Abhidhamma, Brian Victoria, Chan/Zen 禪, Hakuin, Japan, John Dunne, Jon Kabat-Zinn, nondualism, Pali suttas, Ron Purser, Tibet, Wangchuk Dorje
Ron Purser’s critique of modern mindfulness is thoroughgoing, and extends beyond chastising its skepticism of political engagement. Purser also criticizes modern mindfulness on other grounds, grounds that I think are considerably closer to the views of classical (early) Buddhist texts.
In particular, Purser’s article “The myth of the present moment” (from the journal Mindfulness 6:680–686) points to a central element of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and other modern mindfulness practices which is not present in the classical texts. Namely: Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR and modern medical mindfulness generally, defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”. So a key goal of modern mindfulness practice is “reducing thoughts and ruminations of the past and future, which keeps us from being in the present moment.” (Purser 682) Purser notes that this focus on the present moment is exemplified in the common introductory practice (included in BU’s mindfulness workshop) of mindfully paying attention to the experience of slowly eating a raisin.
Purser rightly notes that this present-moment approach to mindfulness deviates from classical Pali texts (suttas and abhidhamma) in at least two ways. For one, there is nothing “non-judgemental” about the practice of mindfulness in the classical texts. The Satipaṭṭhāna (Foundations of Mindfulness) Sutta is typically taken as the core text for mindfulness practice. There, the practitioner – specifically described as a monk – becomes aware of mental hindrances like anger and sluggishness arising and passing away, but never questions that they are hindrances, negative states that one would be better off without. Judgement is a core part of the practice, integrated into the practice’s wider ethical framework.
Second, classical mindfulness practice is not focused on being in the present moment, the here and now. “The present moment, like any other mental object, is seen for what it actually is—impermanent, unsatisfactory, and lacking self-nature.” (Purser 684) The goal is to see all objects as having these “three marks” (tilakkhana), allowing one to become detached from all of it.
I agreed with critiques like Purser’s for a long time: modern mindfulness meditation seemed far removed from what I thought to be real Buddhism. But I have begun to change my mind on this for a variety of reasons. Key among these are the works of John Dunne, possibly the most acute scholar I know on Buddhist meditation and its implications – particularly his 2011 article “Toward an understanding of non-dual mindfulness” and 2015 chapter “Buddhist styles of mindfulness: a heuristic approach”.
Dunne acknowledges wholeheartedly that modern MBSR-type practices diverge from classical Buddhist tradition. But that does not mean that they are modern inventions, fabricated of whole cloth for colonial and postcolonial concerns. After all, there were over two thousand years between the composition of the earliest Buddhist texts and modern colonialism, and a lot of Buddhism can happen in that time.
Dunne’s point is to distinguish between the classical understanding of mindfulness, found in the suttas and abhidhamma as well as traditional Mahāyāna thinkers like Śāntideva, and a different “nondual style” that begins in India with Dharmakīrti and the Yogācāra tradition, but reaches its full flowering outside India in “the Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen traditions of Tibet and the Chan traditions of China; and through Chinese Chan, Nondual styles appear in Japanese Zen and Korean Seon Buddhism.” (Dunne 2015: 259) And modern mindfulness’s pronounced divergences from classical Buddhism turn out to be considerably less pronounced from nondual Buddhism.
As a key example of nondual practice, Dunne examines the Ocean of Definitive Meaning (Nges don rgya mtsho), a sixteenth-century Tibetan text by Wangchuk Dorje, the Ninth Karmapa. Wangchuk Dorje’s text recommends both of the features we have discussed in contemporary mindfulness. It tells us to stay in the present moment: “Do not chase the past; do not invite the future; rest the awareness occurring now in a clear and nonconceptual state.” And it urges a non-judgemental approach to thoughts that arise in meditation: “Some say that one should deliberately suppress thoughts to be abandoned, but if one does so, then it will just increase conceptuality and it will be difficult for concentration (samādhi) to arise.” (Dunne 2015: 264-5) So we see this approach arising in Tibet before 1624, when the first Jesuit missionaries and hence Western influence got there.
Purser, much to his credit, recognizes that “Here-and-nowism” is not only a modern or Western phenomenon: “it was quite prevalent in 8th century China, promoted to the laity as a meditation method that promised quick results, with no requirements for doctrinal study or ethical training.” To that point he responds: “Zen reformers such as Dahui and later Hakuin in Japan, however, castigated such methods on the grounds that they easily lead to an imbalanced state of ‘meditation sickness,’ in which case the meditator becomes attached to a dull stillness or peaceful bliss states, with little concern for the suffering of the world.” (Purser 683)
I don’t think that this castigation should be taken as definitive, however. The critique that one has “little concern for the suffering of the world” – ie of people other than oneself – is a stock Mahāyāna polemic against early and Theravāda Buddhism. That is, it can be, and has been, directed against the classical Pali traditions that Purser himself refers to. It’s worth noting in this regard how Dunne claims that “clear elements of a Nondual approach” appear in contemporary Theravāda tradition, especially in the Thai forest tradition of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. I generally consider myself a Theravādin, and in my own meditation practice I have observed Wangchuk Dorje’s point about a non-judgemental approach to be correct: the attempt to suppress harmful thoughts and emotions intentionally is less effective than simply observing their arising non-judgementally and letting it fall away. In general I’m not sure how much a critique like Dahui’s and Hakuin’s can stick without being a critique of non-Mahāyāna Buddhism in general.
