Sati and Sociopolitics: Throwing the Buddha Out with the Bathwater?

| December 15, 2014 | 6 Comments
Image courtesy of Master isolated images at

Image courtesy of Master isolated images at

With Anderson Cooper’s enthusiastic endorsement on 60 Minutes last night, mindfulness practice is well into the mainstream. Cooper’s segment included interviews with mindfulness gurus Jon Kabat-Zinn and Chade-Meng Tan, Google employee with the job title “Jolly Good Fellow”.

As the movement has grown, there has been pushback. Some has focused on the scientific claims, but much has focused on the nexus between traditional and secularized practice. Candidly, I find myself on both sides of this issue. While there is no reason to accept the supernatural claims of traditional Buddhism, there is nevertheless great wisdom in much of its earliest teaching.

In the 60 Minutes piece, Kabat-Zinn gave a quick definition of mindfulness as ‘awareness’, or we might say, ‘present-moment awareness’. This is a normal way to introduce the term to a new audience, but it has drawbacks. As Ron Purser and David Loy put in their Beyond McMindfulness, there is a critical distinction to be made between mindfulness per se, also known as “right mindfulness”, and so-called “wrong mindfulness”.

Right Mindfulness is guided by intentions and motivations based on self-restraint, wholesome mental states, and ethical behaviors — goals that include but supersede stress reduction and improvements in concentration.

Wrong mindfulness, of course, does not. Yet both are forms of present-moment awareness. One can be perfectly aware of what one is doing and still engage in intentional harm to oneself and others. I think we all know this, and want to work to avoid it.

Hence true mindfulness must include an ethical component, or its pursuit can become destructive. This is something that any competent teacher of mindfulness will know, but it bears repeating.

Also any truly contemporary practice must also follow the best scientific understanding of the mind, and must be broad and thin enough (in my earlier sense of “thin”) to be compatible with the religious and social backgrounds of a large range of potential practitioners.

Nevertheless there remain some matters that deserve extended discussion. Let us take a look at passages from a couple of recent articles taking issue with the contemporary mindfulness movement, and relate them to some of the earliest available notions of Buddhist belief and practice.

Capitalism, Big Business, and Inequalities

The first of these is a recent article by Kevin Healey, “Google-Phonics, or, ‘What is the Sound of a Thousand Tech Workers Meditating?’”.

In it, Healey urges training in what he terms ‘civic mindfulness’, or mindfulness that becomes aware of the dukkha produced institutionally rather than “a myopic focus on personal stress reduction and interpersonal empathy.” Healey questions whether it is appropriate to use mindfulness to get employees in a big business like Google to do their jobs better. The question here is whether such usage runs implicitly contrary to the Buddha dhamma itself.

In particular, he takes issue with “Google’s in-house mindfulness guru”, the “Jolly Good Fellow” Meng Tan.

… Meng insisted that success in the marketplace is consistent with the pursuit of mindfulness. I objected, and raised the pointed question I had asked only rhetorically a couple of days before. “If mindfulness were to take root both inside and outside corporate culture,” I suggested, “we might move beyond market capitalism altogether and arrive in a world that is beyond Google. The key moment in the Buddha’s life is not just when he left the palace, but when he crossed the river and joined those who were underprivileged. So I’m wondering: What would it look like for you to cross the river?”

Healey’s claim, as far as I understand it, is that the Buddha dhamma requires an abandonment of “market capitalism” in favor of a world “beyond Google”. In this article and elsewhere Healey points to a number of questionable actions taken by Google, such as interfering with the privacy settings on iPhones, collecting personal data from unencrypted networks during Street View drivebys, aiding the NSA, and consolidating privacy practices. However, while being implicated in leaks to the NSA is troubling, it is not clear we will ever get to a world without government strong-arming, or without privacy violations. Simply doing away with Google would not get us there, since my neighbor (not to mention, whoever comes along to replace Google) is just as likely to violate my privacy to some nefarious end as they are.

It seems as though Healey is making the perfect into the enemy of the good. Meng’s mindfulness may or may not be able to cure Google’s privacy problem, but even if it can’t, is it thereby of no use at all? Is it therefore non-Buddhist? Further, it may be that a more socially informed mindfulness program such as the one Healy prefers would make privacy violations less likely within Google. I doubt it would eliminate them.

