Is “Mindfulness” Erasing Spiritual Tradition?

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen master, was largely influential in the widespread introduction of Zen mindfulness to America. Having lived through the Vietnam War and advocated for nonviolence and peace, his major teachings concern awareness (both of the self and the outside world), compassion, and the omnipresence of Buddhahood in all of our daily lives. He is noted to speak very little on Buddhist theology — his teachings focus predominantly on the concrete practice of meditation in a way that is applicable not just within Buddhism, but in the lives of people of any faith. For this he is sometimes called the “father of mindfulness.”

He is also credited with coining the term Engaged Buddhism, which is a synthesis of sorts between active participation in helping with the issues immediately present around you (in opposition to a popular conception of Buddhists as disconnected from the world) and maintaining mindfulness throughout all your actions. In fact, he considers engagement a necessity to grow spiritually at all — when asked about the dilemma of choosing between activism and spiritual practice, Hanh says, “The practice should address suffering: the suffering within yourself and the suffering around you. They are linked to each other.”[1] In this way, the practice Thich Nhat Hanh advises is equally concerned with the self and the other, seeking a simple yet profound awareness of the present and reality as it truly is, which is then extended to understand the suffering of others.

McMindfulness

This kind of mindfulness practice, with roots in Buddhism but not inherently Buddhist, now forms the basis of a $4 billion industry that sells books advising the reader on mindfulness, app subscriptions for guided meditation audios, and workshops or courses to teach mindfulness to everyone from parents to Wall Street traders to the military. The transformation of mindfulness into a product to be sold has sparked criticism from some American Buddhists. One of these is Ronald Purser, an ordained teacher in the Korean Zen Taego lineage as well as a business professor at San Francisco State University.

Purser published a book in 2019 titled McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, which argues that in order to be profitable under capitalism, mindfulness has been co-opted as a self-help tool that is “stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.”[2] Because it lacks this ethical and spiritual foundation, it does not force individuals to confront their own greed and ill will, but rather simply empowers them to continue on whatever path they were already on in a more focused and efficient way, regardless of whether it is ethical. He also argues that the self-help rhetoric used to market mindfulness as a product places all responsibility for one’s personal happiness on the individual, discouraging the examination of societal and systematic causes of stress and thus maintaining the status quo. In addition, he links this phenomenon to an appropriation of Asian traditions into a highly individualistic Western culture so that they can be adopted without challenging dominant cultural values or lifestyles.

Skillful Means

However, in contradiction to what Purser’s book implies, the exploding popularity of mindfulness and meditation in a non-spiritual context is not necessarily only appropriation of Zen practice by outsiders to the tradition, but in large part the result of attempts by Zen teachers themselves to popularize Zen practice on a wider scale by appealing to those members of the public who would not be open otherwise to the idea of committing to an entirely new spiritual tradition.

This is not unprecedented in the teaching of Buddhism; indeed, as far back as the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, we see Shakyamuni Buddha approaching laypeople by offering advice for more effective business or relationship management, meeting them where they are with their current desires as opposed to at once delving into the exploration of suffering and abandonment of desire. In Buddhist texts, the ability of a Buddha or bodhisattva to communicate the dharma in the way most suited to the listener’s mental state is called “skillful means.”

In the same way, mindfulness today is advertised with suggestions that its practice will lead to higher efficiency and productivity at work, appealing to the ubiquitous pursuit of profit in our capitalist culture and perhaps along the way encouraging people to embody more Zen values and garnering interest in Zen ideas. In this way, the secularization of meditation could be conceived of as a skillful means of leading as many people as possible in the direction of self-realization.

A real-life example of this is the activities of Soto Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer, who was an abbot at the San Francisco Zen Center for five years and has a particular interest in adapting Zen meditation and philosophy for use in the worlds of business and law, as well as fostering interreligious dialog. A description of a meditative retreat aimed specifically at lawyers on his organization Everyday Zen’s website spells out several benefits of meditation directly connected to a lawyer’s work success, such as concentration, emotional resilience, stress relief, communication skills, and higher job satisfaction. These could easily draw in the professional interested in developing career-related skills, with no interest in Zen required.

