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An Interview with Buddhist Scholar John Dunne on Mindfulness
DHARMA AND THE MODERN WORLD
What do we think of when we hear the word mindfulness? Does it change depending on the context? How has the term been understood in the past? Is its popularity significant to Buddhism’s future? John Dunne, associate professor of religion at Emory University and a fellow of the Mind and Life Institute, has both the technical Buddhist philosophical background and connection to contemporary scientific research exploring mindfulness necessary to address these questions. During a visit in October 2013 to Maitripa College in Portland, Oregon, US, John spent a half-hour summing up for Mandala readers the many centuries of meaning that have collected around the word “mindfulness.”
Mandala: I wanted to talk to you about the concept of mindfulness and how it has been articulated and used both historically and in contemporary settings. Within the FPMT, Lama Zopa Rinpoche has encouraged FPMT students to understand mindfulness within the Mahayana tradition. Could you talk about how mindfulness has been used in classical Indian Buddhist philosophy and then whether subsequently that evolved and changed within Tibetan Buddhism?
John Dunne: If we just think about the contemporary use of mindfulness, there is a lot of interest in mindfulness on many levels. You could say it has even become a kind of cultural trope in the United States. I heard it on the radio sometime when I was listening to NPR during a pledge drive. Someone was talking about “mindful pledging” – and this is in Atlanta! I was surprised to find that; you see that everywhere, in Europe and among the educated elites of the big cities worldwide as well. There is a lot of interest in mindfulness. It is a cultural meme that has taken off to an unbelievable degree. And maybe that’s part of the reason why it is also very hard to say what it is. It is in some way whatever you make of it, and there really are many different varieties of mindfulness.
One of the ways in which my scientific colleagues and I have been trying to understand it is therefore not in terms of finding a single version of what is the one true mindfulness, but rather to think of it as a family or range of practices and a range of practice styles that come out of different kinds of Buddhist contexts. That is actually a very useful way to think about it in Buddhist terms as well, because it is really not the case that there is just one version of mindfulness even within Buddhism, possibly ever. Certainly by the time Buddhism reaches Tibet, there is already some significant differentiation in how it would be proper to use that term.
You probably know that the term tracks back tracks back to the Pali word sati which is the Sanskrit word smṛti which is the Tibetan word dränpa. That word itself is used in many different ways. If we just think of the term sati, there is actually quite a lot of variety. My colleague Rupert Gethin has written a number of really great pieces in which he talks about that term and also Bhikkhu Bodhi has done some great work on this. Ven. Analayo is another one who has done some great work on this on the use of the term in the context of the Pali cannon and in Theravada practice. In a famous text called the Questions of the King Milinda, the terms is used very much just in the sense of memory – how do you recall what is beneficial, recalling what one has done in the past and what one intends to do in the future. Those three words – sati, smṛti, and dränpa – all actually literally mean memory, often memory connected to the sense of who you are as a practitioner, what your larger goals are, and that meaning of mindfulness is something that has become a little bit lost in the contemporary context.
However, when we talk about it as mindfulness practice, actually that sense of mindfulness is not the main meaning probably. The main meaning is cultivating a particular kind of mental facet of any mental moment, or according to some Buddhist Abhidharma theorists, it is always a facet of every mental moment (it depends on who you talk to). The Theravada Abhidharma says it is only in virtuous mind states. The Abhidharma that the Tibetans follow says it can be both in virtuous and nonvirtuous mind states, and this is what they call a semjung in Tibetan or caitasika in Sanskrit, basically, a “mental function” or a “mental facet.”
This particular mental facet is what is being especially trained in formal mindfulness practice. What is that particular mental facet? It is not really about memory in any very direct way; it is really the facet of mind that keeps the mind from wandering. It is actually what keeps the mind not in a positive sense on the object, but in a negative sense off of other objects. There are other mental facets that keep the mind focused that account for how acute the mind is and how sharp the focus is, but this particular facet is really just about a kind of stability.
