As we look back upon the history of Buddhism in the West, a few books stand out as seminal works in introducing us to the teachings of the Buddha. The Heart of Buddhist Meditation holds an honored place as one of these books. First published in 1962, it was one of the first to clearly explain, in English, how to put the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness into practice, both as a meditative discipline and as a practice in our daily lives.
I first came across this book in 1966 when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. I had been attending a Buddhist discussion group, and after responding to my endless questions, one of the monks leading the group suggested I try meditating. He then gave me a copy of Nyanaponika Mahathera’s The Heart of Buddhist Meditation as a way of getting started. Ven. Nyanaponika (1901–94) was a German-born Theravada monk who lived and taught in Sri Lanka for many years. He cofounded the Buddhist Publication Society and was a teacher of Bhikkhu Bodhi, one of the foremost contemporary translators of the Pali texts. His renowned book helped to change my life.
The Heart of Buddhist Meditation is divided into three sections. The first part includes a very clear exposition of what mindfulness means—what it is and what it isn’t—and how to go about cultivating this essential quality. Ven. Nyanaponika describes in some detail the application of bare attention, the strengthening of four kinds of clear comprehension, and the foundational steps of meditation practice. What made all of this so transformative for me was understanding that mindfulness is not some esoteric, mystical state accessible to only a few but a down-to-earth quality of mind that I could touch and develop in my ordinary life. In fact, after first reading the very accessible instructions, I sat down and took what might well have been my first mindful breaths.
Years later, Munindra-ji, my first teacher, encapsulated this understanding when he said, “If you want to understand the mind, sit down and observe it.” Nothing to join, no rituals to observe—mindfulness itself would take one to the final goal. Indeed, this is the unambiguous declaration of the Buddha in the opening lines of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness.
The second section of the book is a translation of this Pali text, with helpful explanatory notes. The inclusion of the original text helps connect us to the power and comprehensiveness of the ancient teachings and can be a taste of what a careful reading of the suttas can offer. And the more we put the teachings into practice, the more we plumb the depths of their meaning.
Ven. Nyanaponika begins the third part of the book with an anthology of other suttas and commentaries from the Pali Canon, which further explore the practice of Right Mindfulness. Here, he begins to communicate the breadth of teachings in the Theravada tradition. But then he does something prescient regarding the transmission of the Dharma to the West: he also includes translations of Mahayana texts that deal with mindfulness as being a core principle of the teachings of liberation. His words are an early call to nonsectarianism and mutual appreciation among different traditions:
Though the emphasis of this selection is on the Theravada literature, it would have been an omission if the beautiful echo evoked by Satipatthana in the early Mahayana literature would not be heard here. . . . The early Mahayana Sutras are represented here by extracts taken from Santideva. . . . Some of Santideva’s succinct and beautiful formulations may well be regarded as classic, and should be often remembered by those who walk the Way of Mindfulness.
If that high value placed on Mindfulness and Satipatthana in the early Mahayana literature is not allowed to be a mere historical remnant, but becomes an active force in the life and thought of the followers, it may well fashion a strong and close link of common spiritual endeavor between Mahayana and Theravada, relegating to the background the differences between these two schools.
When Inquiring Mind asked me to review The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, I wondered what it would be like to re-read a book that had been such a great influence on my life. I was inspired to find that the words that rang so clear more than forty years ago remain as vividly clear and helpful today.