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From Mindfulness to Right Mindfulness: Pāli Buddhist Thought

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A Theravada monk meditating. From asiadmc.com
A Theravada monk meditating. From asiadmc.com

Last month, this column looked at some of the early Buddhist discussions of mindfulness, or sati. There we found some rich metaphors that can be used to better understand sati as we consider bringing this practice into our lives or discussing it with friends and family who are trying out contemporary Buddhism-inspired meditation practices.

To recap: Buddhism, as a broad and diverse 2,500-year-old tradition, has developed a number of meanings and practices deriving from the Buddha’s teachings on sati. Even the Buddha’s teachings as presented in the Pāli Canon offer subtleties and nuances that are often glossed over in modern presentations of mindfulness and meditation.

One of the most vivid metaphors given for sati is that of a cowherd watching over his cows. With fields of lush grass nearby, he cannot be openly mindful, and instead has to vigilantly multitask as he deals with cows potentially eating the grass. A certain feeling of anxiety might even be deciphered here. But when the grass has been cut (or the temptations removed from the meditator’s mind), one can rest with gentle open awareness.

This is mindfulness. Yet, as Hozan Alan Senauke wrote in 2011, there is an important difference between mindfulness and what Buddhists seek to cultivate. At a meeting of mindfulness teachers and practitioners, he notes that the Dalai Lama was asked if mindfulness itself was inherently ethical. His Holiness responded that “even a suicide bomber would likely have to cultivate some sort of mindfulness.” (Clear View Blog)

The Dalai Lama and Hozan Alan Senauke, 2011. From clearviewblog.org

Senauke quotes contemporary teacher Andrew Olendzki: “True mindfulness is deeply and inextricably embedded in the notion of wholesomeness. . . . Just as a tree removed from the forest is no longer a tree but a piece of lumber, so also the caring attentiveness of mindfulness, extracted from it’s matrix of wholesome co-arising factors, degenerates into mere attention.” (Clear View Blog)

So mindfulness clearly is not the end of the journey. Buddhism differentiates between mindfulness and “right” mindfulness. So we should look at the role of “sammā” in  understanding “right mindfulness.” To begin, sammā, is usually translated as “right,” but it also carries connotations of “balanced, proper, and thorough.” (Rhys Davids and Stede, 695)

As we’ve seen, there is a range of meanings and often technical nuances to the term sati, from memory to mindfulness and including a clearing away of desires that might distract attention. This kind of mindfulness needn’t be particularly religious in any way. But “right” mindfulness, or sammā-sati, has its place specifically in the Buddha’s path (magga) toward awakening. Here, it can be explicitly contrasted to “wrong” or “false” (micchā) mindfulness.

In the Micchatta Sutta: On Wrongness, the Buddha gives a list that connects wrong parts of the eight-fold path (expanded out to 10-fold, adding wrong knowledge and wrong release [micchāñāṇissa and micchāvimutti] at the end). It states that through them one is led ultimately to failure (virādhanā).

“Right” aspects, on the other hand, proceed through the same 10-fold path, each one proceeding or originating (pahoti) from the previous. There at least, wrong mindfulness simply leads from wrong effort and on to wrong concentration, leading ultimately to “wrong release,” which we can only imagine is no release at all.

On the other hand, right factors proceed through the common eight and then right knowledge based on right concentration, culminating in right release. This is all elaborated upon in the Mahā-cattārīsaka Sutta: Discourse on the Great Forty.

When specifically defining sammā sati, the Buddha use the terms “ardently” (ātāpī) and thorough understanding or “discrimination” (sampajañña):

And what, monks, is right mindfulness? Here, oh monks, a monk dwells ardently, with thorough understanding and mindfulness, observing the body in the body, having removed [restrained] greed and doubt towards the world; dwelling observing feelings in feelings ardently, with thorough understanding and mindfulness . . . (Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta, DN 22)

So right mindfulness suggests a more developed or integrated practice; taking sati, which is already in itself positive, and wedding it to further factors that strengthen its effect. To borrow our image from Bhikkhu Anālayo of sati as a sort of wide-angle camera lens broadly surveying one’s mental horizon, sammā-sati is that wide-angle lens, well polished with a larger, higher megapixel sensor behind it (or something like that).

Right mindfulness, as opposed to plain old mindfulness, is thus a powerful enhancement of one’s mind and ability to progress upon the path. But it requires one to cultivate other aspects of the path and thus takes on a much more decidedly religious sense.

As Buddhism becomes modernized in its encounters with Western religions and thought, and as mindfulness is widely embraced by secular society (and by people of non-Buddhist religions), we will see how much the “right” in right mindfulness is maintained. Already, secular Buddhists question certain aspects of what has been traditionally understood as “right view.” And many mindfulness teachers either explicitly or implicitly incorporate Buddhist ethics and Buddhist philosophy into their teachings.  

In one final instalment in this series, I will examine the place of ethics more specifically in relation to mindfulness and right mindfulness. This is because ethics is traditionally presented as the foundation of the Buddhist path, ahead of meditative cultivation itself. Thus, from a Buddhist point of view, the wide embrace of meditation might be seen as a good thing, but also a case of putting the cart before the horse.

If Buddhist ethics can be understood, practiced, and promoted in the world with the same vigor that mindfulness has seen in the last decade, one can only imagine what positive effects this could have for individuals, societies, and the planet.

References

Rhys Davids, Thomas and William Stede. 1926. Pali-English Dictionary. London: Pali Text Society.

See more

Mindfulness & Ethics — Notes from Hamburg’s Int’l Mindfulness Congress (Clear View Blog)
Micchatta Sutta: On Wrongness AN 10.103 (Access to Insight)
Maha-cattarisaka Sutta: Discourse on the Great Forty  MN 117 (Access to Insight)
Mahasatipatthana Sutta: The Great Frames of Reference DN 22 (Access to Insight)

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