I am making this into a new discussion as it is somewhat at a tangent from the "Unmodernising Buddhism" theme.

Clearly Anapanasati and Satipatthana were teachings that were important to the Buddha.  These were key items that he wanted disciples to hang onto.  The question is, therefore, what do they actually mean and imply, and at the core of this is the word sati, translated as mindfulness.

Now the sutras on anapanasati and satipatthana contain exercises and generally the Western take on this has been to assume that these exercises are the way that one develops mindfulness and that mindfulness is some kind of present moment attention or awareness.

As far as I can see, this is a misreading.  These sutras do not say that they are teaching one to be mindful and they do not say that mindfulness is a form of attention.  In fact in both the Satipatthana Sutta and the Anapanasati Sutta it is clear that the practitioner has to have mindfulness already established before he does the exercises. The bhikkhu “establishes mindfulness before him” before he starts.  So both assume that the practitioner already has mindfulness.  Mindfulness is a precondition for the exercises that follow, not a result of them. 

The intended result of them is that the practitioner shall have an experiential understanding of the truth of the Dharma teachings, since this will keep him in good stead in the future.  He will learn things that are to be kept in mind. Thus, if he approaches awareness of the body with this mindfulness established, he understands experientially that the body is just a body, feelings are just feelings, etc. Keeping this discovery in mind will help him in many situations.  If he were to do body awareness without having the  Dharma already in mind, he might come to all sorts of other conclusions.  The worldling is also aware of his body and concludes that it is his self, or concludes that it should be pampered, or whatever. Many people are aware of their feelings and as a result are completely enslaved by them.

It is not that by doing these exercises he learns how to be more aware of what is happening in the present moment.  It is that by them he learns something that will be for his benefit for a long time.  For a bhikkhu to sustain the kind of composure Buddha is expecting, he has to keep in mind that the body is just a body, feelings are just feelings.  They pass. When he has got this then he is freed from covetousness and grief.

Also, the refrain “ardent, mindful and aware” surely designates three qualities that work in synchronisation. There is no implication here that mindfulness = awareness any more than mindfulness or awareness = ardour.

Interestingly, in the Salayatana Vibhanga Sutta (MN137) there is a threefold satipatthana.  This does not mention awareness exercises at all.  It outlines three situations, one in which the disciples do not take in what the teacher is teaching, one in which some do and some don’t and one in which they all do.  It says that the teacher is only satisfied in the third situation, however, in all three he is “unmoved, mindful and aware”.  So here mindfulness is a foundation for equanimity. I am inclined to think that satipatthana does not mean the setting up of mindfulness, but rather what mindfulness sets up.

The practice of anapanasati is not a practice of learning to follow the breath, like a yoga exercise, it is a practice of learning to experience rapture, tranquility, joy, liberation, etc, with every breath.  The emphasis of the teaching is not on the physical yoga as such but upon having the good qualities of the Dharma as close and as constant as breathing. Or, indeed, not only the good qualities, but also whatever else the bhikkhu is studying.  He is to give it attention as unwavering as breathing. In other words, having them in mind unceasingly. When this is achieved then satipatthana is also thereby achieved.

So what is mindfulness? In the Mahasihanada Sutta, mindfulness is linked with “retentiveness, memory and lucidity of wisdom”  (MN12.62)) and in the Sekha Sutta ()MN53.16 it says “He has mindfulness; he possesses the highest mindfulness and skill; he recalls and recollects what was done long ago and spoken long ago”.  In other words, mindfulness means to have a good memory, and this is supported both by the etymology of the word sati, which comes from remember, and from the fact that at the time when Rhys Davids chose “mindfulness” as the best word to translate sati, that was what mindfulness meant in the English language - to remember or keep in mind.  Rhys Davids wrote in a footnote to this translation that the Buddhist notion of mindfulness on all occasions was the Buddhist equivalent of the Christian injunction “Whatsoever you do, however mundane it may be, do it in the name of the Lord” - in other words, mindfulness is, for Buddhists, about keeping Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in mind whatever one is doing.

In Pureland Buddhism the central practice is niàn fó 念佛  which means recollection of  Buddha (J. nembutsu). Niàn is the Chinese for mindfulness. The aim is to keep Buddha in mind on all occasions.

