A lot of people search online to find out what the real relationship of modern mindfulness to Buddhism is. And, depending on where they look, they find a very wide and conflicting range of answers.
You might find yourself reading that
- the modern, secular mindfulness (we’ll call it MSM for brevity) we know from mindfulness courses and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a scientific distillation of the ‘active ingredients’ of Buddhist practice without the cultural baggage of an oriental religion
- MSM is a trivialisation of an ancient tradition, presenting it as a technique with no depth of thinking and, more important, no ethical basis
- MSM is a conspiracy by Buddhists to get their teachings into homes, workplaces and schools posing as something else
There are a number of reasons these views developed:
- MSM was originally developed by American Buddhists based on their experience of meditation and their idea that it could be helpful to non-Buddhists, originally in a hospital setting
- many, if not most, mindfulness teachers learned meditation in Buddhist contexts and would still call themselves active Buddhists – BUT …
- they don’t always make that clear because they don’t want to be seen as evangelizing Buddhists – indeed most are genuinely not trying to get their clients to become Buddhists
- the marketing of mindfulness on the other hand shamelessly trades on ideas and images of tranquility, peace and wisdom drawn from Buddhist imagery – lotus flowers, lotus positions, and so on. Not bothered about mixing different traditions of Buddhism on one page, they simply draw on the allure of ‘the East’ as something deep, not easily understood, and now made accessible to you today
- even proponents of ‘scientific’ mindfulness aren’t above pointing to its pedigree going back thousands of years in order to say ‘this isn’t just something we made up overnight like Neuro Linguistic Programming or Transactional Analysis, this is something with centuries of authority.’ When they do this they often skip thousands of years of diverse Buddhist history across many centuries and continents to quote from the Satipatthana Sutra, the earliest recorded description of the concept sati, translated by Western scholars as recently as the late 19th century as ‘mindfulness’. This suggest they’re claiming to have isolated the ‘essence’ before it was obscured by centuries of obscurantism.
Science and religion
One thing to be aware of is the different worldviews of science and religion. Science tends to view history as progressive – we are gradually uncovering and explaining nature so this year’s knowledge trumps last year’s and this century’s trumps last century’s. It’s all progress in the right direction.
Religion tends to take the opposite view – that something was understood long ago by the founder of the religion and his (always ‘his’ isn’t it?) closest companions, and inevitably over time it gets corrupted and misinterpreted and has to be re-examined every now and again to get at the ‘pure’ essence. So while you find religious innovators, they tend to claim they’re rediscovering or returning to the original neglected insights, whereas scientific innovators say they’re creating something new that builds on what has gone before, and improves it.
Whether you think one worldview or the other is closer to yours may affect how you view mindfulness.
Modern Mindfulness and Vipassana
Historically we can agree that modern mindfulness in the therapeutic context started with Jon Kabatt-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He first studied Zen Buddhism, in its Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean styles, then Vipassana, as taught by the Insight Meditation Society. Vipassana has its origins in Burma and the countries of SE Asia but the school that emphasises it is itself a modern invention, dating from the 20th century. While MSM bears the strong influence of Vipassana it is a constructed system aimed at being a timely therapeutic intervention to treat forms of stress and stress-related illnesses diagnosed under the Western medical orthodoxy. In other words, not a religion or philosophy for life, but a treatment.
Buddhism isn’t a thing
So what does this tell us? Just as Kabatt-Zinn’s mindfulness is not ‘pure’ Buddhism going back to the Buddha, nor yet just an extension of the Vipassana school, it draws on ideas and practices from the history of Buddhism. Buddhism is not one thing. Think of the incredibly wide range of belief systems and practices that have claimed to express what Jesus of Nazareth taught in the 2000 years since his death, from St Paul to Christian Science. It’s hard to find anything in common that they all believe. Double that span of time and spread it over a wider geography and you have the range of ‘Buddhisms’. Like Christian schools each one tends to believe it is the authentic dharma or teaching even if they haven’t tended to resort to mass slaughter to rectify disagreements to the extent that the religions of the Near East have
The fact is that to take a smattering of orange robes, quirky Zen sayings and Pali scriptures then, in the words of Chris Goto-Jones, “stick the Dalai Lama on top like a cherry on a bun, and call it Buddhism” is to misunderstand it completely.
Modern mindfulness is primarily the child of a modern school of Buddhism, practising one strand of Buddhist meditation, with elements of a few others for inspiration, and a strong dose of Western psychology. Although modern books refer to sati – the earliest word translated as mindfulness – and use the four basis meditations taught in the Satipatthana Sutra, you won’t find in modern textbooks the adjacent recommendation to spend hours imagining your body decaying in the grave (just as Christian fundamentalists who condemning homosexuality based on Leviticus don’t apply the same enthusiasm to banning shellfish or tattoos as Leviticus does).
If you look in other religious and secular traditions you can find not only meditation, but even what we’d call mindful everyday awareness – in places from the ancient Greek Stoics to the early 20th century American psychologist William James to the modern psychologist Ellen Langer.
What does this matter?
If you like to think your modern mindfulness lessons have a connection to an ancient tradition (the ‘monk’ or ‘ninja’ mindsets I describe in earlier posts) fine – just don’t imagine there’s a direct line back to the Buddha. It’s an extremely wiggly dotted line. If your orientation is more to the scientist and you want to believe something new and is being created here, again it’s not so much a refinement of Buddhism itself as of a particular modern school of Buddhism. Just don’t be surprised if it keeps throwing in Buddhist references and Buddhist language for a few more decades.
This post was inspired by, and is my interpretation of, the lectures in De-Mystifying Mindfulness from the University of Leiden, which I’d strongly recommend.