Wednesday, May 28, 2008

MINDFULNESS (Part A Million)

My God! I was wrong two times! The first two times in my whole entire life I've ever been wrong! What's happening?

Thanks to Ted Bringer and Dosho Port for pointing out a couple more times the word "mindfulness" or something like it occurs in Dogen's writing. The longest and most complete explanations he gives of mindfulness occur in a chapter titled SANJUSHICHI-BON BODAI BUNPO (三十七品菩提分法). This is chapter 73 of the 95 chapter Shobogenzo and appears as the first chapter of book 4 of the Nishijima/Cross English translation and the first chapter of book 10 in Nishijima's rendition of Shobogenzo in modern Japanese (現代語訳正法眼蔵, which contains Dogen's actual words as well).

Here's what some of what Dogen says:

Mindfulness as a root is a withered tree as a mass of red flesh. We call a mass of red flesh “a withered tree,” and a withered tree is mindfulness as a root. We ourselves who are groping for the mark are mindfulness. There is mindfulness that exists in moments of owning one’s body, and there is mindfulness that exists in moments of having no mind. There is conscious mindfulness, and there is mindfulness in which there is no body. The very life-root of all the people on Earth is mindfulness as a root. The very life-root of all the buddhas in the ten directions is mindfulness as a root. There can be many people in one state of mindfulness and many states of mindfulness in one person. At the same time, there are people who have mindfulness and there are people who do not have mindfulness. People do not always have mindfulness, and mindfulness is not necessarily connected with people. Even so, through the skillful maintenance of this mindfulness as a root, the virtue of perfect realization exists.

The word that gets translated as "mindfulness" in the Nishijima/Cross translation is 念. In contemporary Japanese this character is pronounced "nen" and means senses, ideas or attention. In common usage it occurs in words like 残念 (zanen) "regrettable," in which the first character refers to things generally thought of as lacking or 念入り (neniri) "careful" in which the second character means something like "add" or "enter." The word 念 is not usually translated as mindfulness in non-Buddhist contexts. "Mind," without the "-fulness," might also be a good reading for 念. Try it that way and see what it says to you. Kinda different, eh?

If you want to get real tricky, the Chinese character 念 consists of two parts. The 今 on top means "now" while the 心 on the bottom means "mind" or "heart." In Buddhist contexts in English 心 is most often translated as "mind." So whoever made up the character seems to have wanted to point out the condition of mind right now. For what that's worth, which isn't much really. Just some random kanji play for y'all. Nishijima once told me a story of visiting some Biblical scholars in Israel. He said the visit showed him "the dangers of believing in ancient texts." We get locked into battles of words that are incredibly stupid even though they sound wicked smart.

The point is that the word "mindfulness" has become such a bullshit term in current usage that it's worse than useless. It's time to strangle it and stomp it out of its misery.

Fuck mindfulness.

My friend Tonen told me a story that when she was in Japan a Zen teacher she met there said that Americans who visited his temple were always gushing to him about how mindful they were being. "Put away your video cameras," he told them, "You're just video taping yourselves being mindful!"

Reading what Dogen wrote it's clear that the word 念 was widely misunderstood even in his day among the people he spoke to. Thus he tries to twist their usual understanding of it into areas they don't expect it to go.

In any case, the same Dogen chapter also contains the line, "Do not listen to the inadequate words of Zen Masters and the like." So there!


Mysterion said...
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mysteriondan said...

Dogen - "Through the skillful maintenance of mindfulness as a root, the virtue of perfect realization exists."

Brad - Fuck mindfulness.

I think I get it. You mean fuck mindfulness, but not mindfulness.

Urban Bodhisattva said...

Some people don't properly understand what mindfulness means? So teach them. No use in putting other people down just for the sake of it - what is that really about?

We get locked into battles of words that are incredibly stupid even though they sound wicked smart.

It's you who is hung up on the word 'mindfulness' Brad.

Urban Bodhisattva said...

I don't really think it makes much difference what words you use. It's the understanding that counts. You could use 'present moment awareness' or 'The Power of Now' if you prefer.

Rich said...

This discussion of mindfulness has been fascinating. I've seen some insight, wisdom, big egos, deluysions and more. What I need to do is sit with what is and get back to you.

Mysterion said...

"There's a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
And you know sometimes words have two meanings
In a tree by the brook there's a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven"

smrti (sati) - mindfulness

"Broadly conceptualized, mindfulness has been described as a kind of non-elaborative, non-judgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is." source

"Mindfulness" (screeching tires, scream, breaking glass) is a continuous meditative state that, with awareness and attentive openness towards the present moment, continues into the action itself."

