Vipassana goes West
As demand for teaching grew exponentially, from 1981 Goenka started appointing assistant teachers to conduct courses as his representatives, resulting in “hundreds of assistant teachers conducting approximately 2,500 courses yearly for close to 150,000 people, at more than 150 permanent centers”.1 In parallel with that, some Westerners, after spending a number of years in Asia, often in robes, went back home, taking with them also the knowledge on Buddhist meditation they acquired. Vipassana teachers such as Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield sparked the real explosion of interest in the vipassana meditation at the end of the 20th century, and their message and meditation techniques were well accepted by busy, stressed and disillusioned young Westerners. Such meditation approaches are now known as mindfulness meditation.
Very soon “mindfulness” became a buzz word of the day, being discussed by almost everyone, from celebrities on a night talk-show to the politicians in the Congress. One peak of that wave was marked with the cover of the Time magazine on February 3, 2014, with the title “Mindful Revolution”. It sublimed the trend that this type of mental training brought into the various spheres of the modern Western society: schools, health care, sport, parenting, counseling, military, prisons, corporate world and many others.
Somewhat unexpectedly, since we are talking here about an old spiritual practice, great part of that interest came from the scientific community. The number of articles, scientific papers and books on the topic started to rise exponentially. Thus just the number of articles with “mindfulness” in their title rose from three in 1996 to 674 in 2015.2 Scientists started exploring ways in which this, but also other types of Buddhist meditation, affect our social interactions, school performance or how mindfulness-based behavioral training can decrease our carbon footprint as a society. This exploration and its fruitful findings keep deeply influencing various scientific disciplines, to the extent that this type of research represents one of the leading currents of thought and investigation in cognitive science and neurology today.
This historical process of transferring Dhamma, together with its vital part as it is meditative practice, from the East to the West meant also that the Teaching found itself in the larger, more diverse, dynamic and more secular context. It had to be accommodated to the new environment and often its salient features and methods of operation to be modified. Therefore, it would be interesting to briefly explore modes of that transformation. What was gained and what was lost on the way? What happens when one age old tradition is striped of many of its cultural, historical and ideological elements, just to be harmonized with the Western way of thinking and living?
Focusing on how understanding of the word sati, often translated as ‘mindfulness’, has been transformed, we will look first into what position and meaning sati has in the framework of the Buddha’s teachings, based on the Pali Canon, especially his instructions on the establishment of mindfulness or satipaṭṭhāna. We can say that the basic meaning of sati in Pali, as well as smṛti in Sanskrit is “memory, remembrance, calling to mind”.3 Although this meaning is retained in some of the suttas,4 it is by far not the only one. As it had often happened with some other terms from the common Indian spiritual vocabulary of the time, the Buddha here too added some new shades of meaning important for his message. What an importance the Buddha attributed to sati is obvious by the fact that it figures as the seventh factor (right mindfulness, sammā sati) of the Noble Eightfold Path and thus a necessary step toward the final liberation. Its meaning is further explained by the following standard formula in the framework of the four satipaṭṭhānas:
And what, friends, is right mindfulness? Here, a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body, ardent, fully aware and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. He abides contemplating feelings as feelings… contemplating mind as mind… contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. This is called right mindfulness.5
Here, the role of mindfulness is not to remember something from the past, but actually to notice the present experience, to make its physical and psychological dimension stand out against the background of the general awareness. This application of sati could be termed as distinct awareness or, as Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests, lucid awareness. But there is more to this. An important word in the passage above closely related to mindfulness is anupassanā, translated as “contemplating”. It consists of prefix anu, which suggest closeness or repetition, and the base passanā, which means “seeing”. From that we can infer that mindfulness is also a part of the process of repeated and close observation of an object. An example for this could be the use of sati in the mindfulness of breathing meditation.
Further expanding semantic field of the word sati, it is not by chance that in the suttas6 sati often goes together with another technical term sampajañña. PED this translates as “attention, consideration, discrimination, comprehension” or we can say “clear comprehension”. Close relationship between these two terms shows that in the process of putting something into the focus through distinct awareness, making it vivid in front of our mind, there is also a component of comprehending, understanding it. In meditative context, this use of sati is connected with the contemplation of the repulsiveness of the body (asubhasaññā), mindfulness of death (maranasati) or loving-kindness meditation (metta bhāvana). So keeping something in the focus of our attention leads to understanding it by recognizing those of its features which are common to all other conditioned phenomena. This is how direct insight and wisdom arise.
Finally, let us refer to the Mahācattārīsaka Sutta (MN 117), where mindfulness is put in the relationship with other factors of the Noble Eightfold Path and its discriminating role is highlighted. Thus, for the first five of the factors it is said that mindfulness is the one who draws the line between wrong and right version of them. For example: “One makes an effort to abandon wrong speech and to enter upon right speech: this is one’s right effort. Mindfully one abandons wrong speech, mindfully one enters upon and abides in right speech: this is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three states run and circle around right speech, that is, right view, right effort, and right mindfulness”.7
As we see, mindfulness is not isolated mental quality, but works in unison with the whole range of other mental processes and Path factors, toward the final goal of acquiring liberating understanding.
