Half Moon Day: The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness

June 11, 2008


The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness


I can see why relatively inexperienced monks are encouraged to give Dhamma Talks.

Over the last few days I’ve been contemplating the Four Noble Truths as that is what I’ll be speaking about tonight in Warwick. A few years ago I was bought this really helpful book called: The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking, by Dale Carnegie. One of the points he makes is that if you start preparing for your talk well enough in advance then you have the benefit of your mind automatically turning over the subject matter throughout your waking day.

And so over the last week I have been living more closely to the Four Noble Truths. It’s not that I’ve been reading about them constantly – far from it – it is simply that I have been turning them over in my mind. And in doing this I have been automatically viewing my experience more in terms of these truths. It has been an excellent practice. The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness – ‘Mindfulness of Dhamma’ – is often translated as ‘Mindfulness of Mental Objects’. But what do we find under this heading in the Buddha’s famous sermon? We find a number of his core teachings. For instance the Four Noble Truths. Some people say that what the Buddha actually meant when he said “Be mindful of Dhamma” was that we should be mindful of what he was teaching us.

While I have been preparing for this talk I have appreciated this point: that the Buddha was telling us to be mindful of his teachings. Having my mind dwell more on the Four Noble Truths throughout the week has caused me to be far more aware of these truths in my experience.

I was doing walking meditation earlier today and I realised that I hadn’t seen our resident novice for a while. “Could he be asleep?” I thought. So I’m walking up and down and my mind begins to get a little worked up: “What’s he doing?! He should be out mowing the lawn or doing walking meditation or digging a hole! It’s 2:30 pm in the afternoon! What’s he doing?!” I was really causing myself a good bit of suffering. Several weeks ago I might have marched down to his kuti and inquired as to what his state of wakefulness was. But owing to my increased awareness of the Noble Truths I recognised very clearly how I was creating suffering in my mind because he wasn’t doing what I thought he should be doing. (Please note: I had no idea what he was doing; he could have been striving his hardest!) And so I quite clearly saw that I was suffering due to my craving. Seeing this link more clearly I decided that I was just going to let him be. “See how you’re causing yourself to suffer!” I thought. “Just leave him be.” And so that quite nasty bit of suffering that had arisen in my mind disappeared with the craving. I no longer desired the novice to be doing what I wanted him to do and the suffering evaporated. I actually felt quite relieved and happy after that.

Now it’s this recognition of the link between craving and suffering that is so important. The two – craving and suffering – go hand in hand. The Buddha said that when you fully understand suffering, you also fully understand its cause, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation. The more clearly we see the suffering in our minds, the more clearly we see its cause. When we begin to see that it’s our own craving that causes us to suffer then we are more inclined to drop it.

So this mindfulness of Dhamma is very important – especially in regard to the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are, after all, the father of all the other teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha once said “As the footprint of every creature that walks the earth can be contained in an elephant’s footprint, which is pre-eminent for size, so does the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths embrace all (of my teachings)” (M.28).

Over the past week I have primarily been developing a deeper awareness of my craving. This issue of craving is often overlooked by practitioners of the Dhamma. Now we are told that it is through not understanding things that we crave. What don’t we understand? We don’t understand that there is nothing worth craving.

The Conditioned

The hallmark of this existence of ours is that it is conditioned. Everything within us and outside of us is conditioned – both material and mental. When something is conditioned it means that it depends on something else existing. This principle is famously illustrated with the metaphor of the the house of cards. The card on the top stands dependent on all the cards beneath it. The card beneath that one depends on those next to it and beneath it, and so on. When any one of those cards is removed all cards above it collapse. If one at the bottom is removed then the whole house falls.

And so it is with the things in this world. As humans we depend on myriad conditions remaining constant: temperature, weather, oxygen, gravity etc, etc… When any one of these alters we cannot survive (or at the very least we start floating!). And so being dependent on so many conditions, this life is inherently unsatisfactory.

And how about the things that we crave? Because these are also dependent on conditions they too are unsatisfactory and unable to fully satisfy. The weather: it’s sunny – we want it to continue. Conditions change and so does the weather and we suffer because of our craving. Or a beautiful person. I’m told Sean Connery was a dapper in his day. Look at him now! He is a conditioned being. Or Sophia Loren. Dear oh dear.


The second hallmark of this existence of ours is that of change. The truth of change goes hand in hand with the process of conditioning.

The Characteristics of Conditioned Phenomena

Conditioned things are characterised in three ways: they arise, they undergo transformation, and they fall. It is this ceaseless change that designates all things in this world as ‘unsatisfactory’. How can something that behaves in these three ways be satisfactory?

When we practise the Eightfold Path and develop our meditation and mindfulness then we begin to see this characteristic of change. We see it in everything.

The nature reserve opposite us is famous for its annual display of bluebells. I used to make a point of going to look at them in May but now I don’t bother. People flock from far and wide to come and see them. Being close by one has a better opportunity to see them as they really are: a changing phenomenon. In April the flowers begin to rise from their base. They then reach their full height and begin to open. They then continue to open until they reach their peak; their electric blue dazzling visitors. But then the process of change relentlessly continues as the furthermost tips of the flowers begin to fade in colour, eventually turning brown. And then finally the flower collapses and the once lush green leaves go a not so pleasant browny green and the flower dies. And so it goes on year after year. There was no point in that whole process when you could have said that those bluebells were satisfactory, that they were a reliable source of happiness. And yet people still flock to take pleasure in them.

And so seeing this arising, transformation, and falling of all things, craving begins to subside. When we see this characteristic of change in it entirety then craving is completely cut off and the unconditioned element attained, that is – Nibbana.

The unconditioned is likewise characterised in three ways: no arising is perceived, no transformation is perceived, no falling is perceived. Hence Nibbana is entirely satisfactory.

Last word: patience.


The next teaching in Dhamma Diary will be on:

The Full Moon Day, Wednesday, 18th June.


3 Responses to “Half Moon Day: The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness”

  1. Thanks a lot for mentioning that mindfulness of dhamma does not simply mean mindfulness of phenomena or objects, but really includes mindfulness of the teachings. I have often thought the same thing, but never found anyone writing about this translation. If you can direct me to other sources and discussions of this topic, I’d appreciate it.

    Just to introduce myself, I am a Soto Zen priest and also a psychologist practicing mindfulness-based psychotherapy. It’s nice to find your blog!

    Best wishes,
    Myoshi Roger Thomson

  2. Tahn Manapo said

    I only know of this interpretation from Luangpor Khemadhammo, my preceptor, though he does say there are other authoritative figures who prefer this rendition too. I’m not sure who they are.

    It seems to me to be a very practical and unambiguous way of looking at the fourth foundation of mindfulness. Be mindful of the five aggregates – see your experience in terms of them. Be mindful of the five hindrances – recognise them in your experience, etc.


    Tahn Manapo

  3. s dhammika said

    I have just come across your blog and read it. A useful and kindly offering. I notice also that you have a link to my essay on Mother Teresa. You might like to read some of my other essays at sdhammika.blogspot.com
    Kind regards
    Bhante Dhammika

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