• Hellbender



The Modernization of Buddhism and Evolution of Secular Mindfulness

Christian Parnell



Professor Bolles


This paper begins by detailing the circumstances in which the modernization of Buddhism have taken place, beginning outside of America and continuing on within. This exploration is related to the development of secular mindfulness meditation and furthered by a dissemination of the criticisms surrounding the mindfulness movement. An attempt to analyze the Buddhist teaching's core message and the role that mindfulness plays in this teaching is included, and an attitude of concern is displayed in response to the potential for mindfulness practice to exacerbate suffering in society at large.

Keywords: Buddhism, mindfulness, secularization, modernization

The Modernization of Buddhism and Evolution of Secular Mindfulness

Buddhism in the West is an embryonic offshoot of the Buddhadharma in the process of finding its identity through response to the economic and cultural context of developed Western nations. The context is a secular, neoliberal, postmodern society with an emphasis on scientific materialism and a preoccupation with consumption. As secularized mindfulness practice becomes a movement separated from its Buddhist origins, modern Buddhism continues to adapt to Western society, struggling to position itself in response to the mindfulness industry and come to terms with its own estrangement from more traditional Buddhist views and customs. As tension between American Buddhism and mindfulness grows in the wake of the mindfulness movement, causes for concern surround the wide-spread cultural appropriation of Buddhist mindfulness meditation. A thorough examination of the process of modernization will allow the new developments of Buddhism in the West to contextualize their own cultural adaptations, bringing more light to the potential issues which face a commodified secular meditation experience.

The development of secularized mindfulness is inextricably tied to the modern evolution of Buddhism.

As Americans interact with the Buddhadharma through the various traditions representing it, they are engaged in a creative process of the religions evolution, slowly morphing a distinguishable iteration of what could be considered the core spirit of the religion. This reactionary adaptation is the process by which the various traditions of Buddhism have arisen throughout history (Blumenthal). The context in which this process currently takes place is a contentious matter among individuals who may be correct in their critical motivations to examine the nature of Buddhism in relation to the capitalist economy and consumer-culture of the West.

Celebrity cult of personalities surrounding Buddhist and mindfulness teachers are viewed as antithetical to the Buddhadharma's message (Tricycle, 2005).

The establishment of Buddhism in the Western world began with early introductions in the 19th century. The previously secluded Eastern societies of China and Japan were forced to respond to increasing contact with the imperial and rapidly industrializing Western nations who, through a tacitly held Christian bias, heavily distorted their national religion. Buddhism, being the established religion of both China and Japan, was under pressure to perform in relation to the secularized and scientific leanings of the European Christians. As contact with the scientificindustrial West began to increase, early reformers, such as the Shin Bukkyo, began to make significant efforts in the restructuring of language used to describe the religion in order to suit the increasingly favored scientific viewpoint of the modern world (Irizarry, 2015).

The 20th century brought an increase in global awareness to the masses alongside the development of an American pop-culture that began to appropriate and assimilate Eastern imagery and philosophy.

Alongside this inception in the American pop-culture, lineage-based Buddhist traditions of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism began to be established through missions and political activism. While the 19th century saw the initial attempts to reform Buddhism for the gaze of Europeans, the early 20th century was marked by an increasing effort by Asian Buddhists to meet the West and expand their religious sphere. An increase in immigrants after World War II brought about the establishment of dedicated Zen centers for immigrant usage, which were met with enthusiasm by European Americans. The connotation of Buddhism in the mid 20th century began to take on a form of its own, specifically with the Zen tradition, as the exposure of Zen to the public was heightened by the work of Beat poets and other Buddhist scholars like Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki. D.T. Suzuki was instrumental in the continuing modernization of Buddhism.

Suzuki stripped Zen of its formal religious qualities and expressed Zen philosophy in a way that universalized and naturalized the religion, playing toward the tacit assumptions of the scientificsecular West. The narrative of Zen that Suzuki crafted allowed for the wide-spread commercialization and commodification of Zen to take root, while subsequently secularizing the religion and planting the seeds for a consumer packaged religious experience (Irizarry, 2015, p.56).

Although at this time American Buddhism was beginning to reflect the Buddhadharma in a more accurate way, a separate cultural imagining of Buddhism began to form in which the images and language of Buddhism began to take on a homogenized quality of coolness and cosmopolitanism (Irizarry, 2015, p.56). With the help of the Beat poets, Buddhism was also distorted to represent a counter-culture philosophy that heralded creative insights and transcendental experiences that were alluring to radical and reactionary individuals, heavily influencing the hippie movement in the 1960s (Negus, 2017). The 1960s counter-cultural movement has proved to be one of the most influential pop-culture movements in American history, continuing the legacy of a fascination with Eastern philosophy in the West into the present day.

These heavily distorted misapprehensions of the Buddhadharma reflect the tradition of appropriating Buddhist practice to suit the implicit bias of American individuality.

