A Buddhist (re)Appropriation of Mindfulness Meditation

A Buddhist (re)Appropriation of Mindfulness Meditation June 6, 2018

That is a mouthful. Let me unpack it a bit.

When I first became interested in Buddhism around 20 years ago, “mindfulness” was still just one part of a larger path. Buddhism was cool; the Dalai Lama seemed limitlessly happy. Meditation was okay; something that Buddhists obviously did to make themselves so happy.

But there was little or nothing advertised as “mindful,” either at local Buddhist groups or elsewhere.

Today everything is advertised as “mindful,” from cashews to dating websites, music lessons to running techniques, diets (of course) and sexual pleasure guides. And now… Buddhist meditation is also getting the “mindfulness treatment.” But isn’t Buddhist meditation already “mindful”? Why would Buddhists use the term or ideas created in the last 40 years when they have access to 2500 years of tradition and wisdom?

To step back: 2500 years ago, the Buddha, a man living in India, gained awakening and taught for some 45 years according to a tradition that grew out of his life and teachings. Part of his teaching was ‘right mindfulness’; one of eight parts of an eightfold path which fit into a meditation portion of a threefold path.

For 2500 years, mindfulness and meditation have been important to followers of the Buddha, but generally no more so than moral development (three of the parts of the eightfold path and one part of the threefold path) or right understanding and wisdom.

Buddhists have also been drawn to practical, this-worldly, powers and advice, as well as to stories of and faith in savior-like figures.

It is a truly unique feature of Buddhist Modernism to see mindfulness and meditation taken up so intently and so broadly by followers of the Buddha, many of whom openly disavow the ethical and philosophical aspects of the tradition and/or try to move away from all of what they see as superstitious. In a future post on a Marxist analysis of Buddhism today, I hope to say more, but for now I would simply suggest that material conditions are at the heart of this shift. Laypeople have more time now and are exposed to more possible ideas and practices.

And laypeople, now as much as ever, want the most benefit for their time and energy. In the past that would have meant offering what they could at the temple(s) of whatever religions were allowed to operate near them – perhaps a Daoist and a Buddhist, or a Shinto and a Buddhist, or a Hindu and a Buddhist, depending on the place. Laypeople might also have paid some money to a shaman or a fortune teller, sometimes these people would also be Buddhist monastics or at least operating in or next to the Buddhist temple. One might have gone to a traditional doctor to have one’s pulse read for a medical diagnosis.

Today, due likely to advances in scientific understanding, and the wondrous benefits bestowed by modern medicine and technology, laypeople are more likely to offer less at those temples and offer more to the cashiers at the smartphone store and the clothing boutique. These items, people have found, bring joy and ease, perhaps even saving a life (I find some irony in the shift from a traditional Tibetan doctor reading a pulse to relying on a corporation’s mass-produced configuration of plastic and metal).

This is not to say that the move to modernity is all good or without loss. As the above-linked story with Tibetan doctor Eliot Tokar helps illustrate, much is lost when we abandon traditional medical wisdom for the latest treatments. However, it does seem to be a fact, a material and economic fact of the 21st century.

Another fact is that the benefits of Buddhism in modernity have come be largely identified with meditative experience, a topic explored in the groundbreaking 1995 article by Robert Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.” In part, Sharf there argues that talk of special experiences found in meditation, “turns out to function ideologically and performatively—wielded more often than not in the interests of legitimation and institutional authority.”

The whole article is 50 pages long with notes, plus citations, so I cannot summarize it or give critical analysis here. When I first read it in a discussion group at the University of Bristol with Rupert Gethin over ten years ago, it struck me as an analysis of an outsider who, like a judge of many cups holding water, could not see the water in any of them, only the various colors and textures of each cup. How else could he see the various ‘path’ texts as just scripts for public performance as when Sharf writes:

In etic terms, Buddhist meditation might best be seen as the ritualization of experience: it doesn’t engender a specific experiential state so much as it enacts it. In this sense Buddhist marga treatises are not so much maps of inner psychic space as they are scripts for the performance of an eminently public religious drama.

But then, perhaps there is truth in this. Historically once again, how many lay people cared about the actual inner work of meditation? How many monastics had time to cultivate a truly simple life? From the anthropological accounts I’ve read, the answer to both is very few. The image of the quiet, contemplative monastery is a fabrication – one that even some Buddhist monastics perpetuate, either knowingly or not. These do exist, but they are far from the norm.

But again returning to the present, to modernity, religious practice has become much more of a private phenomenon. People meditate alone in their homes, often (again) disavowing religion entirely. They follow the marga texts precisely as maps of inner psychic space: they report benefits from them and the truth of their descriptions.

