On Modern Mindfulness, Buddhism, and Social Ethics

| May 24, 2016 | 9 Comments

Introductory note: This is a response to Doug Smith’s recent post here. I think Doug is right on nearly all counts, though he may have misinterpreted some of the contemporary writers he draws from. In any case, I hope this small contribution (cross-posted at Patheos) helps further the discussion.

speak no evil hear no see no evil frogsThere is much about mindfulness being published these days: studies, meta-studies, mega-studies, maha-megha-studies (bad Buddhist studies joke). And then there are the opinion pieces; “We’re all doomed. Mindfulness? Humph!”

As I mentioned in my introduction to Doug Smith’s recent article here, what we are seeing is the growth of a discussion, a dialogue. And as with many early discussions with disparate parties, it can sound a bit “noisy”, and sometimes well-meaning people who are quite close in their views can seem miles apart.

Let me begin by briefly summarizing Doug’s piece after those he draws from.

Purser and Ng

Most recent are two articles co-authored by Ron Purser and Edwin Ng: “Cutting Through the Corporate Mindfulness Hype” and “Mindfulness and Self-Care: Why Should I Care?

The first of these explicitly points to the linkage between contemporary mindfulness practices (which are acknowledged as useful in lowering individual stress and helping with focus) and corporate/organization level discourse.  Claims about the benefits of mindfulness aren’t disputed; it is the unwarranted contorting of those claims into “management science”, which “has a long and dubious history” that has Purser and Ng worried. This focus of criticism is again stated near the end, “Therapeutic benefits is one thing, callous institutional imperatives are another matter.”

In the second piece, lead-authored by Edwin Ng, they pivot toward real life examples of “critical mindfulness” which “invites people to be receptive to ‘who knows?’ by questioning for themselves the everyday ‘rules of the game’. To use critical mindfulness for ethical self-care is to perform an experiment…. to expose and transform the assumptions and conditionings shaping subjective experience.” So the critique is not against mindfulness per se, but rather an attempt to open up questions (beginning with the title itself). The point seems to be that even the choice to take up mindfulness should be made with a deeper question of why; the sort that philosophers and three year-olds are famous for. This why keeps popping up, and while perhaps irritating, it is meant to be cleansing, like the scrubbing of a mirror or the dirt off one’s body after a long day of labor.


Doug also brings up Stephen Schettini’s 2014 article “Mindful, or Mind Empty“. In it, Schettini himself does us the service of summarizing then-recent developments, from articles by Joshua EatonRon Purser and David Forbes, and Amanda Ream, all critical of certain developments in modern mindfulness (and its use by the wealthiest in society). Schettini’s response: “same old.” Industrialists co-opted Christianity in the nineteenth century and beyond, so we shouldn’t be surprised that aspects of Buddhism are being utilized along similar lines. And to what harm? “You’ll just have to do with mindfulness what you can. Buddhism has lost control of the term. It drifts through the idiom like a lost balloon, as misunderstood now as Karma™ andSamsara™. Some people will use it to calm down, perhaps even delay heart-attacks. Good for them.”

Purser and Loy

Finally, Doug points back to the still earlier (2013) article by Purser and David Loy, “Beyond McMindfulness“, which I have already discussed at some length. It is there that Doug finds the claim that he bases his piece on: “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 …”


Doug’s piece asks if this is, in fact, what is happening by digging into that very historical/textual context. His findings suggest that the Buddha had no problem teaching meditation to laypeople, and his teachings on ethics to the laity were toned down considerably from what he taught to monastics. This is important, as some contemporary writers still mistake Buddhist ethics as monolithic and renunciatory in nature. The truth is, Buddhist ethics are far more diverse and complex, from the earliest tradition (based on what we know of it) to today. Doug draws from Richard Gombrich in a section titled “The Buddha Was Not an Ethical Perfectionist”, showing his use of compromise and pragmatic rule-creation. He concludes that the criticisms of modern mindfulness seem to have their roots more in the radical ideals of early Christianity than Buddhism.

In further analyzing the “foundations of social ethics” in the original teachings, Doug points to alcohol and sex as better targets of worry than “profit” for laypeople. He writes, “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.”


