Part of a series of short teachings given during the Four Establishments of Mindfulness Winter Retreat in 2013. More extensive teachings on the establishments of mindfulness can be found here.
- Mindfulness of the body correlates to the first noble truth
- Attachment to our bodies creates suffering
- Mindfulness of feelings correlates to the second noble truth
- Attachment to our feelings keeps us bound in cyclic existence
- Mindfulness of mind correlates to the third noble truth
- Understanding the true nature of mind leads to true cessation
- Mindfulness of mental phenomena correlates to the fourth noble truth
- Understanding our mental factors results in a path to freedom
Audience: When you talked about the lamrim [referring to the prior teaching], is it about meditating on the kindness of others?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): No, when I said in the lamrim, there are many meditations on the stages of the path. You have lamrim outlines? The topics in the lamrim that I think are especially beneficial here are to meditate on refuge and bodhicitta.
Now the topics, this is going to bring us to the next point that I want to talk about. The four foundations, the four establishments of mindfulness itself, it actually fits into the lamrim in the middle scope for the person who is wanting to generate the determination to be free of samsara. In other words, renunciation, the determination to attain liberation. So you can do the other lamrim meditations that are in the middle scope in your lamrim outline, but I’m thinking that to round your practice off it’s good especially to do bodhicitta and refuge; also because they’re things that uplift your mind. Yesterday I talked about the three scopes of beings. So where does the practice of the four establishments of mindfulness fit in? It fits in the middle scope. If you read the materials that we sent out to you, then you’ll see that each one of the four objects of mindfulness is correlated with one of the four noble truths and is correlated also with one of the four distortions.
Normally the four distortions are all listed under the noble truth of dukkha. Normally they’re found there, but here, they’re being correlated, one with each of the four objects of mindfulness and each of those objects is correlated with one of the four noble truths.
Mindfulness of the body correlates to the first noble truth: Attachment to our bodies creates suffering
The true dukkha, this is what is our reality. What is the nature of our unsatisfactory existence? So here we start out with mindfulness of the body, because our body is the basis of our whole samsara. Sometimes samsara is defined as the five aggregates under the influence of afflictions and karma and the body is the basis of the whole thing.
So we want to look really, really clearly at the body. Now, although all four distortions–of thinking impermanent things are permanent, foul things are beautiful, what is unsatisfactory in nature is happy, what lacks a self has a self–those are the four distortions. Although all four of those actually kind of apply to all four objects, in some way or another, of our mindfulness, in particular the one that applies to the body is seeing what is foul as attractive, as beautiful, as desirable.
And so this is one of the basic things that keeps us hooked in samsara: we think our body is the greatest most fantastic thing that ever came along, and we treasure it. We don’t want to be separated from it. We go to all extremes to give it pleasure and happiness. We pamper our body; we worry about our body. So much time and energy is spent. We have to grow the crops to get the food to feed the body. We have to do so many things to keep this body clean. Then the body ages and we don’t like that. We have self-esteem issues and our body gets sick and it’s uncomfortable. We have to do so many things to keep the body healthier, to get it healthy after it gets sick. Then at the end of the day after the body has aged, then it dies and it completely abandons us. Yet this is the thing that we are never separated from our entire life, that we love and are so attached to. So the question is, “Do we have a healthy relationship with our body?”
Do we have a realistic relationship with our body? We don’t. We think we do, but we don’t. One of the reasons why we don’t have it, is because we think this body is just clean and pure and attractive and spectacular. When we meditate, when we do the various meditations under the mindfulness of the body, those meditations make very clear to us that our body is not how we envisioned it to be and never has been. I won’t explain these meditations, they’re in the handouts, they’re in the chapters, they’re in the videos. But you go through, you look at all the insides of your body. And especially, when your mind gets distracted by sexual interest or lust, you look at the other person’s body and you look at what the insides of their bodies are and what it is you want to hug and kiss. You start out, head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin. Those are the cleanest ones. Those are very interesting.