As a result of the recent upsurge in something called mindfulness, we now have two different meanings of the word circulating and this sometimes leads to quite a bit of confusion.  The idea that mindfulness is deliberate, non-judgemental attention to whatever is arising in the present moment is a fair distance away from mindfulness as in the sentence, "I'm always mindful of what my mother told me before she died."  The latter meaning is, however, closer to what I think the Buddha meant: there are things to be remembered and treasured that will be for one's benefit for a long time, and they will be so because they will protect you from what may arise in the unpredictability of the present moment.

This is how I have come to understand it.


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  • Yes, a good discussion - much appreciated.

  • 9108776652?profile=original
    Thank you very much for our extended dialogue and all your time and wisdom.
    Very much appreciated.

    I joyfully retreat for the time being and look forward to meet again.

  • So instructive. Again, thank you very much for your answer.

    2a) My understanding is that the factors of awakening are described as a linear relationship, but in practice, they unfold in an interdependent manner. Each of the factors of awakening cumulatively supports the development of the others. To me it is more like a dynamic unfolding and strengthening of these factors. But I see room for both approaches as long as the factors can develop their power.

    2b) I agree that there is always the pitfall of self-power and conceit. But as you say, it is very human. It can even occur in the midst of humbleness and devotional practice.

    Honen Shonin convinced the monks, who were presumably experienced practitioners, to focus on keeping the Buddha in mind. Did they drop completely the practices they had done before? In my understanding the practices are invaluable. They are a subtle and creative way of learning. Yet, they all have relative importance. Liberation is not dependent on them.

  • OK, so there are two separate questions here.  1/ what do we mean by mindfulness and 2/ is there a role for "inquiring into the nature of things" in Pureland? I'll make (2) into two points 2a/ enquiring and 2b/ enquiring in Pureland.

    1/ Mindfulness is keeping the Buddha in mind, and, by extension, the Dharma, Sangha, good qualities, teachings etc. One keeps in mind what one has learnt, especially what one has learnt by experience.  This does not mean that one is consciously aware of it all the time - there is only so much space in awareness and to be aware of one thing is always to turn one's mind away from other things, so you can't be aware of everything all the time - but when something has been learnt and the learning is complete then it is, as it were, part of you, so it comes back when needed and also shapes one's actions even without conscious awareness that this is happening. So, in my understanding, Buddha saw a role for conscious awareness, but his real goal was to have things so integrated into one's being that you don't have to think about it anymore.  That fully integrated state is complete mindfulness.  Conscious and deliberate attention is also mindfulness. In other words, what the mind is full of goes in and out of consciousness as appropriate.  This means that conscious awareness is actually a stage in learning, not the goal.  Simply being more and more conscious or more and more aware does not achieve anything in and of itself, and may even be an impediment to naturalness.  So by satipatthana, with mindfulness already established, one does exercises that give you experience from which you learn things which, if fully learnt, become part of one's mindfulness in the future, so there is a gain in mindfulness (in this sense) but this has nothing to do with becoming better at paying attention which, if it happens, is purely incidental. 

    2a/ Enquiring into the nature of things: this is the second factor of enlightenment.  It follows after mindfulness as the first factor.  So as I see it, the seven factors are in a meaningful order.  First establish mindfulness before you, then enquire.  Enquiry might be by many methods, including those in the satipatthana sutra or the meditations on the elements, or the eighteen bases or decomposition of the body after death etc., or might be simply in the experience of daily life or the study of a koan - all of these methods of enquiry have their place in Buddhism generally.  Out of such enquiry comes joy and energy and with this releasing of energy there is peacefulness and hence samadi which gives a basis for equanimity.  There is an open question here whether this is prescriptive - something to be deliberately undertaken - or just descriptive - something that naturally occurs.

    2b/ In Pureland, all of the above is anciliary.  Pureland is for those practitioners - the vast majority - who cannot attain nirvana by their own effort.  However much they train themselves, however much they learn, however clever or accomplished they become, the deluded mind still goes on functioning and subverting, even subverting the practice itself.  There is no escape. 

    In a famous debate, Honen Shonin met with monks who advocated a self-power self-training approach.  The monks described all the teachings and practices.  Honen was then asked to speak and he said that this was all wonderful and marvellous and good to listen to and every word of it must be true, but that he had yet to meet a single person who could actually do it. Nobody could keep all the precepts, attain the samadhis, reach the highest dhyanas, even sustain the lower ones, keep their mind continuously pure and so on.  He said that he himself could not do it, in spite of having having had the best possible opportunity as a lifelong monk on Mount Hiei, so what chance was there for others who had less opportunity? Therefore, the only thing for it, was to rely upon help from the Buddha.  The monks were convinced and all began chanting the nembutsu. 

