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How to Practice Vipassana Meditation in Accordance with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana)

as taught by
Venerable Ajahn Tong Sirimangalo

[Source: Path to Nibbana (Complete Edition), Bilingual Edition, 2004, and Handbook of Vipassana Meditation Practice in Accordance with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Thai Edition, 2003, both by Ajahn Tong, Wat Phradhatu Sri Chom Tong Voravihara, Chiang Mai.]

Imecca Subhadda bhikkhu sammavihareyyum asuññoloko Arahantehi assa.
If, Subhadda, monks practice in the right way, this world will not be void of Arahants.


Table of Contents

Guidelines for Practice

We come to practice the Dhamma in order to raise the state of our minds from being a worldling (puthujjana) to becoming a good person (kalayanajjana) and ultimately a noble one (ariyajjana). In order to become a noble one, one must practice vipassana meditation in accordance with the four foundations of mindfulness. This means to maintain mindfulness at the body (kaya), feelings (vedana), mind (citta) and mind-objects (dhamma).

(Repeat three times: Vipassana meditation in accordance with the four foundations of mindfulness; 1. body, 2. feelings, 3. mind, 4. mind-objects.)

Mindfulness of the body. Mindfulness of the body is to know the condition of the rising and falling of the abdomen, like in noting "rising, falling," or in noting "right stepping, left stepping," which are conditions that come from the body.

Mindfulness of feelings. While we are noting "rising, falling," if a pleasant or unpleasant feeling arises, temporarily stop noting "rising, falling," and instead note the pleasant or unpleasant feeling. For example, if there's pain, note "pain, pain, pain" for a reasonable period of time and then resume noting "rising, falling," which is our main object of meditation.

Mindfulness of mind. While we are noting "rising, falling," if the mind thinks of work or thinks of home, whether the thoughts are good or bad, temporarily stop noting "rising, falling," and instead note "thinking, thinking, thinking" for a reasonable period of time before resuming to note "rising, falling," which is our main object of meditation.

Mindfulness of mind-objects. Mind-objects are the five hindrances which are pleasure (kamacchanda), displeasure (byapada), sleepiness (thina-middha), distraction (uddhacca-kukkucca), and doubt (vicikiccha). These five hindrances exist in every human mind regardless of nationality and language. While we are noting "rising, falling," if any one of the hindrances comes and clouds the mind, like if pleasure arises, temporarily stop noting "rising, falling" and instead note "pleased, pleased, pleased." If displeasure arises, note "displeased, displeased, displeased." If sleepiness arises, note "sleepy, sleepy, sleepy." If distraction arises, note "distracted, distracted, distracted." If doubt arises, note "doubting, doubting, doubting." Once you've noted the hindrance for a reasonable period of time, resume noting "rising, falling," which is your main object of meditation.

This is the practice of vipassana meditation in accordance with the four foundations of mindfulness, which consist of mindfulness of body, feelings, mind and mind-objects. 

Important Principles in the Practice

1. The noting must be done in the present moment. For example, when we are noting "rising, falling," the word "rising" and the rising of the abdomen must be simultaneous. Don't let one be before or after the other. The word "falling" and the falling of the abdomen must also be simultaneous. Don't let one be before or after the other. It is the same with walking. When we note "right" we must lift our foot up immediately. When we note "step" we must move our foot forward immediately. When we note "ing" we must place our foot on the ground simultaneously.

This is what we call "staying in the present moment." The present moment is of immense importance to the practice. Because if we can note in the present moment, momentary concentration (khanika-samadhi) will gather itself. As momentary concentration gathers itself more and more, the five controlling faculties and powers, which are faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom, will become stronger, and the strength of the body will improve, like a well-sharpened knife that is always ready for good use.

Once the practice reaches the knowledge of the path (magga-ñana), the fourteenth knowledge, during the meditation retreat period of making resolutions, the controlling faculties strengthened by the power of concentration are what will perform the duty of automatically destroying the defilements without needing our interference. Therefore, we must gather momentary concentration as much as we can by noting in the present moment.

