Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bare Attention vs. Mindfulness: The Difference between War and Peace

The well-known and highly-regarded Buddhist journal Inquiring Mind has just published an issue focused on war and piece that works hard to stir the pot by asking whether mindfulness training for the military is justifiable. You can read three of the articles in it here

As I read the issue, I realized immediately that there are related and much more fundamental questions that need to be asked, and that, had they been asked decades ago would've made the current issue and its questions unnecessary. Those questions have to do with asking whether the definition of "mindfulness" (sati in Pali) in widest uses in the Western vipassana community and its fast-growing, highly lucrative secular offshoots (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and the like), have anything to do with the sort of mindfulness the Buddha practiced and recommended. And the answer is a resounding "no."

As a starting point, have a look at these short questions and answers from a Tricycle interview with scholar-practitioner Alan Wallace: 

For the past several months you’ve been in dialogue with many Buddhist teachers on the topic of mindfulness. What prompted you to focus on this topic? For years I’ve been puzzled by the discrepancies between the descriptions of mindfulness given by many modern Vipassana teachers and psychologists who rely on them, on the one hand, and the definitions of mindfulness we find in traditional Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist literature on the other. When I first noticed this disparity about thirty years ago, I thought perhaps it was due to differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. But the more I looked into this, the more it appeared to me that traditional Theravada and Mahayana sources are largely in accord with each other, and it was the modern accounts of mindfulness that departed from both traditions.

In what ways do the modern accounts differ? While mindfulness (sati) is often equated with bare attention, my conversations with—and recent studies of works by—the learned monks Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Analayo, and Rupert Gethin, president of the Pali Text Society, led me to conclude that bare attention corresponds much more closely to the Pali term manasikara, which is commonly translated as “attention” or “mental engagement.” This word refers to the initial split seconds of the bare cognizing of an object, before one begins to recognize, identify, and conceptualize, and in Buddhist accounts it is not regarded as a wholesome mental factor. It is ethically neutral. The primary meaning of sati, on the other hand, is recollection, non-forgetfulness. This includes retrospective memory of things in the past, prospectively remembering to do something in the future, and present-centered recollection in the sense of maintaining unwavering attention to a present reality. The opposite of mindfulness is forgetfulness, so mindfulness applied to the breath, for instance, involves continuous, unwavering attention to the respiration. Mindfulness may be used to sustain bare attention (manasikara), but nowhere do traditional Buddhist sources equate mindfulness with such attention.

Does the Buddha ever mention the term manasikara in his mindfulness instructions? Not that I know of. The term figures most prominently in Abhidhamma-based treatises on Buddhist psychology. In the Buddha’s practical instructions on both samatha (tranquility meditation) and vipassana (insight meditation), the terms sati and sampajanna appear most often. Sampajanna is usually translated from the Pali as “clear comprehension,” but this type of awareness always has a reflexive quality: It invariably entails a monitoring of the state of one’s body or mind, sometimes in relation to one’s environment. For this reason, I prefer to translate sampajanna as “introspection,” which here entails discerning observation not only of one’s mind but of one’s physical and verbal activities as well.

What are some of the pitfalls of viewing meditation simply as a process of bare attention? When mindfulness is equated with bare attention, it can easily lead to the misconception that the cultivation of mindfulness has nothing to do with ethics or with the cultivation of wholesome states of mind and the attenuation of unwholesome states. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the Pali Abhidhamma, where mindfulness is listed as a wholesome mental factor, it is not depicted as bare attention, but as a mental factor that clearly distinguishes wholesome from unwholesome mental states and behavior. And it is used to support wholesome states and counteract unwholesome states. (underlining added for emphasis)

What, then, is the role of bare attention? The cultivation of bare attention is valuable in many ways, and there’s a rapidly growing body of research on its benefits for both psychological and physiological disorders. But it’s incorrect to equate that with mindfulness, and an even greater error to think that’s all there is to vipassana. If that were the case, all the Buddha’s teachings on ethics, samadhi (highly focused attention), and wisdom would be irrelevant. All too often, people who assume that bare attention is all there is to meditation reject the rest of Buddhism as clap-trap and mumbo-jumbo. The essential teachings are dismissed rather than one’s own preconceptions. 

More recently, Professors Robert Sharf and Donald Lopez provided this short description of how a form of meditation the Buddha never taught became Buddhism's most popular contribution to the world at large in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  As the article concludes:

"The story of how the popular understanding of mindfulness derived from modern Vipassana meditation and how Vipassana first came to be taught to laypeople in Burma in the early decades of the 20th century is told in Erik Braun’s article Meditation en Masse in the Spring 2014 issue of Tricycle. There is thus no need to retell that story here.

Armed with this knowledge, Buddhists of the world can unite in the fight against high blood pressure, but need not concede that the mindfulness taught by various medical professionals today was somehow taught by the Buddha."

