The Buddeoisie Blues
The growth in popularity of mindfulness in the West has produced a dizzying array of programs available for people from all walks of life. If you have a kid, they might be learning mindfulness at school. If you have a grandmother, someone is probably teaching it to her at her senior center. Non-profit models, driven by a sincere aspiration to help society, have been created to teach people who might benefit from meditation but who would not otherwise have access. Each week a new study seems to appear that shows the effectiveness of mindfulness on some vital aspect of human success or a new story emerges about a transformed CEO who insists on meditation classes for their employees. With the help of a sea of quasi-scientific studies, it has been marketed to the public as the thing everyone needs to thrive in today’s world. An array of methods abound and training programs for those interested in making a living by it or adding it to their therapeutic repertoire are ubiquitous.
Some of these programs honor the Buddhist roots of their practice but many have severed ties to the Buddha and his teachings altogether and have transformed the practice from a sacrament into a commodity. This rupture in the relationships, ethics, and narrative central to the Buddha’s teachings as it has been decontextualized, monetized, marketed, and industrialized has resulted in the emergence of a new spiritual class, the Buddeoisie: the owners of the means of mindfulness, whose manipulation of and financial stake in mindfulness puts it in unavoidable conflict with its own religious heritage.
In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, the root source of most secularized mindfulness, the Buddha’s teaching, or Dhamma/Dharma, is structured around the use of mindfulness within insight practice (satipatthana vipassana) as a way to liberate people from samsara, the perpetual cycle of existence fueled by greed, hatred, and delusion. By applying mindfulness (along with other mental factors) to the stream of physical and mental experience, a practitioner sees and comes to terms with the changing and undependable nature of all phenomena. This includes the “self” which becomes understood as a process rather than a separate, independent thing. Over time, the mind loosens its habitual grasping at all that is changeable, slowly uprooting greed, hatred, and delusion in the process, and thus the practitioner is freed from mental/emotional suffering. The Buddha was explicit that these teachings were priceless and were to be offered freely.
The new array of secularized mindfulness programs can be understood as a kind of Genetically Modified Dharma. With GMD, the Buddeoisie have manipulated the DNA of the Dharma: extracted the Buddha and replaced notions such as generosity and morality with promises of productivity and effectiveness while typically reinforcing the very patterns of identity and attachment that mindfulness is designed to uproot: higher test scores, more effective soldiers, more money, more power and, of course, better sex. Just as, years ago, the Dupont chemical company inspired the phrase “better living through chemistry,” the new secular mindfulness movement promises “better living through mindfulness” and is dedicated to keeping us perpetually invested in the cycles of both samsara and capitalism. By dramatically simplifying the method and philosophy of the practice, the Buddeoisie have reduced the labor costs of production (e.g., a teacher’s length of time on the cushion, depth of practice, expectation of study, and a mature understanding of the delicate dynamics of the student/teacher relationship) which has generalized and cheapened the product and prepared it for sale in the marketplace.
It is a powerful package of neocolonial self-replication: 1. Rewrite the history so the practice is no longer beholden to its originators; 2. Reformulate the product so it can be marketed on new terms for which there is greater demand; 3. Monetize its transmission and; 4. Create an army of poorly-trained industrial instructors that can fill the growing demand for the cheapened product. While any one of these practices might seem reasonable — even righteous — in certain situations, it is important to understand their tendency to arise together, conditioned by and conditioning one another, and should therefore be seen as part of the same, ultimately problematic, phenomena.
While the secular mindfulness movement is most fully embodied by people like Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the early popularizers of mindfulness as “stress reduction,” it is important to note that the development of GMD has also been bolstered by a number of revered Asian Buddhist masters, the 14th Dalai Lama and S.N. Goenka among them, who have at times encouraged the separation of the practice from its religious heritage. As Buddhist teachers, their unwavering faith in mindfulness is entirely respectable. But this faith in mindfulness as a practice fails to appreciate the implications of mindfulness as a commodity — which is inevitable without religious protections.
When we encounter a commodity at the store it appears on the shelf as an independent, separate, reified thing, in which the relationships involved in its creation (e.g., wages, working conditions, and environmental impacts) are invisible — a process known as fetishization. Commodity mindfulness is at war with itself because this tendency of commodities to wrap themselves in the illusion of a separate selfness that exist outside the conditions of their creation is precisely the kind of delusion that mindfulness is designed to destroy. Thus, fetishized mindfulness, which masks and then perverts the human relationships central to its transmission, is, at best, what the Buddha might call wrong mindfulness.
Just as many people have concerns about the long-term impact of GMO “frankenfoods” on consumers, those who care about the integrity of the Buddhist practices and teachings we have inherited have reasonable concerns about the impact of GMD’s secularized frankendharma. But even with our concerns, very few contemporary Buddhists anywhere would argue that anxiety-ridden school kids, exhausted teachers, veterans in distress, or people with chronic pain shouldn’t be learning mindfulness. Everyone can benefit from being better able to deal with reality (which is arguably what the Buddha’s teachings are all about). Even the most committed Western Buddhist teachers have adapted their methods to their cultural realities — as has happened to Buddhism as it moved from culture to culture throughout its history — but it is important to distinguish between an earnest attempt at an evolutionary adaptation of the teachings as they change cultural context and the genetic manipulation of the practice that betrays the lineage altogether and reinforces social patterns of alienation.
