Mindfulness the Gatekeeper
The Buddha adopted the term sati from the languages of his culture. It’s related to the Sanskrit term smriti, which means remembrance or the act of calling to mind. However, there is no record of his having defined the term per se. Instead, the texts depict him as observing that there are two types of sati when viewed from the perspective of a person trying to put an end to suffering: right and wrong (MN 117; MN 126; AN 10:108). The texts also show him defining the faculty of sati (sat’indrīya), which is equivalent to right sati:
“And which is the faculty of sati? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones has sati, is endowed with excellent proficiency in sati, remembering & recollecting what was done and said a long time ago. He remains focused on the body in & of itself—ardent, alert, & having sati—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves… the mind in & of itself… mental qualities in & of themselves—ardent, alert, & having sati—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world. This is called the faculty of sati.” — SN 48:10
This definition of right sati falls into two parts. In the first sentence, the Buddha is obviously retaining the meaning of its Sanskrit cognate—remembrance—showing how sati, when developed to the point of being a faculty, or dominant factor in the mind, is able to remember words and actions far into the past.
The second part of the definition is identical with the definition of right sati in the noble eightfold path, and is often called the establishing of sati (sati + upaṭṭhāna [establishing, setting near] = satipaṭṭhāna). This part of the definition sets out the task that sati is meant to keep in mind, along with the other mental factors that have to be developed, and the concerns that need to be subdued, to help keep sati firmly established on its task.
In the practice of the path, sati and satipaṭṭhāna are mutually reinforcing. On the one hand, as the satipaṭṭhāna formula states, sati is one of the factors brought to bear on the task of remaining focused as a part of satipaṭṭhāna. On the other, SN 48:11 notes that the practice of satipaṭṭhāna gives rise to strengthened sati.
“And which is the faculty of sati? Whatever sati one obtains from the four establishings of sati: That is the faculty of sati.” — SN 48:11
So, just as physical strength grows by being used in exercise, sati is strengthened by being applied to the task of the four establishings of sati. This has practical consequences that we will discuss further below.
The central task of satipaṭṭhāna is to remain focused on any one of four topics as a frame of reference. The phrase, “remaining focused on” is nowhere defined in the Canon, but the Pāli term (anupassanā = anu [follow] + passanā [seeing]) is commonly used for two types of meditative practice: keeping watch over a particular topic in the midst of other experiences, and looking for a particular quality in experiences as they arise.
Both types of anupassanā are relevant in the practice of establishing sati. An example of the first comes in the standard satipaṭṭhāna formula. Remaining focused on the body in and of itself, for example, means keeping track of the body or a particular aspect of the body as a frame of reference in the midst of all your sensory experiences. Even when another topic looms large in your awareness, you try to keep track of where the body is in the midst of that awareness, or of how that other topic and the body interact. In this way, the body remains your frame of reference regardless of whatever else may arise. The same principle applies when remaining focused on feelings, mind, or mental qualities in and of themselves.
As for the second type of anupassanā—looking for a particular quality in experiences as they arise—an example would be the practice of looking for inconstancy (anicca) in all phenomena. This, as we will see in Chapter Two, is one of the steps by which sati is established through breath meditation.
The four topics to remain focused on are body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities. “Body” means the physical body; “feelings” covers feeling tones of pleasure, pain, and neither pleasure nor pain; and “mind” covers states of mind. The phrase “mental qualities” (dhammas) covers a wider range of phenomena. Its primary meaning in this context covers mental events or mental actions, but it also covers any physical or mental experience viewed as an event. All of these meanings play a role in how right sati makes use of this frame of reference. There is some overlap between the content of “mind” and “mental qualities” as frames of reference, but as we will see in Chapters Six through Nine, their difference lies primarily in their respective functions. “Mind” is concerned primarily with how the mind relates to the object of its focus; “mental qualities” are concerned with the qualities and thought-categories involved in the process of fending off any defilements or distractions that surround that focus or threaten to interfere with it.
The duty of sati is to remember to remain focused on any one of these topics in and of itself. The Pāli passage expresses this idea literally by saying, “body in the body,” “feelings in feelings,” etc., with the locative case—a grammatical case indicating location, often translated as “in”—also meaning “with reference to.” In other words, each of these topics is viewed solely with reference to itself, on its own terms, without subsuming it under a larger frame of reference, such as the world outside. Each topic is thus a frame of reference in and of itself.
Sati is one of three mental factors that should accompany the activity of remaining focused in this way. The other two are alertness and ardency.
The Canon defines alertness (sampajañña) as knowing both events in the mind and activities of the body as they are happening:
“And how is a monk alert? There is the case where feelings are known to the monk as they arise, known as they become established, known as they subside. Thoughts are known to him as they arise, known as they become established, known as they subside. Perceptions are known to him as they arise, known as they become established, known as they subside. This is how a monk is alert.” — SN 47:35
“And how is a monk alert? When going forward & returning, he makes himself alert; when looking toward & looking away… when bending & extending his limbs… when carrying his outer cloak, his upper robe, & his bowl… when eating, drinking, chewing, & savoring… when urinating & defecating… when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, & remaining silent, he makes himself alert. This is how a monk is alert.” — SN 36:7
This means that for sati to be properly established, it must not only remember far into the past, but also be coupled with a clear awareness of what’s going on in the present.
Ardency (ātappa) is the desire to avoid what is unbeneficial.
