Articles February 2, 2015

What Is the Mindfulness of the Buddha?

Phillip Moffitt

As “secular” mindfulness continues to expand into many layers of our society, from psychotherapy offices and schools to corporations and the military, I welcome its spread. Regardless of the context in which it is learned, mindfulness reduces suffering when practiced diligently and ethically. Moreover, applying mindfulness to daily life situations is a fundamental dharma teaching. So I experience mudita (sympathetic joy) in response to mindfulness being available to many more people.

But do secular programs teach the same mindfulness that the Buddha offered? Of course programs vary widely, with some having a firm foundation in the Buddha’s teachings while others make no reference to Buddhism in order to purify it of its spiritual context. Exploring this question naturally leads to another — what is the mindfulness of the Buddha?

The Buddha taught that mental suffering arises out of ignorance. By “ignorance” he meant the mind’s misunderstanding of the nature of reality, both mental and physical. For example, if we don’t see clearly the impermanence of things, we believe there is something there that can be grasped. The way to free the mind from suffering that comes from grasping is by gaining “insight” into what truly is. Thus, Vipassana is an insight practice, meaning it employs skillful means to directly experience a series of critical realizations, including the three characteristics of existence, the Four Noble Truths, the seven factors of awakening, and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Through vipassana practice we have insights about the implications of the constancy of change, the true nature of reality and self, and the empty radiant nature of mind when it is not clouded by desire and aversion.

But to what end are we cultivating these critical realizations through insight? In order to be able to choose non-suffering rather than suffering — to be able to think, speak and act in such a manner that does not cause suffering for ourselves or others. Ultimately these realizations bring about a “change in lineage” so complete that the very roots of desire, aversion and delusion are removed, which is one definition of nibbana.

One of the main tools the Buddha taught for developing insight is mindfulness, the ability to be fully aware in the moment. Other meditative tools he taught include directing attention, achieving deep concentration states, and cultivating the Divine Abodes of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. He also taught non-meditative practices he considered essential, such as sila (ethical behavior), dana (generosity) and nekkhamma (renunciation). Each of these tools plays a critical role in developing insight and allowing you to stay on the Noble Eightfold Path to full understanding, as described in the Four Noble Truths.

Mindfulness practice (sati) as a skillful means enables us to go beneath the surface level of our moment-to-moment life experiences, which are clouded with emotions and habitual thinking, and allows us to see the truth of what is happening. In daily life, mindfulness helps us see clearly what needs to be done, what we are capable of doing, and how it relates to the larger truths of life. Obviously, it isn’t easy being mindful in such a manner, but we can develop mindfulness through the practice of formal mindfulness meditation practice and by practicing “walking around” mindfulness. 

In mindfulness meditation, we systematically learn how to pay attention to and receive whatever arises in our minds without judgment, to investigate it, and then let go of the experience. Training the mind to be more “mindful” is not unlike learning to play the piano, speak a foreign language, or play a sport. The more we practice, the more skillful we become. Old habits of speaking and acting that cause suffering become painfully obvious and sooner or later, and if we stay mindfully present for them, they start to fade away. For these reasons, the Buddha’s mindfulness is a purification practice as well as a wisdom practice.

What most distinguishes the mindfulness of the Buddha from secular mindfulness is that he does not teach it as a standalone skill. Rather, it is a part of the Eightfold Path that leads to the realization of the Four Noble Truths and the end of mental suffering.

The Pali phrase for the Buddha’s mindfulness is samma sati, which translates as “wise mindfulness.” Samma sati is one of three parts in the samadhi (concentration) section of the Eightfold Path, along with wise concentration and wise effort. It is employed in the development of both of these factors, and both of these factors enhance mindfulness. Likewise in the panna (wisdom) section, wise understanding and wise intention need mindfulness and are needed for mindfulness practice to flourish in daily life. Wise understanding fuels the aspiration for liberating the mind from the grasping and clinging that cause mental suffering.

Mindfulness supports the moment-to-moment intention to not cause harm, to be kind, and to renounce those thoughts and actions that lead to heedlessness. Without wise intention and wise understanding, mindfulness is aimless, and therefore not the Buddha’s mindfulness.

Finally, in the third section of the Eightfold Path, the Buddha instructs us on applying mindfulness to our work and personal lives through wise speech, wise action and wise livelihood. These teachings also reflect a particular kind of mindfulness, one that is wise, non-harming and forward leading. This is the mindfulness taught by the Buddha.

Mindfulness as a standalone practice may well lack the ethical and aspirational qualities of samma sati. Although the commentaries say that mindfulness is always a wholesome factor of mind, they are referring to the samma sati of the Eightfold Path. As the esteemed scholar and translator Analayo Bikkhu points out in his book on the Satipatthana Sutta, there are times when the Buddha refers to “wrong” mindfulness. In other words, yes, we can learn to be mindful, but to what end? For instance, when we are more mindful, we are more likely to see how to gain advantage and opportunity in regard to others, but is that the mindfulness of the Buddha? I certainly don’t think so.

Regardless of the circumstances under which it is taught and by whom, mindfulness is wholesome when it comes from an ethical base and helps people be more present, have less stress and experience fewer negative thoughts. But in my view, it is not samma sati if it lacks grounding in the Buddha’s teachings on the nature of mind and skillful means, and the aspiration to choose non-suffering rather than suffering,

The Buddha’s mindfulness has one purpose — the end of suffering. It encompasses all of life in order to purify the mind and bring wisdom, love and equanimity to the center of our lives. When these qualities and goals are clearly present, we are in the presence of the Buddha’s great gift of mindfulness. Each of us is fortunate that these teachings are so widely available in our lifetimes and that we have the interest and the time to allow them to liberate our minds and awaken our hearts.

Phillip Moffitt

Phillip Moffitt

Residential Retreat Teacher

Phillip Moffitt is a Buddhist meditation teacher and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also the founder and president of Life Balance Institute where he trains leaders and professionals in how to skillfully make major transitions in their lives.