So if Sharf is correct about pre-modern Buddhist practice, and I imagine good arguments can be made for and against this, then the move to using the maps as inner maps represents a significant shift in Buddhism.

This shift comes at a cost: modern Buddhists are less interested in traditional Buddhist medicine, less interested in fortune telling, less interested in tales of Buddhas in their Pure Lands or practices which address them specifically. They are also less interested in traditional Asian buildings, Asian languages and clothes, Asian manners and rituals.

Thus the perfect result of this was mindfulness meditation: developed largely by Jon Kabat-Zinn (in parallel with others in the Insight or Vipassana movement, but even the latter of these, in holding to an Asian label, seems diminished today). In mindfulness meditation we have the opposite of Sharf’s description: again people are following (Westernized) marga/path texts explicitly as maps of the inner world.

And this ‘movement’, apparently because it works, has taken off. Meanwhile, Buddhism in its various forms, has seemingly plateaued or is in decline. While far from overtaking topics such as Buddhism or meditation on Google’s Ngram (which only goes to 2007), mindfulness is steadily growing.

Google Ngram graph showing results for mindfulness, Buddhism, and meditation
Google Ngram viewer
Google Trends graph showing results for mindfulness, Buddhism, and meditation
Google Trends graph for meditation (yellow), buddhism (red), and mindfulness (blue)

The Google Trends graph shows a rebound for meditation, but still a downward direction for Buddhism (the seasonal shifts in Buddhism interest is a fascinating occurrence as well – summertime is no good, but by October people are interested).

You can add “Zen” in the Trends graph above to see that it follows Buddhism’s steady decline in (google) interest over the last 14 years.

Which brings us back to the original topic of the post: Buddhism’s re-appropriation of mindfulness.

As mindfulness meditation has taken off, I’ve seen and written a good deal about Buddhists opposing it as a stripped-down, potentially immoral force being used to the potential harm of individuals and society. And I’ve written about defenses of mindfulness, both by Buddhists and by secular practitioners who assert its value for all people. And I’ve noted that scholar Jeff Wilson has called mindfulness, to paraphrase, “Buddhism’s single largest impact in North America.”

But another phenomenon I’m noticing lately is Buddhists working to ‘take back’ mindfulness by explicitly endorsing it and/or leading programs with “Mindfulness” in the title. It is as if mindfulness, taken out of Buddhism by Kabat-Zinn and others as a secular practice (or a reflection of a Dharma that goes beyond Buddhism), is being (re)-absorbed into Buddhism by Buddhists in a way similar to Buddhist appropriation of hip-hop or coloring books or some other non-Buddhist aspect of the world around them.

Take, for example, the following video (and NBC news story from Ohio):

Here we have the abbot of a Buddhist Temple, Jay Rinsen Weik, basically quoting Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness, focusing on non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. He speaks of patience as a skill we can train in (patience is also one of the paramitas or perfections of Buddhism). He also suggests that mindfulness is, “not something that’s even debated as to whether it works or helps.”

He goes on to describe at least part of what he is offering as modern secular mindfulness, free of metaphysics and belief systems.

The closing of the segment has the news anchor describing the offering of “Mindful Zen Meditation” at the temple.

This too has me wondering about this re-incorporation of “mindfulness” if only in name – but it also seems clear that other aspects of the modern (secular) mindfulness movement are entering into an otherwise Buddhist/Zen space.

Of course Buddhists will (rightly, I think) say that mindfulness is and always has been part of Buddhism. Some might even say that it is the heart of Buddhism or its essence. Others, reading anthropological texts or works such as Sharf’s, might disagree.

What I wonder is if this signals any move in a broader acceptance of secular mindfulness by Buddhists (perhaps by necessity, as other things in traditional Buddhism become less important to followers?). My hunch is that mindfulness is not going away any time soon – as both a fad that gets hyper-watered-down to sell things and as a rigorous secular training stripped free of at least most of the metaphysics of any philosophy or religion.

What I think is that this might signal a new and perhaps the quintessential American Buddhism, something clearly broken from the many Buddhisms before it, and existing alongside them in America and elsewhere in the world. And, if we grant that mindfulness is Buddhism (leaving aside whether that has to be a religious term or if it can point to a philosophy of life akin to Stoicism), then we can examine debates, dismissals, and dialogues in the context of historical Buddhist sectarianism.

What do you think?

Is mindfulness a new school of Buddhism? Are you seeing Buddhist centers offering classes in mindfulness (rather than just ‘meditation’) and/or emphasising their own secular approach? Are they quoting more Kabat-Zinn than Kamalasila at your Tibetan center? More Sharon Salzberg than Shantideva? More John Teasdale than Eihei Dōgen in your Zen center?


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