As I mentioned at the start, I think some of these discussions involve well-meaning people speaking past one another. This can happen for a number of reasons, from geographic and educational backgrounds to the necessary brevity of blog-posts/articles like this one. Doug tends to read the above posts as suggesting “censure or vilification” of mindfulness practice by wealth-seeking laity, and indeed that could be a fair reading. However, the articles could be read as much more focused on particular trends in-or alongside– mindfulness practice today (Purser is a professor of management, Ng is a cultural critic, Schettini is himself a mindfulness teacher). Everyone seems to be in favor of mindfulness, it’s just a matter of how – and who profits?

Returning to what I wrote in 2013 (Mindfulness: Critics and Defenders), the discussion seems to follow the “tug-of-war” that has been happening in Buddhism going back at least to the 8th century in China – perhaps earlier if we read some of the debates happening in the lifetime of the Buddha and immediately thereafter. How much do ethics really matter? As Doug’s piece points out and we find throughout the history of Buddhism, there is a certain amount of pragmatism in Buddhist ethics, not every “good Buddhist” needs to drop everything and follow the Buddha into homelessness.

As Peter Turner noted in a comment on a post here in January (Mindfulness: the Single most impactful aspect of Buddhism in America), “All beginning meditators are first motivated by superficial and/or selfish reasons. The Buddha discovered that when practiced correctly and diligently, mindfulness meditation was key to his realization of the Three Marks of existence…”  So we might allow that individuals come to mindfulness for the wrong reasons. Perhaps, too, we can let corporations have their mindfulness? From a strictly Buddhist ethical point of view, there is no reason to deny them tout court. I don’t think Purser or Ng are trying to do this – their first article seems to say simply that “you can’t claim systemic benefits where there is no evidence of systemic benefits…” and “you can’t claim power neutrality” where there is none.

The clearer target would be other activities, as Doug suggests for individuals. Does the corporation promote harmful drug use or destroy the environment? In those cases the ethical Buddhist would be obliged, I think, to point out the harm and seek its cessation. Even though Buddhist soteriology is clearly directed at awakening, and this generally requires abandonment of wealth, sex, and alcohol at some point, plenty of Buddhism (the bulk in terms of sheer numbers) is found in the lives of ordinary people. Nudging people toward a more (Buddhist) ethical life through teaching mindfulness is one option. Nudging them toward historical Buddhist principles and understandings is another. Lastly, developing the Buddha’s social ethics by pointing at entire systems of dysfunction as in need of abandoning, as the Buddha did at times (most notably in DN 2, “The Fruits of the Contemplative Life”), is a worthy activity which has been largely lost as Buddhism has come to the West.

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Justin Whitaker is an almost-life-long Montanan; a baptized Catholic; an ardent Atheist; a practicing Buddhist; a lover of Wisdom. Justin has a BA and almost an MA in (Western) Philosophy from the University of Montana-Missoula, where he first began practicing meditation in 2001. He went on to earn an MA in Buddhist Studies from Bristol University in England. He is currently working on a Ph.D. in Buddhist Ethics at Goldsmiths, University of London. He has practiced in all major traditions and currently finds a home in practices derived from Theravadin Buddhism.

Comments (9)

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  1. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Justin, thanks for this analysis. I was hopeful when I read Purser and Ng’s most recent piece that their tone and intention was beginning to soften, and perhaps time will tell. The idea of applying mindfulness to one’s ethical behavior in the world is integral to the MBIs, and this is the first time I’ve seen them admit it.

    However, I can’t be so sanguine as to think that the two sides have just been talking past one another toward similar ends. The point of the McMindfulness article, which was temperate compared with much of what Purser has published since, can be summarized in its own words: “While a stripped-down, secularized technique — what some critics are now calling ‘McMindfulness’ — may make it more palatable to the corporate world, decontextualizing mindfulness from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics, amounts to a Faustian bargain.” This was followed up with articles like “Corporate Mindfulness is Bullshit.” All of these articles were characterized by a reified notion of mindfulness as a “stripped down” technique, void of any ethical content, the principal manifestation of which was corporate and military in nature. They rarely made any direct reference to mindfulness teachers or their writings, but relied on anecdote and innuendo to make their argument. Purser’s work spawned a cottage industry of such fact-free invective in the blogosphere, and helped to cement a negative stereotype in the public imagination. So much so that Schettini’s piece can repeat all of these tropes as if they were facts that needed no substantiation, before giving his contrarian reaction.

