Mindfulness or Menmitsu?

I’m not alone in feeling that the practice of mindfulness has utterly transformed my life.  When I say that Zen gave me my life, I’m basically talking about mindfulness – that simple and life-changing instruction to pay close attention to what’s happening, beyond any judgement or conceptualization, in each moment.  To notice that I’m alive.

That deep debt notwithstanding, the “Mindfulness Movement” bugs me.  (And I’m not alone in this either!)  It bugs me like maybe only family really can, and on a lot of counts, not all of which are even consistent with each other.  For instance, it bugs me that it’s too secular, and it bugs me that it’s too Buddhist.  The list goes on.

Instead of just griping, though, I want to offer an alternative word.  A companion word that offers a useful angle on Buddhist practice.

This is menmitsu – “attention to detail.”  “Continuous intimacy.”  “Soft and subtleness.”  “Warm-hearted, thorough diligence.”  Suzuki Roshi says that it is to be “very considerate… very careful in doing things.”  This menmitsu is the defining character of the Soto Sect – it is the flavor, the style of the lineage (menmitsu no kafū 綿密の家風).

Menmitsu is about caring for things.  And of course we can’t care for things without some basic attention; of course “mindfulness” underlies menmitsu.

But there is an important difference.  Mindfulness as it’s usually taught points inward.  That makes sense – “inside” is where we spiritual types think the real deal is.  (Thank you, Descartes.)  Menmitsu points outward.  Outward.  To relationships with people and (maybe especially) with objects.

Volumes have been (and are currently being) written about how “mindfulness” – what could have been a powerful antidote to the excesses of our age – instead risks being swallowed up by the narcissistic, gain-oriented, capitalistic self-improvement culture we live and breathe in.  It’s about how I feel, and what I’ll get.  What matters is me.

Menmitsu, as an enactment of the immutable truth of the total connectedness of all things, includes but is not fundamentally about looking within, or about any kind of inner awareness.  Menmitsu isn’t about an inner state.  It’s about taking care of things.  It’s not about me; it’s about the fork, the dish, the person I’m looking at.

That shift from “me” to “you” goes hand in hand with another transformative shift, from “what can I get” to “what can I give.”  Mindfulness, at least as it’s being sold around town, can seem like something I will get – something for me, by me, about me.  And of course our self-centered, gain-oriented patterns will follow us into any practice we take up, but menmitsu is more sharp, more clear on this point:  it is about what I can give, not what I can get.  If we’re going to live in the world of “you” and “me,” let’s at least see the practice as something from me, not something for me.

How about letting that one take over our culture?  How about a Menmitsu Movement?


[I say some more about menmitsu in a recent public talk.]


20 thoughts on “Mindfulness or Menmitsu?

  1. Good timing for this message — I’ll keep it in mind as I immerse and absorb at Wisdom 2.0 this weekend.

    Actually… I’ll do more than keep it in mind — I’ll try to practice it all weekend, in the midst of whatever kinds of mindfulness I meet.


  2. So very beautifully said. Mindfulness bugs me too and I wasn’t really able to say why…but you are. Thank you. Your post brings tears to my eyes.

  3. Maybe I’m not feeling optimistic today, but in a culture steeped in individual achievement, getting ahead, productivity and making money it’s difficult to see ‘taking care of things’ becoming an underlying ethos and motivation. I notice that most people actually are ‘taking care’ of things and doing a life’s work for the benefit of others and to help others only often they don’t recognize that they actually are: they think only in terms of making money or getting ahead. Ironically they don’t notice that this causes them great suffering in their lives, so they turn to ‘Mindfulness’ to help them get ahead, be more productive, achieve more, etc… which seems to actually only make “Mindfulness’ another way to excel,or make money, or get recognition. This subtly increases their suffering after an initial flush of feeling some relief and positive experiences. Mindfulness is often practiced as a self improvement project, but unless it develops into acceptance of the things the way they are then interest is liable to move on to the next fad