Ven. MahāKassapa: “And how is one ardent? There is the case where a monk, (thinking,) ‘Unarisen evil, unskillful qualities arising in me would lead to what is unbeneficial,’ arouses ardency. (Thinking,) ‘Arisen evil, unskillful qualities not being abandoned in me…’ … ‘Unarisen skillful qualities not arising in me …’ … ‘Arisen skillful qualities ceasing in me would lead to what is unbeneficial,’ he arouses ardency. This is how one is ardent.” — SN 16:2
The discourses often pair ardency with compunction (ottappa), fear of the consequences of doing evil, perhaps because the words are so similar in meaning and—in Pāli—in sound. (Here I am using compunction in its American sense, as a twinge of scrupulous conscience prior to doing wrong.) Working together, these two qualities find expression in the determined abandoning of evil, unskillful qualities. Without them, the goal would be impossible to attain.
“A person without ardency, without compunction, is incapable of self-awakening, incapable of unbinding, incapable of attaining the unsurpassed safety from bondage. A person ardent & compunctious is capable of self-awakening, capable of unbinding, capable of attaining the unsurpassed safety from bondage.” — Iti 34
“If, while he is walking, there arises in a monk a thought of sensuality, a thought of ill will, or a thought of harmfulness, and he does not quickly abandon, dispel, demolish, or wipe that thought out of existence, then a monk walking with such a lack of ardency & compunction is called continually & continuously lethargic & low in his persistence. [Similarly if he is standing, sitting, or lying down.]
“But if, while he is walking, there arises in a monk a thought of sensuality, a thought of ill will, or a thought of harmfulness, and he quickly abandons, dispels, demolishes, & wipes that thought out of existence, then a monk walking with such ardency & compunction is called continually & continuously resolute, one with persistence aroused. [Similarly if he is standing, sitting, or lying down.]” — Iti 110
Ardency is thus closely connected with right effort. In fact, it’s synonymous with the desire explicit in the definition of right effort, and motivated by the discernment of what’s skillful and unskillful—the element of right view implicit in that definition.
“And what is right effort? There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen… for the sake of the abandoning of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen… for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen… (and) for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen: This, monks, is called right effort.” — SN 45:8
It’s worth noting here the centrality of desire in right effort. As AN 10:58 observes, all phenomena are rooted in desire. This observation applies to skillful as well as to unskillful phenomena. Without skillful desire, it would be impossible to develop the path (SN 51:15). This means that the path is not a truth available to passive observation. It’s a truth of the will: something that can become true only if you want it to happen. By applying the desire of right effort, the element of skillful purpose, to the act of remaining focused, ardency enables sati to be established as right sati.
Taken together, these mental factors of sati, alertness, and ardency indicate that right sati, as a factor in the path to the end of suffering and stress, brings memories from the past to bear on a clear alertness of events and actions in the present with the purpose of abandoning unskillful qualities and developing skillful ones both in the present and on into the future. In this way, alertness and ardency ensure that right sati points not only in one direction, to the past, but to all three directions of time at once: past, present, and future.
When, in the nineteenth century, T. W. Rhys Davids encountered the word sati while translating DN 22 into English, he tried to find an English term that would convey this meaning of memory applied to purposeful activity in the present. Concluding that English didn’t have an adequate equivalent, he made up his own: mindfulness. This, of course, wasn’t a total invention. In fact, Rhys Davids’ choice was apparently inspired by the phrasing of the Anglican prayer to be ever mindful of the needs of others—i.e., to always keep their needs in mind. Rhys Davids simply turned the adjective into a noun. Although the term mindfulness has its origins in a Christian context, and although its meaning has ironically become so distorted over the past century, its original meaning serves so well in conveying the Buddhist sense of memory applied to the present that I will continue to use it to render sati for the remainder of this book.
A. Right View, Right Mindfulness, Right Effort
The role played by mindfulness in applying memory of the past to present activities—for the sake of present and future results—is best illustrated by a passage in MN 117, in which the Buddha presents the first seven factors of the noble eightfold path as requisites for right concentration, the final factor in the path. With each of the first five factors, the three factors of right view, right mindfulness, and right effort work together to abandon the wrong version of the factor and to develop the right version as an aid in noble right concentration. For example, with the factor of right resolve:
“Right view is the forerunner. And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong resolve as wrong resolve, and right resolve as right resolve: This is one’s right view.… One makes an effort for the abandoning of wrong resolve & for entering into right resolve: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong resolve & to enter & remain in right resolve: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities—right view, right effort, & right mindfulness—run & circle around right resolve.” — MN 117
As we will see in Chapter Nine, this aspect of right mindfulness comes under the fourth frame of reference in the establishing of mindfulness: keeping mental qualities in and of themselves in mind as a frame of reference. In this role, right mindfulness builds on right view and remembers to apply right effort to develop each factor of the path.
The standard definition of right view is that it pertains not just to the factors of the path, the fourth noble truth, but also to all four noble truths. And its relation to those truths—stress, its origination, its cessation, and the path of practice leading to its cessation—is not simply a matter of knowing what they are. It’s a matter of knowing in terms of those truths (SN 45:8). The phrase “in terms of”—again expressed by the locative case—means that right view uses the four truths as a framework for classifying experiences as they happen: knowing which experiences count as stress, which count as the origination of stress, and so forth. One of the duties of right mindfulness is to keep this framework in mind and to apply it to present experience.
