Ignorance of the Buddhadharma is no Excuse, 2.1

The two lengthy comments on the previous post (“Ignorance of the Buddhadharma is no Excuse, 2”) raise some valuable issues, ones that I would like to take the time to explore more fully than I feel could be done simply in a reply. #1 below is an attempt to better clarify my usage of “actual Buddhists” in light of Tom Pepper’s comments. The other, #2 & #3, are for Jeff.

1. “true Buddhists” and “actual Buddhists”: I was actually trying to avoid the notion of “true Buddhists” as those who know the essence of Buddhism, versus false Buddhists who don’t, but didn’t get that as clear as needed to articulate my intended point (rereading that sentence makes me cringe it is so badly worded that I will consider going back to rewrite, everybody deserves a second chance you know). That point had more to do with the rhetorical strategy of claiming to be able to identify the essence of Buddhism, or “the heart of Buddhism.” Those who make such claims, whether lay or monastic, “traditional or contemporary,” in fact ignore the very diversity of actual Buddhists, including those who hold some kind of (crypto-)ātman theory. The claim that some specific practice is the essence of Buddhism is a sales strategy, either for some entrepreneur’s product or as a way of promoting a particular interpretation.

If I might indulge in a bit of nostalgia, the following story may perhaps assist in understanding the vehemence of my feelings about the arrogance of those who claim a privileged position enabling them to define what the essence of Buddhism, or any religion is.

Many years ago, there was an earnest young student—myself—who sincerely believed that there was a single universal core to all religions, and that this was not only the central aspect, but also what made a tradition “alive.” He thought that is single universal truth was accessible through ineffable mystical experience, and that such profound experiences provided deep insight into the nature of human existence, the meaning of reality, and so on, and so on, blah, blah, blah. Then I entered doctoral studies and things immediately got complicated. In 1983, having completed my dissertation research in Japan, my wife and I traveled to Taiwan. In Taipei one of the must see sights according to the guidebook was a place called “Snake Alley,” which is (or was, it may be gone now) a night-market where one can obtain fresh snake meat and other snake related products guaranteed to make one strong and healthy. Right off Snake Alley there is a temple, probably a “Taoist” temple to the three deities, I no longer recall clearly—and for the purposes of the morality tale, it doesn’t matter.

What I do clearly recall was watching an elderly woman, whom I assumed was a grandmother, throwing moon blocks—crescent shaped wooden blocks, painted red, flat on one side, curved on the other. This is a common form of divination in some parts of China, and having read about it, I was very interested in watching how it was being done.

A couple of years or so later, in discussion with a colleague about the text that she was planning to use for her intro to world’s religions class—Huston Smith’s Religions of Man as it was then known—I realized that the mystical version of Taoism described there had nothing to do with the lived reality of that elderly woman, an actual person. Instead that mystical version was a creation of the author, and the claim that it somehow represented the real core of Taoism, the essence of the tradition, necessarily implied that the author was better able to discern the real meaning and significance than the elderly woman whose divining with the moon blocks I had observed. And it then was clear to me that the claim of a privileged position of that type necessarily dismissed the lived reality of that elderly woman and however she thought about what she was doing, and treated her as ignorant of the true meaning of Taoism.

The Perennialist view of religion entails the claim that “we” know the truth, and everyone else, such as ordinary believers, is mistaken, misguided, superstitious, or simply incapable of understanding the higher realities. The same logic is at work when mindfulness entrepreneurs dismiss Buddhist teachings and practices as merely cultural accretions that can be discarded, since they are not the essence of Buddhism, and that the essence of Buddhism has nothing to do with Buddhism anyway, since it is truly universal. Ah, such breathtaking arrogance—to be able to dismiss the existential realities of actual Buddhists as irrelevant.

And, once again, just for clarity, this is not a claim that I know what the essence of Buddhism is, but rather that it is all social convention, or one might call it prapañca—the proliferation of concepts. Which relates back to the idea of de-reifying the personal ātman, which is what I think is unique to Buddhism, though neither an essence, nor universally shared by all actual Buddhists—especially not perhaps in its more comprehensive form, which is the radical denial of an ātman of any kind, that is, either of persons or of things.

