Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Tibetan language -Howtheuseofwhitespaceinprintingcouldhelpreaders

BREATHING SPACE: How Word Separation Can Save the Tibetan Language

By Tenzin Dickyi (from

The Tibetan language, like an asthma patient in a dust storm, is gasping for breath. Although Tibetan children born and raised in locations as geographically disparate as Lhasa, Dharamsala or New York may grow up speaking Tibetan as a first language, they’ll almost certainly write it as a second. As long as Tibet remains a colony of China, this will not change. For Tibetan students inside Tibet, the language of professional success is now Chinese. For Tibetan students outside, it’s English. Disadvantaged by the system, Tibetan is inevitably neglected.

For the fate of Tibetan as a spoken language, the result of this neglect is so far minimal: as the language of home and hearth, it surrounds us in infancy and we grow up speaking Tibetan as our mother tongue. For Tibetan as a writing system, however, the result of this neglect is devastating: Tibetans of our generation do almost all of our reading and writing in a foreign language and almost none in Tibetan.

When young Tibetans trained outside the monastic system – who constitute the majority – cannot write a decent letter in Tibetan or read a sentence without tripping over at least three words, we have a crisis at hand. What’s to be done?

The root of the problem is quite simple: we cannot write Tibetan well because we almost never read Tibetan, and we almost never read Tibetan because it is so difficult to read it. And there’s one very simple way to immediately ease the difficulty of reading Tibetan: word separation. Adding a space between words so that we can see each word as an immediate discrete unit having visual meaning will simplify the daunting task of reading Tibetan script overnight.

In fact, this is what people throughout the world have been doing with other writing systems. Ancient Greek and Latin were written in scriptura continua, which is continuous script without spaces between words. Paul Saenger, the distinguished scholar of medieval writing practices, asserts that it was only at the end of the seventh century that Irish monks began to introduce spaces between words into medieval manuscripts, and it took several centuries for this practice to be adopted as standard. (Paul Saenger argues that it was this “aerated” script that led to the development of silent reading as we know it.) This space between words, also called whitespace, is now ubiquitous across many writing systems. Even Hindi, previously written in continuous Devanagari script (the base from which Thonmi Sambhota devised the Tibetan alphabet and writing system) is now spaced. Korea’s Hangul, previously continuous, is now generally spaced. Ethiopic, which like Tibetan uses the interpunct, the dot – although they double it, like so (:)- is increasingly written with a space between words... FULL ARTICLE


Thank goodness English has a perfectly logical writing system.



Sunday, 24 January 2010

Was the Buddha a CONSERVATIVE???

Excerpt from an article by Robin of Berkeley...

"Now that I think about it, I started becoming a conservative the moment I picked up that book by Trungpa. The Buddha's teachings are deeply conservative.

Given that Buddhism got me started on the straight and narrow, I was puzzled when Brit Hume urged Tiger Woods to switch from Buddhism to Christianity. As a Christian, Hume reasoned, Woods would find a path to forgiveness and redemption.

As a spiritual seeker, I'm a big fan of Christianity. I've attended two services -- one Catholic, and the other primarily black and evangelical. I loved them both.

But Buddhism is a fiercely moral path too, even though it is not God-centered. There are severe consequences in the next life for sins this time around. Act like a snake, and come back as one. (Tiger, are you listening?)

Whether a person calls himself a Buddhist or a Christian doesn't matter anyway if he doesn't walk the walk. Obama's bio states that he's a Christian. But his administration doesn't exactly exude Christian brotherhood.

The Buddha would never excuse Tiger's lying and cheating ways. But the problem is that Buddhism, like everything else, has been co-opted by political correctness and leftist dogma. Contemporary Buddhism resembles little of what the master taught.

Today's teachers communicate a don't-worry-be-happy kind of a vibe. Curiously missing is the number-one principle of Buddhism: that life is suffering."