However, the Buddha’s first exposition of right view in SN 56:11 shows that there is more to right view than just a framework of four truths. It also includes the motivation for adopting the framework, as well as the duties enjoined by the framework. In the Buddha’s exposition, the motivation actually comes first. Before introducing the framework, he explains why it should be adopted. It’s part of a path that—avoiding the extremes of sensual indulgence and self mortification, both of which lead to suffering—“leads to stilling, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding (nibbāna)”: i.e., to total freedom from suffering. By beginning with this motivation, the Buddha indicates the role that desire has to play in the path, for as we just noted, all phenomena, even the path, are rooted in desire. In recognition of this fact, he starts with an explanation of why you would desire to adopt the framework of the four noble truths.
After explaining the framework, the Buddha points out that each truth carries a duty: stress is to be comprehended, its origination abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed. Only when these duties have been completed is total awakening achieved. So right view consists of three parts: a framework for viewing experience, an understanding of the motivation for adopting the framework, and knowledge of what should be done in light of the framework.
All three parts of this knowledge are what right mindfulness remembers and applies to the present. It remembers to keep a particular frame of reference in mind; it remembers the purpose for keeping it in mind; and it remembers lessons from the past—“things said or done” by oneself or others—that indicate what would be best to do in any given present situation in light of that frame of reference, taken within the overall framework of the four noble truths. In the context of the passage from MN 117, this would mean recognizing that right and wrong resolve, as mental qualities, fall under the fourth frame of reference; remembering what distinguishes wrong resolve from right resolve; remembering the duty appropriate to each—abandoning wrong resolve, and entering and remaining in right resolve—as well as remembering why it’s worthwhile to make the effort to fulfill these duties.
This is where right mindfulness connects directly with right effort, for it directs right effort in light of the three aspects of right view. It remembers the framework of the four noble truths—which, in the formula of right effort, is translated into the distinction between skillful and unskillful qualities. It remembers the motivation provided by right view so as to generate the desire central to right effort. And it remembers the duties appropriate to the four noble truths, which are translated into slightly different terms in the formula for right effort: The effort to prevent the arising of unskillful qualities that have yet to arise, and to abandon unskillful qualities that have already arisen, corresponds to the abandoning of the second noble truth. The effort to give rise to skillful qualities, and to develop them once they have arisen, corresponds to the developing of the fourth noble truth. The effort to bring the skillful qualities of the path—and in particular, the quality of discernment—to the culmination of their development requires the comprehension of the first noble truth and leads to the realization of the third. In this way, the primary duty of right mindfulness is to remember to keep these aspects of right effort in line with the three aspects of right view.
However, there is some complexity in the relationship between right mindfulness and right effort in this project, for these two factors are not radically distinct. Right mindfulness doesn’t simply give directions and motivation to right effort, for right effort is actually a part of right mindfulness. This is indicated in the satipaṭṭhāna formula not only by the presence of the quality of ardency, but also by the concluding passage of the formula: “subduing greed & distress with reference to the world.” It’s worth looking carefully at this passage, for the subduing and restraining aspect of right mindfulness is often overlooked.
The word “subduing” (vineyya) is related to the word for “discipline” (vinaya). This suggests that greed and distress are not yet uprooted in this part of the practice. They are simply put aside and kept in check. The tense of the verb—it’s a gerund—can mean either “having subdued” or “subduing.” In other words, the activity is either already accomplished or in the process of being accomplished. Both meanings are appropriate here, in that greed and distress have to be brought under a measure of control simply to start the process of establishing mindfulness. Because they are not yet uprooted, they have to be continually put aside as they arise.
As for the word “world” in this passage, this has two meanings in the Canon. In general usage—as when the Buddha refers to the world with its devas, Māras, etc., or as the world of beings to whom the four immeasurable attitudes of good will, etc., are directed—“world” means the ordinary sense of the world outside: a place in which we move and interact with other beings.
On a more technical level, “world” simply means the six senses, the data they transmit, and the feelings they engender.
Then a certain monk went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One, “‘The world, the world [loka],’ it is said. In what respect does the word ‘world’ apply?
“Insofar as it disintegrates [lujjati], monk, it’s called the ‘world.’ Now what disintegrates? The eye disintegrates. Forms disintegrate. Consciousness at the eye disintegrates. Contact at the eye disintegrates. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye—experienced as pleasure, pain, or neither-pleasure-nor-pain—that too disintegrates.
“The ear disintegrates. Sounds disintegrate.…
“The nose disintegrates. Aromas disintegrate.…
“The tongue disintegrates. Tastes disintegrate.…
“The body disintegrates. Tactile sensations disintegrate.…
“The intellect disintegrates. Ideas disintegrate. Consciousness at the intellect disintegrates. Contact at the intellect disintegrates. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect—experienced as pleasure, pain, or neither-pleasure-nor-pain—that too disintegrates.
“Insofar as it disintegrates, it’s called the ‘world.’” — SN 35:82
Because events known purely at the intellect are included in this list, this second sense of the word “world” covers not only sensory input from the world outside, but also any input dealing with inner worlds of the mind, such as the states of becoming induced by the practice of right concentration. As we will see, this point has important applications in the practice.
Apparently, the word “world” in the last part of the satipaṭṭhāna formula covers both senses of the word. On the one hand, the act of subduing greed and distress with reference to the world is a way of keeping your frame of reference with, for example, the body in and of itself, and not allowing that frame of reference to shift to the world in which the body moves and to which it relates. In other words, you pay no attention to the body as viewed in the context of the world outside—as to whether it’s attractive to others, strong enough to do work, etc.—and instead attend strictly to the issues of the body in and of itself.
On the other hand, the act of subduing greed and distress with reference to the world of the six senses is a way of not allowing any extraneous sense data to interfere with the work at hand: that of getting mindfulness established and keeping it established in line with its duties on the path. At a later stage, the act of subduing is also a way of overcoming any attachment to the worlds of becoming created by the practice of right mindfulness itself.
