Episode 178 :: David Loy and Ron Purser :: Buddhist Questions About Mindfulness

| July 20, 2013 | 13 Comments

david_loyDavid Loy and Ron Purser join us to discuss some Buddhist responses to popular mindfulness programs.

What does mindfulness mean to you? Is it a one-eighth slice of a delicious dhamma pie, or is it the full understanding and practice of panna, sila, and samatha? However we may feel about it, mindfulness is becoming mainstream in contemporary society, and is fast becoming its own movement. And therein lies a challenge: what is this movement when we may not have a clear understanding of what is meant by mindfulness?

The Secular Buddhist Association receives emails and comments on our Discussion forums, asking us to define more clearly what we mean by Secular Buddhism, so we face that same difficulty of understanding. We’ve resisted articulating specific ideological points, relying on our Guiding Principles to promote a foundation for exploration, rather than prescribe a dogmatic view. Secular Buddhism, simply put, examines the teachings and practices of Buddhism in the natural world. Our traditions and stories can teach and inspire, without us having a dependence on accepting assertions that have a lack of unambiguous and demonstrable evidence. This approach allows for creative embodiment of the dhamma, rather than restrictive adherence to contexts that may not resonate with our own experiences in life. This provides meaningful impact to the individual, which in turn affects those around them and the rest of society. Not nailing down every point is an asset to continued growing and evolutionary development.

Mindfulness may be in the same boat. It’s an exploration, a starting point, and is something different than religious Buddhism. For those of us who are Secular Buddhists, the accusations of watering down the tradition has become very common noise in the background of being told we’re doing it wrong — when we’re not doing the same thing. Perhaps, like yoga, a lighter form of a tradition will quickly take root in this new societal soil, and eventually grow deeper roots.

To that end, I am pleased to announce that we will be starting a second podcast, in addition to The Secular Buddhist. The Secular Buddhist and SBA site will continue, that’s not going away at all, and our commitment to Secular Buddhism is as strong as ever. The goal has always been to bring our practices to people who may not otherwise find them, to open that door, and while keeping that door open we can also open another.

The new podcast is called Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science, and the first episode will appear next week. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, I invite you to look for Present Moment in iTunes next week, and I’ll link the first episode on our Facebook page. We’ll have many of the same researchers that have been guests here on The Secular Buddhist, with new guests to talk with us about mindfulness in schools, how it’s helping at-risk youth, and various programs and research in non-traditional settings.

As we do pass through that new dhamma door, of course, we want to understand and learn more about what mindfulness might mean in these other settings. Today’s guests help us lay a foundation of ideas to bear in mind.

David Loy

David Robert Loy is a professor, writer, and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism. He is a prolific author, and his books include The World Is Made of Stories, Awareness Bound and Unbound: Buddhist Essays, and the very popular Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution. His articles appear regularly in the pages of major journals such as Tikkun and Buddhist magazines including Tricycle, Turning Wheel, Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma, as well as in a variety of scholarly journals. He is on the editorial or advisory boards of the journals Cultural Dynamics, Worldviews, Contemporary Buddhism, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, and World Fellowship of Buddhists Review. He is also on the advisory boards of Buddhist Global Relief, the Clear View Project, and the Ernest Becker Foundation. David lectures nationally and internationally on various topics, focusing primarily on the encounter between Buddhism and modernity: what each can learn from the other. He is especially concerned about social and ecological issues.


Ron Purser

Ron Purser, Ph.D. is a professor of management at San Francisco State University where he has taught the last sixteen years in both the MBA and undergraduate business programs. He received his doctorate in organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University. Originally from Chicago, he returned to his home town, taking his first academic position at Loyola University of Chicago in 1990. He sincerely started studying and practicing the Buddha-Dhamma in 1981 at the Tibetan Nyingma Institute in Berkeley, and began formal Zen training at the Cleveland Zen Center in 1985 under Koshin Ogui Sensei, who had been Shunryu Suzuki’s personal assistant in the early 1960’s. After returning to San Francisco in 1997, he continued to study and practice with Zen teachers and Tibetan lamas, and recently ordained as a Zen teacher and Dharma instructor in the Korean Buddhist Taego order. More recently, Dr. Purser has directed his studies to the Nikayas and Pali suttas literature. His professional writings and publications currently focus on the application of Buddhist psychology and mindfulness practices to business, management, and organizations. His recent articles include Revisiting Mindfulness: A Buddhist-Based Conceptualization (with J. Milillo at Harvard), Zen and the Art of Organizational Maintenance, Zen and the Creative Management of Dilemmas (with A. Low), Deconstructing Lack: A Buddhist Perspective on Egocentric Organizations, and A Buddhist-Lacanian Perspective on Lack. Dr. Purser currently serves on the Executive Board of the Consciousness, Mindfulness and Compassion (CM&C) International Association, the Center for Creative Inquiry, and Timeless Wisdom. He is co-author and co-editor of five books including, The Search Conference (Jossey-Bass, 1996), Social Creativity, Volumes 1 & 2 (Hampton Press, 1999), The Self-Managing Organization (Simon & Schuster, 1998), and 24/7: Time and Temporality in the Network Society (Stanford University Press, 2007), and over 60 academic journal articles and book chapters. He is an avid blues guitarist, song writer and Tai Chi practitioner.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice honey mint tea.


