The Four Frames of Reference

Home Garden FlowerThe four frames of reference (satipatthana) are a set of teachings that show where a meditator should focus attention and how. This dual role — the “where” and the “how” — is reflected in the fact that the term satipatthana can be explained etymologically in two ways. On the one hand, it can be regarded as a compound of sati (mindfulness, reference, the ability to keep something in mind) and patthana (foundation, condition, source), thus referring to the object kept in mind as a frame of reference for giving context to one’s experience.

Alternatively, satipatthana can be seen as a compound of sati and upatthana (establishing near, setting near), thus referring to the approach (the how) of keeping something closely in mind, of establishing and maintaining a solid frame of reference.

Scholars are divided as to which interpretation is right, but for all practical purposes they both are. The Buddha was more a poet than a strict etymologist, and he may have deliberately chosen an ambiguous term that would have fruitful meanings on more than one level. In the practice of the frames of reference, both the proper object and the proper approach are crucial for getting the proper results. In fact, as we shall see, the taking of a proper object entails the beginning of the proper approach, and the approach ends by taking as its objects the qualities of mind developed in the course of pursuing the approach itself. . . .

The proper objects that act as frames of reference are four: the body in and of itself, feelings in and of themselves, the mind in and of itself, and mental qualities in and of themselves. The “in and of itself” here is important. To take the body as a frame of reference in this way, for instance, means that one views it not in terms of its function in the world — for then the world would be the frame of reference — but simply on its own terms, as it is directly experienced. In other words, one is not concerned with its relative worth or utility in terms of the values of the world — its beauty, strength, agility, etc. — but simply how it appears when regarded in and of itself.

The four objects that act as frames of reference fall into two classes.

The first class — the body, feelings, and the mind — act as the “given” objects of meditation practice: what experience presents, on its own, as an object for meditation. The meditator takes any one of these objects as a frame of reference, relating all of experience to his/her chosen frame.

For example, although one will experience feelings and mind states in the course of taking the body as a frame of reference, one tries to relate them to the experience of the body as their primary frame. A feeling is viewed as it affects the body, or the body affects it. The same holds for a mind state. An analogy for this practice is holding an object in one’s hand. When other objects come into contact with the hand, one is aware that they are making contact, but one does not let go of the object in one’s hand in order to grasp after them.

The second class of objects — mental qualities (dhamma) — denotes the qualities of mind that are developed and abandoned as one masters the meditation. The list of “dhammas” given in §30 would seem to belie the translation “mental qualities” here, as they include not only the five hindrances and seven factors for Awakening, which are obviously mental qualities, but also the five aggregates, the six sense media, and the four noble truths, which would seem to fit better with another meaning of the word dhamma, i.e., “phenomena.” However, if we look more closely at each of these other classes, we will see that they actually deal with variant forms of abandoning the hindrances and developing the factors for Awakening.

The section on the sense media focuses less on the media than on the abandoning of the fetters — passion and delight (SN 41.1; MFU pp. 52-53) — associated with those media.

The section on the aggregates describes a state of practice that is elsewhere [§149] identified as a developed form of concentration, in which the aggregates that comprise the state of jhāna form the object of analysis [§173].

The section on the noble truths describes a state of practice that elsewhere [§169] is said to require the sort of mental stability and clarity found only in jhāna.

Thus all the approaches to “dhammas in and of themselves” would appear to be variations on the abandoning of the hindrances and the development of the factors for Awakening. Because the stated function of the frames of reference is to bring about the culmination of the factors for Awakening, and through them the development of clear knowing and release [§92], the translation of dhamma as “mental quality” seems an appropriate way to keep that function in mind and to avoid getting lost in the details of its different aspects. . . .

Each of the four objects of mindfulness is said to be sufficient for bringing about Awakening [§44]. This point is easy to understand if we look at the approach taken to each of the objects, for then it becomes clear that the approach ultimately involves the development of mental qualities in and of themselves, regardless of what object is first taken up for meditation.

That approach falls into three stages. The first stage — here taking the body as an example — is simply called the frame of reference [§29]:

There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in and of itself — ardent, alert, and mindful — putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world.

Four terms in this passage are key.

“Remaining focused” (anupassin) can also be translated as “keeping track.” This denotes the element of concentration in the practice, as one tries to stay with one particular theme in the midst of the welter of experience.