So, considering this passage in line with both meanings of “world,” it’s easy to see that one of the important duties of mindfulness is to remember the right effort of restraint: the need to exclude any mental frameworks that would dislodge the proper frame of reference, and to exclude any defilements that would interfere with the proper actions in line with that framework.
This point is illustrated by two similes in the Canon. The first simile shows the dangers of leaving the territory of satipaṭṭhāna and wandering off into the territory of sensual pleasures.
“There are in the Himalayas, the king of mountains, difficult, uneven areas where neither monkeys wander nor human beings. There are difficult, uneven areas where monkeys wander, but not human beings. There are level stretches of land, delightful, where monkeys wander and so do human beings. There, hunters set a tar trap in the monkeys’ trails, in order to catch some monkeys. There, those monkeys who are not foolish or careless by nature, on seeing the tar trap, avoid it from afar. But any monkey who is foolish & careless by nature comes up to the tar trap and grabs it with its paw. He gets stuck there. Thinking, ‘I’ll free my paw,’ he grabs it with his other paw. He gets stuck there. Thinking, ‘I’ll free both of my paws,’ he grabs it with his foot. He gets stuck there. Thinking, ‘I’ll free both of my paws and my foot,’ he grabs it with his other foot. He gets stuck there. Thinking, ‘I’ll free both of my paws and my feet as well,’ he grabs it with his mouth. He gets stuck there.
“So the monkey, snared in five ways [symbolizing the five ‘strings of sensuality’ described below], lies there whimpering, having fallen on misfortune, fallen on ruin, a prey to whatever the hunter wants to do with him. Then the hunter, without releasing the monkey, skewers him right there, picks him up, and goes off as he likes.
“This is what happens to anyone who wanders into what is not his proper range and is the territory of others. For this reason, you should not wander into what is not your proper range and is the territory of others. In one who wanders into what is not his proper range and is the territory of others, Māra gains an opening, Māra gains a foothold. And what, for a monk, is not his proper range and is the territory of others? The five strings of sensuality. Which five? Forms cognizable by the eye—agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Sounds cognizable by the ear.… Smells cognizable by the nose.… Tastes cognizable by the tongue.… Tactile sensations cognizable by the body—agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. These, for a monk, are not his proper range and are the territory of others.
“Wander, monks, in what is your proper range, your own ancestral territory. In one who wanders in what is his proper range, his own ancestral territory, Māra gains no opening, Māra gains no foothold. And what, for a monk, is his proper range, his own ancestral territory? The four establishings of mindfulness.… This, for a monk, is his proper range, his own ancestral territory.” — SN 47:7
The other simile shows the safety that comes when you can stay within the territory of a proper frame of reference and are able to subdue any greed and distress with regard to the world of sensual pleasures.
“Once a hawk suddenly swooped down on a quail and seized it. Then the quail, as it was being carried off by the hawk, lamented, ‘O, just my bad luck and lack of merit that I was wandering out of my proper range and into the territory of others! If only I had kept to my proper range today, to my own ancestral territory, this hawk would have been no match for me in battle.’
“‘But what, quail, is your proper range?’ the hawk asked. ‘What is your own ancestral territory?’
“‘A newly plowed field with clumps of earth all turned up.’
“So the hawk, proud of its own strength, without mentioning its own strength, let go of the quail. ‘Go, quail, but even having gone there you won’t escape me.’
“Then the quail, having gone to a newly plowed field with clumps of earth all turned up and climbing up on top of a large clump of earth, stood taunting the hawk, ‘Come for me now, you hawk! Come for me now, you hawk!’
“So the hawk, proud of its own strength, without mentioning its own strength, folded its two wings and suddenly swooped down toward the quail. When the quail knew, ‘The hawk is coming at me full speed,’ it slipped behind the clump of earth, and right there the hawk shattered its breast.
“This is what happens to anyone who wanders into what is not his proper range and is the territory of others. For this reason, you should not wander into what is not your proper range and is the territory of others. In one who wanders into what is not his proper range and is the territory of others, Māra gains an opening, Māra gains a foothold. And what, for a monk, is not his proper range and is the territory of others? The five strings of sensuality.” — SN 47:6
Because one of the first steps of right concentration practice is to seclude the mind from sensuality, these similes show how the act of subduing greed and distress with reference to the world leads the practice of right mindfulness directly into the practice of right concentration.
B. The Governing Principle
When we consider all the elements of the satipaṭṭhāna formula, we can see that right mindfulness plays a supervisory role in keeping your practice on the right path: It remembers, from right view, how to recognize the right path from the wrong path; it also remembers to stay alert and focused on the task at hand; it motivates right effort by remembering why the right path is worth following, at the same time reminding right effort of what to do to stay on the path. Right mindfulness also incorporates right effort in its own activity of subduing any concerns that would pull the practice off course. Right effort, in turn, tries to keep right mindfulness established, maintaining it and furthering its development (see Chapter Two).
This interplay of mutual support explains why some maps of the practice—such as the seven factors for awakening—place right mindfulness before right effort, whereas others—such as the five faculties and the noble eightfold path—place right effort before right mindfulness.
The supervisory role played by right mindfulness is in line with the Buddha’s observation in AN 10:58 that “all phenomena have mindfulness as their governing principle.” Mindfulness—whether right or wrong—is a factor present in any experience where memories from the past are brought to bear on what is happening within that experience: It supplies a framework for understanding the experience, it can remember motivating reasons for why the framework should be applied, while the framework in turn indicates what action(s) should be performed. If the framework or motivation is wrong, the resulting action is likely to be detrimental.
