mindfulness, ethics & the baffling debate

buddha-rain(c) Mindfulness. Ethics. Buddhism. Therapy. It’s an ongoing and oft-times baffling debate. Over the last few years (since 2011 if I track the academic publications correctly), Buddhists have stepped up to express concerns about the frighteningly rapid secular applications of mindfulness that seem to dilute and disregard its core teachings and intention. Secular practitioners which include a very large clinical population of mental health professionals have either dismissed the call for a deeper understanding or been baffled by it.

[Edited to clear confusion in sentence reference] Related to this latter group, a quick scan of LinkedIn special groups on mindfulness is quite off-putting though the comments are instructive. They are mainly tinged with a deep fear of the religious – not the ethical – nature of being required regularly to attend silent retreats, imposing (insert “religious”) ethics in the curriculum, and otherwise bring an unfamiliar and foreign languaging into what is now taken as a neutral, clinical program.

The bafflement also arises from the unquestioned acceptance of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s repeated pronouncement that ethics in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (the original program) is implicit; nothing needs adding because it’s already there. In fact, my own notes from my MBSR training state, “ethics not necessary to mention…arises from insight to suffering.”

Now that’s more or less true when we have years to practice and watch the mind twist and turn trying to justify all matter of unskillfulness. Ethical speech and action can and does arise as we clarify, clarify, clarify our propensity to ignorance, greed, and attachments. Ethical livelihood can arise (economics and mastering our own greed notwithstanding). But not, in my experience, reliably so in 8-weeks sitting together trying to get past the delusional nature of our suffering, layered over by our “terrible personality” that is borne forth from a multitude of biopsychosocial causes and conditions.

Recently, my colleagues Jane Compson, Frank Musten, and I published an article in Mindfulness on the difficulties of trying to reconcile, assess, and dig deeper into the issues of secular/clinical concepts of mindfulness. You can read it here and I’d encourage reading the commentaries to our article (in the previous link) because scholarly practitioners such as Ajahn Amaro and Mark Greenberg/Joy Mitra have made excellent offerings on the topic.

Along with many others, I too have a deep concern about the way mindfulness is taught and proliferating in secular and clinical domains, how it is reduced to a pabulum of trite sayings and a mash-up of mindfulness memes. But waging war against this level of misunderstanding is exhausting and actually fruitless. The fear clinicians have of incorporating ethics/values into their work stems from an over-applied historic meme itself – that our presence is but a mirror, reflecting nothing of ourselves and everything of the other. It is based in a psychological Cartesian principle of separateness, not just of mind and body but also of you and me. In fact, to bring anything of myself into the room is often harshly dealt with in internships and trainings.

Now here’s the irony, mindfulness was a hope of many of us that this delusion of separateness would finally dissolve and we would be able to enter into an authentic – a more fully authentic – relationship with each other whether it is in the marketplace or the therapy room. Doubly ironic, the fields of moral psychology and counselling and spirituality have explored issues of the fallacy of values-neutral interactions in therapy. The findings are fascinating; in brief, clients over time take on the values of their therapists. But these examinations haven’t attained much traction in the huge momentum of cognitive-based treatments.

The underlying and frequently by-passed point is that there is no time when ethics is absent from our relationships. Be it in the therapy room, at the dining table, and even most especially in the all-purpose family room with the TV flashing its programs, it can no more be excised from the practice than heat from a chilli pepper. And it is never absent in the gathering place of mindfulness programs. So, if our fear is that ethics of the Dharma as it moves into secular domains are an imposition on our program participants, then that fear is misplaced. The fear should be more that we have been lulled into believing that we can be value-neutral participants at this intimate level as we connect with those who suffer deeply from this self-same disconnect from their lives. This is where the danger lies: that we are taking this arrogant stance and blindly leading others into the very vortex of ignorance that is the source of their suffering. And more, there is the equally arrogant and disrespectful assumption that the participants are tabula rasa to their own ethics and morality.