  4. I practice mindfulness for realizing *not-separate-not-same* with all things – of which what I call *I* is but one in the field of *not-separate-not-same* things. *Taking care of things* and taking care of *me* are not different functions and it matters little if *taking care of those things* is seen as *taking care of me* or if *taking care of me* is seen as *taking care of those things*. The gripe that some people – by associating themselves with the Mindfulness Movement – are merely taking care of themselves is no less *personal* than the aspiration of one who is using mindfulness to improve their own situation. There is a lot of delarative imputation in this post about what others notice or do not notice when they are using Minfulness to take care of themselves – e.g. that they are unaware that they are causing suffering in their lives. I wonder. Are such imputations examples of *taking care of things* or can I trust my gut which is screaming that the proposal I have just read is little more than a more stylish way of further enabling a (delusional) appearance of separation from such? This gut so screams not because it is separate from such delusion but because it is *not-separate-not-same* with it – because it is not-separate *both* from the one who takes care of others by taking care of oneself, and the one who takes care of one’s self by taking care of others. Absent any realization of *not-separate-not-same” with *the-object-that-is-griping-one*, any recourse to glossing with Japanese is just slapping whipped cream onto a road apple and calling it dessert – or maybe what Dogen would suggest is an attempt to slake one’s hunger with a *painted rice cake*.

  5. 1. SR used this term once in the lectures, and the one lecture comes from ZMBM, which was edited by Dixon. It seems “awareness” has been chosen as an equivalent term in the lectures, but in fact zazen is the closest conceptual approximation to mindfulness– or sati. Yet, zazen can not be tied down to this, nor can the mindfulness (sati) be tied down to that. Indeed, I believe Suzuki Roshi covered the Dharma of the Pali word sati in the main with zazen. Zazen is a fungible, trans-conceptual word for Suzuki, covering many different teaching and experiential circumstances. It is one of the words he returned to give recollection to the Dharma, like in the practice of mindfulness when we return to the breath.
    2. I don’t believe SR taught a mindfulness practice, in the sense of mindfulness that is explored in the “mindfulness movement”–developed out of the American Vipassana movement. SR taught zazen, which he understood to be the original enlightenment practice– of sati and samadhi. Even the Satipatthana Sutta references of sati, from with the American Vipassana Movement structures itself has little overt continuity with Suzuki’s zazen, although, I believe there is one occasion in the lectures where he speaks of four stages of zazen in parallel with the spirit of the Satipatthana Sutra. This is very rare. Zazen’s interior expression is fundamentally non-differentiated, not there, nothing. The eyes are kept open because one is awake already. Vipassana meditation is a deepening discernment of differentiating “sensory” processes, counterbalanced with tranquility. The eyes are kept closed, as one is still in samsara investigating the stream of samsara. This is why zazen is not open to guided meditations from the outside, because it does not have anything to map out on the inside. This is where I completely agree with you in looking at the term menmitsu to help better understand SR’s teaching of “mindfulness”– or zazen. I think it’s clear from Suzuki Roshi’s teachings, he was not a “spiritual type”. His teaching always returned to mindful activity- moment to moment, in a persistence of forms (empty), through and through– an undivided self– Big Mind. We return to the “helpfulness” of baking bread for ourselves and others. If we look at how the SR’s teaching centers, like Tassajara are still set up, there is very little structure given to independent reflection, study and investigation– it is a series of activities in a field of community bringing one to daily exhaustion, all to be repeated again and again. It is persistence. This is how one keeps the precepts, by not having any gap to break them. (Of course this is not an entirely true picture– but true enough.)
    3. I think, we the inheritors of Zen in the west, are still uncertain of what zazen is, which becomes more accentuated when a larger cultural conversation like the “mindfulness movement” happens, asking questions about Buddhism, meditation and the end of suffering. Shouldn’t we be at the center of the conversation, given our central place in the history of Buddhism in the west? How can we get into the conversation– dare I say, especially when so much “market share” can be gained? And when we attempt to dive into the conversation, do we have a clarity to be helpful and instructive, especially when it is an outgrowth of another Buddhist tradition?
    4. Our uncertainty around zazen I believe is the story of practice, the story of resistance to understand that zazen is fundamentally a devotional act, grounded in Buddha-nature, and closed off to the dialectics of techne, that over the last 20 years has become the cult of our culture. Dare we accept this, understand this, and accept zazen.
    5. Question: Is there anyone in the American Zen Movement with a callus on their forehead? This I believe is one the questions that haunted my teacher Suzuki Roshi before he died.

