On Some Criticisms of Modern Mindfulness

| May 16, 2016 | 8 Comments
Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Is the contemporary mindfulness movement a kind of “fad” that misconstrues the essential message of the Buddha? Pieces by Edwin Ng and Ron Purser (2016a, 2016b) and Stephen Schettini (2014), not to mention the earlier “McMindfulness” critique by Purser and Loy (2013) argue that this is so. Ng and Loy take an overtly “anti-capitalist stance” in their claims, presumably to reinforce the essential message of Loy’s (2013) piece as “Uncoupling mindfulness from its ethical and religious Buddhist context … decontextualizing [it] from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics …”

Schettini sees mindfulness as essentially and radically subversive, a technique which has now been “hijacked by The Corporation”.

Think about it: the Buddha declared everything contingent, unsatisfactory, selfless — and chose homelessness over a life of power and influence. He abandoned his wife and son. He spent the rest of his life begging on the streets. Literally. Even after fulfilling his quest, he stayed away from civilization.

Today, who follows the Buddha into homelessness?

In their piece on McMindfulness, Purser and Loy look to the Pāli Canon, “the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha,” to push back on this line of thinking. Although their critique has a certain amount of validity, particularly when it comes to the so-called “supramundane” (lokuttara) path, to understand the dhamma as exclusively supramundane would be to overlook a great deal of the Buddha’s “earliest recorded teachings”.

The Buddha Was Not Opposed to Profit

While the Buddha formed the saṅgha as an expressly nonremunerative body, one that depended even for its most basic needs such as food, clothing and medicine on generosity, he had no problem with laypeople being gainfully employed. Indeed, the structure of his saṅgha depended essentially on someone being gainfully employed, in order to be capable of donating wealth to the saṅgha. That wealth did not only include food, clothing, and medicine, but the houses and parks in which the Buddha resided and taught. These were typically donated to the saṅgha by kings or wealthy householders such as Anāthapiṇḍika.

For laypeople, the Buddha expressly commended the pleasurable expenditure of “wealth acquired by energetic striving, amassed by the strength of [one’s] arms, earned by the sweat of [one’s] brow, righteous wealth righteously gained”. (AN 5.41).

He taught “balanced living” for laypeople, such that

If this clansman has a small income but lives luxuriously, others would say of him: ‘This clansman eats his wealth just like an eater of figs.’ But if he has a large income but lives sparingly, others would say of him: ‘This clansman may even starve himself.’ But it is called balanced living when a clansman knows his income and expenditures and leads a balanced life, neither too extravagant nor too frugal, [aware]: ‘In this way my income will exceed my expenditures rather than the reverse.’ (AN 8.54).

That is to say, frugality is as unskillful as extravagance; in a lay context there is nothing inherently wrong with having money and spending it as one wishes.

According to the Buddha’s teachings in the Canon, the ethics surrounding money depended on avoiding “four sources of dissipation: womanizing, drunkenness, gambling, and bad friendship”. And one was to avoid five trades in particular: “trading in weapons, trading in living beings, trading in meat, trading in intoxicants, and trading in poisons.” (AN 5.177). These are often glossed as being trades that involve harm and injury to others, and no doubt that kind of concern would have been high in the Buddha’s mind. But it is perhaps interesting to note that certain trades are not mentioned here, although in other places the Buddha does note that they involve kinds of harm. For example, the Buddha claims that both soldiers and actors are bound to bad rebirths due to having minds misdirected and intoxicated. (SN 42.2-3). However he does not include soldiery nor acting in typical lists of wrong livelihoods. Hence while it is perhaps understandable that contemporary readers of these texts will try to extend the typical five prohibited trades into many, it is perhaps truer to the original teaching to assume that five trades were meant only to be five.

It is of course one thing to say that the Buddha was not opposed to people making an honest living, and quite another to say that the Buddha was in favor of the commodity fetishization that we see around us in contemporary society, much less laissez-faire market capitalism. However insofar as we see ourselves as supporting Buddhism’s “original” purpose, by route of its “earliest recorded teachings” we must note that the Buddha had no concept of market capitalism as it exists today, hence we must extrapolate significantly to hazard anything illuminating about it from the early texts.