The word 'Mindfulness' is properly bafflegab: slang official or professional jargon which confuses more than it clarifies. (a.k.a. gobbledegook)

The concept is attention.

Anonymous said...

my friend's 3 year old daughter really loves the sounds of the word "shoes" - how about that? Right Schoose! What are words for (when no one listens anymore)?

deadcow said...

"Do not listen to the inadequate words of Zen Masters and the like." So there!

Good advice. Especially when they assert that mindfulness is a bunch of crap.

Do not believe in ancient texts....only believe in modern Hardcore Zen or Sit Down and Shut Up.

Proper mindfulness can reveal that trying to live up to some ideal of mindful, attentive behavior is just another dead image. No doubt mindfulness can be made into an ideology. So can the precepts, so can zazen (like getting attached to a certain special posture, etc)

Every teaching can be perverted by the delusive mind. The fault is not in the teaching but in the mind.

Buddha can't be conveyed via a dogma or doctrine. Ultimately, all words are devils words. Mindfulness is not the word or idea of mindfulness.


Jules said...

I said this before, but I think it bears repeating.

Seems to me the only problem with the word "mindfulness" is that some people aren't interpreting it correctly. But that could apply to any words, like meditation, loving kindness, Buddhism, karma, the list goes on and on.

I think it's a pretty good word. You know why? Because a couple of articles ago when you were talking about people not cleaning up after themselves, you were able to say, "what the hell kind of mindfulness are they studying out there?" and I bet everyone here understood exactly what you meant.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

As quick as you can as 'mindfulness' it isn't anymore

Anonymous said...

that was supposed to say "as quick as you can say 'mindfulness' it isn't"
but also as quick as you can think 'mindfulness' it isn't

Harry said...

"Mindfulness" is SO last kalpa.



Jinzang said...

In my opinion, the problem with mindfulness is not mindfulness itself (who's going to fault paying attention to what you're doing?) but how people try to apply it. Mindfulness can easily become a posture or pretense. People easily fall into the trap of thinking enlightenment is some way of behaving, such as always being mindful or never saying "fuck." But enlightenment is not some way of behaving, it's your entire life. I don't think this is a huge problem. That's why you should have a teacher, to slap you in the head when you start acting holy.

Rōren - no, that's not my real name, but my 'real' name is not my reality either. said...

"Mindfulness as a root is a withered tree as a mass of red flesh. We call a mass of red flesh “a withered tree,” and a withered tree is mindfulness as a root. We ourselves who are groping for the mark are mindfulness."

What the F? Is this Dogen dude on LSD or is that just a poor translation? "Mass of red flesh!" Really. What am I supposed to get from that?

No wonder this game gives rise to so much intellectual sparing. You'd have to be a cultural anthropologist, a psychologist and a linguistic historian to crack that one.

Why do I get the feeling that shobogenzo would be just as effective if it were 20 pages long?
But it would take 100 years to get consensus on the translation!

'mindfulness' means nothing. 'nen' means nothing. It's all fingers pointing at the moon.

Anonymous said...

Being full of mindfulness is a great way to screw-up... Ever tried to fuck or do anything requiring full attention while you're bumbling about and congratulating yourself inside your head? It doesn't work and maybe you'll even look like gene simmons!

Watch those mindful students dutifully and mindfully staring at each foot putting itself in front the other while walking straight into the wall. Now, that is a clue!

lol... I agree with you here Brad ;)

Anonymous said...

Brad, thanks - as always clear and honest. Clear whilst making us think for ourselves, honest whilst neither committing nor condemning.

Artaud said...

People sure get ratty on this blog

Oliver Harvey said...

I sometimes think it's very difficult to have a proper debate when we use Nishijima's english blog entry as a starting point - especially when we are dealing with the meaning of an English word!

But "mindfulness" is an interesting topic.

I quote the awesome Muho of Antaiji:
"We always try to concentrate and reach this or that state of mind, preferably some advanced state of samadhi or maybe satori or something. That is a big mistake, because when you think that you are concentrating, you are not really concentrating. You are seperate from the object of concentration. When you are in great pain for example, when you finally are THE PAIN, then you are really concentrating. There is no gap between you and the pain. There is no "I" that is in pain. The same is true for zazen. If "you" do zazen, it is not really zazen. Zazen has to do zazen. The breath has to do the breathing. "You" should not breath. "You" should not do zazen."

