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This normally gets translated as mindfulness.

In particular, does it mean remembrance, as in to actively think using words about the past.

Or is it about thinking about the present, and not the past.

Or is it about suppressing ones internal dialog.

If the meaning has changed, is it a relatively modern thing, or does it trace back to some sort of new development in the history of Buddhism.

5

The way it's used in Buddhism, sati/smrti means continuously remembering something, being mindful of something, continuously keeping something in mind. The traditional metaphor is the mindfulness of hunger -- when you are very hungry you don't forget that you are hungry.

If I remember correctly, before Buddhism, in Hinduism (or whatever that conglomerate of teachings and rituals can be called) smrti used to refer to rote learning. So basically, you repeat some Vedas text until you memorize it by heart.

Here we have two components: keeping something in mind, and repeating something until it sinks down. This is basically what smrti is. Specifically, kayagata-smrti -- mindfulness rooted in the body -- is continuous awareness of one's bodily sensations, first and foremost somatic components of emotions. ana-apana-smrti -- mindfulness of breathing in and out -- is continuous awareness of the breathing, again mostly because breathing is always the picture of one's state of mind. Both of these can be both meditation as well as post-meditation activities -- and it is the post-meditation that is referred to as smrti, because the challenge is not to forget it, as you are walking about your business.

Again, the important thing to remember that smrti is never just mindfulness (as in, open-ended awareness) -- it is always mindfulness of something. It does matter what we are mindful of, because whatever it is, the more you feed it the stronger it gets.

Usually in Buddhism we train to remember whatever our teacher deems useful for us to remember at this particular stage. It could be the lower abdomen, could be the diaphragm, could be the face, could be the hands, could be the feet, could be the head and shoulders, could be Buddha-Nature, could be Emptiness etc.

More broadly, at "hinayana" stage the training is focused on very low level immediate experiences: so what you are "remembering" (paying attention to) is the whole phenomenological setup -- bodily sensations (heartbeat, breathing, face muscles, posture), emotions (somatic projections aka chakras), and the state of mind (excitement level, scattering level, dimness level, viscosity level etc) -- as a whole. So basically we are learning to be more self-aware, to have a better insight into our internal condition -- via all kinds of hints and symptoms. At this level it's not just being aware though, it's fixing whatever looks unskillful/unhealthy. Noticed the heartbeat increasing -- stopped arguing and switched the strategy of persuasion. This kind of stuff.

Even more broadly, smrti means remembering Dharma at large, as the all encompassing context of our trainee's life, as opposed to letting one's inner frame of reference be force-switched by the circumstances. This mastery over one's context is developed through five levels (panca bala): faith, effort, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.

  1. At entry level, mindfulness starts as faith or inspiration. Inspired by an encounter with Sat-Dharma, our mind gets the bug of Buddha-fever. Unable to resist the urge to find out more, we keep thinking about mysterious Dharma.
  2. At beginner's stage mindfulness means applying effort to constantly check one's current physical, verbal, and mental activity against the dharmic guidelines. Am I being driven by an afflicting emotion? Is my mind presently biased by an attachment? Is my current action motivated by an egoistic intent?
  3. The next level is when staying always mindful of the context of Dharma becomes automatic and no longer requires effort, which means one is now always operating in the phenomenological context, as I described two paragraphs ago.
  4. At middling level mindfulness grows into concentration (samadhi) which means we can now design, assemble, and maintain any context, any frame of reference, any mood we choose. If we want to feel happy -- we can contrive the context in which we will be happy. If we want to feel motivated -- we can contrive the frame of reference that will make us passionate. And so on. This is also known as generation-stage meditation. The role of smrti here is to keep the contrived context on.
  5. Finally, at advanced level mindfulness becomes wisdom (prajna), which means seeing all contexts at the same time and freely juggling their elements as required by a situation at hand. This is like being a lawyer, in the sense that you see every situation from all possible angles at once, can speak from the perspective of a certain frame of reference, depending on whom is it that you're addressing, and even speak in multiple frames of reference at the same time. Why this is still smrti is because it involves staying mindful of all those different contexts.
4

The word Sati (Smrti in Sanskrit) literally means remembrance or recollection, but as with many Buddhist technical terms has a more specialized meaning in a meditative context. In the context of meditation the word Sati has a more general meaning to set the mind on the object of meditation. For example, the meditation in which one contemplates the attributes of the Buddha is called Buddhanusati.

However quite often when people say Sati, they mean a specific kind of Sati. That is to say, Samma-Sati, or right mindfulness, which is the seventh factor of the Noble Eightfold Path. The Suttas define Samma-Sati as follows:

And what is right mindfulness? 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.

(http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.141.than.html)

So with right mindfulness one is specifically directing the mind to the body, feeling, mind, and mental qualities. The word which the translator translates as Alert is the term Sampajanna, which others often translate as "fully aware" and quite often when people say mindfulness, they are actually thinking of Sampajanna although they aren't totally distinct, as you need Sampajanna to have Samma-Sati.

1

For one, please do not suppress anything! Sati is not a crushing energy. You should not try to actively suppress thoughts when they arise. Simply take note of them, let them be, and watch them appear and vanish. The operative word here is watch. When thoughts arise, do not actively engage them, do not theorize about them, do not try to push them out of your mind or make judgments on them.

Getting to the definition of the word - while I've seen the word translated as remembrance (as you note in your question), personally I'm not happy with that rendering. Remembrance has the English connotation of "recalling" as in memory. There isn't much support for that translation where the word sati is used in the suttas. In fact, in the Satipatthana Sutta - one of the foundational texts for the practice of mindfulness - that translation doesn't make sense at all! I think it is better to say that sati means to "watch something with the minds eye". It is an active form of non-judgmental, non-discursive attention.

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    One of the funny things about mindfulness is that it helps illuminate the fact that I don't have nearly as much choice as I thought--about whether I think or what I think about. – Dan Bryant Oct 31 '14 at 13:09
  • Oh that is so very true! – user698 Oct 31 '14 at 13:10
  • Actually from this answer, I can still see how it could be interpreted as thought suppression. Once the thoughts "vanish", isn't thought suppressed? And once they are suppressed, isn't passively watching the brains activity aiding that suppression? – MatthewMartin Oct 31 '14 at 14:24
  • I think the word suppression infers that it is an active, intentional process. Rather than let leaves fall on their own accord, suppression connotes grabbing them out of the air and slamming them to the ground. – user698 Oct 31 '14 at 14:34
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Not letting clouds form and reform; just watching and maintaining a clear sky. MN 117 says:

One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one's right mindfulness.

One is mindful to abandon wrong resolve & to enter & remain in right resolve: This is one's right mindfulness.

In one developing the noble path whose mind is noble, whose mind is without effluents, who is fully possessed of the noble path.

MN 117

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