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How Buddhist is Modern Mindfulness?

18 September 2023

Over the past forty years, a new transnational movement has emerged in which participants engage in techniques of contemplation that fall under the broad rubric of 'mindfulness'. Originally a feature of Buddhist soteriology, mindfulness has been embraced as a panacea for a range of social and intrapersonal problems. It has been utilised within clinical, corporate, and educational settings and promoted as a privatised lifestyle-enhancement technology. A plethora of books offer mindfulness for every conceivable dimension of life, and mindfulness has become a highly profitable industry.1 This essay will investigate the context and application of mindfulness within the Suttapiṭaka2 literature of Theravāda Buddhism. Historical and doctrinal links will be established between these early sources and key proponents of mindfulness during the movement's formative period in the second half of the twentieth century. The influence of Theravāda in the genesis of modern mindfulness will be evaluated, and the currents which shaped the movement will be discussed.

The term 'mindfulness' originates in the Pāli sati and its Sanskrit cognate smṛti, meaning "remembrance, reminiscence, thinking of or upon" (Monier-Williams 1899). Sati is a polyvalent term signifying processes of memory and meditative cognition. Hence, in the Pāli suttas, sati denotes both recollection of the past and lucid awareness of interior and conceptual phenomena (Bodhi 2013:23-26). Bhikkhu Anālayo describes the recollective aspect of sati as a state of awareness that facilitates memory and, in meditative praxis, capacitates remembrance of the present moment (Anālayo 2019:47-48). Sati was translated as 'mindfulness' by Thomas Rhys Davids in his 1890 edition of The Questions of King Milinda.3 His contemporaries at the Pāli text society adopted Rhys Davids' interpretation and, through the society's widespread publications, 'mindfulness' became established as the de facto translation for sati in both specialist and non-specialist literature (Wilson 2014:18). The nuanced polysemy of the term sati and the ambiguity of its rendering as 'mindfulness' has however resulted in critique of Rhys David's translation: "The word 'mindfulness' is itself so vague and elastic that it serves almost as a cypher into which we can read anything we want" (Bodhi 2013:22).

Early references to sati are prevalent within the Suttapiṭaka of the Pāli canon of Theravāda. This Buddhist tradition emerged in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia from approximately the first century BCE (Gethin 1998:1, Lomas 2015:4). Herein, sati is a recurring factor (dhamma) within the Buddha's doctrine of salvation as four establishments (satipaṭṭhāna); one of five faculties (indriya); one of five powers (bala); the first of the seven' awakening factors' (bojjhaṅga) and as 'right-mindfulness' (sammāsati) the seventh auxiliary of the noble eightfold path (Anālayo 2019:49).

The Samaññaphalasutta ('Fruits of the Ascetic Life')4 of the Dīghanikāya situates mindfulness within the context of ascetic renunciation. Having realised the futility of householder life, the neophyte abandons home, shaves his hair, adorns robes, performs wholesome actions and adopts the precepts of monastic life. Therein, mindfulness is posited in tandem with sampajañña 'full awareness'5 as an auxiliary of moral conduct, sense-control and contentment: "He follows a completely pure way of life, is accomplished in his moral behaviour, guards the doors of the senses, possesses mindfulness and full awareness and is content" (Samaññaphalasutta 63, Gethin 2008:19).

Possession of 'mindfulness and full awareness' is explained as the application of sampajañña to myriad aspects of daily life, e.g. waking up and dressing, bodily movements, walking, sitting, eating and talking. Even urination and defecation are performed with sampajañña. Having acquired sati and sampajañña in conjunction with conduct, sense-control and contentment, the monk selects a suitable location, sits cross-legged and "establishes mindfulness in front of him" (Samaññaphalasutta 70,71, Gethin,2008:26). In this way, he abandons the five hindrances (nīvaraṇa).6 He enters the four meditative absorptions (jhānas) and, in the third and fourth jhānas, experiences mindfulness with equanimity (upekkhā). Attainment of the jhānas results in mental purification and stabilisation, which acts as a catalyst for higher knowledge, mental vehicularisation and supramundane abilities. Finally, the realisation of the four noble truths culminates in freedom from the three taints (āsava)7 and complete liberation: "Birth is destroyed, the spiritual life lived, done is what was to be done - there is nothing further required to this end" (Samaññaphalasutta 84, Gethin 2008:35).

