Many people (especially those who intensively try to put the Buddhas eightfold path into practice) have thought about the meaning of samma sati or “right mindfulness”. In fact, the meaning of this important aspect of Buddhist practice had troubled me for a long time (1)
The problem occurs when we start looking closer at the oldest Buddhist scriptures available, the Pali texts and look for the meaning and connotations of this important Buddhist term. Before we begin, however, a very short introductory remark:
Why is ‘sati’ so important with regard to the path to Nibbana?
Because it is at the center core of the entire Buddhist meditation:
“Now what is concentration, lady, what is its topic, what are its requisites, and what is its development”
“Singleness of mind is concentration, friend Visakha; the four foundations of sati are its topic; the four right efforts are its requisites; and any cultivation, development, & pursuit of these qualities is its development.” [Dhamma Dinna in MN 44]
So, what is wrong with translating sati as mindfulness? Well for one, the word does mean something different, as almost any pali dictionary would show:
Sati (f.) [Vedic smṛti: see etym. under sarati2] memory, recognition, consciousness, D i.180; ii.292; Miln 77 — 80; intentness of mind, wakefulness of mind, mindfulness, alertness, lucidity of mind, self — possession, conscience, self — consciousness D i.19; iii.31, 49, 213, 230, 270 sq.; A i.95; Dhs 14; Nd1 7; Tikp 61; VbhA 91; DhsA 121; Miln 37; etc. [link]
and under sarati we find:
Sarati2 [smṛ, cp. smṛti=sati; Dhtp 248 “cintā”; Lat memor, memoria=memory; Gr. me/rimna care, ma/rtu witness, martyr; Goth. maúrnan=E. mourn to care, etc.] to remember D ii.234; Vin i.28; ii.79; J ii.29. …. — Caus. sāreti to remind Vin ii.3 sq., 276; iii.221; sārayamāna, reminding J i.50; ppr. pass. sāriyamāna Vin iii.221; w. acc. D ii.234; w. gen. Dh 324; J vi.496; with foll. fut. II. (in ˚tā) Vinii.125, 4; iii.44, 9, etc. — Caus. II. sarāpeti Vin iii.44; Miln 37 (with double acc.), 79. [link]
Well, what the heck does remembering (->sati, nominalized from the verb sarati, to remember) or remembrance have to do with mindfulness?
There are two ways we can solve this mystery: We can look at the actual meditation technique the Buddha wanted us to perform and which he used the term sati for. From there we look at our experience and chose the best English equivalent which comes to our mind. Think Vipassana. Think Noting. Though many people will think “slow motion” and mistake it for sampajanna, but more about this below.
The other approach is a linguistic / historic approach. And though in terms of practice the Vipassana exercises have always made sense to me, especially compared to the instructions by the Buddha found in hundreds of Suttas in the Samyutta Nikaya etc… i always wondered about the linguistic puzzle – sati seemed to imply something different than ‘mindfulness’. Either the term was not translated precise enough or some background information felt missing.
Nowadays when we are interested in practicing mindfulness in a Buddhist context we tend to think about Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw and Ledi Sayadaw and Goenka retreats who brought the Vipassana Meditation from the jungle back into mainstream Theravadan teaching. Whenever you have a chance and study their explanations on how to put the Sati Patthana Sutta into practice they will talk about “Labelling” or “Noting” sense impressions (and in their pali expositions will use the term sallakheti – as did Ven. Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga (2).
But back to the use of sallakkheti. Where did this term come from? While the Commentarial literature uses the term sallakheti, meaning “to label”, when describing the intrinsics of Vipassana practice, sure the Buddha never did! He never used a word like sallakkheti but sati instead! Hence the scepticism of so many people in the beginning towards Burmese vipassana. So, where is the connection, what are we missing?
It is literacy!
Why would the Buddha make use of a term of which basically no one at his time had any practical experience with? Writing, though known, was only used for correspondences between kings – on a highly official basis. Performed by a guilt of writers. No one ordinary used writing for making shopping lists – even the Brahmins did not dare to entrust anything of (religious) importance to the fragility of palm leaves in a tropical climate.
