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