2. We must practice continuously. After doing the mindful (satipatthana) prostration, we have to walk and sit meditation according to the time schedule we have fixed for ourselves. The three activities of mindful prostration, walking and sitting meditation must be continuous. Only after sitting should we take a rest. While resting, we must mindfully note the minor bodily activities as well. For example, when we're taking a shower, if we're going to pick up the bowl, note "picking up, picking up, picking up," and then "scooping, scooping, scooping," "pouring, pouring, pouring," "touching, touching, touching." When we're about to eat, if we're going to scoop up rice and put it onto our plate, note "scooping, scooping, scooping," "putting (onto plate), putting, putting," and then "scooping, scooping, scooping," "putting (into mouth), putting, putting," "chewing, chewing, chewing," and "swallowing, swallowing, swallowing."

When we're going to go to sleep, note "lying (down), lying (down)." Once in the sleeping position, note at the abdomen "rising, falling" until we fall asleep. Whenever we fall asleep, mindfulness stops working at that time. Mindfulness must always be at work from the time we wake until we fall asleep.

The reason we have to do this can be explained as follows. After we've sat meditation, we take a rest. But while we're resting, we're doing some other work, or doing some talking, without mindfully noting the bodily activities at all. It is during this time that a gap arises. Once there is a gap, the mind that is not being put to work will wander out, making us distracted and defilements will be allowed to enter the mind. In addition, if we don't note continuously, the momentary concentration that has already gathered itself will start to disperse, weakening the power of concentration.

Thus, it is necessary to keep noting continuously at all times.

3. The practice must consist of three good factors:

  • energy (atapi): perseverance and earnestness; doing it seriously.
  • mindfulness (satima): mindfulness that recollects and knows the rupa and nama that arise.
  • clear comprehension (sampajano): awareness following bodily activities at all times.

4. Balance the five controlling faculties (indriya) and powers (bala):

  • Faith (saddha) must be balanced with wisdom (pañña).
  • Effort (viriya) must be balanced with concentration (samadhi).
  • Mindfulness (sati) is the supervisor.
  • If faith is great but wisdom is weak, greed (lobha) will take control.
  • If wisdom is great but faith is weak, doubt (vicikiccha) will take control.
  • If energy is great but concentration is weak, distraction (uddhacca) will take control.
  • If concentration is great, but energy is weak, laziness (kosajja) will take control.

Whether the practice produces quick or slow results depends on your ability to balance the controlling faculties and powers stated here.

***

That we have the opportunity to come and start practicing the Dhamma here means we've already lifted ourselves up towards "the only way," which is the way walked by all the Buddhas and their Arahant disciples. This only way consists of the following five characteristics:

  1. It is a way discovered by the Buddha himself alone.
  2. It is a way that exists only in the Buddhist religion.
  3. It is a way that must be walked individually and alone. No one can walk it for anyone else.
  4. It is a single and straight way, with no forks in the path.
  5. It is a way that leads to one destination which is Nirvana.

And the Buddha has mentioned the following four benefits that result from the practice of vipassana meditation:

  1. When dying, one is mindful.
  2. After death one won't fall into states of woe. Rebirth will take place in a blissful state (sugati), in heaven.
  3. It will become the seed, the foundation, the habit that will support a quicker realization of the paths, fruitions and Nirvana in future lives.
  4. If the practice is done continuously for seven years, one of two results may be expected: the state of a Non-returner (anagami), or if the controlling faculties are strong, the state of an Arahant in this present life.

In the practice of the Dhamma, the Buddha had five wishes:

  1. for the purification of the mind;
  2. for the getting rid of sorrow and lamentation;
  3. for the getting rid of physical and mental suffering;
  4. for the attainment of the truth of life (ariya-magga);
  5. for the realization of Nirvana.

