From Both Sides: Secular Buddhism and the “McMindfulness” Question

| August 12, 2013 | 28 Comments

freeimage-8660856-webThe debate over the relationship between Buddhism and the mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) has heated up recently to a red hot glow. On July 1, Ron Purser and David Loy published an attack on the mindfulness movement in the Huffington Post under the title, “Beyond McMindfulness.” As I write this, a Google search on “McMindfulness” generates over 7,700 hits, many of them praising the original article and joining in to bewail the “decontextualization” and watering-down of the sacred Buddhist traditions.

Unfortunately, as I have noted elsewhere, this “McMindfulness” meme often appears to be driven largely by fears instead of facts, as defenders of traditional Buddhist lineages fret over “what is being lost” as mindfulness enters the Western mainstream. From my perspective, as one who came to Buddhism through the MBIs, this is a terrible shame. We may have an irretrievable opportunity at this moment to enrich the cultural conversation between Buddhist ideas and values and those of the West, and the mindfulness movement clearly is at the crux of that conversation. It is my heartfelt wish that we do not waste this opportunity in a reactive backlash against this latest moment in the evolution of the dharma.

My interest in Secular Buddhism stems chiefly from my feeling that this approach to the dharma has a unique and powerful role to play in that conversation. To that end, I hope it will be valuable to examine what the Secular Buddhist movement can bring to the table, both to ground and enrich the practice of those who are coming to the dharma through the MBIs, and to address the concerns of traditional Buddhists that , as David Loy has suggested, the “Trojan horse” of mindfulness may corrupt Buddhist principles with Western predilections.

The Reality of Decontextualization

As has been richly documented *, the MBIs are in themselves outgrowths of Buddhism. Pioneers such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Segal, Jack Kornfield and others took what they learned practicing traditional Buddhism and adapted it for use in medicine and psychology. In order to make these practices susceptible to research and acceptable to secular health care institutions – and perhaps most of all to make them easier for the average patient to absorb and accept – the traditional doctrine was simplified and demystified, replaced with plain-English explanations of the practice and how it worked.

In turn, acceptance by research and health care institutions had an inevitable impact on how mindfulness is taught, learned and practiced. The emphasis on such positive health care outcomes as stress reduction, alleviation of depression, and the treatment of chronic pain encouraged the application of the MBIs in a standard clinical regimen. Students were “patients” who had received specific diagnoses and were prescribed an 8-week mindfulness course to address the specific symptoms of their diseases. It is not surprising, then, that first the health care community, and increasingly, the wider public, has come to see the MBIs as merely another item in the doctor’s bag of medical interventions. To this extent, the critics of mindfulness are correct in their assertion that the MBIs have been “decontextualized.”

As I have tried to demonstrate elsewhere, however, the prevailing institutional (and now cultural) absorption with specific outcomes misrepresents what the MBIs are and how they are practiced. I will only summarize here my sense that the MBIs have demonstrated their effectiveness in so many contexts precisely because they do not focus on outcomes, and in fact teach students that the possibility of change grows from one’s capacity to accept and embrace one’s lived experience just the way it is in this moment. What has been termed the “deautomatization” process that characterizes mindfulness – the ability to mentally stand back from and examine one’s experience such that one develops the capacity to free one’s self from habitual reactivity and respond with wiser choices — naturally finds applications in every aspect of life, applications that are often specifically addressed to interpersonal and social roles and relationships in the course of MBI training.

But the fact that the MBIs are much richer and more holistic than their critics will admit does not mean that there are not problems that arise from the application of mindfulness training in an institutional setting. Chief among them, from my perspective, is the fact that one must typically engage with a health care institution in order to learn the practice. While the institutions I’ve encountered endeavor to make the training accessible, many people will not find it affordable without a health plan to pay for it; this in turn will require a diagnosis to determine medical necessity, and a physician’s referral. Some plans treat mindfulness training sessions as group therapy sessions, and limit the number they will pay for in a given year. Beyond that, it appears that in most such institutional settings, mindfulness training stops after the typical eight weeks of an MBI class. While students can typically retake the class, ongoing teaching and community development that would address the needs of a growing and deepening mindfulness practice are usually lacking.

