Mindfulness Sutra Talk 1
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | January 1, 2001
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
The two most commonly cited versions of the Mindfulness Sutra are number ten in the Majjima Nikaya and number twenty-two in the Digha Nikaya. The Majjima Nikaya version is called the Satipatthāna Sutra, which means The Foundations of Mindfulness Sutra. The version in the Digha Nikaya is called the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutra. I will be following, more or less, number ten, the Majjima Nikaya, the Satipatthāna Sutra.
So, the title: Satipatthāna. The two words in the title are sati and pattāna. Sati is the word that we usually translate as mindfulness, awareness, or attention. Both of these words are very difficult to translate, because the more intimate you get with them, the more angles you see. None of the words used to translate sati quite fit, but they are in the territory of attention, mindfulness, awareness. Sometimes the phrase “bare attention” is used.
U Silananda, in his commentary, uses a very nice metaphor: throwing a ball against a wall. The moment when the ball hits the wall is sati, or mindfulness, the moment of attentiveness in which an object registers in the mind. There could be an external object present, but you might not actually see it or know that it’s there. Everybody has had the experience of becoming aware of a sound. You realize: “There’s a bell ringing. I didn’t hear it before. All of a sudden, I just noticed it.” That moment when the mind meets the object, and it registers in the mind, is the moment of mindfulness.
Whenever we are conscious, there’s always some mindfulness, because if there weren’t some mindfulness, there wouldn’t be objects. We would be in a dark soup of the unconscious, as when we are sleeping, or out cold, or vaguely aware. Whenever we are aware and conscious, and we notice thoughts, objects, or sounds, there must be this faculty of mind called sati, or mindfulness.
Therefore, we don’t have to dredge up or create mindfulness that doesn’t exist. We all have mindfulness. It is not a matter of creating mindfulness where there is none. It is a matter of intentionally or consciously developing a faculty that is always, or usually, present. Of course, it never occurs to us to develop attentiveness or mindfulness. We just take it for granted. So this sutra introduces an astonishing fact: attentiveness can be developed in a particular way. Moreover, developing this quality of attentiveness, or awareness, with some diligence over a period of time, will bring tremendous spiritual growth, liberation, peacefulness, and wisdom. This is very unexpected. You wouldn’t think that this would be the case, but that is what the sutra is saying.
In Sanskrit, the word sati is also smrti. Although it is the same word, smrti has a connotation of memory. In Sanskrit, mindfulness always implies memory, in the sense of remembering to come back and apply mindfulness. Usually we don’t intentionally apply awareness. We are just aware of whatever is in front of us. We may say, “Now I am going to do X, so I am continuously going to apply my awareness to this,” but the idea of cultivating awareness for its own sake is not something that we usually do. It requires intentionally coming back over and over again.
It is interesting to note – and this has always fascinated me – that in different schools of Buddhist analysis of mind there is no idea or word for what we would call memory. There is no concept of memory, other than this word smrti – mindfulness. We assume that there is an abiding person with a past and a present and a future, and that the past exists behind us someplace. The word memory in our language implies the whole map of the universe and of the mind and of the world. So we say: I am remembering something in my past; I am remembering the history of my family. But here, in Buddhist conception, the mind is seen as an ongoing flow of impressions. There is continuity to that flow, but there is no substance to it. It is just a flow.
Awareness and memory are really the same thing. Memory is only something that occurs in the present, right? To be aware is to be cognizant of an object in the present moment. That object could be what we would call memory. We are having an experience, an image, a feeling, or whatever, now, of something that is not present at this moment in the physical world or our mental world. So there is no recognition of a difference between awareness of a physical object, a thought arising in the mind, or a memory of the past. These are all just instances of smrti, of mindfulness, of awareness.
Memory, then, is a present perception of an object in the mind. So sati is always about awareness in the present moment, but it doesn’t exclude the past. This is true in our lives. Our whole past comes to bear in the present moment. So when you develop awareness in the present moment, you can actually heal, clarify, redeem, and alter the past, because the past manifests in the present. Developing awareness in the present moment will often evoke and clarify the past, without necessarily analyzing, or going over history. Just by being aware in the present moment, often the past is involved and clarified. This is an astonishing fact of Buddhist practice and methodology that is totally different from how we would understand it in the West.
The awareness that is developed and cultivated is necessarily – and this is an important point – relaxed awareness. There is some intention to come back to the object, but it is a steady recollection and application in a relaxed way. Attentiveness, by definition, has no goal, other than attentiveness itself. That’s why it is relaxed, because what makes us not relaxed, or tense, is that we are always trying to do something. We have a goal, a desire. If there is a goal or desire, then it is not entirely the practice of sati. Pure awareness is a relaxed engagement with the object in the present. If there is strong desire involved, it will definitely distort the awareness.
Also implied in the use of the term sati, or awareness, is the word sama, which means “correct” or “right.” The eightfold path includes “right understanding,” “right intention,” “right view,” and so forth. Right mindfulness, or right awareness, is also part of the eightfold path. The word sati, or mindfulness, implies right mindfulness, which means not so much morally right, as accurate – mindfulness of things, of objects, as they actually appear, as opposed to a distorted or confused awareness of objects.
