diy dhamma drama or here we goes agin

I posted this on my Facebook status:

We are The Holy Relic of the Misappropriated Matcha. Our rituals include eating Green Tea Ice Cream to show our unmitigated devotion to all things sacrilegious. In a “not-yer-mamma’s-non-duality” way, of course!

It’s a response to a series of posts from various places. The first series was in reaction to Wisdom 2.0 which berated secular forms of mindfulness programs (here we go again). These posts by various Buddhist teachers and organizations expressed concerns that mindfulness taught in profit-centered corporations would serve only to create worker drones and therefore lead to more oppression than liberation. This one’s been argued with accompanied flogging of the blindly-accepted prediction that teaching mindfulness in places of ill-ethical repute will end badly for the 99%.

Because I tend to believe that we, as purveyors of secular mindfulness programs, need to be clear on our own ethics which would guide who we serve, I also believe that we can discern when offering mindfulness programs may or may not be a good thing. It’s that nonduality thing. Samsara/Nirvana. At the same time, I do wish that those in the know – meaning those Buddhist scholars and teachers who are vehement about NOT bringing mindfulness programs to corporations who practice unwholesomely – would offer me some clear evidence that this oppression is a real outcome and not a theoretical one. It’s that science thing. You know, evidence. Because without evidence, I’m likely to not get in my car and drive to work each day because the stats say more people die from vehicle accidents than anything else (yes, yes, fossil fuels but my horse is too old to be galloped into the city).

So, please. Send me the facts. Or at the very least a well articulated argument for NOT delivering such a program. You know, it’s that risk analysis thing.

from DeviantArt.com ChopenWell, a bit further up my Facebook feed was this picture from Sharon Salzberg’s Facebook page and attributed to DeviantArt(ist) Chopen. It was underscored by the quote:

When we experience dissatisfaction at work, which everyone does we can use our disappointment as fuel to wake up.

Sharon Salzberg
from Real Happiness at Work
Image by Chopen

Really? Really. The post boasts 15 shares and 51 likes. Really. Women in what one commenter called an “alienating job” being linked to the idea of “dissatisfaction at work”… which everybody feels… and the idea that it can be transcended by seeking to use it as a tool to wake up.

I once worked in a factory much like this one. It was the only way out of the Montreal slum-like housing and to stay in University. The 11PM to 6AM shift which required waiting in the dark at a bus stop by the Metropolitan underpass. I didn’t have the luxury of feeling dissatisfied. I did wake up. Not waking up was not an option  because after catching the bus at 6:30AM I had to get home, sleep an hour, and get to classes. But enough about me. In all the shares and comments there was only one that asked the burning question: Are you saying that being oppressed is an opportunity to wake up (I assume in the Buddhist sense of attaining liberation)?

Well heck. In that case, let us all descend on the corporations and encourage this oppression through misappropriated mindfulness because that might work better than good old fashioned Buddhism!

I’m not being rhetorical because I do wonder why that post and its implication did not draw the ire of dhamma purists. Maybe because it comes from within the dhamma circle and so is acceptable? Could it be that all this mindfulness practice does have a suppressing effect on our discernment of when something just plain is not right? Maybe these are not politic questions to ask.

However, I do ask why so many intelligent Buddhist scholars and practitioners are jumping on this bandwagon of bashing secular programs when they have the wisdom and knowledge to do better. I don’t have an answer for that however I think some of the critiques – not criticisms because many of those are just wildly histrionic – are important to consider. So here are my two questions for the Buddhist scholars:

What’s up with this term Mindfulness? It’s not an easy concept and comes with a boatload of  interpretations whose perspectives depend on the particular Buddhist tradition. What’s worse is that the secular Mindfulness, as in MB+something, is a mash-up of Theravada meditation systems, Mahayana philosophical concepts (like non-dualism), and some yogacara thrown in for good circulation. Good luck trying to line that up to some pure form of the Dhamma/Dharma. When Jon Kabat-Zinn put all this together he truly believed it was a working model and that scholars in time would work out the kinks. All I can say is the kinks have come home to roost and scholars are not happy about it. And it would be nice if, in the popular press, we spent more time understanding that “Mindfulness” is no more monolithic than Buddhism.