“Ardent” (atapi) denotes the factor of effort or exertion in the practice; the Commentary equates this with right exertion, which contains an element of discernment in its ability to distinguish skillful from unskillful mental qualities.

“Alert” (sampajano) means being clearly aware of what is happening in the present. This, too, relates to discernment.

“Mindful” (satima) literally means being able to remember or recollect. Here it means keeping one’s task in mind. The task here is a dual one — remaining focused on one’s frame of reference, and putting aside the distractions of greed and distress that would come from shifting one’s frame of reference back to the world. In other words, one tries to stay with the phenomenology of immediate experience, without slipping back into the narratives and world views that make up one’s sense of the world.

In essence, this is a concentration practice, with the three qualities of ardency, alertness, and mindfulness devoted to attaining concentration. Mindfulness keeps the theme of the meditation in mind, alertness observes the theme as it is present to awareness, and also is aware of when the mind has slipped from its theme. Mindfulness then remembers where the mind should be focused, and ardency tries to return the mind to its proper theme — and to keep it there — as quickly and skillfully as possible. In this way, these three qualities help to seclude the mind from sensual preoccupations and unskillful mental qualities, thus bringing it to the first jhāna.

Passage §33 confirms this reading by equating the successful performance of this first stage in the practice with the first jhāna, whereas §§35-36 give advice on how to bring the mind to concentration if this method does not work: focus on the problem of the mind’s not settling down, and bring the mind to an inspiring theme that will accomplish the desired end.

When the method does work, §33 describes the next step as a variation on the basic exercise:

Remain focused on the body in and of itself, but do not think any thoughts connected with the body.

This, it says, takes the mind to the second jhāna, where directed thoughts and evaluations are abandoned. From there the mind can go up to the third jhāna and the fourth [§72].

These points may be illustrated with some meditation techniques that are currently popular in the West: In a “mental noting” practice, mindfulness is a matter of remembering to keep up the noting, alertness means seeing whatever phenomena arise to be noted, and ardency is a matter of sticking with the noting relentlessly and being ever more quick and precise in one’s alertness. In terms of the factors constituting jhāna practice, the mindfulness and alertness here would be related to directed thought, ardency to singleness of preoccupation, while alertness aimed at evaluating the results of the noting — and ardency in keeping the “pressure” of the noting just right — would be related to evaluation. If this practice is then conducted in line with the texts, it should reach a stage where the mind settles down into the singleness of the first jhāna. Then the meditator would be encouraged to stop the noting, so that the mind could engage in the subtler mindfulness and alertness leading to the second jhāna.

In a “scanning” or “body sweep” practice, mindfulness means remembering to stick with the process of scanning the body, while alertness would mean seeing the subtle sensations of the body being scanned. Ardency would mean sticking with the scanning process and trying to be ever more sensitive to the subtlest sensations. As in the previous case, these activities are related to factors of jhāna, and the process, if conducted in line with the texts, should culminate in a state of full-bodied singleness, at which time the motion of the scanning can be brought to stillness, and the mind can enter deeper concentration.

In “breath” practice, mindfulness means keeping the breath in mind as the theme of the meditation, alertness means being sensitive to the sensations of the breath. Ardency means sticking with the process relentlessly, as well as taking up the stages of “training” [§31; III/E], in which one tries to be aware of the entire body with each in and out breath, and to let the breath sensations grow calm. In terms of jhāna factors, mindfulness would be related to directed thought, alertness to evaluation, and ardency to singleness of preoccupation. As awareness fills the body and the breath grows calm, one’s alertness stays steadily with the breath, and the mind enters the singleness of jhāna. At this point, one no longer needs consciously to direct the mind to the breath or to enlarge one’s awareness any further. Thus the mind, as above, can develop subtler mindfulness and alertness to enter the second jhāna.

Source: “Wings to Awakening: Part II”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff). Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, .

©1996 Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

The text of this page (“Wings to Awakening: Part II”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. To view a copy of the license, visit Documents linked from this page may be subject to other restrictions. Sixth revised edition, 2011. Transcribed from a file provided by the author. Last revised for Access to Insight on 30 November 2013.

[Notes have been excerpted from the above source by Alexander Peck.]