If you wanted to make a shopping list at the time of the Buddha, if you wanted to catch and ‘note’ and witness something, you needed to use …yes, your memory! The notion of labelling and noting makes sense to us in an age of literacy. Or to listeners / readers at the time of Buddhaghosa (and probably even before that, approx. since the 1st century before CE when the Buddhist texts were put to palm leafes for the first time) and literacy and writing started to replace what until then was an extraordinarily and highly cultivated general ability to memorize and to mentally take note.
But he used the proper pali word for the same activity based on the prevalent oral culture and so he asked people to use “sati” or “remembering” to “take a (mental) note” to “mentally witness” of what just occured.
Therefore, we could very well render samma sati in the noble eightfold path as “right noting” or “right witnessing” or “right attention”.
Now, based on this observation, the following utterances make even more sense:
“yoniso manasikara” (Important: not just attention – but attention directed towards the source)
“ditthe ditthamattam” – in the seen only the seen, [Udana 1.10]
And so, yes, it is about the direct experience, the direct seeing (therefore the additional use of words like vi-passati, nyana-dassana, pajanati, pacca-vekkhati, etc. etc. when describing the mediators activity- all related to the action of seeing not thinking or reflecting or pondering over.) Thus the 4 sati-patthana, or foundations/pillars of sati are used as anchor points for our concentration. A highly concentrated mind, based on a firm grounding and preliminary training in keeping moral precepts is able to create a mental differential between the point of concentration and the sense objects ‘catching our awareness’ = their rising and falling… Thus, while sati has a very specific meaning (Buddha loved clarity, like any other good scientist Sati or Vipassana meditation can and should never be done without the proper preparation.
By now you will wonder how the term sati became so established as “mindfulness”. Well, mindfulness will be a result of ones practice of noting, especially during the noting…during the seeing. However, the best term translated as mindfulness is in fact a separate pali word called “sam-pajanna“, lit. ‘to know together with’ – so to know while you do something that you do it, as in this exercise:
“Furthermore, when going forward & returning, he makes himself fully alert; when looking toward & looking away… when bending & extending his limbs… when carrying his outer cloak, his upper robe & his bowl… when eating, drinking, chewing, & savoring… when urinating & defecating… when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, & remaining silent, he makes himself fully alert.
“In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or focused externally… unsustained by anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself. [Funny how this part gets always neglected though it seems to be the central part in the whole practice of the 4 satipatthana – but more on this one maybe another time]
“Puna caparaṃ, bhikkhave, bhikkhu abhikkante paṭikkante sampajānakārī hoti, ālokite vilokite sampajānakārī hoti, samiñjite pasārite sampajānakārī hoti, saṅghāṭipattacīvaradhāraṇe sampajānakārī hoti, asite pīte khāyite sāyite sampajānakārī hoti, uccārapassāvakamme sampajānakārī hoti, gate ṭhite nisinne sutte jāgarite bhāsite tuṇhībhāve sampajānakārī hoti.[MN 10, link]
And this concept has been moved to the forefront in many essays about Theravadan (sati-) meditation.
Even if sati and sampajanna go together, the unclear understanding of sati lead to such strange believes that if you just ate your ice-cream with intense scruteny and would deeply “mindfully” indulge into your emotions while eating it, you would practice for enlightenment. While this way of observation definitely intensified the sense impressions (due to the simple fact of strong concentration) it does little to actually see the rising and falling of those sense impressions. You could say that this ability/wisdom(3), to eventually see the rising and falling (appearing and disappearing) of sense impressions is the demarkation line between proper practice of sati according to the suttas and indulgence in sensual pleasures with hightened concentration.