    I am heartened that people like Bhikkhu Bodhi are finally talking about mindfulness as something good, something that owes its existence to Buddhists, and something with which Buddhism should be in dialogue. I have always maintained that if we in fact identify elements of Buddhism’s understanding of mindfulness that MBI teachers and practitioners have not integrated, the compassionate response would be to help them do so. But real dialogue is not consistent with name-calling and misinformation, and that is what most of the McBacklash has consisted of so far.

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I also appreciate that Ron and Ed in the latest articles both noted that mindfulness at least has the potential to be a positive force. I’d like to hope that their articles are read as challenges to people teaching/practicing mindfulness in business settings. Let’s get some good studies done and published. Let’s get as clear as possible about what mindfulness can do and can’t in organizational settings and what kinds of ethics are taught. Is there a causal correlation between introducing mindfulness and, say, businesses taking up social involvement or waste/carbon footprint reduction programs? Or can we have/do we have mindfulness programs in companies like the 90s Enron, where people are maybe calmer and more caring to one another, but overall greed and destructive goals are left unchallenged? You and Ted and others probably know answers to these much better than me; but for my part I’d like to see these questions asked/studied/answered. Ron’s latest piece is premised on the statement that “there still are no reliable studies confirming that mindfulness training impacts organizational performance or organizational culture in any of the top tier management journals.” Let’s change this.

      • Nick Nick says:

        So you seem to be saying Justin Whitaker has not invested big $$$$$ into a BA and almost an MA in (Western) Philosophy from the University of Montana-Missoula; MA in Buddhist Studies from Bristol University in England; & on a Ph.D. in Buddhist Ethics at Goldsmiths University of London for the purpose of Justin Whitaker PHD earning $$$$$$ from Justin’s investment? The Buddha taught the Dhamma is to be given freely therefore how can someone earn $$$$$ from a PHD in Buddhism? Don’t worry guys. Teaching corporates McMindfulness won’t turn them into super capitalist predators with psychic powers & won’t change their ethics either. In fact, it will change little, either positively or negatively; the same as your own practise of Buddhism appears to have not changed your own worldliness. Be at ease. The Dhammapada states: “58. Upon a heap of rubbish in the road-side ditch blooms a lotus, fragrant and pleasing. 59. Even so, on the rubbish heap of blinded mortals the disciple of the Supremely Enlightened One shines resplendent in wisdom.”.

        • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

          Nick, if you’ve not met Justin or spoken with him directly, I can state quite simply that his worldliness does not go in the direction of greed. His practice is from the heart, and going through what he and others in academic settings do to learn and teach is excruciating. The simple fact remains that making a living in contemporary Western culture is foundationally based on currency, and even the monastic centers rely on it to survive.

  2. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Hi, Justin. I think such a study would be terrific, and would like to suggest partnering with Ron and Ed in advance to ensure their participation in the endeavor, as we have done in the past, *many* times now.

    1) What is the definition of organizational performance?
    2) What is the definition of organizational culture?
    3) What are the clear and unambiguous measurements for each?
    4) What is the mindfulness program to be used?
    5) What is that program designed to accomplish (vs. what is presumed about what it is designed to accomplish)? That is, is this the right application of a mindfulness program in the first place?
    6) What controls and study conditions would get Ron and Ed fully on board?
    7) If the study shows lack or strong influence, will the results be used pejeoratively? Study shows lack, therefore mindfulenss is bad because it doesn’t work; study shows strength, therefore mindfulness is bad because it promotes employee resilience working for corporate greed? Both points have been used by Ron in the past.

    I agree, let’s change this. What are the next steps to get Ron and Ed to participate?

