This is a discussion of the issue of insight practice raised in this thread. What will be looked at here are the issues mindfulness in terms of the Burmese Vipassana traditions and the suttas. If one wants to debate these issues, then either use above linked thread or start a new thread on the Open Dhamma debate sub-forum.
What I am offering directly below are a number of interesting texts that will serve as a basis for the discussion. If you do not read them, then please do not participate. The texts posted and linked are the context for this discussion.
The initial attached files go with the Ven Analayo quote below. The attached files, "A-D", have a couple more pages than the quoted excerpt below, plus the footnotes, and there is also an attached file of Ven Analayo’s discussion of the Bahiya Sutta.
One of the vexed issues that has been raised a number of times on this forum is that of the “bare attention” aspect of mindfulness and what it might mean. “Bare attention” is not a traditional technical term. It is, rather, a term coined by Ven Nyanaponika it illustrate an interesting and important aspect of mindfulness in meditation practice, which is what the texts quoted below and linked are pointing to. Also, a PDF image of the “bare attention” chapter from Ven Nyanaponika’s HEART OF BUDDHIST MEDITATION can be found here. This link is to a section of a larger chapter where Ven Bodhi talks about the nature of sati. It is probably one the more important discussions of the question of mindfulness posted on this forum.
Ven Thanissaro here: “Once you've clearly seen that a particular quality like aversion or lust is harmful for the mind, you can't stay patient or equanimous about it. You have to make whatever effort is needed to get rid of it and to nourish skillful qualities in its place by bringing in other factors of the path: right resolve and right effort.”
What needs to be pointed out here is that discussion I am putting forth is not a this-way-versus-that-way approach, or that one approach is correct, the other is not. There are differing approaches outlined in the suttas, and basically what I am doing here looking at the one approach that is not always clearly understood.
This text seems appropriate here:
- “How, dear sir, did you cross the flood?”
“By not halting, friend, and by not straining I crossed the flood.”
“But how is it, dear sir, that by not halting and by not straining you crossed the flood?”
“When I came to a standstill, friend, then I sank; but when I struggled, then I got swept away. It is in this way, friend, that by not halting and by not straining I crossed the flood.”
- “How, dear sir, did you cross the flood?”
- Bhikkhu Bodhi Page15
BB 4: No problem to try to tie up this “loose end.” First, I used the phrase “the mind’s
activity of attending to the object, the awareness of the object” as an attempt to make
sense of the word ‘upaṭṭhāna,’ which is used in works like the Paṭisambhidāmagga and
the commentaries to draw out the significance of sati. It wasn’t a direct “gloss” on sati
As a wholesome mental factor, sati is consistently explained in the same way as in the
quotation from Vism XIV 141 (with the forms saranti, sarati, saraṇa, simply cognates of
sati). So I don’t have any new definition of sati to offer. But I hope that I can explain how
sati, as “bare attention,” can function as a wholesome mental factor. When I use the
word ”awareness” or “attention” to render upaṭṭhāna, as representing sati in this role
(which is just my hypothesis), this awareness is quite different from ordinary
consciousness (viññāṇa), and this attention is different from manasikāra, the mental
factor that performs the function of adverting to an object or selecting features of the
objective field for closer focus. Sati, as bare attention, is never completely bare. When
practiced in the full context of the noble eightfold path (even the path-practice of a
worldling) it is, or should be, embraced by other factors of the path, most notably by right
view, right motivation, and right effort (factors 1, 2, and 6); it is already supported by the
three morality factors (3, 4, 5). As Ven. Nyanaponika first used the expression, sati is
“bare” in that it is shorn of our usual emotional reactions, evaluations, judgments,
conceptual overlays, etc., and is intended to lay bare the experienced object as clearly as
We should remember that sati, in the context of satipaṭṭhāna practice, is always practiced
as part of an ’anupassanā,’ and this word helps to bring out the role of sati. We usually
translate ‘anupassanā’ as “contemplation,” thus ‘kāyānupassanā’ as “contemplation of
the body,” but this might be somewhat misleading. It might be more accurate, and more
literal, to translate it as “observation.” The word is made up of a prefix ‘anu’ which
suggests repetition, and ’passanā’, which means “seeing, viewing.” So sati is part of a
process that involves a close, repetitive observation of the object.
Several factors enter into anupassanā. According to the “satipaṭṭhāna refrain,” these are
energy (ātāpī, “ardent”), clear comprehension (sampajāno), and mindfulness (satimā).