The Buddha, in including right mindfulness in the path, takes the role that mindfulness plays in any experience where memory is brought to bear on the present and points it in a skillful direction. This is an important point to note. Instead of telling you to abandon past memories so as to approach the present with totally fresh eyes and bare awareness, he’s saying to be selective in calling on the appropriate memories that will help keep you on the path to the end of suffering. And instead of telling you to watch passively as things arise and pass away on their own, he’s saying to keep remembering the need to complete any uncompleted tasks required by the path, and to protect any attainments that have already been attained. In other words, there are some things you have to remember to make arise and to prevent from passing away.
“This holy life is lived… with mindfulness as its governing principle.… And how is mindfulness the governing principle? The mindfulness that ‘I will make complete any training with regard to good conduct that is not yet complete, or I will protect with discernment any training with regard to good conduct that is complete’ is well-established right within. The mindfulness that ‘I will make complete any training with regard to the basics of the holy life that is not yet complete, or I will protect with discernment any training with regard to the basics of the holy life that is complete’ is well-established right within. The mindfulness that ‘I will scrutinize with discernment any Dhamma that is not yet scrutinized, or I will protect with discernment any Dhamma that has been scrutinized’ is well-established right within. The mindfulness that ‘I will touch through release any Dhamma that is not yet touched, or I will protect with discernment any Dhamma that has been touched’ is well-established right within.
“This is how mindfulness is the governing principle.” — AN 4:245
Several similes and descriptions in the discourses give a sense of how mindfulness plays this supervisory role. In Sn 1:4, for instance, the Buddha compares mindfulness to a goad: a sharp implement that a farmer uses to poke a beast of burden that has become distracted from its task—to remind it of its task, to warn it of the dangers of forgetting its task, and to get it moving. In this simile, the beast of burden is persistence. In the same way, mindfulness serves to poke right effort to change its focus from unskillful distractions—such as greed and distress with reference to the world—and to direct it back to the duties dictated by the proper frame of reference.
Other similes for the role of mindfulness are more complex. For instance:
“Just as a royal frontier fortress has a gatekeeper—wise, experienced, intelligent—to keep out those he doesn’t know and to let in those he does, for the protection of those within, and to ward off those without; in the same way, a disciple of the noble ones is mindful, endowed with excellent proficiency in mindfulness, remembering & recollecting what was done and said a long time ago. With mindfulness as his gatekeeper, the disciple of the noble ones abandons what is unskillful, develops what is skillful, abandons what is blameworthy, develops what is blameless, and looks after himself with purity.” — AN 7:63
This simile shows how mindfulness brings three sorts of memory to bear on the present moment. Remembering the need to protect the fortress corresponds to remembering motivation. Knowing how to recognize friends from potential enemies corresponds to remembering the proper framework to apply to a given situation. Remembering to admit friends and exclude strangers corresponds to remembering what to do in any given situation in light of that framework. Actually keeping out the potential enemies corresponds to subduing greed and distress with reference to the world.
Another simile indicates that the role of mindfulness is to remember what to look for in the present moment so that adjustments can be made to help the mind settle down pleasantly in concentration.
“Now suppose that there is a wise, experienced, skillful cook who has presented a king or a king’s minister with various kinds of curry: mainly sour, mainly bitter, mainly peppery, mainly sweet, alkaline or non-alkaline, salty or non-salty. He picks up on the theme [nimitta, sign, signal] of his master, thinking, ‘Today my master likes this curry, or he reaches out for that curry, or he takes a lot of this curry, or he praises that curry. Today my master likes mainly sour curry.… Today my master likes mainly bitter curry… mainly peppery curry… mainly sweet curry… alkaline curry… non-alkaline curry… salty curry… Today my master likes non-salty curry, or he reaches out for non-salty curry, or he takes a lot of non-salty curry, or he praises non-salty curry.’ As a result, he is rewarded with clothing, wages, & gifts. Why is that? Because the wise, experienced, skillful cook picks up on the theme of his own master.
“In the same way, there is the case where a wise, experienced, skillful monk remains focused on the body in & of itself… feelings in & of themselves… the mind in & of itself… mental qualities in & of themselves—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world. As he remains thus focused on mental qualities in & of themselves, his mind becomes concentrated, his defilements are abandoned. He picks up on that theme. As a result, he is rewarded with a pleasant abiding here-&-now, together with mindfulness & alertness. Why is that? Because the wise, experienced, skillful monk picks up on the theme of his own mind.” — SN 47:8
Of course, the cook in this simile is not simply watching his master. He’s also adjusting his cooking to please him so as to gain a reward of clothing, wages, and gifts. In this way, this simile also illustrates the three types of memory appropriate to right mindfulness: remembering the motivation for seeing things in line with the framework of right view, remembering what is significant to look for in terms of that framework, and remembering what right effort should do in response to what is significant.
C. Right Mindfulness & Right Concentration
The Canon contains a number of similes showing that the state of awareness appropriate for the restraining role of right mindfulness can be either narrowly focused or broadly relaxed, as the need may be. This is important to note, because some modern writers—in an effort to draw a radical distinction between mindfulness and concentration—maintain that mindfulness is broad and receptive, whereas concentration is narrow and exclusive.
Actually, this distinction misrepresents the Canon in two important ways. The first is that it misrepresents the relative breadth of the two qualities. As we learned from the similes of the monkey and the quail, the proper establishing of mindfulness requires that you set limits on the range of your mindful awareness. Other discourses show that when defilements are strong, those limits have to be extremely narrow so that you can stay focused on the problem at hand and avoid the very real dangers of distraction.
