Sunday, December 07, 2008

meaning of 'mindfulness'

Alan Wallace explains the correct understanding of the term 'mindfulness' and its implications for practice.


While mindfulness (s a t i) is often equated with bare attention, my conversations with—and recent studies of works by—the learned monks Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Analayo, and Rupert Gethin, president of the Pali Text Society, led me to conclude that bare attention corresponds much more closely to the Pali term manasikara, which is commonly translated as “attention” or “mental engagement.” This word refers to the initial split seconds of the bare cognizing of an object, before one begins to recognize, identify, and conceptualize, and in Buddhist accounts it is not regarded as a wholesome mental factor. It is ethically neutral.

The primary meaning of sati, on the other hand, is recollection, nonforgetfulness. This includes retrospective memory of things in the past, prospectively remembering to do something in the future, and present-centered recollection in the sense of maintaining unwavering attention to a present reality.

The opposite of mindfulness is forgetfulness, so mindfulness applied to the breath, for instance, involves continuous, unwavering attention to the respiration. Mindfulness may be used to s u s t a i n bare attention (manasikara), but nowhere do traditional Buddhist sources equate mindfulness with such attention.

Right mindfulness has to occur in the context of the full Noble Eightfold Path: For example, it must be guided by right view, motivated by right intention, grounded in ethics, and be cultivated in conjunction with right effort. Without right view or right intention, one could be practicing bare attention without its ever developing into right mindfulness. So bare attention doesn’t by any means capture the complete significance of vipassana, but represents only the initial phase in the meditative development of right mindfulness.

Tricycle, Spring 2008

Read full interview: A Mindful Balance by Alan Wallace

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