Ignorance of the Buddhadharma is no excuse: Purser on Monteiro, Musten and Compson

Ron Purser (co-author of the increasingly in/famous McMindfulness post at Huffington) kindly provided an advance draft of his forthcoming paper, titled “Clearing the Muddled Path of Traditional and Contemporary Mindfulness: A Response to Monteiro, Musten and Compson.” (This is now published: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-014-0373-4)  It is a response to the forthcoming essay “Traditional and contemporary mindfulness: Finding the middle path in the tangle of concerns” (Mindfulness 6.1 [Feb. 2015]: 1–13, which is, according to Purser a further development of a blog post by Monteiro “On mindfulness, muggles, & crying wolf”—that post in turn links to an essay by Monteiro, which unfortunately as of this date is a private post on Scribd see comment below, link in Monteiro’s blog post now goes to a copy of the revised version, as published).

Purser’s response is scheduled to appear in the same issue of Mindfulness. (Ron has also posted a video that covers much of the same material.) In addition to calling attention to Purser’s essay, which repays close reading, I would like to take the opportunity to expand here on one of the topics found in Ron’s essay. The essay is so rich, that this only begins to indicate the range of significant issues discussed, and I hope/plan/intend/cross fingers to come back to discuss other aspects of it in later posts.

Personal and religious identity, a central factor in modernity and market capitalism, especially in the commercialization of religion, is one of the topics that comes into consideration. Purser quotes Candy Gunther Brown (The healing gods: Complementary and alternative medicine in Christian America. Oxford, 2013: 209) who quotes Jon Kabat-Zinn’s description of the Insight Meditation Society as having “a slightly Buddhist orientation,” which reminds me—ironically—of the old question of what it means to be only a little pregnant. Irony aside, there is an importance to considering this judgement (“slightly Buddhist”) as a nice corrective to the highly artificial dualistic conceptions of religious identity that inform popular cultural conceptions of religion, as well as much of religious studies literature, and which is particularly evident in the discussions on multiple belonging.

The larger issue with religious identity that is relevant to the ongoing discussions of mindfulness is that religious identity is often taken as normative, instead of descriptive. Whether coyly as in the quote from Kabat-Zinn, or in some of the rhetoric of engaged Buddhism, the underlying idea is that if you are a Buddhist, then that means that you are compelled by that identity to hold certain views or to perform certain actions. This authoritarian understanding of religious identity is, of course, the nature of much of official, institutional religion. If, just for example (after all some of my best friends are Catholic), one becomes a Catholic by baptism and confirmation, then the official, authoritarian view is that you should believe certain things to be true (e.g., the birth of Jesus to a virgin) and undertake certain kinds of behavior (e.g., confess one’s sins in order to receive communion). The common authoritarian extension of this in the present is the attempt to control the beliefs and actions of all members of society, whether self-identified Catholics or not, in a variety of areas that the institution claims have religious significance e.g., same sex marriage. In other words, a “good” Catholic is expected to oppose same sex marriage even for those who are not Catholic, and attempt to extend the dominion of the Church’s values, beliefs, standards of behavior over the entirety of society. This is one of the ways in which the integrity of civil society, based in Enlightenment era ideas of individual autonomy and rights, is undermined by authoritarian religion.

One of the objections often voiced against “new age” commercialization of religion is that it is based on these Enlightenment era ideas of individual autonomy. The critiques of this dynamic often argue that religious identity is not simply a choice made on the basis of individual preference, but rather something to be actively embraced in a fashion that makes it determinative of one’s beliefs and behaviors. In both the view that holds religious identity at arm’s length (the now well-worked “I’m spiritual but not religious” position) and the view that religious identity should be determinative of beliefs and actions, religious identity is considered to be normative. Note that even those who reject being identified in a particular fashion participate in the authoritarian conception of religious identity. As noted quite elegantly by Wendi Adamek in her study of Chan, “To become entangled in such distinctions merely replicates the ideological hypostasis of the tradition while attempting to unsettle it” (The Mystique of Transmission: On an Early Chan History and its Contexts, Columbia, 2007, p. 11). Thus, despite efforts to resist the imposition of identity, such resistance still accepts the common social ideology that having a specific religious identity, be it Catholic or Buddhist or whatever, is (supposed to be) what determines how one thinks and what one does.

(Full disclosure: this is something like the argument I’ve myself made against some Buddhist critics of Buddhism who argue that Buddhism should change to conform to their own values, rather than understanding Buddhism as something that has the potential to change them. This has been a reworking of an argument that religion entails discipline, or what what might be called in a putatively Buddhist context “practice.” But, as suggested, the very polarity of these positions has made it increasingly difficult for me to accept either. The ideas explicated here are in part a working out of my own discomfort with that polarity—which can be simplistically described as submission to the tradition versus domination of the tradition.)

