Coming back to remember – Sati II

You do not need to see the end of your dish washing activity and the beginning of you moving to the fridge. That is not going to stop mental proliferation from happening. And it won’t stop suffering – not in a million lifetimes. You can eat as many mandarins ‘mindfully’ as you like, you will not decrease thirst if you establish your home in the forms you see, even if your house is empty.

When the Buddha is talking about “with regard to the seen only the seen” … heard … felt (i.e. tasted/smelled/felt) and “with regard to the cognized just the cognized” (yes, any mental activity included) he is not talking about

“with regard to the driving just the driving, with regard to the ice cream eating just the ice cream eating”.

Yet that is how many people understand sati, due to the unfortunate translation of “sati” as “mindfulness”. (Well, to be honest, there is hardly any better word to capture “sati”. But more on that later).

Why is the Buddha, when he is talking about uncovering the source of human suffering pointing towards that subtle experience of sights, sounds, thoughts, feeling, in short: sense contact’s rise and fall? Not just once, but consistently, in all instances where he points out the pathway to Nibbana?

Because that is the level to which we must go in order to develop a deep existential exhaustion, a samsaric fatigue…a mind opening (or shall we say “blowing out”) experience. He does not want us to give up driving or eating ice cream or unloading our dishwasher.

Samsara is not overcome by movements within the samsaric context and its powerful pictures which we weave into compelling storybooks and then place “our self” right in the middle of it. So as to find orientation. So as to find a stronghold in a fleeting world.

Samsara is only worn off like an old skin of a snake if we fundamentally alienate from it. The internal and external. In a complete and ultimate way.

Therefore, the coming and going necessary to be seen is the rising and falling of the building blocks of life. In these six senses or five groups of grasping which are just classification schemes (another group of grasping) describing however that level of observation which we need to reach to develop the ultimate ability to let go. They are as fundamental realities as name and form is real. Yes, you get it :-)

At this point the true meaning of sati comes into play. 

Because the story of samsara is so compelling I am drawn to indulge myself in the data my vision delivers (very crude way of explaining, I know) to me rather than looking at how this data is processed. The duality which is created in each moment by consciousness based on name and form spiraling into being is not seen if I take the fabricated world for granted. (and even that is just a concept, a ‘working theory’ – which works to uncover the plot we are caught in)

No matter of cleaning my kitchen “mindfully” – which, if you take the word colloquially, is just observing the story as it passes by – will reduce avijja, because, with every step in the kitchen, ever jump from one heap of grasping to the next, one acceptance of the veil through which I “see” and “hear” I acknowledge avijja.

Engulfed in darkness of not seeing seeing not seeing where one vision came and was replaced by another grasping of sound; of a sound related feeling; of a sound related perception; and of sound related world fabrication and sound-knowing – i will embed my conceived ego in a relationship to the world as the senses present it to me. I will fall for their story and perceive myself “in” or “as part of” that world: for example as “a good meditator” thinking that i do what i am supposed to do. So, right mindfulness is not about “feeling more alive” or “enjoying the pure present”. It is about leaving that home which the senses provide.

What is the difference in indulging in thoughts about the future (mind-mind/object) and endulging in this present moments fantasy of “oh, i am just feeling my breath, i am so mindful” (body/feeling). There is none. In both cases we are caught in the nebula of avijja or not-knowing sense contact (phassa) and so paticca samuppada rolls on. We might see the beginning and end of a breath. But that is not disillusioning us from samsara…

In order to make the fundamental samsara-transcending paradigm shift however, I will have to employ sati, a faculty of memory – which can only work in conjunction with concentration and has to be developed in order to get so strong as to rip through this samsaric nebula, moha, which keeps us trapped in the storybook our senses tell us.

How does “samma sati” display its characteristic of memory?

I will bind my mind to a certain meditation object, i.e. the breath, a feeling in the body, a jhanic state etc. Now, whenever my attention “moves” to another object (i.e. my mind takes hold and positions itself with avijja into another object-subject relationship, making “me” the subject of duality, i immediately let go and get back to my previous object of attention, lets say the breath.

So now you wonder…what has that to do with mindfulness? Why is going back to a fixed object any different than from moving along with whatever arises? And what is the difference to someone who tries to suppress sense activity by trying to concentrate?

Because, simply, here you remember continuously. The power of remembering stops the mind (consciousness) in “growing” on its perceived object. In spinning new and more data on the perceived object, in weaving and interpretation of that sensory data…in placing itself into a relationship with the object.

