Mindfulness is what it is

There was a new article on the Guardian about mindfulness today.

Mindfulness is all about self-help. It does nothing to change an unjust world.

Which makes the point that mindfulness is not the complete solution to all the world’s problems. It’s a promising area of research; here’s a few other related critiques.

Hairdressing is all about hair. It does nothing to change an unjust world.

Curing cancer is all about medicine. It does nothing to change an unjust world.

Going to Mars is all about space travel. It does nothing to change an unjust world.

I’m beginning to see a pattern emerge here: A thing is about the thing that it is, and isn’t about something that it isn’t! Excellent, that’s real progress.

There are plenty of teachings, examples, and principles in Buddhism that are really useful for positive social change. There’s the whole democracy thing; accountable decision making processes; practical compassion; sharing wealth to overcome inequality; use of no or very mild punishment; emphasis on education and individual empowerment and agency; getting rid of all forms of discrimination; the idea that even the most powerful are subject to the rule of law, and so on and so on.

Mindfulness is not one of those things; it is a teaching on how to become peaceful and accept.

Mindfulness can operate in a complex set of relationships with broader community and social issues. It is entirely possible, as the author of the article points out, that it can become abstracted from any meaningful context and used in harmful ways. But that’s not the problem of mindfulness, it’s the problem of the lack of other good things, especially ethical values. That’s why the Buddha always insisted that mindfulness, and other advanced meditative practices, take place when grounded on a very pure ethics. Removed from that and misapplied, it becomes Wrong Mindfulness.

So perhaps we can stop blaming mindfulness for not being what it is not.


29 thoughts on “Mindfulness is what it is

  1. I’m a very angry, unmindful, ineffective human rights advocate. Having ‘converted’ (!) to mindfulness very recently I am already 2000% more effective in that role. Thank goodness for Ajahn Brahm and many other Buddhists who set me straight about the social justice efficacy of mindfulness. I’m so, so, so grateful and so is my family!!

    • Excellent! Is the practice of mindfulness as popular in the human rights movement as it has become in business? It would be a shame if ideas like the ones in the article discoursged activists from meditating…

  2. Reading the article on the Guardian, I can kind of understand the frustration you get from it – you’re absolutely right with the points you raise.
    And mindfulness can be a very effective self-improvement tool, the author of the article could/should have mentioned some science backing that up.

  3. The author seems to confuse mindfulness with some trance state. I’ve always thought the connotation of mindfulness stresses such features of a mental state as awareness, attention and concentration. There is no doubt that these characteristics help to discriminate between wholesome and unwholesome personal qualities though without clinging to them and therefore lead to the further development of thought and personal progress. How can this not imply changing a human society, a gathering of persons? It is another matter that mindfulness is not usually practiced by those who desperately need it, such as muslim militants, pro-russian terrorists, etc.

    • Mindfulness is a teaching to become peaceful and accept.
      It is a tool for accomplishing many good and wholesome things.
      The world would be a much better place, if more people became peaceful and willing to accept things.
      Instead of bullying the peaceful, or return violence with violence.
      Mindfulness helps you to see things, it is the opposite of harmful blind activism.

  4. Great post Bhante! Here are some nice words to counter the argument made in the Guardian article:

    “research shows that mindfulness increases empathy and compassion for others and for oneself, and that such attitudes are good for you. To me, that affirms that when we practice mindfulness, we are simultaneously strengthening our skills of compassion—evidence that mindfulness isn’t simply about sharpening attention.” http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/does_mindfulness_make_you_compassionate