The Buddha further stated that even all the treasures of the three worlds (i.e., the human world, the world of devas, and the world of Brahma) put together can't compare with becoming a Stream-enterer (sotapanna). Because anyone who is the owner of the treasures of these three worlds can still fall into states of woe, but stream-enterers won't fall into there, as the doors to the states of woe are closed to them. Thus, may you try to take this treasure with you so that you won't have to come back to cycle in the rounds of birth and death, in samsara, ever again.

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Mindful (Satipatthana) Prostration

Meditators should perform the mindful prostration before they start walking meditation.

Mindful Prostration HOWTO Page 1 Mindful Prostration HOWTO Page 2 Mindful Prostration HOWTO Page 3

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Walking Meditation

After performing the mindful prostration, get up and stand straight. Line the right foot next to the left. Put your hands together in the front or behind your back by grasping the left hand with the right, as in the picture below:

 Standing Meditation

Hold your head straight. Look ahead and down at the ground about two meters in front of you, noting "standing, standing, standing." Know that you're standing when you're standing.

The First Stage of Walking Meditation: "right stepping, left stepping"

Establish mindfulness. Lift your right foot up above the ground about the height of the ankle and move your foot forward reasonably slowly, by noting mentally at the same time as the foot that is moving so that the present moment is maintained. Don't move your foot first and then note only afterwards, and don't note first before lifting your foot up. For example, in the first stage of walking meditation, from the moment the right foot is stepping forward until it touches the floor, note mentally from the time you start to lift the foot up, together with the word "right stepping." The foot should touch the ground in time with the syllable "ing."

From the time you lift your left foot and move it forward until it reaches the floor, note mentally "left stepping." The foot should touch the ground in time with the syllable "ing," like with the right foot. Do this every time with every step. This is called "the first stage of walking meditation."

Once you've reached the end of your walking path, stop and line you feet up together, slowly noting mentally "stopping, stopping, stopping." When the image of yourself standing appears, note mentally "standing, standing, standing." In turning back, turn to the right by lifting your right foot up and placing it down at a right angle to the left foot, simultaneously noting mentally "turning." Then lift your left foot up and place it down next to your right foot, simultaneously noting mentally "turning."

The second turn is done in the same way as the first turn, which is to move the right foot to form a right angle, simultaneously noting mentally "turning." And then lift your left foot up and bring it down next to the right, simultaneously noting mentally "turning." When the image of yourself standing appears, note "standing, standing, standing." Now walk meditation, simultaneously noting "right stepping, left stepping."

Walking meditation and constant noting and awareness as described is training in the practice of meditation with regards to bodily postures, as is stated in the text:

Gacchanto va gacchamiti pajanati.
While walking, note and know that you're walking.

Thito va thitomhiti pajanati.
While standing, note and know that you're standing.

And walking meditation, standing and turning in the way described, along with constant noting and awareness, is training in the practice of meditation with regards to clear comprehension (sampajañña), as is stated in the text:

Abhikkante patakkante sampajanakari hoti.
Be mindful at all times while walking forward and walking back.

While walking meditation in the first stage, the vipassana teacher will teach the meditator to sit meditation and note "rising, falling" as well.

The Second Stage of Walking Meditation: "lifting - placing"

The meditator should stand straight with feet parallel, holding the head up straight, noting mentally "standing, standing, standing." Establish mindfulness and while firmly pressing the left foot down, slowly lift the right foot up and forward, noting "lifting." And then move the foot forward and place it down on the floor, simultaneously noting mentally "placing." This is called "the second stage of walking meditation." Besides this, everything else is done in the same way as in the first stage of walking meditation.

