Proposal: Using 靜觀 / 静观 as the Chinese translation for “mindfulness”.

Question for comments: Any serious downsides that I’m unaware of?


As I’m reviewing the draft Chinese translation of my book Search Inside Yourself, I came across a major obstacle: the lack of a good Chinese translation for one of the most important words in the book (which also happens to be one of the most important words in all of meditation practice):  Mindfulness.

The current “standard” (ie, most widely used) translation of “mindfulness” is 正念 (zheng nian).  Unfortunately, in my opinion, it’s a downright horrible translation.

According to Zen Master Shinzen Young (and I agree with him), a translation must possess 2 important characteristics:

  1. It should immediately convey a sense of what you’re talking about to the average person.
  2. It should have the potential to give a deeper and more fine-grained understanding when questions come up re: what the process actually involves.

Unfortunately, 正念 fails miserably at [1], probably at [2] as well.

The original Chinese translation of sati, the Pali word that gets translated to “mindfulness” in English, is 念 (nian).  Truth be told, I don’t think 念 itself is an entirely bad translation.  I can think of at least 2 reasons 念 makes perfect sense:

  1. It is made up of the components 今 (jin) and 心 (xin), which means “now” and “mind” respectively.  In that sense, 念 can denote the “now mind” or moment-to-moment awareness, which captures the essence of sati very nicely.
  2. The literal meaning of sati is “that which is remembered”.  In the context of meditative practice, in addition to the element of moment-to-moment awareness, sati also has an element of recollection/remembering.   念 captures that element beautifully as well.

Unfortunately, like many other terms used in Chinese Buddhism, 念 is a highly ambiguous term that already has a very common usage outside the meditative context.  Its most common usage denotes thinking (eg, 意念 for “a thought”, 念头 for “idea” and 观念 for “concept”).  Even when applied to recollection, it commonly denotes the cognitive aspect of recollection (eg, 思念), not necessarily the more attentional aspect denoted by sati.  Worse still, even when used in the everyday Buddhist context, it almost always mean “recital” (eg, 念经, 念佛), never mindfulness.

The more modern rendering of 正念, presumably created to disambiguate “mindfulness” 念 from “thinking” 念 and “recital” 念, makes the problem much much worse.  正念 literally means “right thought”, which is very far from what mindfulness means.  An average Chinese-speaking person seeing the word 正念 would not understand it to mean anything else except “right thought”.  Even Chinese Buddhist masters themselves use the term that way.  For example, when 妙覺山宣公上人 says “質直端心正念    勿諂曲”, he is using 正念 to mean “right/proper thoughts”.

Clearly, clearly, we cannot use 正念 as the translation for mindfulness.  It is just plain wrong.  It’s so wrong I’m surprised anybody is using it at all.

Which leads us to another major problem:  What is a good translation of sati/mindfulness that satisfies Shinzen’s criteria, is short enough to be useful as a common Chinese descriptor and not already commonly used in another way?

It turns out to be a non-trivial problem and I’ve spent a long time thinking about this.  Candidates include: 观照, 尃注, 留意, 明察, 止觀, 心照.  Each and every one is grossly unsatisfactory in some serious way.  For example, 观照 (observe and reflect) is great, except it sounds too much like 关照, which means to look after, and often in a corrupt kind of way, like a corrupt politician “looking after” a businessman friend.  I really like 止觀 (pause and observe), but it’s already a term used to mean “meditation”, so cannot be used for “mindfulness”.

As usual, the solution came to my in the shower.  While pondering the problem in the shower, the term 靜觀 / 静观 (calm observing) came to me.  I immediately love it.  The more I think about it, the more it makes sense.  I discussed it over with Shinzen, and we both agree it may be the term we’re looking for.  The reasons:

1. It satisfies both of Shinzen’s critieria.  When an average Chinese speaker sees 静观, she immediately understands intuitively that it has something to do with being quiet/calm and observing, which are the key aspects of mindfulness practice.  That, plus it can describe deeper practice.  For example, Shinzen says:

静 can mean calm in the ordinary sense, but also calm in the sense of “done in a high state of concentration” 心静神不散 (as opposed to other therapeutic and introspective practices which are usually done in a scattered state).  静 can also mean “calm” in the sense of “maintaining a balanced state of equanimity” 心静如水.

2. All of the foundational meditative practice can be described in the beautiful 2-character term: 观定 (insight and stability of mind), and translating mindfulness to 静观 allows us to expand 观定 to 静观禅定.  Conceptually and linguistically elegant.

With these thoughts, I Googled for the term 静观 and found is already using it as a translation for mindfulness.  Hence, I’m not too radical.

Question to you, my friends:  Is there something I’m missing?  Is there a serious downside to using 静观 that I’m not aware of?

Update (10 Nov 2012):  Thanks to all of you who took the time to share your wisdom.

The main consensus among all the respondents seems to be:  nobody has a violent objection to 靜觀 / 静观.  All responses range from “good” to “can be better, but no objections”.

Many people suggested alternative translations, but there is no consensus on what the best one is.  Everybody seems to understand this is a non-trivial problem.  Suggestions include: 念观, 意守, 锐观, 寂照, 内观, 心观.

For me, the most compelling candidate that has emerged is 观心 (observe mind), suggested by Christophe Gong.  The main attractions (besides satisfying Shinzen’s 2 criteria for a good translation) are:

1. It has already been used to describe a practice that, if my understanding of the text is correct, sounds largely identical to my own understanding and practice of mindfulness. Specifically, the text is《佛法要领》刘洙源先生著.  The quote [source]:

观心      观心之法先要休心息念。须将六尘万缘,一概放下;善事恶事,都不思量;过去未来,一概不想。直观当下念头,憧憧往来,起灭不停;勿执著他,勿随逐他,勿断 除他。只管细细静看。妄念起时,一看不知去向;旋又复起,仍如是看;念若不起,只看著。久久纯熟,看到一念不生,即与般若相应。发菩提心论云:“妄心若 起,知而勿随,妄若息时,心源空寂,万德斯具,妙用无穷。”心性之妙如是。吾人平日之不相应,是为妄念所遮,是无明心。无明何所依?依真如而起。观无明心 即是观真如心,观心性即是观无明心。何以故?真如即是念之体,念即是真如之用故。观而得定,即是真如三昧,为三昧之王,故名上定。

2. Baidu Baike claims 观心 is a commonly used term by the Tiantai School (天台) [source].  If that is true, that is the kicker for me.  If it’s good enough for Tiantiai, it’s good enough for me.  Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to verify that.

Sadly, there are 2 major downsides that make 观心 less suitable than 静观:

1. 观心 means observing the mind.  However, in practice, the object of mindfulness practice is very often objects in contact with mind, not just the mind per se.  That gives rise to awkwardness in language.  Not unsolvable, but problematic.

2. More important, when I tried using it in the text of the book, 静观 worked much better, because 静观 is more tangible (for the average person) and far closer to the actual practice.  Eg, this passage:


Given the data so far, I have decided to use 静观.  I probably have a week or so to change my mind if I have to.