When you are being truly "mindful" there is no "you" to be mindful.

Attempt this, and you'll be full of your own mind. You'll get a head ache.

Muho goes on to say one should "let the eating eat, the sitting sit, the working work"--STOP BEING MINDFUL!

What Muho says here might clarify what, I guess, Nishijima is trying to say on his Mindfulness blog entry..

"This is the practice that Shakyamuni Buddha demonstrated when sitting under the Bodhi tree 2500 years ago: Zazen. Unfortunately, this practice was not always understood and transmitted correctly. Often people think that zazen means to just sit still with the body, while the essential thing is something more "spiritual": To concentrate the mind, be mindful, be enlightened. They go so far as to split "za-zen" into two and proceed to say that more essential than "za (sitting)" is "zen (dhyana)". Of course, Zen practice is a religion, it is not a body therapy technique, so it isn't false to say that it is about mind and about enlightenment. But this mind can not be divided from the physical practice: The sitting posture itself is an expression of the mind, the practice is an expression of satori. This is the point that Dogen Zenji so frequently makes, and this is also the practice that Sawaki Roshi re-established in the last century. So it is sad for me to see that there are still many Zen practioners calling themselves students of Dogen, who think that it is a matter of course that Zen is about the mind, not the body. About satori, not about cross-legged sitting. Thus, they are heading back into the dead-end road of "shi-kan (samatha/vipassana)" practice, that the monks of the Tendai sect found themselves trapped in at the time of Dogen Zenji. This practice is based on the idea that we practice "stillness meditation (samatha/shi)" with our bodies, but more important than that is the "insight meditation (vipassana/kan)" that we do with our minds. But how can we possibly get a hold of our mind when we separate it from the practice of our body?"

Finally, Harry - are you now a certified Zen teacher? - Nishijima quoted you as the "Ven...etc".

I don't wish to be probing - and please do not take this as an attack - but could you tell me how you received dharma transmission, and if it was from Nishijima?

Thank you!


Harry said...

Dear Oliver,

A resounding "NO" to your question. I received the Precepts recently.



element said...
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Urban Bodhisattva said...


I think this might be what Nishijima is getting at. And this is a common sort of Zentiment. There is a flaw of course in Muho's argument. Yes, if we ignore the bosy and focus only on the mind then we might be liable to slip into dualistic delusion. However, it doesn't follow from this that the body needs to be in any particular posture, such as lotus/zazen posture. Whether I'm playing pool, doing Zazen or driving my car, my mind never becomes separate from my body. And the right attitude helps me to avoid the illusion that it is. It just so happens that some postures are better for remaining motionless for a long time without effort excessive drowsiness or unreasonable discomfort.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm glad you cleared that up? If I do as Dogen and reinterpret everything to my own liking who does that make right? In the end you *guys* all come down to the same bullshit.

dood said...

if i go away from here and never look at another "zen blog" again, will i be OK?

there's only one way to find out - peace out
ps - shut the fucks up

Anonymous said...


I'm following DOOD.

leadbetter said...

I remember a time here when a fellow named "me" became excited over a concept he had decided was important. You told him that his idea was all fine and good, but not to back his car into the garbage cans the next morning while still thinking about it. Telling someone to be mindful can be worse than useless, but telling someone not to back their car into a garbage can is practical advice.

Anonymous said...

Dood, are you back yet?

Anonymous said...


日本鬼子 said...


Anonymous said...


mindless troll said...

"But how can we possibly get a hold of our mind when we separate it from the practice of our body?"

As I see things, zazen isn't a practice or technique that you use to get from here to there. It isn't like learning to bowl, play pool or swim. Nirvana is not subject to coming and going, creating and disolution. No technique can bring it about. As mtn. top rebel eloquently explained, the lotus posture is simply the easiest, most direct way to keep the body still for long periods of time. This helps (but is not a prerequisite) to allowthe mind to quieten of itself. Out of this still body and quiet mind insight may arise.

Mind and body are not identical. They are two aspects of an underlying reality. Just as the heads and tails of a coin are not identical, yet are two aspects of one underlying coin. Our true mind pervades the entire body of reality. Obviously, this physical body that can be contorted into special postures does not. The mind one attempts to 'get a hold of' is not a mind limited to this body. You are mistaking a thief for your child.

Realizing the essential nature of this mind may be made easier by using techniques, methods and postures, but is not identical to these approaches. Unless all methods are transcended at some point there cna be no liberation. To transcend a method does not necessarly mean to relinquish it.