It is this wisdom of seeing the rising and falling which will make the mind turn away from samsara, sure, realizing its frame like structure makes the movie’s compelling story and its grasp on our minds fade and dispassion and eventually freedom will result – bhavanirodho nibbanam. While the Buddha explained this pretty clearly he also said that there can be something called “wrong sati” or miccha sati (wrong attention) – So, quite contrary to popular believe, mindfulness per se is not “inherently good” – if it does not go to the root of the experience it might easily turn into some form of … shall we say Tantrism? Definitely a deeper enjoyment of the sensual experience due to strong concentration but without the disillusioning effect of samma sati – a noting which needs to be done in the right fashion (i.e. in an un-identifying manner, deconceptualizing).
Unfortunately, while eating that ice-cream and just “being with the activity” we are carried away by a stream, a wave of sights, tasts, feelings, thoughts – which we do not see as such: We outright identify with them in every moment; object and consciousness establishing reality which we grasp/become and this is where our thirst is working – it’s not the ice cream’s fault that we suffer…so when people start thinking of what they have to give up in order to overcome their craving – right there, right at that moment, right in that very thought alone lies freedom and bondage – Mara binding them to existance they suffer when the ice melts. And death smiles knowing you won’t escape – or you smiling, because you already did escape
(1) A recent discussion on a similar thought here and here . This is how i would reconcile these two positions: The aspect of memory/remembering which Ven. Thanissaro focuses on is the aspect of noting/labeling using a concept like “form, form” or “feeling, feeling” to stop the proliferating process of the mind in its tracks. Concentration is needed to not get overwhelmed by overpowering sense impressions and to at least find some temporary footing at a meditation object. However, the use of names to unlock the mystery of name-and-form in this vipassana exercise has as its goal to create an extreme clear vision (nanadassana) of what is happening in each moment of the interplay of the five groups of grasping in each moment of being/life. So yes, it is bare attention, but not in an indulging sense but rather in a very controlled and precise deep way. A method which will after diligent application create a direct experience/seeing of the rising and falling of all sense impressions/5 groups of grasping leading to the peace of nibbana as described above and other places.
(2) guess where the Burmese ‘re-discovered this practice from’ – while the ZEN Buddhists were fascinated by Visuddhimagga’s (actually Vimuktimargas see comments below) concentration/jhanic/dhyanic/chan/zen aspects, the Burmese were even more impressed by its explanations about how to reach full enlightenment by insight meditation).
(3) Terms like these show the more active and “knowing/knowledge through observation” quality of “panna” or “wisdom” as it is usally translated moving it much closer to the practice of sati then any form of abstract knowledge: manasikārakusalatā paññā – wisdom from proper attention, āyatanakusalatā paññā – wisdom from skill with regard to the senses, paccuppannānaṃ dhammānaṃ vipariṇāmānupassane paññā udayabbayānupassane ñāṇan – wisdom through a following-seeing of objects in the present moment as they change, follow-seeing of the appearing and disappearing.
(4) Two most interesting book on this topic are “In the mirror of Memory” edited by Janet Gyatso (esp. Collette Cox’ article), a wonderful compilation of all kinds of Indian sources on the connection between sati
…Mindfulness is chosen here not, as in many cases, to avoid confusion with the psychological function of smrti as memory, but precisely for the opposite reason; that is, to indicate at the outset what this chapter will illustrate: that the contexts for the operation of smrti suggested by the term mindfulness actually encompass the psychological functions of memory as they were understood within Indian Buddhism. [link]
and memory and “Mindfulness in Early Buddhism” by Tse-fu Kuan. Just don’t forget to practice
Next in this series: Coming back to remember: Sati II
UPDATE: For those of you who found this post via a search engine or direct link, I would like to invite you to read the following post on “yoniso manasikara” and “understanding vipassana” in addition to the above article. The closer you look at sati the more obvious it is how “remembering” (one’s object) is essential to what samma sati was intended to mean and how that faculty of the mind, which keeps us on an object is utilized for jhanic meditation as well as in observation of the six sense-spheres. You might also be interested in Malunkyaputta’s Vipassana instruction. Please also check out How To Really Cleanse Your Mind as it focuses on the memory aspect for sati even further with some influence on my understanding due to great Sutta Dhamma talks by Mahamevnawa monks in recent months.