Sutra on the Four
Establishments of Mindfulness


The Four Establishments of Mindfulness are the four foundations for looking deeply in our meditation. The first establishment of mindfulness is the contemplation of the body in the body; the second establishment of mindfulness is contemplation of the feelings in the feelings; the third establishment of mindfulness is contemplation of the mind in the mind; and the fourth establishment of mindfulness is the contemplation of objects of mind in objects of mind (dharmas). Here “dharma” does not mean the Buddha’s teaching, it means phenomena or formations., like a flower, a cloud, a tree, or anger.  Dharmas are described as objects of mind. What is not an object of mind? Mountains, rivers, flowers, trees, anger, love and our body are all objects of our mind. Dharmas are the phenomenal world.

Why does the Buddha say in the Discourse on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness that we contemplate the body in the body, the feelings in the feelings? Why this repetition? Because in order to practice mindfulness and looking deeply, we cannot remain as an observer, standing outside the object of our inquiry. This is important. When we breathe in mindfully and embrace our body, our breathing has to become one with our body in order for the practice to be successful.

Hanh, T.N. (2000). The path of emancipation. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.

Be One with the Object of Observation

The subject of observation is our mindfulness, which also emanates from the mind. Mindfulness has the function of illuminating and transforming. When our breathing, for example, is the object of our mindfulness, it becomes conscious breathing. Mindfulness shines its light on our breathing, transforms the forgetfulness in it into mindfulness, and gives it a calming and healing quality. Our bodies and our feelings are also illuminated and transformed under the light of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the observing mind, but it does not stand outside of the object of observation. It goes right into the object and becomes one with it. Because the nature of the observing mind is mindfulness, the observing mind does not lose itself in the object but transforms it by illuminating it, just as the penetrating light of the sun transforms trees and plants.
If we want to see and understand, we have to penetrate and become one with the object. If we stand outside of it in order to observe it, we cannot really see and understand it. The work of observation is the work of penetrating and transforming. That is why the sutra says, “observing the body in the body, observing the feelings in the feelings, observing the mind in the mind, observing dharmas in dharmas.” The description is very clear. The deeply observing mind is not merely an observer but a participant. Only when the observer is a participant can there be transformation.
In the practice called bare observation, mindfulness has already begun to influence the object of consciousness. When we call an inbreath an in-breath, the existence of our breath becomes very clear. Mindfulness has already penetrated our breathing. If we continue in our mindful observation, there will no longer be a duality between observer and observed. Mindfulness and breath are one. We and our breath are one. If our breath is calm, we are calm. Our breathing calms our bodies and our feelings. This is the method taught in the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness and the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing.
If our minds are consumed by a sense desire or by what we are observing, mindfulness is not present. Conscious breathing nourishes mindfulness, and mindfulness gives rise to conscious breathing. When mindfulness is present, we have nothing to fear. The object of our observation becomes vivid, and its source, origin, and true nature become evident. That is how it will be transformed. It no longer has the effect of binding us.
When the object of our mindful observation is totally clear, the mind that is observing is also fully revealed in great clarity. To see dharmas clearly is to see the mind clearly. When dharmas reveal themselves in their true nature, then the mind has the nature of the highest understanding. The subject and the object of cognition are not separate.


Hanh, T.N.(2012). Awakening of the Heart : Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries. Berkeley, Calif: Parallax Press. Commentary on the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness

Dwelling in the Present Moment

This was a sutra fundamental for the practice of meditation. The Buddha referred to it as the path which could help every person attain peace of body and mind, overcome all sorrows and lamentations, destroy suffering and grief, and attain highest understanding and total emancipation. Later, Venerable Sariputta told the community that this was one of the most important sutras the Buddha had ever given. He encouraged every bhikkhu and bhikkhuni to study, memorize, and practice it.

Venerable Ananda repeated every word of the sutra later that night. Sati means “to dwell in mindfulness,” that is, the practitioner remains aware of everything taking place in his body, feelings, mind, and objects of mind— the four establishments of mindfulness, or awareness.

First the practitioner observes his body—his breath; the four bodily postures of walking, standing, lying, and sitting; bodily actions such as going forward and backward, looking, putting on robes, eating, drinking, using the toilet, speaking, and washing robes; the parts of the body such as hair, teeth, sinews, bones, internal organs, marrow, intestines, saliva, and sweat; the elements which compose the body such as water, air, and heat; and the stages of a body’s decay from the time it dies to when the bones turn to dust.

While observing the body, the practitioner is aware of all details concerning the body. For example, while breathing in, the practitioner knows he is breathing in; breathing out, he knows he is breathing out; breathing in and making his whole body calm and at peace, the practitioner knows he is breathing in and making his whole body calm and at peace. Walking, the practitioner knows he is walking. Sitting, the practitioner knows he is sitting. Performing movements such as putting on robes or drinking water, the practitioner knows he is putting on robes or drinking water. The contemplation of the body is not realized only during the moments of sitting meditation, but throughout the entire day, including the moments one is begging, eating, and washing one’s bowl.

In the contemplation of feelings, the practitioner contemplates feelings as they arise, develop, and fade, feelings which are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Feelings can have as their source either the body or the mind. When he feels pain from a toothache, the practitioner is aware that he feels pain from a toothache; when he is happy because he has received praise, the practitioner is aware that he is happy because he has received praise. The practitioner looks deeply in order to calm and quiet every feeling in order to clearly see the sources which give rise to feelings. The contemplation of feelings does not take place only during the moments of sitting meditation. It is practiced throughout the day.

In the contemplation of mind, the practitioner contemplates the presence of his mental states. Craving, he knows he is craving; not craving, he knows he is not craving. Angry or drowsy, he knows he is angry or drowsy; not angry or drowsy, he knows he is not angry or drowsy. Centered or distracted, he knows he is centered or distracted. Whether he is open-minded, close-minded, blocked, concentrated, or enlightened, the practitioner knows at once. And if he is not experiencing any of those states, the practitioner also knows at once. The practitioner recognizes and is aware of every mental state which arises within him in the present moment.

In the contemplation of the objects of mind, the practitioner contemplates the five hindrances to liberation (sense-desire, ill-will, drowsiness, agitation, and doubt) whenever they are present; the five skandhas which comprise a person (body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness); the six sense organs and the six sense objects; the Seven Factors of Awakening (full attention, investigating dharmas, energy, joy, ease, concentration, and letting-go); and the Four Noble Truths (the existence of suffering, the causes of suffering, liberation from suffering, and the path that leads to liberation from suffering). These are all objects of the mind, and they contain all dharmas.

The Buddha carefully explained each of the four establishments. He said that whoever practiced these four establishments for seven years would attain emancipation. He added that anyone who practiced them for seven months could also attain emancipation. He said that even after practicing these four contemplations for seven days, one could attain emancipation.

Hanh, T. N. (1991). Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha. Parallax Press. Chapter 53