Buddhism Mindfulness
Erik Braun
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0014


Mindfulness, the common translation of the Pali word sati (cognate of the Sanskrit word smṛti), has taken on a wide range of definitions both inside and outside of Buddhist traditions, from simply “bare attention” to a function of mind that includes memory and learning. Yet, whatever the definition, all of them typically include a quality of present-moment awareness that is understood to bring beneficial effects, whether for psychological well-being in everyday life, for calming and concentrating the mind, or for ultimate liberation from the craving-fueled round of rebirth. And however practical or secular in orientation, most sources derive their understandings of mindfulness, at root, from the earliest Buddhist texts extant in an ancient Indian language, those in the Pali language still used by the Theravada Buddhist traditions of South and Southeast Asia. Certainly, there is much concern about mindfulness in texts in other languages and in other Buddhist traditions, but the genealogy of mainstream understandings of mindfulness clearly emerges from Pali texts that are still read and debated today among a wide variety of audiences—from the Buddhist monk to the neuroscientist. The use of a relatively small body of texts to derive many different meanings for mindfulness calls our attention to the importance of the contexts in which definitions are made. For this reason, along with a survey of key Pali texts, this bibliography examines general studies of mindfulness and meditation in Buddhism, follows with a survey of studies that explore what mindfulness meant to early Buddhism, and then progresses through sections that reveal multiple understandings of mindfulness that look to the past but respond to the present.

General Overviews

The following works examine Buddhist systems of meditation comprehensively and, as part of their analyses, position mindfulness within larger schemes of practice. Mindfulness is understood as a factor of mind present both in calming practice (samatha), leading to concentration and the absorptive states called jhāna, and in insight practice (vipassanā), which leads to a liberative understanding of reality. Bronkhorst 1986 seeks to reveal the meditation system of the earliest Buddhism through a sophisticated and demanding philological analysis, and Gethin 1992 looks at a wide range of Pali texts to clarify the synoptic view of the texts. King 1992 provides an overview of Theravada meditation and its Indian roots. Shaw 2009 surveys many different forms of Buddhism to give a sense of the range of Buddhist practices, thereby giving a sense of mindfulness’s place in forms of Buddhism other than the Theravada tradition.

  • Bronkhorst, Johannes. The Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1986.

    NNNBronkhorst argues that the hallmarks of early Buddhist meditation were mindfulness and inherently pleasurable calming (samatha) practices. This view of meditation conflicts with the orthodox Theravada view that samatha meditation was not distinctively Buddhist, though still considered a valuable part of its scheme of meditation (see King 1992 for the orthodox view).

  • Gethin, R. M. L. The Buddhist Path to Awakening: A Study of the Bodhi-Pakkhiyā Dhammā. New York: E. J. Brill, 1992.

    NNNAnalyzes the set of factors, established in the Pali texts, that provides a comprehensive description of the process of enlightenment, the bodhi-pakkhiyā dhammā. The work thus fits insight practice, which has mindfulness as a critical component, within a framework that considers the totality of practice, including morality and concentration.

  • King, Winston L. Theravada Meditation: The Buddhist Transformation of Yoga. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1992.

    NNNGives the orthodox Theravada understanding of the process of meditation as one in which the development of calm and concentration serves as the helpmate to the more important endeavor of insight meditation. King seeks to connect it to earlier thinking in Indian yoga traditions. He also devotes one chapter to the history of practice in Burma. Originally published 1980 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press).

  • Shaw, Sarah. Introduction to Buddhist Meditation. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    NNNThis work provides a broad overview of meditation in a variety of Buddhist cultures and traditions. The first half of the book covers early Buddhism and the Theravada traditions of practice, including mindfulness, which are used to lay the basis for the discussion of meditation in other Buddhist traditions.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.