Mindfulness has played a key role in Western Buddhism, particularly in the teaching of vipassana and more secular programs such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Having been steeped in both these traditions myself, I was surprised to learn that the Tibetan Buddhists have a different understanding and usage of the term mindfulness.
Some of these differences arise from diverging scriptural sources and interpretations dating back to the time of the Buddha. Our intention here is not to present a scholarly argument nor definitive interpretations of mindfulness. Rather, we would like to help make explicit the ways contemporary streams of Buddhism use this term, particularly since practitioners today have unique opportunities to practice with teachers from all the Buddhist traditions.
To explore mindfulness, Inquiring Mind invited Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR, who was called “Mr. Mindfulness” in a headline in the Washington Post; Alan Wallace, a Buddhist scholar and prolific writer on Buddhism with whom I am collaborating on another secular meditation program, Cultivating Emotional Balance; Joseph Goldstein, a vipassana teacher known for his bell-like clarity and for the nonsectarianism he explored in his book One Dharma; and Jan Chozen Bays, Zen priest and pediatrician to whose trenchant and witty voice I was introduced at the 2005 Mind and Life Conference in Washington, D.C. As someone who has studied and worked with these teachers, I was honored to facilitate this dialogue along with Inquiring Mind coeditors Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker.
—Margaret Cullen, M.F.T., Certified MBSR Instructor
Inquiring Mind: As Western students of Buddhism are increasingly exploring different Buddhist traditions, many have encountered conflicting interpretations of basic terms and practices. In particular, the term mindfulness is broadly used by Western teachers and students, sometimes in opposing ways. As you learned it and teach it, what is mindfulness?
Jan Chozen Bays: What is the Zen teaching on mindfulness? I guess I would say, “When eating, just eat. When tired, just sleep.” There’s a lot in there. I often tell my students that mindfulness is a mind that is full of everything that is, not what you think about everything that is.
Jon Kabat-Zinn: In teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), my colleagues and I use the word mindfulness in a lot of different ways, some narrower and some broader. Sometimes I use mindfulness as a kind of umbrella term for the dharma. But in terms of an operational definition of mindfulness for people in a stress-reduction clinic or for a medical or scientific audience, I tend to speak of it as an awareness oriented in the present moment and cultivated by paying attention on purpose with a discerning, nonjudging, nonreacting, mirrorlike quality of mind which is underneath discursive thinking.
Alan Wallace: From all the research I’ve done on this, the primary meaning of mindfulness, or sati—in the Pali Canon, in the Sanskrit Canon, and later in the Tibetan Canon—is that of recollection, of memory. In fact, I believe sati is the only word in Pali, Sanskrit or Tibetan that means “recollection” or “memory.” As the Buddha himself says, “The noble disciple is endowed with perfect sati; he’s one who recollects what was done and said long before.”
Mindfulness can be retrospective, as in the psychological category more commonly understood as memory. It can be in the present moment, as an ongoing flow of remembering to remember to remember. And mindfulness can be prospective: remembering to pick up bread on the way home from work tonight.
In the meditative context, mindfulness enables us to retain our attention upon a familiar object without distraction. Of course, we can be mindful of many things without that recollection itself being instrumental in liberating the mind from its afflictive tendencies. The type of mindfulness that is liberating is that which is discerning, intelligent and able to distinguish one type of phenomena from another. In a recent conversation I had with Ajahn Amaro, we talked about a discerning mindfulness that recognizes: “This is conducive to my own and others’ well-being, this is unconducive. This leads to misery, this leads to liberation.”
Joseph Goldstein: One of the problems we face in trying to understand the meaning of certain terms, like mindfulness, is that the Pali or Sanskrit words often include a range of meanings, each with various nuances of interpretation and implication. As I understand it, mindfulness is remembering the present object (its function is nonforgetting) with the implication that the mind for that moment is free of attachment, aversion and delusion. So mindfulness itself includes what Alan is referring to, the aspect which liberates.