Given the real impact of decontextualization on mindfulness practice and practitioners, what can Secular Buddhism bring to the mindfulness movement?

A Naturalist Perspective
Because Secular Buddhism, like the MBIs, does not concern itself with the religious dogmas and forms of traditional Buddhism, and because it too focuses on the benefits of living a mindful life in this world, it offers both institutions and individuals an opportunity to explore the deep roots of Buddhist philosophy and psychology in a secular setting. It does not make assertions that are extra-natural and therefore unsusceptible to scientific research. It does not ascribe the value of mindfulness to a supernatural realm, nor does it require allegiance to traditional doctrine. Because there is no creed to adopt, one does not “convert” to Secular Buddhism. It presents such core concepts as dependent arising, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the Three Marks of Existence, not as faith-based metaphysical claims but as a framework in which to explore one’s own present-moment experience in the world.

As we have seen, for a variety of reasons, the MBIs have found it advantageous to avoid too apparent a connection to religious Buddhism. The fact that Secular Buddhism is pointedly not a religion may, at least in some contexts, permit mindfulness teachers and practitioners a safe space from which to acknowledge and explore the fertile soil of Buddhism in which the roots of mindfulness are so firmly planted.

Re-connection to Tradition
For, regardless of who may be embarrassed by the fact, the MBIs are already a form of secular Buddhism. This involves far more than just the meditation techniques they share. As I have argued elsewhere, the defining tasks of mindfulness – the embracing of lived experience, the recognition that one need not be compelled by one’s habitual reactivity, the development of equanimity and the ability to make wise choices as a result – are the same actions that are prescribed by the Four Noble Truths. The insight into the ephemeral and impermanent nature of the ego that is a hallmark of the MBIs is an expression of the Buddhist concepts of Impermanence and Not-Self. While shorn of much of traditional Buddhism’s Pali/Sanskrit terminology, doctrinal concepts and cultural trappings, the MBI’s owe their effectiveness, I believe, to the wisdom of the dharma that Gotama taught more than two millennia ago, a wisdom grounded, then as now, in universal characteristics of embodied human awareness.

The roots of mindfulness are planted in the soil of Buddhism; although many practitioners may be aware of this, however, most are not currently enabled to draw nutrition for their practice from these roots. They are cut off from the teaching and conversation that Buddhist practitioners have shared over the course of centuries and across many cultures. This is deeply regrettable. It has been my experience that, when one approaches this Buddhist heritage from the perspective of deepening and enriching one’s mindfulness practice, there are profound treasures to be found there.

Among those treasures are the traditional frameworks for exploring the moral and ethical dimensions of mindfulness practice. The various precepts and training rules developed by traditional Buddhism over the centuries provide us with complexly nuanced tools with which to focus our awareness on the impact of our thoughts, words and actions. One of the common complaints about “McMindfulness” is that these frameworks are absent from mindfulness practice. If that is the case – and the limitations of an eight-week program certainly prohibit in-depth examination of more than core principles – the compassionate response is not to condemn mindfulness for its lack of traditional ethics training, but to make that training tradition accessible to MBI practitioners.

Tradition has always been an important element of Buddhist practice. The awareness that we are the beneficiaries of millennia of practitioners who refined and preserved these ideas and practices, and our recognition of our own responsibility to share them with future generations, nurture our understanding that we are not isolated practitioners but momentary expressions of the human birthright of awareness and compassion. Mindfulness practitioners are also heirs to the birthright of this tradition, and Secular Buddhism is well positioned to help them claim it. Because it embraces science and history as well as dharma concepts, Secular Buddhism can help MBI students encounter the aspects of this heritage that can deepen and sustain their mindfulness practice, and accept the supernatural elements of religious Buddhism as mythological expressions of humanity’s search for wisdom.

As we have seen, one of the consequences of the medical delivery model for the MBIs is the lack of ongoing group learning and practice opportunities. The Buddhist tradition emphasizes the importance of sangha, the community of like-minded friends who share and reinforce one another’s dharma practice. This same insight is borne out in modern research into the importance of social reinforcement of values and behaviors. Research into MBIs has shown that the beneficial outcomes of the training can fade over time. For all these reasons, the absence of practice communities for mindfulness practitioners is a problem that demands attention.

