The Meaning of Lineage in Buddhist Practice

The Meaning of Lineage in Buddhist Practice

Lineage 2

As Buddhist monks, we regularly visit and work with Buddhist communities and practitioners in both Western and Eastern countries. Given the relatively recent introduction of Buddhism to the West, and given the diversity and breadth of the Buddhist teachings, there are understandably differences in how Western and Eastern Buddhists conceive, practice, and relate to the Buddhist teachings. One such difference that we have come across personally and that has also been observed by a number of our monastic colleagues, is the tendency for Western Buddhists to start almost every first encounter with another Buddhist by asking the question What lineage do you belong to? Presumably, one reason why this trend has come about is because many Western Buddhists place a great deal of importance on the issue of lineage. In this post, we discuss what is meant by the term lineage, why it is important to Buddhists, and whether contemporary attitudes towards lineage are actually in accord with the traditional Buddhist teachings.

What exactly is lineage?

The most well-known depictions of lineage in Buddhism refer to it as an unbroken chain of transmission that can be traced from a Buddhist teacher all the way back to the historical Buddha or to another ‘enlightened being’. Lineage is basically concerned with authenticity and preserving the spiritual potency of the Buddhist teachings. It is a means of ensuring the continuity of the true ‘Buddhadharma’. A common view held by Buddhists is that when looking for a suitable teacher, one should ensure that they are of an established Buddhist lineage. The idea is that by working with or receiving teachings from a reputable ‘lineage holder’, a practitioner can reassure themselves that they are in good hands and are getting the ‘real deal’.

According to prominent Buddhist teachers Nyoshul Khenpo and Lama Surya Das,1 a person only becomes a ‘lineage holder’ when, following sustained practise, they gradually realise the inner meaning of the transmitted teachings and infuse them with all aspects of their being. Thus, being a holder of a particular lineage doesn’t just mean that a person has received teachings or spent time with an accomplished Buddhist teacher, it means that their understanding has effectively ‘merged’ with that of the entire family of lineage forefathers within a given Buddhist tradition. In essence, authentic living lineages are those where the lineage holder has either realised their enlightened nature, or is well on the way to doing so.

Is lineage a good thing?

Asking whether or not lineage is a good thing probably seems like a strange thing to do – especially because in the above paragraph we have already argued that lineage theoretically ensures that a person has the necessary ‘credentials’ to be a Buddhist teacher. Unfortunately however, things aren’t always this simple. In modern times, it is not uncommon for lineage to be used as a kind of marketing tool in order to attract a large following of people and/or financial support. Having been trained in the Buddhist teachings by an already ‘established’ lineage holder, there are seemingly an increasing number of instances of Buddhist teachers having all of the necessary education in scholarly and ceremonial matters, but without the more subtle spiritual presence that is the mark of a genuine realised being. A more colloquial phrase that might be used to refer to a Buddhist teacher meeting this description is ‘all the gear, but no idea’. This creates an unfortunate situation where all that is passed on from teacher to student is a dry semblance of the original teachings. In such cases and as time goes by, the lineage becomes increasingly corrupted and the advocates and heads of such lineages become more and more caught up in their own importance. The Buddha’s close disciple, Ananda, talked about this in the Sandaka Sutra:

Again, Sandaka, here some teacher is a traditionalist, one who regards oral tradition as truth, he teaches a Dharma by oral tradition, by legends handed down, by the authority of the collections. But when a teacher is a traditionalist, one who regards oral tradition as truth, some is well transmitted and some badly transmitted, some is true and some is otherwise [p.624]”.2

Please don’t misunderstand what we are saying here. We are not saying that lineage is not important. Rather, what we are saying is that we need to take a step back and look at the underlying purpose of lineage. As already mentioned above, the whole idea of lineage is to ensure that the teachings and teacher are authentic and that they remain an effective means of bringing about spiritual growth in suitably-disposed individuals. The most crucial point is that lineage is a means of guiding people to enlightenment, but it is not enlightenment itself. From this point of view, we can say that lineage is a tool – a means to an end. It is a finger that points to the moon, but it is not the moon itself.