The Third Stage of Walking Meditation: "lifting - moving - placing"

The third stage of walking meditation is not much different from the walking meditation described previously. The only difference is the following. While lifting the foot up to the level of the ankle, mentally note "lifting" simultaneously with the movement of the foot. When moving the foot forward, note "moving." When the foot is brought down completely to the ground, note "placing." In the third stage of walking meditation here, in the first step ("lifting"), lift the foot up straight; don't raise the heel up first and then lift the foot, otherwise it would be like the fourth stage of walking meditation, which will be described next.


The Fourth Stage of Walking Meditation: "raising - lifting - moving - placing"

  1. Lift the heel up, simultaneously noting mentally "raising."
  2. While lifting the foot up from the ground, note mentally "lifting."
  3. While moving the foot forward, note mentally "moving."
  4. While placing the foot down onto the floor, note "placing."


You can see that there is no difference from the third stage of walking meditation, except for the addition of one step, which is to raise the heel up first while noting "raising." Then lift the entire foot up from the floor, as in the third stage of walking.

The Fifth Stage of Walking Meditation: "raising - lifting - moving - lowering - touching"

  1. Lift the heel up, simultaneously noting mentally "raising."
  2. While lifting the foot up from the ground, note mentally "lifting."
  3. While moving the foot forward, note mentally "moving."
  4. While lowering the foot down to the floor, note "lowering."
  5. When the toes touch the floor, note "touch." When the heel makes contact with the floor, note "ing."

The Sixth Stage of Walking Meditation: "raising - lifting - moving - lowering - touching - pressing"

  1. Lift the heel up, simultaneously noting mentally "raising."
  2. While lifting the foot up from the ground, note mentally "lifting."
  3. While moving the foot forward, note mentally "moving."
  4. While lowering the foot down to the floor, note "lowering."
  5. When the toes touch the floor, note mentally "touching."
  6. When the heel is being pressed onto the floor, note mentally "pressing."

Note the Following Points:

1. When the meditator has made good progress in walking meditation in their current stage, when the vipassana teacher has interviewed the meditator and sees that the meditator has made satisfactory progress, the teacher will teach the next walking stages until finally reaching the total of six stages. The meditator shouldn't ask or rush the teacher for a change or for the next walking stage following their own moods.

2. In walking meditation from the first stage to sixth stage, one must start with the right foot. Notice that in walking meditation in the first stage, if one notes by separating the words "right - step - ping" and "left - step - ping," it becomes 3 steps. This will then be the same as the third stage of walking meditation, with the only difference being the 3 "ing" syllables. If one notes "right step - ping" it then becomes 2 steps. This will then be the same as the second stage of walking meditation, with the only difference being the 2 "ing" syllables. But we note the entire merged phrase together, which is "right stepping" and "left stepping."

3. In the second, third and fourth stages of walking meditation, when the foot is placed down onto the floor ("placing"), the sole of the foot, that is, the toes and the heel, should touch the floor at the same time. As for "touching" in the fifth stage of walking meditation, the toes should touch the floor a little before the heel. But in the sixth stage of walking meditation, when the "touching" step is reached, the toes should be lowered to make contact with the floor. When the "pressing" step is reached, the heel should then be pressed onto the floor.

4. In walking meditation, one shouldn't walk for more than one hour at a time, but instead should walk many times per day.

The evidence for walking meditation appears on the fifth and sixth lines on page 251 in part three of the Visuddhimagga (Thai Version). It is stated there:

Tato ekapadavaram uddharana atiharana vitiharana vossajjana sannikhebhana sannirumabhana vasena chakotthasekaroti.
There should be noting in walking meditation once in 6 steps.

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Sitting Meditation

In practicing vipassana meditation, meditators should first study the principles of sitting meditation in order to learn how to sit. There is a saying in Pali:

Nisidati pallankam abhujitva ujum kayam panidhaya, parimukham sati upatthapetva.

The meaning is "sitting on a throne, and making the body straight, establish mindfulness in front of you (sit straight and maintain firm mindfulness)."

