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The Central Theme of the Mahāsatipațțhāna-sutta (DN)


Editor’s note: This feature was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 4, June 2007. 


The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness (Mah?satipa??h?na-sutta. DN) is perhaps the most important discourse in the entire canonical text of The Long Discourses of the Buddha (D?gha-nik?ya). It is, in fact, one of the most significant discourses expounded by Gotama Buddha to release human beings from vexation or suffering (dukkha). It is an effective tool to purify defiled human consciousness before one has developed the wisdom (paññ?) to release one from ordinary or manifestative consciousness (nidassana-viññ?n?a). It is of enormous value to a practitioner because the four establishments of mindfulness of the body (k?ya), feelings (vedan?), mind (citta) and phenomena (dhamm?) develop right mindfulness (samm?-sati). Right mindfulness instantaneously eliminates ontological commitment [Note 1]of any practitioner or yogi in daily activities. With the elimination of ontological commitment, the mental obsessions (papañca-s) and dispositions (sa?kh?ra-s) are appeased. The appeasement of dispositions or cessation of kammic activities (sa?kh?ra-upasama) consummates the absolute appeasement of the ordinary consciousness of a worldling. This absolute mental appeasement is known as Nibb?na.[Note 2] A worldling (puthujjana) is wise when his or her consciousness is nibb?nic or absolutely tamed as all forms of mental fabrications or false conceptualizations are annihilated. The annihilation of the mental fabrications eliminates the illusive selfish or egoistic self which dominates in the mind of a worldling. When the illusive selfish or egoistic self (att?) vanishes, the ordinary consciousness is purified and becomes released or non-manifestative consciousness. With the development of released consciousness (viññ?n?a), insight or wisdom is considered to have arisen. The arisen wisdom leads to the cessation of vexation or anguish (dukkha). [Note 3]Bhikkhu K. Ñ???ananda of Sri Lanka is an expert on expounding the Non-manifestative consciousness with the metaphor of film show or magic show. He was a former lecturer of the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka in 1962. He entered the Sa?gha Order of the forest monastery tradition of Sri Lanka in 1969. Currently, I opine that he is one of the rare Bhikkhus or Buddhist savants who can expound the doctrine of Nibb?na lucidly with the expert utility of the metaphor of film show to elucidate the distinction between ordinary consciousness and released consciousness. He capitalizes on his two great assets: His jh?nic experiences in meditation and his penetrative investigation into the relevant Therav?da Suttas pertaining to non-manifestative consciousness with respect to Nibb?na. I too opine that he is one of the eminent, precious Buddhist scholars and practitioners who is able to utilize his wisdom to understand consciousness. He is the author of the Buddhist texts ‘Magic of the Mind’ and ‘Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought’. Since he was fully ordained in 1969, he is dwelling mostly in remote hermitages in Sri Lanka. For those practitioners who are keen on actualizing self-awakening, his lecture series on Nibb?na compiled in printed texts in both Sinhalese and English versions should not be missed.

Sole Way

In the second paragraph of the discourse, Gotama Buddha promulgated thus:

There is, monks, this one way to the purification of beings, for theovercoming of sorrow and distress, for the disappearance of pain and sadness, for the gaining of the right path, for the realization of Nibb?na:that is to say the four foundations of mindfulness. [Note 4]

The phrase ‘This one way (ek?yano maggo)’ has been differently interpreted in various way. If this phrase is translated into ‘The only Method or vehicle (ekay?na)’ of purifying beings, it is obviously erroneous. Such an assertion denies so many expedient devices or skillful means declared by Gotama Buddha and diverge pedagogical devices innovated subsequently by other later enlightened Buddhist disciples. All other methods of practice and cultivation are to be viewed as the tributaries of Ganges River flowing and converging at the Ganges River which leads to the ocean of Nibb?na. The Tranquility meditation, Insight meditation, Tranquility-Insight meditation, Chan meditation, Pure Land contemplations, Hua-yen contemplations, Vajray?na or Tibetan meditations and so forth are merely the tributaries. Finally, all these methods must eventuate at a common path and fruit – the four foundations or establishments of mindfulness by which one is not attached to the pleasant or agreeable which arouse greed nor is averse towards the unpleasant or disagreeable to evoke hatred or anger. The four establishments of mindfulness are exercised to develop the power of Equanimity (upekkh?). Equanimity engenders rational judgement of others instead of emotional judgement of others. This constructs social harmony.


At this juncture, it is important to note carefully that Equanimity does not recommend us to discard material wealth or conventional activities. What are to be abandoned are only the clinging or grasping (up?d?na) which engenders vexation of anguish. Equanimity enables the lay Buddhists to gain and utilize wealth without attachment or greed but not to renounce them externally. It also enables the lay practitioners to engage in all daily mundane activities without attachment or greed (lobha) and aversion or hatred (dosa). All meditation methods from different schools of Buddhist Thought or sects are orientated towards development of insight or wisdom to discern the illusion (m?y?) of multiplicity. [Note 5] Discernment of illusion helps develop the power of Equanimity. Absolute Equanimity is developed only and if only the illusive selfish or egoistic self is annihilated by dispelling ignorance (avijj?). Ignorance can only be eliminated by wisdom. The wisdom of Equanimity or Non-discrimination developed from intuitive perception of the Insubstantiality or Non-self (anatt?) or Emptiness (suññat?) [Note 6] of all phenomena of the multiplicity invigorates the four foundations or establishments of mindfulness. The four-fold mindfulness purifies the minds of the practitioners and thus terminates all forms of vexation and anguish in all present mundane activities and also disentangles the bondage of transmigration (sa?s?ra). The cessation of vexation or suffering in mundane living should be manifest in the forms of the fruits of tranquility, peace and harmony in social intercourses or interactions due to the virtue of equanimity, right mindfulness and wisdom. Equanimity engenders justice, righteousness, impartiality, even-mindedness, moderation and equality. Right mindfulness engenders vigilance, heedfulness, clear awareness, and poise. Wisdom is equanimity which supports loving-kindness, compassion and appreciative joy. Succinctly put, the cessation of vexation or suffering is the cessation of greed (lobha), hatred (dosa) and delusion (moha). Greed, hatred and delusion are the three great poisons or evils which cause human disputations, quarrels, frictions, conflicts, tensions, fights, wars, tragedies and so forth.  