    • If you don’t know what Zazen is then you’re hardly an inheritor of Zen. To want to be in on and influence a conversation about a topic to which you are ignorant is strange.

      The problem with Zazen in the West is simply expressed. “Here I am sitting, staring at a wall [Soto] or not [Rinzai]. What AM I doing? Is it right? How would I know? Is it tax deductible? Can I get a receipt?”

  6. Hi Jiryu,

    You think you’ve got a cranky, contrarian who pops up — wait until you’re an old fart like myself. I could make a long list of things that bug me, the “mindfulness movement” being one of them. Ads with photos of attractive models sitting in nature in the easy pose with their knees in the air, “meditating,” really gets my goat.

    In the seventies I knew it was only a matter before Americans made a fad out of meditation. First it was jogging, then yoga and now meditation and mindfulness. As someone who has been practicing since before Suzuki showed up here, you’d think I’d be celebrating now that my time has finally arrived, but instead I feel even more cranky and out of it.

    As for “menmitsu.” Although I’m not familiar with the term, I suspect it refers to the fact that there is no real separation between observer and observed — the “observer,” being just another mental construction. Thus when we relate to any object, we are the object, so it makes sense to be careful with it.

  7. Hello Jiryu Mark and others: This is my first time commenting on this blog, which I just discovered in a Google search for “Life is not killed” (a Dogen translation that I first heard from Tenshin Reb Anderson and that appears to be surprisingly scarce on Google). Jiryu, I also clicked through to your web site and downloaded your impressive thesis “Soto Zen in Meiji Japan” which I look forward to skimming, so thanks for sharing it.

    Let me share that my primary contact with the spectrum of Buddhist practices has been through Soto Zen, but I have been greatly influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh, mostly through his books (not to mention the books of writers from many other lineages), but also through my Soto Zen teachers who studied with him. My first meditation teacher was Rev. Dai-En Patricia Bennage. I didn’t know it at the time when I was sitting with her, but I later learned that after Dai-En’s rigorous Soto Zen training and ordination in Japan, she immediately studied for three months with Thich Nhat Hanh in France. And I studied with another American Soto Zen teacher who had studied with Thich Nhat Hanh as well. So I suspect that Thich Nhat Hanh’s influence on American Soto Zen is not to be underestimated.

    When I hear the word “mindfulness” I immediately think of Thich Nhat Hanh, because that word is used so much in his English-language books. And his use of the word makes it very clear that it is about caring for things, just like menmitsu. I used Google to search for “Nhat Hanh” in this blog and it only appears in two places: (1) In a comment by Marie on the post “No Young People in Zen”, which reads: “Thich Nhat Hanh has established a good model – very strong monastic practice (monks and nuns often enter in their late teens/early 20’s, by the way), lay-led practice groups, inclusion of children and teens in retreats, focus on how lay people can integrate practice into their lives. Soto zen communities could learn from this.” I completely agree with Marie’s statement. (2) In a comment by Kokyo Henkel on the post “Are Zen People Better?” which reads: “Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh said somewhere that if a practitioner doesn’t notice any transformation in his or her practice every six months, she should immediately check with her teacher and make a shift in the practice.” Add Kokyo Henkel to the list of Soto Zen teachers who have been influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh, I suppose.

    Jiryu, if you are continuing to study the history of how American Soto Zen is different from its ancestors or predecessors, it would be interesting to compare that history with the history of how Thich Nhat Hanh’s style of Zen is different from its ancestors or predecessors. Or perhaps such a comparative study will be the work of some future scholar.