Energy contributes the strength to fulfill the practice, but it is mindfulness that brings the
object into the field of observation, and in many exercises (though not all) it does so
simply through the act of attending to the object over and over, as simply as possible, and
of attending to each object that presents itself on the successive occasions of experience.
Mindfulness, as bare attention, is thus a key element in the process of adopting an
“observational stance” towards one’s own experience.
Mindfulness, as bare attention, however, isn’t just floating loosely in a void. In a
meditative situation it will be anchored in a primary object, such as in-breathing and outbreathing,
or the rise and fall of the abdomen. But whenever some other phenomenon
arises and floats into the field of awareness, the meditator is advised to simply note it,
without reacting to it, and then to bring the mind back to the primary object. If any
reactions take place, such as enjoying the distracting object or feeling irritated by it, one
should note the enjoyment or irritation, and again return to the primary object.
Thus, if you have trouble seeing mindfulness–as bare attention–as a wholesome mental
factor because it isn’t remembering one’s wholesome qualities or attending to
bodhipakkhiya dhammas, the same problem could be posed in terms of mindfulness of
breathing. A skeptic might say: “Yeah, I can see loving-kindness meditation, or
compassion meditation, as a wholesome state, but mindfulness of breathing, why, you’re
doing nothing but following your breath in and out. What could be especially
‘wholesome’ about that?”
In the practice of bare attention, as used in the ”dry insight” system of vipassanā,
mindfulness is used to note whatever is occurring on successive occasions of
experience. As this is practiced continuously, over extended periods of time, the
mindfulness builds up momentum. By means of this momentum, it is able to bring the
“field of experience” into increasingly finer focus, until one can tune into the precise
factors constituting any occasion of experience and distinguish them according to their
place among the five aggregates. In this way, mindfulness paves the way for the
discriminative understanding of the “constituted nature” of experience, allowing paññā to
move in and discern the threads that make up the complex experiential occasion.
Then because one is attending to the unfolding of experience sequentially across
occasions of experience, the characteristic comes into sharp focus. One can see how each
event occurs and vanishes, followed by the next event, which occurs and vanishes,
followed by the next event, which occurs and vanishes. As concentration grows stronger,
this ability to focus upon the arising and passing of events becomes more refined, so that
it seems one is perceiving the arising and passing of cognitive events in terms of
nanoseconds. Again, this uncovers, even more starkly, the characteristic of
impermanence, and from there one can move on to the characteristics of dukkha and
Of course, one who gains the jhānas, and then uses the concentration of the jhāna to focus
on the procession of experience, has even more powerful resources for gaining direct
perception of the radical truth of impermanence. But even this must begin with some
degree of “bare attention” to immediate experience.
You were worried that I had missed out on right thought, and further on in your letter you
expressed concern about the need for proper motivation; but the factor often translated as
right thought, sammā saṅkappa, is what I have here translated “right motivation” (it is
elsewhere translated “right intention”). I’m not sure how the Tibetan translations render
the second path factor, but the Pāli term suggests the purposive, motivational element in
thought, rather than the cognitive, which is covered by right view. In my understanding,
without right view or right intention, one could be practicing “bare mindfulness,” and yet
that “bare mindfulness” is unlikely to develop into sammā sati, right
mindfulness. Similarly, one could be practicing mindfulness of breathing, or
contemplation of bodily sensations, or loving-kindness meditation, or perhaps even
reflective meditation on the Four Noble Truths and dependent origination as applicable to
this present life alone (no trespassing into unverifiable past and future lives), and these
practices, while being “wholesome,” would still be deficient as Dharma practices.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi Page15
- CHARACTERISTICS AND FUNCTIONS OF SATI
A close examination of the instructions in the Satipatthäna Sutta reveals that the meditator is never instructed to interfere actively with what happens in the mind. If a mental hindrance arises, for example, the task of satipatthana contemplation is to know that the hindrance is present, to know what has led to its arising, and to know what will lead to its disappearance. A more active intervention is no longer the domain of satipatthana, but belongs rather to the province of right effort (samma vayama).
The need to distinguish clearly between a first stage of observation and a second stage of taking action is, according to the Buddha, an essential feature of his way of teaching. The simple reason for this approach is that only the preliminary step of calmly assessing a situation without immediately reacting enables one to undertake the appropriate action.