"In Berkeley, for instance, the latest craze is a Joy class, taught by a popular Buddhist teacher. Thousands have already attended the course, where Joy Buddies are assigned to make sure you're on the happy trail.

The Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun likes to mix leftist ideology with ads for pricey yoga retreats. Right before the election, the Sun published an article entitled "The Meaning of Barack Obama," which declared that if you didn't vote for Obama, then you were in essence an unenlightened boob.

In the magazine's next issue, liberal icon Alice Walker blamed the U.S. for all the bad karma in the world. Left out of the equation were countries like Uganda, Sudan, Cambodia, China, and Cuba, which have some serious explaining to do in the karma department."


As the Buddha lay dying, he uttered these final words:

'Be a lamp to yourself. Be an island. Learn to look after yourself; do not wait for outside help. Only truth can save you. Work out your salvation with diligence.'

The Buddha stood for hard work, restraint, and honor. Sounds like a conservative manifesto to me."

'A frequent AT contributor, Robin is a recovering liberal and a psychotherapist.'

Full article at 



Friday, 15 January 2010

Bodhisattva vows - an antidote to depression and mental illness

Bodhisattva Padmapani

By Eric Klovig, Ph.D from

Crazy and Free--A Million Lifetimes

Taken from The Oak Tree in the Garden (Journal of the Hidden Valley Zen Center)

Eric Klovig, Ph.D., is an experienced Buddhist teacher of Vipassana. He generously shares his personal story below:

'Nearly 30 years ago I brought great mental and physical suffering into my first three-month-long meditation retreat. There would be many more three-monthers over the years, but for a while that fall it looked as if there would not even be one. Even though I had plenty of good external support at that retreat, I was suffering so much that I felt I would have to leave. That prospect brought desperation; I didn't know where else to turn.

Then one afternoon, as I walked outdoors in solitary walking meditation trying to hold this desperation, a thought came seemingly from nowhere and struck deeper into my psyche than anything had ever done before: If it takes a million lifetimes, I will free this heart from its suffering! Almost 30 years later I remember precisely where I walked when this thought came. Because it set so deep, I knew immediately that the outcome would be inevitable: This heart will be free! There has never been a doubt about the matter since. An unshakable resolve had set itself, one that supported me to stay at that retreat, and also to face many more difficulties in practice and in the rest of my life.

Bodhisattva Guan Yin

Years later that purpose widened. I took the bodhisattva vows of Mahayana Buddhism, even though they were not part of my own Buddhist tradition. Since then I have tried to make my last thought before I sleep, and my first thought after waking, these words: For as long as space and time endure, I will abide to relieve the suffering of living beings. For me the question of purpose has been settled forever. This, my only real purpose, is the true north star that guides everything in my life.

Do you sense the forceful strength of such purpose? It can support you through the challenges of spiritual practice. It can also support you through the grave challenges of mental illness, and indeed can change for the better your relationship with illness. For example, unshakable purpose likes this acts as a direct antodote to the futility, despair, and sense of meaninglessness that depression hawks as false truth. It also cuts through the solipsistic self-absorption that comes as baggage with all mental illnesses.

Recently, in the midst of a bad bout of PTSD, I watched a movie that depicted grievous human suffering. As the credits rolled, I thought, "My task is to relieve the suffering of living beings. So let's get on with it!" Remembering and renewing my purpose propelled me out of self-absorbed PTSD pain into service again.


The webcrawler in your mind.

Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation Alleviates Depression better than drugs

Teens meditate to reduce stress

Vajrasattva purification of guilt and negative thinking

Rational Buddhism



Buddhist Practices for Peace of Mind

Daily Lamrim

Kadampa Life 

Kadampa Working Dad

Glossary of Buddhist Terms


Leading Buddhist author Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has released the authoritative Modern Buddhism into the public domain as pdf files and eBook formats.

The book is downloadable in three volumes free of charge.

