Amanda Ream, authenticity, Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Disengaged Buddhism, Engaged Buddhism, Ron Purser, William Edelglass
Ron Purser’s critique of McMindfulness is in line with William Edelglass’s critique of the “happiness turn” in Western Buddhism. Purser and Edelglass are both right to note that something new, less traditional, is going on in modern mindfulness. For there are parts of Buddhism that secular mindfulness leaves out, intentionally. Purser is right about that: right mindfulness (sammāsati) is only one part of the traditional Noble Eightfold Path, and mindfulness practices often leave out the rest. And so he is also right to ask the question:
what is mindfulness for? Is it merely to attain better health, higher exam scores, focused concentration at work, or “self-compassion?” Is it a medical form of self-improvement? In a way, posing the question is tantamount to asking what constitutes “the good life,” the traditional basis of philosophy. (79)
Indeed it is. And that is of course a difficult question. But it is important that the traditional Buddhist answers to that question are no closer to Purser’s anti-capitalist activism (or to Edelglass’s concern to alleviate “deprivation, violence, illness, racism, and environmental degradation”) than they are to secular mindfulness. I suspect they are further away from it.
Purser makes a biting critique of a San Francisco “Wisdom 2.0” conference that featured corporate mindfulness teachers: “such outmoded traditions as Buddhism clearly need upgrading from Wisdom 1.0.” (177) It is easy to laugh at such attempts to modernize Buddhism. But Purser should be careful which houses he throws stones at. For he then compliments the protesters outside this conference, objecting to San Francisco’s tech-driven housing crisis, led by one Amanda Ream. And here he tells us that “Ream, a member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, was effectively teaching ‘Wisdom 101.'” (178) Purser’s language at least suggests that the Buddhist Peace Fellowship – ground zero for the Western Engaged Buddhist movement – is teaching authentic premodern Buddhism in a way that corporate mindfulness is not. Such a claim would be absolutely false, and should not be allowed to stand.
Purser tacitly admits as much when he describes Thich Nhat Hanh, born in 1926, as “one of the pioneers of socially engaged Buddhism” (191), effectively implying that this particular brand of “Wisdom 1.0” was pioneered in the 20th century, just as modern mindfulness was. Engaged Buddhism is a modern movement with Western roots, much of which rejects some of classical Buddhism’s core tenets. The BPF, in particular, was founded in explicit defiance to the instructions of its own traditional Buddhist teachers.
Engaged Buddhism and modern mindfulness together make up a large component of the complex that is modernized Buddhism. Their histories are closely tied, both going back to colonial-era reformers like Anagarika Dharmapala who wanted to make Buddhism newly relevant to an age that valorized science, capitalism and political activism. And so engaged Buddhism adds to traditional Buddhism a belief in the importance of activism, with strong roots in the Victorian era’s utilitarian and Marxist traditions; modern mindfulness adds a belief in the importance of science, denying rebirth and turning to psychological research.
Now, I’m no advocate of trying to maintain a pristine premodern Buddhism. Engaged Buddhists have a right to try to update Buddhism to reflect their political commitments. What they have no right to do is make the false claim that their political engagement is one iota less of a modern innovation than the corporate mindfulness movement is. Engaged Buddhism is every bit as untraditional. If we are going to critique corporate mindfulness for being untraditional, we cannot reasonably do so from the standpoint of engaged Buddhism, and if we are going to update Buddhism to be politically engaged, we cannot then fault corporate mindfulness for its updating Buddhism.
This same critique, I must note, applies in reverse. I myself have been critical of engaged Buddhists’ innovations while praising other modern innovations like naturalizing karma. Given the latter point, I’ve tried to be clear that engaged Buddhism’s innovations are not themselves the problem. That activism and scientific naturalism are modern innovations does not make either one bad. What is bad is to make a false claim by denying that they are modern innovations, pretending engaged Buddhism or corporate mindfulness training were already there in the dharma to start. So once we start from a perspective of modernized Buddhism – engaged or otherwise – our critique of other forms of modernized Buddhism must not be on the grounds that they are modernized.
Rather, we need to acknowledge that each modernized Buddhism is a fusion of Buddhism with non-Buddhist elements. That is not a criticism, since most existing traditional Buddhisms also include non-Buddhist elements. The key is to note which non-Buddhist elements are added, and evaluate those on their own merits. That’s not an easy thing to do – in many ways it comes down to evaluating an entire ethical system, which in turn requires identifying one’s own system. But that more general process of ethical evaluation, rather than innovation or the lack thereof, needs to be our basis for critique. Inconsistency is a problem in any ethical system, and when we belong to multiple traditions – which is what a modernized Buddhism effectively requires – the risk of inconsistency is higher. But there too, the problem is with potential inconsistencies and not with innovation as such.
