Reading Joseph Goldstein’s new book, Mindfulness, brought to mind some remarks Bhikkhu Bodhi made at a teachers’ retreat a few years ago. One of the foremost living English-language translators of what the historical Buddha is thought to have said, Bhikkhu Bodhi described what he saw as two complementary but distinguishable forms of Dharma-teaching discourse: those of canonical Buddhism and those of adaptive Buddhism.
The Buddha’s teachings would never have been disseminated first throughout Asia and then globally, Bhikkhu Bodhi said, if both forms had not been used: the faithful replication of the Buddha’s message in the form he delivered it (canonical), and conveyance of the essence of the Buddha’s teachings in the common vernacular of the host cultures, using whatever similes, constructs and examples the teachers deemed accurate and appropriate to the task (adaptive).
From this perspective, most books written by key Western teachers introducing the teachings and practices of the Theravada tradition over the last half-century or so tend to lie more on the adaptive end of the continuum. By contrast, Mr. Goldstein’s new book qualifies as his first foray deep into the territory of canonical Buddhism—more so than anything else he’s ever written (including his earlier groundbreaking volumes such as Insight Meditation, The Experience of Insight, One Dharma, and Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, with Jack Kornfield).
In Mindfulness, Mr. Goldstein faithfully recounts the stanza-by-stanza “refrain” of the Maha Satipatthana Sutta (Greater Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness), exploring both its inner meanings and outer manifestations as practiced in daily life.
In this endeavor, he relies heavily on another text also considered a contemporary work of pure canonical Buddhism: the scholar and monk Analayo’s Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization (Windhorse, 2003). Analayo Bhikkhu’s book is a scholarly commentary on the mindfulness discourse—a deeply researched, extensively referenced and insightfully written treatise. But what his treatise does not do is provide personal, one-on-one, experience-based advice on how to live the teachings on mindfulness. That’s where this new book comes in.
In Mindfulness, again and again Mr. Goldstein references either the discourse itself or Analayo’s treatise. Mindfulness is basically a user’s guide to these two texts; I think it’s best read and understood as a companion piece to these two sources, though it stands on its own quite well. That said, Mr. Goldstein’s new book is a fairly advanced inquiry into the inner workings of the mindfulness discourse in terms of living its teachings.
The Buddha advised those going forth to share the Dharma to teach a “graduated discourse,” and Mindfulness is definitely toward the upper end of this range. Newcomers to insight meditation might be better advised to start with the teachings offered in Mr. Goldstein’s first book, The Experience of Insight, as a lead-up to reading this recent work.
Reading Analayo’s book is like listening to a tightly crafted lecture series at some great institute of Buddhist learning—taking in what the Satipatthana Sutta means conceptually and intellectually. By contrast, in Mindfulness Mr. Goldstein offers heartfelt personal advice on how to apply your understanding of this discourse to your every waking moment. He deeply explores all aspects of the four ways of establishing mindfulness just as the Buddha taught them, but always from the perspective of how we can continually manifest this state of mind in our thoughts, words, deeds and way of life.
In so doing, Mr. Goldstein occasionally burrows into sometimes overlooked nooks and crannies in the discourse, and comes up with some previously unrecognized (at least by me) gems, such as the need for contemplation that is “ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful.” In fact, “Ardency” is the title of the book’s introductory chapter.
While Mr. Goldstein’s book—like the discourse he is explicating—is aimed directly at the goal of liberation, this introductory chapter begins by explaining how ardency properly understood can be a wellspring of wholesome, present-centered and process-centered effort rather than an unhealthy and solitary obsession with future goal attainment:
Ardent implies a balanced and sustained application of effort. But ardent also suggests warmth of feeling, a passionate and strong enthusiasm or devotion because we realize the value and importance of something. When the Buddha says that a bhikkhu (all of us on the path) abides ardently, he is urging us to take great care, with continuity and perseverance, in what we do . . . Spiritual ardency is the wellspring of a courageous heart.
At the end of a retreat, a student eliciting advice about how to practice when he returned home asked his teacher how often he should sit and for how long. “It depends on how happy you want to be,” she replied. The teacher was referring to this very quality of ardency—the understanding that we are indeed capable of redoubling our efforts to become mindful and free, if we but choose to do so, and to apply a constancy of compassionate intention to that end.
Likewise, whether or not you wish to add Mr. Goldstein’s book to your Dharma library depends on how focused you are on seeking to live a mindful life, and on holding before you the real possibility of moment-by-moment as well as final liberation. For me, this new book became indispensable from the moment I began to read it.