Book Review: American Dharma by Ann Gleig

Book Cover American dharma by Ann GliegJust when I thought I had caught up with the winding path Buddhism took from Siddhartha to Asoka to Buddhist Modernism via McMahan and Braun, American Dharma adds another step in the evolution of Buddhism in the West. Author and scholar Ann Gleig brings an incisive and insightful examination of Buddhism’s adaptation, shapeshifting, and co-creation by Western perspectives of its root philosophy. In fact, Gleig’s reading of this path (as with McMahan and Braun) questions whether there was ever a root philosophy. And that takes us directly to the anxiety-provoking thought: Is Buddhism only what we decide it is?

Here, I need to disclose that Gleig includes our work in confronting the misconceptions of the psychologized form of Buddhism called Mindfulness. More specifically, my colleagues and I have attempted to address the self-identification of Mindfulness-Based Interventions/Programs (MBIs) with Buddhism/not Buddhism. (I will forebear jokes about self/not-self.) Gleig is generous in covering our concerns that MBIs while attempting valiantly to siphon in Buddhist concepts and practice, fall short of what is required to be Buddhist teachings in spirit if not exactly in design. I’ll have more to say about that further down.

For now, let’s take an overview of Gleig’s incisive thoughts about Buddhism and the shapes it took in Western culture. Drawing from McMahan’s and Braun’s extensive work, Gleig carefully describes the cultural (and political) imperative that shaped Buddhism from the time of Ledi Sayadaw which placed meditation at the heart of Buddhist practice. The passing on of the torch is traced further from U Ba Khin, Mahasi Sayadaw and their own students, with the most influential being Goenka who (aling with Thai Forest monks) eventually influenced the American phalanx of Buddhism: Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Sylvia Boorstein and the founding of the East and West Coast Insight Meditation Societies.

Gleig explores, with a remarkably balanced perspective, the explosion of Buddhist-based practices with Chapter Two: From the Mindfulness Revolution to the Mindfulness Wars. This is a particularly important chapter because it lays out the reality that it doesn’t matter whether we have subverted Buddhism to support our Western consumer-mind. If we have yet to address issues of disadvantage that are misogyny, racialization, and abuse, Buddhism qua mindfulness is only a mirror of our corrupted values. And, it becomes a weaponized approach to maintaining the status quo. This topic of disenfranchisement is powerfully explored in Chapter Five: The Dukkha of Racism, Gleig unmasks the attempts to change “racial rearticulation” which is

the acquisition of the beliefs and practices of another’s religious tradition and infusing them with new meaning derived from one’s own culture in ways that preserve the prevailing system of racial hegemony (From Cheah quoted in Chapter One).

Chapter Five is sad to read yet from the undertones of disappointment in our limitations to understand how we hurt each other through erasure, there is some hope that with pain comes insight into the suffering caused. Personally, I deeply resonate with “The Empty Seat” (that painful space left on either side of me when I sit at any table – meeting, gathering, socializing) and felt seen by the reading of it.

But back to Chapter Two where Gleig addresses the surge of mindfulness in its multitudinous forms of psychological programs, wellness movements, and “woo-vending”, a fantastic term coined by Philip Theofanos in his article here. The central criticism of mindfulness as a secularized and psychologized process (not practice) is repeatedly that “ethics are stripped” from its content. I’m stepping out of the container of this review by inserting my ongoing stance to this criticism: ethics are both implicit and explicit in the teachings of mindfulness. Dare I say in teaching anything. As such, the battle lines of ethics-protectors (ethics must be included in MBIs) and ethics-dismissives (ethics are implicit in MBIs or would be oppressive to teach) are missing the point. It’s impossible to teach any concept without immediately hoisting the flag of one’s inclinations as well as value-ridden approaches, and that requires full transparency (see Gunther Brown’s chapter in this linked page) as well as self-awareness. However, there is much gold to mine in the hills of conflict, even if generating that conflict is somewhat in conflict itself with the essence of Buddhist thought. And that essence is living a life that is congruent in its intention to do no harm and to test one’s actions against its consequences.

One interview mentioned in Gleig’s impressive references is between Edo Shonin and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Although Gleig uses it to support the view that secular/psychologized mindfulness has value, the interview points directly to the many reasons the discussion of MBIs are so confusing. Kabat-Zinn, both in this interview and innumerable other sources continually dances between “it’s Buddhist” and “it’s not-Buddhist” – I would add there is a hint of “it’s not-not-Buddhist” too. However, this chapter is worthy of a careful read if we hope to understand the convulsive route secular mindfulness has taken to ensure it doesn’t offend anyone.

Of course, the most reliable evidence we have that ethics-in or ethics-out requires more than posturing is this evidence of sexual predators within Buddhist communities. Chapter Three: Sex, Scandal and the Shadow of the Roshi is an excellent dissection of yet another way Buddhists fail to see their dismissal of secular/psychologized mindfulness because of its “stripping away of ethics” begs the question. Further, the connection Gleig makes between Buddhist Romanticism and Buddhist Modernism is crucial to understanding the reasons Western Buddhism has taken on the allure of self-help and the mantel of psychology. This is also covered in Chapter Four: Meditation and Awakening in the American Vipassana Network where we meet the varied branchings out of the vipassana practices into addiction, pragmatism, emotional and relational health, and so on.