Thus, when considering whether to receive spiritual instruction from a given spiritual guide, rather than bog ourselves down with finding out which teachers they have practiced with, what their lineage is, and who ‘endorses’ them, all we actually need to do is identify whether or not they have genuine spiritual presence. If a teacher has genuine spiritual presence, then this means that they are a Dharma lineage holder. Being a Dharma lineage holder means that a person has realised and dwells within the truth of emptiness. They are 100% authorized to transmit the Buddhist teachings. In fact, in terms of considering whether or not a teacher is authentic, this is the only credential that counts.

If a teacher has authentic spiritual realization we don’t particularly need to concern ourselves with how they got it. This information is not going to be of much use to us on our journey to enlightenment. Imagine you were the manager of a premier league football team and in a playing field of some forgotten town, one of your scouts accidentally happened upon a truly gifted player. Having tried the player out in a number of premier division matches, imagine that this player operates on a completely different plane than all of the other team members. Imagine that he or she literally makes the ball dance, they score goals that seem to be impossible and perform ball tricks that have never been seen before. Is it useful to spend your time working out whether they have been trained by ‘accredited’ teachers or are you just going to count your blessings and let them win you matches?

In the Canki Sutra,2 the Buddha gives specific advice on how to determine whether a teacher is authentic (p. 781).He advises that the only factors that matter are that the teacher’s actions and behaviour are not influenced by greed, hatred, or delusion. The Buddha wasn’t interested in who a person’s teacher was, he was only interested in whether that person had tamed their mind. In fact, when the Buddha was asked about his own Dharma credentials, he gently touched the earth with the palm of his right hand. The Buddha did not descend from an established Buddhist lineage in the conventional sense and so by this action he was saying that the earth was his witness. The Buddha didn’t have time for endorsements or lineages, his own enlightened mind provided him with all of the credentials he needed.

Types of lineage

It seems that many modern-day Buddhists believe that to receive a lineage teaching it must be orally transmitted from teacher to student. Oral transmission is certainly one method of Buddhist lineage transference but it is definitely not the only one. Indeed, according to the 12th century Tibetan Buddhist teacher Gampopa, if the ‘right student’ at the ‘right time’ reads the ‘right text’ that was written by the ‘right teacher’, then this is the same as meeting the author of the text in person:

In the future, those who think, ‘Alas, I haven’t met him’ [Gampopa] should simply study and practice the texts that I composed ….. There is no particle of difference; it is the same as meeting me. Those who are having a hard time understanding and practising the Dharma, think of me and supplicate with devotion. The blessings will arise naturally [p. 331]”.3

This also seems to be the view of the 19th century Tibetan Buddhist master Patrul Rinpoche:

In this world, such an eminent text [the Dharmadhatu Treasury by Longchenpa], is liberation through seeing, as well as hearing and recollecting. Whoever connects with it is a future Buddha. If you realise it, you are a Buddha of the present. As the power of the blessings lineage is unbroken, you will receive the wisdom of the true lineage through his trusted intention. Sealed with the entrustment to future disciples, it is equal to meeting the Omniscient master in person [p.63].4

A means of transmitting Buddhist teachings and lineage that is generally believed to be much more effective that oral and written teachings is that of direct mind-to-mind transmission. Transmissions of this nature are mostly (but not exclusively) associated with Vajrayana Buddhism and are not as common as the above mentioned oral and written transmission formats. Mind-to-mind transmission requires a highly realised teacher and a student that is spiritually and karmically ‘ripe’. It is important to know that mind-to-mind transmissions are not imparted as a replacement for oral or written transmission, but are used in conjunction with these methods in order to produce a more expedient path to enlightenment.

