Introducing Samye Institute's Vajrayana Membership

Four Applications of Mindfulness

The Four Applications of Mindfulness are core trainings in both the foundational vehicle and in the Mahayana. Meditators examine four categories of experience with close attention, investigating each in detail.
Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery. Image courtesy of Jampa Palden.

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The Four Applications of Mindfulness refer to a process of using “close” mindfulness (Skt. smṛti; Tib. དྲན་པ་) specifically focused on four aspects:

  1. Physical body (Skt. kāya-smṛtyupasthāna; Tib. ལུས་དྲན་པ་ཉེ་བར་བཞག་)
  2. Feelings or Sensation (Skt. vedanā-smṛtyupasthāna; Tib. ཚོར་བ་དྲན་པ་ཉེ་བར་བཞག་)
  3. Mind (Skt. citta-smṛtyupasthāna; Tib. སེམས་དྲན་པ་ཉེ་བར་བཞག་)
  4. Phenomena (Skt. dharma-smṛtyupasthāna; Tib. ཆོས་དྲན་པ་ཉེ་བར་བཞག་)

The Pali Satipatthana Sutta contains an extensive description of these close applications. The modern Theravada tradition emphasizes these teachings. The title of the sutta itself summarizes the teachings. The word sati in Pali means ‘mindfulness,’ and patthana is the Pali word for ‘application’ or ‘foundation’. 

The four foundations of mindfulness also are the first four factors in the Mahayana path’s thirty-seven factors of enlightenment. These are described as the supramundane doctrines of great bodhisattva beings. The source for those teachings is the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra (Tib. ཡོངས་སུ་མྱ་ངན་ལས་འདས་པ་ཆེན་པོའི་མདོ་), the Sutra on the Great Parinirvana.

Four Applications of Mindfulness in the Foundational Vehicle

Following the practice outlined in the Satipatthana Sutta, the meditator applies mindfulness to:

  • the impurity of the body,
  • on the feelings associated with suffering,
  • on the impermanence of mind and
  • on the fact that mental objects do not belong to any permanent or substantial self

Four Applications of Mindfulness in the Mahayana

In Mahayana texts, bodhisattvas apply mindfulness to the same four bases with the viewpoint of emptiness, “without apprehending anything” as explained in the Ārya­daśa­sāhasrikā­prajñā­pāramitā­nāma­mahā­yāna­sūtra, The Transcendent Perfection of Wisdom in Ten Thousand Lines:

(1) Great bodhisattva beings who are diligent, alert, and mindful, after eliminating worldly covetousness and sadness without apprehending anything, with regard to the inner body, continue to observe the physical body, without generating any apperceptions dependent on the physical body. Similarly, those who are diligent, alert, and mindful, after eliminating worldly covetousness and sadness without apprehending anything, with regard to the outer body, continue to observe the physical body, without generating any apperceptions dependent on the physical body. Similarly, those who are diligent, alert, and mindful, after eliminating worldly covetousness and sadness without apprehending anything, with regard to the inner and outer body combined, continue to observe the physical body, without generating any apperceptions dependent on the physical body.

(2) Those who are diligent, alert, and mindful, after eliminating worldly covetousness and sadness without apprehending anything, with regard to inner feelings, outer feelings, and combined inner and outer feelings, continue to observe feelings, without generating any apperceptions dependent on feelings.

(3) Those who are diligent, alert, and mindful, after eliminating worldly covetousness and sadness without apprehending anything, with regard to the inner mind, the outer mind, and the combined inner and outer mind, continue to observe the mind, without generating any apperceptions dependent on the mind.

(4) Those who are diligent, alert, and mindful, after eliminating worldly covetousness and sadness without apprehending anything, with regard to inner phenomena, outer phenomena, and combined inner and outer phenomena, continue to observe phenomena, without generating any apperceptions dependent on phenomena.

Ārya­daśa­sāhasrikā­prajñā­pāramitā­nāma­mahā­yāna­sūtra

The meditator observes the same things as being spacelike and beyond all conceptual constructs. In the post-meditation period, one considers them as illusory and dreamlike.

In another Mahayana sutra, The Questions of Sāgaramati, the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī directly asks the Buddha how these four applications should be taught and then how they should be cultivated,

Then Mañjuśrī­kumāra­bhūta asked the Blessed One, “Blessed One, how should we relate to the four applications of mindfulness?”

The Blessed One responded, “Mañjuśrī, teach renunciants of the future the application of mindfulness that examines the body in terms of its repulsiveness. Teach the application of mindfulness that examines sensations in terms of their arising and ceasing. Teach the application of mindfulness that examines the mind in terms of the fact that mind arises and ceases. Teach the application of mindfulness that examines phenomena through the understanding that anything that is not perceived as whole is not perceived as a phenomenon.

Blessed One, “Blessed One, well then, please give a teaching on how to cultivate the four applications of mindfulness.”

“Mañjuśrī,” said the Blessed One, “whoever sees the body as being the same as space cultivates the application of mindfulness that examines the body. Mañjuśrī, whoever does not apprehend sensations as being inner, outer, or neither cultivates the application of mindfulness that examines sensations. Mañjuśrī, whoever understands that mind is just a label cultivates the application of mindfulness that examines the mind. Mañjuśrī, whoever does not apprehend virtuous and nonvirtuous phenomena cultivates the application of mindfulness that examines phenomena. Mañjuśrī, this is how to relate to the four applications of mindfulness.”

Ārya­sāgaramati­paripṛcchā­nāma­mahā­yāna­sūtra
Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery. Image courtesy of Jampa Palden.

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