The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

1. Contemplation of the Body in the Body

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THE FIRST FOUNDATION OF MINDFULNESS is the Contemplation of the Body in the Body. The Buddha described it in fourteen different ways. In other words, he taught fourteen different topics for the Contemplation of the Body in the Body. The first of these topics is breathing. The Buddha said,

And how, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu dwell, contemplating the body in the body? Here now, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, to a secluded place, sits down cross-legged, keeps his upper body erect, and directs his mindfulness to the object of his meditation. Ever mindful, he breathes in, ever mindful, he breathes out.

With the words, “having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, to a secluded place,” the Buddha indicated suitable places for meditation. The first is the “forest,” meaning any kind of forest that offers the bliss of seclusion. Since the place must be secluded, it should be a forest where nobody lives, away from the sounds and noises of people living in villages, towns, or cities. In some texts, a forest is defined as a place about five hundred bow lengths away from human habitation. One bow length is equivalent to six feet, so it means about three thousand feet away from any human habitation. When a place is that far away from people, seclusion can be found there. These days, it is difficult to find a really secluded place. Even in a forest you may still hear the noise of airplanes.


The second place mentioned in the sutta is “the foot of a tree.” The foot of any tree is a suitable place for meditation, but it should be in as quiet a place as a forest. The third place is just “a secluded place.” It may be in a city or a village, but has to be secluded. With regard to these places, seclusion is the most important condition. Therefore, any place that offers seclusion is a suitable place for meditation.

In other suttas, traditional lists of secluded places are given: a forest, the root of a tree, a rock, a hill cleft, a mountain cave, a charnel ground (cemetery), a jungle thicket, open space, and a heap of straw.3 With reference to these lists, the last seven places, beginning with “a rock,” are also to be taken as “secluded places.”

These places are mentioned because they are most suitable for beginners who need a place that is both quiet and free from distractions. A retreat center or meditation monastery may provide a secluded environment for practice. For those who have experience and whose concentration has matured to some extent, any place is the right place for meditation.

“[He] sits down cross-legged, keeps his upper body erect and directs his mindfulness to the object of his meditation”: With these words, the Buddha showed how you should prepare yourself for meditation, and what posture you should select. He mentions the traditional posture of sitting “cross-legged.” People in the East are accustomed to sitting on the floor, so sitting cross-legged comes naturally to them. They have no difficulty sitting in this position. It is a very good posture for meditation and it is a peaceful one, neither conducive to idleness nor to agitation.

There are three different forms of sitting cross-legged. The first one is the “full-lotus position” which is most difficult to maintain. When you have no practice, you cannot sit in this posture for a long time. When your legs are intertwined, you will feel pain after you have sat in this position for a few minutes. The second posture is the “half-lotus position.” You put one leg on top of the other, but they are not intertwined. You can sit longer in this position; however, you will still feel some kind of pressure and your feet will get numb after some minutes. The third is the “easy position.” In this position, you sit with one leg in front of and not on the other. This position is described in some books as the “Burmese position.” In Burma, most 19people sit this way. This posture may be the best for beginners. Since it is the most comfortable one, beginners will be able to sit in this posture for a longer period of time, without much discomfort.

Some people find it very painful to sit cross-legged, so painful that it interferes with their practice of meditation. Such people may sit on a cushion, a chair, or a bench, since some degree of comfort is necessary for practicing meditation. Though there should not be too much comfort, some is necessary to continue with the practice of meditation.

“He keeps his upper body erect,” means meditators keep their body straight when they sit cross-legged. When you sit straight, your spine is also straight. When your spine is straight, the eighteen vertebrae in the spine are resting one on top of the other. When you sit straight, your muscles, sinews, skin, and flesh are not twisted, so painful feelings do not so readily arise as when your muscles, etc., are twisted. Your mind can become unified in meditation and, instead of collapsing when the pain increases, can attend to the growth of mindfulness.4

Sitting cross-legged and keeping your upper body erect is, therefore, a very suitable position that is conducive to concentration.


“He directs his mindfulness to the object of meditation,” means that practitioners focus their mind on the object of meditation. Here, the object of meditation will be the breath. So, you set your mind, that is, you focus, on the incoming and outgoing breath.

“Ever mindful, he breathes in, ever mindful, he breathes out”: This explains the practice of meditation. When you practice meditation, you keep your mind on the breath. You breathe in and out mindfully. Actually, you put your mind at the entrance of your nostrils and observe the breath as “in-out, in-out,” and so on. Your mind must stay at the tip of your nose, it must not follow the breath into and out of your body. You must try to see the in-breath and the out-breath as two separate things. The in-breath is not existing at the time of breathing out and the out-breath is not existing at the time of breathing in.