While the Buddha clearly knew nothing of multi-national corporations, he did know about laypeople profiting, often greatly, from personal effort, which he described as, “wealth acquired by energetic striving, amassed by the strength of his arms, earned by the sweat of his brow, righteous wealth righteously gained”. (E.g., Aṅguttara Nikāya 5.41).

The Buddha did not condemn such wealth, nor its amassing by a layperson, so long as such profit was earned “righteously”, or in a wholesome (kusala) manner. The Buddha had a pretty clear idea about what qualified as “wholesome”: actions that did not kill, steal, rape, lie, defame, or otherwise speak unwisely. That is, actions that were not grounded in greed, hatred, or ignorance. (E.g., Majjhima Nikāya 9.6). Of course it is true therefore that a business which lies to its customers, or steals personal data, to that extent behaves in an unwholesome (akusala) manner. The bigger a business is, the more chance there is that some of its employees somewhere will do something wrong to advance the company’s bottom line. It’s not that big businesses are worse, it’s simply that they are bigger. And being bigger, they are also more powerful, for good and ill. Google in particular provides many wholesome (kusala) services to the world, for all its faults.

“Greed” must be taken more lightly in a lay context than in a monastic one, since any motive to acquire wealth “by energetic striving” must require some measure of greed, or at least strong desire. There is a reason why monastics are not to own nor even to touch money.

The Buddha also said that one should achieve wealth through “right livelihood”, which explicitly barred a handful of pursuits that he felt were intrinsically unethical:

… a lay follower should not engage in these five trades. What five? Trading in weapons, trading in living beings, trading in meat, trading in intoxicants, and trading in poisons. (AN 5.177).

It is important to note what livelihoods the Buddha did not include on this list. For example, he did not include spying or soldiery. He was surrounded by kings and strongmen who regularly engaged in espionage (e.g., Saṃyutta Nikāya 1.11) and warfare with one another, all of whom employed large garrisons of soldiers. This (as well as the Buddha’s rejection of vegetarianism for his own saṅgha) should tell us that the Buddha was something of a pragmatist when it came to ethical distinctions such as these.

Richard Gombrich discusses several examples of the Buddha “accomodat[ing] to the facts of political power”, as he puts it, including, under pressure from King Bimbisāra, deciding not to ordain soldiers (since doing so would deplete the King’s armies), and postponing a rains retreat. As Gombrich puts it, “The Sangha, and hence Buddhism, has a particular need of political patronage if it is to flourish.” (Theravāda Buddhism, 2nd Ed., pp. 116-117).

These considerations take us somewhat farther afield into questions of warfare, which the Buddha was unequivocally opposed to, while nevertheless allowing that a righteous king could have a standing army. (Dīgha Nikāya 26). (For more on this issue see the revealing discussion with Bhikkhu Bodhi).

In her book The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism, Uma Chakravarti mentions that householders (gahapati) were key to the early saṅgha. These were perhaps the closest thing in the Buddha’s day to contemporary workers and businesspeople. “The social order envisaged by Buddhists was clearly one in which the gahapati was the nodal point”. Indeed, the saṅgha could not exist without support in the form of food, drink, and medicine from its surrounding lay community. There is no sense in the Canon that the Buddha was opposed to money or profit per se, only attachment to it. As Chakravarti says, “Buddhism did not envisage the compete eradication of inequalities in society, [but] it certainly sought to contain them.” (p. 180). To take one example of such societal inequality, she notes that “Ānanda in fact appears to be the only figure in Buddhist literature who was concerned about the evidently unequal relationship between men and women. … [Otherwise] the general tone of Buddhist literature is antagonistic to women.” (p. 32).

In this vein, Healey claims that what is important in the Buddha’s life is not simply his renouncing wealth and power, but making common cause with the “underprivileged”; in other words, the Buddha’s mission amounted to revolutionary sociopolitical action taken on behalf of the world’s downtrodden: helping the meek to inherit the earth, in words of a different man.

However the Buddha did not leave his palace, wife, and child in order to join a group he regarded as “underprivileged” in Healey’s term; instead he looked to join with renunciants and ascetics, who from a spiritual perspective he regarded as the only truly privileged. Although joining this group did entail renouncing his former status and possessions, this should not be seen as equivalent to becoming impoverished. Indian society in the Buddha’s day recognized the poor as distinct from ascetics and renunciants, who were viewed as outside the standard social order. Ascetic poverty was based upon the intentional renunciation of wealth for spiritual ends, rather than simple misfortune, or (for Indian society of that day) bad kamma.