Web Links

Music for This Episode Courtesy of Rodrigo Rodriguez

The music heard in the middle of the podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. The track used in this episode is “Sanya Sugagaki” from his CD, The Road of Hasekura Tsunenaga: Music for Shakuhachi Flute.

Category: The Secular Buddhist Podcast

Ted Meissner

About the Author ()

Ted Meissner is the host of the podcast Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science. He has been a meditator since the early 90’s, has been interviewed for Books and Ideas, Mindful Lives, and The Whole Leader podcasts, spoken about mindfulness with various groups including Harvard Humanist Hub, and has written for Elephant Journal and The International Journal of Whole Person Care. He is the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, host of the SBA’s official podcast The Secular Buddhist, and is on the Advisory Board for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. Ted’s background is in the Zen and Theravada traditions, he is a regular speaker on interfaith panel discussions, and is interested in examining the evolution of contemplative practice in contemporary culture. Ted teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care & Society, where he is the Manager of Online Programming and Community Development.

Comments (13)

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  1. mufi says:

    Thanks, Ted. As someone who’s conditioned to react somewhat defensively when I read or hear a traditionalist critique of secular mindfulness practice, I thought this was a fruitful conversation – in part because you raised some of the problems inherent in the tradition itself.

    And perhaps I should add that, when I say “the tradition”, I speak from a Theravadin bias – which, when David Loy alluded to the ethical overtones of Buddhist non-duality, brought to mind the following assertion by Bhikkhu Bodhi:

    “The teaching of the Buddha as found in the Pali canon does not endorse a philosophy of non-dualism of any variety, nor, I would add, can a non-dualistic perspective be found lying implicit within the Buddha’s discourses.”

    That said, perhaps we can all at least agree that the Buddha’s teachings were motivated by his immense compassion, which to me serves as a sort of bottom line. In other words, I’m less concerned about decontextualization per se than I am about the motives behind it – particularly in the often callous settings of the corporate & military sectors that you discussed.

  2. Mark Knickelbine says:

    The guitar metaphor is very apt, and I wish it had been explored further. As a guitarist myself, I certainly know when my guitar is out of tune, because it sounds crappy when I play it, and I am immediately motivated to act. True mindfulness is primarily a spur to action, because when we observe that we’re out of tune with ourselves and others, we naturally wish to respond. However, when I was a kid just learning to play guitar, I had to listen very carefully and practice for years before I was able to tune a guitar properly (this was before the cheap electronic tuner). Similarly, without developed mindfulness, the other path factors cannot be fully addressed, because without mindfulness we can’t really know when they are “in tune.” I would note that the only place I have ever received specific instruction in how to use mindfulness in my daily interpersonal and social life was in an MBSR setting; in my (admittedly limited) exposure to Theravadin and Zen practice sessions, the topic was sometimes talked about but never actually practiced.

    The discussion of the evils of meditation in the military and business world was disappointing. For one thing, this discussion continues the practice of never refering to specific examples of the evil being fretted over. The military application was particularly egregious. Do any of you know that mindfulness is being used to make soldiers better killers, as was repeatedly suggested? I’m not an expert but the military use of mindfulness I’m aware of is to help soliders deal with their experiences on the battlefied so they don’t become the implicit memories that turn into PTSD later on. If you have explicit examples of what you’re concerned of, you need to point them out; otherwise, if your guests’ actual knowledge about military and corporate applications of mindfulness is as shaky as their apparent knowledge of MBSR, we seem to be discussing imaginary fears rather than actual phenomena.