My experience with the mindfulness practice community I am part of has shown me that community is about more than just support. Within the container of the practice community, one has the opportunity to experience the intersubjective resonance of a group of people dedicated to being mindful of themselves and each other. This experience is a powerful and visceral manifestation of not-self, and one that promotes the recognition of shared humanity from which compassion can grow. The group practice environment is ideal for exploring such concepts as kindness, compassion and non-harming, and learning what it’s like to put them into mindful action. And the awareness that the community has a tangible, ongoing existence, even if one may not immediately be able to participate in it, permits one to feel connected to it and supported by it, regardless of one’s distance from it.

While still in its infancy, Secular Buddhism holds the potential to help meet this need. Its driving force has been the gravitation of people who are looking for a supportive community in which to discuss and share Buddhist thought and practice in an environment that does not demand submission to traditional doctrines and hierarchies. The growth of SBA-related local meet-up groups and the development of online community structures such as the web site (and similar sites worldwide), as well as the Practice Circle and Social Circle video conferencing groups demonstrate that community building is a significant motivating factor behind the Secular Buddhism project. I have had the privilege to participate in these efforts; it was my own search for community that led me to Secular Buddhism, and I know many others have the same need. If Secular Buddhism continues its commitment to community building, it is in a position to play a positive role in meeting the need of mindfulness practitioners for sangha.

A Plea for Real Dialogue
The evolution of the dharma in the world of Western-style modernity is a fact. The presence in the West of traditional Buddhist institutions, hybridized groups, and the MBIs, demonstrates the diversity and vigor of this evolution. Unfortunately, the course of this progress has resulted in obstacles to understanding and dialogue between people involved in the dharma’s numerous manifestations. As we have seen, in the professional communities that research and teach the MBIs, close identification with their Buddhist heritage has been perceived as a limiting factor. On the other hand, conservative reactions to the MBIs on the part of some traditional Buddhist leaders have led to a campaign to discredit mindfulness as another artifact of self-absorbed Western consumerism.

As Secular Buddhists, we get it from both sides. Skeptics demand to know why we are concerned about teaching and preserving an esoteric, mythology-drenched religion; traditionalists make many of the same charges of “throwing the baby out with the bath water” against Secular Buddhism that they make against “McMindfulness.” If there is an advantage to this position, perhaps it may be our ability to understand and share the perspectives of both sides in this conversation, and to present and model a middle way between them.

It has seemed to me that Secular Buddhism exists precisely to help negotiate this dialectical impasse. If it can play a role in helping the MBIs move past their reaction against their Buddhist heritage, while at the same time helping traditionalists have true confidence in the dharma and understand that mindfulness practitioners are their dharma sisters and brothers who have a right to our understanding, acceptance and compassion, it will have served a vital function in the ongoing evolution of the dharma. I hope we will embrace that opportunity.

* It is worth noting that the major text for training mindfulness instructors, McCown, Reibel & Micozzi’s Teaching Mindfulness: A Practical Guide for Clinicians and Educators (Springer, 2010) devotes an entire section to the development of Buddhism in the West and its influence on the MBIs. Another section presents basic Buddhist teachings in a fair amount of detail to clarify how they are manifested in the MBIs, going so far as to map the “teaching intentions” of MBSR onto the Four Noble Truths.

Category: Articles

About the Author ()

Mark J. Knickelbine, MA, C-MI, is a writer, editor, political activist, and certified meditation instructor. "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "The End of Faith" led him to seek out a dharma practice without the supernatural beliefs of traditional Buddhism. He found it at a local health clinic, where he learned mindfulness in the manner of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has continued to study texts from the Pali, Chan and Zen traditions, and he is an active member of the mindfulness community at the UWHealth Department of Integrative Medicine. Mark is a member of the SBA board and serves as Practice Director.

