‘Mindfulness’ ? I prefer सति, or

or ‘Heartmindthisnowness’

Peter Jacobson
Nov 16, 2017 · 8 min read

Mindfulness. Mind. Fullness.

Hmm.

That’s not my experience.

As a recovering thinkaholic, what we’ve been calling ‘mindfulness’ gives me clarity and perspective from what feels like a ‘full mind’. For me, the word ‘Mindfulness’ feels misleading.

So where does the word “Mindfulness” come from? What are other translations?

A translator’s perspective

American-born monk Bhikkhu Bodhi has spent 25 years translating Pali to English.

Here’s an exerpt from an Inquiring Mind interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi about the dangers of translation

IM: What are some of the particular challenges you face as a translator?

BB: Any language, I have found, has an underlying conceptual scheme built into it by the metaphors that govern its vocabulary and by the connotations and nuances of its words. Thus in translating from one language into another, one is always faced with the problem of dissonance between their two underlying conceptual schemes. This leads to conflicts that often can only be resolved by sacrificing important conceptual connections in the original language for the sake of elegance or intelligibility in the target language.

BB: …Even the word sati, rendered mindfulness, isn’t unproblematic. The word derives from a verb, sarati, meaning “to remember,” and occasionally in Pali sati is still explained in a way that connects it with the idea of memory. But when it is used in relation to meditation practice, we have no word in English that precisely captures what it refers to. An early translator cleverly drew upon the word mindfulness, which is not even in my dictionary. This has served its role admirably, but it does not preserve the connection with memory, sometimes needed to make sense of a passage.

Ok. Research time.

So you know, I’m not a trained linguist or anything. I am very curious though. If I make mistakes here I’d love for you to correct me, though mainly I’ll be pulling together other people’s wisdom.

सति — “Sati”— original Pali term for mindfulness

How do I pronounce ‘Sati’? Click play below:

Oh. There’s already a beautiful exploration into translations of the Pali word “Sati”.

It’s here. In wikipedia (of course)

Here’s a few beautiful points from the above link:

The Chinese translation links to ‘heart’, ‘mind’, ‘now’ & ‘this’

Chinese translation of ‘Sati’ is ‘nian’ 念 “study; think of; remember; remind”.

How do I pronounce ‘nian’ 念? Audio herethanks for the correction Daz Chih-Hsin Yang!

nian is composed of jin “now; this” and xin “heart; mind”.

Beautiful.

Quiet — mind

Mindfulness practice in Taiwan is called 靜心 — jing-shin, which directly translated to ‘quiet-mind’ — Daz Chih-Hsin Yang


quiet; silent; devoid of noise
silent; not making a noise
still; motionless
gentle


heart (Classifier: 顆/颗 m)
mind
thought; idea
intention
center; core

I don’t know if language works like this?, but could be
e.g.
gentle intention
still center
silent mind
gentle heart

All of these feel true for me about ‘Sati’ from my experience

Alternative translations of Sati

The Digital Dictionary of Buddhism gives more detailed translations of nian “mindfulness, memory”:

  • Recollection (Skt. smṛti; Tib. dran pa). To recall, remember. That which is remembered. The function of remembering. The operation of the mind of not forgetting an object. Awareness, concentration.
  • Settled recollection; (Skt. sthāpana; Tib. gnas pa). To ascertain one’s thoughts;
  • To think within one’s mind (without expressing in speech). To contemplate; meditative wisdom;
  • Mind, consciousness;
  • A thought; a thought-moment; an instant of thought. (Skt. kṣana);
  • Patience, forbearance.[17]
  • Attention (Jack Kornfield)
  • Awareness
  • Concentrated attention (Mahasi Sayadaw)
  • Inspection (Herbert Guenther)
  • Mindful attention
  • Self-recollection (Jack Kornfield)
  • Recollecting mindfulness (Alexander Berzin)
  • Recollection (Erik Pema Kunsang, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu)
  • Reflective awareness (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu)
  • Remindfulness (James H. Austin)[18]
  • Retention
  • Self-recollection (Jack Kornfield)

Ok. Interesting. Now what?