    In Pureland, the practice is nembutsu. Nem- means mindfulness and butsu means Buddha, so the idea is to keep Buddha in mind as much as possible, as sincerely as one can and as deeply as possible, but not to believe that one is thereby accumulating any merit.  Whatever merit one attains one should wish it away as quickly as possible.  This is operationalised first and foremost as saying the name.  If one can and wishes to also visualise, all well and good.  If one senses the Buddha's presence, also good. But always accepting that one will often fail. There is great stress upon the fact that we are merely human, vulnerable, fragile, deluded and prone to error and it is not our skill in doing the practice that matters, but simply to be open to the Buddha's grace, receive it and keep it in one's heart.  One way of thinking of this is to say that we do nothing and the nembutsu does everything necessary in its own mysterious way.

    The practices of neiquan and chiquan are not necessary, but they can give one a deeper experience of nembutsu, so they are auxilliary practices.  We are human and we like to enquire into the meaning of things and it is an intrinsically fine thing to do, but, from a Pureland perspective, one should guard against the idea that by doing any such thing one is advancing one's own salvation.  There is always the pitfall of self-power.  The more one understands, the more danger there is of falling into conceit which is the antithesis of Dharma. It is important to be able to laugh at oneself and one's pretentiousness, which is always reasserting itself. Namo Amida Bu.


    You are right that I did many years of practice in self-power traditions, Tibetan, Theravada and especially Zen and some of my work these days goes into building bridges between the Pureland approach and the self-power approaches.  Like Honen, I think all the teachings are super, but I find myself most a home in Pureland where there is nothing to master or accomplish, but merely much to be grateful for.

  • Reading again all that was said over the last two days I assume we have more areas where we agree (or have at least a similar understanding) than I first thought. That's nice. Particularly your sentence "The breath is the soul of recollection" finds an immediate resonance in my experience.

    One question where we do not seem to have much agreement at the moment is, whether mindfulness needs to be already established when entering the exercises as described in the Satipatthana and Anapanasati Sutta. You point to the description that "The bhikkhu “establishes mindfulness before him”. From this perspective mindfulness is a precondition for the exercises that follow, not a result of them. Currently I find it difficult to say whether we have a completely different understanding of what mindfulness is at all, or whether it is just partly different or whether we have a different understanding of the meaning of words. We hopefully will find out. My perspective is that mindfulness is unfolding while doing the exercises. I understand it as a maturing of mindfulness that starts right with the first mindful inhalation and goes hand in hand with unfolding wisdom, understanding, compassion etc. Therefore I never teach mindfulness without wisdom and compassion aspects. I do think it is helpful and necessary to train the mind to clearly and calmly observe in a receptive way and to put an effort into establishing wholesome qualities. But I cannot deny that this way to see it does not seem to find much support in the single sentence "The bhikkhu establishes mindfulness before him". So I will give it more reflection and come back to it.

    I wonder, and that is another question I have, whether there is any comparable practice in Pureland Buddhism? Clearly you put a lot of emphasis on repeating the nembutsu which must be a powerful exercise. Do people on the Pureland path also train the mind's faculty to observe and inquire into the nature of things? Not doubt that this is (or has been) part of you own practice. And is it also part of Pureland Buddhism? How would you do it? What do you emphasize? 

  • If we take "mindful" in the new sense of "be aware" then it is surely not true to say that "It would not make sense to just be mindful of breathing or body if no wisdom or compassion is unfolding".  It is surely perfectly possible for a person to be aware of breathing while being foolish and selfish.  There is no necessary connection.  There may be and usually is such a connection when the breathing practice is done in a Buddhist context because mindfulness in the old sense is established first - teachings are given, a culture is established and so on. So I agree with you that "if mindfulness is rooted in wisdom" then all will be well, though as far as I can tell it is really this rooting in wisdom that is what mindfulness actually is. 

    If one is mindful of what one has learnt about impermanence, then observing the breath can be one way of garnering an experience of the truth of this teaching.  If one did not have such mindfulness already established, however, then awareness of the breath might be simply a physical exercise, such as an athlete might use.