Topics include:

Volume 1 Sutra
- Introduction
- Paths of Initial, Middling and Great scope
- Bodhichitta, Love and Compassion
- The Six Perfections
- Emptiness of Body, Mind, Ego and the Eight Extremes
- Conventional and Ultimate Truths
- the Union of the Two Truths
- Lamrim

Volume 2 Tantra

- Introduction to Tantra
- Correcting Misunderstandings
- Relation of Sutra to Tantra
- Tantra of Generation Stage
- Tantra of Completion Stage
- The Subtle Body: Channels, Drops, Winds and the Mind
- Mahamudra
- Great Bliss
- Heruka Body Mandala
- Instructions of Vajrayogini
- Yogas of Sleeping, Rising and Experiencing Nectar

Volume 3 Prayers for Daily Practice

- Liberating Prayer
- Prayers for Meditation
- The Yoga of Buddha Heruka
- Blissful Journey
- Quick Path to Great Bliss
- Liberation from Sorrow (Prayers to the very popular female Buddha Tara)
- Avalokiteshvara Sadhana

- Glossary
- Bibliography
- Study Programmes of Kadampa Buddhism
- Tharpa Offices Worldwide
- Index
- Further Reading

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Teens meditate to reduce stress

From Times Online

Pupils at a leading public school are to receive weekly 40-minute classes in meditation and stress relief in a ground-breaking addition to the school curriculum.

Schoolboys aged 14 and 15 at Tonbridge School, in Kent, were given their first lesson yesterday as part of a course designed with psychologists from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

The project — the first to introduce meditation skills as a regular subject on the curriculum — has been designed specifically for adolescents and comes after the success of a pilot study at the school last year.

The “mindfulness” course for Year 10 pupils will last for eight weeks. It is designed to develop skills in concentration and to combat anxiety, showing teenagers the benefits of silence and helping them to identify and escape corrosive mindsets that could lead to mental health problems such as depression, eating disorders and addiction.

The course develops other exercises to help to improve attention — rather than allowing the mind to be “hijacked” by emotional issues, regrets, worries about the past and future and other distractions. This can be done in a number of ways, such as by focusing on breathing, parts of the body or movement.

Mindfulness originated in Eastern meditation traditions such as Buddhism but is now an established secular discipline. A growing body of research supports wider use of the approach to address transient stress and deeper mental health problems, including recommendations from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence that it be offered on the NHS to patients suffering from depression.

The project is a collaboration with staff at Charterhouse and Hampton schools — with both institutions planning similar schemes — as well as the Mindfulness Centre at Oxford and the Wellbeing Institute at Cambridge.

Richard Burnett, a divinity teacher and housemaster at Tonbridge who is leading the course, told The Times that the course demanded a “culture change” in the perceptions of silence for teachers and pupils.

“One of the things about schools is that silence is associated with power — the teacher tells the pupils to be quiet. What you need to do is convey the idea that silence is a positive activity to be savoured and enjoyed,” he said.

He said that while some children involved in the trial had been sceptical, most had embraced the challenge that it posed in the classroom. The pupils said that they hoped to use the mindfulness in the future to help to battle anxieties and to put things in perspective. They also said that they found it helpful for getting to sleep and becoming less nervous about school cricket matches.

Mark Williams, director of the Mindfulness Centre at Oxford, said that Tonbridge was the first school to introduce a full meditation course in a practical rather than academic context.

Professor Williams said: “This is not about converting people to Buddhism, but showing there is scientific evidence that these practices are useful. So why deny them from being used?”

In March Tonbridge is to host a conference, with Professor Williams as a speaker, that aims to encourage mindfulness uptake in schools.

Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said that mindfulness training also offered the chance to take proactive steps to avoid depression and anxiety in later life.

“These problems have their roots in early life, so if you can learn techniques when you are young you might never have a breakdown,” he said.