The Buddha viewed the solution to issues of social and economic inequality somewhat uniquely for his day: the proper escape for one of low status or in poverty was to join the saṅgha. That way they would escape societal stigma by renouncing the standard social order. The Buddha believed there was a place for renouncing profit and wealth, a place where social status counted for nothing, but it was the monastic saṅgha, not the world of householders and kings. The saṅgha depended for its existence upon continual lay support, however.

As contemporary practitioners, we are free to take the Buddha’s actions as exemplary of a certain kind of worldly sociopolitical stance, however doing so is anachronistic. This is not to say it is wrong, just that it cannot be supported on the basis of historical accuracy.

Neither of course can we support teaching the Satipatthāṇa Sutta to lay audiences on the basis of historical tradition. The Buddha did speak to large crowds of laypeople, and did minister to kings, however he did not often teach them meditative techniques. Although his message to laypeople was one of ethical action rather than meditative attainment, both lie along the same path; the only question is how far down it one is able to progress in one’s given situation. In the Buddha’s own day there were many very accomplished laypeople (AN 6.119-139 lists twenty one), hence no sense that being a layperson was incompatible with high attainment.

Ethics and Renunciation

Taking issue with the claim that the Buddha taught something like mindfulness to laypeople and kings, Ronald Purser and Andrew Cooper present a different argument against contemporary mindfulness for the masses in their article, “Mindfulness’ “truthiness” problem“:

Mindfulness advocates have often responded to criticisms by comparing their initiatives to the work of the Buddha, reminding us that he often taught kings, merchants, and feudal village leaders. This is true, but misleading. The Buddha certainly did converse with leaders and the merchant class, but what he taught them was not a mindfulness-based intervention so they could simply feel better about themselves. Nor did the Buddha simply provide them a meditative technique for improving concentration so that kings and merchants could obtain wealth and riches for their own sake. Rather, the Buddha advocated a wiser form of ethical leadership based on fair and just means for the acquisition and proper use of wealth. Moreover, the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, an eminent American-born Theravada Buddhist monk and English translator of the Buddha’s earliest discourses, noted, “I do not know of any discourse in which the Buddha teaches satipatthana meditation and systematic vipassana meditation [the main sources of practice for the mindfulness movement] to householders. Those are monastic practices, which normally presuppose renunciation — or at least a strong disposition to renunciation.”

Although Purser and Cooper claim their “concerns have nothing to do with … whether the mindfulness movement is an authentic and accurate representation of traditional Buddhist teachings”, the above paragraph appears otherwise. I will leave aside claims as to whether contemporary mindfulness techniques are meant for practitioners to “simply feel better about themselves”, as well as the scientific basis for MBSR and mindfulness, which make up the bulk of their paper. Instead I will focus on the issue of proper Buddhist practice.

As we have seen, the Buddha did advocate for the proper acquisition and use of wealth: he did not believe that one should own a slaughterhouse or sell alcohol, for example. He did not believe one should base one’s business on lying or stealing.

The Buddha also had a relatively sophisticated idea of good kingship, in the notion of the “cakkavatti dhammiko dhammarāja” (“Wheel-turning monarch, rightful and righteous king” in Maurice Walshe’s translation, Dīgha Nikāya 16.5.18). Although relatively egalitarian in outlook, such a kingdom would not have done away with possessions or profit. Instead the king was to behave justly and fairly. For example, he was to “Let no crime prevail in your kingdom, and to those who are in need, give property.” (DN 26.5) He was also not to engage in warfare: his “conquering” was to be done simply by word of the dhamma. (DN 3.1.5).

This was for its time an enlightened view of kingship. However it is not clear how wedded the Buddha was to the actual achievement of such a perfected political structure. As Uma Chakravarti says,

It is striking that, while the Buddha developed the concept of the cakkavatti who was a dhammiko dhammarāja, he never expounded this theory to any of the contemporary kings, even to those described as upāsakas [lay followers]. Despite [King] Pasenadi’s extreme devotion to the Buddha, he continued to rule in a despotic and arbitrary fashion, without any attempt being made by the Buddha to even introduce him to notions of more ethical kingship.

She goes on to say, “The Buddha also stood apart from the power struggles of his day.” (p. 172). This dovetails with Richard Gombrich: “I do not think that the Buddha took a serious interest in politics or intended his teaching to have political consequences.” (p. 83).

