The Buddha’s Mindfulness

In the most recent Spirit Rock newsletter, I read Phillip Moffitt’s article entitled What is the Mindfulness of the Buddha? Tonight I will share some excerpts along with some of my own reflections.

Over the past decade, we have witnessed so-called “secular” mindfulness spreading through Western society, from psychotherapy offices to school classrooms, corporation boardrooms, and military training centers.  Regardless of the venue, mindfulness that is practiced diligently and ethically can help alleviate suffering.

However, Phillip Moffitt questions whether secular programs teach the same kind of mindfulness that the Buddha offered his disciples.  Whereas some of the programs are based in Buddhist teachings, others make no mention of the Buddha and attempt to separate mindfulness from a spiritual context.

The Buddha taught that mental suffering stems from ignorance—a misunderstanding of the nature of mental and physical reality.  Because we do not recognize the impermanence of all things, we try to grasp what is pleasant and to avoid what is unpleasant.  The Buddha’s way to free the mind from suffering is to gain insight into what truly is.  Vipassana is an insight practice, which uses skillful means to directly experience such essential realizations as the 3 Characteristics of Existence, the 4 Noble Truths, the 7 Factors of Awakening, and the 4 Foundations of Mindfulness.  Through dedicated Vipassana practice, we have insights about the constancy of change, the lack of a solid self, and the radiant empty nature of the mind, when it is unclouded by desire or aversion.

A central goal of cultivating these realizations through insight is to be able to choose non-suffering rather than suffering in daily life.  We want to be able to think, speak and act in ways that do not cause suffering for ourselves and others.  Long-term dedicated practice can lead to nibbana (or nirvana) by removing the very roots of desire, aversion and delusion.

One of the Buddha’s principle tools for developing insight is mindfulness, the ability to be fully aware in the present moment.  Mindfulness practice (or sati) allows us to investigate beneath the surface of daily experiences, which are often clouded with emotions and habitual thoughts.  With mindfulness, we can see clearly what needs to be done, what our capabilities are, and how a given situation relates to the larger truths of life.

As Phillip says, “What most distinguishes the mindfulness of the Buddha from secular mindfulness is that he did not teach it as a ‘stand-alone’ skill. Rather, it is a part of the Eightfold Path that leads to the realization of the Four Noble Truths and the end of mental suffering.”

In the Pali language of the Buddha’s epoch, samma sati means “wise mindfulness.”  It is one of three parts in the samadhi or concentration section of the Noble Eightfold Path, along with wise concentration and wise effort.  Mindfulness is used to develop these other factors, which both enhance mindfulness.

Likewise, in the panna or wisdom section of the Eightfold Path, wise understanding and wise intention need mindfulness and are necessary for mindfulness practice to blossom in daily life.  Wise understanding inspires practitioners to make an effort to liberate the mind from the grasping and clinging that cause suffering. In addition, mindfulness supports our intention to be kind, to renounce heedless thoughts and actions, and to refrain from causing harm.  The Buddha saw that, without wise intention and wise understanding, mindfulness is aimless.

In the third section of the Eightfold Path, mindfulness is a part of wise speech, wise action and wise livelihood for practitioners who aspire to minimize harm.

The Buddha viewed mindfulness as integrally connected with other meditative tools such as wise attention and concentration and with non-meditative practices such as sila or ethical behavior, dana or generosity, and nekkhamma or renunciation.

Mindfulness as a “stand-alone” practice may lack the ethical and aspirational qualities of samma sati.  Analayo Bhikku, a Buddhist scholar and translator, writes in his book on the Satipatthana Sutta, that the Buddha referred to “wrong” mindfulness of people who aim to take advantage of others.  Terrorists and suicide bombers must be mindful of all the necessary steps to kill and maim the people they are targeting.  Successful but unscrupulous and greedy hedge fund managers are mindful about shortcuts to generating huge profits, sometimes at the expense of gullible clients.  Ambitious and power-hungry politicians often intentionally spread harmful lies that encourage bigoted words and actions in followers who lack mindfulness.

Regardless of the context and the teacher, mindfulness is wholesome when it comes from an ethical base and helps people to be more present, less stressed and less focused on negative thoughts.  But Phillip points out that it is not samma sati without grounding in the Buddha’s teachings on the nature of mind and skillful means, and without the aspiration to choose non-suffering over suffering.

The core of the Buddha’s mindfulness is the aim to end suffering.  Samma sati includes all of life in order to purify the mind and to integrate wisdom, love and equanimity into daily living.  We are fortunate that the Buddha’s teachings are so widely available in our lifetime and that we have both the interest and the opportunity to cultivate liberating our minds and awakening our hearts.