For the past several decades, a growing flood of books, articles, and teachings has advanced two theories about the practice of mindfulness (sati). The first is that the Buddha employed the term mindfulness to mean bare attention: a state of pure receptivity—non-reactive, non-judging, non-interfering—toward physical and mental phenomena as they make contact at the six senses. The second theory is that the cultivation of bare attention can, on its own, bring about the goal of Buddhist practice: freedom from suffering and stress. In the past few years, this flood of literature has reached the stage where even in non-Buddhist circles these theories have become the common, unquestioned interpretation of what mindfulness is and how it’s best developed.

The premise of this book is that these two theories are highly questionable and—for anyone hoping to realize the end of suffering—seriously misleading. At best, they present a small part of the path as the whole of the practice; at worst, they discredit many of the skills needed on the path and misrepresent what it actually means to taste awakening.

The main aim of this book is to show that the practice of mindfulness is most fruitful when informed by the Buddha’s own definition of right mindfulness and his explanations of its role on the path. As he defined the term, right mindfulness (sammā-sati) is not bare attention. Instead, it’s a faculty of active memory, adept at calling to mind and keeping in mind instructions and intentions that will be useful on the path. Its role is to draw on right view and to work proactively in supervising the other factors of the path to give rise to right concentration, and in using right concentration as a basis for total release.

The discussion here falls into three parts. Part One (Chapters One through Four) explores the mental qualities that comprise right mindfulness, showing how they relate both to other factors of the path and to the causes of suffering and stress that the path is designed to abandon. Chapter One starts with an analysis of the Buddha’s standard formula for the practice of right mindfulness, in which mindfulness is one of three qualities brought to the act of remaining focused on a frame of reference, the other two qualities being ardency and alertness. Ardency is of particular importance, for it constitutes the proactive element in mindfulness practice.

The chapter then shows how right mindfulness keeps in mind the three aspects of right view: the proper framework for regarding experience (the four noble truths); the motivation for adopting that framework; and the duties prescribed by the framework—duties that ardency is meant to follow. The discussion then focuses on the ways in which right mindfulness relates to two highly proactive factors of the path: right effort and right concentration. Its relationship to these factors is so close that all three interpenetrate one another in bringing about release.

Chapter Two deals with the ways in which right mindfulness is developed through a sensitivity to the workings of cause and effect—a sensitivity that can be gained only by consciously manipulating the intentional bodily, verbal, and mental fabrications that shape experience.

Chapter Three explains why conscious fabrication is a necessary part of the path, exploring the implications of the fact that, in dependent co-arising, fabrications conditioned by ignorance precede and shape not only the act of attention, but also contact at the senses. This means that these unskillful fabrications have to be replaced by skillful ones, conditioned by knowledge in terms of the four noble truths, if the path is to succeed in undercutting the causes of suffering. This fact determines the role of right mindfulness in turning attention into appropriate attention, and supervising the development of the skillful fabrications of the path.

Chapter Four explains why the common modern view of mindfulness has to be rejected because it doesn’t do justice to the dual role of fabrication: both as a precondition for attention and sensory contact, and as a part of the path to the end of suffering and stress. This defect in the common view has practical consequences, in that it can provide only a limited range of strategies for putting an end to stress when compared to the strategies provided in the discourses.

Parts Two and Three take the lessons learned in Part One about the proactive nature of mindfulness practice and apply them to a reading of the two major canonical discourses explaining this practice.

Part Two (Chapters Five through Seven) focuses on the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118). Chapter Five explains how the skillful act of reading any of the Buddha’s teachings is, in and of itself, a part of mindfulness practice, equipping right mindfulness with knowledge in terms of the three aspects of right view. This chapter also discusses the Buddha’s own instructions on how to listen to (and, at present, to read) his teachings: penetrating the meaning of each discourse on its own terms, and pondering its relationship to his other discourses. These instructions guide the discussions in both Part Two and Part Three.