Moving forward to the writings of Ledi Sayadaw, it can be noticed that his understanding of the role of mindfulness doesn’t differ much from the canonical view. He sees it as an important tool in stabilizing mind and than noticing impermanence (anicca), which he emphasized as a key aspect of insight knowledge and the progress to all four stages of awakening. Again, without sati, especially contemplation of the body, to bring mastery over the mind and make it settled, undisturbed by kilesas, final liberation is not possible. Here is what he remarks in the Bodhipakkhiya Dīpanī:
The body contemplation (kāyagatāsati) that is associated with udayabbaya-ñāṇa (knowledge arising from contemplation of the arisings and vanishings of mental and physical phenomena), which clearly sees their coming into existence and passing away, is very valuable indeed.8
According to Ledi, the task of mindfulness is thus twofold: to assist in bringing into mind the truths about this world that the Buddha elaborated on in his discourses, but also to keep them in a clear awareness as a reference for the present experience. Only thus, by comparing these two or, metaphorically speaking, by rubbing these two fire-sticks against each other, can we possibly produce a spark of insight.
So far, we saw that in the context of classical Theravada interpretation, the array of meanings and references of sati as one of the key terms in the domain of vipassana meditation is rather wide and complex. Turning to how some of the mainstream contemporary mindfulness teachers interpret it, Jack Kornfield interprets it as follows.
To be mindful first means simply to come into the present – to listen with our senses, with our heart, with our physical body, with our ears, with our eyes, to what is actually here in the present; the body, the heart and the mind… Secondly, mindfulness or heartfulness mean seeing clearly. It means non-grasping, non-greed, non-hatred, it means not pushing away, and it means not going to sleep, but seeing what is present for us. Bare attention, remembering, being in the present, without trying to change it somehow…9
Jon Kabat-Zinn, former Kornfield’s disciple, creator of the MBSR and someone who greatly contributed to introducing Buddhist meditation into a secular, especially medical environment, interprets it as below.
Back in 1979, when I started Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, I came up with an operational definition of mindfulness that still serves as well as anything else: mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose in the present moment nonjudgmentally.10
As we can see, these two definitions are quite narrow and tend to stress only the first aspect of sati, which is being present or being aware of the present moment. Its active part of discrimination and evaluation stays obscured, and it has bearing on how mindfulness is practiced in the West. While sati does, at times, has a form of simple paying attention to what is happening externally and internally, also “the practitioner of mindfulness must at times evaluate mental qualities and intended deeds, make judgments about them, and engage in purposeful action”.11
The case of sati is of course only an illustration of the wider process of transformation and accommodation that occurred with the Buddha’s Teachings and vipassana practice while moving to the West. Looking at the bigger picture, we can notice various other trends amount the Western teachers. Some parts of traditional “package” were almost completely ignored, while others came into the focus. So, it is quite characteristic that, for example, there is very little talk about the cycle of rebirth and different planes of existence. Or about the role of kamma, the impact of our volitional actions from this life to the next one. In the best cases, the instances when Buddha was talking about these crucial portions of the Dhamma are considered as mere metaphors. When teaching meditation techniques, not many teachers will take time to expound on the foundation of that practice, which is morality, virtue quality of our speech and acts. And it is pity, since in that case, the practice might be like sowing seeds in the soil which is not ploughed and adequately prepared.
The other feature of the contemporary Western discourse on Dhamma is wide eclecticism, blurring the line between the Teaching of the Buddha and the other religious teachers from the near or further past. Thus in a way implying that all of them were teaching the same thing, just differently formulated. So it may happen that during some Dhamma talks there are more quotations from Lao Tzu, Sufi sages, Ramana Maharshi or Krishnamurti, than from the suttas.
In parallel with that trend, it is worth mentioning here the obvious and highly influential trend of psychologization of the meditation practice, which is not very surprising if we know that lot of Dhamma teachers as well as their disciples have their professional background in psychology. Many of them saw in the practice and its elaborate Abhidhammic theory not a tool for freeing themselves from the round of saṃsāra, but rather a way to better understand the workings of the mind. Something which might make them more successful in their professional life. To that goal, they also started introducing techniques of mindfulness training into their therapies, opening thus way to various hybrids under names of mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy and so on.
Finally, we are today in the point of time when, as already mentioned, we have the whole “mindfulness revolution”. One ancient Buddhist concept became extremely fashionable, trendy, in essence transforming into a label that can be attached practically to anything. Like a salt that could be put into any dish to make it tastier. But if mindfulness can mean anything, that equals it means nothing. Thus we arrived to mindful dating, mindful sex, mindful investing or sporting. The last in this endless series is meditation Barbie doll, who tries to cope with “increasingly busy, over-connected world“. 12
Thus it is not much of a surprise that nowadays we see the pendulum going into the opposite direction. This kind of counter reaction, a critiques of the whole euphoria could be subsumed under the label of “McMindfulness”, as mindfulness meditation became just another commodity at the market of capitalist spirituality. Constantly bombarded by all these promises of the wonderful benefits of mindfulness meditation, often presented as a kind of panacea, many rightfully asked themselves: Can mindfulness be too much of a good thing?13 And this is another, equally interesting avenue to explore, but which goes outside of the scope of this paper. So let’s get back to our main track.
(To be continued)
3 Monier-Williams (1872), p. 1154.
4 E.g. Nagaropama Sutta (AN 7:67).
5 The Middle Length Discourses (2015), p. 1100-1.
6 E.g. DN 2, MN 27, MN 38, SN 47:8, AN 10:61 etc.
7 The Middle Length Discourses (2015), p. 935.
8 Ledi Sayadaw (1971), p. 49.
9 Kornfield (1995), p. 97-98.
10 Rich (2015).
11 Bodhi (2011), p. 26.
13 Britton (2019).