I don't know what mindfulness is.
The Sanskrit word that is generally translated (including by me) as "mindfulness" or "awareness" is smṛti.
Smṛti is from the root smṛ, which the dictionary gives as:
to remember , recollect , bear in mind , call to mind , think of , be mindful of.
When Chinese translators looked for a Chinese character to represent that word, they opted for 念 (NEN), whose two component radicals, appropriately enough, are 今, now, and 心 heart/mind.
In the original version of his rules of sitting-zen for everybody, Dogen writes of true mindfulness being distinct and clear.
"True mindfulness" is 正念 (SHO-NEN):
If ever anybody asked Gudo Nishijima what 正念 (SHO-NEN) actually meant, you wouldn't catch him saying "I don't know." What he would say, one hundred times out of a hundred, whenever he had the chance, was that 正念 (SHO-NEN) is the consciousness we have when the autonomic nervous system is in a state of balance.
I do not buy that attempt to reduce mindfulness to the physiology which may underpin it. Saying that mindfulness is the consciousness we have when the autonomic nervous system is in a state of balance is like saying mindfulness is the consciousness we have when our diet is healthy. The truth as the Buddha expresses it is not like that. The Buddha tells Nanda that a balanced diet conduces to mindful practice, not that diet itself is the means whereby mindfulness is cultivated. In much the same way, as I see it, balance of the autonomic nervous system is a condition that conduces to mindful practice, but what is required is practical understanding of the means whereby mindfulness can be cultivated, and a theory about the autonomic nervous system, in my book, does not cut the mustard.
Aśvaghoṣa in Saundara-nanda does not try to tell us what mindfulness is. But he gives us clues as to where mindfulness fits in the natural order of things. I shall consider these clues in more detail in a subsequent post, particularly in light of the description of Nanda's progress in Canto 17, where mindfulness features before, during, and after Nanda's practice of sitting-dhyāna.
Suffice to say, for a start, that in the same way that Dogen first discusses the practice of sitting upright and naturally becoming one piece, and then praises the virtue of true mindfulness, Aśvaghoṣa at the beginning of Canto 15 and then again at the beginning of Canto 17 seems to describe ṛjuṁ, lit. “tending in a straight direction," as a primary or prior cause, which is duly followed by smṛtiṁ, “mindfulness":
"In whatever solitary place you are,
Crossing the legs in the supreme manner,/
Aligning the body,
(ṛjuṃ kāyaṃ samādhāya)
And thus being attended by mindfulness
that is directed...//15.1//
... towards the tip of the nose
or towards the forehead,
Or right in between the eyebrows,/
You may make the inconstant mind
Wholly engaged with the fundamental."//15.2//
Having washed his feet in that water,
He then, by a clean, auspicious, and splendid tree-root, /
Girded on the intention to come undone,
And sat with legs fully crossed.//17.3//
By first directing the whole body up,
(ṛjuṃ samagraṃ praṇidhāya kāyaṃ)
And thus keeping mindfulness turned towards the body, /
And thus integrating in his person all the senses,
There he threw himself all-out into practice. //17.4//
Again, though Aśvaghoṣa in Saundara-nanda does not tell us what mindfulness is, he does tell us what it is like, and his favourite metaphor is smṛti-varma, "the armour of mindfulness," which appears three times, in 13.37, 14.38, and 17.23.
I started to write this post last night, before being overcome by the desire to watch Match of the Day. After watching the football, I sat for 15 minutes or so in a place where I could see the moon. Then when I sat this morning I looked up to see two sparrows in the branches of a tree in the front garden. So it occured to me to write that true mindfulness being distinct and clear might be a golden half-moon in black night sky, or might be a bird on a branch in a blue winter morning. But aren't these just the thoughts of somebody who is deluding himself that he knows what mindfulness is?
It may be that the mindfulness which thinks about itself is not true mindfulness. It might rather be that when mindfulness is thinking about itself, there is a great big gap in the armour of mindfulness, leaving a practitioner open to all kinds of attacks from manifold faults.
The latter understanding, I think, is more in line with the Buddha's teaching of mindfulness as Aśvaghoṣa presents it to us in Saundara-nanda -- the great thing to aspire to being not so much brilliant poetry and philosophy as a simple life of freedom from faults.
In the next post, I will try to let Aśvaghoṣa speak for himself, by quoting all the verses in Saundara-nanda in which smṛti is mentioned.