Of course, the Buddha taught that greed and clinging were unskillful. To that extent we can surmise that he would have felt contemporary notions of laissez-faire capitalism, particularly as dramatized by Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” speech in the movie Wall Street, were pernicious. But note that nothing in the contemporary mindfulness movement requires we accept Gekko’s evaluation of market dynamics.

The Buddha Was Opposed to Alcohol and Sex

We are on significantly firmer ground in noting that the Buddha was opposed to alcohol and sex in his earliest recorded teachings than that he was opposed to profit. He was quite consistent in opposing alcohol as unskillful, even for his lay followers. While avoidance of sex was something generally isolated to the monastic community, it does appear that he believed such avoidance necessary for anyone wishing to advance past the earliest stages of awakening. For example, in the Mahāvacchagotta Sutta (MN 73.9-10) he distinguishes between lay followers who remain celibate and those who do not. The former group reach a higher stage of attainment than the latter. This perhaps follows from his famous claim in the Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22.9) that engaging in sensual pleasure (that is, in particular, sex) is simply obstructive of liberation.

Many Buddhist followers nowadays, both traditional and secular, fail to live up to these simple directives as outlined in the “earliest recorded teachings”. I admit that I myself fail to. This is partly because I am not convinced that the Buddha was entirely correct in these matters, however I cannot be entirely sure that I am not engaging in self-deception when I think so. At any rate, the Buddha’s message contains no anti-capitalist message remotely as strong as his message against alcohol and sex. Insofar as we are concerned with recovering Buddhism’s “original liberative purpose” we should be aiming for eradication of the latter rather than the former. Insofar as we are concerned with a sensitive updating of the Buddha’s message, perhaps all are to a degree fair game.

The Buddha Was Favorable to Laypeople Meditating

Since the Buddha saw an essential continuum between lay and monastic life, there is no reason to suppose he would have had any problem with laypeople taking onboard monastic practices, even if those practices were assumed to be — to an extent — less than perfectly realized. Elsewhere (“Can a Layperson Attain Nibbāna?”) I have argued that the Buddha probably would have allowed that laypeople could attain nibbāna, although it would have been difficult. Any such attainment would have required extensive meditative practice, including mindfulness in particular. As regards our present discussion, once again the Mahāvacchagotta adds an interesting twist. There Vacchagotta asks the Buddha whether

there is any one man [later: woman] lay follower, Master Gotama’s disciple, clothed in white enjoying sensual pleasures, who carries out his instruction, responds to his advice, has gone beyond doubt, become free from perplexity, gained intrepidity, and become independent of others in the Teacher’s Dispensation? (MN 73.10-11)

The Buddha answers that there are “far more” than five hundred such lay followers who have got to such a stage, one that corresponds at least to that of stream-entry. That is, lay followers, even those who are engaged in normal lay lives, including enjoying sexual and other sensual pleasures, are entirely capable of high levels of attainment. Such attainments are skillful and praiseworthy, even if they may not amount to the highest of supramundane realizations, and even if to an extent they are corrupted by attachment to sense pleasures.

The Buddha Was Not an Ethical Perfectionist

Elsewhere (“Sati and Sociopolitics“) I have written, following Richard Gombrich, about the Buddha’s decision not to allow the ordination of soldiers, apparently under pressure from King Bimbisāra. If the Buddha were to have been an ethical stickler about any particular livelihood, one would assume it would have been that of soldiery. After all, it is the most prominent trade involving the killing of humans, one of the worst moral offenses one can commit in Buddhism. Getting people out of soldiery and into the (pacifist) monastery would therefore have been particularly important to the Buddha, or so it would seem. Yet he seems to have deemed the price too high to pay, when confronted by kingly displeasure over dwindling ranks. Outside the confines of the monastery, the Buddha was very much a sociopolitical realist.

Indeed, even within the monastery, the stock justification for rules in the Vinaya (the monastic code) includes the notion that they result in an “increase in the number of believers”. As Gombrich (2006: 92) notes, “Nor is this empty rhetoric: the occasions for promulgating rules are frequently lay dissatisfaction.”

That is, in the earliest Buddhist tradition one does not find ethical puritanism; instead what one finds is a pragmatic approach to the relation between lay and monastic communities. Thus in part the Buddha’s rejection of his cousin Devadatta’s insistence upon a stricter ethical regime, including compulsory vegetarianism among other things. (C.f. Snp. 239-252).