Awareness is not some sort of technical attentiveness. Bank robbers are very attentive, but it would not be mindfulness as it is meant in the sutra. Mindfulness always implies attentiveness in the service of seeing things and experiencing things as they actually are, rather than in the service of the pursuit of some acquisitive goal.
Buddhism says that there is right mindfulness, attentiveness, in the service of seeing things as they are. You will see that all experiences are impermanent, ungraspable, and in a state of flux. However, you don’t have to believe this because you read it in a sutra; you will definitely experience that if you apply attentiveness. You will personally have the certain knowledge that this is the nature of experience, by virtue of applying your mindfulness, your attentiveness. When you see things in that way, you will become peaceful and happy. There will be a kind of affection arising in your heart. That is the Buddha’s idea, and it seems to be borne out by experience.
This is all to say that awareness is not a technical thing that could be amoral or immoral. This is not a practice concerned with imposing conceptions of morality on experience. Quite the opposite, it is a practice concerned with just being aware, without desire, of what arises. When you see it clearly, the inevitable consequence of that clear seeing will be the recognition of the connected and flowing nature of reality, which will lead you very naturally, without any imposition of moral codes, into a spontaneous and ethical and loving conduct.
The second word of the title, patthana, or upastthana, in Sanskrit is also an interesting word with a lot of dimensions. It means “setting up” or “bringing into functional operation.” It also means “to place near” and “to stay close to.” So the word patthana implies, as I like to emphasize, a meeting point, a relationship, an intimacy. Think about it. If there weren’t mindfulness, this world that appears to us wouldn’t be here. It would be unconscious. We would be living in an inchoate state, without awareness. With awareness, cognizing is possible. Think of the world without any experience. Think of the world without any objects of mind, of objects, or others. This would be a world that is ungraspable, in the sense that is has only distance, no closeness. So mindfulness automatically brings brightness and warmth.
The word patthana also means “place.” As in English, “place” in Sanskrit can be a verb or a noun. “To place something” is to take hold of it, make contact with it, put it down, and set it somewhere. But it is also a noun – a place, a location. Both meanings imply some attention and carefulness and a kind of stability. From this sense of the word, we get the translation “foundation.” So the Satipatthana Sutra is often translated as The Foundations of Mindfulness Sutra. Thich Nhat Hanh translates it as The Establishment of Mindfulness Sutra.
The reason that this is so interesting and important is that it implies that mindfulness is like an object that you can get your hands on. It is a very concrete word: a place. I think this is one of the main and surprising points that is made even before the mindfulness sutra begins and is an underlying assumption of the sutra. In the typical Western approach of looking at the world, the material world is concrete and workable. You can do something with it. You can get your hands on it, even though the material world and the present moment are really abstract. The most material thing, of course, is money, and money is completely an abstraction. Still, the Western idea is that you can get your hands on the material world; whereas, the mind and feelings are very subjective and vague.
In contrast, this sutra is saying that mindfulness is very concrete. The sutra states, “Place mindfulness in front of you,” as something that you could pick up, like a stone. The whole points is the recognition that mind can be workable, that you can work the craft of mind in the same way that you can work wood or stone. Mind is not something squishy and subjective. It is something very clear and definite, that you can apply yourself to and develop.
In early Buddhism, mindfulness, if not the key to the whole practice, is certainly was one of the Buddha’s main teachings. The Mindfulness Sutra seems to say that mindfulness is the only way in the beginning. It is disputed what sati actually means, but it seems to be saying that the only way to develop peace and happiness, awakening, relief from all kinds of lamentation and sorrow and suffering is through developing mindfulness.
Mindfulness is not the same thing as self-consciousness. It is quite different. Self-consciousness would be, “I am aware that I am standing. I am aware that I am practicing mindfulness. I am aware of my body. I am aware of my thoughts. I am observing my mind, my thoughts, and my body.” That is self-consciousness. It is not the same as mindfulness, because with self-consciousness, someone is standing off to one side looking at what is going on. Someone, who is not in the game, is standing over here directing traffic in the mind.
That is why I sometimes use the words “bare attention” to translate sati. In other words, there is no one observing. There is no one standing off to the side saying, “I am doing this.” There is just the visceral experience of the awareness of an object. There is just being present with brightness with what occurs. There is no separation between the person watching and the feeling of the experience. If self-consciousness arises in the mind, then you become mindful of that. You rest in the experience of self-consciousness. It’s not that self-consciousness doesn’t occur, but instead of having the self be evaluating, observing, and running the show, you understand the feeling of self as another experience that you are going to enter.
Often it is said that mindfulness is non-judgmental. There is no desire, evaluation, or rejection; there is just the experience. If there is desire or evaluation or rejection, you are mindful of that. You just experience the feeling of rejection or attachment, without taking it as a reality, other than the experience of it: simply experiencing what is, without abstracting it, or making it into more than it is, or giving it a value. Just seeing what’s there, being what’s there, being the knowing, experiencing the experiencing, and allowing the experience to be as bright and known as possible, without any knower outside of the experience.