The method of establishing mindfulness alluded to in the Samaññaphalasutta is expanded upon in the Satipaṭṭhānasutta8 (discourse on 'Establishing Mindfulness'),9 where it is similarly located within broader directives of purification, transcendence, and liberation.

"Monks, this is a path leading directly to the purification of beings - to passing beyond sorrow and grief, to the disappearance of pain and discontent, to finding the proper way to the direct experience of nibbāna - namely the four ways of establishing mindfulness" (Samaññaphalasutta 56, Gethin 2008:142-143).

Establishing mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna) is delineated as contemplation (anupassanā) upon four fields of awareness: body, feelings, mind and factors (dhammas). Conjoining sati with diligence (ātāpa), full awareness (sampajañña) and an absence of desire and discontent (vineyya abhijjhādomanassa), the monk contemplates each successive field. Within each field, contemplation encompasses:

• Internal and external (and both) awareness

• Phenomena arising and passing away

• Knowledge and recollection

• Independence and non-clinging

(Analayo 2019:31-34,93, Gethin 2008:143)

Contemplation of the body comprises six sections: respiration, posture, daily activities,10 impurities, elements and decomposition. Feelings and mind each have one section. Contemplation upon dhammas contains five sections: hindrances, aggregates, internal and external sense spheres, awakening factors and the noble truths. Success in satipaṭṭhāna results in the attainment of either arahantship or non-return (Anālayo 2019:251).11 The taxonomy outlined in the Satipaṭṭhānasutta is the standard formula for satipaṭṭhāna and is deployed throughout numerous sutta works.

Within the context of the noble eightfold path, the efficacious practice of satipaṭṭhāna (i.e., the conjunction of sati with ātāpa, sampajañña and vineyya abhijjhādomanassa and contemplation of the four fields) constitutes 'right-mindfulness' (sammāsati). Through right mindfulness and right effort, right concentration is produced. Unwholesome mind-states are overcome, and the remaining path factors are realised (Gilpin 2008:228).

The Suttapiṭaka also contains examples of sati being used within a therapeutic context. In the Saṁyuttanikāya, the Paṭhamagelaññasutta ('Sick Ward')12 recounts the Buddha visiting ailing monks at an infirmary. He advises them to approach death with sati and sampajañña. The standard sampajañña formula of awareness of bodily movements and activities is prescribed. However, the Buddha subsequently emphasises mindfulness of feelings, particularly pain and non-pain, resulting in detached cognition of the impermanence of these feelings at the time of the body's expiration (211-214, Bodhi 2000).13 The Mahāparinibbāṇasutta ('Buddha's Final Nibbana')14 of the Dīghanikāya recounts the final period of the Buddha's life. When the Buddha becomes seriously ill, he endures his illness through mindfulness and full awareness: "He fell seriously ill, suffering severe pains as though he were close to death. Without complaining, the Blessed One accepted the pains mindfully and with full awareness" (Mahāparinibbāṇasutta 99, Gethin 2008:57).

Despite the prevalence of sati within early Pāli works, by the tenth century C.E., individual meditative praxis within the Theravāda tradition had diminished and been eclipsed by scholasticism, ritual and ceremony (Wilson 2014:22, Rahula 2021:67). The resurgence and popularisation of mindfulness began in eighteenth-century Burma. Fresh interest in the Satipaṭṭhānasutta generated a revival of vipassanā meditation, which found favour within the Burmese royal court and eventually won sanction from the Burmese saṅgha (Pranke 2004, 890). Drawing from new interpretations of canonical works, monastic scholars developed rudimentary meditation techniques and established hermitages and meditation centres for lay practitioners (Pranke 2004:890). By the end of the nineteenth century, Burmese reformers had developed a formula that would become the blueprint of the twentieth-century vipassanā movement from which the modern mindfulness movement would emerge.

When European scholars such as Rhys Davids began to take an interest in Buddhism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the revival of meditative praxis was gathering momentum across Southeast Asia and beyond. Theravāda interest in vipassanā coalesced with the aspirations of reformers from East and Central Asia who had likewise begun to privilege meditation as part of their efforts to reshape monasticism in response to colonialism and modernity (Wilson 2008:22,24). From this background, several highly influential teachers emerged:

• From Burma, Ledi Sayadaw, Mahāsī Sayadaw, the lay teacher U Ba Khin and his lay student S.N. Goenka

• From Sri Lanka, Soma Thera, Kheminda Thera and Walpola Rahula

These lineages were instrumental in making mindfulness-based practices available outside monastic contexts - teaching Westerners, translating and popularising mindfulness texts and establishing new lay meditation centres in Asia.

