Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The objects of mindfulness and the misconceptions to overcome

The objects of mindfulness and the misconceptions to overcome

A series of teachings on the four establishments of mindfulness given at Kunsanger North retreat center near Moscow, Russia, May 5-8, 2016. The teachings are in English with Russian translation.

  • Being mindful of the five precepts
  • The difference between secular and Buddhist mindfulness practice
  • The four objects of mindfulness
  • The four misconceptions to overcome

The four establishments of mindfulness retreat 01 (download)

We’re going to have a vacation with the Buddha. Buddha is a very good person to go on vacation with. He doesn’t oversleep, he doesn’t get grumpy, he’s always cooperative. So, we also should not oversleep and [we should] be pleasant-natured and cooperative. When we do retreat, there are some guidelines that it’s good for everybody to participate in because they keep us together as a group, so that we can really support each other. 

These are the five precepts that we’ll keep for the duration of the retreat.

The first one is to abandon killing. I don’t think you’re going to kill anybody here. Also, not animals or insects. The most treasured possession of each living being is their own life. If we keep the precept of non-killing, then everybody can feel safe around us, nobody will be afraid, and it becomes a real contribution to world peace. Sometimes we look at what’s happening in the world and we go, “My goodness, ugh, what can I do to help?” But if we keep even one precept, like abandon killing, that’s significant. It contributes to world peace. All it takes is one person who doesn’t keep that precept to completely turn society upside-down. 

The second precept is to avoid stealing, so not taking what hasn’t been freely given to us. Again, that really contributes to feeling safe with each other because it means that wherever we leave our stuff, nobody is going to take it and claim it for their own. 

The third precept is to avoid unwise and unkind sexual behavior. And in the context of a retreat, there will be no sexual behavior whatsoever. That makes things very easy, because then you don’t need to worry about putting on good clothes so that you look attractive to somebody, and you don’t need to think, “Oh, where is he doing his walking meditation. I’ll do my walking meditation nearby.” You don’t need to think about any of that.

The fourth is to abandon lying, especially lying about spiritual attainments, making people think that we’ve gained realizations that we don’t have. And of course, all the other lies we tell. Also, it’s important not to lie to ourselves. One way we lie to ourselves is with our self-talk, when we say, “I’m such a horrible person, and I can’t do anything right.” When you really look at those statements, they’re not true. We should abandon those kinds of false statements, even thinking them about ourselves.

And then, no intoxicants. So, that means tobacco, alcohol, illegal drugs, and abuse of legal drugs. But if you have prescription drugs and you follow them according to your doctor’s instructions, definitely keep taking them. 

We can see that if we all agree to live according to these five guidelines, then we can share the space together in a very peaceful, harmonious way. I think most people come for retreat because they want to learn how to have inner peace. This is one way to do it. 

Our theme for the retreat is the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. When we’re mindful of our precepts—mindful of how our body moves, mindful of how we use our speech—that is part of the four establishments of mindfulness. I suggest that we keep these precepts with a motivation of compassion, wanting others to have happiness and be free of suffering, and then live together in these guidelines out of respect for each other, knowing that it will create a safe, harmonious environment for all of us.

Compassion is one of the chief things that we’ll be talking about during the retreat. Sometimes we think, “Oh, yes, I’ll have compassion for people on the other side of the world who are starving. Strangers far away, I have compassion for them. But the people I live with who do things I don’t like, I have no compassion.” It’s true, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s easier to have compassion—“Oh, all those people in Africa somewhere…” But your roommate who snores? Oh! Terrible! We must develop compassion for the very people in our lives who we share the space with. One way to live our compassion is by keeping the precepts

In line with the precept not to lie, often during retreats we also have time where we all keep silence together. I’m proposing that we keep silence until after lunch every day. In the afternoon you can talk, but only about the Dharma. Not about sports, not about shopping, but keep our talk on the Dharma. And then go into silence again after the evening meal, and keep silence after the evening meal until after lunch the next day.

I know for some people silence can be a little bit scary because in their family, when there was silence, it meant somebody was mad and about to blow up. But that’s not why we’re keeping silent. We’re keeping silent out of respect for each other so that we all have time and space to become our own friends without being distracted by a lot of conversation. 