Four-fold Mindfulness

The four techniques of establishments of four foundations of mindfulness is expounded by Gotama Buddha thus:

Here, monks, a monk abides contemplating body as body, ardent, clearly aware and mindful, having put aside hankering and fretting for the world; he abides contemplating feelings asfeelings …; he abides contemplating mind as mind …; he abides contemplating mind-objects as mind objects …; ardent,clearly aware and mindful, having put aside hankering and frettingfor the world. [Note 7]

Abides contemplating body’ means perceives one-pointedly the body as the object of meditation. ‘To perceive the body as body’ means the perception of the body without the notion of I or mine, that is without a substantial view of the body. The body is not to be reified or objectified as an independent entity. In this manner, the illusive selfish or egoistic self is suppressed if ignorance still exists. The illusive self is eliminated if wisdom has arisen. The meditation is performed with diligence, complete clear awareness and absolute mindfulness without superimposing an illusive self-identity in the perceiver and the objects perceived. ‘Without hankering and fretting’ for the world means without clinging upon anything in the world or grasping upon the five aggregates of form, feelings, perceptions, dispositions or volitions and consciousness both internally and externally. Some scholars use the term ‘Fabrications’ to replace the term ‘Dispositions or Volitions’ to denote that dispositions or volitions are the activities of false conceptualizations. The same skill of absolute mindfulness perception is applied to the other remaining three objects of meditation, namely Feelings, Mind and Mind-objects. ‘Feelings’ refers to pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings which arise and perish. ‘Mind’ refers to various thoughts which arise and perish. Mind-objects include all external phenomena. All mindfulness activities are to be performed with respect to both internal and external environments. Internal environment is self and external environment is others. They include the five aggregates of oneself and those of others in the immediate environment. In short, the multiplicity of the empirical world becomes the macro object of meditation. Both the insubstantiality of self and others are to be perceived with diligence, with clear understanding and absolute mindfulness. In other words, all the sensual activities of the 12 bases [Note 8] are to be perceived with diligence, clear awareness and complete mindfulness without clinging upon anything in the world so that the corresponding sense consciousness are purified. [Note 9]


Therefore, in order to have a comprehensive scope of mindful perceptions, the busy mundane world forms a very ideal object of mindfulness meditation. Some yogis prefer to meditate in the forests. But for the fresh yogis, the forest environment is conducive and helpful as their mindfulness has not been well established at the infancy stage. A yogi, who has established his mindfulness after some time, is encouraged to leave the forests for a while to test the strength of his or her mindfulness in a busy urbanized environment. Right mindfulness is an important tool to be applied to maintain one’s vigilance or heedfulness so that the six sense doors are well guarded to prevent outflows (?sava-s). [Note 10]


1. Ontological commitment is the perverse assumption that a substantial existent exists correspondingly with the linguistic term used. But, in actual fact, language does not mirror the real truth. It is therefore the contrary to the ultimate truth of Insubstantiality or Dependent Co-arising. Buddhist teaching is to eliminate ontological commitment which is a perverse view of ultimate reality.

2. Nibb?na is complete mental appeasement in which the mind is completely tamed. The main enterprise of Buddhism is to tame or appease the mind of a worldling so that he is unobsessed and wise. See Sutta Nipata, Verses 734 and 735 on viññ???pasama. See also Dantabh?mi-sutta (MN) and Adanta-sutta (AN1.31-40)

3. At the mundane level, cessation means annihilation of selfish or egoistic self or greed, hatred and delusion.This is Nibb?na of absolute mental appeasement. At the supramundane level, it is Nibb?na of termination of the cycle of birth and death.See various definitions of Nibb?na in Nibb?na-suttas (Ud. 8.1,8.2,8.3 &8.4)

4. The Long Discourse of the Buddha: Translation of the D?gha Nik?ya. Trans. Maurice Walshe.Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1996. See Mah?satipat?t??h?na-sutta, p.335

5. Intuitive understanding of the Three Universal Characteristics (Impermanence, Suffering and Non-self) perceives the illusion of multiplicity. See Anattalakkha?a-sutta (SN) and also Tilkkha?a-sutta (AN3.134)

6. The exposition of Emptiness as Anatt? is not confined to Mah?y?na tradition. Gotama Buddha himself expounded Emptiness in his discourses,such as Mogghar?ja-manava-puccha (Sn. 5.15) and also Nibb?na-sutta (Ud.8.2)

7. See Endnote 4,Ibid., p.335

8. Six sense organs and six corresponding objects of perception equal 12 bases. See Bahudh?tuka-sutta (MN).

9. Six corresponding sense consciousness refers to eye consciousness, ear consciousness, … till mental consciousness. 
See Bahudh?tuka-sutta (MN)

10. See Chabbhisodhana-sutta (MN); Devadaha-sutta (MN).

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