5. What has mindfulness lost in being separated from Buddhism?
Mindfulness is a practise which has it’s roots in Buddhism. Specifically, it’s the seventh element of the Noble Eightfold Path, which is just part of the immense ethical, philosophical, institutional and ritual latticework of Buddhist practices.
Mindfulness meditation outside of a monastic order did not begin in earnest until an early-twentieth-century movement, among Theravada Buddhists in Burma. Until then it was only practiced in a monastic setting, which ensured that meditation took place in a community in which everyone abided by a common code of conduct and observed a shared set of rituals.
Articles in the press have expressed concern about modern-day mindfulness, which has been divorced from it’s roots and appropriated for use in the west.
Note: Debate continues as to whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy because it does not fit neatly into either category. For the purposes of this study I will refer to it as a religion.
Every religion has at it’s core a community of people who share a common belief. When mindfulness is taught in it’s Buddhist setting, people have a community within which to continue and develop their meditation practice.
Modern-day mindfulness can be learnt by individuals from a book. However learning as part of a small group is highly recommended. It is in this setting that people share experiences and insights, encourage one another and find the momentum to keep going. Unfortunately courses normally only last eight weeks and then people find themselves having to go it alone and giving up on the new practices they have learnt.
Another potential weakness of mindfulness groups is that, unlike religious communities, they are not only brief but contain a narrow range of ages and backgrounds. As one article observed, “they are often the preserve of the stressed middle classes who can afford the courses.”
In a Buddhist setting mindfulness is taught by a monk or guru who is always available to advise and encourage people.
Modern-day mindfulness teachers are normally only available for the duration of the course so unlike a religious leader, they are not present to guide people through the ups and downs of life.
People may find it attractive that in mindfulness, there are no priests, hierarchies or institutions but in fact mindfulness has had to develop it’s own priests and institutions. The priests are the scientists and teachers and the institutions are the centres and universities which are carrying out the research.
As in other religions rites and rituals have played a significant role in Buddhist practice ever since the time of Buddha. They are designed to mark key moments in life like births, weddings and funerals and help people to journey on to the next stage, in a healthy way, supported by the community.
Modern-day mindfulness does not have any associated rituals. It’s practices help people to cope with transition but do not provide any way of marking the different life stages.
4. Sacred books
Buddhist scriptures are not contained within a single holy book, instead the teachings of Buddha are compiled into the Tripitaka. When mindfulness is taught within Buddhism these sacred writings provide the ethical framework and guiding principles for meditation.
In modern-day mindfulness the teachings of Buddha have been stripped out. This can lead to ethical problems which are explored under the next heading. Multitudes of books have been written about mindfulness but there is no associated ‘wisdom’ book.
Religions place great value on their sacred writings. They often contain history, wisdom and the experiences of those who have already been on life’s journey. They also provide guidance, comfort, a sense of identity, a reference point for questions and a rich vocabulary for those struggling to verbalise their experience of life and faith.
In the Buddhist tradition mindfulness is not seen as an ethically-neutral technique and there is such a thing as ‘right mindfulness’ and ‘wrong mindfulness’. According to Buddha, even a person committing a premeditated and heinous crime can be exercising mindfulness, albeit wrong mindfulness. Right Mindfulness on the other hand has a strong social conscience which is duty bound to challenge greed, ill will and delusion on a personal and corporate level.
Modern-day mindfulness, particularly corporate mindfulness training, has an uncomfortable relationship with it’s Buddhist roots. It is often described as “Buddhist-inspired” but assures people that it has relinquished all ties and affiliations to it’s origins. Some articles express concern that the rush to secularise and commodify mindfulness has led to an unfortunate denaturing of this ancient practice. This stripped-down, secularised version of mindfulness is what some critics are calling “McMindfulness.”
In the article, “Beyond McMindfulness”, Ron Purser writes, “If mindfulness was still in touch with it’s ethical roots, it would have to ask why stress is so pervasive in modern business institutions. Cloaked in an aura of care, corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments.” Depth Psychologist, Bill Plotking said, “Are we just becoming better adapted cogs in the otherwise toxic machinery of life?”
Many would argue that to become a genuine force for positive personal and social transformation mindfulness must take place within the ethical framework which religion provides.
6. Social action
Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, has been pivotal in the Engaged Buddhism movement which says that mindfulness in it’s Buddhist context is about engagement with the world. People must seek ways to apply the insights from meditation to situations of social, political, environmental, and economic suffering and injustice. He is quoted as saying “When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall. You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing.”
A criticism sometimes aimed at modern-day mindfulness is that it is self-indulgent and despite cultivating feelings of compassion it does not obviously translate into action. An article in The Spectator newspaper posed the question, “Would a ‘mindful’ Britain have the same emphasis on helping others?”
Researchers of Northeastern University, in America found that a test group who had been put on a mindfulness course got up five times more often to offer their seat to a lady on crutches than the group who hadn’t done the course. In other words, practising appeared to make them more likely to take compassionate action.
