Mindfulness With Clarity and Discernment

Luang Por Pasanno • August 2012

Yesterday at teatime, we were talking about sampajañña, clear comprehension, which is a quality we can reflect on in our daily practice. When the Buddha speaks about mindfulness—sati—he rarely treats mindfulness as an isolated quality. It’s usually in conjunction with some other quality—particularly, clear comprehension, sati-sampajañña. Without clear comprehension, our mindfulness tends to be rather narrowly focused. We can forget that the Buddha is encouraging us to have a broadness of attention and awareness and a reflective quality while we are cultivating mindfulness. So we need to make clear comprehension an integral part of our cultivation and development of mindfulness.

Clear comprehension has different functions, duties, and purposes. There is clear comprehension of the object of our attention, but there are many other aspects as well. For instance, the sense of being free of delusion is one example of sampajañña operating within the mind. With non-delusion we have a sense of clearly comprehending our biases or lack of biases and refraining from bringing a self-position into our experiences.

We can also clearly comprehend how to practice in a way that’s in keeping with whatever time and place we happen to be in. Ajahn Chah used to give a classic example of this having to do with a senior monk who would visit him at his monastery. In the morning they would go on alms round together into one of the villages around Wat Pah Pong. Ajahn Chah said that this was often a source of slight irritation because although this monk was very mindful, he didn’t clearly comprehend the situation. As the visiting monk would lead a group on alms round, he would mindfully walk toward a buffalo pen, because he didn’t notice that he wasn’t walking on the road anymore. Or while he was being very focused, he would fail to recognize that he was walking on the left side of the road and all of the villagers were waiting off to the right side of the road. He would mindfully walk past them and start heading off into the paddy fields. Ajahn Chah would say, “Go right, go right,” or “Go left, go left.” Mindfulness requires clear comprehension so that we are aware of the appropriate time and place in each circumstance.

Another aspect of clear comprehension pertains to the different personalities and temperaments people have. Different people need attending to in different ways, and we need to adjust our actions and attitudes accordingly. Otherwise we may offend, upset, or miscommunicate with the people around us. Clear comprehension allows us to see how to choose the best response for each person we interact with.

In the Visuddhimagga, Ācariya Buddhaghosa suggests that sampajañña is a synonym for discernment; specifically, it’s the discernment we use to determine what Dhamma to apply, depending on the situation we’re in and the experience that’s arising for us.

As we go about our day, we use reflective awareness to get the best sense of how to apply sati-sampajañña. We do not need to apply mindfulness and clear comprehension in a mechanical way. When we do our daily chanting, we recollect the qualities of the Dhamma, and one of these qualities is opanayiko: leading inward. The function of our practice is to draw our attention inward; to draw the world and interaction with the world around us, inward. That is how we are able to hold things with clarity and discernment, applying sati-sampajañña to see the Dhamma clearly.