Buddhist mindfulness, morality, and Protestant presumptions

Buddhist mindfulness, morality, and Protestant presumptions May 15, 2015

In case you’ve been living under a rock, mindfulness is all the rage these days. Since January I have filed away nearly every story on or popular mention of ‘mindfulness’ that crossed my path. At current, I’m at 43 links and I’m certain it’s just a drop in the bucket of what’s out there. I have a lawyer in Florida explaining “Mindfulness: What it is and how it helps” a Cosmopolitan article explaining (above a picture of Jennifer Aniston):

Jo Usmar, Cosmo’s ex-Sex and the Not So Single Girl, has two more self-help books coming out: This Book Will Make You Mindful and This Book Will Make You Feel Beautiful. As she’s clearly an oracle of feel-good knowledge we got her to explain what mindfulness is and how you can get some.

And then there was BBC Radio’s Podcast, “Meditation: Panacea or Fad?” in which the presenter Emma Barnett tries to meditate a couple times and then concludes that she’d prefer a walk or glass of whiskey with friends (the podcast is commendable, however, for the many interviews included). Those come from the first half of January. Then there are the more recent, Mind your Own Business by Barbara Ehrenreich, critiquing the smell of Silicon Valley that permeates so much of the business end of mindfulness these days; Mindful Responds to New York Times’ “The Muddied Meaning of Mindfulness”, which offers this commonly heard defense of teaching mindfulness in its various forms to anyone and everyone:

The point of introducing mindfulness on the job is not to foster a compliant workforce. It is to help people become more self-aware and able to discern how their workplace efforts—in schools, hospitals, other public institutions, and businesses of all kinds—can contribute to a better life for them, a better organization, and a better society overall. To check that out, ask some people who have been trained in mindfulness in the workplace. It’s not brainwashing.

There is also Who gets Mindfulness ‘Right’? An Engaged Buddhist Perspective, by Edwin Ng; an excellent piece from Australia. In it, Ng adds to the above advice, “As Bhikkhu Bodhi has explained, the adaptations of mindfulness in therapeutic, rehabilitative, or even business settings are to be commended if they can help the individual develop greater wellbeing.” “But,” Ng continues, “Bhikkhu Bodhi is also an advocate of engaged Buddhism. His concerns about how clarifying the guiding principles of mindfulness invite us to take pause to reflect carefully on the broader ethical and political stakes involved in the commodifying and institutionalising trend.”

Achahn Chuen meditation; on a beach near Traverse City, MI (photo by Brian Ambrozy, flickr C.C.)
Achahn Chuen meditation; on a beach near Traverse City, MI (photo by Brian Ambrozy, flickr C.C.)

As I wrote in Mindfulness: Critics and Defenders back in 2013, Bhikkhu Bodhi isn’t the only one worried about the ethical and political ramifications of ‘mainstreaming‘ mindfulness. Christopher Titmus, another well-known meditation teacher and writer, wrote in The Buddha of Mindfulness. A Stress Destruction Programme that mindfulness, or “paying of attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental way” simply “leaves individuals in the company grappling with their stress while ignoring the larger picture of corporate politics…” And Ron Purser and David Loy, whose 2013 article in the Huffington Post, “Beyond McMindfulness” spurred much of my interest in the topic, worried there that the ‘shadow’ of mainstreamed mindfulness would include the stripping of mindfulness from its (Buddhist) ethical foundations which would simply allow it to be used to reinforce greed, aversion, and delusion (the three roots of suffering that Buddhists seek to eliminate). In Mindfulness: Critics and Defenders I summarized or drew comments from a number of scholars, teachers, and writers (Buddhist and non-) who have become interested in this debate. And many of them continue to actively engage in discussions precisely around this topic of ethics in the teaching of mindfulness. In following and taking part in this conversation, I have always found a great deal of wisdom in the concerns and points on ‘both sides’ (which is an oversimplification, because one could better talk of a ‘spectrum’ or ‘spectrums’ of views).


But yesterday Tricycle published an article by Richard K. Payne somewhat dismissively subtitled “The misguided debate about mindfulness and morality.” That could, of course, be a misguided choice of words by an editor, but what follows in the article seems to bear out the sense that Dr. Payne really does think the whole discussion is missing the point. He writes:

Underlying the discussion of ethics in mindfulness, however, is the presumption that there exists an inherent relation between religion and morality. Yet this focus on morality—thought to define the practice as religious rather than secular, Buddhist rather than non-Buddhist—is based on Western presumptions about religion inherited from Christianity, not Buddhism.

