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The Meaning of Mindfulness: Reply to Tineke

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    • #3786

      Following the discussion after the essay :: here

      Dharmavidya writes:

      I am making this into a new discussion as it is somewhat at a tangent from the “Unmodernising Buddhism” theme.

      Clearly Anapanasati and Satipatthana were teachings that were important to the Buddha.  These were key items that he wanted disciples to hang onto.  The question is, therefore, what do they actually mean and imply, and at the core of this is the word sati, translated as mindfulness.

      Now the sutras on anapanasati and satipatthana contain exercises and generally the Western take on this has been to assume that these exercises are the way that one develops mindfulness and that mindfulness is some kind of present moment attention or awareness.

      As far as I can see, this is a misreading.  These sutras do not say that they are teaching one to be mindful and they do not say that mindfulness is a form of attention.  In fact in both the Satipatthana Sutta and the Anapanasati Sutta it is clear that the practitioner has to have mindfulness already established before he does the exercises. The bhikkhu “establishes mindfulness before him” before he starts.  So both assume that the practitioner already has mindfulness.  Mindfulness is a precondition for the exercises that follow, not a result of them.

      The intended result of them is that the practitioner shall have an experiential understanding of the truth of the Dharma teachings, since this will keep him in good stead in the future.  He will learn things that are to be kept in mind. Thus, if he approaches awareness of the body with this mindfulness established, he understands experientially that the body is just a body, feelings are just feelings, etc. Keeping this discovery in mind will help him in many situations.  If he were to do body awareness without having the  Dharma already in mind, he might come to all sorts of other conclusions.  The worldling is also aware of his body and concludes that it is his self, or concludes that it should be pampered, or whatever. Many people are aware of their feelings and as a result are completely enslaved by them.

      It is not that by doing these exercises he learns how to be more aware of what is happening in the present moment.  It is that by them he learns something that will be for his benefit for a long time.  For a bhikkhu to sustain the kind of composure Buddha is expecting, he has to keep in mind that the body is just a body, feelings are just feelings.  They pass. When he has got this then he is freed from covetousness and grief.

      Also, the refrain “ardent, mindful and aware” surely designates three qualities that work in synchronisation. There is no implication here that mindfulness = awareness any more than mindfulness or awareness = ardour.

      Interestingly, in the Salayatana Vibhanga Sutta (MN137) there is a threefold satipatthana.  This does not mention awareness exercises at all.  It outlines three situations, one in which the disciples do not take in what the teacher is teaching, one in which some do and some don’t and one in which they all do.  It says that the teacher is only satisfied in the third situation, however, in all three he is “unmoved, mindful and aware”.  So here mindfulness is a foundation for equanimity. I am inclined to think that satipatthana does not mean the setting up of mindfulness, but rather what mindfulness sets up.

      The practice of anapanasati is not a practice of learning to follow the breath, like a yoga exercise, it is a practice of learning to experience rapture, tranquility, joy, liberation, etc, with every breath.  The emphasis of the teaching is not on the physical yoga as such but upon having the good qualities of the Dharma as close and as constant as breathing. Or, indeed, not only the good qualities, but also whatever else the bhikkhu is studying.  He is to give it attention as unwavering as breathing. In other words, having them in mind unceasingly. When this is achieved then satipatthana is also thereby achieved.

      So what is mindfulness? In the Mahasihanada Sutta, mindfulness is linked with “retentiveness, memory and lucidity of wisdom”  (MN12.62)) and in the Sekha Sutta ()MN53.16 it says “He has mindfulness; he possesses the highest mindfulness and skill; he recalls and recollects what was done long ago and spoken long ago”.  In other words, mindfulness means to have a good memory, and this is supported both by the etymology of the word sati, which comes from remember, and from the fact that at the time when Rhys Davids chose “mindfulness” as the best word to translate sati, that was what mindfulness meant in the English language – to remember or keep in mind.  Rhys Davids wrote in a footnote to this translation that the Buddhist notion of mindfulness on all occasions was the Buddhist equivalent of the Christian injunction “Whatsoever you do, however mundane it may be, do it in the name of the Lord” – in other words, mindfulness is, for Buddhists, about keeping Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in mind whatever one is doing.