    Moreover, the biggest concern expressed, especially by David, is that such applications may not be real Buddhism, and that our goal ought to be to make the West more Buddhist, not to make Buddhism more Western. It’s OK for Buddhism to have a “dialogue” with Western values, as long as it’s clear which is on top. On one hand, the amorphous terms here make such a question highly problematic. What is happening is an inevitable evolution; transformations on either a personal or social level never happen by importing a foreign framework wholesale. Resistance to this evolution by clinging to the illusion that one is the defender of an involate tradition will simply serve to push people away when they wish to explore the Buddhist roots of mindfulness further.

    These defenders of the traditional Buddhist faith always seem to me to have little real faith in the dharma. The dharma is not reducible to Buddhism, much less a particular lineage. It is the wisdom of embodied human awareness. The reason mindfulness is popular is because it does lead to personal transformation — when we learn to really listen to the guitar, we will want to keep it in tune. Wherever and however one is introduced to that wisdom (and it will always be in the context of greed, hatred and delusion), there is the potential for it to blossom and grow. Rather than implying that soldiers and business people don’t deserve relief from their stress because of the unskillful context in which they work, let’s build communities to help them deepen and share their budding practice, which has been introducing people to the joys of kindness and compassion for a couple millenia now. The genie is already out of the bottle, folks. Let’s work to demonstrate and help others understand how mindfulness can lead to wiser and more compassionate living, and stop denigrating the practice of others because it’s not Buddhist enough for us.

    Ted, you did an excellent job of trying to gently question some of the assumptions David and Ron’s objections are based on, and toward the end of the interview there was some attempt by your guests to try to recover some balance and objectivity. But Ron’s use of the “birth defect” image to suggest the horrors of mindfulness really indicates where these guys are coming from.

    • David Chou David Chou says:

      Wasn’t Japanese Bushido some kind of amalgam of Zen mindfulness with military requirements?? I’d doubt that the U.S. Army, which still lists something so ancient like Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” on its official reading list for officers, is unaware of how much Ch’an and Zen insights have helped, respectively, in the development of Chinese and Japanese martial arts (and note that martial arts are about personal “heroics,” personal responses and attitudes). Certainly the on-going research into performance-enhancing drugs indicates that the U.S. military places a high priority on cognitive capacities in combat, and if there is no mindfulness training as such right now outside of a therapeutic regimen it’s only because it’s clear how much more efficient pharmaceuticals are for achieving something like a vague American version of “Bushido training.”

      Many Japanese leaders, corporate, military, and political, have long undergone Zen mindfulness training while their subordinates labor hard as ever — it’s only recently that salarymen stopped working themselves literally to death. And we all know about the bastardization of Gandhi and MLK, Jr., among others, by various marketing departments through the decades. So I’m also wary of “McMindfulness” because it seems like everything gets commercialized and diluted in our consumer society — but as some rabbi said, it takes comic books to get through to some people so even in such an event I share your optimism for the possibilities.

      • Luke148 says:

        The potential for abuse is a human factor, not the outcome of secularism. One has only to think of the many Buddhist “masters” who have engaged in sexual and substance abuse, alcoholism, cults of personality and — as recent events in Myanmar demonstrate — racism and physical violence against minorities. Knowledge of Buddhist scriptures or even a monastic lifestyle are no guarantee of deeper absorption, compassion or service to humanity. We should remember also that Japanese militarism is more directly a product of Shinto, the state religion that reveres the emperor as a living god, than Buddhism per se. For a Japanese militarist, the emperor and the ideology that deifies him take precedence over all other allegiances. In China, where the martial arts came directly out the monasteries (Shaolin and Wutang), the imperial authorities periodically cracked down hard to suppress them. The distinction between these two different histories deserves a column of its own.

        • David Chou David Chou says:

          The thing with Zen Buddhism during WWII-era Japan is that many if not most Zen masters actively colluded with the state military machine. It wasn’t just a matter of being reluctantly forced into accommodations — the Zen Masters themselves were personally giving propaganda speeches and personally sending off their monks into the imperial army!! These people weren’t just “masters” in our modern sense of a self-proclaimed guru, but heirs to ancient lineages still recognized to this day. It’s all documented in Brian Victoria’s “Zen at War”…it’s the equivalent of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem actively colluding with Hitler, except this wasn’t just a few instances but an on-going relationship between the Japanese military government and major Zen monasteries. Even the famed D.T. Suzuki was involved as a most enthusiastic ecclesiastical propagandist for Tojo and emperor!

          Speaking of “a few instances,” it should certainly also be recalled that the usual precious few did resist the state’s attempt at co-opting Zen.

  3. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    As you know, Mark, I’ve had the same kinds of concerns voiced by David and Ron in this episode. And only after really spending time exploring MBSR in particular, over the course of months, have I gotten to a point of being able to loosen my own attachment to my identity as a Buddhist and let it show its own merit for what it is, rather than hold it accountable for what it’s not even trying to be.