The Buddha himself had to negotiate the tension between social dynamics and economics in relation to the religious structure he created and his efforts can provide an important guide. On one hand, he created a religious institution that was dependent upon the unequal social relationships of his time: Wealthy donors provided the financial backbone of the Sangha (monastic community) as it expanded and developed and new conservative notions of private property were enthusiastically defended; his much heralded acceptance of people from lower castes into the Sangha was not an innovation but was actually common practice among renunciate sects of the time; and where he had the chance to be socially bold, with the full and equal acceptance of women into the Sangha, he offered them instead subordinate entrance precisely because of his concern with upsetting social mores.
On the other hand, he used the generosity of lay supporters to create a social alternative for people from all walks of life to escape from the vortex of competition, exploitation, and injustice, and he offered this path freely. It was not perfect, but for those who committed to his structure it could be deeply liberatory — materially and spiritually and did a remarkable job of not reproducing injustice in the world. While he didn’t advocate social upheaval, the Buddha admonished leaders for their cruelty, greed, and extravagance when he believed they deserved it and criticized other religious leaders for their roles in perpetuating human strife. The Buddha was not a social revolutionary but neither was he a sell-out. He walked, as he said numerous times, a middle path.
Someone seeking meditation instruction in Burma today could walk into any of a number of meditation centers and find thoroughly trained monastic teachers providing all accommodations and instruction for free — whether they stayed for a weekend or for a lifetime. It costs money to have you there but those expenses are covered by the generosity of other supporters. Great significance is placed on these offerings and ceremonies honoring the generosity of people are common and extravagant. If a family offers meal dana for a retreat, they will often arrive in a caravan with elders and grandchildren emerging from the vehicles to sit on the floor of the dining room and watch monks, nuns, and lay yogis enjoying their offering. There is a shared joy that is palpable in these acts of generosity and the gratitude they inspire. These wholesome feelings that are generated for both donor and recipient are understood to be the essential conditions for a successful meditation practice. The entire religious system is dependent upon them and has been perpetuated this way from the days of the Buddha.
The relational foundation of mindfulness matters. Whether we teach it for money or through generosity is the difference between strengthening our bond to an exploitative political economy or cultivating a liberating force for ourselves and society. Because the contemporary laity-driven mindfulness movement in the West cannot offer the same institutional strength that the Buddha laid out for his monastics it is doubly important to create meaningful religious structures that protect the integrity of our spiritual inheritance and provide meaningful alternatives to oppressive social realities: in accordance with our traditions, even if not precisely defined by them. Perhaps we can begin to claim this time in the history of Buddhism as the rise of the gahapatiyana, the householder vehicle, rather than of the Buddeoisie and GMD, and try to shape it with the care and integrity it deserves.
It will be an uphill battle. There are very powerful forces at play that will ensure the Buddeoisie dominate the propagation of mindfulness and in doing so reproduce the unjust social norms of our society. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult for a man to understand something that his paycheck is dependent upon him not understanding.” Here are a few modest commitments that people currently involved in GMD could make to begin to turn the tide:
1. Stop charging money for teaching or training. Many Western Buddhist institutions charge fees for accommodations because there are not enough donors to support them. This is understandable. But to sell teachings that were freely given to you is unethical and diminishes the integrity of the teachings and the practice. Keep the teachings themselves free from price-valuing. Living off of dana is not stable or secure for many teachers — we don’t live in a society that understands generosity in this way — but let that be a motivator for innovation and education rather than resignation.
2. Don’t deny your heritage. We don’t all need to go around talking about enlightenment or karma when it isn’t appropriate, but don’t deny the lineage or tradition that is the source of the method. This stuff didn’t come out of thin air and it wasn’t cooked up at MIT. There is a chance that this transparency might narrow your student base, but you will be acting honestly and the security of that carries a transformative power that all “mindful relationships” should be based on.
3. Dedicate more time to intensive retreat practice. It is troubling to see people with very limited understanding of the mind being put in leadership roles in which other people’s (sometimes quite fragile) minds are their responsibility. Mindfulness is a powerful tool and teachers should be dedicated to understanding it more and more deeply. Nothing can take the place of intensive retreat time. It can be very hard practically and financially but without deep experience you can be endangering people even if your intentions are pure.
4. Be careful what you promise. There is often a great difference between what we want to be true and what we know to be true. Very few of the recent studies touting the benefits of mindfulness have any real scientific merit. Mindfulness-based meditation can be hugely transformative in people’s lives but not always in ways that society values or understands. Sometimes practitioners make life choices that make them less social, less productive, less ambitious because they have strengthened a set of values that encourage ethics and quietude over profit and success.
We are living in an era where the Western foundation for these practices is being set, negotiated, reinforced, and reset. For those of us who care about this process, it is an amazing privilege to be alive and practicing during this time. But we should also feel the intense burden of our responsibility and a deep dedication to integrity and care because the quality of our actions will have immense repercussions for the future of the Buddha’s teachings.