This modernization and distortion of Zen has led to the appropriation of the word zen into a marketing “floating signifier” which can mean anything that advertisers,or consumers, seek for it to mean, leading to a large amount of products marketed with zen attached to them (Irizarry, 2015, p.63). The addition of the word zen in the name of a product sees them marked up by up to 30%, showcasing the usage of the term to capitalize on a connotation with cosmopolitanism and the modern consumer's propensity to project their identity into the purchases they make. In the current cultural climate, individuals seek out products that are associated with Buddhism and Zen because it makes them feel like a cooler person, a more creative person, or a more sophisticated person (Irizarry, 2015). The slow morphing and modernization of the Zen tradition into a consumer object used to accessorize the identity of the individual is a key development in the evolution of Western Buddhism into a secularized and appropriated commodity, used by society and individuals to inform themselves and others of their identity.

The modification of Zen into a marketing accessory has now become commonplace in the consumer landscape of the West. Buddhism, by association, is also becoming marketable and used for advertising purposes, as images of Buddhism are linked to the growing practice of secular meditation (Borup, 2016). While meditation practice was for the majority of Buddhist history a practice reserved for monastics practitioners, secular lay meditation practice has become the defining feature of the health industry in the past decade as the wanton prescription of mindfulness meditation becomes a cultural movement with unforeseen force.

The roots of the West's secularization find themselves deeply entangled with the European Enlightenment, so deep in fact that the average individual is so steeped in this thought that they are ignorant of its affect on their person and life. The predisposition of Europeans and Americans to view the world in a naturalistic and secular form was highly important to the work of early modern Buddhists who introduced Eastern spirituality to the West. Because of this dominant bias, these pioneers restructured and reformed Buddhist philosophy either consciously or unconsciously in an attempt to homogenize (McMahan, 2017, pp.113- 116). The insight meditation tradition began its development in an attempt to meet the threat of the West in Burma by Ledi Sayadaw, who began teaching meditation to lay-people in an effort to preserve the dharma (McMahan, 2017, p.117).

As early Buddhist modernism saw the increasing secularization of the religion through reformers in the 19th century, the arrival of meditation practices that were “dereligionized” began to become commonplace in the 20th century (McMahan 2017, p.118). S.N. Goenka's Vipassana meditation retreats represent an example of Buddhism based meditation severing its religious roots and being marketed for the masses, continuing Sayadaw's initial efforts. Goenka's discourse on meditation coincides with the universalization of Zen by D.T. Suzuki, in that, as McMahan states, he treats Vipassana “as a scientific, universal, instrumental, and empirically based art of living in this world” (McMahan, 2017, p.118).These retreats showcase the Buddhadharma but cast the the teachings in the context of a naturalistic universal narrative, planting the seeds for the current mindfulness movement and aligning modern Buddhism with a secularized scientific bias. This modern institutionalization of secular meditation practice segues easily into the therapeutic application of mindfulness practice by Buddhist influenced health professionals, a significant development in the evolution of Buddhism in the direction of secularization.

Many current psycho-therapeutic approaches are mindfulness based and the scientific community has become largely fascinated by the exploration of mindfulness on the brain.

The proliferation of texts with a focus on mindfulness, scientific studies on mindfulness, and mindfulness teachers showcase just how rapidly American culture has taken to the practice. With the popularization of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy, many individuals are benefiting from the Western appropriation of mindfulness meditation (Jennings, Apsche, 2014).

Understanding the context in which mindfulness has emerged allows the Buddhist community to understand the situation at hand, allowing for a wise assessment of the dangers which a wide-spread prescription of mindfulness meditation may present in the current cultural climate of America and the West. Criticisms of secularized mindfulness go beyond the recognition of its removal from religious context and instead focus on the potential dangers of the current discourse on affecting the psychological structures of individual practitioners and their relationship to societal institutions (Arthington, 2016).

Focusing on the positioning of the self as responsible for one's own stress, despite the context of a corporate culture that over-works employees, exposes one potential downfall of the “McMindfulness” which has overtaken American popular-psychology (Purser, 2015). Purser's criticism of “McMindfulness” also addresses a lack of social engagement and responsibility for the welfare of others. By getting individuals to focus on their own distress, making them personally responsible for it, secularized mindfulness begins to lull practitioners into a state of numbness, using the practice to cope with their life instead of questioning injustice around them (Purser, 2015). This is antithetical to the Mahayana Buddhist concept of a Bodhisattva. In a traditionally revered piece of Buddhist literature, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Buddhist practitioner Shantideva exhorts the supreme virtues of relieving the suffering of all beings, a foundational focus in the traditions of the Mahayana Buddhist sects (Shantideva, & Group, 2006, pp. 47-52). This foundational book of poetry is a frequently taught text that is used to illustrate the Mahayana focus on compassion and the heart or mind of awakening, termed Bodhichitta. The institutions of Mahayana Buddhism have anticipated the ignorance surrounding a selfish mindfulness practice and incorporated a strong emphasis on compassion and selflessness in order to combat the potential downfall of a Buddhist practice focused on self-liberation.

