To do or not to do – use the BARR Test (Sampajaññā)

Venue: Kathina Ceremony 2018 at SBS Monk Training Centre

The topic of this year’s Kathina talk is “Sampajaññā”, clear awareness. For the purpose of this Kathina we have produced another very interesting and meaningful T-shirt designed by Joan Wong. Look at what it says:

“To do or not to do – use the BARR Test”

I will explain more on that later. For now, let us have a look at what is the meaning of sampajañña?

Sam (properly) + pa (in various ways) + jaññā (knowing) = sampajaññā (clear awareness/comprehension)

Range: intelligent consideration > discretion/wisdom (related to worldly matters) > insight (related to spiritual matters)

In the discourses clear comprehension is often mentioned alongside another term,  mindfulness (sati). What are the roles of mindfulness (sati) and clear comprehension (sampajañña)? Sati brings a past object to the mind’s attention; sampajañña makes use of the information provided by sati to evaluate and understand the object.

When is the right time to be clearly aware? The Satipaṭṭhāna sutta (MN 10) gives examples, saying that one practices clear awareness when engaged in activities such as

  • Going forward & turning back
  • Looking ahead & backwards
  • Bending & stretching limbs
  • Using bowl & wearing clothes
  • Eating, drinking, chewing, tasting (that’s what some of you are mainly here for today)
  • Urinating & defecating
  • Going, standing, sitting, sleeping, being wakeful
  • Speaking, being silent

As you can see, there is virtually no part of the day where clear comprehension is not relevant. Even in the toilet when urinating and defecating one can’t escape it.

Alright, so clearly aware of what? Of feelings, thoughts & perceptions – whether they accord with the BARR Test. BARR is an acronym which stands for

  • Beneficial
  • Appropriate
  • Relevant
  • Realistic

The BARR test is an excellent tool for decision making.

Ask yourself “Is the intention that I have…”:

  • Beneficial: to myself and others?
    • Example 1: If I shout at my superiors on the workplace
    • Example 2: to go to school/university
  • Appropriate: suitable at that time/place/situation?
    • Example 1: You are hungry and contemplate: “Shall I order some pizza and eat now?” The answer of whether it is appropriate may depend on additional factors, such as:
      • time: 1pm vs. 1 am
      • place: at home vs. at a monastery or retreat centre;
      • situation: gathering of friends vs. work-meeting;
    • Example 2: You have heard a catchy tune and would like to sing. Again, appropriateness depends on time & place e.g. at home vs. during a lecture at university
  • Relevant (domain): in my role; is it my business?
    • Example 1: The thought arises “Shall I tell my neighbor´s son to do his homework in the afternoon and not play video games until late at night.” Ask yourself, is this really your business?
    • Example 2: I notice there are some cracks in the platform I am currently sitting on. There is not even a railing here; if they had told me earlier that there is no railing, I would never have agreed to give a talk so high up here. So yes, cracks in the floor of this structure would be very relevant to me; but maybe not much of a concern to you.
  •  Reality/Realistic:
    • high end – ultimate reality: seeing things in the light of conditionality and ti-lakkhana (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, non-self)
    • low end – conventional reality – Realistic: is the intended action within my power and capabilities
      • Example 1: “Elon Musk wants to send people to Mars. Maybe I should get a new education and subsequently apply for a job as an astronaut?” Ask yourself, is this realistic?
      • Example 2: “Shall I become a photo-model?” Well, if you’re 16 years old and your looks are above average; yes, it may be realistic. But if you’re more like me, you’re in your forties and you’re bold; then the chance is probably close to 0.
      • Example 3: “Shall I open my own shop?” Whether this is realistic or not depends on your qualities. Are you good at organizing things? Are you self reliant? Are you good at relating to people?

Not all 4 aspects of the BARR test need to be tested. If the previous one hasn’t passed the test, we can stop it already.
e.g. Supposed you have a job which is not completely in line with your ethical standards anymore. Maybe you have to cheat or lie to others, or make promises that you know you will never be able to fulfill…what kind of unethical job would that be…ok, let’s say you’re a… politician. ? I am sorry; any politicians here?
You have to know, in Austria we always make jokes about politicians. Is joking about politicians socially acceptable in Malaysia? Yes? OK, good. Then I’m safe.
OK, supposed you are a politician, but think about becoming a meditation teacher instead. Go through the BARR test. It doesn’t take long. Would it be beneficial to change your job and become a meditation teacher? It depends. If your expected income will be only a fraction of your current income and you won’t be able to support yourself and your family anymore, then becoming a mediation teacher may not be the ideal choice for you. In this case you, don’t need to continue with the BARR test, asking whether it would be appropriate or not. If it hasn’t passed the first question, we can put this thought/idea/intention aside already. However, if it passes the first aspect, then move on to the second…third…fourth.

Another example: You think about buying a new smartphone you’ve seen in the advertisement, but your current phone is only 6 months old. Put the thought to the BARR test. Is it beneficial, appropriate, relevant and realistic? Only if all four questions have been answered with a clear “Yes”, then it is worthwhile pursuing that thought/intention. If one of the answers was “No”, then put it aside.

The BARR-test is a very useful tool for decision making and is applicable to spiritual and worldly questions and leads to spiritual, as well as worldly success.

Sampajañña clearly understands and evaluates the data that the mind perceived with mindfulness, sati. Sati is important in order to be able to apply the BARR-test (sampajañña). If sati is too weak and too slow, the situation and intention is over before one can apply the test.

I offer this for your reflection today, and I wish you all the best for your various decisions small or large that you have to make in life. The BARR-test will serve you well in all situations. May the blessings of the triple gem be with you.

Sādhu x 3

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top