Mindfulness is the English word most often used for the Pali term sati. Originally, it was used by Brahmans, meaning “memory”, in the sense of memorizing Vedic scriptures. In order to retain large amounts of material, one needed to have clarity of mind, a keen ability to focus, an enhanced quality of attentiveness. The Buddha adopted this Brahmanical term, using sati to refer to both “remembering” and presence of mind in meditation.

In this passage from Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s translation of Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga or “The Path of Purification”, composed in the 5th century and the first comprehensive manual on Theravada meditation, sati is used in the first context in this passage:

Now as to mindful and fully aware: here, he remembers (sarati), thus he is mindful (sata); He has full-awareness (samapajanati), thus he is fully aware (sampajana). This is mindfulness and full-awareness stated as personal attributes. Herein, mindfulness has the characteristic of remembering. Its function is not to forget. It is manifested as guarding.”

Elsewhere in this same work, sati is used in the context of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (of the body, of feelings, of consciousness, of mental objects):

And in some instances by the Foundations of Mindfulness, etc., accordingly as it is said: ‘Bhikkhus, this path is the only ‘way for the purification of beings, . . . for the realization of ‘nibanna, that is to say, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ . . .

And further on, Buddhaghosa also refers to sati in the sense of a specific meditation practice:

Mindfulness of breathing should be developed for the purpose of eliminating the conceit ‘I am.’

So here we have a several different meanings or connotations of the same word in the same work, and when reading the first passage we notice that there are a number of other words or terms that seem to be interchangeable, having essentially the same meaning. We might wonder how does mindfulness differ from full-awareness? How is sata related to sati? This I think points to the difficulty of trying to parse the English words we use for Buddhist terms. Bhikkhu Nanamoli, in his introduction to “The Path of Purification,” describes at length the linguistic, epistemological, and even psychological problems of translation, noting for instance, that the single English word “desire” has been used “as a translation of sixteen distinct Pali words.”

In my opinion, playing semantics with Asian Buddhist terms and the various English words we use as translations is like stepping into a muddy swamp. If you can avoid it, you’re much better off.

Yet, some folks just can’t seem to help themselves. Believe it or not, “mindfulness” is a rather controversial word in Buddhism these days. It seems some people object to mindfulness. They say it’s been over-used, it’s just a buzz-word, a cliché, that it points to a watered-down form of Buddhist practice, it’s nothing more than a balm, an elixir, a feel-good term. What is never entirely clear to me is whether these critics merely object to the word or if they also object to the practice, or both.

I don’t have a problem with such criticism because they are attacking a sacred cow – I think I’ve said before there are no sacred cows on this blog – but rather, I feel it is just nit-picking which doesn’t really contribute much. Certainly, there are some who overuse and abuse the term, and in the hands of a few of them, “mindfulness” has become a marketing strategy. But I think they are in the minority overall, and as the old adage goes, a few rotten apples does not spoil the whole bunch.

Mindfulness is just a word, a sign. Other words like awareness, attentiveness, or thoughtfulness work, but perhaps not as well. Not to mention that there’s probably someone, somewhere who’d have an objection to any word that became the standard.

The most common use of “mindfulness” is in reference to the meditation practice taught by the Buddha. I believe I am correct in saying that the instructions attributed to the Buddha about this practice are the first meditation instructions recorded in history. We find them in the Anapanasati Sutra or the “Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing.”

I often like to quote Thich Nhat Hanh: “We do not need to search for anything more. We only need to practice the simple exercises proposed by the Buddha . . .” I think this is true to some extent. While there are many other forms of Buddhist meditation, this is the foundation, the starting point. No matter what else I do, I always return to “mindfulness” at some point. I try to remember the maxim of one on my teachers, “Always go back to the basics.”

