What is Mindfulness in Buddhism?

Published on Dec 1, 2021

Awakening to reality is now generally accepted because like the English word ‘mindfulness’ has become of common use in the western society — in psychology, and science. They talk about teaching mindfulness in primary schools, high schools, to the military, to the parliament.

It’s a word that is overused now. And of course, people criticise this sometimes because in order to rob a bank you have to be mindful. And, to commit a successful crime, to murder somebody and get away with it. This takes a great deal of mindfulness to be able to do that.

But, is that what I mean when I use the word, or what the Buddha meant?

So, mindfulness is our ability to open to the present moment in this sense of sati sampajanna.

These are the two Pali words we use.

  • Sati is to remember this moment you are kind of awake in the here and now.
  • Sampajanna is to receive all that exist in this present moment.

It’s not choosing any particular object. It’s not focusing, or concentrating on an object of any sort. But it’s kind of broad spectrum of awareness that is receptive.

And then the foundation for this isn’t based on the desire to rob a bank or commit a murder. The foundation is based on Pāramitā (perfection) or virtues, our good intentions, our meritorious actions.

We have dana and sila.

  • Dana is the word for generosity. To be able to help others share what we have with others and not to be selfish or stingy. (This) is developing dana paramita.
  • Sila is to take responsibility. Translated as five precepts, morality, but what it means is to take on responsibility for how you live in the society. To refrain from saying or doing things that in any intentional way that cause unnecessary harm, deceit, or cause suffering to anyone else or to one self.

We’re educated people. So, we have a lot of knowledge. We’ve acquired a lot of knowledge about everything external. We study science, psychology, philosophy, history.

You name it, we acquire knowledge always from books, from teachers, from traditions. So, what we learn in modern education is acquired knowledge. It’s knowledge that we grasp that comes to us from outside.

With sati sampajjana, with mindfulness, then, there’s wisdom developing. It means wisdom in this sense of Buddha wisdom. It isn’t about knowing everything about everything. It’s not about being god up in the heavens, knowing everything that’s going on everywhere, all the time. It’s knowing the way things are.