The contemporary cult of mindfulness is in the vanguard of the spread of Buddhism in the modern world. In the UK, it is even sponsored by the state, in the form of free mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) on the National Health Service. There are two university departments – in Oxford and in Bangor, North Wales – dedicated to its promulgation. Mindfulness is now widely taught in schools. What better subject, then, for the Shang Shung UK Institute’s first Festival of Mind symposium, held at Lekdanling in London over the weekend of May 11 – 13th2018?

This was an innovative event, using Lekdanling as a forum for speakers from inside and outside the Dzogchen Community and inviting an audience from the general public. SMS teachers Elio Guarisco and Igor Berkhin – who both led workshops on the Sunday – shared a platform with a range of other luminaries, including psychotherapist Laura Donnington, dream yoga teacher Charlie Morley and Paul Wielgus, a former disciple of Lama Thubten Yeshe, who now represents an organization called the Potential Project, taking mindfulness into the workplace.

Lekdanling’s old friend Ian Baker, Himalayan explorer and author of The Heart of the World, gave the opening presentation, outlining the roots of the modern mindfulness movement in the appropriation of Burmese vipassanateachings by western students such as Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Jon Kabat-Zinn, the person mainly responsible for taking the practice out of its Buddhist framework and into a secular dimension. Ian also argued for an augmentation of mindfulness with more dynamic, energetic techniques – illustrated by the lives of the mahasiddhas. This point was taken up by the UK’s new Yantra Yoga instructor Leo Isacchi, who spoke on the somatic basis of mindfulness and led the audience in a practice of the nine purification breaths.

Are we living through an “epidemic of distraction” – terminally addicted to what Chogyal Namkhai Norbu refers to as our “small telephones” – for which mindfulness is the cure? Does mindful presence contain an inherent ethical value, or is it really an amoral tool that can be used, for instance, to train an army sniper how to kill? Is there an uneasy tension between secular mindfulness teaching and its Buddhist roots: the one aiming at greater efficiency and enthusiasm, the other promoting detachment and renunciation? Does secular mindfulness risk betraying the true principles of Buddhism, or is it, as the writer Stephen Batchelor puts it, a Buddhist Trojan horse?

Paul Wielgus reported that the Dalai Lama, when asked such questions, answered that mindfulness shouldbe taught in secular garb, insisting that a traditional Buddhist presentation risks alienating people – an example, perhaps, not only of the open mindedness of His Holiness, but also of the fundamentally pragmatic nature of Buddhism as a whole. The first Festival of Mind proved to be a most enjoyable and successful gathering, hosting a multiplicity of viewpoints, lively discussion and a relaxed party – including Tibetan music and dance – on the Saturday evening. Plans are afoot for a second festival in 2019.