Is the mindfulness meditation that has become popular in recent years a form of Buddhism in disguise?
A good question, although some might deny it hotly. Some of these movements claim to be fully secularized, perhaps to have “abandoned the cultural baggage” of Buddhism. All the same, they often still enjoy the cachet of having roots in the mysterious Orient, so the question remains a fair one.
From the traditional point of view, the answer is surely a clear no.
Defining what is and isn’t Buddhism is, unsurprisingly, difficult, but there is a range of questions that can be asked.
Warning: I’m about to generalize wildly!
- Do these teachers start by drawing attention to the inevitable suffering of existence? No. They simply offer an improvement to our lives.
- Do they teach the possibility of being liberated from the cycle of suffering? No. They propose ways that we can be happier within the cycle.
- Do they teach the need to take refuge in the “three jewels” – the Buddha, the Dharma, Sangha? No. They claim to be free from cultural hangovers.
- Do they teach the absence of an unchanging self? No. Yes, mindfulness, if taught properly and in the right context, can lead to insight into the illusory nature of the self. But if understood and practised wrongly it can run the risk of hardening the illusion.
- Do they stress the need for such a practice to be carried out on a proper ethical base? No. At least, not as far as I’m aware.
- Do they stress the importance of becoming more compassionate? No. Again, not as far as I know.
So the question is this – is it a good thing? As far as I know, yes. There may be risks if it’s done badly, but that is true of anything meaningful.
A Buddhist should work to become more compassionate. That doesn’t mean that being compassionate makes you a Buddhist. Much the same is true of mindfulness: for a Buddhist, it’s a good thing, but simply being mindful isn’t the be-all and end-all of Buddhism.