Correctly understood, mazu's koan about polishing a tile makes it clear that the sitting posture (or any posture or technique) can never itself bring freedom from suffering / nirvana. This is why
Nan Yueh asked Ma whether you whip the cart or the ox when you want to go.

If you try to understand by a bodily practice, this is like whipping the cart expecting it to move.

If it is literally so that a specific bodily posture is identical to enlightened mind then this would imply that someone without arms or legs could never practice zen. Someone blind could never practice zen. Someone with severe arthritis or other disease that prevented their assuming the 'correct' sitting posture could never understand zen.

You may believe this is all so. But from my pov all such practice and understanding only reveals a lack of any deep insight into the nature of reality and you shouldn't be teaching zen at all.

fourth said...

This article miss the point and falls into its own trap.
"Mindfulness is bullshit, so let me tell you what midnfulness really is by deconstructing Chinese characters from Dogen." This bastardizes the concept even more.

babbles said...

I found this a pretty decent article. I think a lesson to learn here is that to describe these sorts of concepts (i.e. mindfulness) the use of language becomes very difficult.

When I first started my study of shodō( 書道 . . . go, go, go unicode) I did run into the problem of trying to define Japanese words into English ones. Which is easy enough for many words, however something like kokoro, 心 , is a bit more difficult. Especially since practitioners of Japanese arts really love to throw 心 into tons of quaint little catch phrases: 中心, 初心, 無心, or [insert random word] + -shin.

The point is, like many English words, 心 can mean many things: spirit, soul, heart, mind with all of them being figurative or literal.

It is interesting to note that I think most, if not everybody, here would agree that there exists many cases where a word or words/concepts have no literal English translation.

Therefore how can one be surprised to find out that the use of contemporary English words to attempt to translate a medieval Japanese text, itself likely using words originating in Pali and/or Sanskrit, may not necessarily convey the exact meaning.

There appears to be much discussion and confusion about this contemporary western definition of "mindfulness" however this term is essentially a linguistic newborn and, as shocking as this may be some, the Shobogenzo and other old Buddhist texts were not written in English.

I firmly believe to really understand something that you have to go to the source. To that extent in order to understand these concepts, one should go back to the text and see how it was written in the original. Historians do this all of the time; it is perfectly reasonable. I would wager that many people are convinced they know 100% what something means; they "get it" and anything that can call this into question knocks them down a level.

Me, I don't know shit.

Anonymous said...

Most people confuse mindfulness with it...foul...
Ahh what would we talk about if we wouldn't have words :)))

Anonymous said...

Ohh, one about Mindfoolness :))))

Jules said...

Here's another word that has become such a bullshit term that it's worse than useless: karma. Click here to see Sharon Stone pull a Pat Robertson. I think she was drunk.

Mysterion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jinzang said...

I think she was drunk.

No, she just wasn't being mindful of what she was saying.

Actually, the earthquake happened because, being dialectical materialists, they didn't appease the tortoise that supports the Earth.

Anonymous said...


Ed Films Nuns
Lens Finds Mu
Mindless Fun

Anonymous said...

Oh, Christ. Quit worrying about what someone said. And for double Christ sake, don't let that pervert Dosho Port be a resource for anything. By the way, why DID he leave Clouds in Water?

John said...

Jinzang said...

It's turtles all the way down.

rokrok said...

"Mindfulness" is SO last kalpa.

Shweet comment.

Smoggyrob said...

Hi everyone:

It almost slipped my mind, but we're sitting with Brad at HSC tomorrow (Saturday, May 31, 0930). Sit, walk, sit, snack, listen, and question. Please feel free to come join us.


Anonymous said...

She was obviously drunk.

Alan A said...

Good on ya, Mindless Troll.

Here's a few paragraphs on why Bible scholars might be other than "wicked stupid":

Seems to me there might be many people on many paths with something to contribute.

Or there's the trinity: Dogen-Nishijima-Brad. And the rest can go hang.

Not sure.

Blake said...

I try to be mindful about my compassion.

Mettai Cherry said...

Mindfulness, as a component of the Eightfold path of the Fourth Noble Truth, is (IMHO) mindfulness of impermanence, and mindfulness of remaining on the path. It has nothing to do with whether the dishes get clean.

I find the old-fashioned Pali Canon useful when dealing with these sorts of terms. See Access To Insight for some good commentary on what the historical Buddha probably meant by the word.