Rough Transcripts of Joseph Goldstein’s Dharma Talks:

Mindfulness – The Gateway to Wisdom


This week we took a closer look at Mindfulness, which is the English translation of the word Sati.  Joseph noted that Mindfulness or Sati plays a central role in every Buddhist tradition.  Mindfulness was described as being the root of dharma, the body of practice, as the fortress of the mind, the aide to innate wakefulness. 


Joseph pointed out that Sati has several meanings and several functions, all of which are key to the growth of wisdom.  In one translation Sati has to do with remembering, or memory. 

In speaking of remembering, he refers specifically to the wholesome recollections of the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, one’s own ethical conduct and generosity, the devas, and ones own past lives.  When using Sati or Mindfulness, these reflections arouse in us a strengthening quality of faith because the context of our own individual struggles and practices are enlarged, connecting us to a long lineage of those (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) who have successfully traveled the path to liberation.  

Reflections on and acknowledgement of our commitment to ethical conduct, or Sila, powerfully strengthens our self-confidence and self-respect.  It is the understanding that “I can train the mind, I can guard my actions.” Even when there are lapses, it is the willingness, through reflection, to see our lapses, and then reconnect with our commitment that keeps our practice moving forward.  The Buddha also spoke of Sati as being the recollection of ones generosity as a way to generate lightness and joy – opening and softening the mind – preparing the mind for deeper insights.  In times of low energy and discouragement, contemplating all of these wholesome recollections can be used to help us reconnect with something bigger than ourselves.


Another meaning of Sati is not just remembering or the practice of recollection. It can be continually practiced in our meditation and our lives, which is Sati as Presence of Mind or present moment awareness.  Sati in this definition is the quality of wakefulness - being awake in each moment - Sati as non-interfering awareness aka Bare Attention.   In this evenness of mind there is not the suppression of anything, not the avoidance of anything, there is not a reaction to what is arising, it is simply that openness, present, attentiveness of mind.  It is this quality of detatched receptivity that allows for intuitive wisdom to arise.  We can begin to see all of our experience with Bare Attention / Open Awareness, thus allowing us to see all experience as empty phenomenon rolling on.  Joseph noted that the term ‘listening’ is a very good description of this quality of Bare Attention – where we are not trying to control anything, but just letting things be revealed.  This mental quality of Sati, or Mindfulness, of listening, has tremendous power – with a long list of benefits. 


One of the benefits of Sati is that it functions as a guardian of the sense doors.  It restrains the mind from Papancha, the Pali word for the proliferation of mind or thoughts.   It doesn’t mean that we close the sense doors down, but rather that we are mindful of what it is that is arising.  The purpose of this guardianship of the sense doors is to avoid the proliferations of desires, or wanting, of discontent – allowing us to abide more peacefully.   Joseph suggested that the sense door of seeing, the visual field is a very useful place to begin mindfulness and guardianship of the sense doors.


Mindfulness has another function, and that is that it serves to balance all of the other factors.  Because when we are Mindful we can actually see what factors are in excess, what factors are deficient, preventing imbalance.   This is one of the reasons Mindfulness is placed right in the middle of the five spiritual faculties -  faith, effort, Mindfulness, concentration and wisdom.  Mindfulness serves to balance faith and wisdom.  When there is too much faith we can get very dogmatic if faith is not balanced with wisdom.  We get attached to our views.  Faith also gets out of balance when our meditation practices is going well and we get overenthusiastic, aka pseudo-nirvana. On the other hand, there are times when wisdom gets stronger than faith such as the times when we have a genuine insight, and we become satisfied with that.  Without enough faith we lose the ability to keep us open beyond our current level of understanding.  Faith without wisdom increases ignorance.  To have understanding without faith increases wrong view. Mindfulness also keeps effort and concentration in balance.  Too much energy without enough concentration creates restlessness.  Too much concentration without enough energy creates sinking mind.  Without mindfulness we can easily stay lost in these states. Therefore, Mindfulness is the guardian of the sense doors, keeps the mind from proliferating into desire and discontent, and balances the different factors. 


