Translating Meditation in Popular American Media

* A guest-post by C. Pierce Salguero.

TIME magazine’s 2 Feb 2014 cover (above, left) announces the arrival of the “Mindful Revolution.” The publication joins a flurry of recent examples confirming that a shift is taking place in the representation of meditation in American popular media.

This is not the first time that meditation has been featured by TIME—a strikingly similar cover was published on 4 Aug 2003 (above, right). Compared to the 2014 cover, the earlier one is transitional. The photograph of a white, attractive, blonde woman in her thirties is a none-too-subtle argument that meditation should be considered part of the American mainstream. But, if we pay attention to the words, we see that this cover takes a defensive posture. We are told that meditation has links with “health,” “well-being,” and “science.” However, meditation’s close associations with the 70s counterculture and Asian Buddhist teachers still linger, and TIME must work to distance itself from such “New Age mumbo-jumbo.”

The more recent cover demonstrates that today meditation is unquestionably mainstream. The need to explicitly distinguish it from “mumbo-jumbo” no longer exists: there is no doubt that it is a “science” that holds the revolutionary antidote to stress. There is no doubt that it can help us develop focus while multitasking (and thus keep the gears of twenty-first century American capitalism churning). The word “meditation,” with all of its New Age and Orientalist baggage, has been dropped in favor of “mindfulness,” the prevailing lingo among scientists and a growing cadre of meditation teachers. The half-lotus seated position in the 2003 cover—all too reminiscent of the Buddhist roots of the practice—has also been removed.

One way to think about these magazine covers is as attempts to use text and visuals to “translate” an originally foreign practice, and to resituate it in the contemporary American context. As in all cases of translation, the creators of these covers made decisions about how to represent foreign knowledge, and they had at their disposal a spectrum of options for doing so. The two TIME covers both utilize highly domesticating representations of meditation, downplaying the foreignness of the practice and highlighting its compatibility with mainstream American life. What a difference a decade makes, however. While the 2003 cover’s dismissal of meditation’s Asian expressions as “mumbo-jumbo” belies a lingering anxiety over the domesticatability of meditation, the 2014 cover can collapse meditation into the totalizing rubric of science and into the no-less totalizing image of a white female sex object with nary a second thought.

Contrast these domesticating approaches with the more foreignizing representations of meditation on the cover of the Jan 2014 issue of the Buddhist periodical Shambhala Sun, which may well have sat on a shelf alongside the second issue of TIME discussed above. The photo and name of the Vietnamese Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh, the other foreign names and words strewn across the cover (Ram Dass, metta, Anyen Rinpoche), even the title of the magazine itself, all highlight the Asian origins of meditation. The magazine also makes no bones about associating meditation with Buddhism, with all of the connotations of exoticism and claims of tradition that that connection invokes for readers. Unlike TIME, which must speak to the mainstream, Shambhala Sun attracts a small but passionate minority by mobilizing foreignizing translations that appeal to an upper class readership in search of authenticity.

The fact that there are these radically different approaches to the representation of Buddhist meditation—and, indeed, of Buddhism more generally—in contemporary America is not surprising. In fact, varying approaches to translation are the norm whenever aspects of foreign knowledge are introduced, absorbed, or appropriated into new cultures. These different approaches are the result of variances in the preferences, ideologies, and economic interests of different groups of translators and readers.

The divergences in approaches between these magazine covers caught my eye because I have recently written a book on the very similar diversity in the representation of Buddhism during its introduction to China in the period AD 150-1000 (C. Pierce Salguero, Translating Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014  [AmazonTOC & Excerpt]). Due out this summer, this book looks at arguments being made in medieval China—as in the U.S. today—that Buddhism offered new ways of maintaining health and well-being. The book concentrates on the wide range of foreignizing and domesticating strategies employed by Chinese translators in trying to forward such arguments. Some translators preferred domesticating approaches that made Buddhism seem accessible and compatible with Chinese norms, while other preferred to highlight the foreign origin of Buddhist ideas in order to capitalize on their exoticism. These strategic approaches and the social dynamics behind them seem, in broad outlines, quite analogous to the range of efforts to place Buddhism in contemporary America.

