An example in case is mindfulness of breathing, which Levman (2017, p. 143) sees as a practice of recollection and remembering:
Even the focus on ānāpāna, in-and-out-breathing is itself both a recollection―of the air element which the breath is a sub-set of and one of the four elements our bodies are composed of―and an admonition, to leave nothing unquestioned or unexamined about the body or its functioning, to take nothing for granted, and to remember that the body is not-self.
Levman (2017, p. 143n25) supports his statement with a reference to the commentary on the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta. Yet, the commentary he cites offers a gloss on the significance of the expression “contemplating the body,” kāyānupassī (Sv III 757). It does not present mindfulness itself as a form of remembering.
In my original publication, I argued that mindfulness of breathing is preferably not conceptualized as a form of remembering (Anālayo 2016a, p. 1274, 2017a, p. 31). Although to remain with the breath requires working memory, this differs from the episodic type of memory described in the canonical definition of sati. Moreover, what such working memory should achieve is remaining mindful of the present breath, not recalling a breath that has happened at an earlier time or dwelling in other memories from the past.
By way of further clarification, the relevant canonical instructions can be taken up for consideration. The first part of the instructions enjoins being with mindfulness established to the forefront (parimukhaṃ satiṃ upaṭṭhapetvā or 繫念面前), presumably intending that mindfulness is brought to the forefront of one’s own mind or field of attention (alternative explanations take this phrase to refer to a physical location for sensing the breath).
Once mindfulness has been established in this way, one should then breathe in mindfully and breathe out mindfully (sato va assasati, sato passasati, with equivalents in 念入息, 念出息 or else 念於內息, 念於外息). Rather than being related to the past, the task described here is very much to stay in the present moment and be aware of the breath as it manifests right now. One should be mindful of the breath coming in or else going out.
This certainly does not concern recalling breathing that has been “done long ago,” to use the expression from the canonical definition of mindfulness. Being mindful of the inhalations and exhalations therefore does not require that a practitioner “establishes memory at the forefront of his/her mind,” pace Levman (2017, p. 146). Instead, what needs to be established is mindfulness. This is what supports one’s remaining aware of the breath, as it manifests in the present moment, not some form of memory of what one has done or said long ago.
The two expressions just discussed are the only parts of the actual instructions where sati itself is mentioned. For the remainder of the practice of mindfulness of breathing, the instructions rather enjoin that one “knows” (pajānāti or 知) or else trains oneself in activities like “experiencing,” “calming,” and “contemplating” in the full scheme of 16 steps of practice. This terminological shift leaves hardly any room for construing the role of sati itself in relation to the practice of mindfulness of breathing as a remembering of the body as not self or a relating of the breath to the four elements. Such insights and relationships can indeed emerge in the course of practice of the entire instructions on mindfulness of breathing, but the task in the part where sati is explicitly mentioned is just to know that one is breathing in and breathing out.
The same holds for the whole of the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta, where sati itself does not occur in the actual instructions (except for its mention as an awakening factor, where the meditative task, however, is still that one “knows”). In addition to the need to know, these instructions also mention that one “examines” and that one “compares.” It is in relation to such activities that the commentary on the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta offers its gloss on how to contemplate the body. The gloss does not concern characteristics of mindfulness itself.
One of the contemplations in the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta and its Chinese parallels enjoin that one “examines” (paccavekkhati/觀) the anatomical constitution of the body. Another Pāli discourse and its Tibetan parallel qualify the same exercise as a “perception,” (saññā/’du shes; AN V 109 and D 38 ka 276a, see also Anālayo 2016b, p. 99ff). This fits with the suggestion by Ñāṇaponika Thera, mentioned above. The task to remember the different anatomical parts and to recall their appropriate evaluation is best assigned to the aggregate of perception. The same holds for the different contemplations assembled in the full scheme of mindfulness of breathing, which feature as another perception in the same discourse. The different activities described in these meditation practices rely on cultivating certain perceptions, which in turn serve to engender liberating insight.
A related point is that the verbs used in the canonical definition of mindfulness, “remembering” and “recalling,” do not feature among the activities mentioned in the canonical instructions for satipaṭṭhāna meditation and mindfulness of breathing. Had these instructions been concerned with sati performing an act of memory, it would have been quite straightforward to express this directly. Instead of being in itself confined to some form of remembering, sati is what facilitates either recall or else the other activities described in the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta and the instructions on mindfulness of breathing. The insights mentioned by Levman are potential outcomes of the individual contemplations and corresponding perceptions, but they are not presented as something inherent in sati itself. Thus, to conceive of sati itself as an activity of “constantly reminding ourselves of the path”, as done by Levman (2017, p. 135), risks mistaking the finger for the moon.
The open receptivity of non-interfering mindfulness establishes the mental space for insights of this type to arise, just as it facilitates recalling things from the distant past. But the task of mindfulness in satipaṭṭhāna meditation is predominantly a passively receptive one by way of providing such facilitation. It is precisely the function of facilitating memory and perceptual associations which enables sati to play this role, such that the insights generated by the activities enjoined in the individual contemplations unfold, but this role remains a passively receptive one.