    Which is itself quite telling about the power of our own perspective, as we Secular Buddhists face that kind of inappropriate alignment of someone else’s standards on a daily basis! And yet, that’s what was happening with me: measuring mindfulness by my Buddhist ruler, just as my secular practice is measured inappropriately with a religious ruler.

    However, the podcast wasn’t about how we need to be even handed in our assessments, but rather an exploration of how Buddhists may be reacting (rather than responding?) to the mindfulness movement. It may not be fair, it may not be right, but it is the tone we feel today and some of the concerns have validity. It’s what we do with that now — that’s going to be the interesting ride!

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Ted, I’m gratefully aware of your own evolving thinking about the mindfulness phenomenon; however, even before your in-depth exploration of MBSR, I don’t think I ever heard you be quite so reactionary as David and Ron. If you listen to their responses, you often hear them preface their concerns with “I wonder if . . .” or “I don’t know that . . .” I say, if you don’t know, find out before you start leveling charges against “McMindfulness” and raising fears about “creating birth defects.”

      I guess I’ve moved past expecting people to be just, but I would hope people who identify as Buddhists would approach a topic like this from a place of compassion rather than fear. Certainly concerns about the use of Buddhist techniques and ideas for questionable ends is valid — and always has been, including their misuse by traditional Buddhists. But a compassionate response is to live and teach the dharma, and to be grateful that suffering is being alleviated for anyone, because everyone is driven by the three fires and everyone wants to be happy and free.

      So I say, may all US Marines be happy, may each and every business executive know peace, and may all Zen Buddhist spokespersons have hearts full of loving kindness.

      • trish says:

        Mark I think we all need to just take all of the episode discussions on board. You have valid concerns but David and Ron also put forward some very valid concerns in regard to the intention and long term effects of decontextualising mindfulness. Maybe a better word to use for MBSR would be meditation based stress reduction, it seems less problematic? As I understand it mindfulness encompasses the whole path whereas meditation is one tool used to travel on the path. Yes compassion is the ultimate goal on the path whether it occur implicitly or explicitly does not matter let us not let mindfulness be used to create even more egoism in a world spiralling into greed and self obsession. Could someone direct me to any MBSR teachings that talk of developing compassion. Thanks.

  4. jonckher says:

    Nice one.

    I think the take home message is that it is early days yet.

    However, it might be worth considering if there are further Buddhist-based-practice products that can leverage off the popularity of MBSR. CBCT is a nice acronym that springs to mind – and having thought of it, Google reveals that it actually is out there: Cognitive Based Compassion Training. My preference is Compassion Based Cognitive Therapy but you get the idea.

    CBCT could be aimed at MBSR practitioners suffering from general-ennui, life-meaningless and low-grade depression – I’m sure it won’t be too long before there’s a large demand. Alternatively, both wings could be packaged up into a single product MBSR|CBCT. Has a nice secular ring to it don’t you think?

    Maybe a future podcast or article speculating what CBCT could look like?

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Hey, Jonckher. Yep, with you, it’s early yet. And I like Compassion Based CT, nice title!

      Will interview the therapist folks on the other podcast, but yeah, there are some interesting discussions yet to come.

  5. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Since the conversation here appears to have picked up, I thought I’d share an article that responds to this podcast over at the new Present Moment website:


    • David Chou David Chou says:

      Nice essay, and very informative, though I’m still curious WRT Bushido and mindfulness in martial arts. It’s always couched in terms of “the warrior fights himself” and there’s even the famous story of a samurai saving himself when cornered by spitting into his enemy’s face — because to kill in anger is against the dispassionate ethos of Bushido, he was saved when his enemy sheathed his sword — but in practice it’s occasioned more mindlessness, arguably!

      Just how Buddhist were those Bushido dudes?? The Shaolin monks had the myth that their techniques were invented to ward off wild animals. And does the contemporary U.S. military have any idea of the pacifistic potential, and how’re they dealing with that if so??

      Personally, I’d predict that mindfulness will be used WRT human rights and so forth. The Army’s very big on being the good guy, even if “on the ground” conditions vary due to the socioeconomic backgrounds of the troops. Also, drugs seem to be a much more efficient vehicle (see the book “Mind Wars”) for upgrading individual combat performance than something like mindfulness training which requires a lot of personal dedication.

  6. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    108 Zen Books just did an article about this topic, and mentions this podcast episode — http://108zenbooks.com/2013/08/02/on-mindfulness-muggles-crying-wolf/

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