So that the meditator can note correctly according to the principles of the practice of vipassana meditation, the vipassana teacher will suggest 2 ways of sitting. In the first posture, one may place the right leg on top of the left, and the right hand on top of the left, letting the tips of the two thumbs touch each other. In the second posture, sit with the left leg folded on the inside, and the right leg folded on the outside. The heel of the right foot should touch the left shin. The right hand should be placed on top of the left, letting the tips of the two thumbs touch each other, as in the picture below.

Sitting Meditation Postures 

Once seated in one of the postures, sit straight. Straighten up your neck and your head. Close your eyes and establish mindfulness noting the object of meditation that is at the abdomen.

The Second Stage of Sitting Meditation

When breathing in, the abdomen will rise; note "rising." (The noting word "rising" and the abdomen that rises should occur at the same time. Don't let one be before or after the other.) When breathing out, the abdomen will fall; note "falling." (The noting word "falling" and the abdomen that falls should occur at the same time. Don't let one be before or after the other.)

Each sitting session may last 10, 20 or 30 minutes, or up to one hour, depending on the instructions of the vipassana teacher. In the Commentary (atthakatha), it is said that one sitting session is equivalent to one throne.

Beginning Meditators

When just starting out, it might be enough to start sitting for just 15 minutes at a time. If in the beginning, the rise and fall of the abdomen is not clear, one may place both hands, one on top of the other, on the abdomen. Then the rise and fall will become clear.

The noting of the rise and fall is noting in 2 stages. The meditator might have to practice it many, many times. Various states may arise during this period of practice. Once the vipassana teacher has interviewed the meditator and sees that results are good enough, noting in 3 stages will be taught, as described below.

The Third Stage of Sitting Meditation

  1. When the abdomen rises, note mentally "rising."
  2. When the abdomen falls, note mentally "falling."
  3. When the abdomen rises the second time, note mentally "sitting," by thinking of the image of yourself sitting, that is, in which position you are sitting in.
  4. When the abdomen falls the second time, let it fall without noting anything, until the abdomen rises again, at which time continue to note a new round of "rising, falling, sitting."
 Sitting Meditation 3 Stages

If the meditator is lying down, note "lying (down)" in accordance with the Maha-Satipatthana Sutta, which says:

Nisinno va nisinnomhiti pajanati. Sayano va sayanomditi sayanomhiti pajanati.
When he is sitting, he notes and knows he is sitting. When he is lying down, he notes and knows he is lying down.

The Fourth Stage of Sitting Meditation

The fourth stage of sitting meditation is the same as the third stage, except that here in the fourth stage, when the abdomen falls, where previously we left it alone without noting anything, we now note "touching," by directing the mind to touch a spot on the right hip. And then continue noting "rising, falling, sitting, touching" by directing the mind to touch a spot on the left hip. Keep noting and rotating in the way described. The shape and size of the spot on which we note "touching" is a circle the size of a 10-baht coin.

 Sitting Meditation 4 Stages

If the meditator's concentration is good, when they reach the point of noting "touching," various feelings will arise. Sometimes they may feel that the area around the hip is suddenly becoming hot and burning, or they may feel like something hard is being stabbed into the skin. Or they may feel like the bone at that spot is extruding out and pushing on the flesh around the hip area, that it is extruding out and touching the floor or the cushion, every time that they note "touching."

And before the meditation session is over, they might ache and feel bruised around those areas. But when they stop noting, the feelings and the various conditions will immediately disappear, because they are only feelings, not real aches or bruises. In addition, once the practice is done correctly according to the theoretical principles, various conditions will arise—for example:

  • feeling hot all over the body or at certain parts of the body;
  • feeling light and floating up like a balloon;
  • feeling stiff;
  • goose bumps, hair standing on end, body swaying;
  • feeling that the body is rippling up and down as if you were sitting on a raft that is being hit by waves.

These are symptoms of joy (piti) and there may be other states that arise as well, all of which are through the power of concentration.