But the real heart of mindfulness, in all its different senses, is found in daily life. We want to learn to do things with better attention and focus, teach ourselves how to avoid the bad habit of doing one thing while thinking of something else. By merely practicing anapanasati, we can become more observant, and learn how not to taint what we observe with judgments, preferences, or prejudices. We train ourselves to stay calm in situations that tend to provoke irritation or anger. We learn how to deal more effectively with our problems, worries and anxieties. The list goes on and on.

The benefits derived from “mindfulness” practice are not easily obtained. It requires effort, and it can be hard, even painful at times. They are not “gifts”, unless you consider them as gifts you give to yourself. When we say that mindfulness can be virtually any activity whatsoever, we mean we can learn to apply mental disciple to almost any situation. We’re trying to stop reacting to things so mindlessly. And we certainly don’t mean that mindfulness itself accomplishes anything. We do it. This is jiriki we’re talking about. Self-power. “Mindfulness” only works for us when we make it work.

Another quote I probably use too often is from Robert Thurman, who once said, “Buddhism is just a bunch of tools.” A handyman has various tools and they have various names. It cuts down on confusion. Makes it easier to identify a tool when you need one handed to you. We have to do the same thing in Buddhism. Concern about the names we give the tools is missing the point, I think. Isn’t the function of each tool far more important?

The sati arisen inspired by breathing (anapana) is “mindfulness of breathing.” This is a term for sati that has as its object the sign of in-breaths and out-breaths. The recollection arisen inspired by peace is the ‘recollection of peace.” This is a term for sati that has as its object the stilling of all suffering.”


The other day I quoted the Tao Te Ching: “By practicing doing nothing/Everything is in harmony.” This refers to the concept of wu-wei or non-action.

When we talk about non-action, it doesn’t mean inaction. Wu-wei means natural action.

Elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says “Nature uses few words.”

Of wu-wei, Wang Bi (226—249 CE), the famous interpreter of the classical Chinese texts, wrote,

The sage understands Nature perfectly. Therefore he goes along with [all things] but takes no unnatural action. He is in harmony with them but does not impose anything on them. He removes their delusions and eliminates their doubts. Hence, the people’s minds are not confused and things are contented with their own nature.

In Taoism, the sage is an ideal, representing the ultimate in human aspiration. The sage is like a buddha or bodhisattva, steeped in wisdom, guiding others. Because the sage is in harmony with the rhythm of life, the action he or she takes is not forced. In fact it seems effortless because less exertion is required. Tai Chi master Gary Khor calls wu-wei “relaxed action.”

Chinese characters for "Wu-wei"

Non-action is related to mindfulness. It is not as if we are suddenly “in harmony” with nature, as though someone had pulled a switch and voila! Wu-wei flows from mindfulness because it is actually a consciousness of harmony. Quieting the mind relaxes the body and spirit and we become more aware of life’s natural rhythms.

In terms of Buddhism, an attribute of awareness is understanding our part in the interdependency of all things. As all things are originally harmonious and natural owning to their ultimate oneness, practice of mindfulness and wu-wei teach us the way to take the right action at the right time.

The action of wu-wei is also the action of creative insight. The I Ching says “The creative is successful, advancing through correctness”.

More about the I Ching and creativity in an upcoming post.

Recently I received a comment on my January 28, 2011 post, “The Challenge of Mindfulness,” that I felt expressed concerns perhaps on the minds of others, so I thought I’d answer it here:

Hello! Very recently have I began reading about mindfulness and meditation, and although without seeking professional opinion, I have already identified that should I enroll in a meditation course, I will be unable to focus. As I learn more from books and blogs (like this one) I tend to think that I have been living life mindlessly, doing things merely because it has been my routine for my whole life. I seriously am considering going into a meditation class, changing my perspective in life and being aware of myself and the life I am living. I have always had questioned whether I will be able to attain the state of “inner peace” by being mindful, but I guess I wouldn’t really know until I try. I do hope I will be able to be fully aware, “mindful” of myself. I just need to know the first step.