Many Translation Studies scholars speak of their work as being “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive.” In other words, they do not analyze translations to determine which approach is better or worse, but rather to understand the underlying reasons behind why such decisions are made in particular times and places. This is my position as well. The TIME cover has come under fire for its representation of meditation, but Translation Studies reminds us that all translations without exception are intimately entangled in an array of social, cultural, and ideological influences. The TIME cover is an easy target for criticism because it utilizes the extreme domesticating end of the spectrum. In doing so, it becomes a caricature of itself and lays bare its ideological commitments. But we should not forget to critically examine all kinds of representations of Buddhism in contemporary America, especially those that seem upon first glance to be the most “authentic.”


C. Pierce Salguero is an interdisciplinary humanities scholar interested in the role of Buddhism in the crosscultural exchange of medical ideas. He has a Ph.D. in History of Medicine from Johns Hopkins University, and teaches Asian history, religion, and culture at Penn State University’s Abington College, located near Philadelphia. The major theme in his scholarship is the interplay between the global transmission and local reception of Buddhist knowledge about health, disease, and the body. His website is

Fake Buddhist Monks hit San Francisco
“Why am I here?” – a post-event interview with veteran journalist and university teacher, Eileen Flynn
UPDATED: Thich Nhat Hanh drinks tea, smiles in rehab
Mapping Buddhism in America
  • saijanai

    “Descriptive, but not prescriptive,” can have a more subtle meaning.

    Transcendental Meditation, universally reviled (if only by saying it is no better than any other practice, despite what practitioners claim), can be summed up in one sentence:

    “Think a mantra, but don’t try.”

    And yet, that is a description {and only a crude one at that) of the practice.

    The “prescription” (how to learn) is that it takes 4 days to have a decent grasp of what that one sentence might mean (and even “good grasp” is an ongoing process that lasts until one is fully enlightened, which can take a lifetime).

    Maharishi Mahesh Yogi set up a teaching methodology for learning meditation and describes it in here:

    In a nutshell, on the first day, the student learns to think a mantra from one’s teacher, and then goes home to practice.

    The student return the next day, and based on their first day’s experience, the teacher tells them new information and answers questions, hopefully in a smallish group, where others at the same stage (first day of followup after learning) can ask questions and the student will hear new information in that context. The student then goes home and meditates again.

    They return the next day, and based on their two days’ experience, the teacher gives them a little more information and answers questions based on their two days of experience meditating. The student goes home and meditates again.

    They return the next day, and based on their three days’ experience, the teacher gives them a little more information, and answers questions based on their three days of experience meditating. The student goes home and meditates again.

    They return the next day, and based on their four days’ experience with meditation, the teacher gives them a little more information and answers questions based on their four days experience meditating. By this time, the nature of “having a thought without effort” should be “fairly clear” and they should have some understanding of the entire process of meditation, and growth towards enlightenment, including what the first stage of “enlightenment” means from the TM perspective.

    The meditation-oriented magazines you cite always ignore TM, except to pooh-pooh it as being of no more value, and having no different effect, than any other meditation practice involving a mantra.

    And yet, TM teachers go through an intensive, in-residence course for 5 months, in order to learn how to teach TM. They learn to use the same hand-gestures, the same body-language, the same tone-of-voice, as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi did when he taught meditation (Maharishi called this teacher training “recreating” himself), as well as what words to use when imparting information, and when and how to answer questions.

    But does this mean anything? I mean “think a mantra without effort” is too trivial to require such attention to detail. There’s no possibility that there could be a difference between TM, and, say, Shamatha (effortless concentration) because the two practices can be described in exactly the same way.

    Well, leaving aside the fact that TM and Shamatha & other Focused attention practices show entirely different EEG during practice, that become even more different as time goes on, consider the latest research on TM and PTSD…

    2 tiny pilot studies on TM and PTSD were recently published.

    Background: 3 citizens of Uganda recently graduated from the TM teacher training course and returned home. One of them was at least somewhat fluent in the main language spoken in The Congo, so researchers hopped on a plane to Uganda to study the effects of TM on Congolese refugees living in Uganda.

    These were people living in an extremely poor foreign country, who coldn’t get a job, couldn’t speak the language, had a hard time finding enough to eat, and were generally living on the floors of churches, or in mud huts (“temporary rental properties”) or sleeping outside.

