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.”