Also, when we keep silence, then we don’t need to create a personality and tell other people all about us. “Here’s my name, this is what I do, this is what I like, this is what I don’t like, this is where I’ve traveled, this this this.” All about me. We don’t need to do that. It’s a very nice break from creating personalities and identities. Nobody cares what kind of work you do, nobody cares about all these kinds of things, so you just have some space to be who you are. We’re all here together learning the Buddha’s teachings, and that’s what’s important.

One way that we show compassion and respect for each other is by coming on time. Because if people come late when we’re meditating, then it disturbs others. Right when I said, “When people come late,” the cat walked in. She knew this was her last chance to come in.

We’ll start with prayers every session. The purpose of the prayers is to align our minds so that we think in accord with the way the great masters think. What’s nice about having the written verses is it tells us good attitudes and emotions to try and cultivate. As we go through the weekend, I’ll explain the meaning of the different recitations. The recitations are a time for you to cultivate your personal relationship with the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Because when we recite them, we don’t just address them to empty space; we visualize the Buddha in the space in front of us, surrounded by all the buddhas and bodhisattvas. 

[Aside to the cat: You should stay and hear the teachings.] At the abbey, when we have teachings, we bring all four cats in so that they get some good seeds planted on their mind by hearing the teachings. They sleep during the whole thing. Sometimes, I think the human beings do, too.

When we visualize the buddhas and bodhisattvas, we imagine them with bodies made of light and that they’re looking at us with much delight and complete acceptance. I think that’s important because some of us have a hard time imagining people looking at us with 100% acceptance. Anybody have that problem? You think of the Buddha like, “Oh, he’s an authority figure. He’s not going to look at me with compassion. He’s going to look at me ferociously – ‘Are you being good?’” No, Buddha’s not going to look at us that way. So, we shouldn’t look at ourselves that way, either. We imagine the Buddha with his body of light, looking at us really delighted because we’re doing something virtuous and something meaningful.

We visualize not only the buddhas and bodhisattvas in front of us, but we imagine that we’re surrounded by all sentient beings. This has great meaning, because lots of times when we think of doing our spiritual practice, we think that we’re going to go in a cave and be all alone, far away from those obnoxious sentient beings. But it’s not like that; they’re all with us, sitting in front of the buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Additionally, the people you don’t like, you imagine sitting in front of you. So, to see the buddhas and bodhisattvas, you have to see the people that you don’t like: enemies. This means that we must find some way to make peace with those people in our own minds. Because what are you going to do? You’re going to say to the Buddha, “May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes” and then, who is sitting in front of you? Your enemy. And you’re thinking, “May they all have happiness and its causes; but that one – never!” That’s not going to work. 

So, we must include everybody in our spiritual practice. It’s not about escaping from anybody or anything. Because anyway, where will you go where you are not in relationship to other living beings? Wherever we are in the universe, there are sentient beings around us in that universe, we cannot get away. So, it’s really emphasizing to us that in our spiritual practice we’re trying to work to open up our heart towards sentient beings and, at the same time, generate wisdom that will enable us to be of great benefit to them. 

So, that’s why we always talk about wisdom and compassion—those two sides that we’re trying to cultivate. When we’re doing the recitation verses, we’re thinking that we’re leading all these people around us in generating those thoughts and in saying the recitations with us. I find this very helpful, especially to include the people I don’t like and imagine that they’re cultivating positive mental attitudes by reciting these prayers.

At the abbey, there’s one practice we do with a lot of prostrations, and when we do that, I often imagine the whole US Congress and all the UN leaders around me. Because, often, I don’t know about you, but I don’t always like the politicians in my country and so it’s very helpful to me to imagine them also bowing to the Buddha and chanting. But I think if anybody told Donald Trump that I was imagining him bowing to the Buddha, he would probably have a fit. But he really needs to bow to the Buddha. Yes? Okay, so, you can put whoever else you want in there and imagine them creating some virtue and developing humility and faith. 

