, we transcend our fear and become a fearless warrior on the Mahayana path. Without working with the mindfulness of feeling, which deals directly with our fear, it is very difficult to follow the path of Mahayana. Without it, there’s no way to become a fearless warrior.
The Third Foundation: Mindfulness of Mind
The third stage of mindfulness is working directly with our basic state of mind, which is our consciousness or awareness. We’re not speaking of one giant, all-pervasive mind, which does not exist in any case. In the general Buddhist approach, the mind refers here to a detailed classification of mind, and our practice is working with every single experience of our consciousness. We have a very detailed explanation of mind, and our practice is being mindful of every individual movement of our mind, every momentary experience of thought, perception and memory.
In the Mahayana tradition, mindfulness of mind is closely connected to the meditative experience, beginning with our practice of shamatha and vipashyana and continuing all the way up to tantra. The Vajrayana practices are closely connected to this mindfulness of mind.
In this practice, we develop the discipline of watching our mind—guarding the mind and bringing it down to some experience of groundedness. Right now, our mind is up in the air. It’s totally in the state of dreaming, in the state of non-reality, in the state of nonexistence. This mindfulness brings the mind down to the fundamental state of nowness—nowness of this reality, of this moment. That is the mindfulness of mind in the Mahayana.
Dwelling in the Past and Anticipating the Future
Because of the dream state that is our basic experience of mind, we have never, ever lived. We have never, ever lived in all of these years. We think we are living. We believe we are living. We dream we are living. But although we imagine we are living, we have never actually lived.
We are either in the state of “having lived” or “will be living”—that’s how our mind functions in the samsaric world. Often, our mind is dwelling in and dreaming about the past. Experiences of the past are always occurring in our mind, and we are always “sort of living” in the state of past memories. Our mind has never been free to live in the present: it’s always under the dictatorship of our memories of the past or dreams of the future. We have a long list of plans for how we will live in the future—how we will practice, how we will achieve this and that—and we invest our energy, time and effort in these dreams. As a result, we may actually achieve a certain number of our dreams, but when the future becomes the present, we don’t have the time or prajna to experience it. We don’t have the space, the freedom, to enjoy the dreams that have come true in the present.
We have totally, totally, gone out of control. We have lost our freedom and our dreams, along with our basic beliefs in those dreams. Our idea of living has altogether disappeared, slipped out of our hands, like the present moment. Therefore, this practice of mindfulness teaches us to bring our mind to a greater state of freedom. It teaches us to free our mind from the imprisonment of dwelling in the past or future. In that freedom, we are able to experience the actual sense of living, the simplicity of being completely present with our living state of mind.
The Present Moment
When we look at it, the present state of our mind is a very tiny spot. It’s a very tiny and slippery spot, so tiny and slippery that we always miss it. It’s so tiny that it’s an infinite spot.
The whole purpose of mindfulness of mind is to bring us back to this tiny spot of the present, the momentary nature of our mind, and to experience the infinite space and freedom within that speck of existence. In order to do that, we must experience the lively nature of our mind, which is so present, so momentary and so fresh. Every individual moment, every individual fragment of that mind, is completely pure and fresh in its own state.
The whole point is to experience this freshness and genuineness—the honest face of that tiny spot—without coloring it with our memories, concepts, philosophies or expectations. Experiencing it without all these is what we call simply being there. That can’t happen if we don’t let go of our memories of our understanding, our memories of our expectations. We have to see the nature of our thoughts directly and genuinely be there, rather than living in our memories of understanding, our memories of meditation, or our memories of our expectations of our meditation. If we are living in the memory of thoughts, then we are still not being there. We are still not experiencing that fundamental, tiny, infinite spot.
To the extent that we live in the memory of thoughts, we are not experiencing the freedom of space. To the extent that we live in the memory of understanding, while we may have good memories or a good understanding, it’s like we are decorating our prison. Our prison may look a little better and more refreshing, but we still are living within a limited space. We haven’t freed ourselves from the prison of dwelling in the past and anticipating the future. Mindfulness of mind is being there in that tiny spot, that infinite space, and that only comes through totally letting go of our expectations. When we totally let go of our thoughts, we totally free our thoughts.
