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Our Buddhist Roots

This article was written by Tony for the Autumn 2020 edition of Breathing Space, a journal for mindfulness teachers and therapists.

There are many advocates and critics of mindfulness alike that claim that the practice today has been severed from its Buddhist roots, losing its ethics and deeper wisdom in the process. But, what if ethics and wisdom are so intrinsic to contemporary mindfulness that they can’t be separated?

As mindfulness teachers, most of us will spend at least a little time talking about the origins of mindfulness and many of us will refer to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the ‘father of contemporary, western mindfulness programmes’. His secular mindfulness is now taught in health settings, schools and workplaces across the world.

It should be no surprise then that many of us teaching mindfulness today give Buddhism little more than a passing mention.

Origins of Mindfulness

We often think of Buddhism as containing the most ancient form of mindfulness. It is more than 2,500 years old, having been founded by Prince Siddhartha Gautama in the 5th and 4th Centuries BCE in Northern India. The fact that Buddhism is so well documented and transmitted through song, writing and art accounts in large part for this view.

In fact, its origins go back much further and can be found in many religious and contemplative practices, including Hinduism and Taoism.

Questioning the separation of Mindfulness and Buddhism

Buddhism is first and foremost concerned with the fact of suffering. The Buddha taught The Four Noble Truths, which are dukkha (suffering exists), samudaya (suffering is caused by greed, hatred and delusion), nirodha (suffering can be brought to an end) and magga (the way to end suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path).

As teachers, we are also concerned with lessening suffering of our clients and participants. We teach them skills to relate to troubling thoughts and difficult emotions in more helpful ways. Ending suffering is very much part of what drives us in our practice today.

The Noble Eightfold Path provides practical instructions to end suffering. It includes samma sati (wise mindfulness), which is one of the three parts of the samadhi (concentration) section of the eightfold path. Importantly, Buddhism teaches that mindfulness is not something that should be practiced in isolation. Alongside mindfulness, the eightfold path includes other concentration factors such as wise effort, wisdom factors such as right understanding, and ethical factors such as right speech and right action.

Do we really strip mindfulness of ethics and wisdom when we teach mindfulness, or do we encourage participants to see how their speech and actions affect their peace of mind and how practicing compassion and generosity support their happiness? We may not call it the Noble Eightfold Path, but our teaching acknowledges that noticing our breath and body is just one part of the action we can take.

The Satipatthana Sutta (the Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness) provides the most practical instruction on how to cultivate mindfulness. The four foundations are the body (including the breath), feelings, the mind (emotions and states of mind) and mental objects (thoughts and ideas). This may all sound very familiar as this incorporates virtually all of the essential elements of mindfulness that we teach today.

And alongside mindfulness, Buddhism teaches the four ‘divine abidings’ of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy (being happy for others) and equanimity (balanced self-composure) and the practices of sila (ethical behavior), dana (generosity) and nekkhamma (renunciation). We can easily recognise these ethical practices as being supportive to ourselves and our clients and all of which can be cultivated through a variety of different formal and every day mindfulness practices.

Teaching Mindfulness Today

So, does mindfulness as taught today incorporate Buddhist values and ethics or not? And should it?

Jon Kabat-Zinn actually learned mindfulness from several Zen Buddhist teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh. In an essay in 2017, he said that ‘the mainstreaming of mindfulness has always been anchored in the ethical framework that lies at the very heart of the original teachings of the Buddha’. He may not have taught Buddhism explicitly to his patients at the Massachusetts Medical Centre but that doesn’t mean it was not there.

We don’t have to be experts in Buddhism to tell our clients and participants a little about the Buddhist roots of mindfulness and to incorporate elements of Buddhism into our practice. Our participants don’t need to become Buddhists and neither do we. But our teaching can be greatly enriched by sharing this ancient philosophy that still holds so much value for our lives today.

Tony is offering a CPD/Retreat day on Mindfulness and Buddhism in London on Saturday 6th March 2021.

Find Out More

Recommended Reading & Listening

The Buddha’s Original Teachings on Mindfulness (the Satipatthana Sutta)

Too Early to Tell – Jon Kabat-Zinn’s essay on The Mainstreaming of Dharma in an Increasingly Dystopian World (Oct 2017)

Mindfulness and Buddhism – Lama Jampa Thaye (May 2018)

Buddhism for Beginners – Jack Kornfield

Available on Audible and other audio stores

Old Path White Clouds: The Life Story of the Buddha – Thich Nhat Hanh

Available at Amazon and other book sellers