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A History of Mindfulness

posted by Greg Zwahlen
by Greg Zwahlen
In our What are the Suttas? study course last Saturday at the IDP New York City center, we had a look at a translation from Pali of the Satipatthana Sutta, and a session of meditation practice based on the instructions contained therein. Although the Pali recension of the Sutta is particular to Theravada Buddhism (and is a very important text in that tradition), the Sutta itself is (like most of the early canon) part of the shared inheritance of all Buddhists. 

Recently I’ve been interested in A History of Mindfulness, by Ajahn Sujato, a bhikkhu in the Thai Forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism. There is much that I admire about this book and its author, not the least of which is that he has generously made it widely available without charge (you can download it here). A History of Mindfulness is a comparative survey of the various surviving recensions of the Satipatthana Sutta, known in Sanskrit as the Sm?tyupasth?na S?tra.

Ven. Sujato’s approach to the dharma illustrates how careful, multidisciplinary study of Buddhist texts can illuminate one’s meditation practice. As we were studying the Sutta, we encountered ambiguous language that generations of Buddhists have grappled with. Different possible interpretations presented themselves to us. Ven. Sujato, interested in exploring a particular interpretive question of great interest to Theravadins in recent decades (which I’m not able to summarize here), is able to use the various versions as well as the modern academic disciplines to arrive at a few persuasive conclusions.
This illustrates the practical applicability of websites such as SuttaCentral, which I blogged about recently. I just recently discovered Ven. Sujato actually seems to be involved with that site as well. 
As he writes in A History of Mindfulness
The significance of such a historical approach to the teachings is still largely unrecognised among practicing Buddhists. In fact, our normal approach to the teachings is the very opposite of historical. An aspiring meditator first learns from the lips of a teacher whose words as they utter them must be the very latest formulation of the topic. Then they might go back to read some of the works of well-known contemporary teachers. Since devotees usually have faith that their teacher (or the teacher’s teacher) was enlightened, they assume, often without reflection, that the teachings must be in accord with the Buddha. Finally, if they are really dedicated, they may go back to read “the” Satipatthana Sutta. Once they come to the text itself, they are already preprogrammed to read the text in a certain way. It takes guts to question the interpretation of one’s teachers; and it takes not just guts, but time and effort to question intelligently.
Amen to that, and thanks Ven. Sujato for having the guts putting in the time and effort to do it. Unfortunately, sometimes even great teachers make assertions that reflect their biases at the expense of the truth. Thich Nhat Hanh, for instance, in his own otherwise excellent presentation of the Satipatthana Sutta (entitled Transformation and Healing, it also compares two versions), makes the preposterous assertion that jhana practice was some sort alien tradition that “infiltrated” Buddhism at a late period in time, and he implies that modern philology proves this assertion. Ven. Sujato (very politely) summarily demolishes this mistaken idea (pg 84). 
Taking the approach Ven. Sujato employs can not only clarify issues to do with meditation, it can address social concerns, and he has done that too. He’s been one of the leaders of the effort to extend the revitalized bhikkhuni ordination in the Theravada world, so that women can be fully ordained and the rampant sexism in the sangha can begin to be ameliorated. His research has served that cause–another one of his books (Sects and Sectarianism, also available free, which I also blogged about earlier) is a fine piece of work which helps bolster the case for the orthodox legitimacy of the ordinations while also presenting a refreshing perspective on the evolution of sectarian differences.
For more on the struggle to reestablish bhukkhuni ordination, see Ven. Sujato’s blog hereA History of Mindfulness is tough sledding at times, but the introductions in it and various other sections are of potential interest to anyone, and it’s free, so have a look.

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posted January 20, 2010 at 11:54 am

Glad you mentioned the bhikkhuni ordinations but what about IDP?
I see a panel of 3 men who know each other discussing Suttas and the most obvious question is “Where are the women who are studying them and why aren’t you having scholarly dicussions with them.”
It’s quite clear that there are no shortages of women in at least two sanghas we both belong to.
IDP’s Class line up it’s filled with men (excluding lineage holders). Granted I acknowlege Jessica Rasp work, Nuala Clark and Ellen Scordato in the past. What they’ve offered is valuable. Don’t get me wrong. But I’m waiting for the scholary girls that you’ve known prior to IDP to come around and add to hard core mix. Do you know any or do the dharmic women in your life play a different role?
I like you Greg but the obvious has to addressed.

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posted January 20, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Hi Damaris,
I’m not sure I agree that the IDP class line up is filled with men – it looks like a pretty good gender balance to me. Four of the five next guest lecturers are women. The regular classes feature all of the women you mentioned – a pretty sizable percentage of the regular teachers. As far as the What are the Sutras class goes, it’s true that we have three guys right now, but it’s a new thing and we’ve only had one class so far so perhaps its a little early to reach a verdict on it.
But yes, in general, when it comes to Dharma nerds there are always more guys then women, and it would be nice to have more balance. Why do you think that is? What do you suggest?