Let’s go back to the source

In the passage below, the Buddha addresses addresses the monks in the Migadāya at Isipatana. It was recorded in the Saccavibhanga Sutta, in the Pali language.

Evaṃ me sutaṃ: ekaṃ samayaṃ bhagavā bārāṇasiyaṃ viharati isipatane migadāye. Tatra kho bhagavā bhikkhū āmantesi bhikkhavoti. Bhadanteti te bhikkhū bhagavato paccassosuṃ. Bhagavā etadavoca:

Tathāgatena bhikkhave, arahatā sammāsambuddhena bārāṇasiyaṃ isipatane migadāye anuttaraṃ dhammacakkaṃ pavattitaṃ appavattiyaṃ samaṇena vā brāhmaṇena vā devena vā mārena vā brahmunā vā kenaci vā lokasmiṃ, yadidaṃ catunnaṃ ariyasaccānaṃ ācikkhanā desanā paññapanā paṭṭhapanā vivaraṇā vibhajanā uttānīkammaṃ. Katamesaṃ catunnaṃ: dukkhassa ariyasaccassa ācikkhanā desanā paññapanā paṭṭhapanā vivaraṇā vibhajanā uttānīkammaṃ, dukkhasamudayassa ariyasaccassa ācikkhanā desanā paññapanā paṭṭhapanā vivaraṇā vibhajanā uttānīkammaṃ. Dukkhanirodhassa ariyasaccassa ācikkhanā desanā paññapanā paṭṭhapanā vivaraṇā vibhajanā uttānīkammaṃ. Dukkhanirodhagāmiyā paṭipadāya1 ariyasaccassa ācikkhanā desanā paññapanā paṭṭhapanā vivaraṇā vibhajanā uttānīkammaṃ. Tathāgatena bhikkhave, arahatā sammāsambuddhena bārāṇasiyaṃ isipatane migadāye anuttaraṃ dhammacakkaṃ pavattitaṃ appavattiyaṃ samaṇena vā brāhmaṇena vā devena vā mārena vā brahmunā vā kenaci vā lokasmiṃ, yadidaṃ imesaṃ catunnaṃ ariyasaccānaṃ ācikkhanā desanā paññapanā paṭṭhapanā vivaraṇā vibhajanā uttānīkammaṃ.

Sevetha bhikkhave, sāriputtamoggallāne. Bhajatha bhikkhave, sāriputtamoggallāne. Paṇḍitā bhikkhū anuggāhakā sabrahmacārīnaṃ. Seyyathāpī bhikkhave, janetti2 evaṃ sāriputto. Seyyathāpi jātassa āpādetā evaṃ kho moggallāno. Sāriputto bhikkhave, sotāpattiphale vineti. Moggallāno uttamatthe. Sāriputto bhikkhave, pahoti cattāri ariyasaccāni vitthārena ācikkhituṃ desetuṃ paññāpetuṃ paṭṭhapetuṃ vivarituṃ vibhajituṃ uttānīkātunti.

Idamavoca bhagavā, idaṃ vatvā sugato uṭṭhāyāsanā vihāraṃ pāvisi.

Wait. Let’s try again in English — translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

And what is right [“Sati”]? There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves… the mind in & of itself… mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. This is called right mindfulness.

“And what is right concentration? There is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities — enters & remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, he enters & remains in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance. With the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, & alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters & remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, ‘Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.’ With the abandoning of pleasure & pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — he enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This is called right concentration.

Translation from (Pali) Saccavibhanga Sutta, in which the Buddha addresses the monks in the Migadāya at Isipatana

The parts of the passage above that I’ve marked in bold are important parts the word ‘Mindfulness’ fails totally to express for me.

The chinese nian 念, composed of jin “now; this” and xin “heart; mind” to me better communicates the whole concept “Sati” in the above passage.

So. What are our options then?

I see four.

Option #1. Adopt the chinese word ‘Nian’ or 念

I prefer the chinese translation of Sati: 念 to ‘Mindfulness’

nian is composed of jin “now; this” and xin “heart; mind”

To me it feels richer, more meaningful and truer to my experience of “mindfulness” meditation practice.