      In Pureland Buddhism the central practice is niàn fó 念佛  which means recollection of  Buddha (J. nembutsu). Niàn is the Chinese for mindfulness. The aim is to keep Buddha in mind on all occasions.

      As a result of the recent upsurge in something called mindfulness, we now have two different meanings of the word circulating and this sometimes leads to quite a bit of confusion.  The idea that mindfulness is deliberate, non-judgemental attention to whatever is arising in the present moment is a fair distance away from mindfulness as in the sentence, “I’m always mindful of what my mother told me before she died.”  The latter meaning is, however, closer to what I think the Buddha meant: there are things to be remembered and treasured that will be for one’s benefit for a long time, and they will be so because they will protect you from what may arise in the unpredictability of the present moment.

      This is how I have come to understand it.

      :: link

    • #3787

      And a further comment from Dharmavidya:

      Thank you for the question.  Often in the sutras we see the Buddha delighting in receiving a good question.  He says such things as “Oh, well done, Ananda!  This question will be for the benefit of many beings for a long time”.  A good question is a Dharma door.

      As I understand it, anapanasati is not so much the sati of anapana but rather sati by means of anapana.  In other words, anapanasati is not “watching the breathing” but rather it is what the Tibetans call “mounting the practice on the breath”.  This is a significant change of emphasis.

      In Amida Shu the practice is to remember Buddha at all times.  The recollection of Buddha enters into everything one does.  This is called nembutsu, literally “mindfulness of Buddha” or “recollection of Buddha” and it often takes the form of saying the Buddha’s Name. To this end I encourage my people to have a mala and to use it.  This is not just because the mala is handy for counting recitations of the Buddha’s Holy Name,; it is rather that as soon as one sees the mala, or whenever one takes it in hand, the thought of Buddha is straightaway in the mind.  Telling the beads keeps the recollection going.  With each bead one says so many nembutsu.

      Now anapanasati is like that.  When one mounts the practice on the breath, then the breath becomes your mala.  Every breath becomes a nembutsu.  Through anapana one’s sati (nen in Japanese) is reanimated. The breath is the soul of recollection.

      The Pureland way is also to make every aspect of Dharma into a Buddha recollection. This both simplifies and deepens the practice.  So it is not a matter of learning a scatter of practices – wisdom, compassion, rapture, impermanence, truths, powers, etc., so much as that all of these become  extensions of the one key recollection.  This being so, one does not need, necessarily, to learn many volumes of teaching in order to get the blessing.  Whether you know one teaching or many teachings, they are all recollection of Buddha. It is always valuable to listen and learn, but always, whatever the teaching, one is listening to Buddha.

      Once one has selected nembutsu (selection is an important word in the teachings of Honen Shonin) then all practices become nembutsu and “only nembutsu is true and real”.

      Thus,  in the anapanasati passages in the sutras, anapanasati might be used to establish, for instance, rapture.  With each breath the rapture comes back to one.  In this way, by means of breathing, recollection of rapture occurs.  In Pureland, rapture is just another way of experiencing Buddha.  Buddha is rapture.  Rapture is the blessing of Buddha entering one’s physical being.  So anapana bringing rapture is anapana bringing the experience of the presence of Buddha.

      In anapanasati, the breath is ones mala.  When the breath is one’s mala the recollection occurs all the time and it does not matter which aspect of the Dharma appears, they are all recollection of Buddha.  Buddha is the mani gem: it is a jewel with innumerable facets. Buddhism is to ever be in contact with Buddha, ever receiving the blessing, taking it in with every breath.  Sati is to keep the blessing in one’s heart and anapanasati is to refresh it with every breath.  I am not breathing – Buddha is breathing in me.

    • #3789

      To read further instalments of this discussion, look :: here

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