Buddhist scholar and teacher B. Alan Wallace is a prolific author and translator of Buddhist texts. With a B.A. in both physics and the philosophy of science from Amherst College and a Ph.D. in religious studies from Stanford University, he devotes much of his time combining his interests in the study of Buddhist philosophical and contemplative traditions and their relationship to modern science.
Wallace is founder and president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, in Santa Barbara, California. Here he speaks in depth with Tricycle about what he considers an essential but widely misunderstood Buddhist practice: mindfulness meditation. Wallace argues that our poor understanding of the practice has profound implications for our meditation practice, and may very well draw us from the ultimate fruit of Buddhist practice—liberation from suffering and its underlying causes. The interview was conducted by email over the course of several months in 2007.
For the past several months you’ve been in dialogue with many Buddhist teachers on the topic of mindfulness. What prompted you to focus on this topic? For years I’ve been puzzled by the discrepancies between the descriptions of mindfulness given by many modern Vipassana teachers and psychologists who rely on them, on the one hand, and the definitions of mindfulness we find in traditional Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist literature on the other. When I first noticed this disparity about thirty years ago, I thought perhaps it was due to differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. But the more I looked into this, the more it appeared to me that traditional Theravada and Mahayana sources are largely in accord with each other, and it was the modern accounts of mindfulness that departed from both traditions.
In what ways do the modern accounts differ? While mindfulness (sati) is often equated with bare attention, my conversations with—and recent studies of works by—the learned monks Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Analayo, and Rupert Gethin, president of the Pali Text Society, led me to conclude that bare attention corresponds much more closely to the Pali term manasikara, which is commonly translated as “attention” or “mental engagement.” This word refers to the initial split seconds of the bare cognizing of an object, before one begins to recognize, identify, and conceptualize, and in Buddhist accounts it is not regarded as a wholesome mental factor. It is ethically neutral. The primary meaning of sati, on the other hand, is recollection, non-forgetfulness. This includes retrospective memory of things in the past, prospectively remembering to do something in the future, and present-centered recollection in the sense of maintaining unwavering attention to a present reality. The opposite of mindfulness is forgetfulness, so mindfulness applied to the breath, for instance, involves continuous, unwavering attention to the respiration. Mindfulness may be used tosustain bare attention (manasikara), but nowhere do traditional Buddhist sources equate mindfulness with such attention.
Does the Buddha ever mention the term manasikara in his mindfulness instructions? Not that I know of. The term figures most prominently in Abhidhamma-based treatises on Buddhist psychology. In the Buddha’s practical instructions on bothsamatha (tranquility meditation) and vipassana (insight meditation), the terms sati andsampajanna appear most often. Sampajanna is usually translated from the Pali as “clear comprehension,” but this type of awareness always has a reflexive quality: It invariably entails a monitoring of the state of one’s body or mind, sometimes in relation to one’s environment. For this reason, I prefer to translate sampajanna as “introspection,” which here entails discerning observation not only of one’s mind but of one’s physical and verbal activities as well.
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