AW: None of the Buddhist Sanskrit sources, such as Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Abhidharma and Asanga’s Compendium of Abhidharma, equate sati with bare attention or suggest that bare attention is intrinsically wholesome. Neither do the Buddhist Pali sources, such as The Questions of King Milinda and Buddhaghosa’s classic text, The Path of Purification. Sanskrit Buddhist definitions of sati suggest that as one of ten mental factors that is present in every mind moment, and not invariably wholesome, mindfulness takes on qualities of the mental factors with which it’s conjoined.
In the context of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, for example, mindfulness clearly has, as religious scholars would say, a soteriological function—that is, the function of liberating. On the other hand, a rabbit can be very mindful of its surroundings because it doesn’t want to be eaten. A fox can be very mindful of its surroundings because it wants to eat the rabbit. In these contexts, mindfulness is neither wholesome nor liberating. A sniper who is trying to shoot somebody can be very, very mindful. Of course, there’s nothing liberating about that, even if he doesn’t do it with hatred or craving. The context is crucial.
JG: I believe the Theravada Abhidharma explains mindfulness a little differently from what you mentioned, Alan. In my understanding of those teachings, mindfulness is always a wholesome factor, unlike one-pointedness and attention, which are both ethically neutral. In the context of these teachings, I don’t think we would say that a cat waiting to pounce on a mouse is being mindful. Rather, we would say that it’s quite concentrated with strong attention. Attention as a mental factor directs the mind towards the object and concentration keeps it undistracted. It is the same with the sniper. He might be concentrated; the attention factor is certainly there. But in a true moment of mindfulness there is freedom from greed, hatred and delusion, unlike the mind-state of the cat or the sniper, where there is probably great identification with the motivating factors.
JKZ: Alan, what you are saying in some ways emphasizes why I use mindfulness as a kind of umbrella term: if we were to use it only in its narrowest operational definition, mindfulness would be devoid of morality. As with the sniper, there are aspects to the quality of attention that really have no, as you say, wholesome or unwholesome valence at all. So in MBSR we often speak of mindfulness not just as a bare attention but as an affectionate attention. Woven into it is an orientation towards nonharming and seeing deeply into the nature of things, which in some way implies, or at least invites, one to see the interconnectedness between the seer and the seen, the object and the subject.
We’re trying to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of society in a way that draws people into an experience of cultivation, reflection and a deep intimacy with the present moment in a way that very much does include the element of discernment. If what we taught didn’t have behind it the true transformative and liberative power of the dharma from the get-go, there wouldn’t be much point in offering it as a challenge to people who are suffering in the first place.
JCB: Jon, when you said you don’t teach just bare attention but affectionate attention, it sounded like a wonderful antidote to the tendency of the mind in the West to have undetected and subtly pervasive negative feeling tones.
As to Zen approaches to instructing students, I’d say that Zen is probably the most pitiful tradition in terms of teaching people how to meditate. My instructions were, “Sit down, face the wall, count your breath to ten, and if you lose track, start again.” That was it. Zen is called “the practice without a handrail” for a good reason. A lot of the teachings in Zen are implicit rather than explicit, and in the West I think it helps to have things much more explicit. Myself, I’ve gone back to the Pali Canon. I read it and teach it all the time. In fact, recently I taught a retreat on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
Zen tends to skip to mind-ground, to what I see as the fourth foundation of mindfulness. But I think it helps to go through the four foundations, beginning with just body as body, and moving to feelings as feelings, mental contents and then mind-ground. To me, there are three aspects to mindfulness. We’ve already touched on them some, but not explicitly as three. First is bare attention, a full awareness, ideally without attachment, aversion or self-identification. That, to me, is perfected mindfulness, samma-sati. Before that we have lifetimes of relative mindfulness. We keep on perfecting mindfulness. It might start out as barely attending—we have to be frank—and then we cultivate it. Alan mentioned the second aspect of mindfulness, the recollecting and returning that bring us back to the first aspect, the clear attention or clear awareness. The third aspect of mindfulness is seeing deeply into things, at a micro level and also at a macro level. Mindfulness is like a microscope and a telescope; it can be focused in on the space between milliseconds, and it can be pulled way out to extend our awareness into forces in the universe.