Chapter Six focuses on the lessons to be learned from the structure of MN 118, particularly concerning the way in which the sixteen proactive steps of breath meditation are related in practice to one another and to the practice of establishing mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna). Two points here are of central importance. The first is that the sixteen steps fall into four tetrads (sets of four) corresponding to the four frames of reference used in the practice of establishing mindfulness: body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities in and of themselves. The second point is that these tetrads are actually four aspects of a single practice—remaining focused on the breath—which means that any of the four frames of reference can be developed while remaining focused on the first: the body in and of itself. This point has practical implications for all varieties of mindfulness practice.

Chapter Seven draws lessons both from MN 118 and from other canonical discourses to flesh out the details of how the sixteen steps of breath meditation can most effectively be mastered as skills.

Part Three (Chapters Eight through Ten) focuses on the Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (DN 22). Chapter Eight shows how DN 22, despite its considerable length, covers only a part of the satipaṭṭhāna formula—the various frames of reference—while giving next to no guidance on how to apply ardency in the context of those frames.

To fill in this blank, Chapter Nine—in addition to providing a detailed practical analysis of the various exercises and categories listed in DN 22 for each frame of reference—draws on other discourses to flesh out the role of ardency with regard to those exercises and categories. This chapter concludes with a discussion of how the four frames of reference interact in practice, showing how the latter three frames of reference can be developed while focusing on exercises related to the first.

Chapter Ten focuses on the parts of DN 22 that discuss the motivation for developing right mindfulness: It’s a path going one way only (ekāyana magga) to the goal.

The book concludes with three appendices. Appendices One and Two, respectively, contain translations of the full texts of MN 118 and DN 22. Appendix Three examines one of the central tenets of the common modern view of mindfulness: that jhāna (meditative absorption) is unnecessary for awakening. The importance of this tenet to the modern view would suggest that it should be discussed in Part One. However, I found that the amount of space required to treat it adequately would have created too long a digression from the flow of that part of the book. That’s why I assigned it its own space as an appendix.

Several features of the approach taken in this book deserve a few words of explanation. The first is that, wherever relevant, I have pointed out why the common modern interpretation of mindfulness gets in the way of benefitting fully from the practice the Buddha taught. I have not done this to stir controversy. Rather, I have learned from experience that, given the wide-ranging misunderstandings on the subject, any discussion of what mindfulness is must include a discussion of what it isn’t. Otherwise, views shaped by the common interpretation will act as a distorting lens, blurring our vision of what the Buddha actually taught and our understanding of how to put it into practice.

Early Buddhists adopted a similar approach when organizing the first two nikāyas, or groups of discourses, in the Pāli Canon. They opened both nikāyas with discourses on teachings the Buddha rejected (see DN 1, DN 2, MN 1, and MN 2), before explaining the teachings he endorsed. This approach served to clear the air so that the main points of the teaching could be more readily discerned. That’s why I have adopted it here.

To give an accurate presentation of the common modern view, I quoted passages from the writings of those who endorse it, particularly in Chapter Four and Appendix Three. However, I have not identified the authors of these quotations, for two reasons. First is that monks are instructed not to disparage others when teaching the Dhamma (AN 5:159). In practice, this means not identifying, in a public talk or public writings, the names of people who one feels are misinterpreting what the Dhamma has to say. Second, my aim in quoting these passages is to focus not on individuals but on the general features and underlying misconceptions of the common view. I realize that leaving one’s sources unnamed is not in line with modern practices, but I can state honestly that I have tried to find passages that give the clearest and most responsible expression of the common view so as to highlight its salient features. I hope that you, the reader, will understand why I have handled these quotations in this way.

Some readers will find the discussion in Chapters Two through Four too technical for their tastes. For this reason, I have gathered the main points of those chapters at the beginning of Chapter Five, so that if you want, you can skip from Chapter One to Chapter Five, and from there straight into the discussions in Parts Two and Three.