Interestingly, mind-to-mind transmissions don’t actually require the teacher to be physically present. For example, the prominent 8th Century Tibetan Buddhist teacher Jigme Lingpa is recorded as having received extensive ‘volumes’ of teachings during visionary encounters with Manjushrimitra, Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava), Vimalamitra, and Longchenpa.1 Another example is the 10th century Tibetan saint Tilopa who received an entire lineage (the Dakini hearing lineage) during visionary encounters with Vajradakini (an enlightened sky-going being not occupying a human form).5 Another example is the Tibetan Buddhist master Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo who received extensive transmissions during visionary encounters with Zurchungpa.6 A further recorded example is Garab Dorje who, whilst still a child, received extensive essence transmissions directly from Buddha Vajrasattva.4 In Vajrayana Buddhism, teachings and lineages can also be transmitted by what are known as ‘terma’ transmissions. Terma transmissions refer to spiritual practitioners finding – sometimes in their own minds – teachings that were hidden by previous enlightened Buddhist masters. Some reasonably well-known examples of such individuals or ‘treasure revealers’ are the Buddhist teachers Jatson Nyingpo, Rigdzin Godem, and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo.7

This is what the contemporary Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche said about terma transmissions and about lineage more generally:

As teachings are passed down from one generation to the next, it is possible that some contamination, or damage of samaya may creep in. To counter act this, Padmasambhava in his immeasurably skilful wisdom and compassion gave us fresh hidden treasures [i.e., termas]…. The distance from the Buddha to the practitioner is very short when a revelation is fresh and direct; there is no damage in the line of transmission. The purity or lack thereof lies not in the teaching itself, but in how distant the line of transmission is [p. 30].”7

A perhaps less fascinating but equally profound means of spiritual transmission is from the ‘teacher within’. In the Kukkuravatika Sutra,2 the Buddha said “Beings are the heirs of their actions [p.495]”. This means that we inherit the lineage of our own thoughts, words, and actions. From this point of view, we are actually the founder and heir of our own lineage. Every single experience and choice we make is a potential spiritual teaching.8 We only need to be awake to this truth and life itself becomes our most important teacher. When we start to experience life as one big teaching, then everything we encounter becomes an embodiment of the Buddha. We can start to meet the Buddha in every single breath and see his face in all that unfolds.9 In fact, all of the abovementioned types of lineage are there to guide us towards the understanding that the most effective teacher – our enlightened essence – is already inside of us:

If you meet a teacher who represents the lineage and tradition of Dzogchen, this is also a partial idea; it is good fortune, but it is still a limited notion … Authentic sacred vision, the pure perception often mentioned in the tantric path, implies that we can and should see everything as perfectly pure and inherently good; that is, beyond good and bad, perfectly complete just as it is [p.115].”1

Lineage: Some further considerations

As we have referred to above, it is important to know that an individual doesn’t have to limit themselves to just one lineage. Indeed, there are instances of Buddhist teachers holding dozens of lineages and/or having over a 100 different teachers. This is perhaps similar to our personal lineage history that comprises receipt of oral teachings from multiple sources including Buddhist lineages in Thai, Japanese, Sri Lankan, Tibetan, and Vietnamese traditions, as well as non-Buddhist lineages from certain Christian monastic traditions. Of course, as just two simple monks, we cannot claim to have experienced spiritual transmission via modes that we would consider to be mystical or out of this world. However, based on many years of unfaltering practice in what have not always been ‘cosy’ conditions, and perhaps through good fortune rather than any skill on our part, it’s probably fair to say that a small number of authentic spiritual experiences have arisen.

From our point of view, given that we have received a large number of teachings via multiple transmission modes (and from multiple spiritual lineages), it’s actually quite difficult to provide a one-word answer to the question ‘What lineage do you belong to’? Furthermore, it’s not really something that we give much thought to or place much emphasis on. Perhaps the best answer to this question is to say that we belong to the lineage of the true Buddhadharma. We are happy to share our linage with anybody who is interested. Maybe this is what Buddhist teachers’ Nyoshul Khenpo and Surya Das are referring to when they say that “the Dharma does not belong to anyone, since whoever practices sincerely and with zeal attains realization and becomes heir to Shakyamuni’s [i.e., the Buddha’s] kingdom”.1 Furthermore and as a final thought, if all authentic spiritual lineages (Buddhist or otherwise) ultimately stem from the same source – the realm of unconditioned truth – then it seems logical to assert that there is actually only one linage to which we all belong.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon


  1. Nyoshul, K., & Surya Das (1995). Natural great perfection: Dzogchen Teachings and Vajra Songs. New York: Snow Lion Publications
  2. Bodhi, B. (Ed.). (2009). Majjhima Nikaya: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (4th ed.). (Bhikkhu Bodhi, & Bhikkhu Nanamoli, Trans.) Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications.
  3. Gampopa. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings.(A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications
  4. Kunsang, E. P., & Schmidt, M. B. (Eds). (2006). Quintessential Dzogchen. Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications.
  5. Trungpa, C. (1982). The Life of Marpa the Translator. Boston: Shambala
  6. Khyentse, D. (2006). Zurchungpa’s Testament. New York: Snow Lion Publications
  7. Urgyen, T. (1995). Rainbow Painting. Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications.
  8. Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). The consuming mind. Mindfulness, DOI 10.1007/s12671-013-0265-z.
  9. Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, DOI 10.1007/s12671-013-0248-0.

Life: A Near Death Experience

Life: A Near Death Experience

bubble 3

“Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past is history. The future yet to come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells unshaken and free in heart. We must be diligent today, as death may strike tomorrow, for there is no bargaining with the lord of death” – The Buddha, 500 BCE (sutra 131, Majjhima Nikaya)

In the 1960s and 1970s, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and psychologist and medic Raymond Moody played a pivotal role in bringing the phenomenon of near death experience (NDE) to the attention of both the general public and the wider scientific community. The scientific study of NDEs – especially prior to the 1990s – met with a certain amount of scepticism amongst psychologists and medical professionals. However, in recent years, the psychological and medical community have become more open to the possibility that the NDE is a bone fide phenomenon that falls within the range of possible human experience. The NDE is typically associated with a particular set or pattern of experiences that may occur when a person is close to dying (e.g., due to illness), when they believe they are close to dying (i.e., life-threatening situations), or when they find themselves in the period between clinical death and resuscitation.1-3 NDEs often involve one or a combination of the following features: an out of body experience, the experience of moving through a tunnel, communicating with a being of light, observing a celestial landscape, meeting with deceased persons, and/or a life review.1-3 Rather than the traditional approach of viewing NDEs as a phenomenon explicitly associated with death or the imminent threat thereof, here we adopt a slightly different slant and consider whether there is scope to consider human existence and life-more-generally as a near death experience.

According to the US Central Intelligence Agency4, the world mortality rate for 2013 is 7.9 deaths per 1000 people per year (i.e., 0.79%). Based on these figures, an average of 107 people die each minute. This means that if you are somebody that normally goes to bed at 11pm and sleeps for eight hours, by the time you wake up at 7am the next morning over 50,000 people have died. Death is a very common occurrence. There exist no scientifically-verifiable instances of any sentient being – human or otherwise – being able to defeat death. The most common cause of death is illness (especially illness in old age). Other reasonably common causes of death include accident, suicide, and homicide. Less common causes of death are occurrences such as spontaneous human combustion and death by lightning strike (although these could arguably be classed as accidental).

The human body is a beautiful and wondrous entity – but invincibility is not one of its strengths. A small pin prick, contact with a hot pan, a finger trapped in a door – these are just a few examples of how the smallest mishap can cause tremendous discomfort and pain. In fact, there only has to be the slightest imbalance in the external environment and the human body starts to rapidly shut-down. Environmental conditions such as being too hot, being too cold, a shortage of water, or a lack of food can all quickly lead to death. Even such minor things as eating a mouthful of spoiled food, catching a common flu bug, or slipping on ice can lead to death. In fact, at any one time, the only thing that separates us from death is a single breath in or out. It seems that the human being operates a ‘just in time’ survival system which means that the slightest delay in taking in air, water, or food can be fatal. From the moment we are born, every single second that passes by brings us closer to our death. Even being young provides no assurance of life as death can occur at any age. Indeed, some people die while still in the womb, some in infancy, and some in adolescence. Some people die in the prime of adulthood and some in old age. Life is like the sand moving through an hour-glass – some people start with more sand than others but it runs out just the same.

