Curious to hear Dhammic responses to this critique of Buddhism and mindfulness

Left here for your commentary. A family member posted this on FB.


" I know I have a propensity towards neurotic worrying and overthinking. Thinking of myself as an individual in a particular context is what allows me to identify whether the source of these worries stems from my internal character traits or if I am simply responding to an external situation. Often the answer is a mixture of both, but even this ambiguity requires a careful scrutiny, not only of thoughts and feelings but the specific context in which they arose."—Ratnayake

Sahanika Ratnayake’s complaints about the shortcomings of secular mindfulness would be resolved if she knew more about Theravada doctrine, in particular right effort. The endeavors of right effort are precisely to find the origin of troublesome thoughts and deal with them appropriately. This is stated in the fourth foundation of mindfulness:

“She discerns how there is the arising of unarisen (sensual desire, anger, worry). And she discerns how there is the abandoning of (worry) once it has arisen. And she discerns how there is no further appearance in the future of (worry) that has been abandoned”. —DN 22, MN 10.

“To look for richer explanations about why you think and feel the way you do, you need to see yourself as a distinct individual, operating within a certain context. You need to have some account of the self, as this demarcates what is a response to your context, and what flows from yourself.”—Ratnayake

She also needs to understand that the path itself is conditioned, and it is necessary to have a provisional self to accomplish the tasks of right effort exactly as she has stated, but within the context of right view, and that there is both a conventional and ultimate reality to be considered.

“In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas.”—MN 22


I found the article quite difficult to follow, and some bullet points or a summary would have been helpful. An interesting theme was about the different reasons for doing different types of mindfulness, though again I felt the presentation was a little muddled.


It’s certainly not that clear. There are other expositions, such as those by Purser:

I don’t think it’s available anymore, but the Buddhist Geeks site used to have some interesting interviews with people who were both involved with Secular Mindfulness instruction, and were practising Buddhists. I recall one saying that she found it difficult when the Secular Mindfulness participants started having relatively deep experiences. If they had been in her Buddhist group she could have used Buddhist vocabulary (anatta, etc), but in an Secular setting that vocabulary wasn’t really available.

The essential problem that many have commented on (which doesn’t just apply to Secular Mindfulness) is the development of meditation technique without the support of other parts of the Buddhist Path, or of community. In the article Sahanika Ratnayake talks about her experiences of dissociation, which might not have been so problematic if she had been practising in a supportive Buddhist community, where she had more comprehensive instruction, as @paul1 points out above.


It’s a wonderful and deeply personal essay on the struggle with identity view, a struggle that might be summarized as, “surely some of these feelings must be of value to me?”

The author has clearly found the truth of suffering and declared it personally. And she shares her hope for finding the cause of suffering, which certainly won’t be found analyzing skin folds of raisins! Yet already she affirms the unpicking of thoughts in her own fierce search for truth, unwilling to be brainwashed into a groundless leap of faith into oblivion.

Thank you for sharing this delightful article. It’s an article about suffering.


The raisins thing made me smile, since I’ve experienced this exercise on several mindfulness days. Last time they handed the raisins out without any explanation, so I just ate it straight away and asked for another. :yum:


Yeah, it’s interesting. The more I hear, the more gratitude I feel for my first meditation teacher.

He was a Zen priest, but taught in a completely secular way. As a committed atheist at the time, I wouldn’t have responded well to religious language, but he always explained the relevant concepts in plain and simple English. “We divide the whole world up into things-I-like and things-I-dislike.” I’ll never forget the striking wisdom he taught or his unaffected, humble style.


I liked this essay. There’s much there I’d actually agree with (things like modern mindfulness and understandings of more Buddhist concepts like anatta can probably usefully do with having some sceptical light shone on them :slight_smile: ). Of course, this being a site interested in early Buddhist texts, the understanding of mindfulness here may be broader than and differ somewhat from the mindfulness movement.

I’d have mixed feelings about the understanding/practice of mindfulness as ‘nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment’. IMO there can be pros and cons to that. It can put some distance between a meditator and difficult/troubling/distressing thoughts. Sometimes distance can be a good thing. To use an analogy, in a troubled or rocky personal relationship, sometimes some breathing space can be good. With distance, we can also reflect and perhaps figure out what the problem is (or even if the relationship is just too toxic and a break needs to be made). No doubt the same can be true with the mind. But by itself ‘nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment’ seems fairly passive to me if it’s used as the answer to everything (and it seemed as if the author was using it in that way). Putting a relationship at permanent arm’s length really isn’t going to solve anything. Maybe it’s not surprising if people following this mindfulness practice end up feeling estranged from their thoughts eventually.

There’s something almost paradoxical about the practice, which reminds me a little of psychotherapy too. There’s a lot of examination/observation of thoughts (whether on the cushion or the psychotherapy couch). In a sense, these practices spend a lot of time at this practice (so evidently deeming this effort to be important). Simultaneously, the actual contents of what’s uncovered are deemed not to be important and deemphasized. I agree that anatta is being used as a concept to try to justify this. If one’s thoughts are deemed to be unimportant (and a sense of distance from them cultivated), then this may have the benefit of making one’s own thoughts seem less fearful, which might be in some ways a good thing (at least for a while).