Two further points need to be explained with regard to the discussions in those parts of the book. The first concerns the range of materials from which I have drawn to flesh out the areas of mindfulness practice where MN 118 and DN 22 give only implicit guidance or none at all. To ensure that the context from which I have drawn these added teachings is as close as possible to the context in which MN 118 and DN 22 were recorded, I have taken as my primary source the parts of the Sutta Piṭaka—the Collection of Discourses—most generally considered to contain the oldest discourses in the Canon: the Dīgha Nikāya, Majjhima Nikāya, Saṁyutta Nikāya, and Aṅguttara Nikāya, along with the oldest books in the Khuddaka Nikāya: the Dhammapada, Udāna, Itivuttaka, Sutta Nipāta, Theragāthā, and Therīgāthā. Where relevant, I have also taken a few passages from the Vinaya Piṭaka, the Collection on Discipline, as these seem to come from the oldest strata of the Canon as well.

I have touched only rarely on the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, and on the vast commentarial literature that has grown up around the topic of mindfulness both in the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purity) and in the commentaries and sub-commentaries on the relevant sections of the Canon. The discourses appear to predate the Abhidhamma by a century or two, and the commentaries by many centuries more. Both the Abhidhamma and the commentaries use an interpretative framework that differs markedly from the discourses’. So I thought it would be best to look directly at what the discourses have to say on this topic, with a minimum of filtering through later lenses. Anyone interested in studying how the Abhidhamma and commentaries later developed the teachings on mindfulness in the discourses is welcome to take the discussion here as a base line for comparison.

The second question that may arise with regard to the discussions in Parts Two and Three is: Why do these texts require so much explanation? The answer is twofold. First, there is no way they could give complete coverage to the topic of right mindfulness. As the Buddha noted in MN 12, even if people were to question him on the topic of satipaṭṭhāna for 100 years, he could respond without repeating himself and they would never come to the end of his answers. The topic is that large. The second answer is that none of the discourses were ever meant to stand on their own. Each is embedded in a canon of texts memorized by a living community of practitioners who would use them as memory aids, both for teachers and for students. This means that each discourse had to be long enough to convey the most important points but short enough to be easily memorized. To get the most out of these memory aids, you have to take them in context—a context provided both by the collection of discourses as a whole and by the living tradition of the monastic community, in which meditation is learned as part of a teacher-apprentice relationship.

Over the centuries, the lessons taught in the context of this apprenticeship in different communities have come to diverge from one another, sometimes quite widely. To sort out which of these lessons are authoritative, we have to check them against the memory aids provided by the Canon. As the Buddha stated in DN 16, “Whatever Dhamma & Vinaya I have pointed out & formulated for you will be your Teacher when I am gone.” That’s why the primary emphasis in this book is to discover what can be learned about right mindfulness from the context provided by the discourses, which contain the oldest extant records of the Dhamma. Whichever teachings in the living traditions are in line with that context can be taken as authoritative; whichever are not should be rejected. However, always keep in mind that the context provided by the discourses, while authoritative, was never meant to be complete. It has to be augmented by living traditions that are in harmony with it.

A note on translation: In some of my previous writings I have translated satipaṭṭhāna as frame of reference; in others, as establishing of mindfulness. In this book I have adopted the latter translation, as it gives a better sense of satipaṭṭhāna as process, and I have used frame of reference to denote the topics that are kept in mind—body in and of itself, feelings in and of themselves, mind in and of itself, and mental qualities in and of themselves—as part of the process of establishing mindfulness.

Many people have read this book in manuscript and provided helpful suggestions for improvement. In addition to the monks here at the monastery, these people include: Ven. Varadhammo Bhikkhu, Michael Barber, Matthew Grad, Addie Onsanit, Nathaniel Osgood, Narciso Polanco, Dale Schultz, Mary Talbot, Josephine Wolf, and Jane Yudelman. Ruby Grad kindly provided the index. I am grateful to all these people for their assistance. Any errors that remain in the book are, of course, my own responsibility.

I hope that this book is helpful as aid and encouragement in your practice of right mindfulness for the sake of total release.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

(Geoffrey DeGraff)

Metta Forest Monastery

July, 2012