Why not use 念 directly?

“The 念 character isn’t on my keyboard 😓

Oh yeah? Neither is 😓

Um. ok. I get your point 👌

So. what does adoption of the Chinese translation look like in English?

Mindfulness course for beginners

becomes

Sati course for beginners

or

念 for beginners

and

Mindful Emotion Regulation: Exploring the Neurocognitive Mechanisms behind Mindfulness.

becomes

Sati Emotion Regulation: Exploring the Neurocognitive Mechanisms behind Sati.

or

念 Emotion Regulation: Exploring the Neurocognitive Mechanisms behind 念

Beautiful.

You can see the heart+mind = . it looks like a head and body!

and the this+now = . hmm. Well. Can you better pictorially represent this/now? Anyway…

A picture says a thousand words. ‘Sati’ is a meaning-full practice. So we need very broad words, or pictures, or a lot of specific words to express ‘Sati’…or none at all… hmmm.

Option #2. Revert to using the original ‘Sati’ or सति

Why didn’t we just leave it alone in the first place? We use ‘Yoga’. We didn’t make up some half-baked term ‘bodyfulness’ for it.

We could just stick to सति (Sati). The whole English language is stolen from other languages. Why stop stealing now?

Mindfulness course for beginners

becomes

Sati course for beginners

or

सति for beginners

and

Mindful Emotion Regulation: Exploring the Neurocognitive Mechanisms behind Mindfulness.

becomes

Sati Emotion Regulation: Exploring the Neurocognitive Mechanisms behind Sati.

or

सति Emotion Regulation: Exploring the Neurocognitive Mechanisms behind सति

Option #3 — Invent a better English word

If we’re going to make up new words though, I think we can do better than ‘Mindfulness’. It was a good placeholder. But now…

It’s time to coin a word that can more truely express सति (Sati).

I propose…

‘Heartmindthisnowness’

Mindfulness course for beginners

becomes

Heartmindthisnowness course for beginners

and

Mindful Emotion Regulation: Exploring the Neurocognitive Mechanisms behind Mindfulness.

becomes

Heartmindthisnow Emotion Regulation: Exploring the Neurocognitive Mechanisms behind Heartmindthisnowness.

Heart-mind-this-now-ness = 5 syllables

Mind-ful-ness = 3 syllables.

For two extra syllables we get a word that actually fits with the rest of our language.

I think it’s worth the extra breath.

Can you come up with a more meaningful and coherent word?

Option #4 — Update our shared understanding of ‘Mind’

Let’s look deeper into ‘Mindfulness’, to see if there is some sense/meaning in it.

Mind-fullness. Mind. What is Mind?

Old English gemynd ‘memory, thought’, of Germanic origin, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘revolve in the mind, think’, shared by Sanskrit manas and Latin mens ‘mind’.

Hmm. Not a good start for a practice of letting go of thought. Mindfulness to me is about explicitly turning away from unhelpful traps of ‘revolve in the mind, think’.

The root of the word ‘Mind’ is to me the opposite of ‘Sati’.

But language changes. Let’s check in on where ‘Mind’ has got to.

From Google:

Ok. So the word has developed diverse meanings. How do they relate to ‘Sati’?

The 3rd definition to me speaks to mindfulness, though not gracefully.

The 2nd definition seems pretty much the opposite of mindfulness.

The 1st definition seems like a mix of mindfulness and the opposite of mindfulness — judgement, powers of reasoning.

Overall then, I think ‘Mindfulness’ is a poor option compared the the beauty and meaning of 念, ‘Sati’ or ‘Heartmindthisnowness’.


Interesting. And enough thinking for now. Time to reconnect with my gentle heart with some 念 practice.


What do you think?

Add your thoughts/new word suggestions in the comments below.

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Peter Jacobson

Written by

Coach, mindfulness guide and entrepreneur www.Throughtheloop.nz

Mindfulness for Change Stories

Stories from a network of people collaborating to co-create mindful change in the world