You know something has gone terribly wrong, when the most sensible party in a media discussion about Buddhism is the American Christian right. Is this what we get when the only alternative allowed is the Western Buddhist hegemony?
I came across an article in Lion’s Roar magazine reporting that conservative Christian group The American Center for Law and Justice intends to legally challange the introduction of mindfulness programs in public schools.
The chief counsel at this organization is Jay Sekulow, a well-known crook in the American conservative media industry, and the kind of Christian who is sincerely oblivious enough to believe that Christianity is under attack in the United States. It’s not surprising, then, that most of the reasoning behind their anti-mindfulness campaign is just outright batshit insane. Take, for instance, the passionate plea offered by a disgruntled caller on Sekulow’s radio show:
I have two small children, and I don’t want them sitting around just thinking about creation and goodness and peace. I mean, if my two angels, who are innocent, are gonna be learning about explorers, they should be learning about Jesus or Trump.
So here we have a prime example of the utter moral failure of Western Buddhism. So irresponsibly has it outwardly obfuscated its own ideological commitments, and its functional role within the broader Western culture, that a debate which cuts right to the core of our crumbling education system is dictated by the very two parties which are mutually responsible for its wider systemic failure—these being the Christian Right and the late-capitalist Left.
Luckily for the latter, valid criticisms can easily be dismissed as the morally outdated ramblings of right-wing religious fanaticism, absolving them of the burden of having to critique themselves. Unfortunately, the fact remains that, despite the absurd intentions motivating the mindfulness critique coming from the former, it is true that we should be worried about this fad infecting public schools.
As insane as that caller’s complaints were, it did contain elements that were actually quite spot-on. The first part of the partial quote above was:
This is toxic ideology. This goes beyond just bad education. This could be corrupting our children’s eternal souls.
Okay, that last sentence is still insane. But the two preceding it are completely true, are they not? Mindfulness, as it functions in America writ large, is indeed a toxic ideology. And introducing them into schools does go beyond education, its function as such being to shift focus from the failures of the system itself to forcing students learn “stress-reduction practices” to treat the atrocious rates of anxiety, depression, addiction, and suicide, that are symptomatic of an education system which functions primarily in the service of “economic growth”, rather than in the service of education.
The “secular mindfulness” crowd is simply incapable of seeing that their ideology is an ideology, rather than a set of scientific facts. The danger here is that the neoliberal doctrine is unquestionably posited a natural law, and the human suffering that it necessitates can therefore only be conceivably treated with repression cloaked in rhetoric of “resilience” and “stress-reduction”. There is no considering the possibility that the symptoms are inseperable from the collectively formed system of which they are a dependently arisen phenomenon.
The ACLJ argues that these mindfulness programs amount to “Buddhist indoctrination because the mindfulness practices appear to be similar to Buddhist religious practices.” This is too convenient for those supporting the programs, because all they have to do is argue that mindfulness is totally secular and has been “stripped” of its religious wrappings. The final word in the Lion’s Roar piece is given to this viewpoint:
Proponents of secular mindfulness say mindfulness is not a Buddhist practice; it is a contemplative practice used in religious traditions around the world by many different names. Most programs in schools today are based scientifically-validated programs developed by clinicians.
To be honest, I’m having enormous difficulty following this line of reasoning, and I don’t think that’s a result of my usual pedantry. Perhaps someone in the comments could help me out. The first sentence states that “secular mindfulness” is not a uniquely Buddhist practice but is, rather, one shared by many different religious traditions. The second states that the mindfulness regimens used in schools today are “based [on] scientifically-validated programs developed by clinicians.” Are these not contradictory claims? (Then again, hasn’t Western Buddhism always suffered from an identity crisis?)
Once again, Western Buddhists want to have their cake and eat it too.
Aside from making no sense in terms of consistency, this argument a total non-sequitor. Prayer and church attendance have been empirically shown to associate with relative measures of life satisfaction. That does not make them any less of a religious practice, nor does it change what those practices are productive of, any more than a vaccine being empirically validated changes what the practice of administering that vaccine is productive of.
To state the same point differently, the practice of “mindfulness” is productive of, that is to say it tends to result in, subjects who are more willing to sit back and accept their expoitation as “the present moment”, which must never be judged or questioned. In the context of education, we could see how mindfulness would result in passive students who are unabe to recognize how the education system is failing them and demand otherwise. That there is empirical evidence that such a practice can “[visibly] reduce stress” or “increase productivity” is an entirely different matter. In fact, in this case, those are exactly the results you’d expect to see; a blissful slave is obviously one less likely to turn on his master.
I suppose the calories in the cake don’t count, as long as one practices mindful eating. Indoctrination into a collectively harmful ideology is harmless, as long as one practices mindful indoctrination.
See the comment below from Richard Payne; Candy Gunther Brown writes about this issue extensively, including in this Tricycle piece, which presents both sides of the issue. I think her contribution is more articulate than my treatment of the issue here. (Also, if you haven’t yet, take a look at Richard’s blog, which contains some of the best critical writing on Buddhism.)
I would highly recommend reading the opposing viewpoint in the linked article as well, written by Saki Santorelli. It is quite telling, revealing the ideological blindness of the “secular mindfulness” crowd.
Consider this portion:
Mindfulness is awareness itself—the knowing capacity that we consider the central feature of our humanness. Nonreligious, mindfulness does not ask someone to adopt a predetermined belief system or dogma. In practice, mindfulness offers us a method for investigating the nature of sentience and sanity. It mirrors the principles of scientific investigation by providing people with a method for learning to relate directly to whatever is happening in their lives. It is impartial. It does not grasp, reject, or prefer; it affords people the opportunity to see things just as they are, unclouded by the usual filters of conditioning and culture. [emphasis mine]
Here is a clear case of Buddhist apologists falling into the atman trap, believing that it is possible to “see things as they are” without any conditioning influence whatsoever. This is a fantasy that Buddhists can’t seem to shake. A Christian would assert that their religious practice also constitutes “seeing things as they are”; that’s what makes a religion a religion: simply asserting things without evidence.
states that mindfulness helps us “learn to take things less personally”. I would insist that, on the contrary, the exploitation and indoctrination that are woven into our education system should be taken very personally indeed. He is also proud to bring up the government interest in mindfulness research, yet conveniently fails to mention the military interest in mindfulness to create better-functioning soldiers.