2. terminology: appropriation and expropriation—of course mindfulness is not an object that can be owned, however, appropriate means “to take something for one’s own use” though since no one “owns” mindfulness (not because it is some kind of universal human ancient wisdom-y kind of thing, but because it is not an object) we can overlook the additional connotation of “without permission.” In that sense anyone making use of historically Buddhist practices can be said to be appropriating them; I would myself try to distinguish (and may not have been fully consistent in the previous post) appropriate from expropriate, the latter meaning to take something away from someone else. In other words, borrowing and stealing (but of course there is no object there to be borrowed or stolen, so this is all metaphoric).

These two categories—appropriation and expropriation—do not align with the two categories employed by Monteiro, et al., those of “traditional” and “contemporary.” In their usage traditional mindfulness teachers are those who point to a Buddhist framework for their own work, and contemporary are those who deny any Buddhist connection, background or basis. Of the latter, see Ron Purser and Andrew Cooper’s recent essay in Salon. Instead, the distinction I’m trying to explore here would consider those who brand their teachings in such a fashion as to claim exclusive rights over it to be engaging in expropriation, whether they are traditional or contemporary in Monteiro, et al.’s understanding. In other words any effort to create a specific brand identity using traditionally Buddhist practices and teachings, whether explicitly identified as Buddhist or not, constitutes a form of expropriation.

The image that came to my mind while thinking about branding goes back to the origins of the term. Out there in the West (or maybe I should say out here…) there are wild horses running free. You catch one, you brand it, and it is now yours. Congratulations—you have just taken something that is not owned and therefore cannot be sold, and turned it into your own property, which you can now sell, i.e., it is a commodity. And because it is now branded (copyrighted, trademarked, patented) no one else can sell it—unless, of course, they complete the proper training course to become an authorized teacher of the “whatever” brand of mindfulness.

3. history of mindfulness movement: this is actually rather well documented, and if one is interested, then see for example these three items, which are just the ones readily at hand—there are others, lots:

• Jeff Wilson’s very good Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture (Oxford, 2014), particularly ch. 1, “Mediating Mindfulness: How Does Mindfulness Reach America?”

• Robert Sharf (not Scharf as found in Monteiro, et al.’s bibliography), “Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan,” Philosophy East & West, 64.4 (Oct. 2014), which has a brief survey of the history on pp. 941–945. This is worth reading in full as it raises the interesting issue of the parallels between the issues in early Chan and modern mindfulness.

• Erik Braun, The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

These should help to dispel the notion that mindfulness is some kind of universal or ancient wisdom. That rhetoric is part of the mystification that Wilson addresses, going a bit further by playing on the quite mistaken notions of Perennialism, which despite having been shown to be based on a misdating, continue to appeal to many in American popular religious culture.

At the same time, much of the appeal of mindfulness and the ways in which it is marketed are informed by American metaphysical religion, as described by Catherine Albanese in her Republic of Mind and Spirit. That is, however, itself a specific historical process.

Closing piece of wisdom, or at least a useful heuristic—as one of my teachers, Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, once said “Similar means not the same.”

2 thoughts on “Ignorance of the Buddhadharma is no Excuse, 2.1

  1. Thanks for the clarification, Richard. I do see your point now–it is a tricky point to make without leaving yourself open to misunderstanding.

    My own position is that it would clarify the matter greatly if we could maintain the distinction between ideological practices and truths about the nature of reality. What you seem to mean by “actual Buddhism” is something I would call the ideological practices of Buddhism–ideological in the sense of a way of acting in the world that is intended to produce certain results based on an understanding of how the world really is. Ideology is necessary and valuable, because without it we couldn’t pass on our knowledge and technology, or work together in any social situation. On the other hand, any ideology that requires its participants to accept falsehoods about the nature of reality is probably a bad one, likely to lead to human suffering (I won’t argue for that in this comment, but I have done so elsewhere).

    Buddhist ideological/social practices may be based on the belief in an eternal and transcendent consciousness, or they may be based on the belief that no such thing exists. It is important to separate out the underlying beliefs about reality from the ideological practices, because there is no particular ideology that is necessitated by the way things are in the world independently of us–to say there is one “correct” ideology would be like claiming that the laws of physics require (rather than enable) the existence of giraffes.

