Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed.  
--Mohandas Gandhi

Our last stop spent a lot of time stating what Self-Possession isn’t, so let’s spend more time talking about what it is--and we can move on to the next stop on the journey, visiting a Theravadan Buddhist virtue sometimes translated as “Self-Possession,” the virtue of Sampajañña. 

Sampajañña is a word in the Pali sacred language. The 19th century English scholar Thomas Rhys Davids translated it as "attention, consideration, discrimination, comprehension, circumspection.” This fits: We noted that Self-Possession has roots in Self-Knowledge, so it makes sense that Sampajañña, as a close relative of Self-Possession, has a necessary aspect of understanding of the self. 

But this virtue also involves knowledge of the world, and mixes the knowing and the doing. In fact, a famous modern-day monk from Myanmar, Dhammacariya U Htay Hlaing, says this about the word:

The word sampajañña is derived from the combination of three syllables- sam + pa + janna=
sam (rightfully, completely, by oneself)
pa (in different ways and means, specifically)
janna (knowing, realising).

Ven. Dhammacariya goes on to use the same analogy I used of rider + steed= Self-Knowledge + Self-Possession (although instead of a horse he uses an ox, of which I imagine they have a lot more in Myanmar!) 

So, what are the “ways and means” implied by Sampajañña? Another modern-day Theravada scholar and monk, Analayo1, explains it is to conduct one’s self with dignity and care, with a sense of purpose, keeping to a specific terrain and seeing the world and those in it with truth and clarity. Sampajañña implies awareness of the basic anicca (impermanence) of the world. 

Urk! A tall order, right?! Analayo’s “purpose” means the path of spiritual development. A person with Sampajañña not only knows who they are, they know where they are going--and not going--in life, and how to conduct themselves on the way. They not only know, they understand, and their actions in even the most minor activities, like walking, lying down, brushing the teeth, show this. 

One valid translation of Sampajañña thus might be “Behaving Mindfully.” In this respect, Sampajañña has something in common with the Martian virtue of Grokking--a topic that, yes, I promise, we will visit further on down the road (and not just because I’m a fan of science fiction!). Mohandas Gandhi, whose spiritual insights and self-mastery extended to a savvy political conduct that attained independence his nation, gives us a nice example of Sampajañña. 

How, then, do we realize Sampajañña? Knowing that Buddhist monks spend their whole lives in meditative practices to attain it, I’d venture it probably, like a lot of virtues, points to an ideal that we may strive to reach, even if we never quite get there (like Moses with the land of Canaan). If you were to ask the Theravadan clergy, they would tell you the road to Sampajañña starts with meditation. So, if you do not have a regular practice of meditation, consider starting one, as a first step on that road.

May we see the gates of Sampajañña and perhaps make a home there.

1Anālayo (2006). Satipatthāna: The Direct Path to Realization. Birmingham: Windhorse Publications, pp143-5.

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