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Is mindfulness buddhist? (and why it matters)

Abstract

Modern exponents of mindfulness meditation promote the therapeutic effects of “bare attention”—a sort of non-judgmental, non-discursive attending to the moment-to-moment flow of consciousness. This approach is arguably at odds with more traditional Theravada Buddhist doctrine and meditative practice, but the cultivation of present-centered awareness is not without precedent in Buddhist history; similar innovations arose in medieval Chinese Zen (Chan) and Tibetan Dzogchen. These movements have several things in common. In each case the reforms were, in part, attempts to render Buddhist practice and insight accessible to laypeople unfamiliar with Buddhist philosophy and/or unwilling to adopt a renunciatory lifestyle. They also promised quick results. And finally, the innovations were met with suspicion and criticism from traditional Buddhist quarters. Those interested in the therapeutic effects of mindfulness and bare attention are often not aware of the existence, much less the content, of the controversies surrounding these practices in Asian Buddhist history.

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