by Tamara Ditrich
Mindfulness (sati in Pāli; smṛti in Sanskrit) meditation is one of the main methods of meditation which plays a prominent role in many traditional and modern Buddhist meditation practices. The recent expansion of Buddhist meditative techniques across the world has facilitated the introduction of mindfulness into a variety of new environments, in its traditional as well as in new roles: as a path to spiritual liberation and enlightenment, as a therapeutic tool, as a relaxation technique in wellness industries etc.
Although modern Buddhism has, at least to some extent, retained its ethical and soteriological aspects in the practice of mindfulness, there is an increasing emphasis on its psychotherapeutic function. This article explores the new interpretations of mindfulness that have developed in the last few decades in radical ways of practice, which are unprecedented in the history of Buddhism.
Since the late nineteenth century, meditation has been positioned at the forefront of the new developments in Buddhism which have occurred as a response to the colonisation of Asia, encounters with Christianity, science, rationalism, romanticism and other discourses of modernism. These developments have gradually evolved into modern Buddhism—this term is used here as an umbrella term for a wide spectrum of doctrines, philosophies, rituals, and practices which have emerged over the last 150 years (Lopez 2002, ix–xliii; McMahan, 2008).
In the twenty-first century Buddhism has been responding further to new circumstances such as global capitalist markets, consumerism, new modes of communication through the expansion of printing, media, and virtual networks, and consequently has been undergoing transformations, becoming a transnational religion no longer tied to the Asian cultures of its origin, but has been rapidly adapting to and incorporating new paradigms.
The fast expansion and adaptation of various forms of Buddhism witnessed in today's global environments is not an entirely new phenomenon. Since its early beginnings in India, about twenty-five centuries ago, Buddhism swept across Asia with relative ease, owing to specific features such as its soteriological emphasis and the pragmatic approach to praxis which allowed swift adjustments to new cultures and environments. The spread of Buddhism was a process of continuous adaptation to new cultural environments, modification of its doctrines and practices, development of new interpretations, integration of those facets which the new culture could respond to, and rejection or evasion of those elements the new culture could not resonate with (McMahan 2008, 61–63).
In the process of continuous change, modification, and integration there are aspects of Buddhism that seem to have been shared by most Buddhist traditions and that were identified and positioned in the forefront as the “essence” of Buddhism by reformers and scholars in the nineteenth century—in the time when modern Buddhism started to evolve. This “essential core” of Buddhism, established in modern Buddhism, has been largely drawn from the earliest textual records in Pāli, grounded in the Four Noble Truths, the doctrine of non-self, and dependent origination with a strong emphasis on meditation as the essence of Buddhist praxis.
The new foci and emphases of modern Buddhism include social engagement which aims to link Buddhist meditation—traditionally seen, as the earliest texts inform us, to be a solitary praxis of the monastic saṅgha and recluses—with social activism and struggle for social justice. Examples of these new directions encompass movements such “engaged Buddhism,” developed by Thich Nhat Hanh (King 2000, 321–363) or Humanistic Buddhism, started in China in the early twentieth century and spread in Taiwan and elsewhere (Guruge 2003; Pacey 2005).
The socially engaged new movements largely draw from and reinterpret the doctrine of interdependent origination and the concept of non-self, emphasizing the interrelationship among all living beings and the natural environment (what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing”). Modern Buddhism has emerged within many new discourses, responding to the problems of today’s world, being continuously de-contextualised and re-contextualised; all these adjustments and innovations are strongly reflected in the new interpretations, new context, and new meanings of Buddhist meditation.
Textual traditions indicate that meditation has been centrally situated in Buddhist doctrines since the earliest beginnings, more than 2,500 years ago. Meditation is presented in most Buddhist traditions as an essential component of Buddhist praxis, essential on the path to awakening (nibbāna), the final liberation from suffering and rebirth (saṃsāra). Meditation, mindfulness in particular, is viewed as an indispensible foundation for moral, ethical, and spiritual development, being the pivotal parameter in cultivation of wholesome mental states (kusala dhammā) and the arising of wisdom and compassion. Mindfulness is an integral component of the Four Noble Truths which represent, in most Buddhist traditions, the structural foundations of Buddhist doctrine, integrating its ethical, soteriological, and pragmatic aspects in a single unit of teaching:
(1) the unsatisfactoriness of existence (dukkha) which is understood and transcended through the insight developed by wisdom and mindfulness;
(2) the cause of suffering is attachment (taṇhā) from which one is protected and guarded through the cultivation of mindfulness;
(3) the end of suffering, enlightenment (nibbāna), which is realised as a result of meditation practice, the cultivation of the factors of enlightenment, where mindfulness is listed first;
(4) the path to freedom from suffering, i.e. the Noble Eightfold Path (ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo), which is comprised of interrelated components, encompassing wisdom (paññā), ethics (sīla) and meditation (samādhi)—–and here again, mindfulness is one of the eight components.