    The researchers paid for test subjects to participate by giving them bags of cooked beans. 100 people showed up for the pre-test part of the study, but only 70 showed up for the rest of the study (“cooked beans” was all the rest were interested in).

    The researchers divided them into two groups:

    21 would learn TM now, and 21 were matched with the TM group and would learn TM an the end of the study.

    The study used the Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Checklist-Civilian (PCL-C) test, where subjects are asked, on a scale of 1 to 5, 17 PTSD related questions, like “Do you have problems sleeping at night.”

    “1″ means “never” and “5″ means “all the time” basically.

    a score of 65 means that you have severe PTSD. Below 35 means you are “non-symptomatic.”

    In the first study, the TM group went from an average score of 65 to below 30 at the 30-days post-test, and stayed low at 135 days. 90-percent became “non-symptomatic” for PTSD on that test by the 30-day post-test after learning TM.

    The control group stayed about the same throughout, or even got a little worse. No-one in the control group became “non-symptomatic.”

    Reduction in posttraumatic stress symptoms in Congolese refugees practicing transcendental meditation ( )

    In the second study, the researchers taught TM to the people who showed up but weren’t part of the official “wait-list control” group, and tested them at 10-days after learning TM and at 30 days.

    At 30-days practice of TM, they had almost as big a drop as found in the first study, but 2/3 of that drop happened in the first 10 days.

    Significant Reductions in Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in Congolese Refugees Within 10 days of Transcendental Meditation Practice ( )

    Pretty amazing, eh? These are pilot studies, meant to justify getting grant money to do larger studies with better designs, but already, the UN has taken note. They’re talking with the David Lynch Foundation -Africa ( ) about what it would take to teach TM to every refugee in Africa, though I assume they’re talking to mindfulness researchers about the same thing using mindfulness. It will be interesting to see what happens.

    May the best PTSD treatment win! and all that.

    The above being said, I’m betting you still won’t take TM seriously, because how something so simple is taught can’t possibly make a real difference in life.

    After all, in the case of meditation, description IS prescription.

    A little Chinese saying for you to contemplate:

    “The way that can be wayed is not The Way.” (gee could that be the same as “descripton is not prescription?”)

  • Genju

    Everything old is new again!

    Do you suppose TIME is trying to avoid “New Age mumbo jumbo” or trying not to have the religious origin rear its fearsome head. Not that meditation is really a religious practice for most of the Asian Buddhist populace.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Mindful meditation in a country of unfettered capitalism is simply an oxymoron. Until people are willing to stop chasing the “American dream” on a personal level, we will continue to take classes and then do as we have always done.

  • Ken Chawkin

    saijanai makes a valid point. And most people mistake the goal for the path. Understanding correct meditation from ancient texts usually has to do with the level of consciousness and understanding of the one teaching it. There’s always a gap between the teacher and his students. And over time, it gets distorted and lost. Case in point is today’s understanding of what yoga really means. Here’s an interesting article on this subject published this week in Elephant Journal, A Different Take on Ashtanga Yoga, by William F. Sands

  • Philip Goldberg

    The author makes interesting points, but he misrepresents the history of Time covers on meditation by leaving out the 1975 issue with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the cover. Also, the articles are not ONLY about Buddhism in America. They cover non-Buddhist forms of meditation as well, particularly those like TM with origins in the yogic tradition we associate with Hinduism. The real problem with the recent cover story, as I see it, is the conflation of “mindfulness” and “meditation” as if they were necessarily synonymous and all meditation practices are basically the same. I addressed that issue in this article, if anyone cares to see it:

  • pdxsays

    RE: the 2013 cover. That woman may be smelling pies in heaven, but doubtful she is meditating – unless she is so accomplished that she continuously is in session in any position.

    You mention the lotus posture from the earlier cover; note also her spine alignment. This body position and posture is all for the best results of a “sit,” as it is commonly called. You sit so you can meditate – or be mindful – for long periods of time without developing body needs to frequently shift or adjust. Also your body better supports the energy involved in meditation in such aligned posture.

    Her chin jutted out and slightly raised, she is modeling for the photographer and is is not in a good head positioning for a session.