May 08, 2014

Which Mindfulness?

The modern understanding of mindfulness differs significantly from what the term has historically meant in Buddhism.Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.

This article is the second in the Tricycle blog series 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism with scholars Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. 

There are hundreds of forms of Buddhist meditation, some for developing deep states of concentration and mental bliss, some for analyzing the constituents of mind and body to find that there is no self, and some for meeting the Buddha face-to-face. Among these, mindfulness, commonly assumed to be the primary form of Buddhist meditation, has only recently risen to prominence.

Mindfulness mania is sweeping the land, with mindfulness being prescribed for high blood pressure, obesity, substance abuse, relationship problems, and depression, to name just a few examples. While some mindfulness teachers maintain that what they are teaching is a distinctly secular pursuit, many others claim it is the very essence of Buddhist practice. Regardless, in the current media, mindfulness is strongly associated with Buddhism. “Moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness,” however, is not what mindfulness has historically meant in Buddhism. Indeed, whatever relationship this interpretation of mindfulness has to Buddhist thought can be traced back no earlier than the last century.

The Sanskrit term smrti (Pali, sati) was first translated as “mindfulness” in 1881 by Thomas W. Rhys Davids (1843–1922), a former British colonial officer in Sri Lanka who went on to become the most celebrated Victorian scholar of Buddhism. In Buddhism, smrti is not so much a type of meditation as a factor necessary for success in any type of meditation. In a list of 37 factors conducive to enlightenment, mindfulness occurs five times, and it is also included as the seventh element of the eightfold path. Among the three trainings (trisiksa) necessary for enlightenment—in morality, meditation, and wisdom—mindfulness is included in the second, the training in meditation (samadhi). It is mindfulness that places the mind on the chosen object of meditation and returns the mind to that object when it wanders. As a well-known meditation instruction says, “Tie the wild elephant of the mind to the post of the meditation object with the rope of mindfulness.” Mindfulness prevents distraction. Mindfulness is also said to protect the mind from the intrusion of unwanted elements—whether they be from the senses or from thoughts—like a guard at the door.

The term mindfulness figures prominently in a famous discourse of the Buddha entitled the Satipatthana Sutta (Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness). Four objects of mindfulness are prescribed: mindfulness of the body; mindfulness of sensations, which here refers to pleasurable, painful, and neutral physical and mental sensations; mindfulness of mental states, in which one observes the mind when influenced by different positive and negative emotions; and mindfulness of dharmas, which here means the contemplation of several key doctrinal categories, including the constituents of mind and body and the four noble truths.

The first of the four, mindfulness of the body, involves 14 exercises, beginning with mindfulness of the inhalation and exhalation of the breath. This is followed by mindfulness of the four physical postures of walking, standing, sitting, and lying down. This is then extended to a full awareness of all activities. Thus, mindfulness is not restricted to formal sessions of seated meditation but is meant to accompany all activities in the course of the day. This is followed by mindfulness of various foul components of the body (asubhabhavana), a rather unsavory list that includes fingernails, bile, spittle, and urine. Next is mindfulness of the body as composed of the four elemental qualities (mahabhuta) of earth (solidity), water (cohesion), fire (warmth), and air (mobility). Finally, there are “charnel ground contemplations”: mindfulness of the body observing nine successive stages of decomposition of a human corpse.

Mindfulness of the body is intended to result in the understanding that the body is a collection of impure elements that incessantly arise and cease, utterly lacking any semblance of a permanent self. That is, the body, like all conditioned things, is marked by three characteristics (trilaksana): impermanence, suffering, and nonself. Clearly, mindfulness here is hardly “nonjudgmental awareness.”

The story of how the popular understanding of mindfulness derived from modern Vipassana meditation and how Vipassana first came to be taught to laypeople in Burma in the early decades of the 20th century is told in Erik Braun’s article “Meditation en Masse” in the Spring 2014 issue of Tricycle. There is thus no need to retell that story here.

Armed with this knowledge, Buddhists of the world can unite in the fight against high blood pressure, but need not concede that the mindfulness taught by various medical professionals today was somehow taught by the Buddha.

Robert E. Buswell Jr. holds the Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is also Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies and founding director of the Center for Buddhist Studies. Donald S. Lopez Jr., a Tricycle contributing editor, is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. They are coauthors of the recently released Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism.

More at Tricycle:


While meditation is often identified as the central practice of Buddhism, the majority of Buddhists throughout history have not meditated. Only in the 20th century did meditation become considered an appropriate practice for laypeople.


Scholar Erik Braun on how colonialism sparked the global Vipassana movement.

