The 3rd World Conference on Buddhism and Science (WCBS)

The term mindfulness has become increasingly popular in the West due, in no small part, to contemporary studies of mindfulness-based therapies in psychology. According to the Pali Nik?yas, mindfulness practice is the heart of Buddhism, for it alone can lead one to enlightenment. However, are contemporary and traditional accounts of the practice of mindfulness referring to the same technique? In this paper I will argue that modern accounts of mindfulness in the field of psychology omit important features of the classical Buddhist accounts of the term: specifically, the sense of mindfulness (sati) as recollection, and the context of mindfulness practice, which includes significant ethical and cognitive implications. I will argue that the exclusion of these aspects of sati leads to confusion and to the neglect of constitutive features of the Buddhist practice of mindfulness that could prove beneficial to modern contemplative practitioners as well as to both psychology and cognitive science. While the Western psychological tradition emphasizes the nonjudgmental and present-centered nature of mindfulness -bare attention- (Kabat-Zinn, 2003), the classical accounts given in traditional Buddhist texts, both Theravada and Mahayana, emphasize the relation of sati to memory and the cognitive and evaluative aspects of the practice, as well as its ability to distinguish and select between wholesome and unwholesome tendencies. Classical sources also emphasize the need for mindfulness practice to be embedded in the Noble Eightfold Path. While contemporary mindfulness is practiced as a way to better enjoy the present moment, the traditional notion of sati is actually supposed to induce “disenchantment” with our present circumstances so as to be motivated to free oneself from samsara (Wallace, 2006). Thus, close analysis reveals that, although the notion of bare attention is not completely foreign to traditional views, it by no means exhausts the complete meaning of sati. As long as the recollecting, cognitive, and ethical features of sati are ignored, mindfulness will continue to be regarded merely as a therapeutical tool for reducing mental symptoms, rather than for irreversibly eliminating mental afflictions (klesha) from their root, which is the fundamental goal of Buddhist practice..
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