February 04, 2009

What is Mindfulness?

A very good post over at One City where gzza compares two views of mindfulness, one from Thanissaro Bhikkhu and one from Henepola Gunaratana:

In “Mindfulness Defined” (available free here), Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes:

“The Buddha discovered that the way you attend to things is determined by what you see as important—the questions you bring to the practice, the problems you want the practice to solve. No act of attention is ever bare. If there were no problems in life you could open yourself up choicelessly to whatever came along. But the fact is there is a big problem smack dab in the middle of everything you do: the suffering that comes from acting in ignorance. This is why the Buddha doesn’t tell you to view each moment with a beginner’s eyes. You’ve got to keep the issue of suffering and its end always in mind.”

In Mindfulness in Plain English, Henepola Gunaratana writes:

“Mindfulness is nonconceptual awareness. Another English term for sati is ‘bare attention.’ It is not thinking. It does not get involved with thought or concepts. It does not get hung up on ideas or opinions or memories. It just looks. Mindfulness registers experiences, but it does not compare them. It does not label them or categorize them. It just observes everything as if it was occurring for the first time. It is not analysis that is based on reflection and memory. It is, rather, the direct and immediate experience of whatever is happening, without the medium of thought. It comes before thought in the perceptual process.” (pg 140)

What would resolve this apparent disagreement, consulting the texts?

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Franz's picture

I just read Alan Wallace's excellent essay yesterday. A very lucid exposition indeed.

When read with the meditation teachings in the suttas in mind, the explanations offered by different teachers and writers today will gel and it is easier to come to a more focused picture of what the early teaching of mindfulness might look like.

Mike's picture


It seems like some of the Sri Lankans are also starting to question the authority of the commentaries:

"At this time, I had the opportunity to meet many Sri Lankan monks and, after long conversations with them, I realized that many of the writings I had been studying in Burma were actually commentaries on the Pali texts, rather than the original texts themselves. The monks said that , upon close examination, some of the ideas conveyed in these commentaries are somewhat different from those contained in the original suttas. Surprisingly, one monk even suggested that I disregard the commentaries and go straight to the Pali texts for the best teachings. Another teacher showed me how to meditate as described in the suttas-a method remarkably different from the forms I had learned."


Mike's picture

I think you should read Ajaan Lee's book to get a sense of the differences:


Here Thanissaro Bhikkhu goes into detail about how the Thai Forest approach differs from the Burmese and Sri Lankan schools(Thai Forest Tradition, for the most part, ignores the Abhidhamma and Commentaries and sticks to the Suttas):


Trix's picture

This article seems to be closer to Bhante G's interpretation:


Doug's picture

But Mike, there are no glasses...

(cue mystical "Japanese" music...)

Mike's picture

Theravada..Mahayana. Remove your glasses.

Philip Ryan's picture

Thanks, Bob. Here's the link to Wallace's article: http://www.tricycle.com/a-mindful-balance

Bob's picture

This is terrain Tricycle has covered well before in an interview with Alan Wallace titled "A Mindful Balance" in the Spring 2008 issue. Wallace expounds with great clarity and precision on the differences between the definition of mindfulness as framed by many modern Vipassana teachers vs how the term is used in traditional Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist literature. He equates "bare attention" as corresponding much more closely with the Pali term manasikara, while mindfulness, or sati, has as it's primary definition "recollection", or non-forgetfulness.According to Wallace, the implications of these differences is pretty profound and potentially a hindrance to practice, as in his opinion, thinking of mindfulness as only "bare attention" has a tendency to water down and dilute the relevance and importance of the Buddha's full body of teachings. An excellent, thought-provoking interview if one wishes to dig it up...

Doug's picture

(accidentally hit "enter" too soon...)

...that text above is a good way to look at how the Buddha advised mindfulness through the Pali Canon. As to which side it might favor, well, that's a matter of interpretation. I won't step on that mind-field. :p


Doug's picture

I was about to write something about Theravada vs. Mahayana approaches to Mindfulness when I just realized they both respected Theravada monks. Yikes. That's really confusing.

The most authoritative text on Theravadin Mindfulness is the Sathipattana Sutta (MN 10)