Meditation and Mindfulness

There is an apparent difference in the views of two well-known Eastern sages, Japanese thirteenth-century Zen Buddhist sage Eihei Dōgen, founder of the Sōtō school of Zen, and twentieth century Indian spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti. The divergence comes from two notions, complementary and intimately connected: mindfulness meditation, as an exercise, and mindfulness, as a desirable permanent mental state.

Zazen, the sitting practice of Zen Buddhism that aims at calming body and mind and at understanding the nature of existence, is an approach similar in many aspects to mindfulness meditation (‘meditation’, for short, in the rest of this note). Dōgen says that zazen is the ultimate system, and students do not need to do anything else than sitting to practice. He says, “This is indeed the essential self; the nature of existence is not to be sought outside of zazen,” a statement that clearly excludes any other mental training approaches. For Dōgen, zazen is everything.

Krishnamurti is the other side of the coin. The Indian philosopher criticizes the use of concentration techniques, in general, and the exercises that focus attention on mental devices such as mantras, prayers or images, in particular. He says that, when students learn a mind quieting technique, the mental trick (mantras, prayers, pictures, etc.) substitutes the real goal of the student’s search (truth, peace, existential meaning…) and he or she end up affiliated to the teaching school that sponsors it.

Krishnamurti says, “The beginning of mindfulness (he used other words such as ‘awareness’ or ‘alertness’; ‘mindfulness’ was not yet in vogue) is being aware of every movement of thought and feeling, knowing all the layers of consciousness.” For him, permanent vigilance is everything: “Mindfulness is a state of mind, which looks at everything with complete attention, totally, not just parts of it. When you learn about yourself, watch yourself, watch the way you walk, how you eat, what you say, the gossip, the hate, the jealous–if you are aware of all that in yourself, that is mindfulness.”

Stressing determination, Dōgen seems to be saying, that you practice zazen persistently and will stay mindful effortlessly. Emphasizing awareness, Krishnamurti is implying that you should be permanently mindful, attentive of your body, your sensations and your mental states; techniques are useless when not damaging. There is no contradiction in the two views: Meditation and mindfulness go together. They neither exclude each other nor go in different directions.

There is a wonderful quote by English educator L. P. Jacks, a rephrasing of which comes handy to dissolve the possible ‘disagreement’: “The masters in the art of living draw no sharp distinction between their mindfulness and their meditation. They hardly know which is which. They simply pursue the path toward the end of suffering through whatever they are doing and leave others to determine whether they are exercising mindfulness or practicing ‘open-eyes, active’ meditation. To themselves they always seem to be doing both.” (The English writer original quote talked about ‘work’ and ‘play’, instead of mindfulness or meditation, and to pursuing ‘the vision of excellence’, rather than ‘the end of suffering’.)

Two things need to be emphasized. First, such wonderful masters are exceptional beings and, as such, extreme atypical. Great sages are either born wise, or naturally skilled to free their minds through persistence to allow wisdom taking over their behavior.

Second, we, the rest of mortals, need to consider meditation and mindfulness as two different, harmonizing habits: While meditation strengthens our awareness faculty, mindfulness facilitates and make smooth the practice of meditation. As the owners of anxious, distressed and noisy heads, we must open our lives to mindfulness through the determination that the practice of meditation demands.

Privileged sages do not need to practice meditation or apply mindfulness on purpose; life seems to flow for them. They are born either mindful, or determined enough to become permanent mindful by whatever technique they prefer. Most likely, the exceptional individuals, such as Dōgen and Krishnamurti, possess both attentiveness and self-control… in their genes.​

Atlanta, September 6. 2016

Comment received:

Antoon Van den Braembussche ·

Works at Vrije Universiteit Brussel

There are important convergent themes in both Eastern sages, such as choiceless awareness, no self, the experience of the now, non-duality, to name but a few. Still to be explored?


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