So, we take a realistic look at that. We look at the body in various stages of decomposition after it dies. We have some anatomy books. We also have some pictures on the computer. Do we have the autopsy pictures that I brought back? I have pictures from autopsies. I went to one autopsy when I was in Thailand and then they gave me pictures of another. I also have photos of the tsunami victims in Southeast Asia. If you think this body is something gorgeous, look at those pictures and you will change your mind. Also when we meditate on the body like this, we realize there is nothing to be attached to. So if we’re not attached to our body, if there’s nothing in this body to be attached to, then that makes dying a whole lot easier. We want to keep this body alive as long as we can so we can use it to practice Dharma, but when death comes there’s no sense clinging to it, because there’s nothing particularly wonderful about it. So that makes just letting go of the body much easier, which makes dying much easier. So there you have the correlation between the distortion of seeing things that are foul as beautiful with the body with the first noble truth, truth of dukkha. So you can see that correlation.
Mindfulness of feelings correlates to the second noble truth: Attachment to our feelings keeps us bound in cyclic existence
The second object of mindfulness is feelings. Here by feelings we mean pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings. Happy, painful, and neutral feelings. Here the word ‘feeling’ doesn’t mean emotions. Repeat. Here the word ‘feeling’ does not mean emotions. That’s actually included in the fourth one–establishment of mindfulness on phenomena. Although the Theravadans often include it in the third one. So there’s some difference.
So our feelings, we are enamored with our feelings aren’t we? Some of us particularly so. “I feel this. I feel that. I feel happy. I feel miserable.” You know, we are totally controlled by feelings of happiness, unhappiness, and misery. Our whole day is spent in reacting to these three feelings. When we have happy feelings, we get attached. We hang on, we don’t want them to end. We want more of them. When we have unpleasant feelings, painful feelings–anger, resentment, hatred arises, because we don’t like them. We want them to go away. We don’t want them to come back. When we have neutral feelings, we space out into total indifference, confusion, ignorance, bewilderment, lack of clarity. So our problem with regards to feelings, when we look we see how each of our feelings is linked to a particular kind of defiled state of mind–it’s linked to one of the three poisonous minds. Then we have to ask ourselves, “Are our feelings all pleasurable? Are they happy?” No, they aren’t.
When we really look, we see that because each of those three feelings is linked to some kind of defilement. And the defilements keep us linked in this cycle of existence and make us take our bodies again and again and again. The feelings that we thought were pleasurable and happy in nature are actually dukkha in nature; they’re unsatisfactory. Like I was explaining before, even pleasant feelings, they don’t last. If we have them long enough the objects that cause them or seem to cause them turn into gross pain. What we want to do is eliminate the distortion of seeing what is suffering in nature as happy. And we also come to better understand the second noble truth–the noble truth of the origins of dukkha. Because we see how our reactions to those three feelings are afflictions, and how afflictions create the karma, and afflictions and karma together keep us bound in cyclic existence. And how afflictions are, in particular, the origin or the cause of dukkha. So that’s how that links up.
Mindfulness of the mind correlates with the third noble truth: Understanding the true nature of mind leads to true cessation
Then when we come to the mind, here the Theravada often explained it as the afflictions and different mental states. His Holiness explains it very much in terms of just the conventional nature of the mind–clarity and awareness. We tend to think that our mind is our identity. “I am my mind.” Sometimes we think, “I’m my body,” but that one it’s a little bit easier to see, “No, I’m not my body.” But we really have this strong feeling, “I am my mind” and that self seems so permanent and the mind seems so real and so permanent.
So the affliction in relationship to the mind is seeing the impermanent as permanent. Now, of course, you know, we see our body and our feelings also–they’re impermanent and we also see them as permanent. But it’s particularly linked here with our mind, because we establish some kind of permanent identity based on the mind. There’s some permanent concept of the self that develops based on the mind. When we meditate on the mind, particularly on its clarity and awareness, we come to see that the fundamental nature of the mind is something pure and undefiled. That leads us to understand the third noble truth, true cessations, because true cessations is the cessation of the afflictions and the karma that causes rebirth. We let go of clinging to some kind of permanent identity or to thinking of our mind as a permanent self. So meditating on the impermanence of the mind helps us to understand that the afflictions are adventitious. They are not the nature of the mind and understanding that helps us understand the third noble truth, true cessations. So that’s the link there.