Comments (28)

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  1. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Excellent article Mark, thanks. I think if we can get beyond the perpetuation of narrow fiefdoms both within secular and religious contexts we can see that there’s a wide field of beneficial approaches. While it’s true that secular practitioners such as ourselves will not ascribe to certain claimed features of traditional belief and practice, there is a lot we can and should share with traditional practitioners. There is a lot we can learn from them, since they often have significantly more experience with both the dhamma and the practice than we do. There is also a lot that they can learn from us, if they wish to, about how dhamma and practice can be updated and improved by study of the natural world, through the sciences.

    Different practitioners will also come with their own needs and interests. For many, an eight week course under a medical model will be most appropriate, and can fit well with believers in other forms of traditional religion who might be put off by anything that seemed even remotely Buddhist. For others, ongoing practice is something that may interest them more than a one-off medical intervention. In that case, some form of Secular Buddhist practice may be more apt. (If MBSR can be extended to fit that sort of practice, so much the better). And of course for others of a more traditional, esoteric, or less science-oriented bent, traditional practice may fit.

    There doesn’t need to be any conflict. What there need to be are options for every approach to belief and practice.

    I have been encouraged by experience at my local saṇgha, where a secular approach is welcomed and even at times encouraged alongside those with more traditional approaches. I think as long as we can feel welcome, appreciated, understood, and among ‘kalyāṇa mittas’, we’re doing pretty well.

  2. mufi says:

    If the traditionalists overestimate the value of the baby as much as I think they do (the “baby” being not just the Ideal Buddhism as laid out in scriptures, but also the Real Buddhism of history and sociology), then why should I worry about traditionalist critiques of MBI’s? Could it be that the MBI’s are the baby and the bathwater is that which their traditionalist critics are so anxious about losing?

    Admittedly, that may not be the “middle way” between skepticism and traditionalism that you or Secular Buddhists, in general, are going for, but then there’s more than one point along the middle line connecting those two extremes.

    Besides, the strongest critique of MBI’s that I’ve seen applies just as well to traditional Buddhism – namely, that it lacks a vision of social justice that a 21st-Century North American progressive like me can endorse.

  3. Tom Alan says:

    Traditional Buddhists take pride in their reluctance to talk about Buddhism with non-Buddhists. Purser and Loy remind me of the people who say “Mexicans are taking our jobs” when in fact Mexicans are doing the work Americans don’t want to do.

  4. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Tom — Good point.

    Mufi — The reason why I am disappointed by the conservative reaction among folks like Loy and Purser is because it is an obstacle to understanding among people who, I think, are really after the same thing. Also, I fear greatly that this “McMindfulness” meme is taking off and will discredit the mindfulness movement among those who only know what they read in the blogs.

    Re: the “social vision thing”, do you want a platform? I cannot believe that if people dropped their preconceptions about others and the fears based on them, tried to really see and listen to one another, tried to avoid causing each other sufffering, and recognized that their happiness depends on the well being of those around them, that you wouldn’t see a substantial change in society. It is not necessary for mindfulness, or Secular Buddhism, to prescribe an economic program or a political agenda — it does not have to encompass answers to every question we might want to ask. I will tell you, from personal experience, that having resources to restore equanimity is very useful when you are engaged in political conflict. It enables one to see one’s situation more clearly and respond to it more effectively.

    • mufi says:

      Mark: There is no platform. There is no political philosophy. There is a soteriology, which in psychologized form yields a personal way of life, but that personal way of life may appeal to conservatives as well as to progressives, to monarchists or dictators as well as to democrats, to corporate executives as well as to Marxist writers & activists, and to soldiers as well as to pacifists. Indeed, historically it has!

      If you want political philosophy, then I recommend someone like John Rawls or someone more accessible like Michael Sandel.

      That’s where I would look, anyway – not to Buddhist scriptures.

      • Mark Knickelbine says:

        Quite agreed, and I don’t expect Buddism or the MBIs to provide my politics.

        • Ben says:

          But I think this is an area about which there can be legitimate disagreement. Not that one ought to demand of any belief system that it _supplies_ political answers. But rather that one might legitimately be troubled if a system that claims to provide ethical guidance is entirely politically neutral. I certainly agree that, traditionally, Buddhism has (quite famously) not had a strong political vision.