    As the Navaho (Diné) say: Walk in beauty (hózhó)!

    • For example, I searched for the word “care” in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (1991), and here are some relevant passages that make mindfulness sound a lot like menmitsu:

      “I must take care of my body, treat it with respect as a musician does his instrument. I apply nonviolence to my body, for it is not merely a tool to accomplish something. It itself is the end. I treat my scythe in the same way. As I use it while following my breathing, I feel that my scythe and I breathe together in rhythm. It is true for many other tools as well.”

      “There are so many things that are enjoyable, but when we don’t practice mindfulness, we don’t appreciate them. When we practice mindfulness, we come to cherish these things and we learn how to protect them. By taking good care of the present moment, we take good care of the future. Working for peace in the future is to work for peace in the present moment.”

      “After a retreat in southern California, an artist asked me, ‘What is the way to look at a flower so that I can make the most of it for my art?’ I said, ‘If you look in that way, you cannot be in touch with the flower. Abandon all your projects so you can be with the flower with no intention of exploiting it or getting something from it.'”

      “Our mindfulness will take care of everything, as the sunshine takes care of the vegetation. The sunshine does not seem to do much, it just shines on the vegetation, but it transforms everything. Poppies close up every time it gets dark, but when the sun shines on them for one or two hours, they open. The sun penetrates into the flowers, and at some point, the flowers cannot resist, they just have to open up.”

      “We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing? We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help.”

      “The affluent society and the deprived society inter-are. The wealth of one society is made of the poverty of the other. ‘This is like this, because that is like that.’ Wealth is made of non-wealth elements, and poverty is made by non-poverty elements. It is exactly the same as with the sheet of paper. So we must be careful not to imprison ourselves in concepts. The truth is that everything contains everything else. We cannot just be, we can only inter-be. We are responsible for everything that happens around us.”

      “When we throw a plastic bag into the garbage, we know that it is different from a banana peel. It will take a long time to become a flower. ‘Throwing a plastic bag into the garbage, I know that I am throwing a plastic bag into the garbage.’ That awareness alone helps us protect the Earth, make peace, and take care of life in the present moment and in the future. If we are aware, naturally we will try to use fewer plastic bags. This is an act of peace, a basic kind of peace action.”

  8. I have just discovered your blog and I am greatly enjoying your posts. This particular topic speaks to me because there has been a growing trend in education (I teach at a community college) to incorporate mindfulness and contemplation into the curriculum. HOWEVER, it is most often presented as a pedagogical technique to achieve measurable learning objectives rather than a shift in educational philosophy. Mindless Mindfulness. I am just starting my own exploration of Zen and I am grateful for the opportunity to think about your writings and learn from your experiences.

  9. I finished at least a first draft of a collection of my writing, and titled it “A Natural Mindfulness”. I did so because I have confidence in the happiness of breathing in and out, and in Gautama’s description of his ability to remain in this kind of happiness for seven days at a time.

    Turns out it’s extremely difficult to convey to someone what it means to act consciously yet without intention. When Gautama spoke of his way of living, he described a rhythm of awarenesses in connection with breathing in and breathing out, and yet the ability to breathe in or breathe out with awareness and without intention I believe is fundamental to the experience of such a rhythm. We all find our way to the breath in or out with awareness and without intention in falling asleep, and again in waking up (though it may not be as noticeable in waking up). Gautama appears to suggest that the experience of a rhythm of mindfulness as a way of living involves finding our way to happiness in this movement of breath or that, one breath at a time, and that action is mindful when in effect the breath acts without conscious volition.

    My friend zafrogzen tells me today of a master who said that things must be treated as though they were your eyes. I am so full of my eyes, I am bent over, yet I understand that the experience of things can support my posture, often with the involvement of my eyes. It’s different from seeing, per se. My friend proposed this as the meaning of menmitsu.

  10. Pingback: The Least I Can Do | No Zen in the West

  11. Pingback: ¿Mindfulness o Menmitsu?

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