Mindfulness of phenomena correlates to the fourth noble truth: Understanding our mental factors results in the path to freedom
Then the fourth object is phenomena. Here, phenomena means in particular what to practice on the path and what to abandon on the path. So here we get into all the different mental factors. Here is where we include the afflictions, which are things to abandon on the path. And here we start noticing. We pay attention. We become mindful of the various afflicted emotions and afflictive attitudes. Here’s where we see the negative emotions. We also see the positive emotions. We establish mindfulness on those. The negative emotions are the ones that disturb the mind. They’re to be abandoned. The positive emotions, the positive mental factors are to be practiced.
So we want to be able to identify all of those things. The ones to be abandoned–we want to be able to identify them in our own experience so we can counteract them. We want to be able to identify the positive emotions. We want to identify the thirty-seven facets of awakening–these different kinds of mental factors that are very important for our awakening. They include the eightfold noble path, because all these thirty-seven facets are mental factors–mental states that we want to cultivate that lead us to full awakening or lead us to liberation.
Here is where we really get into discriminating. What is a nonvirtuous state of mind to be abandoned? What is a virtuous state of mind to cultivate? How do I abandon the ones to abandon? What are the antidotes to those? Well, they are some of the good ones. How do I cultivate those good ones? So then we start really learning the teachings and how to cultivate the beneficial mental states, the good mental factors. None of these mental factors are a self. So the distortion that is here with this one–of phenomena, all these mental states–is that there’s the temptation to think that these mental states are the self. Like when we’re angry we get stuck in our anger and we feel like, “I am my anger, I am always angry, anger is my nature, it’s who I am.” It’s not who we are are.
Or we have a good meditation or something auspicious and then we say, “Wow, you know, I feel so good. This is who I am.” Now, that’s not who we are either. So here, the distortion is that we’re grasping things that are not a self, that are not a person as being a person or we’re grasping those things as having their own self nature, as being inherently existent or truly existent themselves. You know, my anger is truly existent. It’s made out of concrete. It can never change. All that is just hallucination on our part. So the distortion that we want to abandon in relationship to all these mental factors is clinging to a self and replace it with the view of selflessness. Doing that helps us understand what to practice, what to abandon and that is the essence of the fourth noble truth, the true path. So true path is involved in counteracting the afflictions by practicing, developing the mental qualities that we need in order to become a liberated being.
It’s pretty neat isn’t it when you look at this schema? Spend some time really thinking about it. Do some analytic or checking meditation on this schema, because it’s really quite something where you see how each of the four is tied to a specific distortion and by removing that distortion it helps you understand more accurately a specific one of the four noble truths. Like I said, each of the four distortions isn’t limited to the one it’s affiliated with. Take the body. The body is foul; we think it is beautiful. The body is impermanent; we think it’s permanent. We think the body has a self; it doesn’t. We think it brings happiness; it doesn’t. So all four of those apply to the body similarly.
Meditating on the four establishments of mindfulness
So this is what you’re wanting to understand. How you’re going to understand it is by doing the specific meditations on the four establishments of mindfulness. So under each object of mindfulness, there are several meditations to do. There are various ways to approach it. One way is to try each one of the meditations that’s in a particular one and try all the different flavors. Another approach is to take one that really interests you and stay with that one for a long time, [go] really deep in it, because the more you meditate on the same thing, the deeper you understand it, the more it affects your mind. On the other hand, it is good to get a general feeling for all the ones in that category. I mean that under each object of mindfulness, there are many meditations. So what I recommend doing is start out with mindfulness of the body and stay with that for a period of time and do the various meditations under that and if one of them really grabs you, stay with that one. Stay with the body for awhile; that one is important. Don’t skip over that. We tend to want to skip over that one, but it’s important.