          Indeed, one might expect this fact to be a problem for politically engaged and otherwise roughly “traditional” Buddhists like David Loy–some of whose work I quite like–when they raise political concerns about secular Buddhism. Given traditional Buddhism’s own lack of a strong political track record, why spend so much time worrying about the politics of Secular Buddhism / MBI?

          To me, at least, traditional Buddhism’s historical lack of a strong political vision is more a bug than a feature. And if part of the task of Secular Buddhism is to build on traditional Buddhism’s strengths while improving upon its weaknesses, isn’t this an area in which things might be improved? I don’t have in mind trying to find a political philosophy in the Pali canon. I do have in mind trying to imagine a politics that is in keeping with the values of (Secular) Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism has been one of the distinctive aspects of “traditional” Western Buddhism. Why should it not be an aspect of Secular Buddhism, as well?

          • mufi says:

            Ben: Good comment.

            Spend enough time in the SBA discussion forum and you might just answer your own question. While I’d say that most of us regulars bring progressive moral/political values to the table, not all of us do, and I doubt that many of us who do acquired them from Buddhism – more like: Buddhism sits well enough with them that we were willing to take some Buddhism on board.

            So, given that those values were very likely instilled over the course of a lifetime, why give Buddhism the credit?

  5. Mark Knickelbine says:

    We would need to proceed with caution in this regard, IMHO. To say that Buddhism is “politically neutral” is to acknowledge that most politics is based on a reification of identities — taking sides, if you will. Invariably the us vs. them kind of thinking that emphasizes difference takes over (Tea Partiers and anti-Muslim monks being points along this spectrum). To come up with a political posture that would satisfy this Secular Buddhist, it would have to be one based on the foundation of Buddhist ethics, namely that because all people want safety, happiness and freedom from suffering as I do, and because my own happiness is not independent of the wellbeing of others, if I truly internalize this point of view I must cherish everyone as I do myself. It would have to acknowledge that my own motivations are likely to be tainted by greed, hate, and delusion, and that the actions I’m opposed to in others are driven by their desire for security and happiness, as are mine. In sum, it would have to be unlike traditional politics which experesses its confident view of problems and solutions, and somehow embrace the aporia that is the central characteristic of our existential condition. If a politics like this is even practically possible, it will at least be very difficult to get on a bumper sticker.

    • mufi says:

      “Free Tibet” fits pretty nicely on a bumper sticker, although I’m not sure on which concept in Buddhist tradition it’s based, if any.

      To me, the problem with “Buddhist politics” boils down to this: We have on the one hand (A) the traditional Buddhist renunciation of violence (e.g. as in ahimsa or the first precept), and on the other hand (B) the traditional role of the state as a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence (e.g. to protect its citizenry from both internal and external threats).

      Unless one accepts that a large-scale society can function without B (which I for one do not), then A is a non-starter as a political principle – except perhaps as a counter-balance to gratuitous or aggressive violence, in which case one basically admits that the service of justice sometimes demands violence. And how often does one encounter that admission among pious Buddhists?

      • Mark Knickelbine says:

        Hmmm. Free Tibet? Or enable Tibet to return to its traditional feudal theocracy?

        I don’t think the violence thing is that simple. Why does the state have a monopoly on violence, if not to reduce the overall incidence of violence by (at least theoretically) only applying it when it is necessary? If we accept this, then the state monopoly actually has non-violence as its intention. We can argue about the necessity, and that is what democratic institutions are supposed to allow us to do. But unless we cling to the dogmatic notion that violence is never an appropriate response then we have to see the principal of ahimsa, not as a moral absolute, but as an intention that can only be applied in the messy and contingent realm of moment to moment existence.

        • mufi says:

          I would agree that no state can function as such without at least a credible threat of violence (e.g. as a means of enforcing its laws, maintaining civic order, and defending against foreign aggression). I would also agree that this threat can serve to minimize the overall rate of violence.

          But when & where did the Buddha concede these points? Nowhere, as far as I know, such that I would say that, for the Buddha, the violence thing really was that simple – at least for those who are committed to the path – which arguably no politician or soldier can do without compromise.

