Sujato's A History of Mindfulness

thumbnail
Fitter Stoke, modified 7 Years ago.

Sujato's A History of Mindfulness

Posts: 489 Join Date: 1/23/12 Recent Posts
I've been reading (but haven't finished) Bhante Sujato's A Brief History of Mindfulness: How insight worsted tranquility in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. Reading all those Pāḷi words is massively headache-inducing (dig my diacriticals?), but if you're into incredibly geeky and detailed technical discussions of Buddhism and Buddhist history, you'll ignore the blood vessels as they burst in your head as I did.

My problem with this book is the same problem I have with any of these books written from the perspective of "this is the more authentic practice." It's captured nicely in Sujato's blog post summarizing the argument of the book:

Bhante Sujato:
Modern teachings on mindfulness are almost exclusively derived from a peculiar 20th century interpretation of one text, the Pali Satipatthana Sutta. This doctrine, the vipassanavada, says that satipatthana is a practice of ‘dry insight’, where the meditator, without previous practice of tranquility meditation, is ‘mindful’ of the changing phenomena of experience. This alone is sufficient to realize enlightenment.

When we carefully consider the range of teachings found in early Buddhist texts on mindfulness, it becomes clear that this doctrine does not hold up.


The bolded part is where I wish the discussion would go in the direction of, "When we consider these different practices based upon different interpretations of the text, it becomes clear that some practices are better than others for achieving awakening. [And by "awakening" I mean x, y, and z.]" Instead it becomes the fascinating though slightly less useful discussion of what the original teaching is - which is useful only if you think there is one, unequivocal, worthwhile awakening, and the historical Buddha got it, and everything since then has been a fall from grace.

The book is well worth the headache just to get to the part near the end (or to skip to the part at the end, as I did) where he offers a reconstruction of the original Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta - and then offers his interpretation of how to apply these instructions in an actual sit. So-called "mindfulness meditation" starts to look uncannily like jhāna meditation.

But here are the questions I have, and they're questions that I've had for awhile and aren't just connected to this book:

If you follow an approach like that described in the Ānāpānasati Sutta or the reconstructed Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, will you end up at a different destination (different perception of reality, different kind of awakening) than if you do a "dry insight" practice that is focused on perceiving the three characteristics? Or is it basically the same? Did the Mahasi folks (and Tibetan folks and Zen folks) basically find an alternative road to the same destination?

And before anyone tells me, "Go test it out, dude!" let's keep in mind that it takes lots of time (often on lengthy retreats) to master either one of these approaches to the point where significant breakthroughs occur. The most useful thing would be to get a bunch of monks who practice different techniques and ask them about their attainments and baseline experiences of reality and put them in MRI machines, etc., but clearly I'm a hippie and a dreamer to speak this way.

Unless someone else knows of resources that go in this direction...?
thumbnail
fivebells ., modified 7 Years ago.

RE: Sujato's A History of Mindfulness

Posts: 566 Join Date: 2/25/11 Recent Posts
Thanks for the pointer, Fitter, looks like an interesting book. I have not read it, but I think Thanissaro's book Right Mindfulness takes a similar position, though more from a pragmatic than a historical perspective. But I've been getting very interested in how these things fit together historically, lately. (The textbook Thanissaro collaborated on, The Buddhist Religions, looks at the history of Buddhist culture, but my sense is that behind the cold-blooded academese he is ruthlessly dismissive of anything which can't be traced back to early Buddhism.)

My own take on it is that people should do what works. If Mahasi noting works as-is, go for it. But a lot of people seem to struggle with it when they hit some emotionally difficult material, and then other practices -- to explicitly develop tranquility or fluency in more elaborate categorizations for insight practice like dependent origination or the 4NT -- can play a very important role in getting them unstuck.

It seems to happen over and over again that someone finds a practice which gives them traction, and then to them it's the One True Answer, but as a result they often ignore the foundational developments which occurred while they were casting about for something which worked, or ignore their unusual personal strengths. Then the practice will work for people who are strong in the areas the founder ignores, but other people may need to go off and develop those strengths in a more conscious way.

Daniel should correct me if I'm wrong, but based on some of the things he's said here and in MCTB, I get the impression that his personality as it naturally evolved prior to his interest in spiritual training tended to be unusually disciplined, ethical and equanimous. For those of us who didn't start out with these virtues, there are ways to develop them, but it is natural that we should have to look to someone other than Daniel for this, someone who had to consciously develop them themselves. For those who already share these traits with earlier-Daniel, Mahasi looks like a great fit.
thumbnail
fivebells ., modified 7 Years ago.

RE: Sujato's A History of Mindfulness

Posts: 566 Join Date: 2/25/11 Recent Posts
Hmm, I read the foreword and afterword. He outlines his methodology, but not his conclusions. Is there somewhere else to look for those?
thumbnail
Fitter Stoke, modified 7 Years ago.

RE: Sujato's A History of Mindfulness

Posts: 489 Join Date: 1/23/12 Recent Posts
The blog post I linked summarizes nicely.