As mindfulness meditation practices become ever more popular and widespread, their claim to be a “non-sectarian technique” takes on progressively greater importance, just as it does with yoga. By claiming their practices to be secular techniques, teachers not only can promote the practices to adherents of Abrahamic traditions; they can also aim to avoid the legal restrictions placed on “religion” –though they can then also be taxed, and even treated as a competitive sport.
But that’s not the only problem. The concept of “religion” is famously difficult to define, and I’ve often expressed my view that it hurts our inquiries more than it helps. Generally speaking, I think, the less we employ the category, the better. Unfortunately, that is not an option in a place like the United States – and probably most other places in the world – in which the concept of “religion” is enshrined into law. In particular, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” And in the past few decades the US Supreme Court has taken this to mean that a “religious activity” cannot be taught in public schools – even as an optional elective. Thus the US law as it stands cannot exist without some sort of attempt, however bad it might be, to define “religion”.
What that means, in turn, is that the claims of mindfulness instructors to be teaching “nonreligious” techniques do not get a free pass: just because you say it’s non-religious, doesn’t mean it is. This becomes pretty clear with something like Goenka vipassanā courses, which claim to be a mere technique but include not merely quotes from the Buddha but chanting from Buddhist suttas, and request that practitioners refrain from any other religious practice while they are trying the “technique” out. None of this is a problem for the likes of the mindfulness program in Boston University’s IS&T, because BU is a privately funded institution and therefore is allowed to teach “religion” as it chooses; it even has a school of theology. But for public schools, including public colleges, it is a different matter: if mindfulness meditation is legally defined as a “religious” activity, then it cannot legally be taught in public schools. That is a major reason why its teachers have defined it as a secular technique – but your saying something isn’t “religious” is not enough to establish that it actually isn’t, according to US law. And so, entirely unsurprisingly, Christian groups are now suing schools that teach mindfulness. The main surprise to me is that it took them this long.
I am not particularly interested in the particular American legal issues involved in this challenge, including the legal definition of “religion”. More interesting and important to me – as a philosopher, a Buddhist, and a practitioner of mindfulness meditation – is this question: whatever the law says (in the US or anywhere else), should Christians, as Christians, be objecting to mindfulness practices in the first place? Including even ones that bill themselves as secular techniques? The fact that these practices have Buddhist origins shouldn’t be the issue. Rather, the question is: is there something about the practices themselves that would undermine a Christian’s Christianity by practising them?
The first point that comes to mind in answering that question is a distinction I drew between Buddhism and Christianity with respect to science: that the most important science for Buddhism is psychology, whereas for Christianity it is cosmology (including natural history). Buddhists have not traditionally believed in evolution or a Big Bang, but to adopt belief in these different cosmologies is not particularly problematic for Buddhists because they are somewhat orthogonal to the key Buddhist teachings. So one could conversely make the claim that because mindfulness practices are psychological in orientation, they are less at odds with Christian belief.
That is not the end of the story, however. For some cosmological elements do make a difference to Buddhism: a large portion of the Śikṣā Samuccaya describes the torments one might face in the hells, and if it turns out there are no hells, that would make a significant difference to Śāntideva’s outlook. And so too there is at least one psychological belief that is at the core of traditional Christianity. And that is the existence of a soul.
Early Christians followed the common Greek view that the soul (psychē) was a person’s essence; Origen established a view that has endured among Christians since then, that the soul is immortal. It is this immortal soul that can be saved or unsaved. And while I think the idea of an essential and immortal soul is not incompatible with mindfulness practice, it does at least stand in significant tension with it. I noted that Buddhists and qualitative individualists share the beliefs that any self which exists is divisible, mutable and heteronomous; one of the things that makes this shared view significant is it is not typically shared by Christians.
A key element to mindfulness practice is disidentification: one notices one’s thoughts and emotions as they surface, and observes them from a distance. In so doing, one comes to observe one’s mind, one’s self, as a divided entity, reducible into parts. One takes an approach which Augustine would have associated with his Manichean foes: where the soul is not one thing but the battleground for a struggle between good and evil intentions.
That doesn’t mean one can’t practise mindfulness meditation as a Christian – or even that mindfulness meditation must mean one ceases to believe in an immortal soul. But the mindfulness approach, which explicitly comes out of Buddhist non-self, is explicitly in tension with the unified immortal essence postulated by most Christians. I think Christians would do well to at least be cautious around it.
To be fair, most Christians – like most Buddhists – probably engage in practices that are even more theologically problematic without a second thought. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing for them to do so. If we are to take our traditions seriously, we need to think through practices that may stand at odds with them.