Although all eight components are interrelated and intertwined, mindfulness has a special role in the development of wisdom, presented in Buddhism as a mental factor that arises together with mindfulness. According to the Theravāda Abhidhamma, both mindfulness and wisdom are wholesome mental factors (kusala dhammā), arising only with wholesome ethical mental states, i.e. those free from ignorance, greed, and aversion. It is wisdom in its capacity to generate insight into the true nature of all physical and mental phenomena (i.e. impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self) that is the sine qua non for liberation from ignorance, for realisation of nibbāna. Furthermore, it is through wisdom that delusion and the related negative mental states are transcended, resulting in the wholesome mental states and consequently, actions are motivated by generosity, empathy, and wisdom. Hence mindfulness is presented centrally in the ethical and soteriological framework of Buddhist teachings.
Numerous traditional Buddhist texts and manuals (e.g. Visuddhimagga) provide descriptions and explications of meditation. Although considerable attention is given to the practice of mindfulness, it is the development of meditative concentration (samatha) in its various stages that has received, especially in the early Buddhist sources, a closer examination and discussion.
Modern Buddhism often quite sharply distinguishes two types of meditation, i.e. meditation that cultivates concentration on a chosen object such as breath (samatha), and insight meditation (vipassanā) that focuses on mindfulness of all phenomena of body and mind as they occur from moment to moment. Early Buddhist texts indicate that both types of meditation are closely interconnected (e.g. Sujato 2005); both require the development of concentration and mindfulness. As claimed by modern Buddhist scholars and practitioners (e.g. Harvey 1990, 253–255; Anālayo 2006, 42, 52–53)—and supported by solid textual evidence—it is through the cultivation of mindfulness that insight into the real nature of all phenomena and their conditionality arises, which eventually leads to nibbāna.
The Origins of Mindfulness
There are several concepts in Buddhism related to mindfulness which need to be distinguished from it. The term sati is frequently rendered into English as attention, awareness, or choiceless awareness; these terms are sometimes intermittently used for mindfulness. The term attention or awareness is also a common English translation of the concept manasikāra, which is, according to the Abhidhamma, a mental factor (cetasika) present in every mind moment and which acts as the bare cognition of an object before it is identified and conceptualized (Bodhi 1993, 81).
When cognition arises together with understanding of what is wholesome (kusala) or unwholesome (akusala) it is called wise attention (yoniso manasikāra) which facilitates the development of mindfulness and wisdom—the two factors that are essential on the path to final liberation (Anālayo 2006: 58). When mindfulness (sati) is accompanied by freedom from desire and aversion (vinneya abhijjhādomanassa), clear comprehension (sampajāna), and diligence (ātāpī) it is called right mindfulness (sammā sati) which is a component of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Right mindfulness is discussed in numerous instances in the canonical texts, e.g. it recurs in the refrain of the Satipaṭṭhānasutta (Anālayo 2006, 49). The textual records clearly evidence that right mindfulness is strongly associated with and linked to the ethical and soteriological aspects of the Buddhist doctrines: it protects the mind from reacting with desire and aversion; it conditions development of an understanding as to whether mental states are wholesome or not; and together with clear comprehension, establishes the grounds for wisdom to develop, and consequently, is an indispensable constituent on the path to nibbāna.
Expositions on mindfulness occur in many canonical and post-canonical Buddhist texts, for example, in numerous discourses in the Nikāyas, in Chinese Āgamas, and in several Sanskrit and Tibetan Buddhist texts. Among the most prominent canonical texts on meditation is the Satipāṭṭhānasutta (“Discourse on the Establishments of Mindfulness”) which has been revered in modern Buddhism as the seminal text on mindfulness, the very foundation of mindfulness meditation (e.g. Ñāṇapoṇika 1962, 11). As Sujato (2005, 113) argues, the veneration of the text started “in the colonial era as the schools of Buddhism attempted to respond to the challenges of the modern age,” aiming to authenticate and legitimize new methods of meditation at the time (e.g. methods developed by Mahasi Sayadaw or U Ba Khin).
