In the last few years, a number of worries have arisen about mindfulness practice and its broader diffusion into contemporary life beyond Buddhist institutions. In particular, there is some worry that mindfulness practice, which is often traced to roots in early Buddhism, is being taught and practiced with little understanding of those roots. The question of the meaning of mindfulness in early Buddhism is itself a complex and contentious topic for scholars and practitioners of Buddhism.
To begin, it is important to know that there is no single authoritative Buddhist account of mindfulness. We can “go back” to the early texts—usually referring to the Pāli Canon—therefore, not in an attempt to create one unified authoritative account, but rather to establish something of a starting point, recognizing that even those texts are products of years of revision and redaction after the death of the Buddha by those who would become the Theravāda tradition. As scholars such as John Dunne and Georges Dreyfus have noted, this helps us to avoid any “rhetoric of authenticity” as we trace meanings and practices backward in time through the tradition. (Dunne 2015; Dreyfus 2015)
What is mindfulness? The Pāli term that has been translated as “mindfulness” is sati (Skt: smṛti). This translation comes from the late 19th century work of Thomas Rhys Davids. Yet, as Rupert Gethin has pointed out, while “mindfulness” is apt, it is not clearly suitable for every context—it does not correspond precisely with the semantic range of the Pāli term sati. To those of us who do translation work, this will come as no surprise. Few words, especially those that take on technical meanings in one language, can be precisely translated to another.
So when we speak of sati, we can use “mindfulness” as a starting point, a best fit, but not a perfect fit. Insofar as the term and the practice is held to be rooted in the early Buddhist tradition, it is important, I think, to make as many people aware of that semantic range as possible.
In 1910, Caroline and Thomas Rhys Davids explained further, noting that one meaning of sati is memory, but: “As happened at the rise of Buddhism to so many other expressions in common use, a new connotation was then attached to the word, a connotation that gave a new meaning to it, and renders ‘memory’ a most inadequate and misleading translation. It became the memory, recollection, calling-to-mind, being-aware-of, certain specified facts. Of these, the most important was the impermanence—the coming to be as the result of a cause, and the passing away again—of all phenomena, bodily and mental.” (322)
The meaning of sati can be better understood by examining some of the images describing it found in the Pāli Canon. One of these given by the Buddha is of a cowherd, who had to watch closely over his cows to keep them from straying into fields with freshly ripened crops. The crops would lure the cows if the cowherd was not watching with vigilance. However, once the crops in those fields were harvested, the cowherd could relax, just “being mindful” (Pāli: sati karaṇiyaṃ) of his cows.
The crops here represent thoughts of sensuality, desires, that we must be vigilant of in our meditation practice, or in our daily lives as we learn that we cannot just chase down every shiny object that catches our attention. The harvest represents the cutting off, in a very nice metaphor, of the habitual attachments to sense objects. Here, the cows (or we) have disciplined the mind such that the desire to wander is gone.
Mindfulness here is a kind of open field of awareness based on prior effort and control. In the story of his awakening, it is with this sati that the Buddha then went into the jhānas or meditative absorptions, eventually culminating in his awakening. (Anālayo 2006)
Bhikkhu Anālayo suggests that the openness of mind (similar to a wide-angle camera lens), described here and in a simile of a tower from which one could survey great distances, is characteristic of the Buddha’s particular use of the term sati. If this wide angle or broad-mindedness marks the specific function of sati, then its place in key lists in the Pāli Canon can be used to emphasize its importance.
It is the first of the seven factors of awakening (Pāli: bojjhanga). As Anālayo illuminates: “These awakening factors stand in a conditional relation to one another, each of them requiring the establishment of the previous factors in the list. Here, mindfulness stands in the first position, since mindfulness is the one quality on which all others depend” (2006, 240).
Sati is also the third of the five faculties (Pāli, Skt: indriya), placing it at the center, leading Analayo to suggest that it serves the purpose of balancing the others. Sati is, furthermore, the faculty that is declared by the Buddha to always be useful. Finally, looking forward to the Abhidhamma, we find sati listed as one of the 25 kusala-dhamma cetasika, or fundamentally good or wholesome mental factors. (Nyanatiloka, 247)
We can see that mindfulness is a key part of Buddhist monastic practice, as described in the Pāli texts. Understanding this, and its meaning in that context, helpfully illuminated by vivid metaphor, can give mindfulness practitioners—Buddhist or not—a deeper grasp of their own connection to this ocean-like tradition.
Anālayo, Bhikkhu. 2006. “Mindfulness in the Pali Nikayas.” In Buddhist Thought in Applied Psychological Research, Nauriya, Drummond, et al (eds). New York: Routledge.
Dunne, John. 2015. “Buddhist Styles of Mindfulness: A Heuristic Approach.” In Handbook of Mindfulness and Self-Regulation, B. Ostafin, B. Meier, & M. Robinson (eds.). New York: Springer.
Dreyfus, George. 2015. “ls Mindfulness Present-Centered and Nonjudgmental? A Discussion of the Cognitive Dimensions of Mindfulness.” (academia.edu).
Gethin, Rupert. 2015. “Buddhist Conceptualizations of Mindfulness.” In Brown, Creswell, and Ryan (eds.), Handbook of Mindfulness: Theory, Research, and Practice.
Nyanatiloka, Mahathera. 2008. A Guide to the Abhidhamma Pitaka. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.
Rhys Davids, Caroline and Thomas Rhys Davids. 1910. Dialogues of the Buddha. Oxford: Pali Text Society.
Rhys Davids, Thomas. 1881. Buddhist Suttas Translated from Pāli. Oxford: Clarendon Press.