Soma Thera's Satipaṭṭhānasutta translation, The Way of Mindfulness (1941), presents mindfulness as the definitive salvific doctrine: "This is the only way, O Bhikkhus leading to the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbāna" (Soma 1991:31). Rahula similarly presents mindfulness as the summum bonum of Buddhist knowledge describing the Satipaṭṭhānasutta as "the most important discourse ever given by the Buddha on mental development" (Rahula 1959:69). Under the banner of 'mental culture', satipaṭṭhāna meditation is posited as life-affirming rather than life-renouncing. Rahula adapts the satipaṭṭhāna formula to accommodate his Western readers. A chair is recommended during mindfulness of the breath (ānāpānasati), which can be practised for as little as five minutes. Ānāpānasati is promoted as a tool for "efficiency in your daily work", offering immediate benefits in health and well-being. Furthermore, Rahula introduces mindfulness as a form of non-judgemental observation: "There is no attitude of criticising or judging, or discriminating between right and wrong, or good and bad. It is simply observing, watching examining" (Rahula 1959:67,69-73). Rahula's ideas would later be widely embraced within modern mindfulness.

Nyanaponika Thera, a German Jewish monastic convert, similarly places mindfulness centre-stage in his seminal work The Heart of Buddhist Meditation - The Buddhas Way of Mindfulness (1962). The influence of this book on the modern mindfulness movement has been far-reaching. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it as "the book that started it all - the book that, with great clarity and ardour, introduced vipassanā and mindfulness to the West" (Kabat-Zinn in Nyanaponika 2014). Nyanamaponika presents sati similarly to Soma and Rahula, describing mindfulness as 'the Only Way'15 and "the heart of the entire doctrine." Echoing Rahula's 'mental culture', meditation is described as a 'culture of mind'. (Nyanaponika 2014:xiii,75). Crucially, Nyanaponika introduces Western psychological terms to explain Buddhist concepts (e.g. 'associative-thinking') and describes mindfulness as a type of non-reactive, non-judgemental awareness, which he terms 'bare attention' (Nyanaponika 2014:10,17).

As American and European interest in Buddhism grew in the 1970s, Western lay practitioners who had studied vipassanā in Asia began offering meditative teachings within their home countries, most notably Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, co-founders16 of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) (1976). Kornfield and Goldstein both studied vipassanā with Mahāsī Sayadaw. Goldstein also studied with S.N. Goenka and Kornfield with Ajahn Chah, a student of Ajahn Mun, the influential Thai Buddhist (Husgafvel 2016, 101). Kornfield, Goldstein and their peers adopted the same pedagogical format they had encountered in South East Asia, which they transposed and adapted to accommodate North America's cultural norms and mores. Kornfield later founded the Spirit Rock Meditation Centre (SRMC) in 1988. IMS and SRMC are still active and have been highly influential in shaping the growth of meditation in North America (Wilson 2014:32).

Another key figure at this time was Thich Nhat Hanh, whose Vietnamese heritage and background within the Thien tradition enabled him to temper the teachings of Theravāda with Zen Mahāyāna. Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness (1975) eloquently relates mindfulness to practical everyday exercises, which he combines with Mahāyāna teachings on non-duality, selfless service, interdependence, emptiness and compassion (Nhat Hanh 2008:48,75-76,88,92,101). An endorsement on the book's cover from Jon Kabat-Zinn reads: "The first book to awaken a mainstream readership to the subject of mindfulness" (Nhat Hanh 2008)

Kabat-Zinn is arguably the most influential figure in the modern mindfulness movement. Originally a molecular biologist, he studied meditation in Theravāda and Zen Mahāyāna traditions. He studied Zen with Philip Kapleau and Seung Sahn and vipassanā in 1973 with Robert Hover, a student of S.N. Goenka. From 1974, Kabat-Zinn regularly studied vipassanā meditation with Kornfield and Goldstein (Husgafvel 2016:101-102). During a two-week vipassanā retreat at IMS in 1979, Kabat-Zinn experienced a vision which inspired him to introduce mindfulness techniques within clinical settings. His premise was simple:

