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For the past several decades, a growing flood of books, articles, and teachings has advanced two theories about the practice of mindfulness (sati). The first is that the Buddha employed the term mindfulness to mean bare attention: a state of pure receptivity—non-reactive, nonjudging, non-interfering—toward physical and mental phenomena as they make contact at the six senses. The second theory is that the cultivation of bare attention can, on its own, bring about the goal of Buddhist practice: freedom from suffering and stress. In the past few years, this flood of literature has reached the stage where even in non-Buddhist circles these theories have become the common, unquestioned interpretation of what mindfulness is and how it’s best developed.
The premise of this book is that these two theories are highly questionable and—for anyone hoping to realize the end of suffering— seriously misleading. At best, they present a small part of the path as the whole of the practice; at worst, they discredit many of the skills needed on the path and misrepresent what it actually means to taste awakening.
The main aim of this book is to show that the practice of mindfulness is most fruitful when informed by the Buddha’s own definition of right mindfulness and his explanations of its role on the path. As he defined the term, right mindfulness (sammā-sati) is not bare attention. Instead, it’s a faculty of active memory, adept at calling to mind and keeping in
mind instructions and intentions that will be useful on the path. Its role is to draw on right view and to work proactively in supervising the other factors of the path to give rise to right concentration, and in using right concentration as a basis for total release.
The discussion here falls into three parts. Part One (Chapters One through Four) explores the mental qualities that comprise right mindfulness, showing how they relate both to other factors of the path and to the causes of suffering and stress that the path is designed to abandon. Chapter One starts with an analysis of the Buddha’s standard formula for the practice of right mindfulness, in which mindfulness is one of three qualities brought to the act of remaining focused on a frame of reference, the other two qualities being ardency and alertness.
Ardency is of particular importance, for it constitutes the proactive element in mindfulness practice. The chapter then shows how right mindfulness keeps in mind the three aspects of right view: the proper framework for regarding experience (the four noble truths); the motivation for adopting that framework; and the duties prescribed by the framework—duties that ardency is meant to follow. The discussion then focuses on the ways in which right mindfulness relates to two highly proactive factors of the path: right effort and right concentration. Its relationship to these factors is so close that all three interpenetrate one another in bringing about release.
Chapter Two deals with the ways in which right mindfulness is developed through a sensitivity to the workings of cause and effect—a sensitivity that can be gained only by consciously manipulating the intentional bodily, verbal, and mental fabrications that shape experience.
Chapter Three explains why conscious fabrication is a necessary part of the path, exploring the implications of the fact that, in dependent coarising, fabrications conditioned by ignorance precede and shape not only the act of attention, but also contact at the senses. This means that these unskillful fabrications have to be replaced by skillful ones, conditioned by knowledge in terms of the four noble truths, if the path is to succeed in undercutting the causes of suffering. This fact determines the role of right mindfulness in turning attention into appropriate attention, and supervising the development of the skillful fabrications of the path.
Chapter Four explains why the common modern view of mindfulness has to be rejected because it doesn’t do justice to the dual role of fabrication: both as a precondition for attention and sensory contact, and as a part of the path to the end of suffering and stress. This defect in the common view has practical consequences, in that it can provide only a limited range of strategies for putting an end to stress when compared to the strategies provided in the discourses.
Parts Two and Three take the lessons learned in Part One about the proactive nature of mindfulness practice and apply them to a reading of the two major canonical discourses explaining this practice.
Part Two (Chapters Five through Seven) focuses on the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118). Chapter Five explains how the skillful act of reading any of the Buddha’s teachings is, in and of itself, a part of mindfulness practice, equipping right mindfulness with knowledge in terms of the three aspects of right view. This chapter also discusses the Buddha’s own instructions on how to listen to (and, at present, to read) his teachings: penetrating the meaning of each discourse on its own terms, and pondering its relationship to his other discourses. These instructions guide the discussions in both Part Two and Part Three.
Chapter Six focuses on the lessons to be learned from the structure of MN 118, particularly concerning the way in which the sixteen proactive steps of breath meditation are related in practice to one another and to the practice of establishing mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna). Two points here are of central importance. The first is that the sixteen steps fall into four tetrads (sets of four) corresponding to the four frames of reference used in the practice of establishing mindfulness: body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities in and of themselves. The second point is that these tetrads are actually four aspects of a single practice—remaining focused on the breath—which means that any of the four frames of reference can be developed while remaining focused on the first: the body in and of itself. This point has practical implications for all varieties of mindfulness practice.
Chapter Seven draws lessons both from MN 118 and from other canonical discourses to flesh out the details of how the sixteen steps of breath meditation can most effectively be mastered as skills.
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