Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction: Buddhism in Disguise?

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a group program created by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn with the purpose of assisting patients with pain and a range of conditions and life issues that are difficult to treat in the traditional hospital setting.  The program uses a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga to guide patents in becoming more mindful, and thus, healthier. More specifically, the program focuses upon the progressive acquisition of mindfulness, a concept that is deeply originated in Buddhist philosophy (Kabat-Zinn, 2011). An analysis of the program claims that although the construct of mindful awareness originated in the earliest Buddhist documents, the program is neither religious nor esoteric in nature.

However, Dr. Kabat-Zinn does not shy away from explicitly stating MBSR’s Buddhist origins. He makes it clear that his intention in creating the program was to capture and embody the essence of the Buddha’s teachings, put the dharma into action, and make it accessible to mainstream Americans facing stress, pain and illness. Dr. Kabat-Zinn states, “it was important to me to capture the essence and spirit of the MBSR dharma curriculum as it unfolds to our patients, but at the same time, I wanted it to articulate that the dharma underlies the curriculum, without ever using the word “Dharma” or invoking Buddhist thought or authority” (Kabat-Zinn, 2011). While MBSR has roots in Buddhist teachings, the program itself is secular.

Does Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness program favor, or pick and choose, just a few highly selected meditation techniques, and thus decontextualize elements of the coherent whole that is Buddhism (Kabat-Zinn, 2011)? Is this the Dharma touching and transforming western society, or in this case, western medicine? Or is Buddhism being turned into a self-help technique?

Dr. Kabat-Zinn states that the intention and approach behind MBSR were never meant to exploit, fragment, or decontextualize the dharma, but rather to recontextualize it within the frameworks of western science, medicine, and health care (Kabat-Zinn, 2011). Further, it would be maximally useful to people who could not hear it or enter into it through the more traditional dharma gates, whether they were doctors or medical patients, hospital administrators, or insurance companies. Because Dr. Kabat-Zinn had previously studied and practiced Buddhism for years, he clearly had a deep sense of respect for the philosophy and teachings; this respect is reflected in his creation of the MBSR program, as he took years and years of studying to ensure the deep cultural roots of Buddhism were not lost in his program, rather they were redefined in western terms, as necessary when bringing the Dharma or any foreing cultural concepts and practices into mainstream settings.

Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s creation and implementation of MBSR can be seen as an extension of parampara in Buddhist thought. (Parampara is Sanskrit for the transmission of cultural or religious traditions and how they evolve over time.) As Dr. Kabat-Zinn took his traditional Buddhist practice and adapted it for a greater cause in a new, western setting, this can be considered as one branch of the evolution of Buddhist practice. By taking the traditional aspect of meditation and mindfulness from Buddhism and incorporating them into western healing techniques, Dr. Kabat-Zinn has effectively grown Buddhist practice beyond its original boundaries in a positive, respectful way.


Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps. Contemporary Buddhism,12(1), 281-306. http://umassmed.edu/uploadedFiles/cfm2/training/JKZ_paper_Contemporary_Buddhism_2011.pdf

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2 Responses to Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction: Buddhism in Disguise?

  1. mmw92 says:

    I like the way you connected pampara with the instigation of western mindfulness. It seems to me that the only way to grossly misuse Buddhism for the purposes of the West would be to use it for something that does not advocate for its fundamental teachings, such as universal compassion. But the movement that you describe allows people access to the dharma in a way they wouldn’t have before; in this way it seems like it is very much abiding by these principles.

  2. MG says:

    I appreciated the fact that Kabat-Zinn had previously studied and practiced Buddhism for many years before creating Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, because the implication of Buddhism into the technique wasn’t based on a purely academic standpoint as to what role Buddhism could serve in the group program. I also believe that anything, be it philosophy or religion, adapted into a new culture or time period must be done in a way that takes the preexisting norms into consideration. That being said, I wonder how the group program would fare in other parts of the world, specifically areas in which there is a high concentration of practicing Buddhists.

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