  5. Dear Bhante,
    I am relatively new to Buddhism and I am having great benefits from samadhi meditation which I have learnt chiefly from the writings and videos of Ajahn Brahm, to whom I am extremely grateful. However, concerning the relationship between Buddhism and positive social change and democracy that you mentioned above, I must honestly say that I have some doubts. In a recent entry in the Ask a Monastic Forum, Bhante Nandiya wrote: ‘the Buddhist teachings (and Buddhists!) are quite ineffectual at preventing social strife at least at the level of tribes or nations. Look to Buddhism to improve you and your life and you wont be disappointed, but if you look to Buddhism to improve your family, neighbourhood, nation or planet, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.’
    I also suspect that Buddhism can be easly used to support an authoritarian attitude, based on the idea that since most of us have defilements and cannot see things as they really are, they had much better give up their freedom of thought and obey those who are more spiritually advanced. A similar view is stated by Aajahn Brahm himself in Simply this moment, P 86, when he says : many Westerners are so independent, basically so conceited and arrogant, that sometimes we don’t want to follow what the teacher says, or what the Buddha says. We want to find out in our own way what we think must be right. When one is not yet a Stream Winner that belief in ones own
    ideas and views is very uncertain.
    As far as Momastic like is concerned, I have read today in a book by Paul Breiter on Ajahn Chah that the latter had made the rule that all correspondence between his monks and their families should be read by him (for their own good). This seems to go against what we generally regard as basic human rights of privacy. On a visit to a Monastery in the UK I met people who who were complaining since they had to put up with humiliations. These were supposed to have a pedagogical purpose since by watching their own reactions in humiliating situations they would be able to see what their own attachments were (also Ajahn Chah, according to what I’ve read, used to but his monks in humiliating situations for pedagogical purposes).
    From a political point of view, extreme examples of how Buddhism and an authoriatarian attitude can go hand in hand can be found in Tibetan Buddhism and society. Sir Charles Bell wrote that ‘The (thirteenth) Dalai Lama was indeed an absolute dictator; more so as regards his own country than Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini in theirs’ and described the extremely cruel system of punishment performed by him in Tibet.
    I have been once to listen to the teachings of Tibetan Lamas. People attending the teachings had such blind and unquestioning adulation for the teachers (one of whom, living a married life, was generally considered the reincarnation of Sariputra even though the latter was considered an Arhat in Theravada Buddhism) that I found myself wondering where the borders of sanity lay. Amongst the things I learnt from those attending the meeting was the idea that Chögyam Trungpa was in reality an extremel highly attained spiritual being who had chosen to become an alcoholic just for the benefit of all those beings who had a problem with alcohol and who, thanks to him, became attracted to Buddhism…
    Thus, even though discovering meditation has been one of the most important events in my life, I am not sure that Buddhism has had a particularly positive impact on society at large in the countries that have adopted it, and I feel that there is a very real danger that the teachings of Buddhism can be abused for authoritarian purposes.

    • Hi Stefano,

      Thanks for this comment, and you have captured pretty neatly some of the genuine problems that Buddhism faces. I couldn’t agree more that Buddhism can, and is, used for authoritarian purposes, both in the political sphere and in the monasteries and Buddhist centers. This is one of the reasons why we study and promote early Buddhist teachings, for these attitudes are refreshingly absent from them. There’s no idea of tormenting people to help them, no notion of unquestioning acceptance, no weird irrational stuff like having to twist your mind to regard a drunkard as enlightened. So maybe you could be helped by considering the early Buddhist texts as an example of a more sane and healthy form of spirituality. And while the questions of social impact are definitely secondary there, they are addressed, in many different ways, all of which are, I think, quite nice and helpful.

  6. There is no cure-all for an unjust world; however, a society is made up of individuals. If even one person improves him/herself, then this improves the world in some small way. The Confucians say, “From the Son of Heaven down to the ordinary person, all things have their root in the practice of self-cultivation.” Making a better world starts with each person, and that implies self-cultivation.

  7. Dear Sujato ,
    Firstly I hope I am allowed to post my questions here.It would be very great to have your opinion on it.
    Can you please share your knowledge on frivolous talk (samphappalāpa) ? I find the suttas too vague defining it (what about harmless chit-chat) and in addition it a bit scary to read that this kind of speech also can lead someone to animal,ghost and even hell realm.

    Samphappalāpī kho pana hoti. Akālavādī abhūtavādī anatthavādī adhammavādī avinayavādī. Anidhānavatiṃ vācaṃ bhāsitā hoti akālena anapadesaṃ apariyan¬ta¬vatiṃ anat¬tha¬saṃhi¬taṃ. Evaṃ kho, gahapatayo, catubbidhaṃ vācāya adhamma¬cari¬yā¬vi¬sama¬cariyā hoti.
    a,Did the Buddha speak only these definitions about frivolous talk and repeat them on every occasion ? How authentic is it? Did he state specifically that the frivolous talk leads to animal,ghost,hell realm or is it added later?
    I found related words for abhutavadi,akalavadi,anatthasamhitam,akalena in other suttas like MN139,MN58.
    b,Do you think that the rules of right speech in MN139 and MN58 can be connected to MN41 –not speaking frivolously?Especially Buddha always mentions speak the truth.
    untrue: abhūtaṃ butham-true
    abhūto ataccho anatthasaṃhito – untrue,incorrect,harmful
    abhūtaṃ atacchaṃ anat¬tha¬saṃhi¬taṃ: untrue,incorrect,harmful
    bhūtaṃ tacchaṃ atthasaṃhitaṃ : true,correct,benefical
    kalannu: one who knows the proper time
    akala: inappropriate, out of reason
    kalena: at the right time
    kalavadi: speaking at the proper time
    Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.
    2. Can we have a good theory for what was the method to memorize the Buddha’s new talks on specific occasions during his life?What can we know about disciples intentions to compress it even more and sort out unnecessary explanations(because for them it was clear and obvious how to decode the sort lines) ?Are the suttas more compressed regarding information then the Buddha’s original talks?