Staying focused

• The first lesson, being run this week, is described as “puppy training” — comparing the mind with a puppy that needs to learn how to “stay” and focus on one thing, rather than running around in a distracted fashion

• Other stages of the course include establishing calm and concentration; recognising rumination; developing present-moment awareness in the everyday; slowing and savouring activities; stepping back from thoughts that hijack you; allowing, accepting and being with difficult emotions; reflection and making it personal

• It uses figures from popular culture to help to explain the benefits of mindfulness, including rugby player Jonny Wilkinson, who uses meditation techniques to help his concentration when kicking for goal, and Po, a lethargic panda who transforms his attitude in the Dreamworks’ film Kung Fu Panda

• Each class has one 40-minute lesson a week, with a weekly MP3 file of mindfulness exercises that they are encouraged to listen to before evening homework


The webcrawler in your mind.

Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation Alleviates Depression

Bodhisattva vows - an antidote to depression and mental illness

Rational Buddhism



Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Where do pets go when they die?

Does a dog have Buddha nature?

Grieving for dead animals and rituals to strengthen your karmic bond with your dead pets.

A recent article on the BBC website discussed how people grieve for the death of a pet.

Many of those facing up to such sadness want spiritual reassurance. When humans die, many religious relatives have the consolation of their belief in an afterlife, however in the case of deaths of animals no such consolation is available from the Abrahamic religions, where funeral rites for animals would be considered blasphemous.

There have been recent attempts to fill the gap left by the neglect of the spiritual welfare of animals in these religions, which do not normally recognise the spiritual and karmic significance of the human-animal bond.

Traditionally, the Abrahamic religions state that only humans have souls, whereas animals are automata (biological machines) whose minds cease at death.   

Joseph Rickaby SJ, an influential Jesuit theologian, said that animals had no souls, no rights and no feelings and were no more than automata - like clocks - and if they squeaked or made noises when damaged this was equivalent to the mechanical sounds a clock would make if it fell to the floor and was similarly damaged.

In contrast, the Buddhist view is that animals' minds survive death just as humans do.  All sentient beings (creatures that experience suffering and happiness) have non-material minds. Consequently, the funeral rituals to help pet animals in future lives are essentially the same as for humans...

Powa Ceremony Transference of consciousness for the deceased
"We understand that throughout this world millions of humans and billions of animals die every day from so many different causes. If these living beings have the opportunity to take rebirth in a Buddha’s Pure Land they will attain permanent liberation from suffering and experience pure and everlasting happiness.

Our practice of this powa offers them this precious opportunity. By engaging in this practice we ourself will create a great collection of virtue, which will also lead us into the pathway to the Pure Land of a Buddha.

We perform this powa practice on behalf of those who have recently died, traditionally within forty-nine days of their death. As preparation for this ritual practice we begin by arranging beautiful offerings such as candles and flowers. On a piece of paper we write in red ink a large letter ‘R’, which symbolizes the contaminated rebirths of all the deceased. We attach the paper to a stick to resemble a flag, and place this flag in a suitable container such as a small vase. We also prepare a candle, which should be placed on a flat plate. Both the flag and candle should be arranged on a table in front of us.

When we engage in this practice in a group, it can begin with a senior Dharma teacher giving some practical teachings about how to develop compassion for all living beings. When we engage in this practice individually, we should generate compassion for all living beings by remembering how they experience immense suffering. Then, with compassion for all the deceased throughout the world, we perform the following stages of the ceremony:

1 On behalf of the deceased, we accumulate a great collection of virtue and merit. We do this by making prostrations and extensive offerings to the holy beings, so that the deceased gather the necessary conditions to take rebirth in the Pure Land of a Buddha.

2 On behalf of the deceased, by sincerely making requests to Buddha Vajrasattva with the recitation of the hundred-letter mantra, we purify the four main obstacles to their taking rebirth in the Pure Land of a Buddha. These obstacles are their non-virtues and negative actions created (1) physically, (2) verbally, (3) mentally, and (4) by their body, speech, and mind together.

3 Through the power of our compassionate intention, strong prayer, and concentration on the practice, we transfer the consciousness of the deceased to the Pure Land of the Buddha of Compassion so that they will experience pure and everlasting happiness.