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wsking's picture

Oh my God! Somebody finally said it! Thank you, Professor Buswell! Im saved from the depressing sight of Americanized Buddhism and the Healing Monster, The Beast 666 - Sick! Sick! Sick!

susanogradyphd's picture

The article is excellent but for the comment that mindfulness is not nonjudgmental awareness. Whether the non-judgment is about thought, feelings, or bodily bile and fingernails, it is to accept it all -- bile and all. And that is not something easily done. Mindfulness meditation as being taught in MBSR may be the very door that leads people (non Buddhist) into the practice and teachings in a deeper way. How can that be a bad thing? Yoga to be fit yet devoid of the teachings of Patanjali is also not a bad thing. Many will find the deeper teachings of both Buddhism and yoga, accessible after finding their way in, through a doorway, that gives relief, whether it be mental and emotional calm and help with depression and anxiety, or physical relief from chronic pain, or improved health by decreases in blood pressure. In our loving kindness and compassion, I hope that Buddhists and non-buddhists want all beings to find peace, and that mindfulness does not belong (as in possessing, or clinging) to only Buddhists. In my work as a psychologist teaching MBCT, I have found that clients who are in pain, find a way out, and by accepting non judging, they naturally find a way to lovingkindness not just for themselves but for others. It is an amazing thing to see, because it happens organically-- Now, sustaining it, is the challenge.

sangha dassa's picture

Sit still my heart, do not raise your dust.
Let the world find its way to you. - Tagore

Kevin K.'s picture

Thanks very much indeed Drs. Buswell and Lopez for both this article and the larger "10 Misconceptions" series. It's invaluable and timely!

Speaking to maryft's comment, if Jon Kabat Zinn had chosen to call what he teaches "secularized non-Buddhist mindfulness" or the like there'd be no problem, but instead, as the authors point out, a practice which has nothing to do with Buddhism is being presented as the (secularized) essence of it. That is indeed a problem.

The Bhikkhu Sujato book referenced by wilcuneo is faboulous but also a real slog to read. A concise version from within the Theravada tradition that echoes and amplifies the points made in this article is this piece by Thannissaro Bhikkhu:

maryft's picture

"Clearly, mindfulness here is hardly 'nonjudgmental awareness.'” This sentence disrupted the whole interesting article for me, because it seems to be an unnecessary and unhelpful dig at Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Perhaps the problem is largely semantic, beginning with the use of "impure" to describe the elements of the body. Suddenly we seem to be back in a very dualist, non-Buddhist world. I am not a Buddhist scholar, but I follow Thich Nhat Hanh and am grateful for his ability to avoid such semantic and intellectual glitches in his efforts to help us by teaching the "Miracle of Mindfulness."

kammie's picture

'"Clearly, mindfulness here is hardly 'nonjudgmental awareness.” This sentence disrupted the whole interesting article for me.' That is exactly where it got disrupted in my reading, too. The author used that sentence to follow: “That is, the body, like all conditioned things, is marked by three characteristics (trilaksana): impermanence, suffering, and nonself,” and to follow the word “impure” in the sentence before that. But why is he assuming that there is some automatic approval or disapproval of these qualities? The purpose of not judging isn’t abstract, it’s simply that judgment, either approval or disapproval, is an ego activity and fortifies the ego as it exists at the moment of judgment.

Regarding the word “impure,” the word “pure” actually just means “only what it is,” so that all parts of the body would be “impure” in the sense that nothing of the body exists only as itself. The urine and spittle have blood components. The blood has bone marrow in it. The bone marrow has lymph gland cells. Nothing in the body is “pure” in the pure meaning of “pure.” “Impure” doesn’t mean “dirty.” So another good reason to fail to judge is just to be more accurate.

But in agreement with MaryClaude I did find the article to be otherwise interesting and well-written, full of basic facts and information.

MaryClaude's picture

Sadly, this might be a case where intellectual understanding reigns...The sentence ''Clearly, mindfulness here is hardly 'nonjudgmental awareness.'' is absolutely unhelpful.

I agree that the article was detailed and informative, but isn't the comment '' Be my heirs in Dhamma, not in materials things'' attributed to the Buddha? Words and ideas, if used only in the realm of the intellect, are akin to materials things. The Satipatthana Sutta is not meant to be studied, but applied and experienced. Only then, can one forms one's own opinion about what the body is.

The main reason why I am writing this is not to contradict the authors, but to warn anyone who would take their words for granted. Keep the Kalama Sutta in mind:

"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them. (Source :

Applying this, form your own opinion, based on ACTUAL experience.

wilcuneo's picture

For an in depth understanding of Mindfulness can I suggest that readers follow this link.

buddhasoup's picture

This article is a solid discussion of mindfulness as "sati," as taught by the Budhha in the early texts. Important to the activity of mindfulness in meditation is the idea that it is really should not be divorced from the Eightfold Path that the Buddha developed. In one sense, the Eightfold Path is an unbroken chain in which each link is connected and interdependent on the others. Thus, 'samma sati' does require that the meditator be observant of Right View, Right Livelihood, et al, and incorporate these qualities leading to Right Concentration, which has been defined as samatha-vipassana jhana.

As some noted Bhikkhus have taught, it really is not productive meditation if one acts in their daily life with greed, anger, or delusion, as meditation will likely be unpleasant and not very fruitful. Similarly, if one employs bare mindfulness, there are a whole hosts of benefits, such as relaxation and better emotional/physical health, but the full benefits of mindfulness meditation are missed. Taking it a step further, corporations that teach mindfulness only to improve workplace attitudes or higher productivity really miss the point, and mindfulness can fall into the trap of 'spiritual bypassing,' where the mindful state only serves to block out what is really transpiring in the meditator's environment.

If mindfulness goes the way of yoga in the west, it may become diluted into a feelgood exercise, stripped bare of its ethics, kindness, and wisdom enhancing qualities...and that would be the real shame of sati as it arrives in the 21st century west.

nikos's picture

Thank you for this comment, especially the warning of the yoga-like way that mindfulness might develop in the west.