One of the standards of scientific knowledge is only referring to original research in support of a line of reasoning—or so I was told once upon a time. This is an epistemologically sound piece of advice, since it helps to avoid the appearance of more support than actually exists. For example, if I cite authors A, B, and C, while A in turn is depending on B and C, and B had only worked from C (the primary source), then while it may appear that I have three authors supporting the idea I’m presenting, in fact there is only one, each of the others being derivative (secondary sources).
This epistemological concern is reflected in the distinction between primary sources and secondary, that is, derivative or interpretive sources. There are difficulties with these categories, such as the fact that in one intellectual project a source may be primary, while in another project it is secondary. And, sometimes it seems as if the distinction is based solely on the patina of age—a twelfth century commentary on a second century text being considered “more primary” than a nineteenth century commentary on the same second century text. (Neither distance nor proximity in time is an inherent marker of authoritative interpretation.) These problems should be resolved on a case by case basis, while we can continue to use the distinction between primary and secondary sources as terms correlative to one another, and at the same time of heuristic value.
Paddling about in the morass of writing on mindfulness, meditation, Buddhism and psychology and so on, trying to get my bearings, I have noticed that the distinction between primary and secondary sources is not adhered to with equal vigor depending on the type of discourse being cited. Authors who would probably never consider citing a popular journalistic presentation of a scientific concept, such as perhaps Sharon Begley on neuroplasticity, seem to have no sensitivity that the same kind of distinction applies to religious topics as well.
Perhaps a personal anecdote is permitted at this point as it illustrates the kind of source inequity I’m suggesting plagues some writings on mindfulness. When living in Kyoto, I was once introduced to a world famous mathematician whose children were attending the same international school as my daughter. With all the urbanity of an anxious graduate student, I asked about his area of specialization, and he told me that he never tries to explain what he does to non-professionals since they couldn’t possibly understand it. When the conversation turned with some awkwardness to what I did, I said that I studied Japanese Buddhism. He then proceeded to tell me, with great self-assurance, all about Zen. And yes, his discourse was filled with lots of ill-informed preconceptions. But the noteworthy aspect regarding our current topic is the attitude that while mathematics was the exclusive province of professionals, anyone has the authority to talk about religion.
In a different context, I was appalled to read an American psychologist writing on Buddhist meditation cite on the one hand such leading modern theorists of psychology as Bion, Becker and Winnicott, while his sources for Buddhism were writers such as Watts, Epstein, Magid and Batchelor. Whatever the merits of the latter four individually, they are all already oriented toward a psychological representation of Buddhism—and thus, as per the distinction outlined above, secondary sources, that is, derivative and already interpreted. (In fairness, I note that the author also cited Cook and Gombrich.) If the Buddhism that we look at is an already-psychologized Buddhism, then a psychological approach to Buddhism yields nothing other than a petitio principii fallacy. Here we see another epistemological problem generated by the inequity of sources.
An important essay on mindfulness that attempts to systematically address this kind of source inequity is “Mindfulness Revisited: A Buddhist-Based Conceptualization,” by Ronald E. Purser (see previous post) and Joseph Milillo, Journal of Management Inquiry, published online 12 May 2014. Working seriously in the area of mindfulness and management, the authors note that
“The few organizational theorists who have attempted to incorporate Buddhist-inspired conceptualizations of individual-level mindfulness…have drawn mainly from popular Buddhist texts by Western teachers of modernized mindfulness ‘insight meditation,’ along with Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR method. However, even these attempts to draw from Buddhist-inspired sources have resulted in operational definitions of mindfulness that differ considerably from Buddhist canonical descriptions. Indeed, the scientific and clinical literatures have virtually ignored the rich theoretical descriptions of mindfulness practice contained in the Buddhist canon.” (sources elided)
[The essay is important for its many further critical contributions to an informed discussion of the relation of mindfulness practice to modern society. Those, however, must await another post.]
Studies of religious scripture often distinguish between canonic, paracanonic and noncanonic writings. The Buddhist tradition itself has its own long history of determining what is authoritative in the sense of the “speech of the Buddha” (buddhavacana, sūtra) and what is exegesis thereof (śāstra), of distinguishing between different categories and kinds of commentaries (e.g., upadeśa, bhāṣya), and of what requires interpretation and does not. [A foundational source in this regard is Robert Buswell, ed., Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha, University of Hawai’i Press, 1990, particularly the essay by Ronald Davidson, “An Introduction to the Standards of Scriptural Authenticity in Indian Buddhism.”] This technology of authenticity and authority should be important to authors proclaiming the identity between the “Buddha’s teachings” and a psychological, individualistic, and therapeutic representation of meditation, though it appears that they are often content with the derivative and predigested.