"Why not try to make meditation so common-sensical that anyone would be drawn to it? Why not develop an American vocabulary that spoke to the very heart of the matter and didn't focus on the cultural aspects of the traditions out of which the dharma emerged" (Kabat-Zinn 2013:287)

He subsequently established the 'Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program' (SR&RP) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre. He began training patients in mindfulness meditation to manage chronic pain and stress-related conditions (Kabat-Zinn 1982, 33). Patients were taught to observe thoughts objectively and non-judgementally on a moment-to-moment basis within a field of awareness that was steadily expanded throughout the programme. During ten two-hour weekly sessions, patients were taught three principal techniques: mental scanning of the body, awareness of breath and mindfulness-informed yogic postures. Additionally, patients were instructed to apply mindfulness to daily eating, walking and standing activities17 (Kabat-Zinn 1982:33,34,36). Whilst Kabat-Zinn's preliminary findings underscore the secular nature of these techniques, he acknowledges Buddhist influences: "Mindfulness meditation has its roots in Theravāda Buddhism..[and] in Mahāyāna Buddhism in SotoZen practices" (Kabat-Zinn 1982:34). Kabat-Zinn proposes a syncretic blending of Theravāda mindfulness with Mahāyāna non-duality (Kabat-Zinn 2013:) In addition to referencing Theravāda and Mahāyāna canonical works, Kabat-Zinn's writing credits Nyanaponika, Suzuki, Nhat Hanh and Goldstein as key literary influences in the genesis of mindfulness meditation (Husgafvel 2016:101-103).

In the 1980s, interest in Buddhist meditation steadily grew, largely thanks to the prolific writing of Nhat Hanh and the republication of works by authors such as Nyanaponika. Following promising results of scientific studies,18 Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues pioneered new pedagogical methods for teaching meditation. In the early '90s, they started officially calling their programme Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) (Wilson 2014:37, Kabat-Zinn 2013:289). Kabat-Zinn's magnum opus, Full Catastrophe Living (1990), consolidates his early therapeutic work, which he makes available to a wider extra-clinical audience. Earlier elements of SR&RP are featured, such as breath awareness, body scanning, yoga and the application of mindfulness to daily life. An eight-week programme is proposed through home study. Kabat-Zinn introduces mindfulness for a range of common problems such as insomnia, anxiety, stress and pain management. Influences from earlier twentieth-century proponents of mindfulness are clearly discernible. Nyanaponika's 'bare attention' becomes 'paying attention', and like Rahula, non-judgement is crucial. Furthermore, in a clear nod to Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginners Mind (1970), Kabat-Zinn proposes a foundational attitude of 'beginner's mind'. Kabat-Zinn also includes a chapter titled A Day of Mindfulness - a concept proposed in Nhat Hanh's Miracle of Mindfulness in 1975 (Kabat-Zinn 2013:1,21,24,132).

Kabat-Zinn rose to widespread fame in 1993 thanks to a feature in the documentary series Healing and the Mind. His books subsequently became bestsellers and numerous MBSR centres opened across North America. Kabat-Zinn's work was crucial in moving the modern mindfulness movement beyond specialist Buddhist settings and making mindfulness available to the wider public. Through secularisation, psychologisation and the foregrounding of mindfulness as a practice in its own right, Kabat-Zinn was able to introduce mindfulness within clinical settings and to promote mindfulness as a privatised life-enhancing technology.

The modern mindfulness movement is diverse, secular and non-hierarchal. Its borders are nebulous, and it lacks a central organisational structure or geographic locus. The modern mindfulness movement is life-affirming and libertarian and makes few demands of its members. Participation can take place within organised settings such as clinics and meditation groups, as well as privatised contemplative experiences (Wilson 2014:112-128). Although a radical departure from the rigid constraints of monastic renunciation, there are clear continuities between the modern mindfulness movement and premodern Theravāda.

Mindfulness is a ubiquitous feature of the Suttapiṭaka and a recurring element within the Buddha's doctrine of salvation. Although the significance of sati had diminished by the tenth century, satipaṭṭhāna methods were brought to the forefront by Burmese reformers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and made available to lay practitioners. Contiguity with other reformatory groups led to a twentieth-century wave of Theravāda vipassanā teachers who privileged mindfulness and taught meditation in extra-monastic settings in Asia and beyond. All the early pioneers of mindfulness emerged from monastic Theravāda lineages, primarily from Burma and Sri Lanka. Although the work of Nhat Hanh and later Kabat-Zinn was influenced by Zen Mahāyāna,19 the influence of Theravāda on modern mindfulness is prominent.