As we fare along the path of mindfulness, we encounter obstacles. Many of these are self-made. They are inner hindrances. Meditation master Chih-i of the T’ien-t’ai school called them screens because they act as coverings that obscure our vision. One of the screens Chih-i advises us to remove is the screen of doubt. In Chih-kuan for Beginners, he says, “When doubt veils the mind, it is difficult to open any dharma doors.”

Perhaps the hardest doubt to remove is doubt about oneself. We might think that we are not capable of finding inner peace. Chih-i says, “When doubt such as this is at the forefront of one’s mind, the chih-kuan dharma door is closed, and therefore, realization is unobtainable.”

It’s only natural to have some doubts. It’s unwise to be over confident. Then, we may have other kinds of doubts, such as a doubt that we will ever climb Mt. Everest. That’s a perfectly reasonable because not many people do climb Mt. Everest. However, when we doubt our ability to achieve things that are definitely within our grasp, like finding more meaning and joy in our life, this is not reasonable. It’s the kind of doubt that locks the dharma door before we even have a chance to open it.

So we have to let doubt go. Release it.

And there are other screens we need to remove.

We need to let go of expectations. Some people start with a desire to attain enlightenment, to have grand realizations and so on. They set up expectations that become obstacles because they distract from the task at hand. The aim of mindfulness is not that complicated. We merely want to calm our mind and develop more awareness in the present moment. But it takes single-minded focus.

In letting go, we do not give up the intention to realize our expectation, rather we let go of our attachment to expectation. The idea is to transform expectation into aspiration.

We need to let go of fear. Some people feel conflicted about whether or not to take a meditation course because they fear that they might indoctrinated into something. They don’t want to sign up, join up, or anything else. They just want to find some peace of mind. But you don’t have to become a Buddhist to practice mindfulness.

The Buddha did not invent meditation. Yet, his meditation instructions are the first recorded in history. Most forms of meditation, Buddhist and otherwise, begin with the same step-by-step instructions the Buddha gave some 2500 years, and they focus on the same object of meditation he identified as the most effective, the breath. With this in mind, almost any meditation course that teaches you how to meditate while focusing on your breath will do. It doesn’t have to be Buddhist.

I don’t believe you can learn meditation completely on your own, over the Internet, or from a book or video.  Meditation is far too subtle to grasp without some personal instruction. But if you take a secular meditation course and then you want to learn some of the underlying concepts and how Buddhism suggests we utilize this tool, you can always supplement your beginning practice with some reading. Two excellent books are The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh and Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana.

The list of thing we need to release goes on. Letting go helps us approach meditation with an open mind, with fewer hindrances to get in our way. Overcoming these three screens of doubt, expectation, and fear is the best first step.

Anyone, everyone, can find inner peace. It’s not an insurmountable goal. It’s not Mt. Everest. But whether you are climbing a mountain or ascending to the plateau of awakening, you must take steps to get there. The second step is just to do it, to practice, to meditate.

My own daily practice is very simple. Mindfulness and reciting the Heart Sutra. Often I will chant the Heart Sutra mantra for an extended period. I recently saw some discussion about this online. I don’t recall ever coming across any hard and fast rules about how one should chant the mantra. You can chant it once or twice at the end of the sutra or for an hour if you want. It’s up to you. In addition, you can chant the mantra by itself, at anytime. I also chant different mantras and use some other meditation techniques I am familiar with, but I always return to the basics. For silent meditation, that means mindfulness, counting or following the breath the way the Buddha taught.

We do not need to search for anything more. We only need to practice the simple exercises proposed by the Buddha . . .”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thanks for your comment and I hope this helps.

Mindfulness is not a comfort zone. It’s a challenge.

First, let us consider what mindfulness, that is, sitting in meditation does. Numerous studies have shown there are tangible benefits to be gained from meditation. The most recent one will be published in the Jan. 30 issue of the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. MRI images were taken of the brains of volunteers two weeks before and after they took an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness.  MRI scans of a control group of people who did not participate in the course were also analyzed.

