Friday, August 30, 2013

We're all either doing McMindfulness or 功夫

Another Tricycle interview mentioning McMindfulness, if not by explicitly by name...this time via an interview  with Hozan Alan Senuake.

When you worked at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship you had a sign with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, “Mindfulness must be engaged.” Mindfulness has now been brought into many different realms of our culture, and that seems generally beneficial. But I recently saw an article about mindfulness being used by the US military. This seems like an odd combination. It is true that all Buddhism is engaged because the precepts and teachings are all about how we are all in relation to everyone and in relation to everything around us. That by definition is “engaged.”
When the Buddha was teaching in North India 2500 years ago, the reality of peoples lives was almost completely socially determined by gender, caste, occupation, and the tribe they were born into. Basically, where you were born was where you stayed, in a geographic as well as social sense. In that context, what the Buddha taught was something that could be seen as a kind of radical individualism. He taught that your actual position in the world and your value in it was not to be based on your birth but on your actions, and that you had to take responsibility as an individual for your actions. Fast-forward to what we have today in the West, a terribly individualist ideology. The greatest threat to Buddhism, or any progressive movement, is that it can be turned into a commodity that is sold back to you. We are constantly being sold this commodity of individualism. I believe that if the Buddha were teaching today he would be teaching a more explicitly social doctrine. He would recognize that we have created systems and structures of suffering and that the suffering is not just about individuals experiencing racism, sexism, and various kinds of oppression; what we have are structures of suffering that also have to be addressed. Engaged Buddhism addresses exactly that intersection of our individual responsibility and individual involvement in the creation of systems of suffering.
The problem that you point out about mindfulness is important. I feel there is a risk of mindfulness being seen as a technology, presented as a technique, which is sold back to us. What I’m concerned about in terms of this increasingly popular approach is that it’s being psychologized and marketed.
Certainly a lot of it is very good. Mindfulness is now happening in schools and prisons, in settings where it is truly useful. But I worry about it being brought into a corporate context and a military context. In those contexts people are being helped to find ease and suffer less within systems that are causing suffering. Right Mindfulness would be looking at the actual function of that system as well as the freedom that an individual within that system feels. I don’t wish ill to people working in corporations or people in the military; everyone has the right to be at ease and to live without oppression. On the other hand, I think that an Engaged Buddhist perspective looks at the function of that system. That’s the larger, often neglected view of mindfulness.

Well, first of all, what about them samurai?  As I've written before, Zen as we know it would not have existed but for official patronage of governments, including but not limited to their cultivation by militaries.

Secondly,  having militaries practice Buddhist precepts is not entirely wrong.  It gets substantially more than problematic of course when it's used to justify atrocities, as was done in Japan during its militarist period.  I think Senuake gets that ultimately, but it's kind of odd to bring this up at all, I think.  We get that. 

Secondly, it is in part a technique, and there's nothing really wrong with that. 

In fact, cultivation of skill and technique is part and parcel of the practice. You can't get "good" at mindfulness - like martial arts, yes, like martial arts - without seeing its practice in all areas of your life. 

While I share many of the political positions of so-called engaged Buddhism, I remain skeptical of the attempt to fit Buddhism into a political ideology, any political ideology, because the political ideology is usually a shiny object we're using to distract ourselves from something far more important.

So when I see someone go in the direction of political Buddhism,  I tend to be skeptical of the depth and quality of their practice,  given how hard it is to deeply cultivate an authentic practice.

Some of the best practitioners might not be Buddhists...

1 comment:

Algernon said...

And a very simple question appears for me, thanks to your framing of the matter: What is the appeal, exactly, of trying to fit Buddhist practice into a particular political framework? Even if one feels that, for THEM, Buddhist practice was intimately involved in questioning how systems function, why conflate them? Both are worthy activities. One does not require the other.