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Lying Meditation

In noting in 4 stages in the posture of lying down, note mentally "rising, falling, lying, touching." The points used for noting "touching" are the same as those used for sitting. Keep noting until you fall asleep.

Lying Meditation 

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The 28 Touching Points
After the interview, if the vipassana teacher sees that the practice is progressing relatively well, the meditator will be given more touching points, which are in the order shown below:

The 28 Touching Points

After the practice has reached this point, next enter the resolution period.

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Steps in the Practice
Stage of Walking Sitting Touching Points Time (Minutes)
1st rising - falling - 15
2nd rising - falling - 20
2nd rising - falling - sitting - 25
3rd rising - falling - sitting 1 - 2 30
4th rising - falling - sitting 3 - 4 35
4th rising - falling - sitting 5 - 6 40
4th rising - falling - sitting 7 - 8 45
4th rising - falling - sitting 9 - 10 50
4th rising - falling - sitting 11 - 12 55
5th rising - falling - sitting 13 - 16 60
6th rising - falling - sitting 17 - 28 60
  • 1st Stage of Walking: right stepping, left stepping
  • 2nd Stage of Walking: lifting - placing
  • 3rd Stage of Walking: lifting - moving - placing
  • 4th Stage of Walking: raising - lifting - moving - placing
  • 5th Stage of Walking: raising - lifting - moving - lowering - touching
  • 6th Stage of Walking: raising - lifting - moving - lowering - touching - pressing

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Steps in Reviewing the Knowledges (Ñana)

Reviewing the knowledges (ñana) is something essential for meditators, because it is a way to review their practice so that it becomes more firm. In addition, it is also a way to pick up what was lacking or missing from the practice in the beginning stages so that it becomes more complete. Therefore, meditators must frequently review the knowledges.

1. Walk meditation in 3 stages (lifting - moving - placing) for one hour, and then sit down in the half-lotus position and resolve: "Within one hour may udayabbaya-ñana arise." Then sit meditation "rising, falling, sitting."

2. Walk meditation in 4 stages (raising - lifting - moving - placing) for one hour, and then sit down in the half-lotus position and resolve: "Within one hour may bhanga-ñana arise." Then sit meditation "rising, falling, sitting, touching (to right and left hip)."

3. Walk meditation in 4 stages (raising - lifting - moving - placing) for one hour, and then sit down in the half-lotus position and resolve: "Within one hour may bhaya-ñana arise." Then sit meditation "rising, falling, sitting, touching (to outer back of right and left knee)."

4. Walk meditation in 4 stages (raising - lifting - moving - placing) for one hour, and then sit down in the half-lotus position and resolve: "Within one hour may adinava-ñana arise." Then sit meditation "rising, falling, sitting, touching (to right and left ankle)."

5. Walk meditation in 4 stages (raising - lifting - moving - placing) for one hour, and then sit down in the half-lotus position and resolve: "Within one hour may nibbida-ñana arise." Then sit meditation "rising, falling, sitting, touching (to top of right and left foot)."

6. Walk meditation in 4 stages (raising - lifting - moving - placing) for one hour, and then sit down in the half-lotus position and resolve: "Within one hour may muñcitu-kamyata-ñana arise." Then sit meditation "rising, falling, sitting, touching (to right and left knee)."

7. Walk meditation in 5 stages (raising - lifting - moving - lowering - touching) for one hour, and then sit down in the half-lotus position and resolve: "Within one hour may patisankha-ñana arise." Then sit meditation "rising, falling, sitting, touching (to right and left mid-thigh, and right and left fold of groin)."

8. Walk meditation in 6 stages (raising - lifting - moving - lowering - touching - pressing) for one hour, and then sit down in the half-lotus position and resolve: "Within one hour may sankharupekkha-ñana arise." Then sit meditation "rising, falling, sitting, touching (all 28 points)."

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Last updated: November 13, 2005