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      The nature and goals of the mindfulness program studied would be of paramount concern. There should also be an expansive definition of “influence.” For example, how are we going to define “greed and destructive goals”? Are we going to hold corporate C-level staff and shareholders responsible for organizational culture, or just their employees? Does it count if employees leave the organization after adopting a mindfulness practice? A study that shows that, say, after a pharma company provides a mindfulness program for employees, it’s still overcharging for prescription drugs, would be virtually useless if we don’t know what the employees actually did, or what they could have done to change that.

      In my own practice, I know that being able to apply mindfulness to ethical decisions is something I still feel green at, despite good training, follow up, and trying intentionally to do so for over eight years. As one’s awareness unfolds, one’s understanding of Right Speech and Right Action unfold as well. Both at the personal and the organizational level, expecting mindfulness to be an overnight panacea is to set it up for failure.

  3. steve mareno says:

    I would mostly agree w/ what has been said above, except for the statement that is attributed to Siddhartha that says “All beginning meditators are first motivated by superficial and/or selfish reasons…..”

    All encompassing statements that use words such as “all” are very suspect, and often make us think that what works for Charlie will work the same for Sue. That is a big mistake. We are individuals, and even within our own individuality we are different from day to day. Actually, it’s more true to say that we are different from moment to moment. What Charlie needed 10 years ago is not what Charlie needs now, in all likelihood.

    Personally, I became interested in meditation nearly 20 years ago from to a desire to stop using drugs. It quickly became clear that the Buddhists had a lot of depth knowledge of this subject, and within Buddhism, Zen went directly to the heart of the matter w/o any religious dogma. So that appealed to me. That may have not appealed to someone else, and they may have had their own reasons that led them to other disciplines and/or lineages.

    Does someone who wishes to turn their life around and stop rebounding into drug use do this from a selfish desire? I would say, w/o any hesitation, no. It is actually a selfless desire. Even at the very beginning I understood that this would not only help me, but would also help everyone who came into contact w/ me, assuming that it worked (and it did). So from the get go I wanted not only to help myself but to help others. Really, you can’t separate me from the rest of the world. I, you, all of us, while totally different and not physically connected, are one. What helps me helps others, especially if one gets out there and works w/ people. I hesitate to say people, as some of my best teachers have been 4 legged and winged animals, not necessarily human animals. If I’m happier and healthier and working in a discipline that acknowledges the truth that all beings should also be happy, that spins off into everything I do and everything I come into contact with. On the good days, anyway :]

    I too am concerned about the commercialization of meditation, but that is not something I have any control over. There’s a lot of flim flam artists in this game, something that is apparent to everyone, and that sort of business just goes along w/ the scheme. Fortunately, Buddhism has a long, long history within many lineages which insists that the teachers be authentic teachers. That doesn’t mean that another Trungpa isn’t out there right now building up his fan base, but it does mean that there’s enough authentic teachers, both in real life and in books, to steer the novice in the right direction.

    Thank you for the article. Steve.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Steve, I won’t presume to know your experience, so I’ll refer to my own. I first turned to mindfulness because I wanted to be free from depression. This may not have been a selfish desire, but it was superficial, as I soon learned. What needed to change was not my emotions, but my entire manner of approaching my experience. Because I did not see how my mind was trapped in reactivity, I didn’t have the capacity to even conceptualize what the path consisted of. It isn’t until one glimpses the insight of mindfulness that one can have a non-delusional intention toward practice, so I think one should be cautious about judging the intentions of others to begin practicing.

  4. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    I’m afraid I grow weary of this debate.

    Yes, meditation/mindfulness can be reduced to a facile self-help fad that’s devoid of ethical (or much other real) content. Yes, most anyone who has experience with the real thing is bothered by the characture, but doesn’t believe there is an inevitable slippery slope from secular mindfulness to what might be a course at Trump U. To believe so assumes a sort of mindlessness among practioners. Not that there are no problems, but when confronted with a slippery slope, one puts on crampons and crosses carefully rather than abandoning the climb.

    I’m reminded of the French Surrealist Aragon who dispaired (perhaps with a smile) that no matter how audacious his art became, the Bourgeoise appropriated it. We live in a world in which almost everyting is commercialized. But that diesn’t mean my secular practice must become commercial product.

    Enough said. Now I’ll go back to watching the Olympics 🙂

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