Mindfulness and Shin Buddhism

by Rev. Marvin Harada.

Time magazine recently featured on the cover and as the main article of that issue, “The Mindful Revolution”, -- the science of finding focus in a stressed-out, multitasking culture.” I was so amazed to see that mindfulness has become so popular in our culture that it made the cover of Time magazine. Mindfulness comes from Buddhism, and in the article it cites that Buddhism and Eastern philosophy is the origin of mindfulness, but the article discussed mainly how mindfulness has become popular in this country and actually throughout the world, through efforts of scientist, Jon Kabat Zinn, who brought to the forefront, the practical implications of mindfulness......how it can reduce stress, help a person focus on tasks at hand, etc.  Mindfulness has become integrated into our contemporary culture, and this is a very positive step. Buddhist principles are making inroads into this culture and society, without people knowing that it is actually “Buddhism” that they are practicing and learning. Many major universities, like UCLA, have their own “Mindfulness Centers”, where the study and practice of mindfulness is being taught.

I used to think that it might take a couple of centuries for Buddhism to really make its way into this country and culture, but I believe that I am seeing even in my lifetime, the impact that Buddhism is beginning to have on our culture. Of course it will take many years for people to come to appreciate that mindfulness is actually Buddhism, this first step of it becoming more mainstream is very significant.

The question remains for those of us who follow the Shin Buddhist tradition, is to what extent is mindfulness also Shin Buddhism? While mindfulness is being introduced through Buddhist groups that are primarily Theravadan in nature, I think that mindfulness has a primary role in Shin Buddhism as well.

To begin with, Right Mindfulness, which is one of the Noble Eightfold Path, written in Chinese characters, is Shonen (正念). Nen , is the same nen of “Nenbutsu”, or “Nembutsu.” It means “to think on, to contemplate on.” When we see how mindfulness is written in the Chinese characters, we can see how mindfulness is at the core of Nembutsu. Nembutsu means to keep the Buddha in mind. To keep the Buddha in mind means to keep the teachings close to your heart, to receive the heart of the Buddha into our own hearts and minds.

I feel that Shin Buddhism should be showing our modern culture and society, how mindfulness is at the core of the Shin Buddhist teachings.

Buddhism on a practical level, and Buddhism on a truth level.

It is evident that Buddhism is entering our culture as a practical method of helping people relieve their stress, to find a sense of peace and tranquility, and to find a more meaningful life. These by products of a life of Buddhism are important. No one would even pursue Buddhism if it didn’t have any practical benefits to one’s life. We all begin our pursuit and study of Buddhism from this practical level of the teachings.

However, we must also keep in mind that the object of Buddhism is to help us arrive to a deeper level of the teachings, that is the level of truth. Shinran Shonin encountered Buddhism at this very deepest level. In one of his writings, the Tannisho, he writes that the Nembutsu is the only thing that is true and real in his life. Everything else is temporary and fleeting. Everything is of the secular world, but the Nembutsu is something that belongs to the world of truth, something that goes beyond anything in the secular world.

The great Zen Master Dogen also encountered Buddhism at this level of truth. He would be the first to negate zazen meditation as a means of reducing stress, or to lower one’s blood pressure. For Dogen, sitting in zazen is to manifest one’s innate Buddha nature. Meditation was not a means to an end. It was not a practice to attain enlightenment. For Dogen, practice and the goal are one and the same. That is the deep level of truth in which Dogen experienced Buddhism.

The Shin Buddhist Myokonin, like Asahara Saichi, also reflect encountering the Nembutsu at this level of truth. Saichi, in his poems, writes, When I die, I will become the immortal namuamidabutsu. For Saichi, the Nembutsu is not just something that we recite. It is a deep and profound truth that goes beyond this world of life and death.

Rennyo Shonin also relates what could be taken as Nembutsu “Mindfulness.” Rennyo Shonin writes, Whether one is asleep or awake, we should recite the Nembutsu. This means that the Nembutsu is the totality of our life. It is with us in waking moments. It is with us in our sleep. It belongs to the world of truth, not the world of practicality.

It is my feeling that in time, our culture will come to appreciate Shin Buddhism on a level of truth, although Buddhism as a whole is coming into this culture on the level of practicality. From practicality, we move towards the level of truth. Even without trying, if we continue to listen and learn Buddhism at the practical level, we will come to arrive at Buddhism at the level of truth.


Rev. Marvin Harada