I haven’t seen any account of why this becomes the main facet that is trained in this form of practice. But it may be that the human mind has this tendency to fly all over the place, and that the best way to guarantee that the mind is stable is to focus the training on that particular kind of facet. You could say that later as this develops in the Tibetan tradition, this thing connects to a general feature that we can call “stability in meditation.” Nächa is a term that you will find in some traditional Tibetan meditation manuals. The nächa is stability of a meditative state on the one hand – and that is provided by mindfulness – but mindfulness is not the end of the story by any means. There are two other important features of this factor that are really critically important and that develop later, that really are more about the Mahayana version of mindfulness. They are there in the earlier materials, but they are much more emphasized in the Mahayana, and they change their meanings a little bit. One of them, in Sanskrit, is called samprajanya. In Tibetan, it is called shezhin, and this is a kind of capacity to keep track of the state of mind and body. Depending on the theorist you talk to, that either is something that occurs simultaneously while you are on the object, or it requires you to drop the object momentarily and sort of introspect on the mind (and that will be important for another reason in a second). Basically, if you are trying to maintain awareness on the breath, mindfulness is what keeps the mind from wavering off of that object, but you also need to assess the quality of your awareness as you are watching your breath, because as you get more and more advanced, of course, you are not just dropping the object entirely, you are actually able to stay on the object and notice before you lose the object when the mind is becoming unstable in some fashion. The faculty that is doing that – that is sort of monitoring the quality of the mind – is called samprajanya or shezhin. That is actually so integral to mindfulness practice that the Tibetans usually compound dränpa and shezhin to make dränshe, which means mindfulness, and some people translate that as “discriminating alertness.”
What is interesting about shezhin is it then has a little bit of a life of its own. It is something Shantideva talks about a great deal. He has an entire chapter devoted to it – the fifth chapter of The Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. It becomes, in some ways, almost more of what we think of as mindfulness practice, which is a kind of moment-by-moment awareness of what you are doing. Where is your mind? Where is your body? What are your intentions? Are you in a virtuous mindstate or in a negative mindstate? That is really all the work that is done by shezhin or samprajanya, this sort of monitoring capacity or discriminating alertness.
Along with that then, a third quality is usually mentioned in the Tibetan texts, which is called bagyö or apramāda that basically means “heedfulness.” Those three together – dränpa, shezhin and bagyö – really give you the package of mindfulness in the Tibetan Mahayana context. The kind of practice we are talking about is stability, but also this kind of stability with awareness, not a just dumb focus on an object, but a rich awareness of what is happening to you on the subject side. What emotional states are you in? What is the quality of your awareness? Are you holding too tightly onto the object? Are you so loose that you are about to lose it? Are negative emotions beginning to arise? Are you in a positive emotional state? This capacity to sort of monitor that even while remaining on the object is really the main thing that is cultivated in mindfulness practice. Then the larger context of it is your spiritual goals, and that is where heedfulness comes in – to be heedful of what your vows are, what your goals are, what your motivations are, all of that together.
The other thing though that really becomes important in Tibetan mindfulness is the development of mindfulness in the Mahamudra context. What is different and what really is significantly different from non-Mahayana versions of mindfulness is that now there is a notion of being mindful without being focused on an object. You’ll see this is in the Gelugpa version of Mahamudra, but it is perhaps more strongly stressed by the Kagyü style of Mahamudra, and then you see similar aspects to Dzogchen. This is the notion that one can retain that kind of awareness – an awareness of what is the state of mind, what is the quality of the awareness, what types of mental states are occurring, what is the quality of consciousness itself – by taking that monitoring faculty and in a sense, ramping it up, and no longer focusing on an object, dropping the object entirely so that now what you have left is that monitoring awareness itself. You are still going to latch onto objects now and then, so it is not truly a nondual awareness, but it is moving toward a nondual awareness because it is no longer sort of thematizing focus on the object such as the breath. Alan Wallace has a nice way of describing this where it is as if the breath becomes kind of like a buoy out in the water that you keep your hand on, and then you sort of let go and slowly learn how to not need to hold on to that anymore, and are simply aware of the mind itself without focusing on any particular object.
That capacity is the way, theoretically, where shezhin or samprajanya, this sort of discriminating alertness, is now what is mostly thematized. Stability is still important, and they still talk about smṛti, or dränpa, but now it is dränpa without an object. Instead what they speak about is what is called in Tibetan – and you will see this in the famous Mahamudra text that His Holiness the Dalai Lama just taught at Emory by Losang Choekyi Gyaltsen, and also in the earlier Kagyü Mahamudra materials – ma-yeng tsam-gyi dränpa which means “mindfulness of mere not distraction.” That mindfulness of mere nondistraction is now not about focusing on any particular object, but simply being aware moment-by-moment of all that is occurring in mind. That type of awareness, of course, is part of the goal. Part of the reason you cultivate that type of awareness is so that you really understand what is the nature of your mind, what is the nature of your negative mental states. It is a tool for that purpose.