It is possible that the notion of a cakkavatti dhammiko dhammarāja does not come from the Buddha himself at all, but rather from an epoch somewhat after the Buddha’s own lifetime, when his followers were struggling with these very issues; it even could have stemmed from the kingship of the great Ashoka. (Who fit the model as well as anyone in his day). It is also possible that it comes from the Buddha, and that he spoke of the cakkavatti to various kings, but these conversations were not preserved in the Canon, which was, after all, intended mostly as training for monks, not kings. Or it is possible that the Buddha did not teach these things to kings because he felt it was unnecessary or could be detrimental to himself or his saṅgha do so.

He certainly did discuss issues of personal responsibility and renunciation with Pasenadi. However there is no way to definitively answer the broader question.

Where does this leave us with respect to Purser’s claim about mindfulness? The Buddha was somewhat of a pragmatist about ethics. It’s true he focused on ethical behavior to the exclusion of meditative attainments when teaching lay audiences, and he did appear to have a relatively sophisticated understanding of ethical kingship. However the former did not impede laypeople from reaching elevated levels of the path, nor do we have evidence that he spent time teaching the latter to actual kings.

There remains Bhikkhu Bodhi’s assertion that renunciation is a usual concomitant to serious mindfulness practice. This is incontrovertible. I believe Joseph Goldstein said that cultivating a mind of non attachment was what unified all Buddhist practice. Renunciation is often the first step towards non attachment: we make do with less, in order to wean ourselves off of something to which we may become attached.

Presumably Bodhi intends to highlight the monastic life, typified by a most radical form of renunciation, and in so doing to highlight the difference between mindfulness practice within a monastic context and mindfulness practice within lay life. We can accept such a distinction without thereby accepting the allied claim that mindfulness in a lay context throws the Buddha out with the bathwater. As we have already noted, many laypeople did achieve high levels of distinction even in the Buddha’s day, so there is nothing that bars laypeople from mindfulness meditation. I am sure Bodhi would accept this, so the only question that remains is how best to bring mindfulness to the masses.

What about in the ‘secularized’ context of an MBSR course, or to a group of Google engineers? Insofar as the secular context retains the Buddha’s key ethical insights, and insofar as it helps cultivate a mind of non attachment, it preserves the sorts of impulses the Buddha himself aimed at in his dealings with laypeople, and it preserves at least the essence of renunciation, even if in lay life renunciation must be limited in comparison with that in a monastery. Insofar as the secular context leaves ethics out of the picture, or views itself as an enabler to deepening worldly attachments, it may become more problem than solution. I suspect that none of this will come as a surprise.

A New Liminal Ground?

The Buddha was rather more an ethical pragmatist than some today have tended to see him: throughout his life the Buddha worked to gain the favor of wealthy and powerful patrons to his cause. This is not to say he didn’t have clear ethical guidelines, it’s simply to say that he was willing to bend a little if he saw a greater good for the dhamma or saṅgha, particularly when it came to dealing with the lay community. Kings required soldiers, so the Buddha allowed them. Laypeople ate meat, the Buddha allowed it. The saṅgha required food and funds to survive, the Buddha encouraged “righteous wealth”, so long as it was gained by laypeople and not monastics. Although the Buddha can be seen as a social radical, his radicalism occurred within a monastic context, for that was where he believed human beings could be most easily perfected.

Bringing the depth of the Buddha’s message outside the monastery, creating a broad, liminal ground of scholarship and practice, as is occurring now in the west, is an anachronism. So too is bringing contemporary notions of feminism and sociopolitical activism, neither of which are apparent in the early teachings. Practitioners like Healey want to incorporate a contemporary awareness of corporate culture and its effects on the underprivileged into mindfulness practice. Purser and Cooper want it to “challenge … materialist attitudes and values” and provide “soul-searching into the causes of widespread social suffering”. These are laudable goals, but they come largely from outside the tradition.

While the Buddha was interested in ending suffering, his aim was personal rather than social, anti-materialist only as monastic. (And only insofar as monasticism depended upon a materialist lay community for support). While achieving a mind of non attachment was the Buddha’s goal, the methods he proposed differed widely depending on his audience. He fully expected that his lay followers would pursue worldly attachments that were prohibited for monastics. Apart from carnal love, these included money and material goods.

