This is Post 7 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found here.
There is a mysterious and powerful word in the Buddhist texts: Sati in Pali, and Smrti in Sanskrit. This word refers to a spiritual practice advocated by the Buddha, that was like a great overarching principle which guided and informed all the other practices that he taught. These words are usually translated, following T. W. Rhys-David’s Pali translations in 1881, as ‘Mindfulness’, a word that had come into the English language several centuries earlier, and which seemed suitable. As Rhys-David acknowledged however, both Sati and Smrti (pronounced smRti), literally mean ‘to remember’.
The fact that these words clearly refer to the act of remembering in other ancient Indian texts, has not troubled most English-speaking Buddhists, or the many Clinical Psychologists who have become interested in Mindfulness. There have however been about a dozen attempts at better translations into English, which might better express the Buddha’s intention. Some of these have been based on an examination of how contemporary Buddhists understand the remembering practice, leading to translations along the lines of ‘concentrated attention’. Other translators and commentators, have been more courageous, and have instead proposed new non-literal translations that are entirely un-related to the word ‘remembering’ but much closer, I believe, to the Buddha’s intention – words like ‘reflective awareness’, ‘self-recollection’, and ‘presence’. Such is the confusion that we are bound to ask ‘What was it that the Buddha was asking his students to remember?’ Continue reading