Traditional Buddhist Mindfulness

Traditional Buddhist mindfulness by Ken Holmes

Quite a few people who have encountered or practised the modern secular Mindfulness training ask me how it differs from traditional Buddhist mindfulness. I am not conversant enough with the former to give an expert opinion but the following may be of help in clearly defining Buddhist mindfulness, the foundation of practice in most of its schools and traditions.


The term mindfulness itself always means “remembering”, “bearing in mind”. It should not be confused with awareness, which means becoming increasingly aware. The two are practised together, as companions, and the general idea is to become more aware of one’s life and then to be mindful of, or remember, the Buddha’s advice about that particular area of life. The advice recalled is thoroughly grounded in the basics of dharma, such as Refuge, karma, reincarnation, non-ego and so on. The main point of the Buddhist mindfulness teachings is all about recalling and applying this very Buddhist advice. Awareness training and simple meditation techniques of quietness are the basis for this and not the central focus. One could therefore have Christian “awareness and mindfulness” that recalled and applied Christ’s teachings, Islamic “awareness and mindfulness” that applied the Prophet’s teachings or secular “awareness and mindfulness” that uses awareness to introduce whatever guidance and values its teachers offer.

Traditional Buddhist mindfulness has four areas of application:

1.    Physical. One becomes more aware of one’s own body, its relationship to other bodies and, more generally, the body of the surrounding world. In the light of that, one bears in mind the Buddha’s teachings on impurity and all the problems caused by desire, sexual yearning and so forth, and from there one thinks of the sufferings of samsara, based on desire and fired by an ignorance of impermanence.

2.    Feelings. One becomes more aware of the prime reactive feelings of liking, disliking and feeling neutral and bears in mind the Buddha’s teachings on the twelve links of interdependence, in which the link of feeling triggers involvement and eventually action. Thus one also is mindful of karma, cause and effect and how feelings draw one into karma.

3.    Mind. One becomes more precisely aware of the functioning of the six (or eight) consciousnesses. In so doing, one bears in mind the Buddha’s teachings on reincarnation and how it is our conditioned stream of consciousness that determines the next life. One also recalls the urgent need for purification and accumulation.

4.    Phenomena. One becomes more aware of the way in which phenomena are perceived and cognised. In so doing, one recalls the Buddha’s teachings on voidness, (in Hinayana) of self/ego and (in Mahayana) of everything.

In a classical exposition of the Buddhist path (Hinayana or Mahayana), mindfulness, as described above, serves as the motor force for the next stage: changing. This involves removing the harmful and increasing the helpful. This in turn leads on to the next stage: intense meditation. These three—mindfulness, changing and intense meditation—together form the first of the five phases of the path to liberation. It is known as the phase of accumulation.

Ken Holmes
October 2010