You can read the details here at Science Daily, where Sara Lazar, PhD, the study’s senior author is quoted as saying,

Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day. This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.

Specifically, the study found increase in the grey matter density in the hippocampus (important for learning and memory) in participants and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. No increases were found in the control group.

That brain structure is changed by meditation may not exactly be proof of Dogen’s maxim that “sitting is enlightenment” (“practice and enlightenment are one”, shusho-ichinyo) but just sitting certainly has verifiable and substantial benefits. These studies only confirm what many persons have known for a long time. In 1954, some fifty-seven years ago, meditation master Yin Shih Tzu wrote in Tranquil Sitting,

Meditation develops your innate energies. With practice, you can take charge of your mind and body, preventing disease before it arises. Shouldn’t everyone make an effort to learn something like this? Superficially, meditation looks easy, but if you practice without patience, determination, and a long-term sense of devotion, you will never realize its benefits.

Yin Shih Tzu alludes to the first two challenges of mindfulness. One, is simply to do it. Actually, meditation doesn’t always look easy. I can think of any number of activities that require less effort and concentration. The second challenge is to keep doing it. Not so easy either. Perhaps it is not everyone’s experience, but for me, maintaining a regular practice has at times been a real struggle.

However, the biggest challenge is to carry mindfulness in our daily life. It’s one thing to be mindful while sitting or when engaged in some dharma activity. What really matters, though, is when we are in any one of the seeming infinite irritating, frustrating, patience-testing, humor-losing, anger-provoking situations we encounter almost daily.  That’s when mindfulness really counts.

As the study cited above shows, just sitting in meditation, by itself, can naturally produce changes that help us keep our cool in stressful situations, as well as improve our ability to focus and maintain attention to whatever we’re doing; still, some active discipline is required on our part. There’s that split-second, that flash of a moment, when we make a decision to react in either a positive, neutral, or negative way. I know from my own experience that no amount of time spent on the meditation mat can aid if you have not learned the basic art of controlling your mind and emotions. Meditation helps with that, too, and that why we sometimes call it “training the mind”, and yet in the end, it’s up to us.

In the SGI they used to say, and no doubt still do, “Buddhism equals daily life.” This is the prime point of Buddhist practice. Because it’s in daily life that we confront our sufferings head on. And so, daily life is where we must overcome those sufferings. Total mindfulness.  That’s what we’re after. Or, as close to that as we can get. Daunting. Awesome.

Right meditation is not escapism; it is not meant to provide hiding-places for temporary oblivion. Realistic meditation has the purpose of training the mind to face, to understand and to conquer this very world in which we live.

Nyanaponika Thera, Power of Mindfulness

It’s important that always we make the connection between sitting and day to day activities. Daily life is the real challenge of mindfulness, and if you are like me, perhaps you’ve found that it is also where we get some of the most profound and useful realizations.

There is a difference between Eastern mind and Western mind and it is the same as the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning.

Deductive reasoning is defined as a “reasoning process in which the conclusion logically follows from the premises, and in which the conclusion has to be true if the premises are true. In inductive reasoning, on the contrary, there is no logical movement from premises to conclusion. The premises constitute good reasons for accepting the conclusion.” (csun.edu).

By the Western standard of reasoning much of Eastern philosophy is illogical because it strings together incoherent, irrelevant and unconnected thought to form conclusions, whereas we use what we consider to be logical thought. However, that thoughts are logical is not proof of their truth, and conversely, because something is illogical is not proof of falseness.

In my opinion, it is a mistake to approach an Eastern philosophy like Buddhism purely from a Western perspective. We are too analytical and you can’t get Buddha-dharma from analysis and study alone. This is a philosophy based on experience, specifically the meditative experience. What we gain intuitively from that and then translate into our daily lives is the prime point, and the philosophy, all the doctrine and concepts and terms, are just there as support.