The last line, that this focus on morality, “is based on Western presumptions about religion inherited from Christianity, not Buddhism” is the difficult part. Payne will go on to say more about this, but first he offers a helpful typology of claims about the relationship between ethics and mindfulness practice: inherent, integral, and modular This typology itself is excellent, and I hope that I or others engaging in this discussion can take it up and see how it moves the conversation forward. However, Payne continues:

But the fundamental ground of each of these positions—the way in which Western culture conceives of religion—has been ignoredThat conception is built on a basic narrative trajectory that leads from primal, blissful harmony in Paradise, through sinful disobedience and ejection from Paradise, to a final atonement and reconciliation

To begin, there are many Western cultural conceptions of religion today and one could argue that the strongest of them are Darwinian, or at least secular (Marxist, pscyhoanalytic, etc) in nature. Certainly within the mostly very educated circles where the mindfulness discussion has taken place, the biblical narrative discussed here wasn’t grounding many (if any at all) positions. He goes on:

This biblical narrative is fundamentally ethical in nature, hinging as it does on sinful action as the cause for the fall from grace. Many in the Western Buddhist communities have absorbed this cultural identification of religion with morality uncritically and perhaps unconsciously. It is, after all, an assumption so well established as to be invisible to us.

Yes, the biblical narrative is ethical in nature; but Buddhist narratives such as the Jataka tails and the Aggañña Sutta are ethical too. Yes, too, many Western Buddhists may live more by a biblical moral narrative than a Buddhist one (one only needs to think of the earnestness of some young Buddhists in their insistence that you must believe in karma or rebirth to be a good Buddhist). But again, I’m not sure – and Payne gives little to nothing in terms of evidence here – that this applies to the people involved in the discussion of morality and mindfulness.

But Payne does suggest that the Buddhist narrative takes a “different trajectory” in which ethics is “preliminary,” not regarded as a “strong moral imperative to improve oneself” which is a product of “Protestant religious culture.”

Here Payne is drifting into contestable scholarly territory with Buddhist ethics. Certainly a version of the path is given as “morality, meditation, and wisdom (silasamadhiprajna)” where, perhaps, “[t]he order is not incidental…” as he states, but the path is also stated in various other formulations, notably the 8-fold path where portions associated with wisdom are first, followed by ethics and finally meditation.  We also read in the Sondadanda Sutta: The Qualities of a True Brahmin, that “Just as one hand washes the other, or one foot the other, so wisdom is purified by morality and morality is purified by wisdom.” 

Morality is so deeply ingrained in the Buddhist narrative that it is said to be like one hand, while wisdom is the other. No hierarchy here, but rather a deep interbeing (if I can borrow a neologism from Thich Nhat Hanh). Sila, or ethics, is also central to the lives of most Buddhists throughout Asia historically and today. So much so that for many Buddhists, ethical practices such as generosity to the sangha and honesty in daily life form the beginning and end of their practice, with hopes of simply gaining a higher rebirth in the next life. One could say this is their very Buddhist drive for self-improvement

So why does Dr. Payne think that the worries about chopping off ethics must come from Protestantism or current Western cultural issues around self improvement?

My impression, after discussing this topic with serious practitioners and scholars for the last couple years, including many of those named above and in Mindfulness: Critics and Defenders, is that the worries about ethics come from people with great acquaintance with, understanding of, and devotion to Buddhist traditions. Payne concludes, in part, by suggesting that, “highlighting the contradictions between the cultural presumptions that regard morality as the key to salvation and morality’s role within the Buddhist framework might challenge participants in the debate to question why it has become such a hot-button issue.” 

Given the understanding of morality being on par with wisdom as key to Buddhist awakening in the Pali sources and the likely, if not certain, continued importance of ethics in Buddhist traditions, I think it is clear why attempts to separate mindfulness teaching from ethics has become a hot-button issue.

There may be good claims to be made about Protestantism or other Western presumptions underlying various discussions of Buddhism today. But the debate about ethics is not one of those areas.

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19 responses to “Buddhist mindfulness, morality, and Protestant presumptions”

  1. Good piece Justin. I had the same reaction you did to that passage (“Western presumptions about religion”).

    I think there is a trope among some Western intellectuals that links ethics to Christianity. Usually that trope comes from Christians, who believe that ethics stems from the Bible, or secularists reacting to Christianity, so it’s kind of ironic to find it here.