    Thank you for the opportunity to ask here and I admire your efforts to share every bit of Buddhism!

    Best wishes,

    • Hi Samma,

      There’s a lot of detailed questions there, an I doubt if I can do it justice right now! But let’s start with one thing: don’t be afraid! Just do your best, live a good life, and you’ll be fine. You’re never going to experience any bad consequences if you do the best you can.

      Regarding the definition of frivolous chat, there’s a more comprehensive definition in the Gradual Training, which you can find, eg here: http://suttacentral.net/en/dn1#17

      I’m not aware of any place where frivolous speech is said to lead to lower realms.

      Regarding the relations between the different teachings on speech, in general, yes, they are all interconnected on several levels.

      For your question 2, this is a very interesting matter, and one where we can only reach for an explanation. The most outstanding feature of the suttas is of course the repetition. So we can understand that if the Buddha spoke in the same way, or very similar ways, on many occasions, this would constantly remind people what was said, and these passages would ultimately become memorized by default. So when learning a new discourse you only have to learn the new bits. (This is, incidentally, the same way that modern Computer Assisted Translation programs work; the software keeps previous passages in a special memory so repetitious passages can be reused.) It is not really clear how closely the Buddha’s own speech patterns reflect the formalistic patterns of the suttas; it seems reasonable to me to suppose that he used such things to some degree, and they were further formalized and standardized by the redactors.

    • Dear Sujato,

      ,,I’m not aware of any place where frivolous speech is said to lead to lower realms.”

      Thank you very much for your quick reply!
      But finally I dont understand MN41 in regard to bad conducts,habits which are frequently practiced lead to lower realms.
      What kind of conduct is conducive to lower realms in the suttas if the MN41 is not correct? as well as MN42 ?
      In the AN 8.40( Conducive) sutta the same can be found as ten ways of unwholsome action. http://suttacentral.net/en/an8.40
      Can you please share your opinion how to understand these suttas on kamma? Sorry but I really trying to accept the teachings somehow and only defend what is certainly tought by the Buddha.

      Best wishes ! 🙂

      ,,I’m not aware of any place where frivolous speech is said to lead to lower realms.”

      These passages what I find confusing if I acccept your opinion that fivolous speech is not meant here:

      “Householders, it is by reason of conduct not in accordance with the Dhamma, by reason of unrighteous conduct that some beings here, on the dissolution of the body, after death, reappear in states of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, even in hell. It is by reason of conduct in accordance with the Dhamma, by reason of righteous conduct that some beings here, on the dissolution of the body, after death, reappear in a happy destination, even in the heavenly world.”
      “Householders, there are three kinds of bodily conduct not in accordance with the Dhamma, unrighteous conduct. There are four kinds of verbal conduct not in accordance with the Dhamma, unrighteous conduct. There are three kinds of mental conduct not in accordance with the Dhamma, unrighteous conduct.”

    • Hi again,

      So you know the suttas better than me, congrats! There’s a couple of points to be made here, especially with regard to AN 8.40.

      First is that it is one of those suttas that unfolds according to a template; that is, the same things are said about a range of different topics. In such cases we need to bear in mind the treatment of the topic as a whole, and remember that the sutta is not picking out frivolous speech as being a specially bad thing; rather, it is dealing with a range of behaviors, of which frivolous speech is one variety.

      Secondly, look closely at what it says; if one “cultivates, develops, and makes much of” frivolous speech one is lead to lower realms. So it’s not a matter of an occasional bit of chit chat or something, but of a persistent pattern of meaningless speech. The idea behind this is that frivolous speech is essentially delusional; it distracts, if nothing else, from what is important, and it increases ignorance, the prime mover of Samsara. So if you do this all the time it can lead to a bad rebirth.

      At the same time, though, remember that the same is said of each of these qualities. Of course, the reality is that in most of our lives, we do all of these things. So the kamma that determines rebirth will be mixed and complicated. The point is that the less we use our speech in ways that promote delusion, the more we promote wisdom for ourselves and others, the better kamma we are making and the less likely we are to have a bad rebirth.

    • Thank you for your words! Very nice.

      I am very new to the idea of kamma in buddhism but it seems to me that it is more like a complex equation in the end and habits are more important than an individual act.but….Why are there instances in Buddhism that a stronger kamma can override a general conduct?Do you maybe have a detailed article about kamma in early Buddhism?

      With much metta,

  8. “There’s the whole democracy thing; accountable decision making processes; practical compassion; sharing wealth to overcome inequality; use of no or very mild punishment; emphasis on education and individual empowerment and agency; getting rid of all forms of discrimination; the idea that even the most powerful are subject to the rule of law, and so on and so on.”

