Timeless Wisdom

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness According to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

By Derek Kolleeny

Leading up to the Westchester Buddhist Center’s sixth annual retreat at the Garrison Institute on February 16-23, 2018, Derek Kolleeny discusses the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.

In the second part of this series on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (FFM), we will look at the unique presentation of the FFM by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Trungpa Rinpoche presented the FFM a total of three times between 1973 and 1974. There are three aspects that are unique about his presentation of them.

First, he presented them as part of his system of meditation, as an integral aspect of the progression from shamatha (settling meditation) to vipashyana (insight meditation). For a Tibetan Buddhist teacher to present the FFM in any depth and as a practical scheme for the practice of meditation is highly unusual. Typically, in the Mahayana tradition—and especially in the Tibetan tradition—the FFM are barely given lip service. If mentioned at all, they are discussed as rote stages along the path and as four ways to experience emptiness. For a Tibetan Buddhist teacher to present them in a way that resembles the traditional Theravada system was revolutionary.

This connection to the Theravadin tradition also manifests in his emphasis upon a simple mindfulness of breathing technique as the fundamental practice he presented to his students. Usually the practice of pujas—recited in the Tibetan language—is the common practice for Tibetan teachers when instructing beginning students.

Secondly, in studying all three presentations it becomes clear that he relates the FFM to the progression from shamatha to vipashyana. Not many other teachers present a clear correlation between these. Trungpa Rinpoche clearly states that the first one is shamatha in his “Training the Mind Seminar”:

“This first portion of the practice of meditation is known as śamatha, which literally means ‘the development of peace.’ But in this case, the development of peace in the sense of simplicity rather than pleasure as such, which is one of the biggest misunderstandings when we talk about ‘peace on earth.'”

And when he presents the practice of vipashyana in a 1973 seminary program, he clearly states that it is identical to the technique he presented in the third foundation of mindfulness:

“The technique or means of developing vipashyana practice is exactly the same as we discussed the other day—the third foundation of mindfulness, effort, or the sudden glimpse of awareness which brings us back, unconditioned awareness which brings us back to the practice.”  

While he doesn’t explicitly state this anywhere else that I have found, from these one can surmise that he considered the second foundation of mindfulness to be either an extension of the practice of shamatha or an introductory type of vipashyana practice; or perhaps a bridge from shamatha to vipashyana.

As for the fourth foundation of mindfulness, he explains this one as the result of the other foundations in his 1973 “Vajradhatu Seminary” presentation:

This fourth foundation of mindfulness of mind is not exactly a discipline as such, but we could say it’s the end result of the practice.

Perhaps he considers it the union of shamatha and vipashyana, which traditionally is considered the fruition of the progression.

To sum up, in the presentation of “Mindfulness of Body” in the 1973 Seminary, we find this exchange:

Q: So the two types of mindfulness are within shamatha? Both of them that you discussed? 

R (Rinpoche): Well, there are four types of mindfulness practices. They are not practices, but four stages, shall we say—the four foundations of mindfulness practice. 

Q: So they’re within shamatha? 

R: They’re within shamatha, but they could also extend to the vipashyana practice as well. 

Q: And what you were discussing today, does that have a partial entrance into—

R: No, no. This is purely shamatha, because it only involves your own body and mind and you never have made an attempt to go out more than your body. So it is still restricted to your physical body sensations and consciousness.

Thirdly, the most revolutionary aspect of Trungpa Rinpoche’s presentation of the FFM is that he uses very different terminology for foundations two, three, and four, unlike what any other translator or teacher has used.

  1. For the second foundation of mindfulness, instead of the commonly used term “feeling,” he uses either “livelihood,” “survival,” “a sense of well-being,” “life,” or even “life-force” and describes the practice as the cultivation of one’s sense of being alive, as a sentient being.
  2. For the third foundation of mindfulness, instead of the commonly used term “mind,” he uses “effort,” and describes the practice as the cultivation of effort.
  3. For the fourth foundation of mindfulness, instead of the commonly used term “dharmas,” he uses “mindfulness of mind” and describes the practice as focusing on one’s state of mind.

The immediate question is whether Trungpa Rinpoche is actually presenting some other practice and just using the scheme of the FFM to describe it? Thankfully the transcript includes an exchange where someone finally asks him specifically about this at the end of his last talk on the four of them:

Q: Rinpoche, I was wondering how the four foundations as you presented them, body, livelihood, effort, and mental activities, correspond to body, feelings, mind and mental contents. Particularly the middle two: livelihood as feelings, and effort as mind. 

R: Feelings as what? 

Q: Well, in other words, as they’re presented elsewhere. I believe it’s the same four categories isn’t it? The contemplation of the body, of feelings, of mind, and mental contents? 

R: Yeah. 

Q: Same set of four?

R: Yeah. The third one, effort, is I suppose mental concentration. I don’t know exactly how they’re translated, but it’s the idea of mental concentration as effort. And the last one is the contents of the mind. The definition of mind is that which can perceive its contents; that’s the definition of mind, the Abhidharma definition. 

Q: What about the second one: livelihood as feelings, contemplation of feelings?

R: Well, livelihood is still something to do with your life. Maybe, psychologically oriented it is translated as feeling, but somehow when we talk about feelings we’re only relating with feelings rather than general life and body and solid things, which seem to make more sense in terms of actual practice, I would think those translations that have been made are more of a philosophical orientation.

Q: Well, for example as in Nyanaponika Thera’s book, in the Theravadin approach, he really uses them to separate very precisely what you’re seeing in your meditation—if it’s body, you label it as body; if it’s feeling level, you label it as feeling. You don’t confuse the two. So that if you have a pain in your arm you know which part is body and which part is feeling and which part is mind. He seems to use them in that way dividing up the different categories of awareness, attention. 

Q: That’s reinforcing duality isn’t it? 

R: Something like that. You have to be super-scientific and even a computer can meditate.

Clearly, Trungpa Rinpoche used his usual terminology and described the practice of the FFM in his usual way because he felt it provided the way to practically apply oneself to them.

Derek Kolleeny became a student of Trungpa Rinpoche in 1976. He earned a B.A. in Buddhism from Harvard College and teaches at the Westchester Buddhist Center and Rime Shedra NYC.

One comment on “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness According to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche”

  1. Jan Henzl says:

    Hello, thank you very much. Spacially for finding the Q&A section. I had for long time wondered about these VCTRs naming/translation. Not that now its much more clear to me.. but at least something.


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