That’s bad news to those, myself included, who have a tendency to philosophize first and practice second. But mindfulness practice is about moving away from the kind of thinking that prevents us from having a direct experience of reality as it truly is. To be frank, from the Buddhist point of view, thinking gets in the way. That’s why there are teachings about “no-thought” and admonitions about putting aside thought construction, and embracing the emptiness of mind.

Pure thought just is. It does not require proof nor does it, as pure thought, provide proof of anything, except that there is mental activity. But once we move away and start with conceptual thought, then it’s all about construction and fiddling around with the building blocks of appearance, symbols, meanings, referents, language, semantics, and so on. None of which zeros in on the kind of direct experience that Buddhism is ultimately concerned with.

Vipassana is a form of Buddhist meditation based on self-observation and introspection. It is interesting to note that neither observation nor introspection is thought. Actually, the two words are essentially the same as introspection is only the observation of subjective mental properties. Thought may lead a person to become aware of a particular thing, yet that awareness is not a module of thought, and cognition is the result of mere observation.

This is not to say that analytical or critical thinking should be discarded. On the contrary, it is encouraged, but it requires balance. There should be recognition that in the end the subject is beyond analysis and thinking. It’s a fine line. Doubt is natural, especially in the beginning years of one’s practice. However, it can easily turn into skepticism. A doubter is open to the possibility that the opposite of what he or she believes is true. A skeptic, on the other hand, can be a person who habitually doubts, indicating a narrower frame of mind. What was once healthy, then becomes unhealthy.

I’m also not suggesting that the Eastern approach is perfect and could not benefit from some Western influence. Nonetheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that Buddhism sprang from an Eastern mind and for us to understand it in any meaningful way requires that we be open to this different mode of thought.

Turn off your mind, relax
and float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying

Lay down all thought
Surrender to the void
It is shining
It is shining

That you may see
The meaning of within
It is being
It is being

John Lennon, “Tomorrow Never Knows”

One thing all the great Buddhist masters both past and present have understood, is that reaping the full benefits of Buddhist teachings involves practice.

We might ask, what is meant by Buddhism? It’s simply the Western term we use for Buddha-dharma. And what does that mean? The teachings given by the historical Buddha. His take on things. His point of view. Philosophy. And so, to be a Buddhist is to be one who follows the teachings given by the Buddha.

First and foremost, the Buddha taught how to be in the present moment. This, he believed, was the key to transcending suffering because the present is where we suffer the most.

The past is gone: the future has not come. But whoever sees the Truth clearly in the present moment, and knows that which is unshakable, lives in a still, unmoving state of mind.

The Buddha, Bhaddekaratta Sutta

It’s not about stigmatizing people for what they do or don’t do, but at the same time, Buddhism is not Prof. Harold Hill’s Think System: “If you want to play the Minuet in G, think the Minuet in G.” You can think about becoming a Buddha all you want, but unless you do something, that’s as far as you’ll get. I don’t believe the Buddha cared to add yet another philosophy to the world’s storehouse. I believe he was more interested in offering a method for transcending suffering.

In general, we call the technique taught by the Buddha, meditation or spiritual practice. Specifically, the Buddha taught sati, “mindfulness”, or more formally Satipatthana, “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.” The idea is to train your mind to be in the present moment.

This is too simple for some people who cannot resist the urge to over-intellectualize the teachings, often motivated by some ego-driven desire to claim that they have profound understandings that others don’t. Fortunately, for them, there are no shortage of weighty concepts to plummet the depths of, but in acutality, the Buddha’s core teachings are fairly simple. Buddha-dharma is meant to be grasped by everyone, not just those with learned minds.

This is not to say that being in the present moment is something easily achieved. Anyone can be “in the moment.” That’s not difficult. But The Buddha was pointing to a deeper sense of mindfulness. He was talking about an intuitive awareness that comes from some place beyond the surface consciousness, and he felt that one must train one’s mind in order to experience this true mindfulness.

The biggest challenge, which resists our capacity to understand with intellect alone, is to be able to carry mindfulness of the present moment over into daily life. This takes practice. Spiritual practice. It cannot come from merely thinking, reading and talking about dharma.