4 Through the power of our concentration on the final special ritual practice, together with the mantra recitation, we create a special auspiciousness for the deceased to attain permanent liberation from samsaric rebirth.

More here

Pure Land

General background at  Buddhist Philosophy

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Collateral damage

Xenophobia or militant secularism?

In earlier posts I blogged about the danger of the rising European backlash against Islam producing collateral damage to harmless 'foreign' faiths such as Buddhism, due to guilt by association and cultural xenophobia (here and here) ...

"... Nevertheless Buddhism may suffer collateral damage from the growing European fear and hostility towards Islam. Xenophobes who know little about Buddhism may suspect it of being a similarly violent and barbarous Eastern cult, purely on the grounds of originating 'somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments and a man can raise a thirst.."

A plague on both your houses
Well, now there is hard evidence that hostility to Islam is indeed causing collateral damage to other religions. However the surprising aspect is that Christianity is being hit, according to The Telegraph:

"The British public are concerned at the rise of Islam in the UK and fear that the country is deeply divided along religious lines, according to a major survey.

More than half the population would be strongly opposed to a mosque being built in their neighbourhood, the study found.

A large proportion of the country believes that the multicultural experiment has failed, with 52 per cent considering that Britain is deeply divided along religious lines and 45 per cent saying that religious diversity has had a negative impact [...]

David Voas, professor of population studies at Manchester University, who analysed the data, said that people were becoming intolerant towards all religions because of “the degree to which Islam is perceived as a threat to social cohesion” [...]

While 55 per cent say that they would be “bothered” by the construction of a large mosque in their community, only 15 per cent would be similarly concerned by a large church.

Nevertheless, the research found considerable suspicion towards those of any faith who hold deeply religious views, while there was a widespread reluctance to see matters of faith intruding into the public sphere.

Nearly half (45 per cent) of Britons believe that laws and policy decisions would be worse if more politicians were deeply religious - almost double the number who think that they would be better. "

Threat or opportunity?
So rather than driving British people back to their Christian roots, the anti-Islamic backlash is making them increasingly secular and hostile to all religions. It may be that in Islam they see an exaggerated caricature of the worst features of the other Abrahamic religions, which they subconsciously tar with the same brush.

Whether this represents a threat or opportunity for Buddhism is difficult to interpret. It certainly makes a case for Buddhism marketing itself in Europe more as a philosophy and/or psychotherapy, and less as a 'religion'.

Also, as people become more aware of the other Abrahamic religions in addition to the one they were brought up in, they realise that each of these faiths makes exclusive truth claims that invalidate the others.  Of the six Abrahamic religions (Protestantism, Catholicism, Sunni, Shi'ite, Judaism, Mormonism), at most only one can be true, and no amount of interfaith dialog is going to alter this. And if at least five of these faiths are false, maybe all six are.


Rational Buddhism

Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation adopted by British Health Service

Islam will Dominate

Shared Heritage - Hellenism, Humanism and Rationalism

What next... Zenophobia ?



Friday, 8 January 2010

Taiwan, a Beacon of Tolerance in the New Dark Age of Fundamentalism

From The China Post

"Religious tolerance is such a deeply held Taiwanese value that many here likely don't realize how rare it is. Almost never do we hear about any kind of local religious strife.

The majority of this island's believers follow a composite of Buddhist and Taoist beliefs and there is considerable crossover between the two in terms of deities and practices. Many a Buddhist will happily pray at a Taoist temple and vice-versa. Within the Buddhist-Taoist doctrines there is also considerable leeway for people to follow what they see as right in their own eyes.

For example, while Buddhism does, in fact, promote vegetarianism and some local believers do heed this mandate, many others choose to eat meat or to skip eating meat only on designated holy days. There is little to no condemnation of those who opt out of vegetarianism and, in fact, the entire idea of criticizing another's behavior based on religious edicts is not at all common in Taiwan. When it comes to inter-mixing of faiths, Taiwan also stands out as an example of tolerance. A Christian family would generally have no issue with their child dating a Buddhist and vice versa.

