On mindfulness

The term mindfulness is ubiquitous in English-language discussions of Buddhism – and beyond, in secular meditation techniques. When I first encountered Buddhism in Thailand, the English word “mindfulness” was central to my understanding of the tradition. My journals in 1997 described mindfulness as “the Buddhist virtue”, and identified it with “detachment from negative emotions, the ability to sit back and go ‘Y’know, there’s really no reason to be pissed off about this here.’” It was not a word I encountered anywhere outside my own study of the tradition.

Seventeen years later, I realized that “mindfulness” had become mainstream when my hospital had prescribed mindfulness meditation for my insomnia. It has already become considerably more mainstream in the few years since. A couple years ago I participated in a new and popular mindfulness program through my employer, Boston University. I should stress that this program had nothing to do with the religion or philosophy departments, the Center for the Study of Asia, the Buddhist students’ organization, or any other such Buddhism-related part of the university. No, it was offered through Information Services and Technology, as part of my day job assisting professors to teach with technology – whether they are professors of chemistry, public health, hospitality administration, or anything else. IS&T sponsored Greg Topakian, an excellent mindfulness instructor from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, to teach us meditation practice in the hopes that it will benefit IS&T as an employer and us as employees – on the theory that it can benefit any employer and any employees.

A Portuguese book called "Mindfulness para Totós", translating the English "Mindfulness for Dummies".The use of the word goes well beyond such meditation programs, to the point that packages of the tasty BarkThins chocolates describe them as “a mindful way to snack”. The word “mindfulness” is now so ubiquitous that books in other European languages leave the English word untranslated. The Portuguese apparently consider “mindfulness” enough of an import, not merely from Asia but from the English-speaking world, that they can best let other Portuguese know what they are talking about by using the English word rather than any Portuguese equivalent.

Such a ubiquitous concept deserves a closer look. My former colleague Erik Braun, in a talk at Harvard a little while ago, claimed that the English word “mindfulness” is a coinage of T.W. Rhys Davids, the compiler of the Pali Text Society Dictionary. Rhys Davids, for reasons he did not tell us, used “mindfulness” to translate the Pali word sati, equivalent to Sanskrit smṛti. Sati and smṛti typically have a sense of “memory”, of “keeping in mind”. “Mindfulness” is not a bad translation of this word, just an idiosyncratic one.

As Jay Garfield notes in his article on mindfulness and ethics, the term “mindfulness” also can be (and is) used to translate the similar concept of sampajañña (Pali)/samprajanya (Sanskrit). The distinction between these two is not always clear. Garfield claims that in Sanskrit Mahāyāna texts, smṛti “involves the fixation of attention on an object” and samprajanya “comes to include the careful maintenance of that attention and of the attendant attitudes and motivations”. I think that’s a helpful way of thinking about the distinction. I’m not sure it’s spelled out in exactly that way in Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, which is the main subject of the article (and though Garfield acknowledges the distinction is made differently in Pali texts); perhaps Garfield is drawing it from Tsong kha pa, whom he quotes later in his article.

However we slice the distinction between them – whether we translate either or both of them as “mindfulness” in English – Śāntideva is pretty clear that smṛti and samprajanya are quite important, as Garfield correctly shows. Śāntideva proclaims that even violently rutting elephants – a terror which his audience would have experienced firsthand – are not as dangerous as the uncontrolled mind. But “if the mind-elephant is bound on all sides by the rope of smṛti, then all fear ceases and perfect goodness arrives.” (BCA V.2-3) So he urges us to take all effort to guard both our smṛti and our samprajanya. (V.23) Mindfulness matters.

What might be more surprising to modern eyes, though, is that for Śāntideva this mindfulness is not primarily about meditation. The Bodhicaryāvatāra has a chapter on samprajanya and a chapter on meditation (dhyāna) – and they are different chapters, entirely separate from each other. The samprajanya chapter makes a very brief reference to dhyāna in the sense that one should reflect or meditate on the particular idea that “the Buddhas and bodhisattvas have unimpeded vision everywhere” – that they can see everything we’re doing. (V.31-2) But this point is there to support the chapter’s bigger concern: the careful control of bodily comportment, moving in a cautious and deliberate way at all times. As far as the six perfections of the bodhisattva go, samprajanya has to do not with dhyāna but with śīla – that restrained good conduct which many render into English simply as “morality”.

Ron Purser reminded me on Facebook a little while ago that the Noble Eightfold Path of the Pali suttas distinguishes right mindfulness (sammāsati) from right concentration or right meditation (sammāsamādhi). The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is often taken now as a core text for “mindfulness meditation”, and two things about it are worth noting. One, significant parts of the text are not about the kinds of sitting practices we refer to as “meditation”, but about awareness spread through daily life: “a monk knows, when he is going, ‘I am going’; he knows, when he is standing, “‘ am standing’…” And two, the various practices in it are called the foundations of mindfulness (sati-patthāna), not mindfulness itself. Meditation, then, is one means to the real goal of controlling our attention.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

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