"Mindfulness is always wholesome." Really? I've heard this statement from a number of Western vipassana teachers, usually as "The Abhidhamma says 'Mindfulness is always wholesome.'" But is Mindfulness (sati) always wholesome? Well, in the suttas there are at least 42 references to "wrong mindfulness" (micchatta sati).1 It seems that it is quite unlikely that the Buddha thought Mindfulness was always wholesome.
"But the Abhidhamma says ...." Well, actually I don't trust the Abhidhamma to understand anything that the Buddha taught! The Abhidhamma is a deconstructionist project. It attempts to take the teachings of the Buddha and bust them into all the pieces that go to make up those teaching. That's certainly an interesting project - but it's no way to understand the full range of the teachings. It's like taking your bicycle all apart - you won't find anywhere among all those pieces what it feels like to coast down a long hill with the wind and scenery whipping by and you exerting no effort. That just ain't among the pieces.
Furthermore, the Abhidhamma seeks to make a consistent presentation - both of itself and of the Buddha's teachings. Well, the Buddha's teaching are not consistent! The Buddha would say something different if he were talking to a Jain than if he were talking to an Ājīvaka, or perhaps different still if talking to a Bhramin or a lay-person. He crafted his teaching according to the understanding of his audience. Brilliant! The Buddha was not doing metaphysics, so he had no need to be consistent.
But the Abhidhamma is trying to do consistent metaphysics. And in order to get it's system to work, it had to make Mindfulness always wholesome - ignoring the 42 places in the suttas where mindfulness is explicitly listed among possible wrong (micchatta)2 mindstates and actions.
"So what's the big deal?" The big deal is that now Mindfulness is a big deal in the secular world. I think it is really bad teaching to imply that as long as you are being mindful, what you are doing is wholesome. I know no teacher expresses it like that - but that is an implication that can be very easily drawn by thinking "If I'm being mindful, that's being wholesome, so it's all OK." Like "Sure I'd had a few drinks, but I was driving really mindfully." Or "Yes, I seduced her, but I was really mindful while I was doing it."
Usually some teacher trying to wriggle out of this says something like "Well, the mind can switch states really quickly." True - but it's the entire situation that determines wholesome/unwholesome, not some momentary mind state! See the two examples above. And besides, the mind does not quickly toggle wholesome/unwholesome - just sit and observe your own mind to see that!
Of course, all this really depends on what your understanding of Mindfulness is. How about Mindfulness is "Present Moment Awareness." Actually more accurately, "Present Location & Present Moment Awareness" - but that's too unwieldy. Mindfulness is a translation of sati which originally meant memory. So being mindful is "remembering to be here now." That's Present Moment Awareness.
So, can you be fully aware of what's happening in the present and be acting unwholesomely? Well, yes! A successful cat-burglar has to have excellent present moment awareness. And cat-burglary is certainly unwholesome. A sniper must be extremely mindful.... There are tons more examples including the two mentioned above.
Actually the Buddha addressed this issue with the word sampajañña.3 Sampajañña is often found paired with sati.4 It is often translated as "clear comprehension," "full awareness" or "clear awareness" and it basically means having a full understanding of the context in which you are acting. This is where the wholesome/unwholesome discrimination is made - not in the act of being mindful in isolation.
I'm happy Mindfulness has made it out into the "unreal world." But, please, can we have it being taught in a way that is not subject to stupid interpretations.
1. 42 references to "wrong mindfulness" (micchatta sati) in the suttas:
DN 23.31, DN 34.2.3(9),
MN 8.14(17), MN 19.26, MN 117.35, MN 126.9,
SN 14.28, SN 22.84, SN 45.01, SN 45.11, SN 45.12, SN 45.18, SN 45.21, SN 45.22, SN 45.23, SN 45.24, SN 45.25, SN 45.26, SN 45.31, SN 45.32, SN 55.26,
AN 4.205(1), AN 4.216, AN 4.226, AN 8.34, AN 10.103, AN 10.104, AN 10.105, AN 10.106, AN 10.107, AN 10.108, AN 10.109, AN 10.110, AN 10.113, AN 10.114, AN 10.115, AN 10.117, AN 10.119, AN 10.120, AN 10.132, AN 10.134, AN 10.155.
2. Micchatta (nt.) [abstr. fr. micchā] item of wrong, wrong-ness.
Micchā (adv.) wrongly, in a wrong way, wrong.
3. Sampajañña (nt.) attention, consideration, discrimination, comprehension, circumspection.
4. E.g. DN 22.4, MN 10.8.
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