Sati means ‘mindfulness’ in Pali. Its most basic and practical definition is; retaining awareness every moment, on purpose, without judgment, being in the present moment and not thinking of the past nor dreaming of the future. That is being here and now. This type of presence in the present moment allows an individual to remember what was heard or done long time ago. This ability will aid all educational endeavours, among other things.
The programme aims at introducing a universal, non-sectarian mindfulness practice in all Sri Lankan schools, irrespective of ethnicity and religion. This programme is conducted in partnership with the Ministry of Education. The programme isn’t limited to the Buddhist community, but its target population includes Tamils, Muslims, Christians and also those who are non-religious. This initiative makes Sri Lanka the first ever developing country to have introduced a non-religious approach to mindfulness at the national level.
The founder of Sati Pasala is Ven. Uda Eriyagama Dhammajiva Maha Thera. The monk gets actively involved when leading the programmes conducted for schools and is assisted by a team of facilitators. The priest is the present abbot and chief meditation master of Meetirigala Nissarana Vanaya Forest Hermitage.
Sati Pasala is important in many respects. It is an exceptional project in the country and its work has captured the attention of countries worldwide.
How and why did a Buddhist monk- committed to meditation and hailing from a strict Vinaya (Discipline) tradition, belonging to a group of forest monks known for their secluded lifestyles, committed to attaining Nirvana in this very life-come out into the ‘society’ with an apparently ‘non-Buddhist’ approach to mindfulness?
Couldn’t such a move, on the part of a forest monk, be perceived as forsaking of the ultimate goal in favour of social engagement? Isn’t this a watering down of the Buddha’s teachings and making them fit the consumerist society’s need for consumption? Is this a modernist and missionary move in disguise, riding on the wave of the mindfulness that’s sweeping over Western and Asian countries?
We attempt to look into the backdrop, challenges and the potential of this project and for that we interviewed the monk himself.
Following are excerpts of the interview.
Q How did the vision of Sati Pasala come to you, Venerable Sir?
I am a product of 100% free education in Sri Lanka, Kandy, up-to post graduate level. I learned or picked the idea of mindfulness at the age of 25 plus as an undergraduate. I tried my best to practise it full-time as a forest monk in Nissarana Vanaya in Sri Lanka and at Paṇḍitārama in Myanmar during the past four decades, under the guidance of masters from both these meditation monasteries. My intention is to make the younger people be aware of mindfulness, at least before they reach age 25. First the thought and vision was to share the subject of mindfulness with Sunday school children, who are Buddhist. But my original proposal was rejected at the local Saṅgha (monk’s) meeting reportedly because Sunday school children are not free. This may be due to these students having tuition classes on Sundays. Eventually I got an opportunity to put to test the same proposal with the children of the close-by Buddhist temple Sunday school. That gave rise to the idea of taking mindfulness to the nearby Government school and gradually, with the success of the initiative, we introduced it as Mindful School- Sati Pasala. This school, catering to students at the grassroots level, was established at Meetirigala Village near Nissarana Vanaya.
Q How does a typical Sati Pasala programme unfold during the school term? What do you do with the children?
With this limited experience in 2016 I discussed this question with Sri Lankan expatriate families in Perth, Australia, and we refined the idea as follows:
(1) Write a book to introduce Sati as mindfulness, as well as how to practise through sitting and walking, in day-to-day activities and with the help of mindful games. At this first phase the programme is somewhat theoretical with teaching taking place at classroom level (for both the children and the class teachers).
(2) This must start at the grassroots level rather than coming in a top-bottom way.
(3) Once this concludes and after receiving an invitation from a school, mindful facilitators make a visit and conduct a 90-minute session (of sitting, walking and some mindful games) with the participation of the teachers on a voluntary basis.
(4) We must obtain the feedback from the children who participate in order to assess the impact.
Q Could you say something about Sati Pasala Foundation, the core project team and your mindfulness facilitators? How do you operate internally and during your outreach efforts?
With the above-mentioned points being discussed further in Melbourne, Australia, a decision was taken to formulate a plan.
The first stage, which comprises sessions at the classroom level where theory is taught, might continue for one year. The second stage comprises the organizing of mindful camps, conducting of mindful games and the practical sitting and walking sessions. The third stage comprises a plan to introduce this programme to the school curriculum with the help of the Education Ministry.
