“I never use the word mindfulness, except when I explain why I don’t use it,” spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle likes to mention during his talks. “There is nothing wrong with mindfulness … but to me mindfulness implies that your mind is full.”
If you follow (and love) Eckhart Tolle, then you know about his peculiar sense of humor which makes any otherwise heavy topic light and enjoyable — a quality that very few possess — and what makes him one of the most beloved spiritual teachers of our time. Instead of “mindfulness,” the term he likes to use is “present moment awareness” or simply “presence.” So how did mindfulness become the “mindfulness” as we use it today? Are there mindfulness alternative translations that we don’t know about? This is one 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 sati, and what phases can we we detect in the usage of the terms “mindful” and “mindfulness,” particularly in the United States? Jeff Wilson offers us the following seven mindfulness alternative translations:
1. Ascertainment of Truth
In 1853 the British Methodist missionary Robert Spence Hardy, one of the pioneering figures in the English-language study of Buddhism, defined [sati] variously as the “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 hardly carries any of the usual sense of memory, though it does relate to the idea of awareness as the faculty of discerning the reality.
2. Watchfulness or Well Awake
In 1870 F. Max Muller, one of the most important of the 19th century Orientalists, allowed his translation of the Dhammapada to appear in a book by Henry Thomas Rogers. Muller translated sati variously as “watchfulness” and “well awake,” again neglecting the sense of remembrance.
3. Correct Memory
In 1871, Henry Alabaster, an employee of the British Consulate General in Siam (Thailand), rendered the seventh step (samma-sati) of the Noble Eightfold Path as “correct memory.” This errs to the other side, failing to indicate what is being remembered or that remembrance relates to the activity of meditation.
4. Right Memory
One of the most influential English-language Buddhist texts of the late Victorian era was Col. Henry Steel Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism, first produced in 1881 and reprinted innumerable times since. … [In it] Olcott did not use the word “mindfulness” …. Instead, he rendered the seventh step of the [eightfold] path as “Right Memory.”
5. Intent Contemplation
The first significant American translator of Buddhist texts was Henry Clarke Warren, a reclusive scholar associated with Harvard University. In 1896 he published a version of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta in his Buddhism in Translations … But Warren chose not to translate sati as “mindfulness.” Instead, where later 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 another of the towering early American interpreters of Buddhism, described the seventh step of the eightfold path as “right self-discipline.”
7. Intent Meditation
The Pali Text Society produced its own, fuller translation of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta in 1910, which soon superseded Warren’s version. Translated by T. W. Rhys Davids and his wife Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids, it continued his earlier precedent of using “mindfulness” for sati, which now had become his preferred translation. Thus what in 1886 he had called the “four intent meditations,” he now called the “Four-fold Setting Up of Mindfulness.” The other authors of the Pali Text Society followed his lead.
Beside these interesting facts about mindfulness alternative translations, Mindful America is a fascinating and enlightening read in its totality. Chapter 1 of the book examines some of the mediating forces that have brought mindfulness to the United States. Chapter 2 looks at the ways in which mindfulness’ traditional Buddhist context is eroded away, a process necessary for it become more available for a wider secular audience. Chapter 3 examines how mindfulness has been taken up by the medical and psychology industries as an important new tool for their own ends. Chapter 4 is concerned with how mindfulness moves further into the mainstream of American society. Chapter 5 explores the marketing strategies and how mindfulness is used to make money in connection with various products, including mindfulness itself. The final chapter looks at the moral aspect of mindfulness: for many Americans, mindfulness provides a sense of values and a way to not only reconnect with the sacredness of life but also to potentially save the world itself.