Numerous contemporary practices originate in canonical sources, e.g., awareness of bodily movements and daily activities and awareness of the breath. In particular, awareness of daily activities has been widely embraced by modern mindfulness and expanded to encompass a range of specialised activities such as driving and parenting (Wilson 2014:39,124). Other elements of satipaṭṭhāna have been less enduring. Although Soma, Rahula, Nyanaponika and Nhat Hanh included mindfulness of dhammas within their teachings, these elements were omitted by Kabat-Zinn (2013). The Paṭhamagelaññasutta describes the early application of sati within a clinical setting, and the Mahāparinibbāṇasutta recounts the Buddha's use of sati in the management of severe pain. These examples have clear parallels with Kabat-Zinn's use of mindfulness in clinical settings. Moreover, the application of sati as a therapeutic intervention is entirely in keeping with the overarching narrative of the Buddha's doctrine of the cessation of suffering.

Unlike modern mindfulness, sati is not the principal factor in the Suttapiṭaka and is embedded within a matrix of mutually supportive practices. It is typically posited with sampajañña as an adjunct of moral conduct, sense-restraint, and contentment and located within the wider directives of transcendence, purification and liberation. Rather than passive non-judgemental awareness, 'right-mindfulness' denotes a concentrative effort to discard unwholesome mental qualities arising.20 Canonical sati is thus indivisible from ethical and soteriological concerns.

Mindfulness has been uncoupled from Buddhist soteriology and repurposed within a non-sectarian movement that prioritises efficiency and life enhancement over transcendence and renunciation. Nonetheless, both movements share universal concerns with alleviating mental and physical suffering. Whilst the modern mindfulness movement has appropriated and commodified the doctrine of sati, it has also made mindfulness widely accessible beyond the domain of male monasticism. Historical and doctrinal links are clearly discernable between Theravāda and modern mindfulness. Although Kabat-Zinn has been widely credited for the success of mindfulness, much of the initial groundwork was accomplished by earlier pioneers such as Walpola Rahula, Nyanaponika Thera and Thich Nhat Hanh. Arguably, the most significant contribution of Kabat-Zinn's work has been the scientific recognition of mindfulness as a legitimate therapeutic intervention and the introduction of mindfulness-based practices within clinical settings. The legitimisation of mindfulness in the late twentieth century acted as a springboard for the rapid expansion and growth of the mindfulness movement in the early twenty-first century.


(1) See Wilson 2014:133-138.
(2) 'Collection' of discourses (Collins 2005:74).
(3) (Rhys Davids 1890:52,58,59,68).
(4) Gethin 2008:5.
(5) Gethin 2008 translates Sampajañña as 'full awareness', Anālayo
2019 as 'clear knowing', Bodhi 2013 as 'clear comprehension'.
(6) "Sensual desire, ill-will, tiredness.., excitement, depression
and doubt" (Gethin 1998:175).
(7) "Craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence,
ignorance" (Bodhi 2005:229).
(8) As well as Mahāsatipaṭṭhānasutta.
(9) Gethin 2008:141.
(10) Closely mirroring the Samaññaphalasutta 70 (Gethin 2008:26).
(11) In as little as seven days, or as many as seven years
(Satipaṭṭhānasutta 63, Gethin 2008:150).
(12) (Saṁyuttanikāya 211, Bodhi 2000).
(13) In the next sutta, monks are enjoined to await their time [of
death] with sati and sampajañña (Dutiyagelaññasutta, Bodhi
(14) Gethin 2008:37.
(15) These interpretations translate ekāyano maggo as 'the only
way'. However, ekāyano may also be translated 'direct'
(Satipaṭṭhānasutta 56, Gethin 2008:142).
(16) With Jacqueline Schwartz and Sharon Salzburg (Wilson 2014:32).
(17) Kabat Zinn equates with these with traditional teachings of
monasticism (Kabat-Zinn 1982:36).
(18) See Kabat-Zinn 1982.
(19) See Husgafvel 2016.
(20) See Olendzki (2010) for Abhidhamma perspectives of sati as a
wholesome factor (Olendzki 2010:163-177).


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James is a yoga teacher & researcher who's practised yoga for 24 years. He holds an MA in Traditions of Yoga & Meditation from SOAS, University of London, where he specialised in premodern yoga.

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