Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Cultivating Mindfulness

Ānāpānasatiṁ Rāhula bhāvanaṁ bhāvehi.

"Cultivate the cultivation, Rāhula,"
the Buddha advises Rahula,
"that is mindfulness while breathing."

How does one cultivate this mindfulness?

Not by trying, not by striving, not by going for it directly, not by end-gaining -- but rather by the opposite process of attending to a process.

Mindfulness is cultivated, in my limited experience, primarily by giving up the idea of gaining some end while directing the body to be "tending in a straight direction" (Sanskrit ṛjum; Pali: ujum), in such a way that this straightening direction does not bring with it a narrowing direction.

Expressed positively, the direction is that the body both lengthens and widens.

Such cultivation of mindfulness evidently belongs to what the Buddha, as quoted in ancient Pali texts, and also as quoted by Aśvaghoṣa, called bhāvanā.


"If some desirous idea, a fever of the mind,
Should venture to offend you,
Entertain no scent of it but shake it off
As if pollen had landed on your robe.//15.3//

Even if, through insight,
You have dropped off desires,
You must, as if lighting up darkness,
Abolish them by means of their opposite.//15.4//

What lies behind them sleeps on,
Like a fire covered with ashes;
You are to extinguish it, my friend, by means of cultivation (bhāvanā),
As if using water to put out a fire."//15.5//

"Understanding these noble truths, by a process of reasoning
While getting to know the four as one,
He prevails over all the influences, by means of cultivation (bhāvanā),
And, on finding peace, is no longer subject to becoming."//16.5//

So far so good. Translating bhāvanā as "cultivation" and understanding it along these lines, seems to work for me, seems to tally with what little experience I have got of cultivating mindfulness.

The word whose translation into English I am continuing to struggle with is nimitta, whose meanings include both "target" and "cause."

In the above description of cultivating that mindfulness which is the very opposite of end-gaining desires, and which is the means-whereby a practitioner prevails over the influences that pollute the mind, one could say that "to lengthen and widen" is a target; and one could say that mindfulness itself is the target for cultivation. One could also say that the whole procedure, including finding some empty time and space in which to sit or to lie down in order to cultivate mindfulness, is the cause of cultivating mindfulness.

Aśvaghoṣa uses nimitta in the sense of a "cause" in several places in Saundara-nanda, viz. in the words of the grieving Nanda in Canto 7, in the words of the striver who rails against women in Canto 8, and, maybe most tellingly in the words of the Buddha in Cantos 12 and 16:

"When the minds of the Sun's son Vaivasvata and the fire god Agni turned to enmity, When their grip on themselves was shaken, /
There was war between them for many years, over a woman
(strī-nimittaṃ; lit. with a woman as the cause).
What lesser being, here on earth, would not be shaken off course by a woman?" //7.27//

"When men of good families fall on hard times,
When they rashly do unfitting deeds, /
When they recklessly enter the vanguard of an army,
Women in those instances are the cause (nimittam)." //8.34//

"Again, I call it the Seed
Since it is the cause (nimittam) of betterment; /
And for its cleansing action, in the washing away of wrong,
Again, I call it the River. //12.39//

Since in the emerging of dharma
Confidence is the primary cause (kāraṇamuttamam), /
Therefore I have named it after its effects
In this case like this, in that case like that." //12.40//

Thus in 12.39-12.40 the Buddha seems pointedly to identify his usage of the more ambiguous word nimitta (target/sign/cause) and his usage of the less ambiguous word kāraṇa (cause). The Buddha does exactly the same thing again in 16.17-18, highlighting the identity of nimitta and kāraṇa:

"And this, the suffering of doing, in the world,
Has its cause (nimittam) in clusters of faults which start with thirsting -- /
Certainly not in God, nor in primordial matter, nor in time;
Nor even in one’s inherent constitution, and not in predestination or self-will. //16.17//

Again, you must understand how, due to this cause (etena kāraṇena),
Because of men's faults, the cycle of doing goes on, /
So that they succumb to death
who are afflicted by the dust of the passions and by darkness;
He is not reborn who is free of dust and darkness."//16.18//

Ānandajoti Bhikkhu, however, is evidently of the view that, in the context of discussion of cultivating
(a) the mindfulness which is the general antidote to end-gaining, along with
(b) specific antidotes to mental pollutants such as liking and disliking, ill-will, violence, discontent, passion, and "I am" conceit,
the meaning of nimitta is not "cause" but is more towards "target."
In developing the specific antidote to ill-will, for example, friendliness may be said to be the target.

Especially in view of 16.69, this seems eminently reasonable.

Just as a physician, for a disorder of bile, phlegm, or wind, 
-- For whatever disorder of the humours has manifested the symptoms of disease --
Prescribes a course of treatment to cure that very disorder, 
So did the Buddha prescribe for the faults. //16.69//

So the writing of today's post is part of the process whereby I am considering whether translating nimitta as "target" tallies with reason, tallies with the judgements of people who might know better than me, tallies with Aśvaghoṣa's own words, and tallies with what little experience I have got in this field of cultivation.

My own feeling is that whatever word brings us back in the direction of attending to the means, or the cause, is a good word, a safe word. And conversely a word like "target" is liable to be a dangerous word, a word that invites end-gaining.

Thus, a cursory search of the internet for modern-day interpretations of the meaning of nimitta yields some fairly whacky and exotic attempts, involving various kinds of imaginary objects, symbols, signs, and the like. Was it ever thus? Was it so in Aśvaghoṣa's time? Was Aśvaghoṣa seeking to draw us back to a more real and practical understanding of nimitta and bhāvanā, grounded in cause and effect?

I feel he might have been.

Aware of the fact, however, that my feeling is ever liable to be wrong, and not wishing to produce a translation that is unduly idiosyncratic, for the present I am leaning in the direction of translating nimitta, in the series of verses from 16.53 to 16.67, as "target."

But if anybody thinks nimitta is better translated as "a cause" or as "[both a] cause [of] and target [for cultivation]," I am open to persuasion -- or, in other words, am still wobbling.


jiblet said...

Hi Mike,

Just dropping by to say that I've no useful suggestions to make re the very tricky problem of how to translate nimitta.

Perhaps if I could get a handle on the relationship - if there is any - between the two primary meanings of nimitta as 1) a target, something to aim for/at, and 2) an instrumental or efficient cause, as the agency that brings about an effect or change of condition(?) then I might be able to take shot at it.

As it is, I do agree with you that "target or cause" is not so good. I'm not sure about 'target' by itself...I fumble with the loose ball and pass it back to you.


Mike Cross said...

In that case, Malcolm, in spite of your rubbish pash, I pounce on the loose ball and dive headlong into the bottom of a ruck.

This much I do know:

There's trying to be mindful, and there's mindfulness of trying.

My teacher, without any sense of irony, opined that Buddhists who pursue mindfulness are not true practitioners. He was opining through his arse.