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posted January 20, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Hi Greg,
I’m confident that these classes will help assists future scholars and I believe we both agree on the potential for that. We also agree about the woman that are currently participating in other areas as well as the Lineage holders and guest lectures.
What I’m asking about are your peers and Ethan’s peers discussing scholarly text. Where are they? Who are they?
As to why “when it comes to Dharma nerds there are always more guys then women, and it would be nice to have more balance”. You tell me Greg you have your own Buddhist social circles. Please observe and ask around.
It seems to me that a geeks a geek regardless if its dharma and statistically there should be as many as the men more or less.
So the questions are:
1. They do exist so where are they?
2. And since they exist why are they not geeking about with the males?
3. Finally, since there is a high social component to the 2 sanghas we mutually engage in. ( I don’t know what other sanghas do and I’m keeping it simple.) Who are the geeks hanging out with?

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posted January 20, 2010 at 4:29 pm

The idea of the What Are the Suttas study course is that it is for people who are interested in looking at sutras directly. It actually isn’t all that dharma-nerdy. We’ve only had one class so far, but it had a good gender mix. And it is more like a study group with facilitators than a class with teachers.
I myself have scholarly interests, but I’m not a scholar in any sense. Although I’ve gone to see teachers and taken classes frequently over the years, when it comes to scholarly Buddhism most of what I’ve learned has come from reading books independently of any group. My sense is that there are more men than women with a scholarly interest in Buddhism, but I actually know very few people personally who I would consider dharma nerds. So I guess I’m not sure what you feel women are being excluded from, exactly, that you want me to ask around about.

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posted January 20, 2010 at 6:00 pm

I’m not stating any feelings about women being excluded. I’m asking are there woman interested in this kind of study and if yes who are they (and to add another can they join in scholarly debates)?
I’m asking you specifically if you know of anyone or had conversations with anyone interested in this type of scholarly study.
That is what I’m asking. I have a very limited social engagement with the sangha. This is why I’m posting these questions.

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posted January 20, 2010 at 6:26 pm

correction: not “scholarly debates” but facilitions of scholarly studies.

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Anan E. Maus

posted January 20, 2010 at 7:43 pm

I think the infinite spiritual mysteries of the universe do not reveal themselves so easily.
Most of us find it difficult enough to understand what Shakespeare is writing about.
So, I don’t think we should assume that everything written in scriptures is even possible for us to understand.
I think the meaning of the scriptures reveal themselves slowly, over time…with each new year, new decade we gain greater and greater understanding. I don’t think that ever ends.
So, I think it is safe to say, that wherever we are now and wherever we will be in the future, there will always be growth and progress we can make.

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posted January 21, 2010 at 10:38 am

Well, definitely anyone can take the What Are the Suttas course. It’s drop in, so you could even just come to one class.
Most of the conversations I have about scholarly study come in the comments section of this blog :)
I would make a distinction between actually doing the kind of work that Ven. Sujato did, and reading about his findings. Only a few people need to actually do that kind of work – the rest of us can benefit just by having access to the fruits of it, directly or indirectly.

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posted January 21, 2010 at 1:19 pm

There’s a excellent list of female Buddhist scholars and academics here:
I like this quote from that site:
Marie Beuzeville Byles (1900-1979) was an Australian pioneer of Buddhism, as well as the first woman solicitor in New South Wales. She authored many books on Buddhism, including Footprints of Gautama the Buddha which is still in print. Marie Byles was sensitive to the subjugation of women in traditional Buddhist societies; in another of her books (Journey into Burmese Silence, 1962), she commented: “All this monk-worship and nun servility would be merely a source of amusement to the tourist […] The Western man, even though a meditator, would probably hardly have noticed it unless he were very unusual. But when you are a woman meditator and a member of the servile community, you notice it very much indeed. And when you have been trained to abhor sex and class superiorities the abhorrence upsets your equilibrium and causes pain.”

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posted January 21, 2010 at 11:35 pm

thanks so much for posting the link and your thoughts on it. I’m now reading the introduction of his text, and more curious about the shamatha/vipashyana distinction historically.

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posted January 25, 2010 at 5:56 pm

It´s good to see someone pointing out our individual responsibility to examine and question our teachers and their teachings, and to read the source texts for ourselves. This is one of the great strengths of Buddhism: each person is responsible for his own grasp of Truth. Just skimming the surface and leaving the “heavy lifting” to teachers may work for some, but the real meat requires some work. Which is as it should be. Don´t just believe everything your teacher says. Ask questions. Use your mind. Don´t be lazy, and you might save yourself a lot of foolishness and karma and nara in the future.

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