However, one possible downside is that one is also denigrating the power/importance of one’s own mind. And this may not foster an attitude where one respects one’s mind. And in the Buddhist context, what one does with one’s mind is important, e.g. the first verse of the Dhammapada comes to mind:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

So a danger is that mental cause-and-effect is ignored (this form of mindfulness is used as a temporary salve for anything troubling). Perhaps in some fundamental sense, anatta is true, but usually in the immediate circumstances earlier in the path, mind still has to be worked with, and Buddha’s path seems quite evaluative to me.

There’s preparing the ground (cultivating virtue and morality, getting a proper livelihood, sense restraint and right view: where one gets a good overall perspective/overview what one is doing and the goals). Right effort is then like cultivating the garden (cutting back the weeds, enacting measures to ensure they don’t return, looking after existing plants, and planting new ones) of the mind. That feeds into right mindfulness too, though the focus there seems more on mental attributes more directly connected with meditation: discouraging obstacles (five hindrances) and cultivating helps (seven enlightenment factors). Mindfulness does seem evaluative (carnal v spiritual feelings, superior v inferior mind states, skillful v unskillful dhammas). Then are other practices like reflections on the Buddha, virtues, generosity etc. The overall practice does seem to aim at cultivating skillful mind patterns over unskillful. Perhaps in that there’s some more similarity to CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) which seeks to develop healthier mental habits (rather than just passive observation).

To me, penetrating insight into anatta seems something which probably comes rather further along the path. The setup in the EBTs seems more to follow the pattern of mindfulness setting up the environment where deep samadhi (jhanas) may developed, which in turn give the mind the power to see into things like anatta (steps 9 and 10, right knowledge and liberation, in the ten-fold path).

Using anatta as a conceptual justification for a kind of practice of mental distancing from one’s own thoughts seems a bit premature. One aspect of Early Buddhist mindfulness does seem to have been non-judgmental observation, but that was only one aspect of a more comprehensive framework.


Currently am reading Purser’s recent book McMindfulness. I agree with his analysis of modern secular mindfulness.


Yeah, it’s a great defense of the relevance and importance of the monastic form in the modern world! But maybe I’m biased :joy:


Maybe :grin:. This is an interesting perspective as well. This fella takes a bit more of an aggressive stance while criticizing Purser for not going far enough.


This comment after The Faithful Buddhist’s blog post states what I thought the mindfulness movement was going for:

"There’s something of a paradox here, regarding the notion of “non-judgementalism,” is there not? It does seem to be the case, as you suggest, that mindfulness practices promote the illusion of non-judgmentalism (in other words, the illusion of its possibility as something humans can attain, or should even want to attain).

At the same time, as even mindfulness propagandists often point out, when one first begins meditating the first thing one notices—and continues to notice for a long time—is just how much we do judge. The goal then, in mindfulness, is to try to get rid of this judgment. This is of course impossible. But that initial noticing of the pervasiveness of judgment, in my view, is actually a great thing. In fact, I would argue that it is one of the most important skills we can cultivate: the ability to notice just how judgemental our awareness is, in the sense that we are always judging our perception through our intentions about how we wish to act in the world. In other words, the ability to notice that we are constantly in ideology."



Yeah, well, as always, he criticizes Purser for not offering a clear alternative… without offering an alternative. :roll_eyes:

He’s right that passivity is a convenient outcome for those in power, but I find his rebellious nihilism juvenile in a different way.

Of course the work of doctors and teachers (often) contributes to our capitalistic, colonial, etc society. That doesn’t mean we don’t need doctors! “Screw you mom! I’m running away!” Okay… Where to?

More problematic, though, is when he disparages the idea that reality itself can encode ethics. When you get down to the bare-bones of reality, he seems to believe there can be no moral action without (the “corect”, ie: “my”) ideological commitment.

Now this is understandable. Moral anti-realism is a very common belief in post-modern society in general and in The Left in particular. But it’s an extremely damaging idea! Look at history. Most leftist movements implode as soon as they gain power because of this exact kind of ideological in-fighting.

So, they spin around in ideological circles, writing and thinking more and more critical, nihilistic skreeds. And, ironically, in rejecting out of hand the suggestion that there might be (ethical) truth beyond conceptualization, they reinforce the very philosophical basis of the modernity they so wish to reform.


I suppose there is a gap between modern and some earlier understandings of mindfulness .The idea of mindfulness being a kind of non-judgmental present-focused choiceless bare awareness does seem quite widespread. In terms of it being non-judgmental, my own impression from the EBTs is that perhaps the word non-reactive might be more apt in connection the notion in earlier texts (non-reactive but still evaluative, given that one feature of sati seems to be to distinguish between wholesome and non-wholesome states). And the idea of it being purely present-focused does seem less straightforward to me in these early texts, especially given sati’s connotations with memory or holding something in mind. I’m not sure I fully understand this memory nuance; perhaps it refers to retaining the relevant dhamma framework (basis for evaluation) in mind when practicing or maybe also using this retention “mind muscle” during practice, focusing on the object so as to still clearly remember and retain the experience after meditating.


