Mindfulness is just a four-letter word

Mindfulness is the English word most often used for the Pali term sati. Originally, it was used by Brahmans, meaning “memory”, in the sense of memorizing Vedic scriptures. In order to retain large amounts of material, one needed to have clarity of mind, a keen ability to focus, an enhanced quality of attentiveness. The Buddha adopted this Brahmanical term, using sati to refer to both “remembering” and presence of mind in meditation.

In this passage from Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s translation of Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga or “The Path of Purification”, composed in the 5th century and the first comprehensive manual on Theravada meditation, sati is used in the first context in this passage:

Now as to mindful and fully aware: here, he remembers (sarati), thus he is mindful (sata); He has full-awareness (samapajanati), thus he is fully aware (sampajana). This is mindfulness and full-awareness stated as personal attributes. Herein, mindfulness has the characteristic of remembering. Its function is not to forget. It is manifested as guarding.”

Elsewhere in this same work, sati is used in the context of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (of the body, of feelings, of consciousness, of mental objects):

And in some instances by the Foundations of Mindfulness, etc., accordingly as it is said: ‘Bhikkhus, this path is the only ‘way for the purification of beings, . . . for the realization of ‘nibanna, that is to say, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ . . .

And further on, Buddhaghosa also refers to sati in the sense of a specific meditation practice:

Mindfulness of breathing should be developed for the purpose of eliminating the conceit ‘I am.’

So here we have a several different meanings or connotations of the same word in the same work, and when reading the first passage we notice that there are a number of other words or terms that seem to be interchangeable, having essentially the same meaning. We might wonder how does mindfulness differ from full-awareness? How is sata related to sati? This I think points to the difficulty of trying to parse the English words we use for Buddhist terms. Bhikkhu Nanamoli, in his introduction to “The Path of Purification,” describes at length the linguistic, epistemological, and even psychological problems of translation, noting for instance, that the single English word “desire” has been used “as a translation of sixteen distinct Pali words.”

In my opinion, playing semantics with Asian Buddhist terms and the various English words we use as translations is like stepping into a muddy swamp. If you can avoid it, you’re much better off.

Yet, some folks just can’t seem to help themselves. Believe it or not, “mindfulness” is a rather controversial word in Buddhism these days. It seems some people object to mindfulness. They say it’s been over-used, it’s just a buzz-word, a cliché, that it points to a watered-down form of Buddhist practice, it’s nothing more than a balm, an elixir, a feel-good term. What is never entirely clear to me is whether these critics merely object to the word or if they also object to the practice, or both.

I don’t have a problem with such criticism because they are attacking a sacred cow – I think I’ve said before there are no sacred cows on this blog – but rather, I feel it is just nit-picking which doesn’t really contribute much. Certainly, there are some who overuse and abuse the term, and in the hands of a few of them, “mindfulness” has become a marketing strategy. But I think they are in the minority overall, and as the old adage goes, a few rotten apples does not spoil the whole bunch.

Mindfulness is just a word, a sign. Other words like awareness, attentiveness, or thoughtfulness work, but perhaps not as well. Not to mention that there’s probably someone, somewhere who’d have an objection to any word that became the standard.

The most common use of “mindfulness” is in reference to the meditation practice taught by the Buddha. I believe I am correct in saying that the instructions attributed to the Buddha about this practice are the first meditation instructions recorded in history. We find them in the Anapanasati Sutra or the “Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing.”

I often like to quote Thich Nhat Hanh: “We do not need to search for anything more. We only need to practice the simple exercises proposed by the Buddha . . .” I think this is true to some extent. While there are many other forms of Buddhist meditation, this is the foundation, the starting point. No matter what else I do, I always return to “mindfulness” at some point. I try to remember the maxim of one on my teachers, “Always go back to the basics.”

But the real heart of mindfulness, in all its different senses, is found in daily life. We want to learn to do things with better attention and focus, teach ourselves how to avoid the bad habit of doing one thing while thinking of something else. By merely practicing anapanasati, we can become more observant, and learn how not to taint what we observe with judgments, preferences, or prejudices. We train ourselves to stay calm in situations that tend to provoke irritation or anger. We learn how to deal more effectively with our problems, worries and anxieties. The list goes on and on.

The benefits derived from “mindfulness” practice are not easily obtained. It requires effort, and it can be hard, even painful at times. They are not “gifts”, unless you consider them as gifts you give to yourself. When we say that mindfulness can be virtually any activity whatsoever, we mean we can learn to apply mental disciple to almost any situation. We’re trying to stop reacting to things so mindlessly. And we certainly don’t mean that mindfulness itself accomplishes anything. We do it. This is jiriki we’re talking about. Self-power. “Mindfulness” only works for us when we make it work.

Another quote I probably use too often is from Robert Thurman, who once said, “Buddhism is just a bunch of tools.” A handyman has various tools and they have various names. It cuts down on confusion. Makes it easier to identify a tool when you need one handed to you. We have to do the same thing in Buddhism. Concern about the names we give the tools is missing the point, I think. Isn’t the function of each tool far more important?

The sati arisen inspired by breathing (anapana) is “mindfulness of breathing.” This is a term for sati that has as its object the sign of in-breaths and out-breaths. The recollection arisen inspired by peace is the ‘recollection of peace.” This is a term for sati that has as its object the stilling of all suffering.”

Buddhaghosa

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3 thoughts on “Mindfulness is just a four-letter word

    1. Thanks, Jay, and you are absolutely right, in the end is what we call something is not as important as what we make of it.

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