The great T’ien-t’ai master, Chih-i had this to say about the practice of Buddhism versus the study of it:

The practice of meditation alone, while wisdom is disregarded causes stupidity, and the practice of wisdom alone, while meditation is disregarded, causes infatuation . . . Thus, if meditation and wisdom are not in equal proportion, the practice is deficient.

Chih-i’s meditation techniques are generally categorized under the term chih-kuan, or stopping and seeing, which is the Chinese translation of samatha-vipasyana. In Japanese, shikan. It is based on Satipatthana, the foundation for all Buddhist meditation. Likewise, chih-kuan is the foundation for Zen’s zazen and shikan taza.

Today, Chih-i is under-appreciated.  He was one of the greatest philosophers to come after the Buddha, perhaps second only to Nagarjuna, his influence on the Ch’an/Zen school was considerable, and unlike Bodhidharma, there is no question of his historicity.

Here is a selection from the Moho Chih-kuan or “Great Stopping and Seeing”, based on Thomas Cleary’s translation (Stopping and Seeing: A Comprehensive Course in Buddhist Meditation). I think I have presented part of this before, but a really good teaching cannot be repeated too often:

Statue of T'ien-t'ai Chih-i

You cannot ascend to the stage of wondrous realization without practice. Only when you become skilled at churning, can you obtain ghee. The Lotus Sutra says, “Those who aspire to Buddhahood cultivate various practices.” There are many methods of practice . . . In general, we refer to them as ‘samadhis’, meaning that one thereby regulates, rectifies and calms the mind. Acarya Nagarjuna, in The Great Transcendent Wisdom Treatise, says, “Skillfully fixing the mind on one spot and not straying is called samadhi.” The Dharmadhatu [Dharma-realm] is ‘one spot.’  With true insight one is able to abide here without straying. In observing the mind and relying on [practice], one regulates and rectifies the mind. This is why we call them ‘samadhis’.

If one is constantly occupied by inner and outer hindrances that block proper mindfulness and they cannot be removed, one should recite the name of one Buddha, reproaching oneself and taking refuge in that Buddha . . . Why is this? It is similar to when people are happy or sad or depressed, they sing or cry or bemoan or laugh, and then they feel better. It is the same with a meditation practitioner. Breath and voice are physical activities, and they help to develop the mind to realize the inherent Buddha-nature  . . . when the mind is weak and one cannot remove the hindrances, chanting the name of a Buddha as a defense, can neutralize disturbing hindrances. If you have yet to grasp the essence of the teachings, ally yourself with the wise and put into practice what they teach you. In this way, you can enter samadhi with one practice, coming face to face with the Buddhas, and realizing the world of Buddhahood.

As for stopping and seeing [chih-kuan], by sitting upright and being mindful, one removes the veils of wrong concentration and does not engage in discursive thoughts. Do not let your mind wander, or cling to appearances. Single-pointedly focus on the Dharmadhatu. With a single thought on the Dharmadhatu, focusing  is then stopping, and seeing is one thought. When you understand that all dharmas are the Buddha’s teaching, before and after dissolve, and there are no more limits . . . one dwells where there is nothing to dwell on, just as Buddhas dwell, abiding in the silence of the Dharmadhatu. For this reason, you should not be afraid of this teaching.

Dharmadhatu is also called enlightenment, as well as the ‘inconceivable realm.’ It is also known as wisdom, for it is not becoming and not passing away. All phenomena are nothing other than Dharmadhatu. Do not let doubts arise while learning of this nondifference and nonduality.

If you can but understand in this manner . . . when one sees Buddha, one does not  think of Buddha as Buddha. There is no Buddha to be Buddha  . . . Seeing Buddha like this is very subtle. It is like space, it has no imperfection, and it promotes right mindfulness . . . Seeing Buddha is then like gazing into a mirror and seeing one’s own face.