In Chapter Seven, aptly titled From Boomers to Gen X, Gleig sets the stage for future generations. Noting the heavy lay slant in the Gen X cohort of young teachers, I wonder about the possible loss of historical memory of what Buddhism is and how Buddhism is to become (though they just need this book to ensure fidelity to the path). However, despite its efforts to rise above the previous generation’s missteps, it was noted in the first gathering of Boomer/Gen X teachers that Gen X may be creating its own blindspot of a “progressive America”. Time will tell.

In all, Gleig has dug deep and carved thick slices of understanding the historical evolution and societal forces that created Buddhism.America. It’s a powerful and unstinting gaze leveled at our misunderstanding of how Buddhism came to be in the West and what it represents in American culture (I can include Canadian culture to some degree because so much of where we train and what we learn comes from south of the 49th parallel). This is a book for the person who wants to strip away the illusion that is currently Buddhism so that they can discern whether it’s self-improvement, awakening, or therapy that they seek.

For the academics of MBI trainers, the look on your students’ and trainees’ faces is worth gold when you talk about the long and winding road that is Western Buddhism! I’ve already made it required reading for my University of Toronto course on Buddhist Mindfulness approaches to Mental Health!

Book Review: Zen Beyond Mindfulness – Folding the Abhidhamma into a Western psychology I

Zen Beyond Mindfulness: Using Buddhist and modern psychology for transformational practice by Jules Shuzen Harris (Shambhala Publications) presents some very intricate Buddhist psychological concepts interwoven with a Western psychological model of Mind Body Bridging.

Shuzen Harris is a Zen teacher and dharma heir of Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara and a psychotherapist trained in the MBB approach of psychotherapy. In Zen Beyond Mindfulness, he brings together an in-depth exploration of a select set of concepts from the Abhidhamma and the psycho-educational framework of MBB. The approach, ironically, flips the usual East-West weave by setting the Abhidhamma as the cognitive process with the MBB as the body-centered, experiential approach. It takes a moment to see that are the infrastructure of Shuzen Harris’ model.

With the glut of Buddhist-W.Psychology integration books, there is a risk that the essence of either or Buddhism or Western psychology becomes a makeover, not a crossover. Zen Beyond Mindfulness manages to avoid the makeover; yet, it perhaps sets up strong boundaries between the two that is not as easily bridged as one would hope. Still, the book offers an interesting start point that is rarely seen in this genre.

Suzen Harris’ teachings on the skandhas are insightful, definitively showing them as the formation of consciousness by which we connect with our inner process rather than heaps we should be diving into. Tying in the five common factors, he draws a rich picture of how we relate to the world through our ego, patterns, and desires.

Understanding the dynamic of skandhas and common factors is an important system for the beginning practitioner whose impulse in seeking out the Path is to find a way to relate to the external world. Granted, it’s often because we have a misunderstanding that by knowing how we relate to the external world, we can then control that world and by extension, control our reactivities to it. It’s the bugbear of all psychotherapies – and Buddhist practice.

Zen Beyond Mindfulness then incorporates the twelve links of dependent origination as the granular view of the creation of our cyclic patterns of suffering. Of particular note for me was his description of ignorance which moves the term away from lack to a process we can shift through observation:

Normally ignorance means a lack of knowledge, but in Buddhism, it is closer to “ignoring.” p. 51

Once we enter the six realms, I was wishing we had an interactive map that showed the interactions of the skandhas, common factors, dependent origination, and now, the six realms! However, the book is meant to be read slowly, allowing consolidation of the concepts and not as a “quick give me the answer to my woes!” For the sake of transformation, I appreciated the time Shuzen Harris took with each chapter: laying out the model, showing its connection to fundamental Buddhist teachings, tying it back to the previous models, and moving it forward.

Having laid the foundations, we are moved into the Mind Body Bridging model, which in my reading seems to be a way of using the Body Scan with written reflections that explore our assumptions and self-made rules of how the world should serve us. The I(dentity)-System was developed by physician Stanley Block and is intended to uncover that ways the identity we developed to survive developmentally have become obstacles to healthy relationships. The I-System overactivity becomes the cause of our symptoms of distress.

m the MMB page

The latter half of Zen Beyond Mindfulness is the reflective exercises (many written) that open us to the ways we get in our way. I found it hard to link back to the Buddhist framework so carefully set up, although it is there in the chapters themselves. Experientially, it takes a bit of (non)doing. In Shuzen Harris’ own words, some of the concepts may be artificial delineations of this-that and sometimes those divisions can be misleading for readers less familiar with Buddhism’s core foundation of emptiness/sunyata.

I can certainly recommend the book for practitioners (zen or not) who want to spend some introspective time exploring their edges. However, the words “beyond mindfulness” beg the question of anything being “beyond” in the Buddhist worldview – except just plain going beyond. Svaha!