Here is another way to understand how vipassana uncovers the interplay between consciousness and the senses and explains how sati, or “extreme mindfulness” makes that process possible:

Lets say you listen to a seemingly chaotic radio transmission. How can you distinguish and learn the patterns in this quick fluctuating mesh of frequencies? Well, by studying patterns…By establishing a baseline you can see the coming and going of patterns. So start to see differences. This is what we attempt in vipassana as well and why we need concentration.

The attention on our breath for example is a series of similar 5-groups-grasping events which, if we can hold onto them, will create some kind of boring but extremely recognizable samsaric baseline. Every time now our attention shifts, whatever object will present itself – the seen, the heard, the thought… will become clearer and clearer to our understanding. Simply because it appears so well defined now like a mountain peak in comparison to the ongoing “stick with the breath” concentration. We will start to see the pattern of existence – if we dare to look. But wait! We need something to get back immediately otherwise we would lose our concentration and get stuck in the story this new object of our attention wants us to identify with… Here the noting comes handy. Almost like a reminder. And that is samma sati. And this is why concentration leads to wisdom, but only if it is combined with nyana-dassana. In a pure samatha environment any shift of attention is seens as a loss and thus the practice of samatha operates still on a level of avijja!

So, we are simply noting the newly arisen object … the just seen …. the just heard … but nothing more!!! than that (and nothing more following it, due to the abrupt break in the growing proliferation by the power of sati, or remembering and concentration combined) we will be able to note that object which tried to take us in. We will be able to see how the house is being build right in front of our eyes

While before I enjoyed the ready-made houses my mind had built for me, like Potemkin’s village in awe over the  facades of sensual proliferation, now I start to see how these fragile components of life are wrought moment afte moment.

I start to see their entering my consciousness and yes, even the destruction of my consciousness together with its content moment after moment… like a world vanishing in a crevice under my running feet. It sounds scary, and is, but seeing life as it is will eventually lead to less and less grasping and holding of its perceived (deducted, inferred!) crumbling and therefore inherently distressing reality. There is no place for rest there, in any moment. Even the moments of deepest jhanic concentration states are filled with subtle terror in the face of ever dying samsara. While the movie continues and all seems as if it goes on as it did before the loosening of its grip simply through the power of truth and awakening in this ongoing building process makes you one move closer to ultimate peace. You could say: In order to find the Deathless, death has to die :-)

So indeed it is sati in conjunction with concentration which does the final work. Because, if concentration cannot keep you on your object (and that is where the jhanas come in handy) the power of sati will not be strong enough to pull you back often enough. You will be lost in the story of your mind the story of your senses and they DO know how to trick you into thinking or believing that you are not tricked :-)

So while concentration keeps you in one point and sati brings you back quickly you might wonder what is so special about this. Why hasn’t someone before the Buddha done this? The truth is, it is extremely tricky. And we only do it, because of the faith and trust we developed in the Buddha and his teaching. Otherwise no one would do this kind of thing…because, as the Buddha says…avijja is far too thick…we have been sitting in this movie theatre for far too long a time. Anytime someone in the movie tells us to look at ourselves how we sit in a movie, we nod our head and look in the movie for a clue about how we sit in a movie…instead of starting to let the story of the film fade away by not showing ANY attention to the content of the movie any longer but by just acknowledging every frame. Then, when we start to realize that there are only frames – and all of them are just that – just frames! The story becomes less and less intriguing…However, what really does start to intrigue us is the how and what.

From here, from the realization of frames the Buddha says the “Stream-Enterer” entered a stream which will lead to the dis-connection to the loosening the vi-mutti. And he also said it would take an utmost of 7 death-shocks to completely convince the mind that there is nothing to fear in letting go of the perceptual scam we have been falling for.

So while we can see how a more colloquial understanding of “mindfulness” (as it is really used in plain English)  has its benefits of getting to where we eventually need to go with our increasing microscopic vision to unhook “ourselves” from samsara (sorry the conventional expressions) there still remains doubt whether the English word “mindfulness”  captures the precise activity implicated by sati and its role in Buddhist meditation properly.

Especially its power to reflect back and to use this atomic mental movement of “letting go” in a moment of sense impression to prevent mental proliferation by power of turning back and remembering (pati-sati) our anchor point plays such a pivotal role in Buddhist meditation.

Let’s say this, though:

One famous heritage of Buddhist philosophy in India was its shaping and redefinition of many common words which later became part of the mainstream Indian language and culture in their new and reshaped meaning. This is how Buddhism left a lasting imprint, infesting Hinduism with many Dhamma ideas. Have a look at the Yoga Sutra, for a very good example.

Something similar seems happening to the little English word “mindfulness”. As this word was used to translate the Buddhist concept of “sati” it naturally conjures associations in the English native speaker which do not fit the meaning of the original pali word sati (as seen above). Thus, sometimes people might find themselves “mindfully” indulging in eating an ice cream cone thinking that they practice “Buddhism” while in reality this activity has nothing to do what “sati” intends to stand for.