    So it seems to me the issue here is that the mindfulness industry is producing something that is an ideological practice, one that is based on the assumption of the existence of a transcendent eternal consciousness, and then is asserting that this practice is NOT ideological, but is “scientific” (and also denying the belief in the atman while they are asserting its existence, but that’s another matter). Mindfulness is an ideological practice masquerading as a truth about reality, and claiming that it is “pure Buddhism,” stripped of any ideological trappings. Any ideology that claims it is NOT an ideology is also bound to lead to suffering (but again, I won’t argue this point here).

    As you point out, it has been demonstrated by many thinkers that the “bare awareness” that mindfulness pretends to produce is not possible. They are mistaking an ideologically structured perception for a “bare” and ideology-free experience of reality, and there is no such thing. No doubt it does make some people feel better about their lives. Many practices requiring such delusions are able to make people feel happier–for instance, a substantial proportion of Americans believe in psychics and astrology, and “feel better” after consulting with their psychic advisor, right? Mindfulness would seem to work the same way–making people feel better by convincing them of a false belief.

    My point is that while it is useful to study “actual Buddhism” in the sense of the social/ideological practices of Buddhism, we need not adopt those practices to believe in the truths about reality that are produced in Buddhist thought, right? They are, in fact, “cultural accretions” added on to truths about reality. I would just drop the “merely,” because such accretions are absolutely essential to any human community functioning in the world–feeding itself, housing itself, passing on its knowledge, etc. We shouldn’t be attached to any particular cultural form, though–we need not privilege any actually existing Buddhism as “more true,” because it is an ideology, and so not “true” and not false either. We should, however, examine whether those practices reduce suffering, and whether they allow an understanding of the nature of reality as it actually is (I would argue those two things go together).

    When you use the term “more comprehensive” to refer to the kinds of Buddhist thought that accept the idea of anatman, you are in effect arguing for a particular version of reality over another. Some of those actually existing Buddhisms would accept this truth, others would not. The important thing, it seems to me, is to begin from a truth about the nature of reality, and build an ideology based on that. This does not require that we use any of the ideological practices of Buddhism that have ever existed in the past, though. A zafu or a safron robe is a cultural accretion, not a truth about reality.

    Sorry for the long comment–I have years of experience with trying to make this point, and it seems impossible to make completely clear, so I tend to go on at too much length about it.

    In short, it seems to me that the real problem underlying your frustration with “mindfulness” can be clarified by restoring the distinction between truths about the (not humanly created) world and (humanly created) social ideological practices. The mindfulness industry wants to collapse this distinction, and present its ideology as a truth about the world; the confusion is redoubled because the ideology of mindfulness is based on an obvious and long discredited mistaken understanding of the nature of reality, so we tend to argue that their science is “bad,” but the problem is that they aren’t really doing any science at all, just pseudo-science that serves a rhetorical function in making their ideological practice more effective–like the psychic’s crystal ball or peculiar outfit. This strategy makes it difficult to defeat mindfulness, because if you argue that it is a dangerous ideology, they argue it is “scientifically valid,” but when you point out that there is no science there, they argue that it works in their own “experience.” Still, trying to maintain the distinction between concepts about the nature of reality and socially produced ideological practices might make this debate clearer–I doubt it would make it less vitriolic, though, as there is a lot of money at stake.

    Again, sorry for the lengthy comment. I just think that this is an enormously important matter, and if it could be clarified it could do a lot of good and help a lot of people.



    • Thank you, Tom. I appreciate your input, and as always it is clear that you’ve thought about these difficult to express issues for a long time. The giraffe is great, it will help me to remember the distinction between what the laws of physics require and what they enable. That distinction is seemingly often obscured in debates about determinism.
      The confusion created by the “it feels good/right/true to me” criteria would seem to go back to the Pragmatic argument for the existence of God—if I’m recalling Wm. James correctly, it seemed to me that he confused the (perceived) benefits of believing in God with the truth of the belief. The missing piece of that is that even a pragmatic criterion would only establish the truth of the claim that believing in God creates (perceived) benefits, as distinct from the truth of the metaphysical claim regarding the existence of God. The same distinction applies to claims regarding belief in a transcendent, eternal consciousness. “It works for me” only establishes the truth of the claim that it works, not the truth of the claim as such.
      best, Richard

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