These assumptions are also embedded in Buddhist debates about sila and mindfulness where the fear is that the Dharma is being stripped of its moral foundations. Here too the confusion is based in assumptions of pre-existing personal ethics, religious influences and the nature of ethical living. Justin Whitaker on his blog American Buddhist Perspective published two posts that reflect the difficulties of finding some middle ground in the concerns and confusion. The first post addresses Tricycle’s recent blogpost by Richard Payne on the cultural assumptions that morality/ethics are connected to religious frameworks. The second post summarizes a discussion between Bhikkhu Bodhi and angel Kyodo williams on the issues of ethics and Buddhism. Again and with all due respect to Bhikkhu Bodhi and williams, we encounter the meme of secular mindfulness creating automatons in the workplace and military. (To be fair, Bhikkhu Bodhi has written in various publications that he sees the secularization of mindfulness a positive thing if it alleviates suffering AND if it honours its origins as a sacred practice.)

The ongoing debate among Buddhist, between Buddhists and secular/clinical practitioners, and all other permutations and combinations involved in the issue of placing ethics in mindfulness programs/teachings needs to turn back onto itself and examine its own assumptions about the nature of ethics and morality as well as how we acquire and embody them. As Ajahn Amaro points out in his commentary to our article, we need to examine the “subtle influences” of our own religious (even if disavowed) and cultural baggage that lead us to believe having ethics in a curriculum will create better people or that not having it will create monsters.

It’s time that we see the fear-inducing memes about religious infringement and mindful evil-doers as click bait, distracting both Buddhists and secular individuals committed to the teachings of mindfulness from the real issue of how to cultivate an embodied ethic.

writing the sutra of our life: a chinese detective, zhuang zi & hard nails

108zb-black-gold-post_2 Lokesh, the Tibetan monk, embodiment of Avalokiteshvara and conscience in Eliot Pattison’s Tibetan detective series, says to anti-hero Shan: “Jamyang told us his story…It is but for us to understand it. He left us the sutra of his life. We simply need to learn how to read it.” One of the most compelling detective series with a strongly Buddhist and pro-Tibetan message, Mandarin Gate(1) is the latest in the life of Chinese detective Shan and his eternal battle to fight wrongs with right. Jamyang is one of the characters in the novel but with Lokesh’s pronouncement, he can be any one of us.

How do we write the sutra of our life? How do we read and understand such a sutra? Sutras are complicated things, filled with mysterious allusions and verbal illusions. Recently, I had the absolute joy of being part of an art show with Kaz Tanahashi. Over a quiet lunch together (a snow squall had kept others stranded in their homes), I asked how best to study Dogen whom I said, “Is complicated though seemingly simple.” He chuckled and nodded: Dogen is in opposites. He writes “self” but he means “Self.” If you don’t know opposites, you cannot know Dogen.

I wish I could say that helped. It did in a reassuring way that one suddenly realizes the mountain is confirming it is a rather large and ofttimes impenetrable mountain which requires a good guide or key to its mystery. And it leaves me wondering what are the keys to these impenetrable lines of mysterious symbols and signs I’ve carved into my life. My spiritual life – though I hesitate to call it that any more, being saturated by the demands of the mundane world. Then again, that is what it is in its truest form be it Zen or any other form. Chogyam Trungpa wrote in The Myth of Freedom(2) that the intent of the discipline of practice (sit, cook, eat) is to go deeper into an intimate relationship with boredom. That is, we drop past the labels, preferences, gold stars (he calls them ‘credentials’) and addictions to form. We enter the naked lines of our scriptured life. We become entirely what we are in each moment, mountain, river, cloud, sky.

Our problem is that we tire of this ‘just is’ and want some reassurance we are on the right track. The unspoken demand is that this will be value-added to our life, our personality, our internal sense of worth. It will be a ‘credential,’ what Linchi called a ‘rank.’ I understand that it is hard to keep plugging along without some reinforcement. Truthfully the dishes wouldn’t get done without that promise of dessert after. And this is the key to understanding the sutra of our life: we make it all contingent on something happening for us (not in us).