In a way our thoughts are imprisoning us. On the other hand, we are imprisoning them. We imprison our thoughts in the same way they imprison us. We’re not letting thought be thought. We’re not letting these thoughts be thoughts in their own state. We are coloring them. We are clothing them. We’re painting the face of our thoughts. We’re putting hats and boots on them.
That’s very uncomfortable for the thoughts. We may not recognize it, but if you really look at the thoughts themselves, it’s very uncomfortable for them to be what we want them to be. It’s like dressing up a monkey in the circus. The monkey is all dressed up in a beautiful tuxedo and bow tie, with a dignified hat and beautiful shiny boots. But you can imagine the discomfort the monkey feels at that point. No matter how beautiful he may look, no matter how dignified this monkey may appear to be, from the point of view of the monkey’s basic instinct, it’s uncomfortable to put up with all the expectations of your human boss.
Freeing our Thoughts and Ourselves
Mindfulness of mind is freeing our thoughts and coming back to the basic spot. How do we practice this? In our meditation and post-meditation, we have to recognize the arising of our thoughts and emotions. We have to acknowledge them at the first stage of their arising. For example, if strong anger arises in our mind, the first thing to do is simply to recognize it. However, we have to recognize it again and again, because it only exists in this tiny spot. Every moment, every fragment, is a new anger. One anger may have hundreds of moments, and we have to distinguish these moments as many times as they appear.
Then, when we identify a moment of anger, we just let the anger be anger. We give some freedom to the anger. As much as we want freedom from our anger, our anger is striving for freedom from us. Therefore, at this stage of recognition, we must let it go, allow it to be in its own state. There is a great need for us to practice this, because recognition is the first stage in working with our thoughts, the first stage of freeing our thoughts and freeing ourselves.
Recognition: The Speed Bump
Recognition is like a speed bump. What does a speed bump do? It slows us down; it slows down the speed of our car. The purpose of the speed bump is not to stop the car, and the purpose of recognizing our anger is not to stop it. Recognition slows down the speed of our klesha mind. Whether it’s anger, passion or jealousy we’re feeling, it slows down the speed of that klesha mind. In the process of slowing down, we are creating more space, and in the space created by the simple moment of recognition is the space of wisdom, of compassion, of love and of mindfulness.
This space will help us handle this car we are driving. That gives a greater sense of safety not only to us as the driver but also to the pedestrians who are walking on the street. We’re not creating more space just for ourselves; it’s for others, too. We’re creating some space between ourselves and our anger, between ourselves and our klesha mind. The space we experience because of the speed bump is this tiny spot, which is the beginning of experiencing our infinite space.
Three Stages of Recognition
There are three stages of recognition. The first stage is recognizing the very tip of the arising of thought. This is the very first moment of the movement of thought or emotion. This is the foremost way of recognizing thought, which happens only after we have some shinjang, some development of suppleness in our practice.
The second stage of recognition is recognizing thought when it has arisen. At this stage, our thoughts are a little bit grown-up. It’s like diagnosing a disease at a later stage of development. Because it has already developed, its treatment requires a little more work. It’s a little bit late, but still manageable.
The third stage of recognition is recognizing thought after everything has happened. We don’t recognize thought until after it has arisen and grown to the full-blown stage. This is like recognizing our monkey in the zoo. We recognize our monkey wearing the full tuxedo, but it’s a little late, because we have totally imprisoned him at that stage. We have totally imprisoned our emotions, our thoughts, and ourselves. This is the stage where our disease is fully grown, and there’s nothing much we can do except to take painkillers and wait.
These are the three stages of recognition; the Mahayana path very much emphasizes the first stage. Through the development of our courage, skill and compassion, we increase our power to recognize thought at its very beginning. As soon as any thoughts or emotions arise, at the very first trace of their arising, we must try to maintain our mindfulness. In this process, we’re letting emotions be emotions and mind be mind—we simply observe the movement of mind and work with it. When we experience that tiny spot of the nowness, we are experiencing the infinite space of our mind, the infinite space of our thoughts, and the infinite space of our emotions. We are freeing our thoughts and emotions, and we are freeing ourselves at that very moment.
