What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective

Contemporary Buddhism 12 (1):19-39 (2011)
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Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to determine the meaning and function of mindfulness meditation using as the source of inquiry the Pāli Canon, the oldest complete collection of Buddhist texts to survive intact. Mindfulness is the chief factor in the practice of satipa hāna, the best known system of Buddhist meditation. In descriptions of satipa hāna two terms constantly recur: mindfulness (sati) and clear comprehension (sampajañña). An understanding of these terms based on the canonical texts is important not only from a philological angle but because such understanding has major bearings on the actual practice of meditation. The word sati originally meant ‘memory,’ but the Buddha ascribed to this old term a new meaning determined by the aims of his teaching. This meaning, the author holds, might best be characterized as ‘lucid awareness.’ He questions the common explanation of mindfulness as ‘bare attention,’ pointing out problems that lurk behind both words in this expression. He also briefly discusses the role of clear comprehension (sampajañña) and shows that it serves as a bridge between the observational function of mindfulness and the development of insight. Finally, he takes up the question whether mindfulness can legitimately be extracted from its traditional context and employed for secular purposes. He maintains that such non-traditional applications of mindfulness are acceptable and even admirable on the ground that they help alleviate human suffering, but he also cautions against a reductionist understanding of mindfulness and urges that investigators respect the religious tradition in which it is rooted.

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