          • Mark Knickelbine says:

            Attempting to derive any legalistic guide to behavior — moral, political, or hell, even dietary — based on the Pali canon is an exercise in frustration, and besides there is the Kalama Sutta telling us not to put our faith in scriptures. What is important is not what the Buddha said. What’s important is the implications for our behavior if we use a concept like ahimsa as a framework with which to explore our options. You yourself, and not some ancient doctrine of questionable provenance, are the ultimate resource on the dharma.

          • mufi says:

            I doubt that many Buddhist traditionalists or scholars of Buddhism would agree. (After all, they don’t call them “scriptures” for nothing.) But I’m happy to say that you’re free to interpret these sources however you like.

          • Mark Knickelbine says:

            I doubt that ANY Buddhist traditionalists or scholars would agree with me, because their very identity depends on the primacy of the texts, either as proof texts or primary sources. But a dharma that doesn’t have its foundation in human reality is just another religion, and we got plenty of those. Gotama was only able to say “come and see” because it was already there to be seen.

          • mufi says:

            I’m not sure what you mean by “dharma that has it’s foundation in human reality”, but if you’re referring to your own creative re-interpretation of the Buddha’s dharma, then I’ll take your word for it that it’s compatible with a just application of state power (a.k.a. violence).

          • Mark Knickelbine says:

            I mean just this: Gotama appears to have discovered the human capacity to come to a new perspective on our existential situation and to train oneself to be free of reactivity and respond to life with wisdom and compassion. Legend has it that his first words upon awakening were something like, “Ah! Everyone has this capacity to wake up!” As I said, “Come and see” means there was always something to see. This is not a creation of Buddhist doctrine and thus is not its sole property. This is important lest we value the textual traditions more than we actually value the practice of awakening.

          • mufi says:

            Virtually all that we know (or think we know) about Gotama is based on textual evidence. So, when I say that the Buddha renounced violence – with no exceptions made for self-defense or for defending the state – that’s where you should look if your aim is to refute what I’ve said.

            If your aim is not so much refutation as dismissal (as in: I don’t care what the tradition says there; I only care about what it says here), then just say so. I might even share your opinion.

            If not, then to each his own.

  6. jonckher says:

    Good post. I think it’s also worthwhile considering the possibility that traditional Buddhist mindfulness techniques have remained relatively stagnant due to the whole obsession with dharmic legitimacy and transmission lineages.

    Western MBI therapeutic approaches however are constantly innovating not just because they are free from sutric-chains but also because many of them are at least partially embedded within a Western scientific/evidence based approach. Also MBI techniques have adapted and often created from scratch because therapists have to deal with the kind of mental illnesses (PSTD, OCD, anxiety/depression etc) that traditional Buddhist retreatists do not have to cope with.

    Personally, I think it won’t be too long before MBI techniques out-grow and leave behind the original stuff. Who knows how that’s going to look like but I’m willing to bet that they will be far more targeted and much more effective than dharmic-limited approaches.

    Finally, I’m not even sure how much of this McMindfulness noise is even getting heard by MBI therapists outside of the Buddhist overlap – much less how seriously they take it.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      From your lips to God’s ear, so to speak. It may well be that my perception that the McMindfulness meme is gaining traction is an artifact of my own preoccupations. But it does fit in well with the “what goes up must be brought down” pattern that journalists and most other people seem to respond to.

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Happily I just read this Tweet from @EdHalliwell —

      “Secular Buddhism and the “McMindfulness” Question Probably the best piece I’ve read on this issue @SecularBuddhist”

      So, there is some good attention on Mark’s article here by Ed, who is a respected member on the mindfulness community side.

  7. Tom Alan says:

    Are we talking about the Engaged Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh building houses in Vietnam or people who complain about corporations and politicians on the Internet? If it’s the latter, I hope secular Buddhism will have nothing to do with it.

    The fantasy that merely expressing opinions constitutes social change continues.

    There’s enough contention in these discussions without politics.

    • mufi says:

      …or people who complain about corporations and politicians on the Internet?

      Heh. Sounds like my Facebook page…and I must confess, a lot of the that stuff is mine!

      Now aren’t you glad that I don’t try to read my politics into Buddhism? 🙂

  8. NJK says:

    A nice balanced peice and plea for dialogue. While they were lacking in specifics, I still share many of their concerns. It seems easy to say “mindfulness based” practices most often end up being a paired down dhamma (teachings of Buddha). It was designed that way though, so why expect it to be different, and like ever different people will discover and be drawn different ways. My main question is how much can or should MBIs reconnect to things that are obviously traditional such as the 3 trainings, 4noble truths, 8-10fold path, 37wings to awakening, transcendental dependent arising, gradual training, and so on, not to mention all the later teachings or other traditions?

  9. Mark Knickelbine says:

    NJK, thanks for your comments. I was thinking about this today as I was listening to Joseph Goldstein lecture on the Sotipatanna Sutta. He was talking about using mindfulness to break the link between feeling and craving, and I recalled receiving basically the same lesson in a mindfulness class, without the Pali terms. What makes the chain of dependent arising so useful, IMHO, is that it lays out the basic insight in more detail so that we can learn how to observe it more carefully in our experience. I think MBI students may even have an advantage in this regard, because they will recognize in the teachings what they have seen in their experience, and will be less likely to settle for a merely intellectual understanding of the doctrine. That recognition of what will serve to deepen and enrich their practice also helps one recognize what may be regarded as mythological.

    • Tom Alan says:

      My father, who never had any trace of a psychiatric problem, said that the best book he ever read was The Power of Positive Thinking, a precursor to cognitive therapy that was written by a Protestant minister. It seems to me that people other than those suffering from mood disorders can benefit from cognitive self-monitoring, which is included in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. I’m not sure about MBSR.

      Some traditionalists balk at self-monitoring, which I find hard to understand. In a state of mindfulness, one can recognize an apple as such without judgment, or one can recognize a negative thought as such without judgment, and it is in the recognition that self-monitoring deals with the problem. Nothing more is necessary.

  10. John Baxter says:

    As a longstanding (85) householder secular Buddhist I did the 8 weeks Mindfulness course at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre set up by Professor Mark Williams to explore how it related to the Therevada retreats I have been on at Amaravati. I found it excellent with its emphasis on practice applying to everyday life. I was struck down with a severe back problem just before starting the course and had to attend two sessions in a wheel chair. This meant I found myself using the practice of the course to deal with sustained pain – something I found very effective and made me sure of the value of the course.
    My only criticism was the coyness shown about referring to the 5 precepts when traditionally the first steps on the path are generosity- dana and sila-morality. At a subsequent meeting of London Insight where Mark Williams spoke I asked him about this and his answer was that for those dealing with clinical depression reference to the five precepts is just likely to trigger greater self-hatred and a sense of despair and that morality should be implicit in the course through the way the leaders treat everyone. This makes sense if MBCT is delivered in a clinical setting but less so when dealing with those who choose to do the course in order to promote their general well-being and capacity to cope with their “ordinary” lives.
    I hope that “secular Buddhists” while forming a movement within Buddhism will not withdraw from traditional Buddhist communities, but rather quietly and persistently promote the secular non-supernaturalist way of thinking – for truth is on our side.

  11. Mark Knickelbine says:

    John, thank you for your comments. I think the precepts, as traditionally presented, do present a challenge to the emphasis in mindfulness practice (ala MBSR) on non-judging and non-striving. On their surface they look to westerners like more sacred commandments and another opportunity to attach either to the goal of being “a good Buddhist” or to one’s failure to live up to their implied standards. I think one must come to understand them as an invitation to moral investigation, which makes them a kind of mindfulness practice in and of themselves.

    I hope as you’ve looked around the site you’ve seen that we see traditional Buddhist lineages as treasures to respect and learn from, and that our goal is not proselytizing, much less supplanting the traditional lineages. We’re here because we all want a community where we can study, discuss and practice the dharma without having to believe, or pretend to believe, the supernatural cosmology of traditional Asian Buddhisms. Personally, I determine our success by how helpful we are at supporting each other in developing equanimity and compassion.

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