However, by practice and teaching and renewed reflection the usage of this English term by many famous teachers started to create new associations which are floating around in texts and speeches and which lead to a re-shaping of the understanding of “mindfulness” in its Buddhist use of the term – at least in Buddhist circles.

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  1. khandy

    Excellent post!

    Happy to visit your blog after a brief absence. I thought i was writing the opening — conceit, conceit… :-)

    I would translate sati as “attentive awareness,” but would quickly point out that that expression is only one of the aspects of sati, “paying attention in order to remember and to recollect, to reflect later” being another aspect. From the perspective of practice, “mental noting” is another aspect of sati, as well.

    When a dhamma arises in the present moment, it is the object of sati. It has two aspects, nāma and rūpa, which may be experienced and contemplated as any of the five aspects, usually called “the five aggregates subject to clinging”. The entire art of practice is to eliminate the dangling phrase “subject to clinging” in any present dhamma.

    The people who talked about “driving car” and “eating mandarin” and “licking ice cream” do not realize that they are immersed in the world of concepts and notions and conventions, as if they were reality. They continue to be stuck in the web of conceptual proliferations (papañca). They can externally pretend to appear deliberate, calm, gentle and detached (most of them are experts at this), but internally, the “subject to clinging” problem is still active. Liberation is impossible, especially for those who promote the so-called bodhisattva ideal of getting involved in all sorts of crazy things in the mundane world.

    The Fully Awakened One expressly asked the practitioners to withdraw from such world. But then again, the confusion is mine: those Mahayana bodhisattvas are not Dhamma practitioners — the Buddha’s admonition does not apply to them. Let them enjoy eating the mandarin and licking the ice cream and driving the car — slowly and smilingly. :-)

    Again, great post, nice blog.

    • theravadin

      Hi Khandy…maybe you did not write the intro, but definitely the commentary :) Thanks for the insightful feedback.
      And as you pointed out, you can practice vipassana while eating ice cream…but with growing sati it should rather look like this:

      ice cream eating ==> a taste moment, a feeling moment, a thought moment, a hearing moment, a taste moment, a thought moment etc. etc.

      Emotions like “craving, anger, contempt, arrogance, desire” are built on the illusion built into the atomic chain of sense impressions. This is the only place where the chain can be broken for good (i.e. paticcasamuppada).

  2. khandy

    When true practitioners eat their food, they cultivate sati in various ways (vipassanā) that lead to liberating insights: they could contemplate a nāma or a rūpa in the impersonal process of eating — recognizing the “greed” mental factor, or the “movement” physical element, for example — or they could recollect the teaching that consuming food is solely for maintaining the supportive conditions of liberation practice, or that all beings subsist on food, including the food of contact (phassa) and the food of consciousness (viññāṇa)…

    There is no “person” who is “deliberately” “eating” the “mandarin” and “enjoying” “deeply” the “sweetness” of that “portion” of the “mandarin”. (And then the proliferation, “Oh, I feel so grateful to all sentient and insentient beings that have contributed to the production of this delicious mandarin” — meaning, “You guys serve my indulgence.” By the way, never forget the “insentient” part, ḷest you offend the greatly compassionate Mahāyana people.) Saṃsāra, this!

    Sati is a mental factor (cetasika) that may be present in one of the five aspects of experiencing, that of fabrication (saṅkhāra). It is a wholesome mental factor. Instead of arousing sati (as the relentless training promotes), saṅkhāra repeats its habitual tendency of concocting mundane volitional actions, most of which are unwholesome. The people who talk about eating mandarin and licking ice cream and driving car continue to be stuck in such concoctions. Again, saṃsāra!

  3. khandy

    Although i mentioned that sati is a mental factor, i particularly like your reference to sati as a “faculty of memory”. (According to the Abhidhamma, there are 50 mental factors under the generic umbrella of saṅkhāra, metta and sati being two popular wholesome ones.) It should be added that the capacities of memory, recollection and recognition — mostly conceptual, by the way — are parts of saññā, which is usually and suboptimally translated as “perception”. So, for sati to arise, saññā and saṅkhāra are to be well coordinated. In terms of practice, this implies that one should memorize the right things (the Dhamma base) and activate the right volitional formations (the moment-to-moment responses).

    Your metaphor of movie is simply wonderful. The ordinary person’s memory is full of crazy scenarios and stories, and responses are often misdirected reactions. And, yes, this whole so-called life itself is a long movie, without a compelling script, and the main actor is… me, moi, ich, who else?

    Just some more concoctions… :-)

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