Sit Down and Shut Up: Pulling Mindfulness Up By Its (Buddhist) Roots

Image via Wisdom 2.0

“Wisdom 2.0?” meditation teacher Kenneth Folk has famously pondered. “That’s a networking opportunity with a light dressing of Buddhism.”

If mindfulness has gone corporate, then Wisdom 2.0 is its annual shareholder meeting. The yearly conference hosts tech royalty alongside media mavens like Arianna Huffington and Russell Simmons. Eyes may close for a meditation session, but a different ritual, perhaps even older, is perpetually enacted: see and be seen.

A couple of years ago, in a headline-making action, protesters leapt on the conference stage and unfurled a banner demanding an “eviction-free San Francisco.” The protestors were talking about physical displacement, but I’d argue that a kind of spiritual gentrification was also getting underway at Wisdom 2.0. As the recent glut of best-selling books, trend pieces, and celebrity testimonials attest, the mindfulness industry shows no sign of a slowdown. Apple has even built a mindfulness tool—reminding users to “breathe”—for its newest Apple Watch.

The rise of corporate mindfulness has rendered Buddhism far whiter and wealthier than it has ever been. For some immigrant Asian Buddhists and other politically engaged practitioners, the trend is reminiscent of the divorce of yoga from its religious roots. Viewed this way, the adoption of Buddhist practices into executive suites and government offices seems like a textbook case of cultural appropriation.

Proponents of mindfulness, of course, don’t see it this way. They claim that mindfulness is simply the tradition’s newest iteration. But as mindfulness saturates the culture, it has become the public face of Buddhism for many Americans.

What, if anything, gets lost in translation? And to whom does it matter?

The roots of mindfulness

Any conversation about the appropriation of Buddhist practices is difficult, because as the tradition spread—from the Indian subcontinent, and across the globe—it always adapted to host cultures. Buddhism absorbed Chinese religion when it spread to China, Tibetan religion in Tibet, and so on.

But mindfulness—what we think of as “meditation,” as opposed to prayer or ceremonial observance, for example—does have deep roots in the tradition. The Pali word sati, which can be translated as mindfulness, is frequently used in Buddhist scripture. (The noun comes from the verb sarati, meaning “to remember,” and alternative translations for sati include “remembrance” or even “collectedness.”)

Sati is just one part of a much larger set of practices and traditions. Specifically, it’s the seventh element of the Noble Eightfold Path, which is itself one part of the body of teachings known as Buddhist dharma, or religious doctrine. And dharma is just one of what are called Buddhism’s three jewels; the other two are the Buddha and the sangha, or monastic community.

As such, mindfulness makes up a small segment of the immense ethical, philosophical, institutional and ritual latticework that constitutes the totality of Buddhist practices, which themselves vary widely from place to place and era to era.

The modern emphasis on mindfulness and meditation is a fairly recent phenomenon. Historian Eric Braun notes that lay meditation did not begin in earnest until an early-twentieth-century anti-colonial movement among Theravada Buddhists in Burma. Before then, meditation teachings remained the province of monks and nuns. The monastic setting ensured that meditation practices took place in a community of aspirants abiding by a common code of conduct and observing a shared set of rituals. While deemed necessary for liberation, meditation practices like mindfulness were not sufficient. The accompanying rules and relationships were just as important.

Modern-day mindfulness takes this twentieth-century shift to lay meditation one step further, sanctioning meditation as a technique developed in the midst of worldly life. In previous generations, mindfulness “was surrounded by lots of other things,” said Mushim Ikeda, a Buddhist teacher at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California. “We’ve taken out one thing and we’re applying it to reduce stress, to increase performance.”

Bodhi to Brooklyn

Once extracted from this communal context, mindfulness becomes a catch-all (and a cure-all). Want to relieve stress, get more sleep, perform better at work, have better sex, and actually pay attention to that elaborate breakup story your friend is telling you? Just meditate. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques, pioneered by medical professor and former Buddhist practitioner Jon Kabat-Zinn, have spread from hospitals to offices to the halls of Capitol Hill.

But these practices can diverge, at times in very deep ways, from traditional understandings of sati.

“Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will, and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.”

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American Buddhist monk who deploys encyclopedic knowledge of the sutras in his cultural commentary, has pointed out crucial differences between traditional and modern (Western) mindfulness. “The Buddha himself defined sati as the ability to remember,” he writes, whereas contemporary teaching vivifies the breath as something continually discovered anew. The traditional focus on remembrance draws upon a practitioner’s experience in cultivating the technique. But for modern-day meditators, instructed in the benefit of practicing just five minutes per day, this appeal to long-cultivated expertise means little.

The aims of contemporary mindfulness are very different, too. “The way mindfulness is practiced, it’s not necessarily Buddhism,” said Reverend Toshikazu Kenjitsu Nakagaki, president of the Buddhist Council of New York. “It’s used to improve business. So the purpose is fundamentally different.”

Do these differences matter? Things change. In fact, there may be no better two-word summary of Buddhist thought and history than that. “Buddhism has gone through many, many transformations from India to China to Japan,” said David McMahan, a scholar of Buddhism at Franklin and Marshall College. McMahan’s 2008 book, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, analyzes how Buddhism changed as it took hold in the West during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “Now it’s changing again,” he said.

This change, though, comes within a context of colonial expansion and widespread cultural theft, argued Katie Loncke, the co-director of the Bay Area’s Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), a social justice-oriented organization. “In the legacy of colonialism in which the U.S. was founded and still very much find ourselves, it’s not surprising that we see repeated patterns of cultural appropriation,” she said. “Even within these very cherished contemplative practices.”

When it comes to contemporary mindfulness, this appropriation aligns with the dominant neoliberal mode of economic, social, and political life. Instead of challenging the status quo, mindfulness merely enables the ensuing preoccupation with social climbing and career advancement.