Discussions back at home led us to formulate Sati Pasala Foundation. We seek the assistance from the retreat organizers, those who meditate at Nissarana Vanaya Meditation centre, locals and those who are abroad. All Mindfulness Facilitators (MFs) are regular mindfulness meditation practitioners, who possess the experience of retreat-based practice. The programme was later expanded to international level, still with volunteering being the main feature.We specially trained facilitators/teachers in Sati Pasala to work with children using a handbook containing 20 essays, which are printed in Sinhala, Tamil and English. Trained MFs visit selected schools and introduce students to mindfulness with the help of school teachers. These sessions are done as pilot projects with the consent of the Minister of Education in some chosen districts.
According to the Buddhist conception, the underlying tendencies connected with passion (rāga) and aversion (dosa) as well as ignorance (mohā) and the other fetters that bind to saṃsāric existence (saṃyojanas) are already present in the case of a newly born baby. These facts are applicable to even an infant which is not yet capable of conceiving and conceptualising the corresponding notions; as implied for example by one of the Buddha’s discourses, the Mahamalunkya-sutta in the Majjhima-nikaya. In Buddhist terms, childhood and youth are after all relative concepts, given that we are all senior citizens of Saṃsāra. Young children are therefore not considered as so ‘innocent’and they still need to develop and purify their minds in wholesome ways in order to become incapable of unwholesomeness. This will help them reach the zenith of human potential.
Q What is your observation of the mental and personal development of children who have participated in the Sati Pasala training?
At first a child’s attitude towards parents, specifically towards the mother, changes even at a very early stage when the second child is born to the family. This can be termed as jealousy!That’s why children, even at the age of five, say that they feel relaxed after sitting simply, despite paying little attention; something that the teacher or facilitator cannot believe!
Q We think of how such a young and innocent child can experience mental conditions like relaxation or tension?
If the child has a terminal disease or is born to parents addicted to substance use-leaving aside street children- the situation we are faced with is worse. Such situations are hard for us to comprehend. We have limited experience dealing with such sections of the society. This is because suffering is universal.
Q May I be permitted to ask how old you are Venerable Sir? What was your childhood like?
That’s an unwanted question! Anyway I am 66 years young. I am still in my childhood. Children are my teachers and facilitators who teach me rejuvenate me. Sati Pasala started that rejuvenation and accelerated the process. Please come and join us and play mindful games to remain young!
Q What have you learned by working with the children? How has their company affected your own spiritual life?
This is a common question we ask ourselves while actively engaging in the work of Sati Pasala. All volunteers, including me, accept that we are learning at the same time and learning how to receive grace from children in a graceful manner. I wish to invite you all to volunteer and hope the reader who reads this article rethinks about mindfulness!
Q How would you position the Sati Pasala approach in relation to the heated debate concerning the Buddhist versus non-Buddhist character in the contemporary mindfulness movement that exists at present? How does religious identity help or else interfere with developing mindfulness, especially in a country subject to religious polarisation such as Sri Lanka?
One of the declared features in our Sati Pasala Foundation is it’s non-sectarian and non-religious nature in all activities. Mindfulness as such is a birth right of human beings that the Buddha acknowledged 2600 years ago. There is no doubt about that.
In our interfaith forum of Sati Pasala all the main religious leaders and teachers in Sri Lanka accepted Sati Pasala unanimously. This is a token of its future success. They attended our Global Mindful Summit held in February 2018 in Colombo and have already shared their views. Please visit the website www.globalmindfulnesssummit.org
The point worth highlighting here is the preventive purpose of mindfulness that we prescribe in Sati Pasala in comparison to the mindfulness practised in contemporary society.
That is definitely a much better thing to do in a non-religiously identified context, since the idea that ‘prevention is better than cure’ is held in common by all humans, and not limited to a sect.
I’m sure the world at large would follow this method of mindfulness taught by us.
Q What does non-religious mindfulness have to offer our country? Can it truly lead to reconciliation and community regeneration?
Presently we’re working with well-established organizations like Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka and discuss this question openly in a productive way in the presence of other religious leaders and teachers. So far, we have had a number of such meetings and conferences. So far so good. ‘Arigatou’ is another international organization closely knitted with Sati Pasala and we’re progressing towards our goal in keeping with time. My experience is that mindfulness can be a potent unifier – a practice that, when nurtured, has the capacity to bring diverse people together, in amity with harmony. I often use the phrase: “mindfulness is like a thread that can join a string of flowers resulting in a beautiful garland”.
Our hope is to introduce this practice if possible, as a positive model, under the agenda of Sustainable Development Goals to the United Nations.
(More details on Sati Pasala can obtained by logging on to https://www.satipasala.org)