We’ll do the recitations right now, and then after that we’ll go directly into some silent meditation. In the silent meditation, first scan your body and release any tension. And then focus your attention on your breath, either at the upper lips and the nostril, watching the sensation, or at your belly, watching the rise and fall of your belly. The object of your mindfulness is the breath. You use another mental factor, called introspective awareness, to check up from time to time to see if your mindfulness is on the breath or if you’ve gotten distracted to something else. And if you’ve gotten distracted, instead of going, “Oh, here I go again. I’m so distracted,” just notice it and bring your attention back to the breath. It’s kind of like having a little toddler and the child runs away and you bring them back and then they run away again, and you bring them back. So, if your attention goes to something else, you bring it back, it goes somewhere else, you bring it back. And eventually, your attention starts to stay put. 


Let’s cultivate our motivation. Recalling that we have the potential to become fully awakened ones, let’s have a strong intention to use that potential, to act upon it, to develop and cultivate the path leading to full awakening. With a strong sense of self-confidence and a strong wish to be able to really benefit society and other living beings, let’s have the intention to develop our mind so that it can become a fully-awakened mind of a buddha. Cultivate that altruistic intention as your reason for attending the retreat and being here.


I’ll be using a text here, written by Jetsun Choekyi Gyaltsen, who is the master who wrote the textbooks for Sera Jey Monastery in India. This is extracted from his larger commentary on a text called The Ornament for Clear Realizations, or Abhisamayālaṅkāra, which is one of the great, major texts that they study in the monasteries. I received this teaching from Geshe Sonam Rinchen, who taught at The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, and also from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. At the abbey I’ve taught it, and we have done retreats on this text, the practices of the four mindfulnesses, and people really like this practice. It’s a practice that’s shared with our Theravada brothers and sisters, so it’s a very ancient practice that the Buddha taught. It helps us to get to know ourselves. Because we establish mindfulness, or understanding, on our body, our feelings, our mind, and on other phenomena.

Mindfulness is a very prominent practice in Buddhadharma. I know it’s being taught generally in society, but the mindfulness taught now generally in society is a bit different than how we practice mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition.

You can practice a similar technique, but the results you get will be very different depending upon your philosophical view and your motivation. So, I think, at least in my country, when people do mindfulness, when psychologists and coaches and people teach mindfulness, they aren’t Buddhist, and the purpose is just to help people relax and not be so stressed. Whereas, as Buddhists, when we practice it, we practice the four mindfulnesses, not just mindfulness of the breath. It’s done with refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and it’s done with the aspiration to be free of cyclic existence. And, as Mahayana practitioners, with the aspiration to become fully awakened buddhas, to be able to benefit all living beings. We’re doing the practice with the Buddhist worldview, which we’ll get into – Buddhist worldview meaning the Four Truths of the Aryas. We’re also doing it with an awareness of emptiness, or seflessness, as the ultimate nature of phenomena. So, depending on all these other factors, the way we practice mindfulness becomes unique – it’s not like it’s done in regular society.

The first outline in the text talks about the object that we’re going to observe, what we’re placing our mindfulness on. Here, it’s on our ordinary body, ordinary feelings, our mind, and phenomena in general. 

When we talk about the body, there’s three types of body. One is the external body, which means everything in the environment that we see, hear, taste, touch, smell—all these objects—and it can also mean the physical body. The second is the internal body, the very subtle sense powers in our eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body, that allow us to connect an external object with the consciousness. Those sense powers are the internal body. The third is the body that is both internal and external, and that refers to the larger sense organs, which house the subtle sense powers, referring to, like, our eyeballs and the mechanics in our ear—the stirrup and hammer—and those more gross sense objects. 

Then, regarding feelings—the second object—there are three kinds of feelings: pleasure, pain, and neutral. Sometimes we translate it differently and say happiness, suffering, and neutral. Both translations mean the same thing. In English, the word “feeling” sometimes is used for “emotion.” Here, feeling doesn’t mean emotion, it just means sensations that are pleasurable, painful, or neutral. 

Then, the third object, mind, refers to our six primary consciousnesses. We have the visual consciousness, auditory consciousness, olfactory consciousness, gustatory consciousness, tactile consciousness, and mental consciousness – those six. Every time we have some kind of perception or cognition or something, we have a primary mind, which is one of those six. Together with it we have mental factors, which perform specific functions regarding that consciousness. So here, mind, the third object, refers to the primary consciousnesses, and phenomena refers to all the mental factors that are not feelings. Those mental factors include emotions, but they also include, for example, intention, attention, concentration, wisdom – all sorts of different aspects of the mind. Some of those mental factors we want to subdue because they get in the way of us living virtuously and get in the way of attaining spiritual realizations. Other mental factors are very virtuous, and we want to enhance those and increase them because they will help us on the path.