This is not always the case in the United States where even divisions among various Christian sects can mean that the hypothetical pairing of say, a Baptist and a Catholic could result in serious strife between families. There is also very little aggressive proselytizing in Taiwan, but when certain faiths — members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or Mormons to cite one example — do send missionaries here in attempts to convert people — they are generally met with a friendly smile and a respectful attitude. This is not always the case in the U.S. or Europe where quite frequently such missionaries are rejected with force.

It could be Taiwan has evolved such tolerance due to the island's hundreds of years of exposure to various invaders and their faiths. The Dutch and other Western nations who attempted to colonize Taiwan brought both the Protestant and Catholic understandings of Christianity to Taiwan, and these missionaries met with varying success, although a toehold of Christianity was established among the indigenous Taiwanese tribes. From China came folk religions such as the worship of the Goddess Matsu, as well as ancient faiths such as Taoism, and via India, Buddhism. But other places have also enjoyed such multi-religious and multi-cultural exchanges and did not develop the level of tolerance Taiwan enjoys. It could be that the main element that separates Taiwan and many other places is this nation's fundamental lack of religious fundamentalism or intolerance.

Religious fundamentalism is the scourge of our times. Of course, it has reared its ugly head in generations past. “In the name of God” has been a battle cry for far too long. Many scholars date the first modern wars fought with religious overtones to the Muslim conquests of Arabia and surrounding areas — including most of Spain — from 632 to 732 C.E. (Common Era). The Crusades were Christendom's response, but to be fair, the rule of European Christian kings was often marked by less tolerance towards minority faiths than when Muslim leaders were in charge. Muslims and Jews were forced to convert and many were also killed. But, of course, Muslims did their share of killing as well. In many places across Europe, religion today has faded into the background. Many describe modern Europe as “post-Christian.” While many Europeans claim to be skeptics or atheists, many seem to have embraced the new creed of secular humanism or the belief that one should “be good for goodness sake.” This progressive idea does not discount the power and comforting nature of religious belief — and, in fact, studies have shown that religious people tend to live longer and more fulfilling lives — but those ascribing to secular humanism maintain that there is no need to have the threat of hell or the promise of heaven for humans to behave kindly to one another.

Aside from Europe, many other regions of the world are still gripped by the evils of religious intolerance. Unfortunately, this is especially true today in the Muslim world. People who take ancient holy texts as unalterable truths find themselves having to justify thousand-year old injunctions that seem to encourage killing, conquest and forced conversion.

Labeling all Muslims as fundamentalists is, of course, illogical and unjustified. Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population and for the most part the country is extremely tolerant and peaceful. America also has a serious problem with Christian fundamentalists with recent incidents including the religiously motivated killing of abortion providers and U.S. school boards that have rejected the science of evolution in favor of a literal reading of the Biblical book of Genesis that they interpret to mean that the planet has only been around for about 6,000 years. The Jewish and Hindu faiths are also not immune from the scourge of extremist religious thinking.

The problem with fundamentalism is that if there is indeed only one “right way” those who disagree can be lumped into “unbelievers” and therefore dehumanized. When dehumanization occurs it becomes easier to commit atrocities. Recent terrorism and other acts of religious violence demonstrate that the world must move away from religious fundamentalism. Perhaps Taiwan can act as a good example."


Rational Buddhism

Collateral damage



Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation Alleviates Depression

Medicine Buddha

Meditation therapy should be routinely available on the National Health Service to treat recurring depression and to help tackle Britain’s growing mental health problems, according to a new report.

The study, commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation, found that fewer than one in 20 GPs prescribed meditation therapy for patients suffering depression, despite NHS guidance suggesting that it could halve depression relapse rates.