The Buddha used to say he lived at a bad time, in “a population obsessed by the stain of miserliness … [in] an unbalanced population … [in] an afflicted population” (AN 6.10). Similarly, for all our great advances, we live today in a world of rampant consumerism, bigotry, growing economic inequalities, deep political corruption, and seemingly intractable conflict. The Buddha’s dhamma seems to provide solutions to these problems, when applied mindfully. But using the dhamma in this way requires us to think anew. It also suggests that a mind of non attachment is one that relaxes around what we consider truly Buddhist, and that while it strives for justice is willing to loosen grasping for absolutely perfect conduct today if we are to walk the path towards a better and more mindful tomorrow.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. Some of his writing can be found at

Comments (6)

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  1. Mark Knickelbine says:

    One of the arguments that Jeff Wilson makes to support his claim that mindfulness IS Buddhism (albeit radically transformed) is that we assume that the same set of ethical values we associate with Buddhism ought to apply to mindfulness as well. So mindfulness associated with violence, profit taking, sex, etc., immediately raises the specter of hypocrisy, because we assume that anybody who meditates ought to be like a monk. Wilson also points out, of course, that Buddhism has always been implicated in the political, economic and social dynamics of any society in which it has existed; certainly the contemporary marketing of mindfulness was made possible by both Asian and Western Buddhist teachers who adapted the teachings in order to make them palatable to American and European laypeople. Buddhism has had a century to challenge Western consumerism and market capitalism. One may scan the ads in Tricycle to see how that’s going. Purser and other critics may criticize mindfulness for its enmeshment in Western culture, but traditional Buddhism is a poor platform from which to do it.

  2. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Nice article, Doug. And I agree with Mark, too — the articles I’ve read from the critics of mindfulness appear to presume a position of privilege and superior efficacy of Buddhism in nurturing ethical behavior, which is not in evidence. They also tend to avoid validating their stance that ethical frameworks are more effective when explicitly dictated in the form of religious ideology, and turn a blind eye to the very different way in which MBSR programs demonstrate interconnectedness and compassion from which skillful thoughts, words, and actions can naturally unfold. Of course we have much to learn from the tradition, no one in mindfulness that I know has even hinted otherwise. But to continually be under the shadow of presumed privilege, without evidence, is simply flawed reasoning.

  3. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Certainly, it doesn’t matter whether a good ethical framework comes from what is labeled “Buddhism” or not. Indeed, part of the point is that much of the contemporary focus on social justice within mindfulness practice is not actually Buddhist in any clear, historical sense. Nevertheless it’s a welcome development! This is part of the irony.

    That said, I find the historical texts to be (in the main) of profound depth and wisdom, rewarding continual consideration, and so I do understand why some may be concerned not to have them treated as useless relics. Great philosophical texts such as these do not become outdated in their core teachings.

  4. mufi says:

    Doug: Well said, as usual.

    Re: “useless relics” in your comment, I’ve yet to meet someone involved in regular mindfulness practice who refers to the canonical texts in that disparaging way, although of course many practitioners struggle just to make time in their busy schedules for meditation, let alone textual study. For that matter, the same practitioner may harbor respect for a variety of texts and authors – both modern and ancient, Western and Eastern – and yet have barely engaged with them directly. We just aren’t all intellectuals, you know.

    And that brings me to Ted’s detection of an air of “privilege and superior efficacy” in these traditionalist “McMindfulness” critiques. Indeed, people come to practice because they suffer, whether they are ethically upstanding citizens or not, and the charitable (dare I say kind & compassionate?) thing to do is to give them the benefit of the doubt in this regard and to assume that they are blameless and deserving of help, even if they are employed by a big corporation or in the military. One need not be well versed in the Nikayas to understand that much, whereas an overestimation of their value – and of traditionalist symbols, in general – is a potential obstacle to that understanding.

  5. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Part of the diffidence about the main-streaming of mindfulness that many of us feel is probably more a matter of taste than anything else. When Dr. Oz speaks of “mindful eating” as part of a shill for a line of vitamin supplements, all I can really do is laugh.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Michael, I suspect you’re correct. Unfortunately, if human beings value it, capitalism will commodify it. This has already happened to Zen and yoga, just like it happened to Christianity long ago. But guys like Purser routinely reduce the entire mindfulness movement to tasteless marketing in order to suggest that mindfulness without its traditional Buddhist context is inherently a bad thing.

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