The formation of modern Buddhism, with a new marked emphasis on meditation and specifically on mindfulness, has generated since the early twentieth century a great expansion of meditation practice among lay population, particularly in Burma, leading to the establishment of meditation centres and environments that would accommodate largely lay practitioners—a phenomenon unprecedented in Buddhist history. These new occurrences have had great implications for the further development of modern Buddhism and particularly for the popularisation of mindfulness which expanded well beyond its monastic boundaries, and decades later, has become established in entirely new contexts and settings.
New Interpretations of Mindfulness
The last few decades have witnessed an exponential expansion of the teaching of the practice of mindfulness; a simple Google search under “mindfulness,” a brief survey of printed sources or various media outlets evidence its current astonishing ubiquity and proliferation. Mindfulness is no longer only a major component of Buddhist meditation, but is rapidly entering new contexts, developing new roles and functions, most notably and prolifically as a therapeutic tool, applied in various forms of psychotherapy such as therapy for anxiety disorders, depression, pain management, relationship counselling, bereavement support, and so forth. In these new domains the meaning and function of mindfulness have been reinterpreted and reinvented significantly.
In new contexts mindfulness (sati) is often presented as bare awareness of or attention to the present moment which is uninvolved in, and non-interfering with the flow of mental and physical phenomena occurring from moment to moment. As pointed out by Gethin (2011, 267), it was Ñāṇapoṇika’s seminal book The Heart of Buddhist Meditation (1962) that largely contributed to the positioning of mindfulness into the centre of modern Buddhism. His understanding and presentation of mindfulness as bare attention widely influenced the consequent new interpretations of mindfulness. In modern definitions of mindfulness, it is often stated that it is to be practiced in a non-judging way—the attribute “non-judging” does not stem from Buddhist traditions; it was coined, as far as I am aware, by Kornfield (2012, 2).
Traditional definitions of mindfulness connect mindfulness to the comprehension which discriminates whether the occurring mental states are wholesome or not, and hence often describe mindfulness as protection from the arising of unwholesome states. Many instances in the Buddhist Canon represent mindfulness in this role; for example, the often-quoted simile of the gatekeeper of a town (Saṃyutta Nikāya IV, 194) who knows those he can safely allow to enter the city and refers to mindfulness in its function of guarding the sense doors and recognising which mental states are wholesome and consequently allowed to enter and those which are not.
It was Kabat-Zinn who largely contributed to the proliferation of mindfulness in therapies with his initial program, “Mindfulness-based stress reduction,” at the Stress Reduction Clinic, University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the 1970s; since then this program and many others have been developed and expanded worldwide. Initial research has already shown the benefits of mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn 1986); it has been followed by numerous further studies which indicate benefits of mindfulness-based therapies (e.g. Eifert and Forsyth 2005) and its positive effects on the brain and immune system (Davidson 2003).
Mindfulness is mostly represented in its new psychotherapeutic function as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” (Kabat-Zinn 2003, 145); it is perceived to be a therapeutic tool, helpful for a wide spectrum of problems and disorders. For example, Baer (2006, 10) states that mindfulness leads to “the ability to make adaptive decisions about handling difficult and problematic situations as they arise, as well as increased enjoyment of pleasant moments.” These aims are significantly different from the Buddhist perspective which seeks freedom from desire or attachment to pleasure.
Thus mindfulness has been being taken out of its Buddhist context and dissociated from its strong links to soteriological and ethical aspects. Buddhist traditions recognize the great significance of intention and the aim for meditation practice and its consequences; the aim of mindfulness practice is the development of insight, leading to wisdom and compassion and final liberation, nibbāna. An enlightened person is viewed in Buddhism as having completely eradicated delusion, desire and aversion, and thus represents ethical perfection and the ultimate of mental health, whereas an unenlightened person is perceived as deluded, as stated in the Visuddhimagga (XVII 261): ummattako viya hi puthujjano, “The ordinary [unenlightened] man is like a mad man” (Buddhaghosa 1956, 663).
In contrast, mindfulness practice in therapeutic and other non-Buddhist contexts mainly aims to achieve greater well-being, balance, adaptability, increased enjoyment, and happiness. These aims reflect modern society’s aims and values such as personal satisfaction, stress reduction, individual self-expression, self-fulfilment, self-maintenance, and pursuit of happiness, to name a few. Though the meanings of the concept of happiness in the various contexts of the past and present would require further enquiry (which lies outside the scope of this paper), it can be argued that in the Buddhist traditions pursuit of happiness and increased enjoyment are not positioned to be the aims of meditation practice; the states of happiness, joy, and tranquility which accompany various stages in both samatha and vipassanā meditation are the side effects of the practice but not the goals.