What’s up with this need for ethics and that damned sniper who is clearly doomed to Buddha Hell? Buddhists, interviewed about secular mindfulness, trot this example out: without ethics, a sniper whose fully-focused attention would be seen as mindful is not because the intent of his actions are unwholesome – i.e., he’s going to kill someone. Well, that’s true… but only partially so. Peter Harvey has a terrific section in his book on ethics¹ about who can break precepts and under what conditions. It’s not so clear-cut as it turns out. There are all kinds of contingencies but the bottom line is “it depends.” Killing is wrong, period. However, the agent of the killing is not, in Mahayana perspectives, immediately consigned to rounds of poor rebirth. It depends and (spoiler alert) it requires cultivating clear comprehension through sila. I’m no scholar but I sure would have liked to see this aspect pounded out in the criticisms of secular mindfulness and the implications of not having an ethical framework in its curriculum.

Why? Because it helps to provide a sound rationale for making changes in a practice model that may not be as good as it could be.

And because saying “You’re wrong, Just do it our way” is authoritarian and has a snowball’s chance in the Sahara of getting people to listen. Especially, scientistic materialistic types like me. Not to mention that it triggers retorts like “If all things are impermanent then accept this change in your dogma.” Or “If there is no fixed self then doesn’t that mean mindfulness is not just one thing?” Or “I feel for your dukkha. Here’s a brochure of my next course; it might help deal with the stress.”

I don’t worry about misappropriations. Green Tea Ice Cream was my last rant over the evil use of good matcha. Before that, I railed against the way psychiatrists used therapy as a quick-fix for their medication fails. And before that, I railed against physicians doing psychotherapy because they were burned out from their overloaded family practices. If you think you own something and are defined by it, you are going to see someone as taking it away and being incompetent at it. But that’s different from holding them accountable for learning how to be competent at it.

That’s what’s missing in this lop-sided furore over the use of mindfulness and the dire consequences thereof.

All right. I’ve ranted enough. I want to acknowledge the following scholars for their forward-looking attitudes: Bhikkhu Bodhi in his article in Contemporary Buddhism, Robert Scharf in his video on how Insight Meditation came to the lake, Richard Payne for his insightful comment on the reality of corporations and not thinking we can teach them ethics, Seth Segall for his post that we not lose sight of the good that is possible even if these programs are seen as half-measures.

¹An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues By Peter Harvey

13 thoughts on “diy dhamma drama or here we goes agin

  1. Dear Genju, Thank you for the kind words. One itsy bitsy picky little thing: it is “Richard” not “Robert.” I have some good friends who are named Robert and it would be really confusing if I started thinking that I’m them…
    best

    • Oh dear! Thank you, Richard! I can only appeal to my innate state of eternal confusion for such an error.

      I appreciate you dropping by and thank you for your insights on Wisdom 2.0 and it’s vissisitudes.

  2. I do have some sympathy for your viewpoint and your concerns but I’m also reminded of what the printing press did for The Bible. It moved it from a text guarded (and absued) by a self-elected elite to a text that was available for all to read in their native tongue.

    Buddhist texts are no longer buried in monasteries, they are freely available to all. Anyone can read them and use/abuse them.

    Now I agree that any extensive meditation program can lead to issues arising – it’s not going to be all fluffy bunnies – and that many contemporary programs do not seem to be even aware of this.

    However the fundamental point I guess comes down to the fact that many meditation practices are nothing more than practices in how to be human. I don’t see how anyone could think that they have a unique ownership of this.

    Having not bothered with the precepts I’m reasonably confident that meditation in-of-itself does not lead to a completely amoral or immoral outlook but in fact that a deeper meditation practice TENDS towards MORE ethical behaviour – and it takes extra work to suppress that. Of course we have laws in society to define what’s acceptable and what’s not – anything beyond this varies by religious or ethical group.

    The obvious issue is that the published Buddhist scandals – which seem to include law-breaking – seem to suggest that those who claim to have the strongest moral frameworks and the deepest insights also fail to live by society’s minimal agreed standards – the law. The enabling actions of those in the communities does suggest that this ‘better’ ethical framework was no help at all in facing or resolving the issues.

    A less obvious issue is that there seem to be plenty of teachers around who are perhaps as not as deep into meditation as might be desirable and simply don’t have the depth of experience to draw on to deal with the darker side of meditation.

    So I guess I see what you’ve written as “The WRONG people are using MY sacred texts and it’s so unfair”.

