A Correspondence between B. Alan Wallace and the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi

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AW 1: Dear Bhante,

I would first like to tell you how much I respect and appreciate the wonderful work you have done in translating the Buddha’s words and clarifying them for the modern world. You are truly an inspiration.

The reason I am writing you now is to ask you about the meaning of sati in authoritative, pre-twentieth-century Pāli/Theravāda sources. As you well know, in the current Vipassana tradition as it has been widely propagated in the West, sati is more or less defined as “bare attention,” or the moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of whatever arises in the present moment. There is no doubt that the cultivation of such mindfulness is very helpful, but, strangely enough, I have found no evidence in traditional Pāli, Sanskrit, or Tibetan sources to support this definition of sati (smṛti, dran pa). Having looked in the Nikāyas, the Milindapañha, Visuddhimagga, Abhidharmakośa, Abhidharmasamuccaya, and various Tibetan Buddhist texts, I find that they are all in general agreement with this definition from Buddhaghosa:

“By means of it they [i.e., other mental processes] remember, or it itself remembers, or it is simply just remembering, thus it is sati. Its characteristic is not floating; its property is not losing; its manifestation is guarding or the state of being face to face with an object; its basis is strong noting or the close applications of mindfulness of the body and so on. It should be seen as like a post due to its state of being set in the object, and as like a gatekeeper because it guards the gate of the eye and so on.” (Visuddhimagga, XIV, 141)

And this one from Nāgasena:

Sati has the has both the characteristic of “calling to mind” and the characteristic of “taking hold.” He explained further, “sati, when it arises, calls to mind wholesome and unwholesome tendencies, with faults and faultless, inferior and refined, dark and pure, together with their counterparts; sati, when it arises, follows the courses of beneficial and unbeneficial tendencies: these tendencies are beneficial, these unbeneficial; these tendencies are helpful, these unhelpful. Thus, one who practices yoga rejects unbeneficial tendencies and cultivates beneficial tendencies.” (Milindapañha 37-38)

Not to mention this from the Buddha himself:

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