My earliest academic Buddhist teacher, Alan Sponberg, had the apt Dharma name Saramati, “one who gets to the pith of things.”
I remember an exercise he gave to a group of students early on. He had us write down the Buddhadharma in three words. I scribbled something like: “Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.”
Not bad, I suppose, but still on the surface of things.
Dr. Sponberg suggested, “Just. Let. Go.”
Often, when teaching a new idea or practice, it helps to try to boil it down to its essentials. Getting to the pith of things is very important and being able to do so in a way that reaches and sticks with others is a sign of genius.
- Jesus: “love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
- The heart of Judaism, from Hillel the Elder: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn.”
- Buddha’s teachings from Assaji Thero to Sariputta: “The Buddha teaches that all things arise and fall away based on causes and conditions.”
- Nichiren’s distillation of Buddhadharma: “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō.“
- Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”
- Mindfulness, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn: “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”
This honing down is a natural process in the communication of important ideas.
It also opens the door to misinterpretation and misuse. So once this pith is communicated and understood, the idea needs to be refleshed.
This has long been part of my own work, taking an undergraduate education in practical ethics into my graduate studies of Buddhist philosophy – and eventually to meditation/mindfulness. Years ahead of me, however, is Dr. Miles Neale, who in 2010 coined the term McMindfulness to refer to, “Meditation for the masses, drive-through style, stripped of its essential ingredients, prepackaged and neatly stocked on the shelves of the commercial self-help supermarkets.”
He continued, in that Lion’s Roar interview with Danny Fisher, “You see the Buddha didn’t just teach mindfulness, and Patanjali didn’t just teach postures. These great, enlightened sages taught the power tools within a psychological context, sandwiched neatly like the cream of an Oreo between ethics and wisdom.”
However, Neale stressed several times that this doesn’t make mindfulness (even the stripped down version) something to worry about: “Let me be frank: the more mindfulness practiced by anyone, anywhere, the better off we all are. The recent findings at Cambridge University are really just further confirmation of a large body of research on the efficacy of mindfulness that has spanned nearly four decades. At this point, it’s a no-brainer: mindfulness works to reduce negative symptoms and increase wellbeing, period.”
However, like any of the above statements, the full meaning and power of practice comes in filling out the context of the teaching – something that comes from going beyond the pith. As Neale noted, “It turns out that the so-called “good life” of having everything you’ve ever dreamed, comes from leading a “good life” in relation to others, treating others as we would want to be treated. The wisdom traditions recommend that the ground upon which meditation and yoga are practiced be a morally sound life.”
This week, Neale offered a new short article on this topic, bringing in Contemplative Science. As he writes, “While Buddhism is commonly classified as a world religion, it is equally considered a practical philosophy, an ethical way of life, and one of mankind’s first coherent psychologies. For this reason, many Western researchers now refer to a subset of the Buddhist teachings as a contemplative science.” From this he points us to the four noble truths and the 8-fold and 3-fold paths found in early Buddhism.
These are the flesh, the necessary components for life with mindfulness.
Neale’s thought here is perceptive as both a critic and a teacher of mindfulness. He presents the kind of criticism that lifts up the conversation as a challenge to practitioners and teachers to be at least cognizant of their ethical and philosophical position or perspective. Rather than shutting down or dismissing mindfulness, he shows an understanding and appreciation of the practice, but then goes further. He shows that he understands and appreciates human beings – actual people suffering in today’s actual world – who might benefit even from the most stripped down, fleshless forms of mindfulness out there.
Further, he pushes us all to reconsider our secular/religious duality, wherein topics such as ethics and philosophy are often pushed to the religious side and are thus “out of bounds” for non-explicitly-Buddhist teachers and classes. If we can pull Buddhism (alongside other Asian philosophies) out of the “religious” pigeon-hole it is commonly placed in today, then we can fully incorporate the ethical and philosophical context in mindfulness courses.
This will need to be done with sensitivity to the origins, though, which is something I could expect from a scholar like Neale – but might not be so sure about coming from mindfulness teachers with little or no training in the historical foundations of the practice.
I dare call this Mindfulness criticism 2.0. The term is odd to me because I don’t do tech, so all the “2.0” stuff is foreign to me; and, more importantly, because Neale has been pushing this line since at least 2010, before the 2013-current burst of mindfulness criticism. So it’s so old that it’s new; the new new, the old new, the…