Mindfulness has been recently transformed and transplanted into new paradigms and contexts of the global consumerist society. Although meditation methods have been very adaptable throughout the history of Buddhism, the recent processes of the abstraction of mindfulness from its Buddhist roots have resulted in its unprecedented ubiquity, being increasingly perceived and used as one of the innumerable new commodities in the global spiritual and wellness markets.
The new constructs of mindfulness raise dilemmas and require closer examination of their conditions and consequences. Arguably, it is possible to approach new interpretations and functions of mindfulness from many angles; as pointed out by Gethin (2011, 268–269), the removal of mindfulness from its Buddhist context may be viewed as a misrepresentation of traditional Buddhist meditation; or as extrication of essential components of mindfulness while shedding an unnecessary traditional context; or as a modern integration of essential and useful components of Buddhist meditation with modern science. However, positioning mindfulness primarily as a tool for achieving improved well-being and happiness reduces its breadth and depth in developing deeper investigation of ethics and deeper insight into human consciousness and its potentials, which Buddhist traditions aim at and which today’s world may need to address and explore.
 Interpretations of mindfulness that have evolved in modern Buddhism very frequently refer back to Therāvada sources, hence this overview of the roots of mindfulness draws from the Theravada Buddhist Canon and consequently, the technical terms for mindfulness and the related concepts are given (in parentheses) in Pāli.
 Two versions of this sutta are found in the Theravāda Canon; a shorter one in the Majjhima Nikāya (M I 55-63) and a longer one in the Dīgha Nikāya (D II 305-315).
Anālayo. 2006. Satipṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization. Selangor: Buddhist Wisdom Centre.
Baer, Ruth A., ed. 2006. Mindfulness-Based Treatment Approaches: Clinician’s Guide to Evidence Base and Applications. Burlington, MA, Academic Press.
Bodhi, trans. 1993. Abhidhammattha Sangaha: A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: Pali Text, Translation and Explanatory Guide. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.
Bodhi. 2008. “The Challenge of the Future: How Will the Sangha Fare in North American Buddhism?” UrbanDharma.org, accessed 20 May 2013, <http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma13/challenge.html>
Buddhaghosa. 1956. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Trans. by Ñāṇamoli. Singapore: Singapore Buddhist Meditation Centre.
Davidson, R., et al. 2003. “Alterations in Brain and Immune Functions Produced by Mindfulness Meditation.” Psychosomatic Medicine 65: 564–570.
Eifert, Georg and Forsyth, John P. 2005. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders. Oakland, CA, New Harbinger Publications.
Gethin, Rupert. 2011. “On some definitions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12 (1): 263–279.
Guruge, Ananda. 2003. Humanistic Buddhism for Social Well-Being: An Overview of Grand Master
Hsing Yun's Interpretation. Taipei, Buddha's Light Publishing.
Harvey, Peter. 1990. An Introduction to Buddhism. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L., Burney, R., and Sellers W. 1986. “Four-Year Follow-Up of a Meditation-Based Program for the Self-Regulation of Chronic Pain: Treatment Outcomes and Compliance.” The Clinical Journal of Pain 2: 159–173.
Kabat-Zinn, J. 2003. “Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future.” Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 10 (2): 144–156.
King, Sallie B. 2000. “Thich Nhat Hanh and the Unified Buddhist Church: Nondualism in Action”. In Queen, Christopher, ed., Engaged Buddhism in the West. Somerville, MA, Wisdom Publications, 321–363.
Kornfield, Jack. 2012. Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are. Boston and London: Shambala.
McMahan, David L. 2008. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lopez, Donald. 2002. Modern Buddhism: Readings for the Unenlightened. London: Penguin Books.
Ñāṇapoṇika. 1962. The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, London: Rider.
Pacey, Scott. 2005. A Buddhism for the Human World: Interpretations of Renjian Fojiao in Contemporary Taiwan. Asian Studies Review 61-77
Sujato. 2005. A History of Mindfulness: How Insight Worsted Tranquility in the Satipatthana Sutta Taipei: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation.
Tamara Ditrich: Lecturer
Dr. Tamara Ditrich has been lecturing for over thirty years on a variety of academic subjects related to Asian religions and languages (Buddhism, meditation in eastern religions, Hinduism, Sanskrit) in universities through Europe and Australia (Australian National University, University of Queensland) and has been serving as honorary associate at the University of Sydney. In August 2012 she joined Nan Tien Institute as the head of Applied Buddhist Studies program.