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The Noble Eightfold Path 7

This is the sixth of seven blogs that use notes from the 2017 ‘The Buddhist Background To Mindfulness’ course. Each session covers one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path.

7. Right Mindfulness – Skt. samyak-smṛti / Pali sammā-sati

"And what is right mindfulness? (Asks the Buddha rhetorically): Here the monk remains contemplating the body as body, resolute, aware and mindful, having put aside worldly desire and sadness; he remains contemplating feelings as feelings; he remains contemplating mental states as mental states; he remains contemplating mental objects as mental objects, resolute, aware and mindful, having put aside worldly desire and sadness; This is called right mindfulness."

Sacca-vibhanga Sutta

Assuming that we are all more or less familiar with the practice of mindfulness I want this time to focus on the meaning of sammā – ‘right’. What is it that makes mindfulness right mindfulness?

Above the Buddha defines right mindfulness as relinquishing worldly desire and sadness, and being resolute, aware and mindful of the body, feelings (meaning the sensations of pleasure, displeasure or indifference), mental states (meaning grasping, aversion and hatred) and mental objects (being an experiential knowledge of the categories of deluded and awakened mental states found in the last section of the Four Contemplations of Mindfulness). From this it is apparent that what makes mindfulness right is a combination of awareness of our entire experience held within a certain understanding which impacts on how we are in relationship to the world.

This is said again in a different way when the answer to what makes mindfulness right is the presence of the other seven ‘path factors’ – right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort and concentration. The Noble Eightfold Path. The message is clear – right mindfulness must be understood in the context of right view and intention. Made applicable and stable through right effort and concentration. And expressed in the world within ethical relationships. So mindfulness accompanied by ethics and wisdom. Without the whole package it would be possible to be mindful – say – of seeking revenge. Here using ones honed attention to make sure that one does not deviate from ones goal and having achieved success tasting and savouring it fully. Though mindful this would be profoundly unwise as it generates many actions that will only lead to further and deeper suffering.

Critics of secular mindfulness – and here I include myself – have seen in its teaching of mindfulness as a means to create specific experiences – relaxation, sensual pleasure, mastery, concentration and adaptability to help productivity in the work place – a corruption of the original Buddhist practice. They believe that as soon as we single out something we want to achieve this drives the opposites into the ‘not wanting’ camp and before we know it we are back deeply in the grip of the three poisons: grasping, aversion and ignorance, (or the chicken, snake and pig). Going this way immediately obscures the ‘seven factors of enlightenment’: mindfulness itself, curiosity, open engagement, joy, tranquility, concentration and most importantly, equanimity. The message as usual is clear – partition parts of our unwanted self off and the joyous spacious acceptance of ourselves as a whole person will be the cost.

Of course it may be countered that if the Buddhist form of mindfulness is so great how come those countries that are ‘Buddhist’ still continue to behave periodically so badly? Perhaps one answer to this is that those persons who commit unwholesome and unskilful actions against those around them are simply not practicing Buddhism even though the culture around them is explicitly Buddhist. Similarly, it is more than possible that a person in Europe or America, having learnt mindfulness within a secular context, nonetheless develops a sensitivity that prevents them treating others like objects and opens them to the interconnectivity of all sentient beings. The culture may not be Buddhist but this way of being, even if not named ‘Buddhist’, is. A third approach, and probably the most useful is the truth that everyone when practicing mindfulness, irrespective of where they have learnt it, will at times be using their practice to achieve a desired for end – generally to ‘feel better’ – and at other times will recognise this is going on within their practice and drop it. Indeed, this accurately describes what the practice is all about. Within our practice arise the ‘five hinderances’ – wanting and not wanting, sleeping and agitation and doubt (grabby, grumpy, sleepy, jumpy and maybe). Noticing these mindfully and learning to remain mindfully present within them is the path. There is no other path other than this. So one might say that when I am wholly given over to just letting the poisons and hinderances roll over and consume me I am not practicing right mindfulness and the moment I engage more deeply, being present with the sensations and thoughts that arise with acceptance, kindness, non-judgement and (importantly) non-identification, in that moment right mindfulness is happening.

Moving on we can also reverse to whole direction of this enquiry. Right mindfulness clearly suggests that there is a right and wrong way to go about things; that there is a right practice and then a wrong one. However mindfulness, both how it is understood and how it is practiced, like everything else, is always in a process of change and in fact the seeming existence of a stable entity called ‘mindfulness’ is, according to Buddhism, no more than freeze framing this process of change by placing a name on a particular moment thus giving it the illusion of something with a separate objective existence. What in practice this means is that since its inception the understanding and methods of practicing mindfulness have evolved from its earliest conception within the Suttas, through the Abidhamma to the Theravada ‘Path of Purification’, the Mahayana and then Vajrayana Tantric adaptions, the emergence of the non-dual presentations found in Dzogchen and Mahamudra and finally in its latest appearance as Zen. More or less a two thousand year journey. Further more this journey has not been without hiccups. Each new expression has had its more conservative critics and particularly the non-dual forms have been branded by critics as non-Buddhist Chinese or Hindu heresies. Plainly Buddhists have not recognised as Buddhist a practice of mindfulness that several hundred years later has become yet another layer of Buddhist orthodoxy.

So bearing this in mind could it be that the secular mindfulness we see today is actually the new Buddhism of the future yet to be recognised by the Buddhism of the past? Certainly ‘mindfulness’ is now out in the public domain and the public are interacting with it while at the same time changing and expanding its meaning through their use. None of us can control this – it is happening and there can be no turning back….

One last twist. Confronted by this confusion of differing understandings and views we may find ourselves feeling quite strongly about a given position. My own hardening comes around who is qualified to teach mindfulness. Having been reticent about my own teaching for years and continuing to feel a complete fraud against the profound spiritual authority of my own Buddhist teachers, I am bothered and unhappy when someone entirely new to the practice springs into being as a mindfulness teacher after attending a weeks (or less) mindfulness teachers training. I just cannot accept that the complete lack of experience, often poor understanding and absence of any lineage is insignificant. Quite simply I see it as the blind leading the blind (and unfortunately without false modesty must include myself in this). Others may harden around the need for an ethical and wisdom base while others are offended by the apparent exclusivity and superiority of something that labels itself ‘right’ at the expense of the ‘wrong’. While I certainly do not know any of the answers here – if indeed they exist – what I would suggest is that we go back to our mindfulness and just see what is happening within ourselves when we harden. Speaking for myself it becomes immediately apparent to me that the issues around who is qualified to teach instantly and deeply connect into my own core wounding. The issues are real but my emotional reactivity, mindfulness reveals, is coming from a time at the beginning of my life when any thought of right or wrong mindfulness was still a long way away.

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