When you practice breathing meditation, you can observe your breath in many different ways.5 Four of these ways are shown in this sutta.

Breathing in a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing in long”; breathing out a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing out long.”

During the course of observing their breath, meditators sometimes happen to breathe long breaths. Then meditators should know, “we are breathing in long.” That means they do not fail to notice it when they pay sufficient attention to the breath. It does not mean that you should deliberately breathe long in order to know that you are breathing long. To “know” here means to know thoroughly and not superficially.

Breathing in a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a short breath”; breathing out a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a short breath.”

Sometimes, meditators happen to breathe short breaths. At such a time, they know thoroughly that they are breathing short breaths; they do not fail to notice that they are doing so. Here also, it must be understood that you should not deliberately make your breaths short. You should just know that you are breathing short breaths.

“Making clear the entire in-breath body, I shall breathe in,” thus he makes efforts [literally, he trains himself]; “making clear the entire out-breath body, I shall breathe out,” thus he makes efforts.

When you observe your breaths, you must try to see all the breaths clearly. “Making clear” means making the breaths known, making them plain, trying to see them vividly. In the original Pāli text, the word for “the entire in-breath body” is sabbakāya, which literally means the entire body. But kāya or body here does not mean the entire physical body. It means the breath body. The Pāli word kāya can mean the physical body as well as a group. It is similar to when 21you talk about a body of members. Here it means not the entire physical body but just the breath, and “entire” here means, the beginning, the middle, and the end. So, meditators must try to see thoroughly the beginning, the middle, and the end of each breath. You must also not forget that this section is on mindfulness of breathing so that the object of this meditation must be the breathing and not the entire physical body.

The following explanation is given in The Path of Purification:

He trains thus, “I shall breathe in making known, making plain the beginning, middle, and end of the entire in-breath body. I shall breathe out making known, making plain, the beginning, middle, and end of the entire out-breath body,” thus he trains himself. Making the breaths known, making them plain, in this way, he both breathes in and breathes out with consciousness, associated with knowledge.6

You must have noticed the future tense in this passage. It is to show that in the previous observations of the breath, you did not need so much knowledge, so much effort to distinguish the long from the short breaths, but from here on, you must make effort to gain knowledge, to see the breaths clearly and thoroughly. That is why the future tense is used here and in the following passages.

It does not mean that meditators should breathe more vigorously so that the breathing may become clear to them. Their concentration and knowledge or understanding are said to be deep and thorough only when they can perceive the beginning, the middle, and the end of each breath clearly. When they see the breaths clearly because they breathe more vigorously, that means they see the breaths clearly not because of their concentration and knowledge but because of the grossness of the object. Therefore, meditators should not breathe more vigorously just to see their breaths more clearly. When they do so, they will tire themselves out in a short time. Therefore, breathing should be normal.

When you practice this kind of meditation, you should try to put forth effort and gain knowledge in order to see all in-breaths and 22out-breaths clearly, while you breathe normally. How many things do you need in order to see the breaths clearly? How many factors are involved in each act of clear observation? You need effort, mindfulness, concentration, and understanding.

“Calming the gross in-breath [literally, body-conditioned things], I shall breathe in,” thus he makes efforts; “calming the gross out-breath, I shall breathe out,” thus he makes efforts.

In this passage, the breath is called “body-conditioned thing.” The Pāli word for “body-conditioned thing” is kāya saṅkhāra. Kāya means “body” and saṅkhāra means “conditioned.” Therefore, it means a “thing conditioned by the body.” It is said that breath is caused by consciousness or the mind. But when there is no body, there cannot be any breath. So, although it is caused by the mind, the breath depends on the body for its arising, that is, for its appearance. Therefore, it is called kāya saṅkhāra, a “thing conditioned by the body.”

Saṅkhāra is a difficult word in the Pāli language. It can mean many things, depending on the context. Sometimes it means “volition,” which we call kamma. In the teachings of the Dependent Origination, saṅkhāra means just this. Sometimes, it means the “fifty mental factors,” headed by volition, as in saṅkhāra khandha, the aggregate of saṅkhāra. Sometimes, Saṅkhāra means “everything in the world, everything that is conditioned,” for example, when you say, “all saṅkhāra are impermanent.” Sometimes, it means “encouraging” or “prompting,” as in the Abhidhamma term, asaṅkhārika. Here, it has the meaning of “conditioning.” So, kāya-saṅkhāra here means the “breath that is conditioned by the body.”

This word kāya-saṅkhāra has also been translated in different ways. In the Buddhist Dictionary, it is translated as “bodily functions,” while Soma Thera, in The Way of Mindfulness, translated it as “activities of the body.” Nyānamoli, in The Path of Purification, translated it as “bodily formations,” and Nyānaponika, in The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, translated it as “bodily functions.” Nyānasatta Thera sees it as “the activities of the body.” What is meant here by the term is just “the breath.” Here it should be taken as the gross breath, because it has to be calmed down.