“If, on examination, a monk knows, ‘I usually remain covetous, with thoughts of ill will, overcome by sloth & drowsiness, restless, uncertain, angry, with soiled thoughts, with my body aroused, lazy, or unconcentrated,’ then he should put forth intense desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, relentlessness, mindfulness, & alertness for the abandoning of those very same evil, unskillful qualities. Just as when a person whose turban or head was on fire would put forth intense desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, relentlessness, mindfulness, & alertness to put out the fire on his turban or head; in the same way, the monk should put forth intense desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, relentlessness, mindfulness, & alertness for the abandoning of those very same evil, unskillful qualities.” — AN 10:51
Mindfulness in this case reminds the monk that the need to abandon unskillful mental qualities takes precedence above all else, and that he shouldn’t allow himself to be distracted by other issues. This is a time to focus attention exclusively on this task.
Here’s another simile making the same point:
“Suppose, monks, that a large crowd of people comes thronging together, saying, ‘The beauty queen! The beauty queen!’ And suppose that the beauty queen is highly accomplished at singing & dancing, so that an even greater crowd comes thronging, saying, ‘The beauty queen is singing! The beauty queen is dancing!’ Then a man comes along, desiring life & shrinking from death, desiring pleasure & abhorring pain. They say to him, ‘Now look here, mister. You must take this bowl filled to the brim with oil and carry it on your head in between the great crowd & the beauty queen. A man with a raised sword will follow right behind you, and wherever you spill even a drop of oil, right there will he cut off your head.’ Now what do you think, monks? Would that man, not paying attention to the bowl of oil, bring heedlessness outside?”
“I’ve given you this simile to convey a meaning. The meaning is this: The bowl filled to the brim with oil stands for mindfulness immersed in the body.” — SN 47:20
These two similes show that there are times when the dictates of mindfulness can require an intensely focused and narrow state of attention, blocking out all distractions.
At other times, mindfulness can be broad and relaxed, especially when the mind is free from unskillful thinking. When the mind tires even of skillful thinking, this broadened mindfulness prepares the mind to enter into the jhānas: the stages of right concentration.
“And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, thinking imbued with renunciation… non-ill will… harmlessness arose in me. I discerned that ‘Thinking imbued with harmlessness has arisen in me; and that leads neither to my own affliction, nor to the affliction of others, nor to the affliction of both. It fosters discernment, promotes lack of vexation, & leads to unbinding. If I were to think & ponder in line with that even for a night… even for a day… even for a day & night, I do not envision any danger that would come from it, except that thinking & pondering a long time would tire the body. When the body is tired, the mind is disturbed; and a disturbed mind is far from concentration.’ So I steadied my mind right within, settled, unified, & concentrated it. Why is that? So that my mind would not be disturbed.…
“Just as in the last month of the hot season, when all the crops have been gathered into the village, a cowherd would look after his cows: While resting under the shade of a tree or out in the open, he simply keeps himself mindful of ‘those cows.’ In the same way, I simply kept myself mindful of ‘those mental qualities.’
“Unflagging persistence was aroused in me, and unmuddled mindfulness established. My body was calm & unaroused, my mind concentrated & single. Quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful qualities, I entered & remained in the first jhāna: rapture & pleasure born of seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, I entered & remained in the second jhāna: rapture & pleasure born of concentration, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation—internal assurance. With the fading of rapture I remained equanimous, mindful, & alert, and sensed pleasure with the body. I entered & remained in the third jhāna, of which the noble ones declare, ‘Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.’ With the abandoning of pleasure & pain—as with the earlier disappearance of joy & distress—I entered & remained in the fourth jhāna: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain.” — MN 19
So mindfulness is not always a broadly receptive state of mind. The relative breadth of its focus has to be elastic, dictated by the strength of restraint needed in the presence or absence of strong defilements.
And it’s ironic that mindfulness is often portrayed as broad in opposition to the supposed narrowness of concentration, for concentration is actually the mental state that the Buddha consistently describes as expansive. This is easily seen in the similes he uses to describe the four jhānas, all of which involve a full-body awareness:
The first jhāna: “Just as if a dexterous bathman or bathman’s apprentice would pour bath powder into a brass basin and knead it together, sprinkling it again & again with water, so that his ball of bath powder—saturated, moisture-laden, permeated within & without—would nevertheless not drip; in the same way, the monk permeates & pervades, suffuses & fills this very body with the rapture & pleasure born of seclusion. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by rapture & pleasure born of seclusion.”
The second jhāna: “Just like a lake with spring-water welling up from within, having no inflow from the east, west, north, or south, and with the skies supplying abundant showers time & again, so that the cool fount of water welling up from within the lake would permeate & pervade, suffuse & fill it with cool waters, there being no part of the lake unpervaded by the cool waters; in the same way, the monk permeates & pervades, suffuses & fills this very body with the rapture & pleasure born of concentration. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by rapture & pleasure born of concentration.”
The third jhāna: “Just as in a lotus pond, some of the lotuses, born & growing in the water, stay immersed in the water and flourish without standing up out of the water, so that they are permeated & pervaded, suffused & filled with cool water from their roots to their tips, and nothing of those lotuses would be unpervaded with cool water; in the same way, the monk permeates & pervades, suffuses & fills this very body with the pleasure divested of rapture. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded with pleasure divested of rapture.”