After all, it says that in the suttas, sutras, and every teaching. Hearing the stone on the bamboo brought enlightenment! Seeing the ember, the raised finger…

Gutei-cropWait. What was that story? Gutei’s finger in the Mumokan! Gutei answered questions by raising his finger. His attendant started copying him and Gutei, seeing his mischief cut off the attendant’s finger. As the boy ran away crying, Gutei called to him and raised his finger. The attendant attained enlightenment! Boom! See, we take the raised finger as propellant to full realization and run around flipping it out. Instead of appreciating the simplicity of the one-fingered teaching, we elevate it and ritualize it.

There are all kinds of interpretations of this koan. The boy’s understanding was superficial. Teachings have nothing to do with fingers (sometimes they might with some fingers but we’re not going there today). The usual commentaries focus on owning our wisdom and not mimicking our teachers. The subtext to that is rarely mentioned; once upon a time our own teachers copied their teachers as did Gutei of his teacher Tenryu, finger and all. And there is the impenetrable “copy, yes; copy, no.”

In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh (may he be held in love and peace as he traverses the realms at this moment) makes a strong point that holding onto any teaching (as in holding onto to the raft that gets us across to the other shore) is to violate the percepts. He is quoted in the preface of Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree(3) that “if you have an ideology and stick to it, thinking it is the absolute truth, you can kill millions.”

While this subtext of rigidly copying our teachers calls for compassion for our limitations, the ultimate intent of practice is in learning to write our own sutra, penetrating our own mind. To fully study our self as Dogen teaches, we need to uncover our tendencies to get caught in various levels of mind. In the Book of Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi)(4), Confucius (the mouthpiece for Zhuang Zi) is guiding his pupil Yen Hui who is taking on an immense task of transforming a nearby king’s evil ways. Yen Hui had come up with various strategies all of which involved force and intimidation, most based on literal interpretations of Confucius and in his own pride. The master tries in many ways to exhort Yen Hui to see that forcing others to be benevolent is not the best approach. Finally, Confucius tells Yen Hui he has to fast. Yen Hui is baffled because he does fast and Confucius tells him it is the fasting of the heart/mind that is necessary.

Your mind must become one, do not try to understand with your ears but with your heart. Indeed, not with your heart but with your soul. Listening blocks the ears, set your heart on what is right but let your soul be open to receive in true sincerity, The Way is found in emptiness. Emptiness is fasting of the heart.

UBC professor Edward Slingerland states it clearly in a lecture on Chinese philosophy (i.e., with a key to those mysterious lines; see video). Zhuang Zi says:

Hearing stops the ears (it’s at the level of doctrine).
Mind stops with signs (it’s a process of matching up names to reality).
Qi is empty/tenuous and opens to things themselves.

We get caught at the ears (think sound of tree falling); we chant and are caught in mind, mapping to reality. It is only when we cut through these iron-hard nails that hold together our doctrines and assumptions that the sutra of our life can be understood and then written in clear, unimpeded language. That means willing to be vulnerable in our ignorance, exhausted by our anger, and bruised hopelessly by our attachments. With no desire or hope of reward. So write your sutra without the traps of facts and figures, without the compulsion to line up philosophies with actions. Rather write with a boundless transparency and simplicity of what you eternally are becoming.

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(1) Pattison, Eliot, Mandarin Gate (2012). Minotaur Books, NY
(2) Trungpa, Choygam, The Myth of Freedom (2002). Shambhala Publications, Boston MA
(3) Buddhasa Bhikkhu, Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree (1985/2013). Wisdom Publications, Boston MA
(4)Chuang Tzu, The Book of Chuang Tzu (translated by Martin Palmer with Elizabeth Breuilly) (1996). Penguin Books, London UK