Mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition is a technical term. It emphasizes remembering or holding something in mind and is considered to be essential for progress in meditation.





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Mindfulness has become a buzzword in popular culture. In the Buddhist context, the term is technical and contains nuances not found in the secular application. Contemporary usage has often presented the word as meaning “bare attention”, but in Buddhist texts the translation is more correctly “remembering” or “not forgetting” or “holding in mind”.

The Pali scholar Rupert Gethin has pointed out that the first translator to use the English word mindfulness to translate the Pali technical term sati was T. W. Rhys Davids in 1881. Gethin notes that the famous Pali scholar seems to have considered the translation carefully, calling attention in later translations to the fact that “memory” alone was inadequate to describe the process. He provides this amplification from Rhys Davids, that sati encompassed “The memory, recollection, calling-to-mind, being-aware-of certain specified facts.” And, the scholar underlined, the most important of those facts was the awareness of the impermanence of all physical and mental phenomena.1Gethin, Rupert (2011) ‘On some definitions of mindfulness’, Contemporary Buddhism, 12: 1, 263 — 279

Mindfulness in the Buddhist texts thus emphasizes remembering, recollecting, or keeping in mind specific, wholesome dhammas or dharmas—elements that are conducive to the path toward awakening. In Buddhist thought, mindfulness and ethics are closely related. It is mindfulness that aids the practitioner in practicing right actions of body, speech, and mind.2Jay Garfield, Mindfulness and Ethics: Attention, Virtue and Perfection Both traditional Buddhist commentators and teachers and modern scholars make the point that current interpretations of mindfulness often neglect this important element.

Mindfulness in the Pali Canon: Four Applications of Mindfulness

There are numerous discourses and commentaries on sati, or mindfulness in the Pali canon. The core teaching appears in the Satipaṭṭhāna-Vibhaṅga Sutta. In that text, the Buddha explains the technical approach of mindfulness. He instructed,

I will teach you the establishing of mindfulness, its development, and the path of practice leading to its development. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak.

“Now, what is the establishing of mindfulness? There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves… mind in & of itself… mental qualities in & of themselves—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world.

“This is called the establishing of mindfulness.

“And what is the development of the establishing of mindfulness? There is the case where a monk remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the body, remains focused on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to the body, remains focused on the phenomenon of origination & passing away with regard to the body—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world.

The Buddha then continues by repeating the formula above and applying it to the remaining three categories: feelings, mind, and mental qualities (dhamma). In this instruction, the Buddha goes beyond mere attention–reminding the monks that the practice subdues greed and distress. One can train in the practice using the four different categories, noticing how everything arises and ceases in succession. 

Mindfulness in the Mahayana: Ten Mindfulnesses

These same four applications of mindfulness are practiced on the bodhisattva path. 

The great Tibetan yogi-practitioner Patrul Rinpoche, in his detailed commentary on Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, gave precise instructions on the contemplation of these four mindfulnesses. The following is his description of practicing mindfulness of the body. Again, it is clear that this contemplative practice goes beyond the scope of bare attention.

Application of Mindfulness to the Body

All phenomena of appearance and existence—saṃsāra and nirvāṇa—are simply appearances arising in our own mind, and do not have the slightest existence apart from that which we attribute to them with our minds. This very mind also depends on the body, and so we should investigate the physical body by asking questions, such as:

  • Is what we call the “body” the same as or different from the assembly of its parts?
  • Where does the body originate?
  • Where does it remain?
  • Where does it go in the end?

Finally, we should rest evenly in meditation on the theme of the body’s unreality.

Whenever we experience physical desire or attachment, we must meditate upon the impurity and ‘illusoriness’ of our own and others’ bodies, and we will overcome attachment towards the physical body.

The Brightly Shining Sun: A Step-by-Step Guide to Meditating on the Bodhicaryāvatāra

However, additional mindfulness is also taught. In Chapter Sixteen of the Eighteen Thousand Verse Prajnaparamita Sutra, The Buddha lists ten subjects of mindfulness for a bodhisattva. The Buddha explained to his disciple Subhūti,

Furthermore, Subhūti, the Great Vehicle of bodhisattva great being is this: the ten mindfulnesses. What are the ten? 

  1. They are mindfulness of the Buddha, 
  2. mindfulness of the Dharma, 
  3. mindfulness of the Saṅgha, 
  4. mindfulness of morality, 
  5. mindfulness of giving away, 
  6. mindfulness of the gods, 
  7. mindfulness of disgust, 
  8. mindfulness of death, 
  9. mindfulness of what is included in the body, 
  10. and mindfulness of breathing in and out.

That mindfulness, furthermore, is by way of not apprehending anything.

These mindfulness are thus conjoined with the realization of emptiness. One recalls these various subjects while not clinging to any of them as solid. 

Aṣṭā­daśa­sāhasrikā­prajñā­pāramitā. Numbers have been added for ease of reading.

Right Mindfulness

In the Dharma Instruction “Distinctly Ascertaining the Meanings, the Buddha defined“right mindfulness” by pointing out that a practitioner should be recalling the faults of saṃsāra as well as the pathway to liberation. This instruction also demonstrates a recollection that goes beyond mere awareness. 

Among those, what is right mindfulness? It is well placed, unshakeable, upright, is not crooked, and rightly sees the flaws of saṃsāra as being misery; it is the mindfulness that guides on the path to nirvāṇa; and it means not to forget the path of the noble ones. This is called right mindfulness.


In the Khenjuk, the Gateway to Knowledge, a text that is considered in the Nyingma school as a core source of definitions  the 19th-century scholar Mipham Rinpoche wrote,

Mindfulness (Recollection) means not forgetting a known object. Its function is to inhibit distraction. 

Erik Pema Kunsang, Gateway to Knowledge, Volume I: A Condensation of the Tripitaka, by Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, p. 24

In other works, Mipam Rinpoche uses the metaphor of a sentinel to describe why meditators rely on mindfulness. Distraction is the enemy that leads to suffering. The meditator must recall his meditation subject and avoid straying into the constant flow of random thoughts, feelings, and emotions. He wrote,

It is these waves of uncontrolled distraction
That are the source of the harm we inflict upon ourselves.
When, therefore, we establish the sentinel of mindfulness,
We must eliminate entirely all ideas and imaginings
About anything other than the primary object of focus.
Then, we must calmly maintain such presence and vigilance,
And quash anything that might stir or arise within the mind.

The Importance of Mindfulness and Vigilance

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