The fourth jhāna: “Just as if a man were sitting covered from head to foot with a white cloth so that there would be no part of his body to which the white cloth did not extend; in the same way, the monk sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by pure, bright awareness.” — MN 119
So, to the extent that there is a distinction in the way the discourses represent the relative breadth of mindfulness and concentration, concentration is the quality consistently portrayed as broad and expansive, whereas mindfulness has to shift the breadth of its focus—sometimes broad, sometimes narrow—in line with events.
The need to qualify this distinction, however, brings us to the second problem with the common portrayal of the radical difference between mindfulness and concentration, which is that—instead of drawing a sharp line between these two qualities—the discourses actually portray them as interpenetrating. Just as right mindfulness contains elements of right effort, right concentration contains elements of right mindfulness.
The above passage from MN 19 shows how right mindfulness leads naturally to right concentration. This point is in keeping with the general framework of MN 117, noted above, that right mindfulness cooperates with right view and right effort in developing the first seven factors of the path as requisites for noble right concentration. However, right mindfulness is not only a factor leading to right concentration; it’s an integral part of right concentration itself.
Sister Dhammadinnā: “Singleness of mind is concentration; the four establishings of mindfulness are its themes; the four right exertions are its requisites; and any cultivation, development, & pursuit of these qualities is its development.” — MN 44
In fact, the Buddha describes the establishing of mindfulness as a type of concentration and recommends developing it in a way that clearly leads through the four jhānas.
“Then, monk, you should train yourself thus: ‘My mind will be established inwardly, well-composed. No evil, unskillful qualities, once they have arisen, will remain consuming the mind.’ That’s how you should train yourself.…
“Then you should train yourself thus: ‘I will remain focused on the body in & of itself—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world.’ That’s how you should train yourself. When you have developed this concentration in this way, you should develop this concentration with directed thought & evaluation, you should develop it with no directed thought & a modicum of evaluation, you should develop it with no directed thought & no evaluation, you should develop it accompanied by rapture… not accompanied by rapture… endowed with a sense of enjoyment [sāta]; you should develop it endowed with equanimity. [Similarly with the other three establishings of mindfulness.]” — AN 8:63 (Thai: AN 8:70)
The mention of directed thought, evaluation, rapture, and equanimity in this passage is apparently an implicit reference to the four jhānas, for these stages of concentration are elsewhere related both to the establishings of mindfulness and to jhāna in an explicit way.
“Having abandoned the five hindrances—imperfections of awareness that weaken discernment—the monk remains focused on the body in & of itself—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings… mind… mental qualities in & of themselves—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world. Just as if an elephant trainer were to plant a large post in the ground and were to bind a forest elephant to it by the neck in order to break it of its forest habits, its forest memories & resolves, its distraction, fatigue, & fever over leaving the forest, to make it delight in the town and to inculcate in it habits congenial to human beings; in the same way, these four establishings of mindfulness are bindings for the awareness of the disciple of the noble ones, to break him of his household habits, his household memories & resolves, his distraction, fatigue, & fever over leaving the household life, for the attainment of the right method and the realization of unbinding.
“Then the Tathāgata trains him further: ‘Come, monk, remain focused on the body in & of itself, but do not think any thoughts connected with the body. Remain focused on feelings in & of themselves, but do not think any thoughts connected with feelings. Remain focused on the mind in & of itself, but do not think any thoughts connected with mind. Remain focused on mental qualities in & of themselves, but do not think any thoughts connected with mental qualities.’ With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, he enters the second jhāna.” — MN 125
Given that simply dropping thoughts about any one of the frames of reference would put you in the second jhāna, the implicit message here is that when the establishing of mindfulness is strong enough to allow you to do that without losing focus, it’s already in the first jhāna.
So it seems fairly obvious that both AN 8:70 and MN 125 are describing ways in which the concentration attained with the establishing of mindfulness can be further developed in line with the standard descriptions of the four jhānas. As we will see in Chapter Two, this corresponds to a more advanced level of mindfulness practice that SN 47:40 terms the “development of the establishing of mindfulness.”
The intimate connection between right mindfulness and the practice of jhāna is a point that has to be stressed repeatedly, for some of the cardinal tenets of the modern interpretation of mindfulness are that mindfulness practice is radically different from jhāna practice, that jhāna is not necessary for awakening, and that the modicum of concentration attained through mindfulness-as-bare-awareness practices is enough to qualify as right concentration. Because these tenets fly in the face of the standard definition of the path factor of right concentration, which defines right concentration as the four jhānas (DN 22; MN 141; SN 45:8), there have been many efforts to find passages in the Canon showing that jhāna is not always necessary for awakening, or that right concentration can be defined in other terms. We will examine some of these passages in Appendix Three. Here we can simply note that, when closely examined, these passages don’t support the claims based on them. Right concentration, in the discourses, always means the practice of the jhānas. And as we have seen, these states of concentration are intimately connected with the practice of right mindfulness. Right mindfulness forms the themes on which they stay focused; the practice of right mindfulness, when well-established in line with the satipaṭṭhāna formula, constitutes the first jhāna; when further refined, it can lead through all the jhānas.
So there is no clear line between mindfulness practice and jhāna practice. In fact, they should interpenetrate as much as possible for both mindfulness and concentration to be truly right.
D. Mindfulness, Jhāna, & Release
The path does not end with the practice of jhāna. Instead, it uses jhāna to provide the trio of right mindfulness, right effort, and right view with a foundation for developing all the path factors to an even more refined degree so as to lead to total release.