It is an interesting perspective. I do agree @Khemarato.bhikkhu he goes a bit “loud” with it. Somebody always has to take the hard line as we all know.

I think that is a good viewpoint. I do like exploring the idea of it being not possible to be non-judgmental.

I think you can package up hope and sell it many ways. McMindfulness is great for the masses, and has been dumbed-down and reformatted to be marketed exactly that way. It is an easy thing, because it requires no evaluation of oneself, or one’s actions. In the world of modern mindfulness a sniper or a drone pilot who drops bombs on children can be mindful. It also reinforces the “stressism” of the West, where your problems are your own, and only you can solve them through bettering yourself; which in itself is a marketing strategy as well. If anybody wants to explore this more, check out Dana Becker’s book: One

I use Thanissaro’s book as my guide when it comes to mindfulness—Right Mindfulness. I reference it very often in my studies. This is probably my favorite canonical representation of mindfulness, and a very popular one. Goes into the importance of memory.

*“Just as a royal frontier fortress has a gatekeeper—wise, experienced, intelligent—to keep out those he doesn’t know and to let in those he does, for the protection of those within, and to ward off those without; in the same way, a disciple of the noble ones is mindful, endowed with excellent proficiency in mindfulness, remembering & recollecting what was done and said a long time ago. With mindfulness as his gatekeeper, the disciple of the noble ones abandons what is unskillful, develops what is skillful, abandons what is blameworthy, develops what is blameless, and looks after himself with purity.” — Nagara Sutta (AN 7.63)


The author of this article appears to be confusing Anatta with nihilism:

Mindfulness, grounded in anattā , can offer only the platitude: ‘I am not my feelings.’ Its conceptual toolbox doesn’t allow for more confronting statements, such as ‘I am feeling insecure,’ ‘These are my anxious feelings,’ or even ‘I might be a neurotic person.’ Without some ownership of one’s feelings and thoughts, it is difficult to take responsibility for them.

I am, however, sympathetic towards the author’s criticism of contemporary “mindfulness” practice, which seems to be rather different from what’s presented in the EBTs (something which has been discussed quite extensively on this forum).


To be totally without judgement would be being totally a-ethical: which is not a good thing.

To be constantly judging and unaware that one is, is quite debilitating, both morally and emotionally. Letting go of the more trivial judgements can bring quick relief.

With developing awareness a serious meditator begins to see what it is that conditions their judgements and this - when it is based in ethics - becomes the condition for further growth.

As ever sila is basic and needs to be the first step. But it wouldn’t be a great selling card in modern western society I’m afraid.

Starting traditional Buddhist meditation or doing secular mindfulness both reveal “just how much we do judge”. This can only be a good thing; but where the meditator goes next is more important.


This is quite well-said.

One thing I noticed recently in my practice is that being judgmental creates a positive feedback loop — that is, I judge someone/something (oftentimes myself), then I judge myself for judging! etc. etc. Forcing myself to be “non-judgmental” actually creates a form of judgmental-ness in its own right. The true “non-judgmental” attitude is to respect the role of the “inner judge” (without which we’d loose any self-restraint or moral compass) while also reflecting on its limitations (lest we become full of aversion and ill-will). It’s a form of “middle way” of sorts, avoiding extremes.


Eventually the practitioner develops an alternative ideology based on the investigation of the second and third noble truths, that is comparing the results of acts based on grasping, with the results of those based on pleasure not of the flesh. Note that until final release, there is always ideology and always reliance on some form of pleasure. Ideology involves increasing awareness of the momentum of samsara in everyday contacts, and there is the development of pleasure through tranquility.

"Applied at a mundane level, contemplation of the four noble truths can be directed to patterns of clinging (upãdãna) to existence occurring in everyday life, as, for example, when one’s expectations are frustrated, when one’s position is threatened, or when things do not go as one would want. The task here is to acknowledge the underlying pattern of craving (taœhã) that has led to the build-up of clinging and expectations, and also its resultant manifestation in some form of dukkha. This understanding in turn forms the necessary basis for letting go of craving (taœhãya paìinissagga). With such letting go, clinging and dukkha can, at least momentarily, be overcome. Practised in this way, one will become increasingly able to “fare evenly amidst the uneven”.—Analayo

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The Mindful Cranks website contains some interesting interviews by Ron Purser and David Forbes of people in various areas of expertise.

In Episode 12: Are Mindfulness-Based Interventions The Essence Of The Buddhadharma? Deborah Rozelle (a Psychologist and Buddhist practitioner) and David Lewis discuss their work on comparing MBIs with Buddhadharma. There are several references on the web page. [It is long. For those in a hurry, their short answer to the title question is “no”, but the discussion is very interesting, and goes to the heart of many issues surrounding secular mindfulness.]

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