Neither Dunne nor Purser are attempting to resolve the Theravāda-Mahāyāna divide, and I’m not going to try to do that here either. My point is simply to say that there’s no reason that Hakuin should get the last word on the question. It may be worth noting here Brian Victoria’s point that Hakuin thought a warrior’s lifestyle was better than a monk’s for Buddhist practice; this is not necessarily someone we should want to take as our ethical lodestar.
In that last regard, I might reiterate a point I made in an earlier response to Purser: the detachment of nondual or contemporary mindfulness from traditional Buddhist ethical systems may prove a point in its favour. When traditional practitioners like Hakuin place mindfulness in an ethical framework, their framework may well be one that we practitioners today disagree with. The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta continually specifies that it is a monk doing its practice, so its ethical framework is specifically a monastic one, one that we cannot follow insofar as we remain laypeople. So likewise, I do not accept the traditional metaphysical-ethical view that all things of the world are dukkha and therefore to be avoided; I think the reduction of dukkha should be one aim among many. And the politically engaged Buddhism that Purser elsewhere advocates may well be a greater departure from premodern Buddhism tradition than nondual mindfulness is. In each of these respects, the decentring of ethics from nondual mindfulness (allowing it to be viewed as a technique) may well be a plus.
Amod, I suspect the phrase “little concern for the suffering of the world” that you take to be “a stock Mahāyāna polemic” is Purser’s “engaged Buddhist” interpretive commentary on a very abbreviated one-sentence account of 600 years of Chan/Zen history from Dahui in China to Hakuin in Japan. If there is a “a stock Mahāyāna polemic” here, it is from Purser and not from the Chinese and Japanese sources he mentions. To borrow what you said above, “a lot of Buddhism can happen” in 600 years, and Purser is apparently not concerned with a scholarly examination of the complexity of that history since his article has a different agenda. Dahui’s polemic was not about “little concern for the suffering of the world”; it was against “silent illumination” (mozhao) practice in favor of “critical phrase” (kanhua) practice.
The Japanese monk Dōgen, who was born a few decades after Dahui died, was familiar with Dahui and made innovations that in some ways made Dahui’s polemic irrelevant by sidestepping the opposition between silent illumination and critical phrase practice: “Whether one emphasizes a non-Buddhist naturalism to which Silent Illumination Chan easily succumbs or Kōan-Introspection’s exclusive concern for stimulating awakening, one will end up in a cave with common people who easily succumb to ‘irrational dialogue’ Zen (in the words of Dōgen in the Sansui kyō)” (from: Ishii Shūdō, “Dōgen Zen and Song Dynasty China”, in: Steven Heine (ed.), Dōgen: Textual and Historical Studies, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 163). Dōgen wasn’t alone in being able to sidestep such oppositions; any good teacher should be able to do it.
So when you wonder “how much a critique like Dahui’s and Hakuin’s can stick” I would answer that, first, their polemics within Chan/Zen are different from the polemics between Theravāda and Mahāyāna and that, second, any good teacher should be able to use skillful means (upāya-kauśalya) to cut through such polemics and direct a student to whichever teaching is best suited to help them in their situation.
Seth Zuiho Segall said:
Amod, I agree that complaints that Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness does not bear a strict one-to-one correspondence to the Pali term are off point. Kabat-Zinn’s earliest Buddhist experience was with Korean Zen training, and his approach reflects not only that early Korean Zen influence and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Vietnamese Zen influence, and not only Nyoniponika Thera’s “bare attention” (mis)interpretation of Theravada, the non-Buddhist influences of Krishnamurti, Maharshi, Maharaj, and Gurdjieff that emphasized non-conceptual present-moment awareness, and finally ideas regarding sensory awareness, present-centeredness, and transcendence that arose within humanistic psychology, transpersonal psychology, and the human potential movements. This new definition of mindfulness may not be Theravada in full, but it is consonant with both the Zen and Dzogchen non-dual traditions, and is also consonant with the mainstream of what has become Western Buddhist modernism.
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Paul Martín said:
Nicely constructed blog. Thoughtful and thought-provoking entries. Thanks for the blog.
About modern mindfulness controversies that you summarized so well:
(1) Modern meditators and Buddhist are creating their own path, so to speak, similar to what happens when different cultures or idea structures encounter each other.
(2) There’s the historical account of how the encounter happens. Then there’s the personal encounter in which each seeker, so to speak, “uses” the Buddhist practices for whatever their needs and goals are. The practice is personalized to some extent, and sometimes completely.
(3) Kabat-Zinn’s approach actually works for the purposes it was created for. I guess the argument is whether it’s Buddhism or not. Similarly to how yoga was introduced. I don’t think he makes any claims about it being Buddhist.
(4) Vipassana meditators in my city have become very politically engaged lately. Bhikkhu Bodhi once commented something like in Sakyamuni’s time and place (Magadha, India) when monarchy’s prevailed, the challenges posed by democratic forms of government, which make great demands on citizen participation, didn’t exist. He seemed to suggest that being apolitical is not a choice. I guess the question is how active one is. So I think it is inevitable that practitioners will become politically engaged to some extent, as has happened in other countries–Japan and Vietnam, for sure.
Just some initial reactions to your post. I felt welcomed to comment and enjoyed letting off a little steam.