Jhāna can provide this foundation because the act of mastering strong concentration changes many of the basic dynamics within the mind. As you find more and more that a solid happiness can be found by subduing all greed and distress with reference to the world, your search for happiness focuses less on the world and more exclusively on maintaining mindful concentration at all times. Your desire to produce and consume happiness becomes more focused right here. And because the mind in concentration is so clear and bright, right view can watch this desire and its results more clearly as they occur. In this way, concentration provides an excellent basis for exposing the processes of fabrication (saṅkhāra)—the intentional processes by which the mind shapes experience—as they occur within the levels of concentration itself. When you finally come to realize the limitations even of concentration, right view together with right mindfulness and right effort develop dispassion for the process of fabricating it. Because fabrication depends on passion and desire, this dispassion puts an end to all fabrication. And with that, the mind is released.
[In the fourth jhāna:] “There remains only equanimity: pure & bright, pliant, malleable, & luminous. Just as if a dexterous goldsmith or goldsmith’s apprentice were to prepare a furnace, heat up a crucible, and, taking gold with a pair of tongs, place it in the crucible: He would blow on it time & again, sprinkle water on it time & again, examine it time & again, so that the gold would become refined, well-refined, thoroughly refined, flawless, free from dross, pliant, malleable, & luminous. Then whatever sort of ornament he had in mind—whether a belt, an earring, a necklace, or a gold chain—it would serve his purpose. In the same way, there remains only equanimity: pure & bright, pliant, malleable, & luminous. One discerns that ‘If I were to direct equanimity as pure & bright as this toward the dimension of the infinitude of space, I would develop the mind along those lines, and thus this equanimity of mine—thus supported, thus sustained—would last for a long time. One discerns that ‘If I were to direct equanimity as pure and bright as this toward the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness… the dimension of nothingness… the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, I would develop the mind along those lines, and thus this equanimity of mine—thus supported, thus sustained—would last for a long time.’
“One discerns that ‘If I were to direct equanimity as pure & bright as this toward the dimension of the infinitude of space and to develop the mind along those lines, that would be fabricated. One discerns that ‘If I were to direct equanimity as pure and bright as this toward the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness… the dimension of nothingness… the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception and to develop the mind along those lines, that would be fabricated.’ One neither fabricates nor mentally fashions for the sake of becoming or un-becoming. This being the case, one doesn’t cling to anything in the world. Not clinging, one is not agitated. Unagitated, one is totally unbound right within. One discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’” — MN 140
Right mindfulness plays a consistent role in this process—not only giving rise to concentration and maintaining it, but also reminding you of the framework, motivation, and duties of right view: to examine the results of your concentration for any traces of stress and, when finding them, to abandon their causes through the subtlest level of right effort.
In this way, even after they have directed all the other factors of the path to right concentration, the trio of right view, right mindfulness, and right effort continue to work in harmony to bring about total release.
Even after attaining total release, arahants continue practicing the four establishings of mindfulness. However, having completed the path, their motivation for practicing right mindfulness has now changed. Because they have nothing more to add to their attainment—and are now totally disjoined from the objects on which mindfulness is based—their fully developed mindfulness finds these four establishings a natural place to settle.
“Even those who are arahants—whose effluents are ended, who have reached fulfillment, done the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, totally destroyed the fetter of becoming, and who are released through right gnosis—even they remain focused on the body in & of itself—being ardent, alert, unified, clear-minded, concentrated, & single-minded, disjoined from the body. They remain focused on feelings in & of themselves… on the mind in & of itself… on mental qualities in & of themselves—being ardent, alert, unified, clear-minded, concentrated, & single-minded, disjoined from mental qualities.” — SN 47:4
SN 54:11 makes an even stronger claim for the concentration of mindfulness of breathing, which MN 118 equates with right mindfulness: Not only do arahants practice it, even the Buddha used it as one of his favorite meditative dwellings.
Then the Blessed One, having emerged from seclusion after the passing of three months, addressed the monks: “Monks, if wanderers of other sects ask you, ‘By means of what dwelling, friends, did Gotama the contemplative mostly dwell during the rains residence?’: You, thus asked, should answer them in this way: ‘It was by means of the concentration of mindfulness of breathing that the Blessed One mostly dwelled.’ …
“For whatever one rightly speaking would call, ‘a noble dwelling,’ ‘a brahmā dwelling,’ ‘a Tathāgata dwelling,’ it would be the concentration of mindfulness of breathing that he, speaking rightly, would call, ‘a noble dwelling,’ ‘a brahmā dwelling,’ ‘a Tathāgata dwelling.’
“Those who are learners, who have yet to attain their hearts’ desire, who stay resolved on the unexcelled security from bondage: When the concentration of mindfulness of breathing is developed & pursued by them, it leads to the ending of the effluents.
“Those who are arahants, whose effluents are ended, who have reached fulfillment, done the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, totally destroyed the fetter of becoming, and who are released through right gnosis: When the concentration of mindfulness of breathing is developed & pursued by them, it leads to a pleasant abiding here-&-now and to mindfulness & alertness.” — SN 54:11
This means that right mindfulness functions not only as a factor of the path, but also as a pleasant pastime for those who have fully developed the path and tasted its ultimate fruit.
Pañcasikha the gandhabba: “Just as the water of the Ganges runs together & harmonizes with the water of the Yamuna, in the same way the path of practice leading to unbinding is well-promulgated by that Blessed One for his disciples. They run together, unbinding and the path of practice.” — DN 19
This doesn’t mean that right mindfulness is identical with unbinding—after all, as Iti 90 points out, right mindfulness is fabricated whereas the realization of unbinding is not—simply that the practice of right mindfulness is compatible with a mind that, through the realization of unbinding, is totally unfettered by defilement and free.