The report calls for much wider use of “mindfulness” treatment, which combines meditation with orthodox “thought training”. The report argues that if more GPs offered the therapy it would sharply reduce the financial burden of depression, which costs Britain £7.5 billion a year.

Mindfulness brings peace

Replacing reliance on antidepressants
Mental health specialists said that greater use of meditation would reduce an over-reliance on antidepressants. They said that while the drugs were effective, they did not help address the possibility of future depressive episodes.

Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which has its roots in Eastern philosophy and Buddhism, trains people to focus attention on one place instead of allowing the mind to be “hijacked” by emotional issues, regrets, worries about the past and future, and other distractions. This can be done in a number of ways, for example by focusing on breathing, parts of the body, or movement.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence issued guidance on meditation in 2004 after studies suggested that it might bring benefits.

Five years later, only a fifth of GPs said they can access the treatment for their patients, and just one in 20 regularly prescribes the therapy, according to the Mental Health Foundation report Be Mindful.

MBCT costs on average £300 per patient for a course of two-hour sessions over eight weeks. Since patients are treated in groups of up to 20, the cost is said to be much lower than one-to-one cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).

A key difference between the new approach and traditional CBT is that patients are seen between episodes of depression, and not when they are in the grip of the illness. Another difference is the inclusion of meditation, as research has shown that relying on CBT alone to prevent recurrent depression does not work as well.

Abandon self-destructive guilt

Switching off brooding recrimination
Mark Williams, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford, who contributed to the report, said that meditative therapy enabled people to switch off “brooding recrimination” and, while acknowledging these thoughts, move beyond them.

“People begin to see thoughts and feelings as a temporary weather pattern in the mind, and realise they don’t have to judge themselves,” he said.

More than 100 studies, some involving Buddhist monks, have shown that brainwave activity changes during meditation, and that areas of the brain linked to controlling emotion are bigger in people who have meditated regularly for five years.

Mindfulness training has also been shown to increase activity in the pre-frontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with positive emotion that is normally subdued in depressed individuals.

One in 10 people in Britain is affected by clinical depression — defined by a range of symptoms within a single two-week period — and 50 per cent of sufferers experience it more than once. After two bouts of depression, there is a 70 per cent risk of relapse, which rises to 90 per cent after three episodes.

Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said that doctors prescribed antidepressants too often. “Mindfulness-based therapy could help prevent thousands of people from relapsing into depression every year. This would have huge knock-on benefits both socially and economically, making it a sensible treatment to make available, even at a time when money is short within the NHS,” he said.

At least as effective as antidepressants

Preventing relapses
“Depression tends to come back for many people, with the odds of further bouts increasing each time. A single episode is serious enough, but having the illness return year after year can have a devastating impact on people’s jobs, relationships, and their chances in life generally.”

The case for making MBCT available on the NHS relies on two key studies of patients with recurring depression. One, undertaken ten years ago, showed a 37 per cent relapse rate for patients given MBCT, compared with 66 per cent for those not given the treatment. The other, conducted in 2004, showed an even bigger difference between the two groups, with relapse rates of 36 per cent and 78 per cent. Another recent trial in Exeter, with results published last year, indicated that MBCT is at least as effective at preventing relapses as antidepressants.

Jonty Heaversedge, a South London GP who learnt to meditate at a Buddhist centre and believes the practice can improve many aspects of health, said: “Depression is something that affects a huge number of my patients, often year after year, with devastating consequences. MBCT gives them the opportunity to develop a healthier, more accepting relationship with their thoughts and feelings.”


Medicine Buddha Mandala


"2010 could be the year that mindfulness meditation goes mainstream in the UK. It's already endorsed as a treatment for depression by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, and today a major mental health charity is calling for meditation-based courses to be offered much more widely on the NHS.

