Munich, Germany, November 17, 1999
Attention (yid-la byed-pa) is the mental factor (sems-byung, subsidiary awareness) that brings focus on a specific object.
As an everfunctioning mental factor (kun-‘gro), attention accompanies all moments of mental activity (sems, mind) and thus is simultaneous with the two defining characteristics of mental activity:
Clarity (gsal) – a cognitive arising (‘ char-ba, shar-ba) of a cognitive appearance (snang-ba) of an object, but not necessarily in focus.
Awareness (rig) – a cognitive engagement (‘ jug-pa) with the cognitive appearance of an object, but not necessarily with understanding.
Attention is also the manner of cognitively taking a specific object (‘ dzin-stangs). This refers to “manner” in two senses of the word:
what it cognitively takes its object as – for example, suffering as happiness, or suffering as something to be removed,
how it cognitively takes its object – for example, painstakingly, restoringly, uninterruptedly, or spontaneously.
Mindfulness (dran-pa) is the mental factor that keeps the mental hold (‘ dzin-cha) on an object. It is like a “mental glue” and has three functions:
It prevents the attention from forgetting about or losing its object.
It holds the attention on its object with endurance.
It maintains continuity of familiarity with what has been previously seen, heard, or known. In this sense, mindfulness means to be mindful of something once more, and thus dran-pa is also the term for “remembering.”
When Westerners speak of mindfulness in the sense of being mindful of whatever emotions or physical sensations we are feeling or what our motivations are, this does not correspond to the mental factor dran-pa (Skt. smrti, Pali. sati), usually translated as “mindfulness.”
According to the Gelug explanations of the Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Yogachara-Svatantrika-Madhyamaka tenet systems, and according to the non-Gelug explanations of not only those systems, but also of Prasangika-Madhyamaka, the function of mindfulness in the Western sense is performed by reflexive awareness (rang-rig). Reflexive awareness accompanies a cognition and takes that cognition as its own object, allowing us to remember or recall it later (dran-pa).
For Gelug Prasangika, this function is performed by the cognition itself, with implicit apprehension (shugs-la rtogs-pa). Valid cognitions explicitly apprehend their objects and implicitly apprehend themselves. Apprehension of an object (rtogs-pa) means a correct and decisive cognition of it.
Therefore, although Buddhism in the West has already established the convention of translating dran-pa as “mindfulness,” it is best to think of it as “mental glue.” It is the mental factor that maintains a mental hold on an object, preventing the loss of focus on it.
Mental fixation or concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin, Skt. samadhi) is the mental factor that keeps any level of mental abiding (gnas-cha, mental placement) on a specific object. If there is a mental hold on an object, there is also mental abiding on the object. They describe the same mental event from two points of view. When concentration is single-pointed, the same Tibetan and Sanskrit terms may be translated as absorbed concentration.
Alertness (shes-bzhin) is the mental factor that checks the condition of mindfulness’s mental hold on the object of focus. It sees if the mental hold has been lost or is too weak or too tight due to flightiness of mind or mental dullness. It is more, however, than just reflexive awareness or implicit apprehension, which merely notices what is happening with the meditation. It resembles an alarm system to trigger a response with restoring attention (chad-cing ‘jug-pa’i yid-byed) to correct any faults, like the immune system setting white blood cells in motion to fight an infection.
There are two types of alertness:
The alertness that naturally comes with mindfulness, like the sun and sunlight. If mindfulness has a mental hold on the object, this means that natural alertness is checking and ready to correct any deviation. If mindfulness loses the object or develops a fault, this means that natural alertness has not been checking and has not triggered a response to correct it.
The alertness that later makes spot checks, using a corner of the attention.
Flightiness of mind (rgod-pa, mental agitation) is a mental factor faulting the mental abiding of mindfulness’s mental hold on an object of focus, but only faulting it due to desire or attachment. If the fault is due to other causes, such as annoyance, jealousy, pride, self-consciousness , doubt, or boredom, it is called mental wandering (rnam-g.yeng) or distraction (‘ phro-ba).
There are two levels of flightiness of mind:
With gross flightiness of mind, we completely lose mental abiding on the object because our mental hold on it is so weak that it is lost. Because of attachment or desire, the attention flies off to another object that we find more attractive.
With subtle flightiness of mind, we maintain mental abiding, but still with a fault in the mental hold. This is of two types:
The mental hold is not tight enough, so that an undercurrent of thought about the object or about something more attractive occurs.
Even if there is no undercurrent of thought, yet because the hold is slightly too tight, a feeling of restlessness or “itchiness” to leave the object of focus occurs.
The mental hold of mindfulness on an object of focus may be described from two points of view. We have already mentioned mental abiding on the object. The other is appearance-making of the object (gsal-ba, clarity) – the factor of giving rise to a cognitive appearance of the object.
Mental dullness (bying-ba, sinking) is a mental factor faulting the appearance-making of mindfulness’s mental hold on an object of focus. Thus, faults in the clarity of our meditations are not from the side of the objects of focus, but are faults from the side of our minds.
It has three levels:
With gross mental dullness, we lose the mental hold on the object of focus because the appearance-making is too weak to give rise to it.
With middling mental dullness, we give rise to an appearance of the object, but the hold is not tight and so the appearance-making lacks sharp focus (ngar).
With subtle mental dullness, we give rise to an appearance of the object and have sharp focus, but because the mental hold is still not sufficiently tight, the appearance-making is not fresh (gsar) in each moment. It is stale and slightly bored.
Gross mental dullness may or may not be accompanied by foggy-mindedness (rmugs-pa). Foggymindedness is a mental factor of heaviness of body and mind and may easily degenerate into sleepiness (gnyid).
Being “spaced out” can refer to all three levels of dullness.
Even if a state of single-minded concentration is free of all levels of flightiness of mind and mental dullness, it may still be conceptual (rtog-bcas).
For a state of single-minded concentration to be nonconceptual (rtog-med), it also needs vividness (gsal-ba, hrig-ge-ba). To achieve such a state requires not just removing the accompanying mental factors that adversely affect the mental hold on the object of focus. It also requires removing the accompanying level of mental activity that gives rise to a conceptual category into which the object of focus fits. Such a level of mental activity causes attention to focus on the object and the conceptual category mixed together.
[For more detail, see: Achieving Shamatha.]
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