How it happened and why it matters

As the Erik Braun article (and book) and the other references supplied at the end of this article make clear, the two most popular strands of vipassana or insight meditation taught and pracitced in the West - those originating with Mahasi Sayadaw and U Ba Khin and his famous student S.N. Goenka - were invented out of whole cloth, on the basis of commentarial literature and not the suttas, in the 20th century. 

However useful their techniques may be, and however strident their claims of authenticity,  they have nothing to do with the forms of meditation the Buddha taught and practiced, and are equally far removed from the classic teachings on samatha/shamatha (calm abiding), leading to vipassana/vipashyana (liberating insight) as practiced in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. 

In just the past decade or so there's been a real resurgence in interest in the path of integrated practice of concentration and insight that the Buddha did teach, and it's now okay to say the word jhana (meditative absorption) at a Spirit Rock or IMS retreat without risking expulsion from the premises, but only a handful of brave souls - from Ajahns Brahm and Sujato to the aforementioned Alan Wallace - have dared to point out that the ideas of "dry" insight, momentary concentration and all the rest are about as related to what the historical Buddha taught and practiced as chanting nam myoho renge kyo or visualizing oneself as a deity.

Secularizing a Secularization

When you read Erik Braun's book (or David McMahan's equally worthwhile Making of Buddhist Modernism) you realize full-force that Jon Kabat-Zinn's hugely successful appropriation and redefinition of the term mindfulness to mean not sati  but manasikara - came from his study with teachers whose "authentic training in ancient Buddhist meditation" - i.e. the founders of IMS and Spirit Rock - was in fact (except for a glancing acquaintance with theThai forest tradition) training in a highly secularized form of Buddhism that can trace its roots back no further than the early years of the 20th century.

A lost cause?

As I pointed out in an earlier post, the most popular forms of Buddhism and yoga in the West are among the furthest removed from the early teachings, and this is especially true with ersatz mindfulness. I've yet to meet a single teacher from IMS or Spirit Rock who even knows the canoncial definition of sati, let alone teaches it, and when you then add to the mix the huge following that the Goenka cult (there really is no other word for it) has plus Thich Nhat Hanh and the rest,  the chances of a sincere seeker encountering any definition other than "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally" (JKZ) are very slim.

Modern Consensus Buddhism of the sort that appears in Huffington Post, Shambhala Sun, O Magazine and the like consistently features teachers who are thoroughly invested in bare attention and morality-free "mindfulness" as the essence of what Buddhism has to offer the modern world. And make no mistake, there is serious money behind scientific research into these forms of meditation, meaning that the battle for ownership of the term has most likely already been won by those who follow the capitalist version of the golden rule (i.e. those with the gold, rule). 

Removing mindfulness from a path that starts with renunciation and requires ethical conduct before even sitting down on the cushion has obvious mass appeal. Follow that by expunging any ritual or devotional elements, replace the Buddha's radical empasis on pure process and not-self with Advaita Vedanta theism (Tara Brach's "resting in Presence," or other code names for God such as original mind, pure awareness and the like) and insist that it's all either scientifically validated or about to be and you have Consensus Buddhism in a nutshell. 

Fortunately there are still a few folks out there, many of them monastics, who still see the Buddha's eightfold path, in which meditation is preceded by ethics, as being a complete package, and the selling of any one factor within it as a self-sufficient way to liberation as a serious mistake.

Since I started this piece with a quote from Alan Wallace, I'll end it with a recollection from a retreat I did with him a few years ago on the Brahmaviharas, during which he spoke pointedly about the dangers of reducing the threefold training in ethics, meditation and wisdom to secularized mindfulness. His question for the group: "what sort of a world would you rather live in: one in which everyone practiced bare attention for an hour a day, or one in which no one meditated but everyone followed the 5 Precepts to the letter?" I know what my answer would be - and am certain that in such a world Buddhist journals asking earnest questions about whether using meditation techniques to increase the calmness and efficacy of professional killers would be a very rare occurrence.


Mindfulness Defined by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Indispensable and very, very clear.

Alan Wallace interview

A History of Mindfulness by Bhikkhu Sujato. For those with the interest and patience (it's a lengthy and scholarly book) who want to know the full story of how we got to where we are and how it relates to the Buddha's teaching and practice. The synopsis is here

A Vision for Spirit Rock by Jack Kornfield. In this fascinating piece  Jack Kornfield makes it very clear that his answer to being given diametrically opposed meditation instructions from Mahasi Sayadaw, Ajahn Chah and S.N. Goenka was to create a potpourri of all of them - despite Goenka's firm prohibition against doing so and Kornfield's fear of ever coming to resemble his Mahasi teacher! Faced with similar confusion Ajahn Buddhadasa and others returned to the suttas and inquired about the lineage, intentions and results of the instructions they had been given, with very different results. 

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