While it is true that the Buddha taught certain strict rules for behavior, violation of which would lead to expulsion from the saṅgha, and taught a close relation between unskillful action and undesirable result, even across lifetimes, he seems to have understood that ethical rigidity would not serve the ultimate purpose, which was broad dissemination of the dhamma. If laypeople behaved with financial success and prudence, and if monks behaved in ways that pleased the lay community, they would work together best. While the monk stood as an example of a certain kind of moral purity and rectitude within the system, there is no sense that the Buddha believed lay life to be fatally toxic. While “homelessness” in the Buddha’s sense made awakening easier, since it removed many of the fetters that bound one to sense pleasure, homelessness was not a requirement for spiritual advancement. Nor was the home life necessarily one of complete abasement. Buddhism even in its oldest stratum saw the relation between lay and monastic life as dialogical and interconnected. This meant that there was always room for a slightly off-kilter or “dumbed down” dhamma within the lay community. That it was virtually always presented as sīla or (mere) ethical behavior in the Nikāyas is actually telling, since in the scheme of things this is actually less important than the mental achievements involved in mindfulness meditation.

Gotama and Jesus

From a Western viewpoint, the irony in all this is that Jesus Christ makes a much better “anti-capitalist” figure than does the Buddha; and one wonders to what extent contemporary critics of the mindfulness movement aren’t in fact more influenced by Christian than Buddhist religious ideals. It is Jesus after all who overturned the money changers’ tables; it was he who advocated his followers to “sell all that you have … and follow me” (Mark 10:17-22, cf. Mat. 13:44); it was he who argued “You cannot serve God and money” (Mat. 6:24); that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mat. 19:24). Acts (4:34-37) makes clear that the early Christian community was communitarian in its use of money. In this it was akin to the Buddhist saṅgha, but the critical difference was that Christian communities were lay. Structured Christian monasticism as such did not begin until several centuries after Jesus’s death.

Jesus’s opposition to wealth and profit was largely due to his sense that money had corrupted the Jewish temple, and that after the coming apocalypse only the purest at heart would be allowed into the kingdom of heaven. There was no sense of retaining ordinary (corrupted) lay life, or hesitating to any degree  since “this generation will certainly not pass away” (Mat. 24:34) until God would overturn all. Jesus’s message was a message of imminent socio-political revolution; indeed, that is the very reason he was crucified.

The Buddha had no similar message. While he advocated that monks practice “just as a man whose turban or hair is on fire” (AN 8.74), his view on the essential cyclicality of life and deep time meant that he expected most laypeople to die without having attained nibbāna. He advocated that they live their lives ethically so as to attain better rebirths. As far as he was concerned, all might well attain nibbāna eventually.


There are aspects of Buddhist teaching and practice that, so far as I know, are left out of contemporary, secular mindfulness programs. In particular (leaving aside those practices that are non-secular because supernaturalist) those include the jhānas — states of deep meditative concentration — and the Buddha’s teaching on disenchantment with the world.

But that is perhaps to be expected of a teaching that is directed towards an exclusively lay community, structured around severe time constraints. Is this something that requires attention? Perhaps so, but not, I would argue, censure or vilification. Dedicated and interested laypeople can find such practices on their own. It is not a fatal flaw that an actual secular practice does not contain all aspects of an idealized secular practice.

It is also true that mindfulness techniques may not pan out as useful in promoting human flourishing, either within a corporate context or without. That is, of course, something that will only be discovered by long-term study, and so we can say nothing about it at this time.

As for issues in social and political ethics, while contemporary Buddhists or Buddhist sympathizers should feel free to creatively extend the Buddha’s teaching in ways that are, for example, strongly anti-capitalist, one cannot claim based on the early texts that the Buddha was committed exclusively to such approaches, nor that the Buddha would necessarily have condemned contemporary teachers who do not follow such strict paths.

Evidence from “the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha” show he was not opposed to lay followers’ participation and success in profit-making enterprises. While he was opposed to certain livelihoods, all indications are that he intended the set to which he was opposed to be limited, and that profit itself was not the problem. Observations such as these, and similar observations about the monastic code, suggest that the Buddha treaded lightly when it came to lay life and its relations with the saṅgha.