In a way, it’s a very simple process, although it takes many words to describe it. In the practice of meditation, we repeatedly bring our mind back to its present state of nowness, to the present momentary fragment of our mind. That’s why we use all these different techniques—to come back to that very tiny spot and experience its infinite space. That is the whole purpose of our meditation.
The Fourth Foundation: The Mindfulness of Phenomena
The fourth mindfulness is called the mindfulness of phenomena, or the mindfulness of dharmas. After working with the mindfulness of mind, this mindfulness brings us to the next stage, which is panoramic awareness of the phenomenal world.
The phenomenal world is not only within our mind. The phenomenal world is also the object of our mind. It is the world we experience with our body, speech and mind. Relating with these surrounding phenomena in a mindful way is what we call the mindfulness of phenomena.
In the general Buddhist approach, this mindfulness means recognizing the interdependent relationship between our mind and the phenomenal world. This means having a 360-degree awareness of the phenomenal world existing around us. The mindfulness of phenomena is having the prajna to relate directly and precisely with the world outside, without any fear and without any conceptions. Without any philosophical conceptions, we relate to the most fundamental state of phenomena.
What we are working with here are the six objects of our sensory perceptions. We work with form, sound, smell, taste, touch and dharmas. The sixth sensory object, dharmas, is also called the mind perception. Working with these six objects in a precise way leads to a full understanding of the true nature of pratityasamutpada, the interdependent origination of the phenomenal world. That begins with understanding the twelve links of interdependent origination, known as the twelve nidanas.
Beginning with the twelve nidanas, the Mahayana understanding of interdependent origination is that everything arises from emptiness and dissolves into emptiness. There is no separation between appearance and emptiness. Emptiness arises from appearance, and appearance arises from emptiness. Basically, we are talking about the inseparability of the two truths. There is no absolute truth without the relative truth, and there’s no relative truth without the absolute truth. They depend on each other.
Therefore, in the Mahayana, mindfulness of phenomena means understanding the emptiness of phenomena, the egolessness of phenomena. That realization is developed through the cultivation of the three prajnas of hearing, contemplating and meditating. By going through this three-stage process of analyzing the phenomenal world from the Mahayana perspective, we can realize the nonexistence, or selflessness, of these outer phenomena, which we had previously believed to be solid and real.
Analytical Meditation: The Gong
We practice this mindfulness by taking the objects of our sensory perceptions as the objects of our meditation, and analyzing them by being present with each object in the tiny spot of its existence. Through the analytical meditation process, this state of nowness—the state of the present—clicks us into the experience of infinite space.
Take the ringing of a gong. The actual beauty of the sound is produced by our effort. First, we pick up the striker with our hand, then we move our hand and the striker to ring the gong. From that the sound is produced, the beautiful humming sound, which is beyond our hand, our effort, the striker and the bell itself. It is beyond all of this, beyond the combination. It is beyond all this existence.
As beginners, we get attached to the beauty of that sound. As soon as we hear it, we become totally passionate about it, so we unskillfully grasp the gong. We want to hug the gong and make it all our own and say, “I got it!” In that process, we have already frozen this beautiful humming sound. As soon as we say, “I got it,” it’s gone miles away.
At a certain point, when we reach the peak of holding on to the gong, we can totally let go. We can let go of the thought of hugging the gong, of touching it and making it ours. Only then can we live in the presence of this beautiful sound of humming.
It is through analytical meditation that this beautiful humming sound of the experience of selflessness, the shunyata experience, is produced. The analytical process is equivalent to the ringing of the gong, and our effortless enjoyment of the beautiful humming sound that is produced corresponds to resting meditation. The resting meditation experience of egolessness is very difficult to attain without the analytical process of meditation. In order to let go of our attachment to the gong, we need to ring the bell again and again. It is the work we do in analytical meditation that leads us to the stage of resting meditation.
On the basic Buddhist level, the result of these four mindfulnesses is the realization or actualization of the Four Noble Truths. Through the mindfulness of body and the mindfulness of feeling, we come to the realization of the truths of suffering and the