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.