Mindfulness also serves to guard the mind.  Mindfulness exerts a controlling influence on the quality of our thoughts and intentions.  Without mindfulness we are simply acting out all of the habit patterns of our conditioning.  In our lives our job is not to follow our hearts but to train our hearts.  This happens through the mindfulness of our habits.  Two aspects of this guarding function of Mindfulness are found in the distinction of wholesome and unwholesome thoughts – recognizing that unwholesome thoughts need more of our attention.  Thus, this distinction helps us to direct our attention.  If we are in the habit of thinking unwholesome thoughts, it strengthens the proliferation of these thoughts. So our attention and application of Mindfulness to unwholesome thoughts takes on more importance.  Mindfulness helps us with this distinction between wholesome and unwholesome thoughts.  With the unwholesome thoughts we must take a more active stance.  With wholesome states of mind we don’t need to spend as much time over guarding them.  Mindfulness of wholesome states takes the form of a more detached observation – a simple bare attention. 

As we abide in our practice being ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful we learn to find the appropriate balance between active and receptive - between doing and non-doing.  This distinction also helps us understand how the different  Buddhist traditions speak of Mindfulness and it points to further nuances in our understanding of Mindfulness.  Each tradition uses its own language but they are all pointing to aspects of our own experience.

One aspect of Mindfulness is that of a cultivated state where we are really making an effort to be attentive.  It is this kind of effort to be Mindful that brings us back to the moment when we are lost. 


In the Tibetan tradition using Mindfulness as a guardian is called ‘fabricated Mindfulness’.  In the Theravada tradition it’s called prompted consciousness. This refers to those mind states where by reflection or by determination of will we make a deliberate effort

However, there is another kind of consciousness that is unprompted.  When it is well cultivated, Mindfulness becomes the inclination of our minds and it starts to arise spontaneously.  No effort required – it is just happening by itself.

There is also a further discernment, on a more subtle level, even when Mindfulness is spontaneous, unprompted and effortless, we can still discern whether there is a presence of an observer.  We can notice the presence of a reference point in that Mindfulness, whether there is a sense of someone being mindful or not. 

So there is fabricated Mindfulness, prompted and unprompted Mindfulness, when it starts to arise spontaneously.   The last kind of Mindfulness is called un-fabricated Mindfulness, which is the innate wakefulness of the nature of mind.  The nature of our mind is awareness.  It’s called un-fabricated because it is not something that needs to be created – it is already here - in the same way that the nature of a mirror is to reflect what is in front of it.  So, un-fabricated Mindfulness is this innate wakefulness of the mind – this knowing capacity. 


There is no right or wrong among all of these aspects.  All of these aspects must work together in harmony.  They are all describing different aspect of our experience.  It is a very rare person who can abide in unprompted or un-fabricated Mindfulness without the support at times of appropriate effort, but as our efforts bear fruit, it begins to become unprompted we experience times of great ease.  It is at these times where our work is to let go.  Our job is to surrender through a more detatched form of awareness.   We need to sit back and trust the process.

Joseph suggested that it is helpful for each of us to note in our own practice all of these various aspects of Mindfulness.: whether it’s Mindfulness of remembering, using the different reflections, (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, Sila) we use Mindfulness to arouse faith, energy and joy.; whether its Mindfulness as this quality of presence of mind - present moment awareness - bare attention and begin to see all the different ways that it functions in us, that it can function in us.; whether it’s the guardian of the sense doors – begin to use it in that way and see how it functions to free the mind from proliferating desires.  See how it balances the factors, see how it’s the guardian of the mind and how we can discern between skillful and unskillful thoughts and mind states - then apply the more active engagement with unskillful thoughts and the more receptive mode with the unskillful states.  Learn to relax back into this natural unfolding. 

In closing Joseph suggested that within itself the mind is already peaceful.  That the mind is not peaceful is because it follows moods.  It becomes agitated because moods deceive it.  Sense impressions come and trick the mind into unhappiness, suffering, gladness and sorrow - but the mind’s true nature is none of these things.  Gladness or sadness is not the mind, but only a mood coming to deceive us.  The untrained mind gets lost and follows them.  It forgets itself and then we think it is us who is upset or at ease or whatever.  But really this mind of ours is already unmoving and peaceful – really peaceful. So we much train the mind to know these sense impressions and not get lost in them.  Just this is the aim of all of the difficult practice we put ourselves through.