From mindful eating to mindful leadership, the Buddhist concept of mindfulness is omnipresent in today’s culture.
But what do we know about the term itself? Does it have alternative translations? These are some of the questions Jeff Wilson explores in his book Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture. He writes:
Today, ‘mindfulness’ is well-established as the preferred translation of [the Pali term] ‘sati‘…. Sati literally means memory or remembrance. In its usage as a technical Buddhist meditation term, it usually also implies awareness, attention, or alertness. References to it can be found scattered throughout the Indian Buddhist canons and their commentaries, and naturally also in translations of these texts into various Asian languages.
So how did “mindfulness” become the preferred translation for the word “sati,” and what phases can we detect in the usage of the terms “mindful” and “mindfulness”? Jeff Wilson’s book offers us the following seven alternatives.
1. Ascertainment of Truth
In 1853, Robert Spence Hardy, one of the pioneers in the study of Buddhism, defined sati as “conscience or faculty that reasons on moral subjects; that which prevents a man from doing wrong and prompts him to do that which is right” and as “the ascertainment of truth.” This definition relates to the idea of awareness but doesn’t carry the original Buddhist meaning of memory or remembrance.
2. Watchfulness or Well Awake
In 1870, F. Max Muller, one of the most important 19th-century Orientalists, translated sati as “watchfulness” and “well awake.” This translation appeared in his version of Dhammapada, an ancient scripture containing the Buddha’s teachings.
3. Correct Memory
In 1871, Henry Alabaster, an employee of the British Consulate General in Siam, translated the seventh step of the Noble Eightfold Path as “correct memory.” (Today the seventh step of the Eightfold Path is known as “right mindfulness” or “skillful mindfulness.”)
4. Right Memory
Col. Henry Steel Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism was one of the most influential Buddhist texts of the late Victorian era. It was first produced in 1881 and rendered the seventh step of the Noble Eightfold Path as “right memory” instead of “right mindfulness.”
5. Intent Contemplation
Henry Clarke Warren was the first prominent American translator of Buddhist scriptures. In his 1896 translation of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, he chose not to translate sati as “mindfulness.” Instead, where other translators would talk about the “four foundations of mindfulness,” he used the term “four intent contemplations.”
6. Right Self-Discipline
In 1907, Paul Carus, editor of Open Court Press and a significant American interpreter of Buddhism, translated the seventh step of the Noble Eightfold Path as “right self-discipline” instead of “right mindfulness.”
7. Intent Meditation
In 1910, the Pali Text Society produced a fuller version of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. Translated by T. W. Rhys Davids and his wife Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids, it used “mindfulness” for sati, which had now become their preferred translation. Thus, what they had called the “four intent meditations” in 1886, they now called the “Fourfold Setting up of Mindfulness.” Other authors of the Pali Text Society followed their lead.
About the book’s author: Jeff Wilson is a professor of religious studies and East Asian studies for Renison University College, at the University of Waterloo. He has written several books about Buddhism and the interaction of Buddhism and various aspects of North American culture, including Mindful America and Dixie Dharma.