The expression, “calming the gross in-breath,” should not be taken to mean that meditators should deliberately calm down, inhibit, and still their breath. What is meant is that when the breath becomes very subtle, meditators must try hard, pay attention, and apply more effort to discern it. The breath is not like the other objects of meditation which become clearer and clearer with the increase in concentration and understanding. When meditators progress further and further, the objects, e.g., the kasina (earth disks) or other meditation objects become clearer and clearer in their mind. It is not the same with the breath which becomes subtler and more and more difficult to perceive, according to your progress.

When you are not meditating, your mind and body are not restful. Your breaths, which depend on the condition of your mind and body, will then arise in gross form. But when you continue to meditate, your mind and body become rested and tranquil and the breaths become subtle. The more you progress toward the achievement of concentration, the subtler your breaths become, so much so that you have to investigate whether they exist or not. They may become so subtle that, at one point, you will doubt whether they are there at all. Since you do not find anything to perceive, you may think the breath is simply lost. At such a time, you should say to yourself, “I am not dead, I have not drowned. I am still alive. But I cannot perceive the breaths because they are too subtle and my concentration and understanding are not keen and developed enough. Therefore, I must develop them more, pay more attention to the meditation object, and try to perceive these subtle breaths.” When you continue with your efforts and gain more understanding, you will be able to perceive the breaths however subtle they may be.

When, in the course of meditation, the breaths become imperceptible, do not give up your meditation. You must encourage and exert yourself to perceive the subtle breaths until they become clear to you again. This is what is meant by “calming the gross in-breath.” You must increase your effort.

In the sutta, the Buddha has shown four ways of breathing meditation. When you practice this meditation, you should perceive fully the long breaths, the short breaths, the duration of the breaths, and the subtle, almost imperceptible, breaths.


Thus, you have now four ways of breathing mindfully. First, when breathing in with a long breath, you must note that you are breathing in with a long breath. Second, you must note when you are breathing out with a long breath. Third, you note when you are breathing in with a short breath. Fourth, note when you are breathing out with a short breath. These are the four rules of breathing mindfully.

The Buddha gave a simile so that the bhikkhus could understand this teaching more clearly. When he said,

as a skillful operator of a lathe and his apprentice are making a long turn,

“making a long turn” means, when making something big like a drum, operators have to make a long turn on the lathe. “When making a short turn” means, when making something small, such as ivory needles, operators have to make short turns on the lathe. Making these turns, practitioners should be aware of what turn is being made.

Thus, he dwells contemplating the body in the body internally, or…externally, or…[both] internally and externally.

What is meant by “contemplating internally”? It means that meditators contemplate or keep themselves mindful of their own in-breaths and out-breaths. When they keep their mind on their own breathing, they are said to be “contemplating the body in the body internally.” When you have gained some practice in keeping your mind on your own breaths, occasionally you may think of other people’s breaths as well. “Just as my breaths have a beginning and an end, appear and disappear, so do the breaths of other people.” In this way, you contemplate on the breaths of other people. In doing this, you are said to be “contemplating the body in the body externally.” It does not mean that you look at other people and contemplate their breathing. However, when you happen to contemplate other people’s breaths, you should be mindful of them, too. Sometimes, you contemplate your own breathing and then the breathing of other people and then your own breathing again. You go back and forth between your breathing and 25that of others. When you do that you are said to be “contemplating the body in the body internally and externally.” It doesn’t mean that you should look at your and other people’s breathing.

He dwells contemplating the origination factors of the breath body, or he dwells contemplating the dissolution factors of the breath body, or he dwells contemplating both, the origination and dissolution factors of the breath body.

Here, “origination factors” means the factors that bring about the breath. The commentator explained it with a simile. When a blacksmith wants to produce fire, he uses the bellows. There are the bellows and there is something at the end of the bellows which is called the spout, and there are the efforts of the blacksmith. Depending on these three things, air is produced to make fire with the bellows, the spout, and the effort of the smith. In the same way, in order to produce breath, you need a physical body, the nasal aperture, and a mind. Depending on these three things, each breath is produced in the body. Without them, there can be no breath. Therefore, these three things are called “origination factors of the breath.” When you are practicing meditation on the breath, sometimes the thought may come to you, “because there is a body, because there is a nasal aperture, and there is a mind, there is this breath.” When you are contemplating this, you are said to contemplate on the “origination factors of your breath.”

“Dissolution factors” means the opposite. When there is no physical body, there can be no breath. When there is no nasal aperture, there can be no breath...

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