Mindfulness and Daily Life

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Chan is mindfulness.

Master Sheng yen

Once, when he was ill, master Baizhang refused food brought to him by a disciple, saying, "A day without work is a day without food." This statement is best understood in the context of the Chan monastic tradition of monks and nuns growing, harvesting, and preparing their own food. In this view, one does not meditate and then do some farming on the side. Or, for that matter, one does not do farming and meditate on the side. The mindfulness that is cultivated in meditation is the same mindfulness one cultivates the fields. When this attitude pervades one's life, then every moment is an opportunity to experience mindfulness—that is to say, practice Chan, for Chan is about mindfulness.

What then, is mindfulness? A good way to answer this question is to refer to the Buddha's teaching on the Sutra on Mindfulness (Sattipathana Sutta), otherwise known as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These are the four contemplations:

  • contemplation of the body
  • contemplation of sensations
  • contemplation of the mind,
  • contemplation of mental objects (dharmas).

(For more on the four foundations of mindfulness, see the Ashoka course The Buddha's Teaching As It Is >>>)

In the contemplation practices that make up the Four Foundations, the mind that is caught up in the ordinary delusions of sentient life is gradually weaned, as it were, from its attachments to the body, to sensual longings, to emotions and feelings, and finally to fixed notions and ideas about reality. When the mind is thus gradually reduced of its myriad attachments, what remains is luminous awareness. This awareness can be called "mindfulness."

For the practitioner of Chan, there is no meaningful distinction between practice and daily life: practice is daily life and daily life is practice. The distinctive quality of Chan mindfulness is not just being "here and now" but being here and now without distraction, vexation, or conflict. It is a quality of being wholly in the present, with no left over afflictions and impurities.