Then the text says that the reason those four objects (body, feelings, mind, and phenomena) are the referents that we’re paying attention to with mindfulness is to stop childish sentient beings (that means us) from having four misconceptions. Now you might say, “Wait a minute, I’m not a childish sentient being. I’m an adult, I know what I’m doing.” Well, in comparison to the Arya beings, who see reality directly, who are not fooled by appearances, then we’re like little kids who misunderstand everything. 

So, we maybe need to change our identity here. Rather than thinking, “I’m an adult, I’m in charge,” instead think, “I’m a beginner, I’m learning.” It’s only when we have a humble attitude that we can actually learn something. When we’re very arrogant and think we know everything, then of course we can’t learn anything, and that becomes a hinderance for us.

There are four conceptions that we’re trying to overcome. The first one is the body being the basis, or the abode, of the identity: “me.” What this means is when we think “me”, we usually think of our body and that somehow “me,” or “I,” is somewhere in here, has something to do with this body. At the time we die, when we’re separating from this body, our mind says, “I want another one because I want to continue to exist.” That makes the karma ripen and propels us into the next rebirth. We form a lot of our identities around our body. Our racial identity depends on the color of our skin, our gender identity depends on what organs we have, our national identity depends on having this body. Our identity of being a certain age depends on our body. Our identity of being healthy or sick depends on the body. Are you understanding how much we look at our body and create identities about it? 

But when we actually look, we can see that those identities are all made up by our mind. So, for example, our national identity—on what basis do we say, “I’m European, I’m German, I’m Russian, I’m American, I’m Czechoslovakian, I’m Chinese?” On what basis do we say that? It refers, somehow, to our body. But when we analyze, can you find anything in your body that is your nationality? We have a strong national identity, don’t we? But what is the basis? When you look in your body, can you find Russian? Or American? Or French? Or Malaysian? Can you find that somewhere in your body? If you look in your body, can you find anything that’s your nationality? Absolutely nothing. It’s kind of amazing, isn’t it? In our day and age, our national identity is so important, but it’s all made up. Especially if you happen to live near the border of one country and another, sometimes your national identity is this one, then they fight a war, this side wins, then your national identity is that one. Then some years later, it becomes this one. You can really see how it doesn’t make much sense to put so much attention on the body, but that’s what this kind of meditation is helping us to see. 

Then the second one—feelings. Feeling is the ground for the enjoyment of that identity. So, feeling is what I enjoy or what I use. It’s my feelings of happiness, unhappiness, or neutral—what I experience. We’re really addicted to our feelings. Because we all want to experience pleasure and happiness, don’t we? We spend most of the day looking for it. Have you ever noticed how hard we look for happiness? When you’re eating food and your meal has a few different dishes, for each bite we put a certain amount of different food on our spoon or our fork that we think will bring us the utmost pleasure in that bite. And when you come in here, it’s like, “Oh, where’s my seat? Oh, is that the kind of cushion I like that I’m going to be comfortable sitting on? Is this chair comfortable? Why does somebody get a more comfortable cushion than me?” What do we complain about when we’re on retreat? “It’s too hot, it’s too cold.” We don’t like the food. “My cushion is too soft. My bed is too hard.” It all has to do with feelings of pleasure, pain, and neutral. Right? Do you complain a lot? I have a Ph.D. in complaining. Yes, I’m an expert at complaining. You need something to complain about, ask me. Because my mind is very attached to these feelings, and I only want pleasurable feelings, I do not want unpleasurable ones. 

It’s very interesting to look at our behavior each day and see how addicted we are to pleasurable feelings and how much we hate unpleasurable ones, even the smallest unpleasurable ones. We always joke about this in retreat because every retreat we go on, some people want the window closed, some want it open, and some want it halfway. Especially if you’re doing a mantra retreat. You’re not allowed to get up from your cushion in the middle of the session. Sometimes it’s so cold in the room that, for the benefit of sentient beings, you sneak up and close the window and hope nobody’s looking. And you sit down quietly. Then, five minutes later, the person next to you is too hot. They feel so uncomfortable, so they stand up and open the window. Then you notice it and you’re cold. And you get mad. You get up and close that window again. And then the person next to you gets very mad because they’re uncomfortable, they’re too hot. And soon we have a world war, a mini world war. But if you look, it’s all over feelings of pleasure and displeasure that we fight with other people and that cause us to become greedy for something. 