Religious groups however, have an advantage when it come to taking organised social action as they already have an established community, with shared values, structures and finances. They normally also have a strong mandate for social action. For example Jesus taught that expressing love for God and for people is inextricably linked,
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…whatever you did for one of the least, you did for me.”
Jesus also took the lead in challenging unjust social structures and called on everyone to do likewise.
Thich Nhat Hanh's view is that mindfulness does not need to be taught in its religious context to be ‘right mindfulness’, but must retain it’s essential heart and call to social action.
Buddhists do not observe a weekly holy day. Some Buddhists however, observe Uposatha, or a day of resting, listening to and discussing Buddhist teachings and meditation. The timing and frequency of rest days are based loosely on the lunar calendar and vary by sect.
Modern-day mindfulness reminds people to take seriously the need to take rest. It encourages people to reflect on what depletes and nourish them and incorporate things which bring enjoyment and a sense of balance to their lives. What it has lost in it’s departure from Buddhism is any regularity or rhythm to the practise of taking rest. People practising mindfulness are also unable to experience the benefits of taking rest as a community and encouraging each other to continue with the practises.
Each religion has it’s own traditions relating to how a rest day is spent. The Jewish tradition of ‘making Shabbat’, instructs people to proactively create a special day and incorporate activities which nourish the soul.
8. Sacred space
Buddhist temples come in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps the best known are the pagodas of China and Japan. Another typical Buddhist building is the Stupa, which is a stone structure built over what are thought to be relics of the Buddha or the Buddha's teachings.
People practising modern-day mindfulness do not have a dedicated space they can go to which is always, free, peaceful and accessible, or where they are likely to be in the presence of other people and teachers practising mindfulness.
Some people value religious spaces more than others. An advantage is that they are open all the time, providing access to a quiet space that can accommodate the community when it meets together. Some people feel it helps to have a physical centre to the community.
9. Turning towards difficulty
As already mentioned, when mindfulness is taught in a Buddhist setting, it is supported by monks and gurus who remain available to support people as they grow in the practise of meditation.
An article in the Spectator expressed concern about modern-day mindfulness which is normally practised alone and without the support of a community or leaders. “The major world religions have developed incrementally over time to be a comfort and support for humans in their quest for meaning. Mindfulness, based as it is on meditation, is not simply a path that leads nowhere in particular. It can lead you to that dangerous place, the heart of yourself. And there you may find a great, scary emptiness, or worse, your own personal demons. Not everyone is strong enough to confront their inner self: in that case, meditation can be an affliction, not a therapy. That phenomenon is being studied at the so-called ‘Dark Night Project’ at Brown University Medical School, where Dr Willoughby Britton deals with the psychic disturbance that meditation can sometimes cause. And that’s of a piece with Buddhist as well as Christian understanding of contemplation; that you can undergo what St John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul.”
In a religious setting leaders are trained to provide counselling and care. Desmond Tutu says in his book, ‘Made for Goodness’, that one of his jobs as a faith leader, is to be a “midwife of meaning”, helping people to find meaning in their suffering. There are normally a number of pastoral assistants in each church who share the job of counselling and caring for those in the faith community.
10. Life’s big questions
The teachings of Buddha provide a framework within which to try to understand one’s existence and the meaning of life.
Modern-day mindfulness does not include this body of teaching so does not attempt to answer the big questions such as where have we come from? Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What happens when we die? In this respect it does not help people who are seeking to understand their existence and experience of life.
All the world’s religions offer at least possible answers to these questions. Many people find this a very helpful aspect of religion. The difficulty is that it often becomes a battle of truth claims and a source of division with each group claiming that they have a greater handle on the truth.
Curiously, the 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich, during a time of acute illness, had a series of visions in which she asked God questions. She wrote that she was “given some answers but shielded from knowing others”. She reflected, that “the more we busy ourselves to know God’s secrets the further we seem to be from knowing them.”
Buddhism began in northeastern India and is based on the teachings of Buddha who lived around 500BC. This means that the Buddhist religion is around 2,500 years old.
It is yet to be seen if modern-day mindfulness will follow the usual trajectory of unbridled enthusiasm followed by eventual disillusionment.
Hopefully the ancient roots of mindfulness plus the science it is based on will mean that mindfulness will be with us in one guise or another for a long time to come.
Interestingly the same worries were expressed about Jesus as news of his resurrection from the dead began to circulate. The Bible says a teacher of the law called Gamaliel addressed the issue and said “Leave these men (disciples) alone! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
As I have detailed I think that there have been significant losses in the separation of mindfulness from it’s roots and difficulties caused to those practising modern-day mindfulness.
However, I am also grateful for what has arisen out of the process of secularising mindfulness. It has made the immensely valuable insights of Buddha more available to the modern world and the absence of dogma has made it accessible to people of other religious faiths. Indeed it is giving many people of faith, new tools and fresh eyes with which to explore their own beliefs and practises.