Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA

Issue No. 10 Spring 2016

Prof. Reilly with H. E. Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche.

Richard Reilly is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at St. Bonaventure University and the author of Ethics of Compassion: Bridging Ethical Theory and Religious Discourse.  A student of H.E. Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche, he is the founding president of Olean Meditation Center and coordinator of Southern Tier Sangha.

"It does seem that 'mindfulness' is everywhere..."

“There is a massive push to support and propagate the mindfulness message that isn’t dissimilar to the drug industry pushing cures that don’t work like they say they do.”

-McGill psychiatry professor Dr. Brett Thombs, quoted in “The marketing of mindfulness and why that matters,” Health News Review, April 12, 2016.

What are Buddhists to make of what a recent Time Magazine cover story dubs “The Mindful Revolution?”  It does seem that “mindfulness” is everywhere, in part due to studies documenting how mindfulness practice increases focus and concentration, reduces stress & anxiety, strengthens the immune system’s ability to fight diseases from flu to cancer, and even decreases cell damage, so lengthening life-spans.  Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program and its permutations have served as a source of research studies and have widely spread mindfulness as a “self-help” resource. What is there not to cheer about over the popularity of “mindfulness?”1


 The aim of this essay is to clarify what “mindfulness” is and what it is not. What it is not is what Shakyamuni Buddha called “Right Mindfulness.”  Whatever considerable benefits “mindfulness” has, they are but a fraction of the benefits of Buddhist practice.


First, what is this “mindfulness” (hereafter, “Mindfulness”) that is so prevalent?


➢ Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment — non-judgmentally. (Jon Kabat-Zinn)


➢  Mindfulness: The Practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. (Merriam Webster)


➢ Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. . . mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience. (Psychology Today)


While Mindfulness often is assumed to be ethically neutral, Kabat-Zinn points out:


In Asian languages, the word for mind and the word for heart are same. So if you’re not hearing mindfulness in some deep way as heartfulness, you’re not really understanding it. Compassion and kindness towards oneself are intrinsically woven into it. You could think of mindfulness as wise and affectionate attention.  (Emphasis added)


To summarize, Mindfulness is an attentive, non-judgmental, moment-to-moment awareness of how one experiences (one’s perceptions, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and so on) the situations one encounters.  One might say, when practiced, Mindfulness is living in the moment, “riding the changes of events in the way a surfer rides the waves on the sea.”2 If one were to ask, “Why practice mindfulness?,” the response would refer to the benefits that practitioners realize. (Of course, benefits to the practitioners might, in turn, might bring benefits to others as well.)


While seemingly Buddhist-like, this notion of Mindfulness is quite universal.


Mindfulness is often spoken of as the heart of Buddhist meditation.  It’s not about Buddhism, but about paying attention.  That’s what all meditation is, no matter what tradition or particular technique is used.  (Kabat-Zinn)


Yet, as any practitioner of Buddhism knows, Right Mindfulness is one limb of The Noble Eight-Fold Path that is the heart of Buddhist practice. So, it is quite important to be clear on what Right Mindfulness distinctively is.


In “The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness,” Shakyamuni Buddha addresses, “What is Right Mindfulness?” this way.


In such a case, a monastic lives observing the body as body, energetically, self-possessed [clearly comprehending], and mindful, having eliminated both the desire for and despair over the world. He lives observing feeling as feeling . . . observing the mind as mind . . . observing mental phenomena as mental phenomena, energetically, self-possessed [clearly comprehending], and mindful, having eliminated both the desire for and despair over the world. This is called right mindfulness. 3


It is important to note the following.


a.  A person who truly may be said to practice Right Mindfulness lives (dwells) in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This is an attainment in how to be; it is not a matter of occasional purposeful activity.


b. Moreover, the practice of Right Mindfulness presumes that one is free of covetousness (attachment) and despair (aversion). This is so, since, it is said, the bhikkhu lives observing mental phenomena as mental phenomena relating to: the five obstacles, the five aggregates of attachment, the seven factors of enlightenment, and The Four Noble Truths (including the Eightfold Path).4 Right Mindfulness is not simply mindful moment-to-moment awareness of (how one experiences) the situations one happens to be in.


c.  Indeed, in the “Connected Discourses on the Establishments of Mindfulness,” it is said, “Then, bhikkhus, when virtue is well purified and your view straight, based upon virtue, established upon virtue, you should develop the four establishments of mindfulness in a threefold way.5 As we shall see, virtue, here understood, is not primarily self-referential.


d.  Notice, too, that being “mindful” (sati) is but one of the three ways that one is to observe the body in the body, feelings in the feelings, and so on.  This sense of being mindful denotes the skill of being carefully attentive that Kabat-Zinn emphasizes. However, it is only within the context of carefully attending to (being remindful of) the Four Noble Truths that one “clearly comprehends” (sampajañña) what one is attentive to moment-to-moment.


e.  Finally, observing “mental phenomena as mental phenomena” is not the same as observing “mind as mind.“  Here one is able to discriminate wholesome and unwholesome states of mind, so that:


Thinking “there is mind,” [the monastic’s] mindfulness becomes established to the extent necessary for knowledge and awareness.  He [She] lives unattached and grasps after nothing in the world.6



The intrinsic  quality or nature of mind is awareness of pure presence or pure awareness (rigpa). In this awareness, there is no “judgment” because there is no conceptualization of “what” is experienced; there is no subject-object dichotomy.7


The integration of mindfulness with virtue is nicely captured in Thich Nhất Hanh’s well-known presentation of the Precepts of Right Conduct as "mindfulness trainings."8 His personal avowals take the form, "Mindful of the suffering due to . . . , I am committed to . . . " Consider his example of Reverence for Life.


Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.  I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in way of life.9


Being in the first-person, this is not a dictate to others.  We should each ask, “What does the awareness of suffering, due to the consequences of human ways of acting, speaking, and thinking, commit me to in order to relieve the suffering of beings?”  We might come up with scores of ways in which we might be (more) mindful of other beings in our day-to-day lives.  Surely, our awareness of the causes and conditions of suffering inform our moment-to-moment mindfulness with others.


Clearly, the motivation for avowals of mindfulness trainings is compassion.  My blessed teacher, H.E. Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche, ardently reminds us that the most important factor in mindfulness is “pure intention”—the aspiration to relieve all beings from suffering (bodhicitta).  Any other intentionality separates one (to some degree or another) from Right Mindfulness. Rinpoche teaches the “Three Sublime Practices”—Generation of Pure Intention; Mindfulness in our Activity; Dedication of Merit.10 On this view, mindfulness in activities is not complete, and, so, our activities do not reach complete fruition, independent of the other Sublime Practices.


If we return to popular iterations of Mindfulness, we now can clearly see its central limitation.  As a “purposeful” activity, “paying attention” to “what one is experiencing,” Mindfulness is occasional, self-referential, dualistic, and narrow, albeit “warm-hearted.” The fundamental project of Mindfulness is to benefit oneself, usually in particular ways, and even for particular aims.  This is fine, in so far as skills are strengthened (e.g., attentiveness, focus, relatedness) and suffering (e.g., stress, anxiety, depression) is lessened.  But how can self-referential Mindfulness liberate one from most, let alone all suffering?  How does it make us non-attached to our dear ones and current life-style? How does it make us non-adverse to illness and death?  How does it make us more generous/less greedy, more kind/less indifferent to others, more confident/less jealous or envious?


As Buddhists well understand, it is (the false attribution of) “self” (“ego”) that is the root of our own suffering and of our causing others to suffer; and that to uproot this source of suffering, as distinct from treating a few symptoms, a more comprehensive remedy—The Noble Eightfold Path—is advised.  Herein, moment-to-moment awareness is not awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, or experiences of phenomena simpliciter; it is awareness of the appearance and of the emptiness (the dependent origination) of thoughts, feelings, emotions, experiences of phenomena.  And, in this awareness, compassion and wisdom manifest.


Compassion free from bias, primordial wisdom beyond all limitation,

Present as the naked essence of all-pervading awareness-emptiness. . . 11


So, indeed, may we practice, and encourage others to practice, “non-dual moment-to-moment awareness.”


Moment-to-moment awareness is the supreme form of meditation. All other methods of meditation are steps that lead us toward this all-pervasive awareness. Recognizing the essence of one’s mind and learning to remain in this essence is true meditation.12


It is this “all pervading awareness-emptiness,” beyond duality, beyond self and other, that liberates beings from the realm of suffering.  This is the fruit of Right Mindfulness—and why Shakyamuni Buddha proclaims it “the one path” for the realization of nirvana.13




1. The quotations attributed to Kabat-Zinn in this essay all appear in a Time Magazine interview:


2.  These words are part of an often-recited passage by Bhikkhu Bodhi, quoted by Joseph Goldstein, Mindfulness, Kindle edition, 396.


3.  Mahasatipatthana Sutta, 21 (Digha Nikaya, 2.313), Trans. John J. Holder, Early Buddhist Discourses, Hackett Publishing Co. (2006), 57.  I use the gender-neutral “monastic” for Holder’s bhikkhu, following Alice Collett & Bhikkhu Anālayo, “Bhikkhave and Bhikkhu as Gender-inclusive Terminology in Early Buddhist Texts,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21 (2014), esp. Ānandajoti’s recommendation, n.47. The term sampajañña that Holder translates as “self-possessed,” carries the meaning of “completely self-aware,” and often is translated as “clearly comprehending,” as in Bhikkhu Bodhi (see note 5).


4. Mahasatipatthana Sutta, 13-21; Holder, 48-57.


5.  In The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Samyutta Nikāya), Trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications (2000), 1663.


6.  Mahasatipatthana Sutta, 12; Holder, 48.


7. In this context, “Awareness of Nowness is actuality of Buddhahood.” Dudjom Rinpoche, “Song of the Primordial State” (The Prayer of Calling the Lama from Afar):


8.  See Thich Nhat Hanh’s classic, “Diet for a Mindful Society,” in Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living (Ch. 8), Parallax Press, 1992.  His Mindfulness Trainings have been most recently elaborated on in For a Future to be Possible: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life, Parallax Press, 2007.


9. Touching Peace, 82.


10.  See Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche, Living Fully: Finding Joy in Every Breath, New World Library, 2012, Ch. 10, esp. 143-45.


11.  Dudjom Rinpoche, op. cit.


12. Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche, 147-48.


13. Mahasatipatthana Sutta, 1; Holder, 43.


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