McMindfulness and Engaged Buddhism: the twin innovations

Ron Purser’s critique of McMindfulness is in line with William Edelglass’s critique of the “happiness turn” in Western Buddhism. Purser and Edelglass are both right to note that something new, less traditional, is going on in modern mindfulness. For there are parts of Buddhism that secular mindfulness leaves out, intentionally. Purser is right about that: right mindfulness (sammāsati) is only one part of the traditional Noble Eightfold Path, and mindfulness practices often leave out the rest. And so he is also right to ask the question:

what is mindfulness for? Is it merely to attain better health, higher exam scores, focused concentration at work, or “self-compassion?” Is it a medical form of self-improvement? In a way, posing the question is tantamount to asking what constitutes “the good life,” the traditional basis of philosophy. (79)

Indeed it is. And that is of course a difficult question. But it is important that the traditional Buddhist answers to that question are no closer to Purser’s anti-capitalist activism (or to Edelglass’s concern to alleviate “deprivation, violence, illness, racism, and environmental degradation”) than they are to secular mindfulness. I suspect they are further away from it.

Purser makes a biting critique of a San Francisco “Wisdom 2.0” conference that featured corporate mindfulness teachers: “such outmoded traditions as Buddhism clearly need upgrading from Wisdom 1.0.” (177) It is easy to laugh at such attempts to modernize Buddhism. But Purser should be careful which houses he throws stones at. For he then compliments the protesters outside this conference, objecting to San Francisco’s tech-driven housing crisis, led by one Amanda Ream. And here he tells us that “Ream, a member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, was effectively teaching ‘Wisdom 101.'” (178) Purser’s language at least suggests that the Buddhist Peace Fellowship – ground zero for the Western Engaged Buddhist movement – is teaching authentic premodern Buddhism in a way that corporate mindfulness is not. Such a claim would be absolutely false, and should not be allowed to stand.

Purser tacitly admits as much when he describes Thich Nhat Hanh, born in 1926, as “one of the pioneers of socially engaged Buddhism” (191), effectively implying that this particular brand of “Wisdom 1.0” was pioneered in the 20th century, just as modern mindfulness was. Engaged Buddhism is a modern movement with Western roots, much of which rejects some of classical Buddhism’s core tenets. The BPF, in particular, was founded in explicit defiance to the instructions of its own traditional Buddhist teachers.

Engaged Buddhism and modern mindfulness together make up a large component of the complex that is modernized Buddhism. Their histories are closely tied, both going back to colonial-era reformers like Anagarika Dharmapala who wanted to make Buddhism newly relevant to an age that valorized science, capitalism and political activism. And so engaged Buddhism adds to traditional Buddhism a belief in the importance of activism, with strong roots in the Victorian era’s utilitarian and Marxist traditions; modern mindfulness adds a belief in the importance of science, denying rebirth and turning to psychological research.

Now, I’m no advocate of trying to maintain a pristine premodern Buddhism. Engaged Buddhists have a right to try to update Buddhism to reflect their political commitments. What they have no right to do is make the false claim that their political engagement is one iota less of a modern innovation than the corporate mindfulness movement is. Engaged Buddhism is every bit as untraditional. If we are going to critique corporate mindfulness for being untraditional, we cannot reasonably do so from the standpoint of engaged Buddhism, and if we are going to update Buddhism to be politically engaged, we cannot then fault corporate mindfulness for its updating Buddhism.

This same critique, I must note, applies in reverse. I myself have been critical of engaged Buddhists’ innovations while praising other modern innovations like naturalizing karma. Given the latter point, I’ve tried to be clear that engaged Buddhism’s innovations are not themselves the problem. That activism and scientific naturalism are modern innovations does not make either one bad. What is bad is to make a false claim by denying that they are modern innovations, pretending engaged Buddhism or corporate mindfulness training were already there in the dharma to start. So once we start from a perspective of modernized Buddhism – engaged or otherwise – our critique of other forms of modernized Buddhism must not be on the grounds that they are modernized.

Rather, we need to acknowledge that each modernized Buddhism is a fusion of Buddhism with non-Buddhist elements. That is not a criticism, since most existing traditional Buddhisms also include non-Buddhist elements. The key is to note which non-Buddhist elements are added, and evaluate those on their own merits. That’s not an easy thing to do – in many ways it comes down to evaluating an entire ethical system, which in turn requires identifying one’s own system. But that more general process of ethical evaluation, rather than innovation or the lack thereof, needs to be our basis for critique. Inconsistency is a problem in any ethical system, and when we belong to multiple traditions – which is what a modernized Buddhism effectively requires – the risk of inconsistency is higher. But there too, the problem is with potential inconsistencies and not with innovation as such.

Purser is right to point out that modern mindfulness is detached from the ethical framework in which traditional mindfulness was embedded. But I would argue that that fact makes modern mindfulness more compatible with socially engaged Buddhism! Because, as my Disengaged Buddhism article shows, the ethical framework of traditional Buddhism is one that does not pursue the systemic change of society and is sometimes even hostile to it. And that is so for reasons Purser has himself noted: it claims our real problems are craving, anger and delusion, which are phenomena in our minds and not the world – and trying to change the world might well make them worse. We may well disagree with those reasons and prefer a modern post-Victorian ethic of activism to a classical Buddhist ethic of monastic restraint – but if we do, then we are lucky that modern mindfulness separates itself from traditional Buddhist ethics. That separation makes modern mindfulness more compatible with engaged Buddhism than traditional mindfulness was, just as it makes modern mindfulness more compatible with Christianity or with military intervention.

Cross-posted on Love of All Wisdom.

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