Thus, although sati furnishes the necessary information for a wise deployment of right effort, and will monitor the countermeasures by noting if these are excessive or deficient, sati nevertheless
Uninvolved and detached receptivity as one of the crucial characteristics of sati forms an important aspect in the teachings of several modern meditation teachers and scholars. They emphasize that the purpose of sati is solely to make things conscious, not to eliminate them. Sati silently observes, like a spectator at a play, without in any way interfering. Some refer to this non-reactive feature of sati as "choiceless" awareness.'" "Choiceless" in the sense that with such awareness one remains impartially aware, without reacting with likes or dislikes. Such silent and non-reactive observation can at times suffice to curb unwholesomeness, so that an application of sati can have quite active consequences. Yet sati's activity is confined to detached observation. That is, sati does not change experience, it deepens it.
This non-interfering quality of sati is required to enable one clearly to observe the building up of reactions and their underlying motives. As soon as one becomes in any way involved in a reaction, the detached observational vantage point is immediately lost. The detached receptivity of sati enables one to step back from the situation at hand and thereby to become an unbiased observer of one's subjective involvement and of the entire situation.' This detached distance allows for a more objective perspective, a characteristic illustrated in the above-mentioned simile of climbing a tower.
This detached but receptive stance of satipatthana constitutes a "middle path", since it avoids the two extremes of suppression and reaction. The receptivity of sati, in the absence of both suppression and reaction, allows personal shortcomings and unjustified reactions to unfold before the watchful stance of the meditator, without being suppressed by the affective investment inherent in one's self-image. Maintaining the presence of sati in this way is closely related to the ability to tolerate a high degree of "cognitive dissonance", since the witnessing of one's own shortcomings ordinarily leads to unconscious attempts at reducing the resulting feeling of discomfort by avoiding or even altering the perceived information.
This shift towards a more objective and uninvolved perspective introduces an important element of sobriety into self-observation. The element of "sobriety" inherent in the presence of sati comes up in an entertaining canonical description of a particular celestial realm, whose divine inhabitants get so "intoxicated" with sensual indulgence that they lose all sati. As a consequence of being without sati, they fall from their elevated celestial position and are reborn in a lower realm.6~ The reverse case is also documented in another discourse, in which negligent monks, reborn in an inferior celestial realm, on regaining their sati are at once able to ascend to a higher realm. Both these instances point to the edifying power of sati and its wholesome repercussions.
Sati as a mental quality is closely related to attention (manasikara), a basic function which, according to the Abhidhaminic analysis, is present in any kind of mental state. This basic faculty of ordinary attention characterizes the initial split seconds of bare cognizing of an object, before one begins to recognize, identify, and conceptualize. Sati can be understood as a further development and temporal extension of this type of attention, thereby adding clarity and depth to the usually much too short fraction of time occupied by bare attention in the perceptual process. The resemblance in function between sati and attention is also reflected in the fact that wise attention (yoniso manasikara) parallels several aspects of satipatthäna contemplation, such as directing attention to antidotes for the hindrances, becoming aware of the impermanent nature of the aggregates or of the sense-pleasures, establishing the awakening factors, and contemplating the four noble truths.
This "bare attention" aspect of sati has an intriguing potential, since it is capable of leading to a "de-automatization" of mental mechanisms. Through bare sati one is able to see things just as they are, unadulterated by habitual reactions and projections. By bringing the perceptual process into the full light of awareness, one becomes conscious of automatic and habitual responses to perceptual data. Full awareness of these automatic responses is the necessary preliminary step to changing detrimental mental habits.
Sati as bare attention is particularly relevant to restraint at the sense doors (indriya sarnvara). In this aspect of the gradual path, the practitioner is encouraged to retain bare sati in regard to all sense-input. Through the simple presence of undisrupted and bare mindfulness, the mind is "restrained" from amplifying and proliferating the received information in various ways. This guardianship role of sati in relation to sense-input is alluded to in those similes that declare satipatthana to be the proper "pasture" for a meditator and which compare sati to the gatekeeper of a town.
According to the discourses, the purpose of restraining the senses is to avoid the arising of desires (abhijjha) and discontent (domanassa). Such freedom from desires and discontent is also an aspect of satipatthana contemplation, mentioned in the "definition" part of the discourse. Thus the absence of reactions under the influence of desires and discontent is a common feature of both satipaffhana and sense-restraint. This goes to show that there is a considerable degree of overlap between these two activities.
To sum up, sati entails an alert but receptive equanimous observation. Viewed from the context of actual practice, a predominantly receptive sati is then enlivened by the quality of being diligent (ätapi), and supported by a foundation in concentration (samadhi).
Analayo SATIPAṬṬHĀNA, pages 57-61.
- CHARACTERISTICS AND FUNCTIONS OF SATI