Jeff Wilson

Professor Jeff Wilson joins us to speak about his book, Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture.

Chances are if you listen to this podcast, you’ve got an inkling of the relationship between traditional Buddhism, secular Buddhism, and the contemporary mindfulness movement. However you think or feel about this relationship, there is one, and as our guest today shares with us, it’s not a one sided affair.

Jeff Wilson is associate professor of religious studies and East Asian studies for Renison University College, at the University of Waterloo. He has written several books and numerous articles about the interaction of Buddhism and various aspects of North American culture, and published pioneering research in the history of same-sex wedding ceremonies. Jeff teaches courses on religion in North America, East Asian religion, and theory and method in religious studies at the University of Waterloo. He is active in the American Academy of Religion, and does media appearances and radio interviews to provide an informed perspective on issues of religion in contemporary society.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Pumpkin Spice Latte.


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Music for This Episode Courtesy of Rodrigo Rodriguez

The music heard in the middle of this podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. You can visit his website to hear more of his music, get the full discography, and view his upcoming tour dates.

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  1. Carl H on October 13, 2014 at 8:13 am

    Thanks for another informative interview. Prof. Wilson provided a valuable perspective acquired through his sustained study of the complex interactions of our post-modern culture and Buddhist traditions. One quibble I have with him is his opinion that by “eliminating” a dozen or two individuals from the past the whole “Buddhist” influenced mindfulness movement would have also been eliminated. My own opinion is that others from those traditions would have filled that void and that something similar would have developed regardless. But that’s a very small point, I most enjoyed hearing from him.

  2. mufi on October 14, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    I found this podcast particularly helpful, in no small part because it relates to – and would have informed – many of the conversations that I’ve read or participated in here on this site.

    Though no substitute for this podcast, Wilson’s CNN article on the “4 myths about mindfulness” may serve as a quick summary of his view of the relationship between mindfulness and Buddhism.

    I suspect that I am more enthusiastic about mindfulness “denuded of Buddhism” than Wilson is, presumably for these two reasons: (1) based on experience, I’ve concluded that Buddhist figures are at least as vulnerable to ethically dubious behavior as mindfulness figures, and (2) I never took refuge in Buddhism (or the Three Jewels) to begin with, which makes me less vulnerable to the sunken cost fallacy in that case.

    Having invested a few years in regular mindfulness practice, however, I still need to be vigilant on that front, so I appreciate well informed critical assessments like Wilson’s.

    • Mark Knickelbine on October 30, 2014 at 10:03 am

      mufi, it’s interesting — for Wilson, mindfulness IS Buddhism, at least in that it’s the manifestation of Buddhist ideas and practices as they emerge in America. He points out that all the elements of American mindfulness were present well before Kabat-Zinn’s work and were innovated by traditional Buddhists trying to make Buddhism more palatable to Westerners. In his view, trying to downplay or ignore the way mindfulness manifests its Buddhist characteristics is “mystification,” a process he sees as enhancing Buddhism’s marketability in America.

      • mufi on November 1, 2014 at 4:35 pm

        Mark, that’s not how Wilson’s message came across to me in this interview or in other short pieces by him, but if you read his book, then far be it from me to argue with you over what he says there.

        Besides, there is a risk in frames like these of falling prey to the delusion that words are univocal or unambiguous. For example, what you or he calls “Buddhism” might seem quite alien to someone else – say, someone for whom Buddhism is essentially a recipe for ending an otherwise endless succession of births – and for me to take sides and to suggest that either one of you is wrong or right would quickly descend into a fallacious argument over what qualifies as “authentic Buddhism.” I’ve lost my appetite for that kind of bait.

        So, when I hear someone like Wilson speak of “mindfulness denuded of Buddhism”, I have to relate those terms to whatever meanings or assumptions with which I suspect that he is working, whether I normally share them or not. I admit that the results can be somewhat ironic.

  3. Mark Knickelbine on October 16, 2014 at 9:21 am

    The podcast definitely makes me want to read the book. I am glad that Wilson pointed out that Buddhism has always existed in an economic context, and so it is not a surprise that the mindfulness movement reflects the economic system in which it arises. One might note that traditional Buddhists too have had to make accomodations to market capitalism (hence Trike and all those Thich Nhat Hahn CDs). These facts often get lost when “McMindfulness” is presented as a product of capitalism that is therefore inherently evil.

    I hope Wilson does not, as he tends to do in this interview, fall into the preconception that because people turn to mindfulness for “non-spiritual” ends — better sex or management prowess, or whatever — that mindfulness itself is therefore a “technique” that one can apply effectively in some isolated fashion. Anyone can invoke the relaxation response with a mantra or some breathing exercises, but that is not mindfulness. Mindfulness is effective in so many spheres precisely because it is NOT about achieving limited localized effects but about transforming our relationship to our experience. You may come for a better golf swing, but if you achieve the insights that mindfulness produces you will stay for the transformative life practice.

  4. Michael Finley on October 29, 2014 at 10:48 am

    I think it was Marx who first wrote of the “commodityfication [sic, I’m sure] of everything.” No doubt a fact we all, not just mindfulness practitioners & Buddhists, have to negotiate. But I’m making sure I save this from Mark: “Anyone can invoke the relaxation response with a mantra or some breathing exercises, but that is not mindfulness [and what follows in his post].”

    • Mark Knickelbine on October 29, 2014 at 12:07 pm

      Michael, I just finished the book, and am preparing to write a review for the site. It is a fascinating book in many ways, but he has this tendency to lump anything that uses the word “mindfulness” into the “Mindfulness Movement”, from Thich Nhat Hahn to something called “Mindful Mayonaise.” He loves referring to self help books with crazy names, and if a mindfulness-related book with “For Dummies” in the title has been published, he’ll be sure to include it. He also assumes that if a book has been published, it must have a significant audience and be representative of some aspect of the mindfulness movement, without ever presenting evidence to those ends.

  5. Michael Finley on October 29, 2014 at 2:43 pm


    Look forward to the review.

    Meanwhile, I’ll sit back and enjoy the bottle of Lucky Buddha beer I picked up last week (bottle in shape of a laughing Buddha, imported from China 🙂

  6. jeffwilson on November 6, 2014 at 5:32 am

    Great comments here, everyone. I’m genuinely impressed by the thoughtfulness of the community that Ted has gathered here. In case you don’t arrive here via the main page, you may not notice that Mark has now posted his review, it’s definitely worth checking out. If you were interested by the podcast interview about my book, I recommend both reading his review and Mindful America to see if you agree with his perspective.

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