The debate about what happens when we take Buddhist meditation and other Buddhist spiritual practices out of the context of Buddhist religious thought (secularism) is presently everywhere in the Buddhist blogosphere. I hope this discussion will continue as long as we practice Buddhism in the West. Societies and religions do not just happen. They, as all human things, are constructed and here at the beginning of Western Buddhism we have an outsized voice in what it will become. Will our Western form of Buddhism be faithful to the teachings of Buddhism? Will it degrade into wrong Dhamma? What is wrong Dhamma? While remaining true, will our Western Dhamma remain inclusive and moderate?
I recommend Danny Fisher’s blog post titled Your Practice is Not All about You for an overview of what has recently been written on this subject, and for Danny’s own thoughts.
When I first started studying Buddhism, I thought that the Dhamma-Vinaya (what the Buddha called his creation) did not have a social aspect. That was very naïve. I was completely ignorant of the Vinaya and its centrality to the whole of Buddhism. The Vinaya, and the monks and nuns who follow its rules and intent, is a clear indication of what the Buddha saw as a just and skilful society. Though I do not believe that the Buddha was striving to create a larger Buddhist society (as Stephen Batchelor alleges in his book, “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist“) I do believe he had some very strong ideas about what is an ideal society. There are several passages in Pali Canon where he discusses the relationship between practitioners, their families, and the larger world. He discussed how a good king (e.g., a good government) should rule. He was also prescient in his description of what happens in a society when everyone forced into competition with everyone else (the result being our current predatory state). According to traditional history, Asoka, the great Buddhist King, ruled by following the Buddha’s teachings, creating a society that was just, prosperous and peaceful. Buddhism flourished in this kingdom, in large part due to the prosperity of the people and the peace in which they lived.
Given the importance of a healthy society to a flourishing Buddhism, I’d like to point out one of the notable features of modern society. The elite have gotten quite good at making individuals responsible for the suffering they experience, suffering that is actually the responsibility of society. I have been reading a book by Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield titled “The Loss of Sadness.” In this book, Horwitz and Wakefield discuss how the field of psychology, specifically the DSM (“Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders“), has defined depression in such a way that much of normal human sadness is now a psychopathology (labeled and treated as depression). The authors argue that normal sadness, that is sadness triggered by an external force and which will fade with time, or disappear once the trigger is removed, is now seen as a sign something is wrong with the person experiencing the pain. The sadness caused by social ills are treated as if something is wrong with the individual rather than as a sign that something in society must change. It is now acceptable to treat pain caused by society with drugs such as anti-depressants rather than getting at the core problems. I am not sure that this is a good thing.
I feel the same thing is happening with mindfulness meditation. Taken out of the context of Buddhist religious practice and soteriology, mindfulness practice can become another coping mechanism used to dull the pain of life caused by an ill society. McMeditation becomes just a sophisticated anti-depressant. Why are the individuals working in Silicon Valley and other technology centers coming to McMindfulness? Often because they are working 60+ hours a week and doing so in an environment where stress and implicit threat is used like a whip to “motivate” them. Any sane person would be stressed in this situation and be looking for a way out.
There many examples of this attempt to make the individual responsible for trauma caused by a greedy and ill society: The poor are lazy. The middle-class is poorly educated with skills do not match today’s need (the myth of structural unemployment). Even the well-off are placed in competition with the extraordinarily wealthy for access to good schools for their children, etc. If you burn out in today’s hyper-competitive and amoral world, the solution is to go to a mindfulness class and learn how to deal with stress and become more competitive.
I agree with what Danny Fisher, David Loy, Ron Purser and others have said, but I hope we do not lose track of the context in which these dysfunctions are arising. We live in an ill society that no longer trusts or values its members, and treats them as cost to society rather then the very reason society exists.