In this first part of lesson 3, Stephen reflects on the topic of ethics [#add text].

Talk ‘The ethics of mindfulness’ [Download this audio file here]


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Discussion Question
What role does mindfulness play in your life? Can you give examples? And how have you understood mindfulness of dharma’s, the fourth foundation of mindfulness?


Q&A / discussion [Download this audio file here]
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Stephen's notes

Chapter 5. The Ethics of Mindfulness



Secular dharma advocates a task-based ethics rather than a truth-based metaphysics. This is not a superficial but a core difference in how we understand the dharma. It presents the dharma as essentially something to do rather than something to believe in. Secular dharma is thus an ethics of uncertainty, or a skeptical ethics.


Many who practise secular mindfulness reach a point where they ask: “where does ethics fit into this practice.” They value the psychotherapeutic effects of the meditation in resolving anxiety, for example, but feel that the practice lacks an ethical dimension, i.e. a coherent frame of goals and values that could serve to guide one’s life as a whole rather than address a particular pathology.


Buddhists likewise criticize secular mindfulness for having isolated a psychological technique (mindfulness) but rejected or neglected the ethical dimension of the practice. They object to how mindfulness is presented as value-free and thus can be turned to the enhancement of any human activity irrespective of its ethics, e.g. hunting, exploitative capitalism etc.


Mindfulness thereby becomes the “opium of the middle classes,” a drug that enables one to tolerate the injustices of capitalism by remaining serenely at peace within oneself.


For many Buddhist critics, what is missing in secular mindfulness is an ethics grounded in metaphysical truths such as the law of karma, the four noble truths, ultimate and relative truth etc. Buddhism, for them, provides the crucial metaphysical principles for an ethical perspective on life. By removing these principles, mindfulness is reduced to little more than self-serving psychotherapy.


If we take a more careful look at the Satipatthana Sutta, however, we will find that ethics is already built in to the four foundations of mindfulness in a way that requires no appeal whatsoever to the metaphysics of either karma or the four noble truths.


The four foundations of mindfulness are: body, feelings, mind and dharmas.


“Dharma”, the fourth foundation of mindfulness, is traditionally understood as being mindful of mental objects. It is usually interpreted to mean what we are conscious of through the mind alone, i.e. ideas. It then lists a number of Buddhist doctrinal ideas as examples: the five aggregates, the five hindrances, the seven factors of awakening, the four noble truths.


While it seems fairly obvious what it means to be mindful of the body, feelings and states of mind — the first three foundations of mindfulness — it is not at all obvious what it means to be mindful of such “ideas.” I have never heard of any Buddhist center or secular mindfulness training that offers retreats on this fourth foundation of mindfulness. It is conveniently ignored or simply presented as shorthand for “everything” you experience.


So what does it mean to be mindful of dharmas/ideas? Since most of what is listed under “dharmas” concerns the body, feelings and mental states, surely they are already covered by the first three foundations of mindfulness? So why are they repeated here?


The mistake, I believe, is to treat mindfulness as though it has only one meaning: paying close attention to what is occurring in your experience at any given moment. This is fine for the first three foundations, but makes little sense of the fourth.


Mindfulness, however, means not only to pay close attention but to bear something in mind, to recall what matters to you, to remember.


What is the power of mindfulness? Here, a practitioner is mindful; he is equipped with the keenest mindfulness and situational awareness; he remembers well and keeps in mind what has been said and done long ago.” [A. V:14]


It is in this second sense of “remembering well and keeping in mind” that we need to understand mindfulness of dharma. “Dharma” here does not mean “phenomena” but teachings or practices. This means that the fourth foundation of mindfulness requires bearing in mind what matters to you, in this case frameworks for ethical living. 


These lists of Buddhist doctrines mentioned under the heading “dharma” are not just Buddhist examples of ideas, they are Ethical Frames for living one’s life in this world. And, as we shall see, each of these frames corresponds to one of the four tasks.


The first item mentioned here is the the five bundles (khandha) of physicality, feeling, perception, inclinations and consciousness.


In the previous talk we saw how Gotama defined suffering, in terms of the first task, as these five bundles. I described them not as a proto-empirical, objective description of human experience but as an Ethical Frame for responding to the unfolding of life’s tragedy, which optimizes our ability to practice the four tasks.


The physical world impacts our senses, which triggers feelings, perceptions and inclinations, which is the basis on which we then react or respond skillfully or unskillfully to a specific life situation.


Just as the five bundles (which also include the six elements mentioned in the sutta at this point) are the Ethical Frame for the first task, so the five hindrances (attachment, aversion, restlessness, lethargy and vacillation) are  the Ethical Frame for practicing the second task — letting go of reactivity.


The seven awakening factors (mindfulness, questioning, energy, joy, stillness, focus and equanimity) are the Ethical Frame for the third task — seeing the stopping of reactivity..


And the four tasks (i.e. the four noble truths) are the Ethical Frame for the fourth task — cultivating the eightfold path.


In this way we can see how the lists of “dharmas” included in the fourth foundation of mindfulness are another way of describing the four tasks. To practise the fourth foundation means, therefore, to bear in mind the ethical frames that enable us to respond appropriately, in the light of our goals and values, to the situations in which we find ourselves in life.


Together, the four foundations of mindfulness provide a comprehensive framework for human flourishing. They enable us to be grounded in embodied awareness (body), emotional intelligence (feeling), and psychological insight (mind) — to which we pay close, moment to moment attention — but are held within the Ethical Frames of the dharma which, consciously or unconsciously, we recollect and bear in mind.