JKZ: I’d like to add that, as I understand it, mindfulness plays a special role among all the other elements of the Eightfold Path. One view of mindfulness that influenced me deeply from very early on was Nyanaponika Thera’s in The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. He writes: “Mindfulness, then, is the unfailing master key for knowing the mind, and is thus the starting point; the perfect tool for shaping the mind, and is thus the focal point; and the lofty manifestation of the achieved freedom of the mind, and is thus the culminating point.”
JG: I think it’s true in the sense that through the practice of mindfulness, all of the other factors of enlightenment (investigation, energy, rapture, calm, concentration and equanimity) are automatically cultivated. Mindfulness does have that function of drawing the other factors of enlightenment together.
IM: Just as the term mindfulness is used in various ways depending on the tradition, the historical source or the context (such as the Eightfold Path or the Seven Factors of Enlightenment), other related practices also are often taught with conflicting meanings. Let’s try to clarify some of the differences.
JG: It can be confusing for students when teachers use the same word to mean different things, especially when we don’t first define it for use in that particular context. For example, often we use the words mind, consciousness and awareness synonymously. At other times, they might have quite distinct meanings. Mind can refer to the whole range of mental activity; it can also mean “consciousness,” the knowing faculty, as distinguished from the fifty-two mental factors. Sometimes we use awareness to mean “consciousness,” sometimes “mindfulness,” and sometimes “mindfulness plus wisdom.” The point here is that as we translate some very specific terms from the Pali or Sanskrit, often there is not an equally precise English version. Perhaps a worthy project for Western Buddhists would be to create a standard dictionary of terms.
AW: I think sometimes samadhi gets a bad rap when it’s compared to mindfulness, as if samadhi somehow has a quality of fixation or tunnel vision. When it’s placed on the Eightfold Path within the threefold framework of sila, samadhi and pañña, it’s samadhi that is central, not mindfulness. Samadhi is the collectedness and composure of the mind, a kind of heightened sanity. And it may be focused on a single point, a whole field of experience or an ongoing flow of events, like the breath or thoughts. Mindfulness, as the mental factor of not forgetting an experienced object, supports samadhi, which is the sustained, coherent focus of attention upon a chosen object. In vipassana, one discerningly applies the mindfulness (as in the Four Applications of Mindfulness) that has already been cultivated in the practice of samadhi.
AW: There’s another factor—and I’m surprised how little this crops up in what I’ve read from the modern Theravada tradition—called sampajañña in Pali. It’s translated variously as “clear comprehension” and “full awareness.” It’s really more the introspective monitoring of the state of one’s body and mind, both internally and in relation to the environment. In order to achieve samadhi, in order to balance the attention, you need not only mindfulness in the service of samadhi, but you also need this monitoring, this quality control of the mindfulness, so that when the mind falls into laxity, you’re able to discern that very quickly. When it falls into excitation, rambling, distraction and so forth, you’re able to discern that as well. Sampajañña, then, has a metacognitive function. And both mindfulness and sampajañña are crucial for balancing the mind. Without such awareness of your own mental processes, you’re basically operating on autopilot out of sheer habit.
JKZ: Right. That’s precisely why I tend to include the dimension of metacognition, or meta-awareness, under the umbrella of mindfulness; we can be mindful of the quality of our awareness just as we can any other object of attention. In introducing the cultivation of mindfulness to people who have no experience with formal meditation practice, this orientation is woven into the practice in a way that becomes almost second nature to people. Anybody who is just getting started soon realizes that there’s much more going on than just the breath. We see how easily we get distracted and soon realize there’s a faculty that’s actually aware of when our mind wanders; otherwise we’d never bring it back. I’m not criticizing the various more precise scholarly views of this at all. I’m just trying to find a language, a context and a container that can make the dharmic and liberative elements of practice available to people in ways that are maximally skillful, generate minimal resistance, and that neither denature nor complicate and put out of reach the fundamental beauty and simplicity of wakefulness and wisdom.
