On the Buddhist roots of contemporary non-religious mindfulness practice: moving beyond sectarian and essentialist approaches

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Abstract

Mindfulness-based practice methods are entering the Western cultural mainstream as institutionalised approaches in healthcare, education, and other public spheres. The Buddhist roots of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and comparable mindfulness-based programmes are widely acknowledged, together with the view of their religious and ideological neutrality. However, the cultural and historical roots of these contemporary approaches have received relatively little attention in the study of religion, and the discussion has been centred on Theravāda Buddhist viewpoints or essentialist presentations of ‘classical Buddhism’. In the light of historical and textual analysis it seems unfounded to hold Theravāda tradition as the original context or as some authoritative expression of Buddhist mindfulness, and there are no grounds for holding it as the exclusive Buddhist source of the MBSR programme either. Rather, one-sided Theravāda-based presentations give a limited and oversimplified picture of Buddhist doctrine and practice, and also distort comparisons with contemporary non-religious forms of mindfulness practice. To move beyond the sectarian and essentialist approaches closely related to the ‘world religions paradigm’ in the study of religion, the discussion would benefit from a lineage-based approach, where possible historical continuities and phenomenological similarities between Buddhist mindfulness and contemporary non-religious approaches are examined at the level of particular relevant Buddhist teachers and their lineages of doctrine and practice.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberISSN 2342-7256
JournalTemenos : studies in comparative religion presented by scholars in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden
Volume52
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)87-126
Number of pages40
ISSN0497-1817
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

Fields of Science

  • 6160 Other humanities
  • Study of Religion
  • Buddhist Studies
  • Mindfulness
  • Meditation

Cite this

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title = "On the Buddhist roots of contemporary non-religious mindfulness practice: moving beyond sectarian and essentialist approaches",
abstract = "Mindfulness-based practice methods are entering the Western cultural mainstream as institutionalised approaches in healthcare, education, and other public spheres. The Buddhist roots of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and comparable mindfulness-based programmes are widely acknowledged, together with the view of their religious and ideological neutrality. However, the cultural and historical roots of these contemporary approaches have received relatively little attention in the study of religion, and the discussion has been centred on Theravāda Buddhist viewpoints or essentialist presentations of ‘classical Buddhism’. In the light of historical and textual analysis it seems unfounded to hold Theravāda tradition as the original context or as some authoritative expression of Buddhist mindfulness, and there are no grounds for holding it as the exclusive Buddhist source of the MBSR programme either. Rather, one-sided Theravāda-based presentations give a limited and oversimplified picture of Buddhist doctrine and practice, and also distort comparisons with contemporary non-religious forms of mindfulness practice. To move beyond the sectarian and essentialist approaches closely related to the ‘world religions paradigm’ in the study of religion, the discussion would benefit from a lineage-based approach, where possible historical continuities and phenomenological similarities between Buddhist mindfulness and contemporary non-religious approaches are examined at the level of particular relevant Buddhist teachers and their lineages of doctrine and practice.",
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AB - Mindfulness-based practice methods are entering the Western cultural mainstream as institutionalised approaches in healthcare, education, and other public spheres. The Buddhist roots of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and comparable mindfulness-based programmes are widely acknowledged, together with the view of their religious and ideological neutrality. However, the cultural and historical roots of these contemporary approaches have received relatively little attention in the study of religion, and the discussion has been centred on Theravāda Buddhist viewpoints or essentialist presentations of ‘classical Buddhism’. In the light of historical and textual analysis it seems unfounded to hold Theravāda tradition as the original context or as some authoritative expression of Buddhist mindfulness, and there are no grounds for holding it as the exclusive Buddhist source of the MBSR programme either. Rather, one-sided Theravāda-based presentations give a limited and oversimplified picture of Buddhist doctrine and practice, and also distort comparisons with contemporary non-religious forms of mindfulness practice. To move beyond the sectarian and essentialist approaches closely related to the ‘world religions paradigm’ in the study of religion, the discussion would benefit from a lineage-based approach, where possible historical continuities and phenomenological similarities between Buddhist mindfulness and contemporary non-religious approaches are examined at the level of particular relevant Buddhist teachers and their lineages of doctrine and practice.

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