To help explain this in a slightly different way, the Buddhist teachings use the analogy of a prisoner being led to their execution – every step they take draws them closer to death.5 We are born, we live, and we will die. All phenomena are transient occurrences and are subject to decay and dissolution. Absolutely nothing escapes the cycle of impermanence. The human body is impermanent, friends and family are impermanent, the planet we live on is impermanent, and even the universe will ultimately cease to be. This is what the Buddha said about the fleeting nature of existence: “This existence of ours is as transient as autumn leaves. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.”

In general, there is a tendency for people to be complacent about death and to assume that it is something that will never happen to them. However, such complacency quickly disappears when people find themselves at death’s door. At this time, it is not uncommon for people to experience overpowering feelings of regret, anger, and fear. Indeed, at death, people often manifest a fierce clinging and attachment towards their family, friends, possessions, reputation, and life achievements. However, when the last few grains of sand are about to slip through the hour glass – these things count for absolutely nothing and cannot be carried forward. We have to leave life in exactly the same manner that we entered it – all alone.

You might think that it is inappropriate to discuss the reality of death in as direct and open a manner as we are here. However, in our humble opinion, the sooner a person starts to fully accept that at some uncertain point they will certainly die, the sooner they can begin to prepare themselves for death rather than waiting until it is too late. In a paper that was recently accepted for publication in the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality,6 we discussed how accepting the impermanent nature of life can actually be a very rewarding process. In fact, the academic literature indicates that impermanence awareness can actually buffer against mental illness. It has also been suggested that an increased acceptance and internalisation of impermanence can assist with post-traumatic growth.7,8

The Buddhist teachings explain that a wise person is someone who, in every single breath and every single heartbeat, is deeply aware of the uncertainty of the time of death as well as its inevitability.5 This awareness of impermanence is believed to help a person prioritise what is important in life.6 Findings from our own research indicate that cultivating a deep-rooted understanding of impermanence can bring great joy and can be spiritually enriching.9,10 By allowing the realisation of impermanence to infuse our being, we can gradually learn not to hold onto things too tightly. This means that when the people and things we love are present, we can truly cherish them, but when they dissolve we can let go of them more freely. A useful thing to remember is that every time we do something, we do it for the first and last time. A moment of time never repeats itself. The recognition of this can help to invest the things we do and say with great meaning. We no longer have to sleep-walk through life – we no longer have to be walking corpses. Based on the consensus definition, near death experiences are not particularly common and typically involve what some people might describe as ‘mystical’ experiences. However, given that life is incredibly fragile and using slightly different defining criteria, we believe that every single sentient being is essentially currently partaking in a near death experience. We would like to finish this post with a brief reflection on death entitled ‘A Bubble in the Wind’:

A Bubble in the Wind

“Life is like a bubble carried by the wind. Some bubbles burst sooner, others later. Some burst of their own accord, others by accident. Some are deliberately burst. However, one way or another, all bubbles burst. The difference between the realised spiritual practitioner and the everyday person, is that the practitioner recognises they are not only the bubble, but are also the wind that gently carries it along. That wind has no point of origin and is without destination. It blows freely wherever it likes. How wonderful!”

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon


  1. Ring, K. (1980). Life at death. A scientific investigation of the near death experience. New York: Coward, Mc Cann and Geoghenan.
  2. Lommel, P.V., Wees, R.V., & Meyers, V., et al. (2001). Near death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. Lancet, 358: 2039-45.
  3. Moody, R.A. (1975). Life after Life. New York: Bantam Books.
  4. Central Intelligence Agency. (2013). The World Fact Book. Available from (Accessed, 15th January 2014).
  5. Gampopa. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. (A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.
  6. Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integrations. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, in press.
  7. Kumar, S. M. (2005). Grieving mindfully: A compassionate and spiritual guide to coping with loss. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  8. Wada, K., & Park, J. (2009). Integrating Buddhist psychology into grief counseling. Death Studies, 33, 657-683.
  9. Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths M. D. (2013a). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for improved psychological wellbeing: A qualitative examination of participant experiences. Journal of Religion and Health, DOI: 10.1007/s10943-013-9679-0.
  10. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). The treatment of workaholism with Meditation Awareness Training: A Case Study. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, in press.