Once the participants are signed up and at the retreat, though, applications of meditation that are more closely linked to Zen values can be explored. In a paper about teaching meditation to law students, Berkeley lecturer Charles Halpern writes, “One student, who is committed to a career defending capital cases, talked about how the deepening empathy resulting from his meditation practice gave him an advantage in understanding clients often accused of committing inhuman, appalling crimes.”[3] This is very consistent with the Engaged Buddhism that Thich Nhat Hanh teaches. He is reported to have said, when asked what he would say to the perpetrators of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, that he would “listen compassionately and deeply to understand their suffering.”[4]

Simply practicing genuine mindfulness, even in a context mostly or completely dissociated from Zen, may have the potential to bring out higher capacity in people for compassion and understanding other people’s suffering. For the Buddhist teacher whose goal is to bring as many people closer to enlightenment as possible, this in itself is a success, even if formal Zen learning never enters the picture for these people.

Christian Zen

Another upside to secular Zen practice from the perspective of someone who wants to broaden the reach of Zen is that it does not ask the participant to drop their existing spiritual views in order to set them in accordance with Buddhist “right view,” but can be practiced alongside completely unrelated spiritual beliefs, lowering the barrier to entry for people who are already committed to a particular religion other than Buddhism. In fact, a surprisingly large number of people in America who identify as Buddhist also identify as Christian.

In speaking to some of these Zen Christians, an idea that repeatedly appears is that while the two may not be reconcilable in their metaphysical teachings, Buddhist practice can be adopted under a Christian theology and belief system without inherently contradicting it; “while Christianity sets out the goals of their spiritual life, Buddhism gives the concrete practices or methods by which to get there.”[5] Meditation in particular attracted these Christians as a way to deepen their spiritual practice, citing frustration with the lack of contemplation in lay Christian life. By looking at Zen as “not so much a religion,” as one Zen Christian put it, but as a form or practice which can come either separate or together with the faith of the Buddhist tradition, these devoted Christians can take part in Zen meditation without the cognitive dissonance of having to face the conflicting beliefs of Christianity and Buddhism.

Some Buddhists are troubled by this separation of practice from philosophy and tradition, though, feeling that it co-opts only the parts of Buddhism that Christians are comfortable with, whereas to them Buddhism should only be taken as a whole tradition, including the Buddha’s teachings and the precepts. To them, because the practice of meditation arose from the philosophical framework of the Buddha’s teachings, it is impossible to truly separate Zen meditation from Buddhism as a whole, and attempts to do so are not practicing anything truly “Buddhist” at all. One American Buddhist nun reflected, “I’m somewhat concerned that in Western countries, people may begin to just sort of take those bits and pieces that they find comfortable and sort of leave the rest of the tradition, where in my view, it’s part of an organic whole.”[6]

This echoes Ronald Purser’s concern about the appropriation of Asian traditions in such a way that they do not challenge existing Western ways of thinking. Because Zen is not a strongly established tradition in the United States compared to Christianity, there is a need felt among members of Buddhist institutions and communities to build and preserve it as a full tradition and not allow it to be overtaken by the popular conception that it is just a practice.

Overall, the secularization of Zen mindfulness in America is a double-edged sword. While greatly broadening its appeal and making it more accessible, it also harbors a risk of watering down and distorting the Buddhist traditions it originated from, leaving behind the values of compassion and empathy it was intended to foster.

What is the takeaway for any Americans interested in practicing Zen-based mindfulness? It’s fine and even a good thing if you want to practice it without adopting the entire belief system of Zen — because many Zen teachers themselves are happy to spread the practice, there is little need to worry about wrongfully appropriating it.

However, I urge you to respect that Zen is more than secular mindfulness alone; it is a rich and nuanced spiritual tradition passed down by generations of dedicated teachers, including metaphysical beliefs, ethical teachings, and other elements that would classify it as a full-fledged religion by our standards and not simply a form. Let us recognize that there is more to Zen than the stripped-down version that has been sold to us.

Endnotes

[1] John Malkin, In Engaged Buddhism, Peace Begins with You (2003).

[2] Ronald Purser, The mindfulness conspiracy (2019).

[3] Charles Halpern, The Mindful Lawyer: Why Contemporary Lawyers Are Practicing Meditation (2012), 645.

[4] Malkin, In Engaged Buddhism, Peace Begins with You (2003).

[5] Jonathan Homrighausen, Spiritually Bilingual: Buddhist Christians and the Process of Dual Religious Belonging (2015).

[6] Bender, Courtney, and Wendy Cadge. “Constructing Buddhism(s): Interreligious Dialogue and Religious Hybridity.” Sociology of Religion 67, no. 3 (2006): 229–47.

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Kim Louise Davis

Kim Louise Davis

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Kim Louise Davis is a freelance Japanese to English translator and hobbyist musician.