    What I consider to be the minimum standard for those who have so-called received Dharma Transmission is actually much higher than the one that seems to be used. The people claiming to be experts are often not greatly different from those they are decrying as amateurs. It is improving but it’s not always a great picture.

    A long and somewhat garbled comment perhaps.

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your comments. I wonder if you haven’t got what I wrote somewhat backwards.

      “So I guess I see what you’ve written as “The WRONG people are using MY sacred texts and it’s so unfair”.”

      If you mean that I believe the Buddhist community is acting this way, then that’s correct. If you mean that *I* think this, then it’s definitely not so.

      The multiplicity of Buddhisms and the many variegated interpretations has most scholars cautious in laying claim to any one text or idea as the universal truth. However, the typical Buddhist practitioner tends not to have access to the nuances of Buddhist logic, philosophy, or anything more complex than what they hope to gain from meditation. I think Buddhist thought has much to offer to the Western healthcare approaches. I also think Western health care approaches have a lot to bring to the magical thinking approach of what often passes for Buddhist practice.

      • Hi Genju,
        I wasn’t quite clear whether you were expressing a personal view or one that represented the wider community.

        I think both communities have a lot to learn from each other. In fairness there is magical thinking that exists in both communities.

        I’m reasonably relaxed about the magical thinking I see in Buddhist communities and see it as a symptom of a lack of direct experience – either first-hand or via a teacher. When there are a few teachers around with enough depth then magical thinking dies away – and it doesn’t take too many to do that. Likewise depth leads to a focus on similarities rather than differences so the antagonism tends to drop away as well. Ironically then the solution might be for clinicians to be good clinicians and Buddhists to be good Budddhists!

  3. Thank you for your clear, Manjushri-like wisdom, Genju. You ask important questions, and I appreciate how you steer us out of the waters of righteous duality even when we don’t realize we’re headed there.

    Here’s what i’ll offer to the conversation — I think the argument about mindfulness in a secular setting and being stripped of its ethical framework is a red herring. There are both openings and limitations to pulling mindfulness (complex concept that it is) out of an explicitly Buddhist framework and applying it to various psychological and physical ills. But what is more concerning to me is something much more pervasive. (Some of you have heard this rant of mine before, so apologies in advance for repeating myself.) That is our cultural tendency to focus on individualism and solo wellbeing rather than collective wellbeing. We so often ignore the most basic teaching of the Buddha, that interconnection is the truth of things as they are. We forget that when the Buddha had his own awakening, from the get-go he put it in the context of all beings… “I and all sentient beings on earth, together, attain enlightenment at the same time.”

    Who knows if ‘mindfulness’ will be used by the corporate powers that be to create more passive employees in the service of corporate profit. That may happen. But it may not. Practice is a powerful thing that can transform lives in surprising ways, ways that no one entity can possibly control if it’s ‘true’ practice. However, what’s not so surprising is the non-response of the Wisdom 2.0 organizers to the activists who turned up on their stage to call attention to the negative impact that Google and other tech corporations are having on the San Francisco human eco-system. From what I understand, the W 2.0 folks essentially did a spiritual bypass. And THIS is what I’m talking about.

    I come from the Robert Aitken Roshi school of socially engaged Buddhism, which holds that SEB is actually redundant… there is no Buddhism that is not engaged. That tendency to move away from collective wellbeing, to move away from hard questions about power and privilege, and instead stay safe behind a veneer of meditation that forgets about the truth of interconnection…. This is what some of us are trying to call out. I hope that makes sense.

    • Thanks, Maia! I think this is the first carefully-considered commentary on the situation I’ve read. The red herring is most definitely in play when we focus on the “rightness” and “wrongness” of any singular act. The real issue is whether we are calling upon our wisdom (presumably having cultivated it) to meet these opportunities to walk the talk.

      Power and privilege are part of the fabric of all communities and our practice is in enobling them so they are put into service rather than being served.

  4. Thank you for your clear, Manjushri-like wisdom, Genju. You ask important questions, and I appreciate how you steer us out of the waters of righteous duality even when we don’t realize we’re headed there.