Acknowledgment: This post was used as a platform for developing themes, insights, and elucidations to be included in an expanded article written for the Mindfulness in Practice section of the journal Mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation as medication: An identity crisis?

Mindfulness meditation as medication: An identity crisis? 

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Several of the posts on our blog have referred to the marked increase of scientific research into mindfulness meditation that has occurred over the course of the last decade. Applications for mindfulness meditation are being identified in increasingly more walks of life including clinical, educational, forensic, and occupational settings. Based upon a recent comprehensive systematic literature search we conducted utilising the major electronic academic databases, over 600 scientific papers concerning mindfulness were published in 2013. This is more than the entire number of scientific papers concerning mindfulness published between 1970 and 2000. Results from our literature search suggest that mindfulness is one of the fastest growing areas of psychological empirical enquiry.Although mindfulness is fast becoming a buzzword in psychology, the ongoing roll-out of mindfulness into real-world settings is not without its problems. Recently, we were joined by our friend and research colleague Prof Mark Griffiths in writing a paper where we outlined and discussed some of these teething and integration issues. The paper is published in the journal ‘Frontiers in Psychology’ and is entitled ‘Mindfulness-based interventions: Towards mindful clinical integration’. Today’s post duplicates a short section of the article that discusses whether mindfulness, in terms of its use in Western psychological contexts, is currently experiencing an identity crisis. The article is an open access paper (with the copyright belonging to the authors) and the full-reference is as follows:

‘Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Mindfulness-based interventions: Towards effective clinical integration, Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1-4, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00194.’

The full text can be downloaded for free by following the below link and anybody wanting to know more about the paper is welcome to contact us at the following email address:



Note on abbreviations: MBI = Mindfulness-based interventions, MBSR = Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction; MHF = Mental Health Foundation


Mindfulness meditation as medication: An identity crisis?

Recently, Williams and Kabat-Zinn (both leading proponents in the field of MBIs), have referred to mindfulness as “awareness itself”, a form of “innate capacity” that is “virtually transparent to us” (2011, p. 15). The same authors also refer to secular programs such as MBSR as “Dharma-based portals” (“Dharma” is an explicitly Buddhist term used to refer to the teachings of the Buddha, p. 12). However, such spiritually-laden language appears to be incongruent with the general presentation and conceptualization of MBIs in relation to their operationalization within clinical settings. Thus, the identity of MBIs as well as their primary underlying “intention” (i.e., a means of improving psychosomatic well-being or a tool for spiritual development) appears to be slightly confused, and this is potentially confusing for service-users.

“Intention” underlying mindfulness practice happens to be one of the principal factors that differentiates mindfulness as taught in MBIs from its Buddhist construal. Within Buddhism, rather than psychosomatic symptom relief, mindfulness is generally practiced for the primary purpose of long-term spiritual development. In addition to what is known as ‘right intention’ and according to the Buddhist view, mindfulness only becomes fully effective when subject to a process of cross-fertilization with numerous other practices and perspectives (Shonin et al., 2013a). Such perspectives include a profound understanding of concepts pertaining to (1) wisdom (i.e., impermanence, non-self, and suffering—known as the three Dharma “seals”), (2) meditation (including both concentrative and insight techniques), and (3) ethical awareness. These three core elements (i.e., wisdom, meditation, and ethical awareness—known in Buddhism as the “three trainings”) provide a platform for the effective development of mindfulness and are relatively undersold in the delivery of MBIs (Van Gordon et al., 2013).

Williams and Kabat-Zinn assert that rather than a “decontextualization” of mindfulness, MBIs such as MBSR execute more of a secular “recontextualization” of the Buddhist teachings in all of their “essential fullness” (2011, p. 15). However, and for the reasons outlined above, the accuracy of such assertions is highly questionable because even by flexible criteria, MBIs do not (and need not) represent a complete, rounded, and authentic path of Buddhist practice (secularized or otherwise). Consequently, concerns are increasingly being raised that relate to the general identity and credibility of MBIs, and the need for a unified operational approach (e.g., Rosch, 2007; Singh et al., 2008; Howells et al., 2010; McWilliams, 2011; Shonin et al., 2013b; Van Gordon et al., 2013).

