Saturday, November 15, 2008


The characters in the photo, from the edition of Fukan-zazengi written in Master Dogen's own hand read SHO-NEN, representing the Sanskrit SAMYAK SMRTI, which is conventionally translated into English as "right mindfulness."

What is SMRTI?

Setting aside the secondary issue of what English word to use as a translation of SMRTI, and going back to the source, what did Ashvaghosha really mean by SMRTI?

We see from Saundarananda that Ashvaghosha emphasized very much the vital importance of SMRTI, as a safeguard against faults. Faults can be understood as manifestations of a lack of integrity and self-restraint -- Ashvaghosa cites hypocrisy along with passion, malice, delusion and the rest. So what did he mean by SMRTI? How does it work?

The origin in Sanskrit of the word SMRTI is the verb whose root is SMR, to remember. SMARATI means "he remembers."

On November 11th, I was watching on TV the faces of people involved in remembrance day services, especially the faces of very old people who really were remembering. Clearly, there is a part of the brain that is particularly deeply implicated in the act of remembering, and these old people were allowing that part of the brain to function unimpeded.

Sitting outside in the sun just now, listening to low-flying aircraft buzzing overhead, like missiles straight from Mara, it occurred to me that SMRTI must have to do with using those parts of the brain that are particularly implicated in memory, in order to suppress, or inhibit, the "reptilian faults" (DOSHA-VYALAN) arising from within the deepest and oldest parts of the brain.

FM Alexander called this kind of inhibitory activity "thinking" -- by which he most certainly did not mean intellectual thinking.

My Sanskrit is not yet good enough to make the argument convincingly, but I suspect that Ashvaghosha also used the word "thinking" (CITTA) to express this kind of inhibitory activity.

In Saundarananda 16.33, Linda Covill translates Ashvaghosha as follows:

Right mindfulness conjoined to the plan for the discovery of the truth, and right concentration -- these two occur in the ordinance on yogic practice, and are a basis for peace in order that one's thoughts may be circumscribed.

The final words of this sentence in Sanskrit are CITTA PARIGRHAAYA.

CITTA is here translated by Linda Covill as "thoughts," but the Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary defines CITTA as "attending, observing; thinking, reflecting.... etc."

PARIGRAHAAYA is here translated by Linda Covill as "in order that... may be circumscribed." -AAYA represents the dative case, denoting purpose or result ("in order that"). Monier-Williams defines PARIGRAH as "to take hold of on both sides, embrace, surround, enfold, envelop; to fence round, to occupy on both sides; to seize, clutch, grasp, catch; to take or carry along with one; to take possession of, master."

So maybe a case can be made that CITTA PARIGRHAAYA expresses not so much the circumscribing, or fencing around, of thoughts but rather the mastery of thinking.


Mike H said...


you've been moaning about these planes for years.

If you got a job doing something that plays to your skillset you could easily be on your way to moving away from the planes that seem to upset you so much within a year.

Maybe I'm wrong, and you have got yourself a job but I dobt it.

Frankly, I don't think you are the least bit interested in solving your problems. You seem to love them far too much.

How else can you explain how little progress has been made for so much [apparent] effort?

Mike Cross said...

"A man is imprisoned by unreal imaginings about a sense object, but when he sees that very same sense object as it really is, then he is freed... Sense objects are not the cause of bondage or liberation; whether attachment arises or not is due to specific imaginings. For this reason you should control your senses with the maximum of effort..."

Saundarananda 13.50

"So observe the sufferings of passionate men arising from their passions, beginning with the acquisition of wealth, and cut them off at the root, as though they were enemies calling themselves friends."

Ibid 15.5

mr. anonymous said...

My take... it's true. Maladaptive habitual behavior may continue to manifest for the rest of the lifetime. It's largely out of our control, due to innumerable past conditioning events. What we can change is our relationship to these phenomena. We can become more compassionate to the helplessness we feel in the face of such an onslaught. Rather than requiring the sense objects to change (habits), we slowly change out relationship to them (compassion, allowing). It's like taking the brake off of a spinning wheel to discover, strangely, that the wheel slows down, albeit with a gradualness that exists to give us an opportunity to develop patience as well.

Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Mr Anon.

My ears are very far from perfect but what you wrote rings true to them.

To use another metaphor, perhaps we can say that the way to inhibit the reptilian faults, through mindfulness, is not to try to keep a lid on them but rather to look more deeply into them, and see them as they are.

I cannot claim that this method has proved totally successful for me thus far. But I have got plenty of experience of the trying-to-keep-a-lid-on approach, as practised by self and as seen in others, and I do see that it is an approach that cannot work.

One cannot inhibit the reptilian faults with a reptilian response (like anger) just as surely as one cannot do an undoing.

Raymond said...


Your connection between mindfulness and remembrance is interesting and I will look forward to learning more about it as your Sanskrit gets better.

I have learned recently that several religions were truthful enough to recognize the necessity of the Reptilian faults as a way to bring us back to remembrance. Sufism, in particular, reminds us that our own devilish thoughts remind us to turn toward God and humble us from arrogance. Similarly, Shohaku Okumura mentions in a newsletter that our own poisonous mind-states allow us to reorient ourselves to practice ie. remembrance, as an anecdote to those faults.

Perhaps the fact that the Reptilian faults continue endlessly ensures that we will have some way to remember to practice endlessly.


Mike Cross said...

Hi Raymond,

In my experience, having lived in Japan for 13 years and having been married to a Japanese for 18 years, there is a strong bias that many Japanese people have towards any kind of doing and against any kind of thinking.

So, in general, when a Japanese Zen Master "reorients" himself to practice, his remembering is liable to be remembering to do something -- like pull in his chin, breathe abdominally, stiffen his spine, or some other kind of fixing.

I don't say that Shohaku Okumura is like that, because I have never met him. If he has freed himself from habitual Japanese bias and habitual Japanese prejudice and habitual Japanese cultural arrogance, then very good for him.

Forgive me -- but experience has made me very skeptical, or cynical, about all things Japanese.

Raymond said...


Your post is interesting. I guess I can really only speak for myself. My own tendency in reorienting myself back to practice is to seek acceptance of the external and if there is something disagreeable in my experience, to try to find out why I am having difficulty accepting something that "is".

Perhaps my cultural bias is to change my thoughts because I see them as more intimately connected to my own contentment. I think we probably need both mind and body mindfulness, but I believe the Buddha to have taught that mind is foremost. Of course, I am always open for revision if someone presents a more compelling viewpoint.


Mike Cross said...

Oh Raymond, oh Raymond.

Is it possible that your friend you went for dinner with was not simply holding up a mirror?

And now with your intellectual arguments are you not holding up a mirror to me, so that I am confronted again with the fault of prolixity in myself?

My grandma, never known as an intellectual, used to say "There's joy in believing."

But what joy is there is there in the intellectual belief you express -- belief in a view, an opinion?

Ashvaghosha's writings help me to recover the belief that there is an end to the reptilian faults, that there is such a thing as ultimate liberation -- which is like faultless true gold, not fool's gold.

I have no compelling viewpoint to present to you. I have the determination to clarify what Ashvaghosha really meant. For some reason, I really believe in the genuineness of his teaching, which he compared to serviceable gold.

Don't you want to receive a share of that gold for yourself?

Isn't it true that your own views are something utterly different from the desire to get Ashvaghosha's gold for yourself?