[This article is part of the 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism series]
There are hundreds of forms of Buddhist meditation, some for developing deep states of concentration and mental bliss, some for analyzing the constituents of mind and body to find that there is no self, and some for meeting the Buddha face-to-face. Among these, mindfulness, commonly assumed to be the primary form of Buddhist meditation, has only recently risen to prominence.
Mindfulness mania is sweeping the land, with mindfulness being prescribed for high blood pressure, obesity, substance abuse, relationship problems, and depression, to name just a few examples. While some mindfulness teachers maintain that what they are teaching is a distinctly secular pursuit, many others claim it is the very essence of Buddhist practice. Regardless, in the current media, mindfulness is strongly associated with Buddhism. “Moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness,” however, is not what mindfulness has historically meant in Buddhism. Indeed, whatever relationship this interpretation of mindfulness has to Buddhist thought can be traced back no earlier than the last century.
The Sanskrit term smrti (Pali, sati) was first translated as “mindfulness” in 1881 by Thomas W. Rhys Davids (1843–1922), a former British colonial officer in Sri Lanka who went on to become the most celebrated Victorian scholar of Buddhism. In Buddhism, smrti is not so much a type of meditation as a factor necessary for success in any type of meditation. In a list of 37 factors conducive to enlightenment, mindfulness occurs five times, and it is also included as the seventh element of the eightfold path.
Among the three trainings (trisiksa) necessary for enlightenment—in morality, meditation, and wisdom—mindfulness is included in the second, the training in meditation (samadhi). It is mindfulness that places the mind on the chosen object of meditation and returns the mind to that object when it wanders. As a well-known meditation instruction says, “Tie the wild elephant of the mind to the post of the meditation object with the rope of mindfulness.” Mindfulness prevents distraction. Mindfulness is also said to protect the mind from the intrusion of unwanted elements—whether they be from the senses or from thoughts—like a guard at the door.
Related: The Buddha’s Original Teachings on Mindfulness
The term mindfulness figures prominently in a famous discourse of the Buddha entitled the Satipatthana Sutta (Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness). Four objects of mindfulness are prescribed: mindfulness of the body; mindfulness of sensations, which here refers to pleasurable, painful, and neutral physical and mental sensations; mindfulness of mental states, in which one observes the mind when influenced by different positive and negative emotions; and mindfulness of dharmas, which here means the contemplation of several key doctrinal categories, including the constituents of mind and body and the four noble truths.
The first of the four, mindfulness of the body, involves 14 exercises, beginning with mindfulness of the inhalation and exhalation of the breath. This is followed by mindfulness of the four physical postures of walking, standing, sitting, and lying down. This is then extended to a full awareness of all activities.
Thus, mindfulness is not restricted to formal sessions of seated meditation but is meant to accompany all activities in the course of the day. This is followed by mindfulness of various foul components of the body (asubhabhavana), a rather unsavory list that includes fingernails, bile, spittle, and urine. Next is mindfulness of the body as composed of the four elemental qualities (mahabhuta) of earth (solidity), water (cohesion), fire (warmth), and air (mobility). Finally, there are “charnel ground contemplations”: mindfulness of the body observing nine successive stages of decomposition of a human corpse.
Mindfulness of the body is intended to result in the understanding that the body is a collection of impure elements that incessantly arise and cease, utterly lacking any semblance of a permanent self. That is, the body, like all conditioned things, is marked by three characteristics (trilaksana): impermanence, suffering, and nonself. Clearly, mindfulness here is hardly “nonjudgmental awareness.”
The story of how the popular understanding of mindfulness derived from modern Vipassana meditation and how Vipassana first came to be taught to laypeople in Burma in the early decades of the 20th century is told in Erik Braun’s article “Meditation en Masse” in the Spring 2014 issue of Tricycle. There is thus no need to retell that story here.
Armed with this knowledge, Buddhists of the world can unite in the fight against high blood pressure, but need not concede that the mindfulness taught by various medical professionals today was somehow taught by the Buddha.
[This story was first published in 2014]
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.