JG: Sampajañña actually is talked about a lot in Theravada teachings. I recently sat a retreat with Sayadaw U Pandita where he spoke often about this quality of mind. One of the interesting applications of clear comprehension is that it applies to our relationship to our environment and what’s happening around us, as well as to what is happening within us. For example, one aspect of sampajañña is considering the suitability of an action. That opens up the whole aspect of motivation, of whether the action is wholesome or unwholesome, and if wholesome, whether it’s the right time to do it. I see this as an important function of sampajañña: enlarging the context of mindfulness beyond attending to only our internal process.
IM: Joseph, could you differentiate between shamatha, mindfulness and vipassana practices?
JG: In some of the Theravada traditions there are some clear distinctions between shamatha and vipassana. In shamatha practice, we take a single object of concentration, like the breath, a light, an image, etc., and train the mind to stay focused on it. Here, the idea is not to see its changing nature; rather, there’s a whole sequence of practices and experiences that lead the mind into absorption in the object. In vipassana, on the other hand, the aim is to see the three characteristics: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self. So shamatha and vipassana have very different functions. The word vipassana means “seeing clearly” or “seeing precisely.” Passana means “seeing” and vi means “clearly or precisely,” which refers to the deepening penetration or opening to the three characteristics. We train in seeing the momentary arising and passing away of all phenomena and in the nonclinging wisdom that arises from that clear seeing. Of course, the deeper the concentration that comes from shamatha practice, the more powerful the vipassana practice becomes. So I see the two as very much mutually supportive. The Buddha himself said that concentration is the foundation of wisdom.
We might consider vipassana as the overarching term for meditative techniques leading to liberation. Mindfulness is a central practice of all these teachings. And as mentioned earlier, mindfulness brings together all the other factors of enlightenment.
IM: How do you honor these ancient traditions while, at the same time, allowing the unfolding of Buddhadharma in the West to be a dynamic process?
AW: I see this contemporary generation of Buddhist teachers and practitioners in dialogue with the continuum of elders, going right back to the Buddha himself. Not that we’re supposed to be just obedient puppets and say whatever the last generation said. But insofar as we’re preserving the currents of Buddhist traditions, which some people care about and others don’t, then going back to the original meanings of the terms we use provides some continuity. We shouldn’t freeze the meaning of Buddhist terms and concepts, but at least we should know where they came from and how we are using them in light of their traditional usage.
I think there’s a danger nowadays of creating artificial polarities, for example by drawing a sharp distinction between scholars and practitioners. In this exaggerated dichotomy, scholars are portrayed as bookworms who have only an intellectual interest in Buddhism, while practitioners view themselves as people who are really after experience. In this scenario practitioners often look down on the scholars, scholars look down on practitioners, and higher scholars look down on lower scholars [laughter].
IM: That’s why we’re all talking together today—to facilitate communication and understanding. Mindfulness in the modern world needs language that can serve those interested in the depth and beauty of the lineage as well as those who simply seek relief from the dukkha of stress and the myriad manifestations of dis-ease resulting from our speedy consumer culture.
JKZ: These times call out for some kind of real recognition of the potential transformative power of the dharma.
JG: Maybe not any more than at any other time, but certainly now. Whether we move toward greater suffering or the alleviation of suffering depends on whether we’re mindful of our emotions or we’re not mindful of our emotions.
JCB: That’s the beauty of the studies you’ve done, Jon; they’re framed in a context that people can understand. People think, I can be healthier if I do this, and then become curious and begin investigating. It’s wonderful to see people start to do mindfulness meditation for their blood pressure and by the fourth week find themselves saying, “Who’s actually thinking? Who am I? What’s going on here?” Mindfulness is a wonderful way to lead people in.
IM: As an MBSR instructor, I have seen a tremendous hunger for the nourishment which mindfulness provides.
