Buddhist Dilemma: Does Mindfulness = No Thought? Hmmm…

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Reflections in the back seat

‘Mindfulness’ is one of those words deliberately created to defy definition, it seems, so when anybody asks me what it means I usually reply with something semi-snarky, like “the opposite of mindlessness” which seems like maybe avoiding the question, but which in fact is about as accurate as is possible, given the quasi-religious overtones and the need for a certain amount of obfuscation for dramatic effect, such being the need in Western circles, witness the ‘woo-woo’ factor of certain Pali/Sanskrit words like ‘samadhi‘…

But the word ‘sati‘, from which ‘mindfulness’ is translated, by itself carries no transcendent connotations, at least not in modern standard Thai, in which it means simply ‘consciousness’ or ‘mind’, in the sense that one’s sati, i.e. brain, is maybe not so good anymore, or that he now has sati, i.e. is no longer unconscious—get it? And the usage of the term in Buddhism is not so much different, I think, and mindfulness is probably the best term for it, mind twice removed from pure simplicity, first with a ‘full’, next with a ‘ness’. But doesn’t that imply some level of thought, whether in narrative form or simple awareness, of cause and effect, spatial relations and orderliness? I would think so. So…

first time that I heard a Buddhist monk say, “Thinking is a defilement (kilesha),” I was taken aback, and wanted to protest, and vigorously, so offended was I, to hear our finest act as humans reduced to the mundane foibles of toilet staining and trash-tossing, but I held my tongue, given my lay status and the inherent superiority of saffron robes in the hierarchy of the religion…

But he’s right, in the short run, at least, from the mouths of the head monks, cum local culture heroes, Forest Tradition, too, my chosen path, up until now, at least, subject to further consideration training and inspiration, time and again the most popular monks in Thailand advising lay devotees and initiates both, to “avoid letting the mind go here and there, hither and yon,” when simply repeating the Buddha’s name will suffice for most daily activities, enough to occupy your mind, at least enough to keep it from straying…

And I admit that I have real problems with this interpretation of Buddhism, and life, that something so hard to cultivate refine and perfect, is so easily discarded and subject to reprimands, for the slightest offenses and the most innocent demands, simply to consider this, and ponder that, for no other reason than that it is there, to be considered and to be pondered as to its utility and its efficacy with regard to our lives and our reasons for being…

I mean: isn’t this what we are, at least to some extent? Now I’m hardly Descartes’ biggest fan, he of “I think, therefore I am,” and the implication that there are ‘innate ideas’ just waiting there to be discovered, in some sort of process of reverse applique, working in negative space, chiseling away to reveal the sculpture within, rather than working in clay, adding layers of intrigue in some creative way…

In that respect, I’m a creationist, that we build our world up, one brick at the time, one thought at the time, creating something out of nothing, where little or less even existed before, hopefully to create a situation of glorious living, sublime and unembellished, once our basic needs of survival are met and exceeded with little further need of concern…

As long as we are humble about our accomplishments and meek about our methods, and ready to make changes as needed, in order to stay within our limits, not risking the future for the sake of our present, nor lording it over others for the sake of ourselves, and not embellishing the past to re-tell a story that’s already been told, then that should be doable…

And meditation is part of that process, once a day, or twice at least, re-booting the system to refresh the screen, and starting at zero all over again, every so often for the good of the organism and just as important for the good of the screen, nothingness void zero chroma-key green, for breakfast every day and again in the evening. But that’s not what the ‘meditation masters’ are talking about. They’re talking about doing it all the time, doing nothing, that is, just meditating…

One popular author-monk brags that his teacher “never let us go anywhere…just sit there…all the time…training our minds,” which is good training, no doubt, but then he goes on to tell a pupil that they are “addicted to life.” Addicted to life? Would not that very monk be addicted to life himself if he had to provide his own food and sustenance, so generously offered by lay devotees in the hope of ‘making merit’ and presumably a better rebirth?

And right there lies one of my problems with rebirth, and old-school Buddhism, that refuses to modernize and adapt to the modern age of science and technology, as the Buddha once did, way back when, before science was even the law of the land, he creating a rational religion, when all others were superstitious, creating a high-concept religion when all others were merely devotional…

But I love the forests of the Thai Forest Tradition, even if some of the doctrine is wearing thin on me, subject to further enlightenment. I’ve already passed on the Tibetans’ heavy karma and rebirth drama, so I guess I’ll continue to head east and up the coast, just like Buddhism itself did 2000 years ago, as it played itself out against time and circumstance, incessant chanting and the eternal dance. Is there a Mahayana Forest Tradition? Maybe there should be…