So, that’s the second misconception—that the feelings are what we use and enjoy, and that they’re MY feelings. The third wrong conception here is the mind to be the actuality of the identity. In other words, we think our mind is me. So, the “I,” the person, exists somewhere in this body, but when we think, “What am I really? My mind.” When we think of going onto the next life, we think of our mind going on to the next life because it’s who we are. Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” showing that he thinks he is his mind because the mind is what thinks. But we aren’t our mind. We will discuss this later.

Then phenomena—here meaning all the other mental factors. Some phenomena are the disturbing element in our identity, like greed, anger, resentment; they disturb the mind. Then other mental factors, like faith or confidence, wisdom, compassion—these things are purifying elements of our identity. We might ask, “Well, why is this a wrong conception?” It’s because we’re grasping all these things as being inherently existent, independently existent. Also, because at different times in our life we think, “My body is me, my feelings are me, my mind is me, all these other mental factors are me.” Overcoming these four conceptions helps us not to cling to the I, to the self. 

We usually cling very much to these, establish an identity, and think, “This is who I am. And I’ve got to protect my body, my feelings, my mind, my mental factors – this is all me, I’ve got to protect it.” And then that attitude creates a lot of problems for us in our lives. 

I think we’ll pause here. Maybe you have questions and comments.

Audience: When speaking about the body, national identity is illusory, but things like being healthy or unhealthy pertain to specific characteristics of our bodies. And similar, with our racial identity, if my skin is black, then I’m black.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes, but that all exists on a conventional level. Our problem is that we think we inherently are that. For example, instead of just saying, “I’m not healthy,” we go, “Oh, I’m not healthy, oh my goodness! That means I’m going to probably die in the next week. This is terrible! I’ve got to go to the doctor, and I’ve got to tell all my friends how sick I am.” We go on and on and on about our health. So, you see, there’s just one factor, and then our mind makes all these elaborations about it.

Same with racial identity. The color of skin is just color of skin, no big deal. The important thing is we have skin, it serves a purpose. But our deluded mind isn’t satisfied with that, and we say, “This color skin is better than this color skin,” and, “People who have this color skin have these talents, and people with that color skin have that talent.” Then we make up all sorts of junk, and we’re prejudiced against each other, we quarrel. On what basis? On the basis of the chemical substances that make the color of our skin. So, that’s what we’re getting at here.

Audience: If we’re letting go or completely abandoning the sense of self, the sense of I, this very I that was to be reborn, then what’s the purpose of our practice if we we’re not taking bodhicitta into consideration?

VTC: I’m not sure I understand. We’re trying to abandon the sense of I, and you’re asking what’s the use of our practice if we’re not doing it for benefitting others?

Audience: The gist of the question is, if we let go of I, then what’s left? And why should I care about what’s left, if the I is gone?

VTC: Okay, there are two I’s—the I that exists and the I that doesn’t exist. The I that exists is one that exists merely by being designated in dependence on the body and mind. Our problem is that we’re not satisfied with an I that exists by being merely designated, and we think there’s something that is really, truly, inherently, independently, me. But when we look for such an I, we can’t find anything to identify and say, “That is it.” So, that concrete, so-to-speak, figuratively concrete “I” doesn’t exist. What we need to do is realize it doesn’t exist. Why we need to realize this is because grasping onto it makes us angry, attached, resentful, and keeps us bound in cyclic existence. However, when we realize that that concrete self never has and never will exist, there is still the self that exists by being merely designated—that one exists. 

In other words, we exist, but we don’t exist in the way we currently think we exist. What we’re trying to do is eliminate all the misconceptions and the wrong grasping’s in our mind that think we exist in all these erroneous ways. Because all that grasping is the source of all of our misery. It’s a subtle point; you really need to think about this.

Okay, then let’s dedicate. Think about the teachings in the break time. Because the teaching is just a little bit. The real meaning will sink in as you think about it in the break time and your meditation sessions.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.