Arguably the most important of these concerns are those with ethical implications for service-users. If, unbeknownst to service-users, MBIs are in fact attempting to teach Buddhism in reconstituted form within healthcare settings, then it is imperative to make this absolutely clear. Alternatively, given that MBIs claim a certain ‘grounding’ in Buddhist philosophy, if their primary intention is geared toward improving service-user psychosomatic well-being, then there is still a need for clarity regarding what is actually implied by such a ‘grounding’. In other words, service-users should be made aware that mindfulness as currently operationalized in MBIs is by no means congruent with the traditional Buddhist perspective.

A further concern relates to the credibility and aptitude of MBI facilitators (Shonin et al., 2013c). Whilst referring to the stream of mindfulness teachings formulated by the likes of Kabat-Zinn (i.e., the teachings currently imparted by MBI instructors), Cullen (2011) states that MBIs are “their own new lineage” (p. 186). Lineage is another important concept within Buddhism and essentially refers to the “authenticity” of Buddhist teachers. In addition to receiving direct transmissions from an accomplished meditation teacher, authentic Buddhist masters generally undergo decades of focussed meditation training with the aim of relinquishing attachment to worldly concerns such as wealth, career, or renown (Shonin et al., 2013a). This is in contrast to MBI instructors who may have as little as 1 year’s mindfulness experience following completion of a single 8-week course (Mental Health Foundation, 2010). Therefore, claims that MBIs constitute an authentic lineage in the traditional Buddhist sense are unrealistic.


Interest and supporting evidence for the clinical application of MBIs has increased substantially in the last decade. MBIs appear to represent cost-effective, acceptable, and non-invasive means for treating a broad spectrum of psychological and somatic illnesses. However, future studies should address some of the methodological issues that significantly limit the validity of findings at present. More importantly, service-users are potentially exposed to oversights or misappropriations concerning the general presentation of MBIs. Whilst a certain degree of porosity between the boundary of clinical and spiritual practice does not present a problem in itself, there is a need and duty to make service-users (and the wider scientific community) fully aware of the underlying intentions of MBIs and/or of the extent to which it can realistically be said that MBIs are actually grounded in traditional Buddhist practice.


Cullen, M. (2011). Mindfulness-based interventions: an emerging phenomenon. Mindfulness 2, 186–193.

Howells, K., Tennant, A., Day, A., and Elmer, R. (2010). Mindfulness in forensic mental health: does it have a role? Mindfulness 1, 4–9.

McWilliams, S. A. (2011). Contemplating a contemporary constructivist Buddhist psychology. J. Constr. Psychol. 24, 268–276.

Mental Health Foundation. (2010). Mindfulness Report. London: Mental Health Foundation.

Rosch, E. (2007). More than mindfulness: when you have a tiger by the tail, let it eat you. Psychol. Inq. 18, 258–263.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., and Griffiths, M. D. (2013a). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for improved psychological wellbeing: a qualitative examination of participant experiences. Journal of Religion and Health. doi: 10.1007/s10943-013-9679-0.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., and Griffiths, M. D. (2013b). Buddhist philosophy for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of Behavioural Addictions 2, 63-71.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Slade, K., and Griffiths, M. D. (2013c). Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived interventions in correctional settings: a systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior 18, 365-372.

Singh, N., Lancioni, G., Wahler, R., Winton, A., and Singh, J. (2008). Mindfulness approaches in cognitive behaviour therapy. Behav. Cogn. Psychother. 36, 1–8.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Sumich, A., Sundin, E., and Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for psychological wellbeing in a sub-clinical sample of university students: a controlled pilot study. Mindfulness. doi: 10.1007/s12671-012-0191-5.

Williams, J. M. G., and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Mindfulness: diverse perspectives on its meaning, origins, and multiple applications at the intersection of science and dharma. Contemporary Buddhism 12, 1–18.

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