Saturday, November 13, 2010

Lost in Translation

(Back from two and a half week retreat with Ruth Denison, at Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center, I am devoting the next few weeks to sharing Ruth's wonderful teachings.)

Sati: Mindfulness, or Empty Mind?

Ruth can be a wordsmith. Ruth does not like the word mindfulness. She thinks it does not do justice to the original pali word, 'sati', that should be translated instead as characteristics of the mind as empty, pure mind with no attributes, whether liking of not liking. The mind as mirror. "You don't get a different face whether you like it or not." There is no room for criticizing.

Ruth' image reminds me of art work I did several years ago. 'My mirror doesn't lie . . .'

'Mon Miroir Ne Ment Pas' - Marguerite Manteau-Rao - 2005
Mirror, photos, embroidered muslin.
In sati, we are being witness, observer without any involvement. There is no reaction, no talk about 'it'. In that state, we can connect with the mind that usually manifests itself as going away. The mind is really reaching out with the intent of finding relief. It is just that we forget by not paying attention, and then become separated from the source. The sati practice is about returning to the source of being. 

We bring empty mind to the position of observer. In a way this is in contradiction with the mindfulness translation of sati. Awareness is a better word than mindfulness. Sati is the mental consciousness that brings knowing. For instance, as we focus on our breathing, we understand what we are doing, and we can acknowledge it. 

A reason for the use of the word 'mindfulness' is a reference to the mind as full of its original nature, that is emptiness. 

I am grateful for Ruth's attention to the word, here. This is especially important given the increasing number of venues where 'mindfulness' is being used. Mindfulness has become a catch-all word for so many different things. It is good to go back to the source. 

What is your understanding of mindfulness?


  1. Do not think it has to do with 'words'

    It is difficult for the beginners. Your mind is not used to concentration or clarity that comes with insight. Mindfulness in its gross all encompassing meanings is a fit word - good enough to begin with. Whatever you begin with, is where you start discovering, because that is where you are!

    Like some cant keep the mind on the breath, for them walking (more gross), and mindfulness there helps.

    Suddenly you start discerning. You start recognising, cognising events and processes, subtelities of mindfulness. From walking to breath, to finer aspects of breath...mindfulness keeps chnaging meaning on its own as the student discovers for him/herself

    you start 'observing'

    Then it moves further, till you can be mindful 'easily'. Further, you can actually 'know' that you are being mindful.

    When these moments of mindfulness, over days and sometimes years, ripen to Access Concentration, it is like you have stirred some earthquakes, understanding shifts, walls tumble and you begin to know more about 'mindfulness' and concentration. It is only here the exotic allures to mindfulness will begin to make sense, otherwise these terms will remain too technical (or may I say too stupid) to the beginner.

    Ruth is right, just that a beginner will not 'get' what is being empty, you know

    all lv

  2. Hey,

    I enjoyed your sharing Ruth's wisdom. I am still relatively new to Buddhism so I can't really give you an educated definition of what I think mindfullness is. I will say I think it is something like awareness beyond the trappings of the ego. A nondual awareness of reality as it is. But this may not be an accurate representation of what Buddhism means by mindfulness.

    As someone new to Buddhism I wonder if you would comment more on the below quoted portion of your post? What is the mind seeking releif from? What do you mean by source? Expanding on these points I think we can get a clearer picture of your excellent thoughts on sati.

    "The mind is really reaching out with the intent of finding relief. It is just that we forget by not paying attention, and then become separated from the source. The sati practice is about returning to the source of being."

    Thanks for the insightful post. I enjoyed reading it!


  3. May I accept your points of view wholeheartedly. This is my understanding of mindfulness today. :-)

    Last december I wrote:

    Emptiness is in touch with the impartial witness.

    The impartial witness walks Always hand in hand
    With an awakened being Who enjoys to walk For the sake of walking..


    the more i get used to emptiness,
    the more i enjoy life´s presents.

    to save emptiness means to save content,
    and that has much to do with being content,
    what does not mean to become non-ambitious.

    the practice of non-striving leads to right striving.
    the practice of non-judging leads to right judging.
    the practice of non-doing leads to right doing.


    yes, Great Spirit,
    this way may i strive
    for mutual understanding and love.

  4. Pooja, thank you for expanding on Ruth's teachings. Of course, mindfulness is here to stay as an easy entry word into the experience of body and mind consciousness. AND with practice, we get to appreciate the more accurate description of pure, empty mind to frame what we are after really.

  5. Hanumandass, thank you for offering your take on 'sati'. It seems right on, although, like you, I am just a beginner on the path, and in no way pretending to 'know'.

    As far as shedding light on "The mind is really reaching out with the intent of finding relief. It is just that we forget by not paying attention, and then become separated from the source. The sati practice is about returning to the source of being.", I of course cannot speak for Ruth, but can only offer what I understood it to mean when I heard her. That every moment we attend to with full awareness can take us back to the ultimate living principle, unhindered by selfing activities. When we fail to pay attention, we miss one more opportunity to reconnect with that primal energy and aliveness.

  6. Doris, thank you for sharing straight from open heart and pure mind, no doubt. You beautifully captured the essence of what Ruth is alluding to.

    Such a privilege to 'know' you.

  7. Thank you very much for your appreciation, Marguerite! I feel elevated and grateful to "know" you and to read your blog + comments.

    Concerning "lost in translation" post, most appropriate and an important reminder I find the mirror image. Thanks again.

    & thanks also for the book tips today.

    Step by step, moment by moment,
    May we all be at ease

  8. Thank you Doris! I also enjoyed our synchronous sitting meditation this morning - thanks to Twitter's magic web.