A report I wrote for the Mental Health Foundation highlights the impressive clinical evidence for an approach called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) – the eight-week courses have been shown to reduce relapse rates by half among people who have suffered several episodes of depression. The report also finds that very few patients who could benefit from mindfulness training are currently being referred for the treatment – just one in 20 GPs prescribes MBCT regularly, despite the fact that nearly three-quarters of doctors think it would be helpful for their patients with mental health problems. Changing that could make a massive difference not only to them, but to the economy – the cost of depression to the UK has been estimated at £7.5 billion every year.

Despite its convoluted name, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is pretty straightforward – a set of classes that teach meditation practices which help people pay attention to their breathing, body sensations, thoughts and feelings in a kind, accepting, non-judgemental way. Mindfulness training shows us how to notice and work with our experience rather than engaging in a futile struggle to fight or run away from it. That may sound simple – perhaps because it is – but developing this mindful way of relating seems to alleviate some of the suffering that struggling with life's pain creates.

Mindfulness is especially relevant to depression, in which sufferers tend to get caught up with cycles of 'rumination' - when people get depressed they churn negative thoughts over and over in their minds, a pattern which actually perpetuates their low mood. Mindfulness short-circuits rumination – by learning how to pay attention to our present moment experience, rather than getting tied up in negative thinking about the past or future, we create more space in our minds from which new, more effective decision-making can emerge. It isn't a miracle cure – while simple, the techniques take time and effort to master, but mindfulness-based therapies are now supported by a substantial and rapidly-growing evidence base that suggest they can help people cope better not just with depression, but also with the stress of conditions ranging from chronic pain and anxiety to cancer and HIV.

Mindfulness-based therapies are fundamentally and unapologetically inspired by Buddhist principles and tools – the Buddha both noted that suffering (as opposed to pain) is created by struggling with experience and prescribed mindfulness meditation as a way of working with it skilfully. However, the B-word rarely, if ever, gets a mention on MBCT courses – their reputation in health services has been built on scientific evidence rather than spiritual conviction. This is the only way it could be – while some of us Buddhists might argue that practising mindfulness can open up insights about the nature of mind that go way beyond what can be measured in a randomised-controlled trial, the most important thing here is that techniques which reduce suffering are presented in whatever way will make them most accessible to the largest number of people.

By secularising mindfulness training, and packaging it in a form that makes it amenable to clinical testing, an approach that might otherwise have been seen in medical circles as new-age flim-flam is being taken very seriously. So seriously that according to an ICM survey of GPs conducted for the Mental Health Foundation report, 64% of doctors would like to receive training in mindfulness themselves.

For that we can partly thank Morinaga Soko-Roshi, a zen teacher of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the doctor who first brought mindfulness training into US healthcare services in the 1970s. Kabat-Zinn knew that it would be considered unacceptably 'religious' to offer Buddhist training to his patients - however, he also had a strong hunch that the meditation techniques said to lead to insight on the Buddhist path might also help people cope with chronic illness. Unsure of what to do, he went to see Soko-Roshi and asked his advice. "Throw out Buddha! Throw out Zen!" came the abrupt reply.

From that, Kabat-Zinn's secular mindfulness-based stress-reduction course, a progenitor of MBCT, was born. MBSR is now taught in hundreds, perhaps thousands of institutions across the US – not just hospitals and medical settings, but schools, community centres, prisons and workplaces.

We are some way behind in the UK. Although there are now mindfulness centres at universities such as Oxford, Exeter and Bangor (the Scottish government also deserves great credit for investing strongly in mindfulness training for health professionals) most NHS trusts lack the infrastructure and personnel to offer MBCT courses to patients who could benefit from it. Even though the scientific evidence is persuasive, and GPs are on board, there simply aren't the courses for people to access.

But with the embracing of mindfulness by a growing range of powerful institutions, whose support is based on hard-nosed evidence rather than any particular commitment to Buddhism, that may now be about to change."

A beneficial religion! (Dawkins confounded?)
At a time when a certain 'religion' seems to be intent on causing as much death, destruction and mutilation as possible, it's good to know that the Buddha's gentle teachings from 2500 years ago are relieving the sufferings of growing numbers of people in the modern world.