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Buddhism and sati

In this video Prof Chris Goto Jones discusses Buddhism and sati, and their relation to mindfulness.
So as we’ve already seen the few times, the conventional starting place when drawing connections between Buddhism and mindfulness is to look at the Pali term, sati. Smṛti in Sanskrit, which appears in the oldest surviving canonical text of Buddhism, probably composed in India in about the 4th century BCE. Sati is the term that was first translated into English as mindfulness, probably by TW Rhys Davids in 1881, and it features in the title of the Sutta, or discourse, and it is most commonly cited by mindfulness practitioners today. The Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, or the discourse of the foundations of mindfulness, while mindfulness has become the conventional translation.
It’s quite clear that the meaning of sati in Pali tends towards something more like remembering, and this is in at least two important senses. The first is in a way that it suggest say, bringing to mind or a keeping in mind. So remembering in the sense of not forgetting, say the object of the meditation. The second which is quite often overlooked, is the way in which it suggests a bringing into the body when we remember, we re-member, which is significantly different from recollecting or recalling, and that it involves embodiment. This sense of sati comes close to what we might call incorporation, in the way that it brings events into our corporeal being.
In modern mindfulness interventions we might see this in the way that we’re constantly invited. To bring attention to your bodily sensations that emerge with events and emotions or thoughts. So the idea of sati incorporates a range of meanings that include issues of attention and issues of memory rooted in a foundation on notion of non-dualism between the mind and the body, we’ll return to both of these at once and as one. Since the earlier sutta scripture, that canonical concept of sati appears as one of the key qualities that must be cultivated on the path to awakening or enlightenment which is the goal of Buddhist training.
Indeed, it’s one of the five basic faculties alongside faith, vigor, concentration and wisdom and it features alongside right concentration as one of the steps in the eight fold path. Here, the idea of cultivating right mindfulness seems to suggest that there is also the possibility of wrong mindfulness which is something that will trouble people, and us, it troubles me all the time think later on it travels me all the time. One thing that makes this issue more confusing today is the way that some Pali terms that I used in Buddhism to denote clarity of clarification or seeing things as they really are such as some sampajanna are often also translated as mindfulness.
This has led to confusion and debates about the extent to which mindfulness and mindful awareness incorporates forms of discrimination and judgement or whether it’s supposed to be a form of bare or pure awareness. In the context of Buddhism at least, it’s clear that sati works together with aligned concepts like sampajanna or discrimination, and appamada or conscientiousness to form right mindfulness, samma sati. The earliest and most influential treatment of sati in the satipatthana sutta seeks to elaborate the meaning and practice of sati through four kinds of meditation. You can read it for yourselves in the course material for this module.
But in an iconic passage at the very start of the suta, these are outlined by the Buddha in very basic terms. He explains to his followers, the bhikkhu that these four foundations of mindfulness constitute a complete path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, and for reaching the right path and attaining awakening. When he’s asked what these four might be the Buddha replies concisely, first he says we must live observing the body as a body by being ardent, fully knowing and mindful of the body, in this way we can overcome our covetousness, longing and our discontents with the world.
Then, continuing in a similar manner by observing feelings as feelings, thoughts as thoughts, mental events as mental events and so on. And by doing this with ardent discipline and attention we can overcome our covetousnessness our longing and our discontents with the world. To some extent this description should sound relatively familiar to you from the last module about construct mindfulness in MBSR and MBCT and other mindfulness based interventions. It seems plausible that practicing these four foundations of sati could involve exercises that resemble say the four stage open awareness practices found in many of these mindfulness interventions today, and which you will have encountered already in our meditation labs.
The rest of the sutta contains elaborations of various exercises we might perform in order to address these four foundations of sati. For instance, in order to cultivate our capacity to live observing our body as body, we might bring our attention to the physical sensations of breathing or we might bring our attention to the physical sensations that accompany walking, standing, sitting, or laying down. Or we might observe what happens to our bodies when we perform even the most reveal everyday activities, eating and drinking, chewing and swallowing, defecating and urinating, or we might train our attention on what our body would be like as a corpse in various stages of decay.
Now if you’re thinking that this last exercise seems importantly different from the others, I think I agree with you and we’ll return to it in a moment, it’s important. In order to cultivate our capacity to live observing mental events as mental events, we might keep vigil for the emergence of hindrances and obstacles to our capacity to remain mindful, such as lust and sloth, torpor and excitement, doubt. We might observe how our mind becomes caught or distracted by different mental events and objects and so on. In other words, the cultivation of the four foundations of sati require us to exert our discipline to pay attention to all the things we would usually not notice in the performance of everyday activities.
This means everything that happens inside our mind and body and everything that happens outside it, too, until eventually we deconstruct ourselves into the constant parade of experiential phenomena themselves, and we adopt the standpoint of an observer watching and contemplating that parade. Because this standpoint reveals to us the arising of all things including suffering itself, it’s closely associated with the standpoint of wisdom. In this way, the accomplishment of what we called a metacognitive standpoint in MBSR and MBCT, also becomes associated with the attainment of a form of non-self, or anatta in Buddhism. This association of metacognition or metaawareness with the vanishing of the conventional self is, in general, not carried over into scientific, therapeutic, or clinical interventions today.
Indeed, as we saw in the last module, to some extent the possibility of this encounter with the non-self has seen as a risk factor for some populations. One of the most important lessons here involves the way that our own transients and impermanence is revealed to us as we watch the parade of phenomena rising and falling. And the satipatthana sutta is not settle in the way that it encourages us to realize this lesson unlike the open awareness meditations of MBSR and MBCT, here the meditator is explicitly directed towards images of her own death and decay.
This not only serves a didactic function, teaching that we as a whole are no different from the parade of transient events and phenomena that we observe passing around and within us but it’s also a form of visualization meditation. Which itself provokes sensations, thoughts and mental events that we then need to observe in the same ardent and disciplined way. Hence, it provides an opportunity for us to become mindful of death itself, even while we live. Folding this mindfulness back into the observed and felt transience of each breath, each drop of rain, each twinge of pain from our knee. And it’s partially in this way that the idea of right mindfulness becomes associated with compassion and non-attachment.
In general, of course, MBCT and MBSR like mindfulness interventions are rather ambivalent about visualizations. But when they are used, they’re most often used as devices to assist in shifting our condition of emotional arousal by turning our attention to beautiful, peaceful, calm or persistent images, lakes, rivers, mountains, lotus, and so on. You’ll encounter some of these in our meditation labs. To some extent then we can see that the tone of visualization appears to reveal an important gap between Buddhist sati and construct mindfulness.
So now that we have a sense of the origins of sati and its foundations as well as the contours of its basic relationship with our modern construct mindfulness, it’s time to take a look at how it relates to some other Buddhist practices. In the next session, we’ll consider vipassana, insight meditation and samatha calm-abiding meditation.

In this video, I look at Buddhism and sati, and explore their relationship to mindfulness.

How do you relate to the concept of sati? What are your thoughts regarding the origins of sati? What are your thoughts about sati’s relationship to construct mindfulness?

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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