JCB: I imagine people in primitive times had more of that nourishment in their lives: they watched campfires, they stood by streams trying to intuit where the fish were just by watching the flow of the water, and they lay on the hillsides at night with their sheep watching the sky. And so we’re supplying something that we’ve forgotten, that we’ve left behind. When it comes back into people’s lives, even in the MBSR classroom setting, people feel nourished and healthy and free.
IM: At the 2005 Mind and Life Conference, I noticed several times when His Holiness the Dalai Lama didn’t seem to connect with the way Westerners were using the word mindfulness. It made me wonder if he fully recognizes how starving we are for this medicine and how broad an application it can have in our culture.
JCB: The idea of stress could be foreign to somebody who has spent their whole life doing what their great-great-great-grandparents did, like standing and watching the ice freeze. If your culture is not highly technologically evolved, if information doesn’t get poured into you all the time, if everybody’s not trying to get advanced degrees and stuff knowledge into their heads, maybe mindfulness is much more present.
AW: I saw a number of points at that conference where there was a disconnect. His Holiness is well versed in all schools of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, but the way some Buddhist terms are being used in the modern vipassana tradition differs from the Buddhist traditions with which he is familiar. Also, the practice of bare attention is not prominent in the Tibetan tradition as a whole, which includes an extremely rich and diverse array of meditation practices.
There’s another factor here, too, that I think easily escapes our vision. In quite a number of traditional Buddhist countries—Tibet is a good example of this—there is incredible faith and devotion. I consider myself quite a devout Buddhist, but the level of faith and devotion of an elderly Tibetan woman living in the backwoods of Tibet is unimaginable to me. It is hard to comprehend the great trauma Tibetans experienced with the invasion of their country—the torture and the genocide. Yet they have done remarkably well, considering that many are relatively free of post-traumatic stress disorder. Their way out of that was by faith, not by bare attention; it simply is not a central feature of Tibetan Buddhist practice.
JKZ: After the Mind and Life Conference, some interesting things happened in meetings with His Holiness. As you know, in my presentations I sometimes equate stress to dukkha, as do a number of other contemporary teachers. Now there’s no real word stress in Tibetan. But later that week, when His Holiness spoke in front of 14,000 neuroscientists, at one point he said, “I think the Dalai Lama is a little bit stressed.” It was really quite something.
AW: He learned a new word.
JKZ: And used it totally appropriately and with a lot of humor.
JG: In expressing the scope and practice of mindfulness, it’s important to remember that training in it is often difficult. Munindraji, my first teacher, would often say, “Mindfulness is simple but not easy.” The Buddha spoke of the practice as being like swimming upstream, swimming against the current of our conditioning. Along the way, we face challenges and different obstacles. These are part of the path. Times of our greatest difficulties are also often times of our greatest insights.
IM: Any closing reflections?
JCB: The more I practice the more I have absolute faith that what the Buddha taught is true—that mindfulness truly works, beginning with body as body, feelings as feelings, and proceeding to mind objects and mind-ground. It has to be done in that order. Then when the mind-ground becomes very big and inevitably collapses because of impermanence, we start again with the body.
AW: As an endnote, I’d like to repeat the Buddhist adage that wisdom without compassion is bondage and compassion without wisdom is bondage. Mindfulness can be a servant to both the cultivation of wisdom and compassion. We have the four Brahma-viharas (lovingkindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity), which I think are a marvelous, elegant and majestic complement to the Four Applications of Mindfulness. Seeing the interrelationship, the synergy, between the active cultivation of the heart and the cultivation of wisdom makes the practice of Buddhadharma very rich, very balanced.
JKZ: I think it is wonderful to have a diversity of viewpoints and to reflect on the degree to which mindfulness is recollection, the degree to which it’s bare attention, the degree to which it’s openhearted presencing. All of these expressions of mindfulness, as Alan rightfully said, are not frozen. Otherwise Buddhism would be a quaint museum. Instead, these are forces that are actually transmuting our own lives and even our own bodies as we practice and as we live our lives.
JCB: So maybe our last message is to practice mindfulness and then you’ll find out what it is.