Purser is right to point out that modern mindfulness is detached from the ethical framework in which traditional mindfulness was embedded. But I would argue that that fact makes modern mindfulness more compatible with socially engaged Buddhism! Because, as my Disengaged Buddhism article shows, the ethical framework of traditional Buddhism is one that does not pursue the systemic change of society and is sometimes even hostile to it. And that is so for reasons Purser has himself noted: it claims our real problems are craving, anger and delusion, which are phenomena in our minds and not the world – and trying to change the world might well make them worse. We may well disagree with those reasons and prefer a modern post-Victorian ethic of activism to a classical Buddhist ethic of monastic restraint – but if we do, then we are lucky that modern mindfulness separates itself from traditional Buddhist ethics. That separation makes modern mindfulness more compatible with engaged Buddhism than traditional mindfulness was, just as it makes modern mindfulness more compatible with Christianity or with military intervention.
Natalie Quli said:
I love this post and agree with most of it. From my perspective, Ron’s critique of the absence of ethics from corporate mindfulness doesn’t need to rest on issues of authenticity or continuity (though I think that is, in fact, the tact he uses when he invokes “tradition”). I think it’s perfectly reasonable to note that part of corporate mindfulness’s success has stemmed from the lack of a robust ethical system–any ethical system, traditional or modern. I think noting its lack of explicit and in-depth guiding principles is a legitimate critique, and in part it’s been that very lack of ethics that has allowed mindfulness to grow in corporate spaces.
Cutting through the issue of authenticity and just focusing on ethics itself instead of trying to carve out a position that conjures up “tradition” is more honest and more constructive, IMO, since it won’t involve expending energy on inventing a past with which to be seen as consistent. Why not just name harm as we see it and try to change it without all the apologetics? There’s nothing wrong with using contemporary ethical systems to evaluate harm if it’s done with intention, honesty, and clarity.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks, Natalie, and welcome. I mostly agree with you as well. Of course contemporary ethical systems are open to critique just like traditional ones are; the critique can go in both directions. One of the reasons I insist on pointing out the disengaged tendencies in traditional Buddhism is that I think much contemporary ethics – typically so focused on political activism and systemic change – has some important potential lessons to learn from those tendencies (which I’ve spoken of elsewhere). The lessons learned can and probably should be mutual – and I think we lose a lot of the opportunity to learn those lessons if we try to make these very different systems look the same.
Amod Lele said:
Regarding modern mindfulness specifically, I want to point out again that the deemphasis of an explicit ethical grounding allows it to fit better with engaged Buddhist activism, just as it allows it to fit better with corporate profit-making. Both of these activities are alien to the traditional world in which mindfulness and related meditations first developed. If we want an ethic different from that found in the suttas or abhidhamma – and both you and I do, from the sound of it – then the relative detachment of modern mindfulness from traditional ethics probably should count as a strength.
Natalie Quli said:
For sure using contemporary ethical systems is open to debate–and that’s the strength I’m referring to. Being honest about sources and motivations shifts the project from justifying a position to actually addressing issues (which benefits tremendously from vulnerability and dialogue). I agree that there is much to learn from other systems, though I would definitely not refer to any such systems as “traditional.” At what point does something cross over to being traditional? How much discontinuity is necessary to be “modern”? The traditional/modern binary is fraught with authenticity claims through and through. There is no such thing as a non-contested, traditional Buddhism, just multiple social groups adapting to their local and temporal circumstances while building temples, writing texts, and doing Buddhist-y stuff. It’s turtles all the way down.There’s no static, essential tradition there. Also, it’s not just old texts and history that can serve as dialogue partners, but contemporary heritage lineages in terms of ethics, merit, ritual, etc. (esp. since convert lineages tend to vilify and deprecate heritage groups). Folks usu. seem to think I mean to valorize “tradition” by suggesting this, but actually no: I’m just suggesting that there are multiple ways to look at these things, and more dialogue is good if addressing harm is the goal.
Great post, and I loved the JBE article.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks – I’m glad you enjoyed them both!
You’re also right to question the traditional/modern binary. I should be more careful about that sort of usage, perhaps from a somewhat different direction: as a MacIntyrean and Gadamerian, I think it’s very important to point out that modern systems of ethics are themselves traditions. Contemporary social-justice ethics is its own tradition with its own history, going back to some extent to the ethical traditions typically taught in ethics classes (utilitarianism, Kant-via-Rawls) but more so to Marx, Protestantism and the Jewish prophets. As such it constitutes one tradition (or perhaps set of traditions) of modern ethical inquiry, distinct from, competing with, and perhaps sometimes fusing with other traditions (such as Buddhism – but also such as other traditions that share more roots with it, like Protestantism and Kantianism). This all can get obscured when we think of modern traditions like social justice as “not traditional”.
Not sure who in earlier buddhism practiced mindfulness. Was it only monastics? And if so, how extensively? Because the issue of no self must have played a part in the mosaic of their studies.What we see in modern mindfulness reifies the self, “capitalizes” on it. It’s been suggested by a few that it’s no self teachings that are needed to address McM. This opens onto a debate, however.