    Some of this is just about the meaning of words and how they are used, but that is nonetheless worth some examination because we have the Buddha's teaching in his words.  I think we are agreed on the importance of wisdom, compassion and so on, but we perhaps have different ways of reading anapanasati and satipatthana.  No doubt we shall go on studying and leaning.

  • Thank you once more for explaining your understanding. Many aspects resonate with my own experience. Mindfulness has a strong aspect of broadening the mind and remembering the Dhamma in whatever one is experiencing.

    Some other aspects you suggest I would probably need to hear directly in order to have a string touched.

    In my own understanding the Satipatthana Sutta does give instructions for practicing mindfulness. It starts with the breath and goes deeply into understanding the Dhamma. Insight and understanding change the practice. It would not make sense to just be mindful of breathing or body if no wisdom or compassion is unfolding. It would not make sense to observe the breath coming and going, if we don’t understand the characteristic of impermanence, and open heart and mind to that which is liberating and beyond impermanence. But if mindfulness is rooted in wisdom, we see the entire Dhamma in a simple thing like breathing.

  • Much gets lost, but at least there is a widening consciousness of Buddhism, even if much of what people grasp is mistaken.  This is probably inevitable with Buddhism entering a new culture.  It was several hundred years before the Chinese really started to get the idea what it was all about.  Our own sangha is just one contribution to this transition process.  Proceed in faith and things will evolve as they should. Thank you. Namo Amida Bu

  • Very profound and moving, thank you so much. 

    So much misunderstanding off the Buddha everywhere, how will the world ever come to better understanding ?

    What to do ? Where to begin as a little bombu practitioner ? 

    It feels also so sad because so much wisdom gets lost in this dark ages....

    Deep bow

  • Thank you for the question.  Often in the sutras we see the Buddha delighting in receiving a good question.  He says such things as "Oh, well done, Ananda!  This question will be for the benefit of many beings for a long time".  A good question is a Dharma door.

    As I understand it, anapanasati is not so much the sati of anapana but rather sati by means of anapana.  In other words, anapanasati is not “watching the breathing” but rather it is what the Tibetans call “mounting the practice on the breath”.  This is a significant change of emphasis.

    In Amida Shu the practice is to remember Buddha at all times.  The recollection of Buddha enters into everything one does.  This is called nembutsu, literally “mindfulness of Buddha” or “recollection of Buddha” and it often takes the form of saying the Buddha’s Name. To this end I encourage my people to have a mala and to use it.  This is not just because the mala is handy for counting recitations of the Buddha’s Holy Name,; it is rather that as soon as one sees the mala, or whenever one takes it in hand, the thought of Buddha is straightaway in the mind.  Telling the beads keeps the recollection going.  With each bead one says so many nembutsu.

    Now anapanasati is like that.  When one mounts the practice on the breath, then the breath becomes your mala.  Every breath becomes a nembutsu.  Through anapana one’s sati (nen in Japanese) is reanimated. The breath is the soul of recollection. 

    The Pureland way is also to make every aspect of Dharma into a Buddha recollection.  This both simplifies and deepens the practice.  So it is not a matter of learning a scatter of practices - wisdom, compassion, rapture, impermanence, truths, powers, etc., so much as that all of these become  extensions of the one key recollection.  This being so, one does not need, necessarily, to learn many volumes of teaching in order to get the blessing.  Whether you know one teaching or many teachings, they are all recollection of Buddha. It is always valuable to listen and learn, but always, whatever the teaching, one is listening to Buddha.

    Once one has selected nembutsu (selection is an important word in the teachings of Honen Shonin) then all practices become nembutsu and “only nembutsu is true and real”. 

    Thus,  in the anapanasati passages in the sutras, anapanasati might be used to establish, for instance, rapture.  With each breath the rapture comes back to one.  In this way, by means of breathing, recollection of rapture occurs.  In Pureland, rapture is just another way of experiencing Buddha.  Buddha is rapture.  Rapture is the blessing of Buddha entering one's physical being.  So anapana bringing rapture is anapana bringing the experience of the presence of Buddha.

    In anapanasati, the breath is ones mala.  When the breath is one’s mala the recollection occurs all the time and it does not matter which aspect of the Dharma appears, they are all recollection of Buddha.  Buddha is the mani gem: it is a jewel with innumerable facets.  Buddhism is to ever be in contact with Buddha, ever receiving the blessing, taking it in with every breath.  Sati is to keep the blessing in one’s heart and anapanasati is to refresh it with every breath.  I am not breathing - Buddha is breathing in me.

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