Then you can go on to the feelings and there are many meditations under that one too. So you can do each one and then settle on one and do that for awhile. Then the same with the mind, the same with phenomena. It’s hard to say–for those of you who are here for twenty-six days or even those of you who are here for all seven weeks–how to structure your time between these four. I can’t tell you, divide your time into four and then do [it equally] like that, because that may not work for you. So I would suggest just start with the body for a while and do that and then, if you feel you’re really getting somewhere with a particular meditation, stay with that. There’s no need to go on to the next one, to hurry to go on to the next one. You don’t have to think, “Oh my, I’ve been on the body for a week. I only have twenty-six days, divide that into four. Okay, I have six and a half days per meditation, but the first body one has so many meditations under that, how am I going to squeeze all of that into four and a half days, that gives so many minutes for each meditation on the body. I can only visualize myself as a blue corpse for 15 minutes and as a red corpse…” You’re going to develop some anxiety if you approach it that way. So I think just relax. Whatever you get through, you get through. It’s nice at some point before the end of the time to have done at least a little bit of meditation on all four. But if you wind up focusing on one rather than the other that’s okay. But like I said, don’t skip over the body.
Also I should say that they are presented in that order for a reason. Why don’t we just go to what to practice and what to abandon, the last one, right away? Because we aren’t so sure that we want to abandon our samsara yet. Why aren’t we sure? Because we haven’t confronted the reality of what this body is and what our pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings link [to] and how we react to those. So if you jump right to the last one, your meditation is not going to be so intense, because you don’t have the motivation that comes from meditating on the first two. Similarly, if you just go immediately to mindfulness of the mind without the first two you’re not going to be able to identify what your mind is, because you need some meditation experience before to know how your mind works. So do them, the four objects, in the order they’re presented. Don’t just skip over.
Questions and Answers
Audience: I was reading through the three chapters and one thing that did strike me was the difference between how the Pali lays out mind and phenomena versus how we do [in the Mahayana tradition]. Do you have any sense of why that is, why they take certain mental factors and put them in the mind, whereas we’re just saving that for…
VTC: It could just be the way their commentators developed that. It could be also that His Holiness in presenting the mind this way is leading us, because His Holiness likes meditation on the mind – the mind, buddha nature, conventional and ultimate nature of the mind. He really likes those. So I think he’s kind of steering us also that way, because he himself has found it particularly useful. But other than that, no, I don’t have any good explanation for why the approach is a little bit different between the two. But you wind up meditating on the same things.
Actually, maybe I do have some reason. In the Mahayana tradition, there is a lot of emphasis on the nature of the mind. The mahamudra tradition, dzogchen tradition grow out of that. The meditation on understanding buddha nature grows out of that. Tantra in all the different Tibetan sects grows out of that. The nature of the mind is quite important, so this particular way of of meditating on it and hooking it especially with true cessations, which His Holiness says again and again. Those of you who were in the south for teachings, he said when you take refuge it’s really important to understand what true cessations are. That’s really important. So this, it could be his way of linking all these things together, drawing them out, and preparing us by doing the mindfulness of the mind for the higher levels of meditation that involve the nature of the mind
VTC: Actually, all three turnings of the wheel pertain to the whole thing. You know what? Nobody’s written a book just specifically about the three turnings of the Dharma wheel. And the Pali tradition doesn’t posit three turnings of the Dharma wheel anyway. This is a classification that was developed later on by those in the Mahayana tradition. So that’s a way of classifying different sutras and different treatises, but I haven’t seen… The Sutra Unravelling the Thought talks a lot about that, but there isn’t some nice clean, clear book that is about the three turnings of the Dharma wheel. It’s something that would make a very good book. Somebody should write about it some time. Suggest it to Jeffrey [Hopkins] or to Guy [Newland]. Yes, we should ask Guy to do it.