Mandala: Why has mindfulness become such a popular theme in our modern culture?
John: Modern mindfulness is very heavily influenced by its psychological use. My good friend and colleague Jon Kabat-Zinn has not been single-handedly responsible for that, but almost. One of the things is that Jon comes out of a primarily nondual, Zen background (with Korean Zen, or Seon Buddhism, as one of his main sources for this style). The style of mindfulness that he develops is a style of mindfulness that is very much more of the nondual direction. One of the features of the nondual traditions in general is that they claim that somehow the qualities of enlightenment are fully innate to the mind itself, so that, in a way, practice is just about getting out of the way. It is not about doing something; it is really mostly about not doing something, and the natural qualities of enlightenment will emerge when you do that. Hence on that model of practice, there is not a lot of emphasis on ethics or compassion, because it is thought that those will emerge naturally if you simply become aware of the nature of mind itself and allow that nature of mind to become fully evident to you, to, in a sense, blossom or “buddha,” literally (which is what “buddha” means whenever its meaning is to blossom), then the ethical activity and compassionate activity and so on will just spontaneously manifest. Now, that is a totally legitimate Buddhist position. There is nothing at all problematic about that, but it also happens to align very well with certain features of our modern lives and what you might call the style of modernity. There is great work on this. There is a book by David McMahan called the Making of Buddhist Modernism in which he discusses some of this. David also has recently received a Mind and Life Contemplative Studies fellowship to take some of that work to the next step. You could say that, as David points out and some other people as well, there are some basic features of liberal religiosity or spirituality in modernity that that style of mindfulness very easily adapts to. They go hand-in-hand to a certain degree.
There is a whole story about the turn away from rationality and toward affect or emotion in the 19th century. Some people say that the paragon of this is Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, the 19th-century German theologian who basically says that true religiosity is about feeling. It is not about what you believe. Of course, with scientific rationality critiquing so much of what religions believe and with his audience being largely artists and so on who already are alienated from the church that was telling them, “Oh, this is the creed you need to accept.” So this is a way to kind of insulate religiosity from scientific rationality. Science can have all of the natural world; religion is just about feeling. It is just about some inexpressible feeling even.
Another feature is the tendency toward Western individualism that emerges in modernity that is [characterized by] a sense of the individual being one’s own authority, and that then one is standing in opposition to traditional religious institutions acting as authorities. Not only is their authority declining – people call it the “secularization thesis,” meaning religious tradition or religious authority declines as modernity grows (there is some question about whether that is true, but in any case, certainly [its applicable] for people who are liberal in their religiosity) — but the reaction to the critique of traditional religious authority is not to fight back.
There was a great article in the New York Times about two rafting trips down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. One is a group of Darwinists who go down and look at all the fossils and say, “See, so evolution works.” The other is creationists who go down and look at all the same fossils and say, “Yeah, so the world was created by God.” The creationists are not being irrational. They are being rational. They are fighting against science using what they think counts as good evidence, which includes scripture. A person liberal in their religiosity says, “We’re not going to fight against science.” So what’s left? Just a sense of spirit, just affect, just feeling. That is what left. Since the institutions are based upon that type of authority and since there is also the sense of individual authority growing in modernity, then the move away from institutional religion to a kind of personal religion – no need to hold a creed, an ability to sort of have your own practice, so to speak – is a big appeal of modern mindfulness.
Another feature that is very important in modernity is that life is about now, especially the new now, the fresh now. Those are very traditional metaphors. For example, in Dzogchen and Mahamudra too, the idea of freshness – the freshness of the present moment – exists. Those kinds of metaphors in the nondual traditions align very well with this spirit of modernity which is all about the now, not about the next life, not about the transcendent, but the here and now. Those various aspects of modernity just align with these traditions such that they are in many ways challenging mainstream traditions and that deliberately exist in opposition or on the margins. They were always in the minority; in some ways now they’ve become the majority. It is interesting.
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