The words “mindful”and “mindfulness” go back centuries in English. What is a man, that mindful thou art of him? (Wycliffe Bible, Psalms 8:6, c.1382) There was no mindfulness amongst them of running away. (Holinshed, Histories, 1577) Before Buddhism was Englished, “mindfulness” ranged in meaning from “remembrance” to “attentiveness” to “taking thought,” and to be “mindful” of something was to “turn the mind” towards it. Only in 1881 was the word “mindfulness” used (by T.W. Rhys Davids) to translate the word sati — probably after much vacillation and casting around for alternatives. The word sati is itself the Pali version of the Vedic Sanskrit word smrti, which means “memory, remembrance, calling to mind” and was the shorthand term for the body of scriptures that were not divinely revealed but formed through human recollection. But what does “mindfulness” have to do with “remembering”? — after all, we nowadays associate mindfulness with being “present,” whereas remembering is about the past.
Our primary source for the practice of “mindfulness” is the Satipatthana Sutta (“Mindfulness-Foundation,” Middle Length Discourses, 10), in which the Buddha describes a revolutionary new solution to the problem of suffering. Although “mindfulness” has become almost a daily catchphrase for us, it is important to understand just how original, how truly radical, this practice was when it first appeared. No other ancient thinker, East or West, came up with anything remotely resembling it. In the following essays I’ll be looking closely at the practice itself and what it means, but the focus of this essay will be the striking claims made in the frame of the Sutta.
After setting the time and place, it begins:
… the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus as follows: “This is the only way, O bhikkhus, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely, the Four Arousings of Mindfulness.”
(The Discourse on the Arousing of Mindfulness, tr.Soma Thera, 1998)
The only way is a surprising phrase, because in other Suttas the Buddha appears to have suggested to different people different approaches to the practice. The phrase translated is ekayano maggo, which literally means “only way” or “one path.” Reluctant to go with this too restrictive reading, other translators have come up with variations such as “one-way path” (no going back), or path that goes in one direction only, straight to the truth without beating around the bush:
“This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and distress, for the attainment of the right method, and for the realization of Unbinding — in other words, the four frames of reference.”
(Satipatthana Sutta: Frames of Reference, tr. Thanissaro, 2008)
Or it is a path on which all beings are united in the same project — that is, to end suffering, with respect to which we are all in the same boat:
“Monastics, this is the path where all things come together as one, to purify sentient beings, to make an end of pain and sadness, to get past sorrow and lamentation, to reach the way, to witness Nibbāna; that is, the four kinds of mindfulness meditation.”
(The Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation, tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi)
It is impossible not to notice that in all three translations the wording of the final goal feels very different: the attainment of Nibbana, the realization of Unbinding, to witness Nibbana. The first suggests the arrival at a positive state, the second a kind of negation or removal, and the third a contemplative dwelling on an object. Unless we have ourselves practiced and find ourselves closer to what is being described in these phrases, there is really no way we can judge between the different translations or know if they are indeed different. “Getting past” sorrow and lamentation also sounds very different from the “destruction” of those feelings. The benefit to us of these variations is that they show us that even for experienced meditators and great Pali scholars there is room for considerable difference of interpretation — and this knowledge in turn throws us back onto our own experience and judgment. One thing they all agree upon is the idea of purification: this is the one path or direct path for the purification if beings. What might purification mean here? We shall try to find out.
The other part of the frame, the end of the sutta, after the four kinds of mindfulness have been described in detail, also has two very startling assertions:
Let alone seven years, anyone who develops the four kinds of mindfulness meditation in this way for six years … five years … four years … three years … two years … one year … Let alone one year, anyone who develops the four kinds of mindfulness meditation in this way for seven months may expect one of two results: final enlightenment in this very life, or if there is anything left over, non-return. Let alone seven months, anyone who develops the four kinds of mindfulness meditation in this way for six months … five months … four months … three months … two months … one month … half a month … Let alone half a month, anyone who develops the four kinds of mindfulness meditation in this way for seven days may expect one of two results: final enlightenment in this very life, or if there is anything left over, non-return. (Bhikkhu Bodhi)
Final enlightenment in this very life, or if there is anything left over, non-return: although right now, from where we are in our practice, we might have no capacity whatsoever to understand the meaning of these words, we have to notice the phrase in this very life. What we are promised here is not attainment after death, or in the next life or world — but in our life, this very life. It’s an audacious claim. Moreover, if we do what we are asked to do in this sutta, we can attain this at the end of seven days. A week. To a skeptic, this sounds like the kind of self-help hype we see occasionally online or in magazines: “Enlightenment in just 7 Days!”
The more you read the Pali Suttas, the more you realize that these are not texts that typically indulge in wild hyperbole. They often sound like instruction manuals — dry, terse, unemotional, matter-of-fact — and seem deliberately to reject the emotional uplift of other, so-called spiritual texts. The Buddha is usually extremely scrupulous in his choice of words. When he says it is the only way, he might mean that; and when he says that seven days might be enough, we must bear in mind that he is not prone to exaggeration. If we take him seriously, we will see that the dozen or so pages that follow hold the beating heart not only of the Buddha’s teaching but also of his experience — and if we listen to them deeply, these pages might indeed be all we need.
In what comes next, we are provoked to attend and get closer to the four essential dimensions of our own experience — and the first of these is the experience of being in a body.
For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN, 10), see: