Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening


Having taught Buddhadharma for almost 40 years, Joseph Goldstein has written or been co-author of many books. His newest, to be published November 1, is Mindfulness: A Practical Guide for Awakening. While his earlier books focused on various teachings about meditation and other insight practices, distilling the Buddha’s teachings as he learned them from his teachers, Munindra, Goenka, and Sayadaw U Pandita, his new book comes from a deep personal investigation of the Satipatthāna Sutta, one of the key texts in the Pāli Canon. Sparked by reading Bhikkhu Anālayo’s book on this sutta, Goldstein’s investigation eventually led to many hours of new Dharma talks (delivered at the Forest Refuge in Barre, MA) and now this book. His line-by-line reading of the sutta in this inquiry opened new levels of understanding of the teachings and how to apply them to practice.

Insight Journal: Many people know the Satipatthāna Sutta has been deeply ingrained in your practice for a long time. In some ways that makes it obvious why you would write about it, but in other ways, why would you expect to find new inspiration? What was the actual motivation, after spending all this time with it?

Joseph Goldstein: The initial motivation was reading Anālayo’s book, Satipatthāna, the Direct Path to Realization. It inspired me to look more deeply and carefully into the text. Of course I had read the Sutta many times before, but my application of it, for many years, was through the particular meditation instructions I received from Munindraji, Goenkaji, and Sayadaw U Pandita. So the practice of it, until now, had been drawn more from my teachers than from the text itself. Reading Anālayo’s very careful, even-handed analysis, presenting many sides to the questions that arise from the text, really sparked my interest in going back to a line-by-line reading of the sutta, to see how it can be understood and practiced.

So I thought, ‘well, I’ll give a series of talks at the Forest Refuge’–thinking that it would only be four or five talks. But the more carefully I looked at it, the more clearly I saw the wealth of teachings there.

IJ: How many talks did you end up giving?

JG: Forty-seven talks! That totally surprised me. I had no idea that it would evolve that way. Then, at a certain point, it made sense to gather this material into a book, to make the material more accessible.

IJ: When you dive in with someone like Anālayo, a PhD monk, deep in both scholarship and practice, you start right with the title, and with the one word that’s part of the title, [sati]–what does that mean? There’s a whole set of possibilities, and you haven’t even gotten past the title yet!

JG: Yes. I remember when Sayadaw U Pandita was in Barre, he gave many, many talks on the syllable “pa” of Sati-pa-tthāna! Every night when we came in, he would say, “I would like to continue with my discussion of ‘-pa-.’” So for great scholars and practitioners there’s a goldmine of meaning.

IJ: This word sati, “mindfulness” as usually translated, has become the most pervasive word used in Buddhism in the West. Has your study of this sutta and the writing of the book made you more precise about what that word means, and how it is used?

JG: Yes, definitely. In exploring the discourse and doing more background study, through reading different scholarly works and other texts, I realized that sati has a wide range of meanings and applications. Its popular usage often reflects a limited understanding of what it means.

It is a bit like asking, “What is art?” or “What is love?” We can give a one sentence reply, but the word contains so much more than can be expressed that simply. I think sati is like that. Just to give one of many examples, the common understanding of “what does mindfulness mean?” would be “being in the present moment,” or “connecting to the present moment.” But that leaves out the entire ethical dimension of mindfulness, a dimension essential to its meaning. We can be present, or connected to the present moment experience, but with all kinds of different mind states. We can be in the present moment filled with anger, or filled with greed; although we may be in the present moment, we’re not being mindful. We may even recognize it as the present moment experience, but there are key differences between recognition and mindfulness. Recognition–in Buddhist psychology–is the function of perception. That’s a different function than mindfulness. The ethical dimension of mindfulness reflects the understanding that mindfulness is always a wholesome state. It’s never associated with unwholesome mental factors. So even when unwholesome states, like greed or anger, are present, in the very moment when we are mindful of anger, for example, and not identified with it, in that moment, we are not angry. This is something that each of us should investigate for ourselves.

ij18Oct2013-1020839.jpgIJ: Mindfulness has become, to use a fancy word, a synecdoche, a part of the teachings that stands for the whole practice. Did the Buddha himself use the word sati in the same part-for-the-whole way that we tend to use “mindfulness” today?

JG: The Buddha did use the term ‘mindfulness’ in a wide variety of ways, but each of them has quite specific meanings. This range of meanings may not be included in the general use of the term today. For example, one of the root meanings of sati is “to remember.” Rupert Gethin, a well-known Buddhist scholar, notes that with sati one of the things one remembers, or bears in mind, is what’s wholesome and what’s unwholesome. Within the Abhidhamma teachings, it is interesting that mindfulness is a component of every wholesome state of mind: if there’s generosity, there’s some degree of mindfulness. If there’s lovingkindness, there’s mindfulness. So this again shows the power of mindfulness in our lives.
And, conversely, if there’s mindfulness, it means that many of the other wholesome qualities are also there. So there’s a lot of subtlety and richness to how sati works in our minds.

IJ: You mentioned that Anālayo’s book was the inspiration for your new study of the Satipatthāna Sutta. Since that time you’ve been able to meet with him. How did that conversation work into the idea of writing the book or the actual writing of the book?

JG: Not so much, because the talks had all already been given, and I was well into the process of writing. What will be interesting is that he himself is writing another book on Satipatthāna with a slightly different slant. He is comparing it to the Chinese version, from the texts known as the Āgamas. There are some things in the Pāli version that are not in the Chinese texts. So he’s considering the Satipatthāna Sutta from the perspective of what’s common to both versions. This is an interesting investigation, and one that might lead to particular ways of practice; however, all of the sections of the Pāli version of the Sutta are still essential parts of the Buddha’s teaching. Whether the early compilers pulled other texts into the Satipatthāna Sutta, or they were originally there–who knows. From a practice point of view, all the teachings contained in the Pāli version can be vehicles for awakening, for realizing the Four Noble Truths.

IJ: As we’ve already discussed, you were already familiar with the sutta before you read Anālayo’s book. Are there other particular books that you’ve drawn on in writing the book or that were influential?

JG: One of the benefits of reading Anālayo’s book was his extensive use of footnotes. This led me to investigate many of the other suttas he referenced. For this, I mostly used Bhikkhu Bodhi’s wonderful series of translations, The Teachings of the Buddha. One of the changes that I made, when I was including actual text in my book, was, for the most part, to leave the word dukkha untranslated. I think that the usual translation of dukkha as “suffering” is too limiting, and often leads to misunderstanding. So in the book and in teaching, I prefer to leave the word untranslated and then to explore the whole range of its meaning, which then makes more sense of what the Buddha meant when he said he teaches just one thing: dukkha and its end.

One other change I made was to use gender-neutral pronouns wherever possible, for example, changing “he” to “one,” to make the language somewhat more inclusive.

IJ: I think the scholar Glenn Wallis somewhere lists all the various ways he’s seen dukkha translated into English, and it takes up most of a page. Insight Journal just published a paper that Akincano Weber delivered at the conference on secular Buddhism, and he related a story about a woman who came up to him and said “All these years I’ve been hearing this word dukkha and I just realized this anger that I’m having is dukkha!

How would you explain what makes this book different to someone familiar with your other books, that focused on a broad range of practice themes, and various texts?

JG: Because of the comprehensive nature of the Satipatthāna Sutta, I think this work is more complete than any of my previous books. So much of the teaching is included in this one discourse. I go into a fair amount of detail on each of the aspects in the sutta, so there’s a wealth of Dharma teachings. It was amazing to me, as I said in the beginning, that it ended up being 47 talks on what are only a few pages from the Pāli canon. I was amazed to see how each line opened up into a great expanse of Dharma understanding. I think this book is a more comprehensive or holistic view of the Buddha’s teachings, of the path, of the different ways of instruction. It feels more complete to me, in a certain way. And it’s much longer! {laughs}

IJ: It’s not the abbreviated version of the teachings?

JG: Exactly. However, it is also the kind of book that one could either read through–because it follows the outline of the sutta–or open to almost any chapter, because many of them are complete in themselves with regard to a particular teaching. Many chapters are self-contained as well as being part of a longer narrative. For example, you could look through the table of contents and pick some topic of interest, whether it’s the aggregates, or a particular hindrance, or any of the Four Noble Truths.

In addition, there are many quotations, both from the Satipatthāna Sutta and from many other discourses in the Pāli canon. Since all of these quotations are referenced, it becomes easy for readers to enter into the world of the Pāli canon for themselves, exploring the implications and elaborations of points of interest.

IJ: To start with a practice theme, or a concept, and find various sutta references?

JG: Yes. I’m hoping that will be helpful to people, and an invitation to explore the texts themselves, indicating the richness of the actual words of the Buddha, rather than our words about them.

ij18Oct2013-1030114.jpgIJ: You mentioned Gethin, are there other books, not translations, that you used as source material, that particularly stand out?

JG: Besides Anālayo’s book and various writings and translations of Bhikkhu Bodhi, there is also a wide range of material from other traditions, bringing in Tibetan and Zen teachings, and different contemporary references. So there are illustrations and commentaries from a wide range of sources.

IJ: What is the significance of the wording in the official title of the book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening?

JG: I purposely chose Mindfulness as the title because I wanted to expand the meaning of the word from its popular usage, and re-link it to the goal of liberation. Because mindfulness is now so widespread, and with so many good effects, sometimes it is easy to lose sight of the understanding that the Buddha taught it as a vehicle for awakening. That is the deepest meaning, even as we apply it in different ways. Applied mindfulness can be very effective in alleviating the symptoms of suffering; the fullness of the Buddha’s teaching addresses the very causes of suffering.

IJ: Words are like tools that get dull after a while; that one needs sharpening. Do you want to talk about the writing process?

JG: Besides the many hours in front of the computer, I would like to offer a great bow of gratitude to the two wonderful editors who worked on the book, Nancy Burnett of the Forest Refuge and Amy Rost of Sounds True. I have tremendous appreciation for their contribution to the clarity of the work, both in organization of content, and in refinement of language. One thinks one either speaks or writes fairly good English, but when you’re working with a professional, the standards are somewhat higher. There’s a much greater refinement of expression that’s possible, which I appreciate a lot, because it’s all in the service of greater clarity.

IJ: I think a lot of people have seen you as a trusted source of advice on practice, and how, particularly as a Western Dharma student, to approach these problems, the subtle nuances of the texts, and so on. Even though this is a different book in a way, is someone still going to find a lot of that in this book?

JG: Yes, completely. The book is very practice oriented. My intention was to look at the text very deeply and carefully, in terms of how to put the teachings into practice. I drew a lot on my own practice and the experience of many others over the years. Even as it uses the framework of the discourse, there’s a wealth of practice material, such as long discussions of the hindrances, of the factors of awakening, of how to practice with feeling. It’s all in there.

IJ: So you’re embodying the BCBS mission: the integration of study and practice.

JG: Yes, exactly! I think this book, in some ways, is just that.

IJ: Has the experience of writing this book changed the way you approach study and practice? That is, will you be studying more than you have in the past, for example? Has it changed the way you balance study and practice?

JG: I have always had a great appreciation for grounding the practice in an understanding of the texts. Our personal, meditative experience is always limited, and a study of the teachings can provide a much broader and deeper perspective, opening us to new possibilities of understanding. On all my self-retreats, I spend a little time each day going back to the Suttas. And in the silence of the retreat space, they resonate and really come alive. It’s a continual learning, and this reading of the texts invigorates my dharma practice in sometimes unexpected and transformative ways.

IJ: For those who are inclined to include serious study of the suttas as part of their practice, how would you advise them to hold it?

JG: There are many ways to undertake this study. It could be by taking courses at BCBS or places like it, where there are so many opportunities to systematically explore the teachings. It could be by reading the texts by oneself, always trying to connect them to one’s own experience. Fortunately, we now have such wonderful English translations of the Pāli suttas, which gives us direct access to the Buddha’s words. I’ve also greatly appreciated Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introductions to his translations; the introductions themselves offer a wealth of meaning and understanding. So we interweave times of study and practice, with each enriching the other.

IJ: What has changed in your appreciation of sati, based on your study of the sutta, versus how you practiced based on the transmission from your teachers?

JG: My understanding of what sati means and how it functions in the mind has expanded greatly. The English translation, mindfulness, doesn’t necessarily convey the full scope of its meaning. And the many different ways of practice outlined in the Sutta offer a variety of meditative tools that were not highlighted in the particular ways I learned the practice. As just a couple of examples, before this recent study of the text, I had not given much attention to the difference between what the Buddha called “worldly and unworldly feelings” or how mindfulness of the elements weakens the defilement of conceit. There are also many other aspects of how to practice mindfulness that I explore in the book.

IJ: Are there other areas or topics in the suttas that you might explore more deeply now?

JG: What most surprised me in writing the book was how much of the teachings is contained in this one sutta, and how each section of it points to many other discourses in which the Buddha elaborated on these topics. One of the things I love to do is to open the different sutta collections at random and see what captures my interest. Not being a Buddhist scholar, which requires its own rigor, I enjoy the spontaneity of simply seeing which suttas engage me at any particular time. Of late, I’ve been interested in exploring the range and depth of the meaning of dukkha. This feels quite compelling, as the Four Noble Truths all revolve around this one word: dukkha, the truth of it, its cause, its end, and the way leading to it is end.