    Buddhism and other Asian belief systems like Confucianism are inherently and primarily systems of ethics, in the sense of methods of achieving the best or most harmonious sort of life. This is ethics as classical Greeks taught it rather than Christians.

    • “I think there is a trope among some Western intellectuals that links ethics to Christianity.”

      Really? Do you know names or papers/etc defending this view? Like, there were no ethics before or outside of Christianity?! I could see uneducated Christians believing this, but not intellectuals. How disappointing.

      And yes, ethics is all over the place! 🙂 So I’m at pains to see why Payne wants to trace the whole conversation back to Protestantism.

      • Yeah, I don’t mean professors or PhDs, I mean editorial writers and their equivalents. If you want I could look around for a few. I just found it odd to hear the trope echoed here.

        • Oh, no need to do that, Doug. Strange. I understand the need to distinguish between eastern and western notions of ethics here and there, but to claim sole ownership of ‘ethics discourse’ for Christianity? Just odd.

  2. Well said, Justin. I would agree that this debate has missed the point but not for the same reasons Payne has laboriously outlined. The primary assumption that all this rest on is the unquestioned belief that ethics can be stripped away from teachings. Until we examine whether that is possible, we’re trying to comprehend the growth of vegetation as something independent of the environment within which it arises.

    From a clinical perspective, the most important guideline is to acknowledge that each person brings their own historically- and culturally-based values and ethics into the room. There isn’t, from my perspective, any question of there being an ethical vacuum or tabula rasa. In turn, that means we need to examine the real meaning of explicit and implicit ethics in the teaching of secular/clinical/contemporary mindfulness.

    To presume on an implicit set of ethics, in my view, can be a disregard of what is already present in the room. To impose an explicit set of ethics can be a dismissing of what is already present in the room.

    And that would be true regardless of the desire to believe that only Buddhist ethics can lead one to mindfulness.

    • Good point, Lynette – so a future blog post/paper idea might be “Can a ‘Value Neutral’ Mindfulness Teaching Exist?” I keep thinking we need some surveys on this, reaching far and wide into the ‘mindfulness movement’; as I feel like critics and advocates alike are often grasping around in the dark as to what people are ‘actually doing’ in terms of ethics when they teach mindfulness.

      • 😉 The typical curriculum of a mindfulness-based intervention (MBI) if it’s cleaving to the origins of MBSR/MBCT won’t contain anything related to ethics. The rationale of separating church from science (therapy) is repeated ad nauseum in various publications. Hence the debate in MBI circles over explicit and implicit ethics. There are only 3 programs that I’m directly aware of which incorporate ethics: our M4-Mindfulness-based Symptom Management, Mindfulness-integrated Cognitive Behavioral Therapy by Dr. Bruno Cayoun who is a longtime vipassana practitioner, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It’s hinted at in Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) for addiction but as “skillful” means to “kindness”. Mindful Self-Compassion takes a stab at values but it’s in a one-session moment.

        Remember also that MBSR is not manualized so the interpretation of the thematic content of each session is totally up to the teacher – who may or may not be fully trained by anyone’s definition. MBCT is highly manualized which raises other issues about the bhavana perspective we hold from Buddhist practices.

        FWIW, I don’t see that sila can be stripped from the Dharma no matter what. My concern has always been that in the context of dealing with psychological disorders we must be very clear that we aren’t colluding with our natural reactive propensity to lean into ignorance as a bypass of our experience. Hence the need to be transparent about values, ethics and morality in our programs. Not just because it’s being true to the Dharma but because it’s damn good common sense and intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually honest.

        • Excellent – thanks for this, Lynette. I guess I still wonder if, while *some* ethics must be brought into a mindfulness setting as the teacher and student will bring reasons and values to the practice, an attempt can be made to ‘leave open’ the ultimate purpose(s) of the practice. Even with that openness, I would think that ethics must be addressed and discussed. So I guess it depends on what we mean by ‘value-neutrality’ (I have some background reading to do, I’m guessing!).

          At the same time I fully agree with the need for transparency about values, even though I think in this day in age that can be difficult: I, for example, am conditioned by values coming from Buddhism, scientific materialism, capitalism, socialism, perhaps a bit of my Catholic upbringing, and Kant of course 😉 What sense that would make to anyone, I’m not sure, and how I choose to present that will surely vary by context, so ‘true’ transparency may be more an ideal than an actuality.