    Really? Apart from practical compassion none of these are “Buddhist” principles. They are principles that modernist Buddhists adopt because we’re grown up with them. There’s no history of democracy in Buddhism and it’s proving very difficult to establish a meaningful democracy in Theravāda countries in particular.

    Generally speaking I like reading what you write, even when I disagree with it. But this revision of Buddhism to include the values of the modern West is not credible.

    • Democracy is fundamental to the only system of governance that is genuinely Buddhist, that is, the Vinaya. The Vinaya is not merely democratic, it insists on consensus, direct representation, adherence to transparency; it provides options for majority decisions in rare cases where consensus doesn’t work, and in such cases it gives procedures for secret ballots and other essential features of democracy. In fact, while I am not so familar with the Greek sources in this regard, I am not aware of any documents from such an early time that descrie such a fair and accountable democratic procedure with such clarity and detail.

      You are quite right, though, that this system has had unfortunately little impact on Buddhist cultures, both ancient and modern. But we are now, perhaps, at a time when the rest of the world is catching up to what the Vinaya described over 2000 years ago, and the principles there should, I believe, inform and inspire modern Buddhists and Buddhist cultures. Of course, it is unlikely that this will happen as long as the Sangha, the custodian of the Vinaya, continues to govern itself in hierarchical, anti-democratic, anti-Vinaya ways. Still, that shouldn’t stop us from trying!

  9. And there is nothing new about meditation, so why has it suddenly gone mainstream?

    The west takes hold of eastern mysticism, ignores its history and faith and turns it into a secular and accessible pastime. For mindfulness is Buddhism without the awkward Buddhist bits. A complex philosophy is rendered as self-help.

    The new ascetic is someone who goes for a walk without their phone or takes a week off Twitter to cleanse themselves. This version of meditation requires no more than the faith that we can all be self-improving part-time gurus. It requires no commitment to a community, and it’s cheap.

    What’s gone mainstream really isn’t mindfulness as much as relaxation techniques that work for some people, though they can and reportedly have led to other problems for many others. The author of the article in the link isn’t railing against mindfulness in the Buddha’s teachings, but against the mindfulness movement in the West that attempts to cut out a piece of the Buddha’s teachings and adapt that piece to the Western lifestyle and worldview. Not sure why her point is seen as problematic here.

  10. jayarava: “There’s no history of democracy in Buddhism”

    Somewhere in China or Tibet after AD? Then I am agree. But this is not true for the early Indian society, including the Buddhist sangha, that was established on the model of Indian republicanism with the tradition of assemblies and voting. One may read about this in any book on the history of political science. There are a lot of them. By the way:

    “- Have you heard, Ananda, that the Vajjians hold full and frequent public assemblies?”
    “Lord, so I have heard”, – replied he.
    “So long, Ananda”, – rejoined the Blessed One, “as the Vajjians hold these full and frequent public assemblies; so long may they be expected not to decline, but to prosper…” (Mahaparinibbana-sutta)

    • Thanks, Juzzeau, I’ll take that as a compliment. And FYI, Google returns precisely three hits for the string “amusingly Socratic”, one of which is this very comment!

  11. Or would it be more amusing when there are no problems with the heart of buddhists and there are calls to open the door to the heart?
    Is that suppose to be like the statues built by men in Brazil or was it somewhere in the sea?

    If its in medical terminology wht type of surgery would be required to be performed when someone has severe heart problem?
    Wht happens if heart surgery is performed when there is no heart problem?

    Correct me if im wrong but where and in which part of the sutta or in the path of purification that ever suggests that a buddhist practitioner is suppose to open their heart door?
    And simple lil old me thot buddhists were suppose to diy …
    with guidance from the teacher …
    apply the 4 great references …
    Sutta that was spoken to the Kalama clan …

    Dependent origination …

    oops … sori Bhante … havent really made any direct comments to your above posts coz i dont understand the guardian thingy …

  12. It’s very tempting to react provocatively against the popular adoption of mindfulness: we associate it with a historical pattern of the sacred being trivialized by the West. It is offensive to see Buddhism fall victim to this process, as with yoga before it, and native spirituality before that. However, it’s difficult to discern any drawbacks for the increased popularity of mindfulness, even if it is without an ethical framework to support it. Any hint of an ethic being imposed would cause a potential mindfulness practitioner to recoil in fear of religious indoctrination.

  13. Dear Bhante,
    could you please tell a little about being acceptive in Early Buddhism? Which Buddhist texts support the existence of this idea?

  14. Thank you so much for this Venerable Sujato. I hope you don’t mind but I’m using some of what you say for a series of blog post I’m writing on the Buddhist Theology of Engaged Buddhism (for my Buddhist Theology class).

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