Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.
These days when I read about Buddhism in the mainstream media—heck, when I read about Buddhism in the Buddhist media—it’s more like, mindfulness, mindfulness, everywhere, and not a drop of dharma.
It’s not that I have anything against mindfulness. It’s just that I can’t jump on the mindfulness craze bandwagon because every time I read an article about so-called “mindfulness” I’m reminded of a visit that Thai forest monk and Pali expert Thanissaro Bhikkhu paid to the Tricycle offices a few months ago. While he was here, I asked him what Buddhist concept he thinks Western Buddhists most commonly misunderstand. He responded, “mindfulness.” Oof. We are in trouble.
The prolific Pali translator covers the topic in detail in his new book Right Mindfulness, which was just released on Access to Insight (as always, the book is free to download). Here’s a juicy excerpt:
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 (samma-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.
Early this week Smithsonian magazine published a lengthy article about Buddhism, Burma, and Aung San Suu Kyi. The piece ends with the line, “Even in the darkest corners of the regime’s gulag, Buddhism served as a source of light.” The Smithsonian specializes in history, so perhaps it’s not fair to expect them to include current events in their “Buddhism in Burma” sum-up, but it should be said that Buddhists haven’t exactly been a “source of light” in Burma recently. Just last weekend, Burmese Buddhist monks staged a rally in support of the expulsion of the Rohingya Muslim minority:
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