In other words, mindfulness is a technique that asks Americans to quite literally sit down and shut up.

Zen Buddhist teacher David Loy and management professor Ron Purser call this form of the technique “McMindfulness.” “Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will, and delusion,” they write, “it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.”

McMahan, however, warns against the idealization of a mythic, pristine form of the religion. “I would be cautious about contrasting mindfulness with some kind of absolutely pure, past Buddhism in which there was no conception or concern with material well-being or financial reward,” he said.

A divided community

It’s important to keep in mind that this conversation is unfolding within a divided American Buddhist community. Specific numbers are hard to pin down, and estimates vary widely, but roughly three-quarters of American Buddhists are Asian. The remainder are predominantly white converts. Practitioners in the Asian diaspora typically join communities that are aligned with sects popular in their origin countries.

Convert Buddhists, on the other hand, tend to congregate at meditation-oriented Buddhist centers founded in the United States, such as the Insight Meditation Society or those of the Shambhala Buddhist community.

“The vast majority of information about mindfulness is disseminated by white people, in media venues controlled by white people, for the primary consumption of white people.”

The secularized mindfulness technique foregrounds this overwhelmingly white set of practitioners, even though they are probably a minority of American practitioners. “So much of the Asian diasporic and Asian-American face of Buddhism has been erased and dismissed from the mainstream versions of the dharma in the U.S.,” said the BPF’s Katie Loncke. The outsized visibility of white celebrities and CEOs practicing mindfulness highlights the longstanding tension between the immigrant Asian Buddhist community and the convert one. (There are exceptions, most notably Chade-Meng Tan, the Singapore-born founder of Google’s in-house meditation program, whom I interviewed for RD earlier this year).

This split within American Buddhism raises the question of who owns and defines those practices going forward. In his 2014 book, Mindful America, scholar Jeff Wilson holds the media partially accountable: “The vast majority of information about mindfulness is disseminated by white people, in media venues controlled by white people, for the primary consumption of white people.”

Loncke agrees, pointing to “glossy Buddhist magazine versions of the dharma.” She notes a recent cover of the Buddhist* magazine Lion’s Roar, which featured a photo of Buddhist teachers, many of whom teach mindfulness and three of whom are Asian, below a headline calling them “The New Face of Buddhism.” The cover’s spotlight on a fresh set of predominantly non-Asian, convert Buddhist teachers seemed to overlook—or worse yet, intentionally downplay—the enduring role of Asian immigrant teachers.

“It’s an unfortunate element of the pressures of U.S. marketing to sell things by announcing them new or fresh or interesting,” added Loncke. Marketers and practitioners gravitate toward this newness, rather than “doing the sometimes tedious work of giving credit where credit is due.”

Loncke and other mindfulness critics belong to an engaged Buddhist movement that itself is open to criticism for the appropriation of Buddhism, hitching the tradition to a progressive political agenda. “There’s nothing necessarily inherent in the Buddhist tradition that would lend itself to leftist politics,” said McMahan. “I’m sympathetic to engaged Buddhism,” he added. “But that’s more about me and my politics than it is about Buddhism.” The Buddha wasn’t mindfully coding apps—but he wasn’t scrawling lefty placards, either.

Loncke acknowledges that concerns over cultural appropriation in engaged Buddhism are “hella real,” adding that “it’s not very helpful” when practitioners “look back to the life of the Buddha or his teachings for . . . guidelines about what policy choices to make.” Such appeals risk the same willful neglect of the tradition’s origins that engaged Buddhists often counsel against. Both a corporate mindfulness practitioner and an engaged Buddhist run the risk of cherry-picking from the tradition.

Perhaps the corrective for appropriation, in either case, is proper citation. That’s what Ikeda, the East Bay Meditation Center teacher, wants, demanding of Western Buddhists “not only awareness” of source cultures “but attribution and acknowledgment.”

Such attribution comes sparingly from teachers of corporate mindfulness, many of whom stress the secular nature of the practice. Kabat-Zinn, for instance, chooses not to identify as a Buddhist despite his decades of experience as a student of the tradition. A 24-page instructional manual on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction—released in 2014 by Kabat-Zinn’s Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society—does not mention Buddhism once. The manual does, however, include a regimen of carefully referenced “hatha yoga.” Even when they do invoke Buddhism’s longstanding traditions, mindfulness advocates often do so as a superficial means of establishing credibility for the practice.

Engaged Buddhists, meanwhile, tend to link broad Buddhist notions like nonviolence (ahimsa) or generosity (dana) to contemporary political issues. Ikeda warned against such “cherry-picking through Buddhist sources” or “finding nuggets of things and saying ‘aha, this supports my point.’” She contrasted this approach with a “logical and thoughtful evolution” of the religion, which she says engaged Buddhism can provide.

Media coverage of mindfulness has increased dramatically in the past few years, along with a new wave of criticism. But quantity isn’t quality. And the quality of this conversation depends on the depth of its analysis and the diversity of its voices, with special attention paid to the least powerful and well-represented among them.

Then again, I’m a white dude living in Brooklyn who has concerns about cultural appropriation. And Chade-Meng Tan, one of the foremost advocates of corporate mindfulness, is an immigrant from Singapore. The axes of ethnicity, power, and critique get muddled. The future of American Buddhism depends on a collective willingness to investigate them, respectfully.

Awkward moments will certainly result. They comprise, perhaps, the challenge for which all this mindfulness has been preparing us.


*Due to an editorial error, this article originally stated that Lion’s Roar is a Shambhala Buddhist magazine, rather than an independent publication covering a range of Buddhist traditions. 

Also on The Cubit: An interview with Google mindfulness maven Chade-Meng Tan

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