  3. Haha… Have you heard the joke “god and the devil were watching a man walking one day, when the man bent down and picked up a shiny orb. god says, “well devil, you’re in trouble now, looks like man just found truth”, and devil replied “no I’m not, I’m going to help him organize it”

  4. I have to say, I was somewhat disappointed with this particular post. First and foremost is your equation of sila=morality as an end all definition. I assume you know you are being selective here and choosing one particular notion of sila to make your argument work here. Many scholars (most in fact, as I assume you know) do not equate sila with the western notion of morality. Without that particular equation, your argument largely falls apart here.

    Equally problematic, but not as important is your critique here: “To begin, there are many Western cultural conceptions of religion today”

    Not only today, but there always have been. But that aside, Everyone reading this (including yourself) knew he was referring to the Judeo-Christian traditions. If you are unhappy with his choice of words, that is fine, but that should not merit comment as it has absolutely nothing to do with your critique…it seems like padding and fluff here.

    “and one could argue that the strongest of them are Darwinian, or at least secular (Marxist, pscyhoanalytic, etc) in nature.”

    This seems very biased…and quite contrary to the actual numbers of “believers”. I do not think anyone could argue these are the “strongest” contemporary cultural conceptions of religion unless you are limiting the pool to extremely select circles.

    “Certainly within the mostly very educated circles where the mindfulness discussion has taken place, the biblical narrative discussed here wasn’t grounding many (if any at all) positions. ”

    We all know that Western terminology, typology and even cognition of religious concepts are articulated, and filtered, through a Judeo-Christian lens. Just because someone does not affiliate with a particular religion as an adult, the concepts are still embedded in their discourse. Perhaps your philosophy background, as opposed to religious studies, has not brought this to your attention.

    • Some fair points, Bhikshu Bodhi. Regarding sila=morality, I agree, and was simply following Payne’s use of the terms. How and where we find “western notions of morality” in Buddhism is still widely debated, but I see no huge problem in at least beginning our discussion, as Payne does, with equating sila with morality.

      However, once he’s done that, I find it difficult to see how he wiggles out of morality being very important, indeed foundational for further practice (and as I noted in one sutta at least, on par with panna/wisdom).

      “Everyone reading this (including yourself) knew he was referring to the Judeo-Christian traditions…” Well, he makes that explicit enough, but I disagreed that *we all see* the world through this lens; certainly educated Westerners today see religion through one of the other lenses just as much or more.

      “We all know that Western terminology, typology and even cognition of religious concepts are articulated, and filtered, through a Judeo-Christian lens… Perhaps your philosophy background, as opposed to religious studies, has not brought this to your attention.”

      Indeed, so I suppose we don’t *all* know… And I’d argue that that these are filtered through a scientific lens, a Romantic lens, a Cartesian lens, and a psychoanalytic lens, and, increasingly amongst people in this discussion, a Buddhist lens. For some 300-400 years now the dominance of a Judeo-Christian worldview has been waning; yes, some people still cling to it in various ways, as I acknowledged, but those in this discussion – I think not so much.

      Perhaps Dr. Payne’s typology, too, relies on Judeo-Christian presumptions? It does break it into three parts, and we know how central the number three is to Christianity. So we have a Judeo-Christian lens-filtered scholar telling us our focus on morals is just our Judeo-Christianity coming back to bite us?

      That’s flippant, of course, but without firm evidence, and as I noted Payne gives none, we can spin off such theories all we want.