While the Buddha himself went into homelessness, and believed the homeless life to be the surest supramundane path, his saṅgha was explicitly set up as a fourfold entity: monks, nuns, laymen, and lay women. To denigrate the modern mindfulness movement because it is not consistent with leaving behind the home life is to mistake its purpose. It is also to mistake the Buddha’s own views about the importance of laity to the dhamma.

One may say that profit-making in a contemporary corporate environment is somehow different in kind from the freelance profiteering found in the Buddha’s own day, but that is a case that needs making. At the very least it is hard to know what the Buddha would have to say about a way of life so alien to his comparatively quiet community. Pragmatically however, the contemporary worker has few reasonable options over that of corporate employment, and I think nothing within the Nikāyas can be construed as anti-corporatist in a general sense. After all, the saṅgha itself is a kind of corporate entity.

In short, while there may be problems with how contemporary mindfulness techniques interrelate with corporate capitalism, critiques of mindfulness typically misdescribe the early tradition as reflected in the Pāli Nikāyas. They denigrate contemporary practices of mindfulness, partly based upon a fictional view of the early teachings, a view that arguably has more in common with that of the historical Jesus than with that of the historical Buddha.


Bhikkhu Bodhi, Various Nikāyas (Boston, Wisdom).

Richard Gombrich (2006), Theravāda Buddhism, 2nd Ed. (London, Routledge).

Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (2009), Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, 4th Ed. (Boston, Wisdom).

Ron Purser and David Loy (2013), “Beyond McMindfulness” at Huffpost Religion, 7/1.

Ron Purser and Edwin Ng (2016a), “Cutting Through the Corporate Mindfulness Hype” at Huffpost Healthy Living, 3/22.

Ron Purser and Edwin Ng (2016b), “Mindfulness and Self-Care: Why Should I Care?” at American Buddhist Perspectives, 4/4.

Stephen Schettini (2014), “Mindful, or Mind Empty?” at The Naked Monk, 3/8.

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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 academia.edu.

Comments (8)

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  1. Mark Knickelbine says:

    I have to admit I held my breath until I got through the introduction! Given the robust evidence that mindfulness has positive outcomes for people with many kinds of suffering, and that it has been widely embraced by medicine and psychiatry, I think we have some pretty strong indication that mindfulness promotes human flourishing. What we will have to keep an eye on is whether mindfulness taught in a corporate or military context will promote the same kind of relief from suffering and promotion of equanimity, kindness and compassion it has produced in other settings, or whether it is the evil mind control and pacification of the oppressed masses critics like Purser appear convinced that it is.

    Regardless, Gotama taught that the unawakened mind is mired in grasping, aversion and delusion. Only by practice can we obtain freedom from this situation. If that is the case, then any motivation to begin practice will at least be suffused in, if not the direct product of, grasping, aversion and delusion. The McBacklash critics, certain of their moral superiority, ignore this as they rush to condemn mindfulness. But starting to practice because you want to succeed in business is not any more deluded or less grasping than shaving your head and devoting yourself to an Asian master who you think will lead you to bliss. If we believe that practitioners of mindfulness are somehow lacking some of the benefits that Buddhism offers, the compassionate response would be to try to understand the issue and figure out how to help bring that to them. I know I am far from the only MBSR student to develop an interest in Buddhism, and there could be far more if we wanted that to happen. But Purser et al seem more concerned with strangling mindfulness in its cradle (ineffectually, I’m grateful to say).

  2. Gregory Clement says:

    Well said Doug. Those who criticize the modern interest in mindfulness are making the best the enemy of the good. Being mindful is better than not being mindful so let’s celebrate the fact that so many people are taking steps in that direction.

    If they manage to reduce the extent to which they are ruled by craving, aversion and delusion then that’s good for them and good for the rest of us. If they develop some insight into their own humanity and that of their neighbours they will be better citizens for it. In time they may be lead to explore more of the Buddha’s teachings. That’s fine as well.

    On the wider questions of capitalism and the organization of society, we have to be very wary in extrapolating from the sutras. They were written for a different world and provide only an imperfect glimpse of the Buddha’s outlook. We need to do the practice, follow the Path and see where it leads us. We can’t expect political answers in ancient texts.