Among mainstream modern American Buddhist teachers, the debate is less clear and the discourse seems inclusive, seeing the criticisms launched by advocates like Purser as falling flat. Concerns are raised that a lack of explicit definition, infrastructure and a generalized conception of mindfulness present issues for the public and interfere with an accurate understanding of the teaching (Lions Roar, 2015). It is in the interest of Buddhist teachers to maintain a connection with mindfulness movement in order that they may be relevant, so it comes as no surprise that these individuals find the “McMindfulness” variety to be a gray area difficult to take a firm stance on. Taking a progressive stance, these teachers do ultimately agree that the way modern Buddhism relates to the mindfulness movement can positively shape both Buddhism and the movement going forward.

It is certainly arguable that mindfulness itself constitutes the central practice of Buddhism and affords the practitioner the fruit of the Buddhist path. Because Buddhism is a tradition which centers around the teachings of one individual, Shakyamuni Buddha, the core of his teaching constitutes the foundation of the religion. A common distillation of the Buddhadharma into a concise summary is a retelling of one of the original teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha called the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are often pointed to as the primary teaching and the essential truth of the Buddhadharma, constituting the heart of the Buddha's teaching. These truths are presented in the format of a doctor diagnosing an illness, and delivering his prognosis on the matter of the illness. The illness is commonly described as general suffering or dissatisfaction in life being the unavoidable condition of human existence. The prognosis that Shakyamuni delivers is that suffering can be ceased, through a certain prescribed path. The transition from a state of suffering into a state of non-suffering through a specific lifestyle, termed the Noble Eightfold Path, constitutes the core of the Buddha's teaching. In his first sermon after his awakening experience, the Buddha teaches the Four Noble Truths and explicitly describes his realization,“And what is the middle way realized by the Tathāgata that—producing vision, producing knowledge—leads to stilling, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding?

Precisely this noble eightfold path” ( Bodhi. SN 56:11).

Out of the eight sections which constitute the Noble Eightfold Path, mindfulness has been established as the most well-known and approachable entry-point for Western individuals who are encountering the Buddhist teachings.

However, the secularization of mindfulness has removed the practice from its Buddhist origins, leaving it possible that the Buddhist influence goes unknown to those exposed as well as leaving its definition and application a potential area of confusion. The vocal proclamation of Buddhist influence on secularized mindfulness practice may not necessarily be a crucial point in the dissemination of the Buddhadharma, and the cultural appropriation of Buddhist imagery exposes the fact that society is aware of the practice's ancestry.

While the Noble Eightfold Path may be interpreted as a linear progression, it is important to remove this misconception and understand each portion of the path as informing the others. Developed understandings of this teaching recognize that with “Right Mindfulness” individuals begin to change their relationship with their mind and their life. Mindfulness then informs the Buddhist practitioner of their unskillful habitual patterns and allows them to recognize how they perpetuate their own suffering. In this way, mindfulness is the core of Buddhism itself, the spirit which underlies the transformation into non-suffering which the historical Shakyamuni Buddha himself developed in response to the human condition. Vietnamese Zen Master shares this view in his commentary on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta, when referring to the core insights that the Buddhist past provides he says, “ the three basic observations of Buddhism-- are realized directly through the practice of … mindfully observing the body” (Hanh, Laity, Neumann, 2006, p.56).

Mindfulness is the core of Buddhist practice, but the criticisms of secular mindfulness are disturbing in their implications. Without lineage-holding Buddhist teachers to guide practitioners, it may be the case that modern individuals are using mindfulness to accentuate their identity, enhance their performance in a competitive neoliberal society, and engage in a never ending self-help narrative, rather than understanding and communicating with reality deeply. The increasing modernization of Buddhism has produced a decontextualized meditation revolution that deserves to be questioned and addressed further by the Buddhist community. The potential for abuse of the practice can further the roots of ignorance and suffering in individuals and society, rather than producing the panacea of mental health fixes that mindfulness advocates preach. With a connection to the institutions of Buddhist traditions, practitioners are likely to find the fruits of practice more readily and the benefits of meditation will be further.

As secularized mindfulness meditation spreads through the developed West and Buddhist inspired therapy becomes a go-to treatment for the common ailments of the modern individual, American Buddhism primarily focuses on mindfulness and meditation, holding true to the spirit of the Buddhadharma yet falling short in the institutionalization of a spiritual path in its communication of the religious message. It is in the interest of the American Buddhist community to thoroughly understand secularized mindfulness and position itself in relation to it with skillful means, in order that the traditional Buddhist aim of liberation for all can be more accurately realized.


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