  5. I appreciated this Justin. Thank you. As a person originally trained in Catholic theology, I am often wondering if Catholic Moral Theology is the subconscious screen I use to read Buddhist texts. While I too see the ethics stream clearly in what I have studied so far in Buddhism, I have wondered if this is, at times, a “catholicizing” of the texts. But I think it is a issue of language and vocabulary. In my opinion, Liberation Theology, for example, uses a more accessible ethics vocabulary than the archaic/ancient language of the Great Bodhisattva Vows or the texts that you mention. We are working hard to modernize them. Merton has served as a great modern interpreter of Zen for me, despite the possibility that he too is “catholicizing” the practice and teachings – and he certainly is coming from the Christian narrative described by Payne. But I think I am coming to a deeper understanding of Buddhist ethical practice precisely because I am entering it through the gateway of (mostly contemporary) western theological vocabulary, reworked for Buddhist sensibilities – a vocabulary that seems less arcane and eccentric and exotic to me than the way we talk about these things in “Buddhisms… ” So, I think there is value in seeing both what is similar and different in the ethics narratives in the west and the east; but from perspective of nondual contemplative practices, the question Payne raises seems moot. In the absolute there is innate morality that is generative and life giving regardless of whether it is a Christian or Buddhist gate that one takes into contemplative practice. Having practiced both, they take me to the same place ultimately – the boundless field or the mind of god (where I still a theist). In the relative, these traditions can co-inform each other. They are frameworks. And, like Gary Snyder wisely an famously said, “The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both. They are both contained in the traditional three aspects of the Dharma path: wisdom (prajna), meditation (dhyana), and morality (sila). Wisdom is intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one’s ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into the mind to see this for yourself — over and over again, until it becomes the mind you live in. Morality is bringing it back out in the way you live, through personal example and responsible action, ultimately toward the true community (sangha) of “all beings.” Thanks for this. It is really helpful.

  6. I think perhaps the desire of many to remove ethics from mindfulness is not just a matter of popularizing Buddhism but a general trend in Western society and especially the United States to remove ethics from discussion at all. Moral Relativism rules, and a very common view held by many people today saying what is right or wrong for others is the only thing which is not morally permissible.

    Of course this ethical view is insufficient for accounting for any robust conception of good and evil, for genocide and heroism, or for solving any practical ethical dilemmas, yet it remains a robust perspective and difficult to dislodge since it prevents any serious ethical discussion or moral reasoning.

    • Yep – I agree we do seem to have little space for thoughtful discussion of ethics in American society. Off hand I’d attribute that, as you did, to the rise of relativism, and that in turn to the continued decay of Judeo-Christian hegemony – yet the continued loud noise of ‘values’ from those stiffly stuck in that paradigm.

  7. Back in ’95, I was assigned a book on mindfulness to read for one of my classes for my master’s degree. I remember in the introduction it stated the mindfulness being discussed was not that of Buddhist compassion but rather an effort to bring more consciousness into our every thought and action. Chapter One had a scientific experiment on the elderly living in care facilities. A selected number randomly chosen were given something to care for, such as a plant or pet, while the other group were denied this possibility. After five years the research showed longer life spans, significantly less complications and complaints, and increased mobility. What the researchers made no comment on and what was glaring to me, were those denied something to care for essentially being condemned to shorter life spans, more complications and complaints, and diminished mobility. Just one short sentence of regret at the other group’s fate would have been sufficiently, er, mindful. During the in-class discussion, no other student picked up this point, also offered no regret or have appeared to take notice. Interesting.

    • Jerry, first of all this wasn’t a study in mindfulness though Langer went on to write the first book on mindfulness.

      However, your concern is important and had the study been designed as described today, I would be too – and it would not really have been passed any research ethics criteria. In fact, this was in the 70’s and Langer much like her colleagues (Zimbardo and Milgram) more or less had the run of the design of investigations. The study’s actual interest was not mortality of the participants and was to see what happens if individuals got more control over their activities (and the other group were given instructions that kept the status quo of having the staff make their decisions). The difference in mortality was examined post-hoc and FWIW statistically not significant. The differences were likely related to whole lot of other factors.

      James Coyne has a fascinating review of how the study was not only misinterpreted by the scientific community but the error was not accrued to future citations.


      • Thank you for the info I could not recall about the study and its parameters. Getting old and lost those notes. My real concern was that every student in the class and the professor did not take note of the “other group.” Almost at the bell, I did mention it in class and it caused quite a stir; the book was eventually dropped by the school from the curriculum. But it had the effect of scaring me a bit: how had no else seen this? And they hadn’t! Getting together with friends later, they all admitted this point had been missed. I loved these guys, thought of them as truly decent and formidably humane…and they missed it! How? (But love was not reduced.)

        I think it goes to what angel Kyodo Williams was saying: isolate mindfulness as a mere tool of how to have greater effectiveness in life and achieving life goals without the moral (to me, compassionate) element,and we will remain at an intellectual distance. Mindfulness to me is interconnectedness, not objective consciousness. It is not personal, per se. Used as a tool for our ends, the pain of the “other group” is reduced to their ineffectiveness,their lack of properly seizing the moment. Too bad.

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