  3. mufi says:

    Doug, a great and timely article!

    Re: “I am not convinced that the Buddha was entirely correct in these matters [alcohol and sex]”, you’ve hit me close to home here, since I’ve thought a lot about these matters as they relate to Buddhism. At this point, I suspect that the Buddha may been mostly correct, given the kinds of mental states he encouraged us to cultivate.

    For example, in my experience, I find that even moderate consumption of alcohol counters the effects of Buddhist mindfulness practice…not so much as to move me to swear off the sauce entirely, but enough so as to move me closer to a teetotaler’s stance than I ever was prior to adopting a practice.

    The Buddhist case against sex is analogous but with important differences, given the valuable roles that sex plays in biology and culture (e.g. as a loving means of conspecific reproduction and raising a family, if not emotional and physiological health, as well).

    Of course, it’s possible that the Buddha overestimated the virtue of particular mental states, but to the degree that one accepts his estimates, then abstinence does make sense.

  4. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Mark and Gregory, thanks. Indeed, to a great extent they are making the perfect the enemy of the good. There is and should be room for a vigorous skepticism about all things, but also room for pushback when skepticism appears to misfire or overshoot its target.

    Mufi, thanks. Yes, I’ve also been more careful about intoxicants in particular after confronting the dhamma; aware that they can interfere with “right speech” at the very least. And they are not compatible with meditation. It’s perhaps not so much that the Buddha was wrong about these things, but rather that one can live a lay life where they are in a certain, apparently healthy balance and one finds one can make (slow, incremental) progress anyhow.

    I should add that the quote re. Ng and Loy’s “anti-capitalist stance” is from a comment by Ng following the piece at American Buddhist; it’s not found (AFAIK) in the piece itself. And of course there are places where the Buddha talks about the dangers of working to make a living; all things considered he would prefer everyone to pursue the supramundane path. But as a matter of fact such a path would not be possible for everyone at once. Who would provide the food?

  5. Kevin K. says:

    Thanks for another fine article Doug!

    I think you’re quite right about Purser and Loy’s criticisms being influenced by Christianity and of course about Jesus’s more fire-breathing radicalism around money and corruption. That said, what I think gets missed – including in your treatment here – is the Buddha’s wisdom in starting off the Gradual Training with generosity and ethics, and (parallel to that) starting off the Eightfold Path with right view and intention, with mindfulness (in service of jhāna leading to samādhi) being introduced only near the end.

    As I’ve come to realize belatedly decades into my own fumbling practice, there is such wisdom in the order in which these things are presented! If my mindfulness meditation is grounded in letting go and giving I am already in accord with anicca and much less likely to cling to states. More importantly still, if I take the 5 precepts seriously there’s simply no possibility of trying to embody an oxymoron like “mindful military service” or using sati to better survive working for a business (echoing Loy here, but also Christopher Titmuss) whose profits come from increasing collective greed, hatred and delusion.

    At the end of the day I’m fine with any use of mindfulness that reduces human suffering, but it certainly seems to me that sati in the sequential context of the threefold training and the eightfold path deserves to be put on a bit of a pedestal since it leads not just to a smoother ride through samsara but to the possibility of stepping off the wheel.

  6. Denzel says:

    I know that this is not generalisable, but needs to be said: there are many types of military service and some, such as UN peacekeeping involves a great deal of not killing and a whole lot of working populations each on their own side of a fence. I also think of my father in the Medical Corp in WW2. I’m quite sure he never shot at anyone, but he wore the blood of many who were shot and needed care. War is messy, and not everyone is comfortable standing beside, watching and admonishing. Participation in modern conflict is a hard decision to make. some feel that their participation saves lives, and in the age of terrorism and what are essentially tribal wars, too many innocents are being killed. Accepting your own death from violence through adherence to ahimsa is not the same as allowing the deaths of the innocent.

  7. John D says:

    Doug – thanks for another thoughtful article.
    Small detail – did I miscount? You write: And one was to avoid five trades in particular: “trading in weapons, trading in living beings, trading in intoxicants, and trading in poisons.”

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Good eye, John — in my thinking I mistakenly combined “living beings” with “meat”. The fifth trade is “trading in meat”. I’ll edit the story to add that in. Thanks!

      And Denzel, agreed, thanks.

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