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'Mindfulness'? I prefer 念

'Mindfulness'? I prefer 念

  Photo by  Ashes Sitoula  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ashes Sitoula on Unsplash


What is ‘Mindfulness’ ?

I prefer 念

Mindfulness. Mind. Fullness.


That’s not my experience.

As a recovering thinkaholic, mindfulness gives me clarity and perspective from what feels like an often ‘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 him.


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 satiis 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.

सति — “Sati”— original Pali term for mindfulness

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; read aloud; think of; remember; remind”.

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


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. This is a translation:

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

So, in conclusion…

I prefer the chinese translation of Sati: 念.

nian 念 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.

Bonus Mindfulness Tip

From our translator friend Bhikkhu Bodhi, in the Inquiring Mind interview:

‘Establishment’ of mindfulness, not ‘foundation’ of mindfulness. There isn’t really a foundation of mindfulness.

Sati / 念 / Mindfulness is a verb, a practice.
Satipatthana is often translated “foundation of mindfulness,” which sounds elegant; but if one knows Pali one might suspect that the compound represents not sati + patthana (which gives us “foundation of mindfulness”), but sati + upatthana, “establishment of mindfulness” (the u dropping off through union of vowels). Then, if one knows the texts in the original, one will have encountered a number of phrases that pair sati with words related to upatthana, such as upatthitassati, “one with mindfulness established,” but no other phrases that pair it with forms related to patthana. And this would confirm the case for “establishment of mindfulness” over “foundation of mindfulness.” However more graceful the latter might sound, the accent is on the internal process of setting mindfulness up rather than on the object to which it applies.

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