    Here’s what i’ll offer to the conversation — I think the argument about mindfulness in a secular setting and being stripped of its ethical framework is a red herring. There are both openings and limitations to pulling mindfulness (complex concept that it is) out of an explicitly Buddhist framework and applying it to various psychological and physical ills. But what is more concerning to me is something much more pervasive. (Some of you have heard this rant of mine before, so apologies in advance for repeating myself.) That is our cultural tendency to focus on individualism and solo wellbeing rather than collective wellbeing. We so often ignore the most basic teaching of the Buddha, that interconnection is the truth of things as they are. We forget that when the Buddha had his own awakening, from the get-go he put it in the context of all beings… “I and all sentient beings on earth, together, attain enlightenment at the same time.”

    Who knows if ‘mindfulness’ will be used by the corporate powers that be to create more passive employees in the service of corporate profit. That may happen. But it may not. Practice is a powerful thing that can transform lives in surprising ways, ways that no one entity can possibly control if it’s ‘true’ practice. However, what’s not so surprising is the non-response of the Wisdom 2.0 organizers to the activists who turned up on their stage to call attention to the negative impact that Google and other tech corporations are having on the San Francisco human eco-system. From what I understand, the W 2.0 folks essentially did a spiritual bypass. And THIS is what I’m talking about.

    I come from the Robert Aitken Roshi school of socially engaged Buddhism, which holds that SEB is actually redundant… there is no Buddhism that is not engaged. That tendency to move away from collective wellbeing, to move away from hard questions about power and privilege, and instead stay safe behind a veneer of meditation that forgets about the truth of interconnection…. This is what some of us are trying to call out. I hope that makes sense.

    • I think blaming Google for the current Bay Area situation is making them into a scapegoat. I *live* here and, frankly, it is supply and demand in SF and the government there basically refuses to allow people to build enough housing to handle the amount of people moving to SF for good paying tech jobs. When supply can’t keep up with demand, the prices go up, as simple as that. Saying it is the fault of the tech companies or their employees because they’re choosing to spend their money on housing for themselves is blaming the people that don’t really have control over the situation. It isn’t like people are going to say, “Well, the mindful thing to do is to not take this high paying job in our horrible economy. I’ll move to Kansas City instead.”

      This is an SF governmental policy issue, not one that Google creates except that it is successful, hiring, and pays a good salary.

      • Hi Al! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. While I agree that we need to be careful of the shame/blame strategy I also think Google (or any company that flags the mindfulness banner) can be expected to walk their talk. For all the press Meng has received over his mindfulness approach at Google etc., I would certainly have wanted them to step up – even if it wasn’t right in that moment. This, of course, exposes the reality that we tend to expect so much of people who telegraph outwardly what is an inner process.

        [[“Well, the mindful thing to do is to not take this high paying job in our horrible economy. I’ll move to Kansas City instead.”]]

        A point I frequently try to make when I get in debates about raising consciousness vs raising safety and security in a person’s life.

        • I’ve been thinking about Google and this situation a lot this week. There are several mindful approaches depending on scale.

          A tech company like Google would be mad to locate anywhere outside of the Valley. That means they have to pay a decent wage for the staff they want. Those staff may have a negative impact on housing but a positive impact on places like Malls, Restaurants, Cafes etc. etc. All which support jobs.

          But that’s not the scale on which Google operates. Because of Google it’s possible for Mrs Krupp in her cabin in Finland to advertise and sell her custom Elk Hats to the world for free (Google search) or for very small fees based on results (Google Adwords) to the world. Because of Google, even though Mrs Krupp may be housebound she can compete on a global scale and maybe make a living. Via Android and Google Maps Mrs Krupp can also find her way home if she gets trapped in a Blizzard

          That’s just a small part of the picture. Google uses huge data centers – places full of computers, hard disks and cooling systems. These data centers support factories around the world that manufacture these things. They drive technology that creates more efficient and more environmentally friendly computing platforms and data centres.

          Google provides lots of free tools. Many a Zen blogger has been using tools created and provided by Google for free.

          So to be mindful of what Google does means to be mindful of what Google does. The impact they have on one region of SF is a minute proportion of what it is that Google does overall.

          Of all the Tech Companies it’s perhaps Google that has done the most to change the world for the better. However, that being said, although I might dislike Microsoft intensely it’s also true that the Gates’s Foundation is changing the world for the better as well.

          If you look at Buddhism you might easily argue that Google has made a dramatic and positive impact via Google Search, Blogger, Google Books, Google Docs and so on.

          So, I think it’s easier to argue that Google are walking the walk than otherwise. That doesn’t mean I’m right :-)

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