A Brief History of Mindfulness
I’ve been revising my second book, A History of Mindfulness, and I’m kinda amazed that anyone actually read it. It’s hard going. For those with better things to do than wade through oceans of textual references, here’s the sankhittena version. (For non-Pali geeks, that means the short version!)
The word sati, which we translate ‘mindfulness’, means ‘memory’, and was originally used by Brahmans in the sense of memorized Vedic scriptures. To effectively recall large bodies of text, you get into a zone of clarity and presence, free of distractions. This was one of the influences in developing what we today call ‘meditation’.
The Buddha adopted this Brahmanical usage, and used sati to for both ‘memory’ (of texts) and ‘presence of mind’ in meditation.
Modern teachings on mindfulness are almost exclusively derived from a peculiar 20th century interpretation of one text, the Pali
Satipatthana Sutta. This doctrine, the vipassanavada, says that satipatthana is a practice of ‘dry insight’, where the meditator, without previous practice of tranquility meditation, is ‘mindful’ of the changing phenomena of experience. This alone is sufficient to realize enlightenment.
When we carefully consider the range of teachings found in early Buddhist texts on mindfulness, it becomes clear that this doctrine does not hold up.
There are seven versions of the Satipatthana Sutta material, as well as hundreds of other texts on mindfulness. Relying on all these, not just one, we come to the following picture of mindfulness in early Buddhism.
While sati is used in many contexts, the most important is the four satipatthanas, or ‘establishments of mindfulness’. These are ‘right mindfulness’, the seventh factor of the eightfold path. The purpose of satipatthana is to gain the eighth factor, right samadhi or the four jhanas.
The word satipatthana is a compound of sati and upatthana, meaning to ‘set up’ or ‘establish’. It is the focussing and presence of awareness on an object; in other words, it basically means ‘meditation’.
Satipatthana is the ‘contemplation’ (anupassana) of body, feelings, mind, and principles (dhammas). ‘Anupassana’ means ‘sustained watching’. It is an awareness that stays on one thing and doesn’t jump from object to object. For this reason satipatthana is said to be the ‘way to convergence’, ekayana magga.
The main practice of satipatthana is breath meditation, anapanasati. One focusses on the breath, keeping awareness there, continually ‘remembering’ the breath. As the physical breath becomes tranquil, one moves from body contemplation to the awareness of the subtle feelings of bliss and rapture that arise in the breath. The mind becomes purified. Finally one reflects on how the whole process is impermanent and conditioned; this is contemplation of dhammas (‘principles’).
There are many other types of meditation that can be classified as satipatthana, but all of them follow a similar course.
The Pali Satipatthana Sutta includes a number of sections that are not shared with other texts on satipatthana, and which are later additions.
One of the additions is the inclusion of the awareness of postures and daily activities among its meditation exercizes. The awareness of postures is, in every other text, part of the preparation for meditation, not a kind of meditation itself.
Another late addition to the Pali Satipatthana Sutta is a ‘refrain’ following each meditation, which says one practices contemplating ‘rise and fall’. This is a vipassana practice, which originally belonged to only the final of the four satipatthanas, contemplation of dhammas.
The contemplation of dhammas has also undergone large scale expansion. The original text included just the five hindrances and the seven awakening factors. The five aggregates, six sense media, and four noble truths were added later.
Each version of the Satipatthana Sutta is based on a shared ancestor, which has been expanded in different ways by the schools. This process continued for several centuries following the Buddha’s death. Of the texts we have today, the closest to the ancestral version is that contained in the Pali Abhidhamma Vibhanga, if we leave aside the Abhidhammic elaborations.
Tracing the development of texts on satipatthana in later Buddhism, there is a gradual tendency to emphasize the vipassana aspect at the expense of the samatha side. This happened across various schools, although there is some variation from text to text, and perhaps some differences in sectarian emphasis. This led to various contradictions and problems in interpretation.
Nevertheless, in all schools and periods we also find presentations of satipatthana that hark back to the original meaning. For example, the great Yogacara teacher Asanga defined mindfulness as ‘the sustained awareness of the previously experienced object’.
By considering mindfulness in its historical conext, by including all relevant texts, and by understanding the historical evolution of the schools, we arrive at a richer, more nuanced, and more realistic understanding of mindfulness. This not only helps us appreciate our tradition better, it gives a more useful, balanced, and authentic framework for practice.