In contrast to such a normative conception of religious identity, one might consider religious identity to be descriptive. In other words instead of “If you are a Buddhist, then you believe and do such and such,” consider “If you believe and do such and such, then you are (maybe, something, kinda like) a Buddhist.”

This is not to say that being a Catholic is somehow an inherently normative category, while being a Buddhist is somehow an inherently descriptive category. Nor is it simply a matter of saying that from a religious perspective identity is normative, while from an academic (sociological) perspective identity is descriptive. It is rather to point out that the concept of religious identity as normative is the key dynamic that yields power to religious institutions, enabling them to be authoritarian. It is not necessary that the agents of such institutions intentionally attempt to utilize this dynamic to control adherents, for they themselves are also caught in the same dynamic. (In the six realms of rebirth, hell beings who torment other hell beings are themselves tormented—that’s my interpretation and in no way “official.”) Those agents of authority instantiate the dynamic because they fully accept that religious identity is normative for themselves as well. Sometimes this is called “conviction” with admiring tones as if it is somehow a good thing to believe that one is imposing someone else’s will on everyone else.

The somewhat tortured grammar of that last sentence points to the inherent similarity between the claim in self-defense that I was only following orders, and the claim that by opposing same sex marriage one is doing God’s will. In both cases it is an instance of the “bad faith” that Sartre so aptly described. Acts of bad faith are those performed under the guise that agency for the action lies elsewhere. (The critical utility of the concept of bad faith makes the almost total displacement of Sartre from contemporary philosophical reflection unfortunate.)

Those familiar with the foundational myth of Christianity understand that the “Blame the snake!” defense doesn’t work. However, if we can’t blame the snake because we are responsible for our own actions, then we are also not able to blame God. It is always our choice, and this is why some have seen Satan’s refusal to obey, and to willingly suffer the consequences of disobedience as inherently heroic. And upon reflection we can ask how does Satan’s autonomy differ from the autonomy exercised by Gandhi and Martin Luther King in breaking the law and willingly suffering the consequences? This is not an entirely rhetorical question, since there are those who engage in similar acts of civil (and sometimes uncivil) disobedience under the claim that they are answerable to a “higher authority,” and who are thus once again acting in bad faith.

Purser also discusses attempts to introduce mindfulness into social institutions. The commonly unquestioned belief that religious identity is normative is at play—perhaps especially—in the minds of those who seek to insinuate mindfulness into secular social institutions by evading identification with Buddhism. This relates to self-censorship, concealing the intent to facilitate the spread of values held by oneself “as a Buddhist,” and duplicity—themes explored by Purser. (These themes were also discussed by Candy Gunther Brown in her essay “Buddhism, Capitalism, Consumer Culture: Mindfulness Meditation in U.S. Public Schools,” American Academy of Religion, San Diego, 24 November 2014—see subsequent post “Capitalism, Buddhism, and the Academic Study of Religion.”) In his essay Purser focuses on the ethical dimensions of such behavior, critiquing the claim that such actions are an instance of “skillful means” (upaya). Buddhist literature clearly indicates that upaya is a skill whose effective use is not accessible to everyone, no matter how well-intentioned. As Purser says, the “skillful use of deception (Buddhist variants of the Trojan Horse) was reserved for Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.” It ought, therefore, to be seen as a shocking act of hypocrisy and arrogance for self-identified Buddhist teachers of mindfulness to claim that their own deceptive behavior is justifiable as an instance of what buddhas are capable of doing.

As discussed here, however, there is a further socio-political issue. Since both poles of the dynamic—assertive Buddhist identity and concealed Buddhist identity, claiming Buddhist identity and holding it at arm’s length—operate under the conception of religious identity as normative, they both perpetuate authoritarian conceptions of religion, and thereby enable religious authoritarianism.


5 thoughts on “Ignorance of the Buddhadharma is no excuse: Purser on Monteiro, Musten and Compson

  1. I’m intrigued by what you’ve written here, though I’m not sure that I understand it completely. That’s partly because it depends on references to articles that I haven’t read yet (“scheduled to be published in Mindfulness”). But if I understand you correctly, what you are saying (in a nutshell) is that those who adopt Buddhism (or any religion) as some form of identity are stuck with practicing an authoritarian form of religion. Is that you what you mean? For myself, I tend to “claim Buddhist identity while holding it at arm’s length”. But it’s more like I hold up Buddhism at arms length as a mirror against my life. I am not the mirror and even the image in the mirror is not “me.” But I allow Buddhism to reflect on my life. I see what it looks like through a Buddhist lens. I went through a period of identifying as a Buddhist but I quickly found that as constraining as a strait jacket. I refuse to allow Buddhism to become my identity because I find that people have ridiculous and stereotyped ideas about how a Buddhist is supposed to behave, especially Buddhists themselves. I wrote a poem called “Translucent” in which I arrived at an understanding that Buddhism should not be so noticeable. “Obvious” Buddhism, that is, institutional Buddhism, is just as self-righteous and sanctimonious as any other religion. Rather, it should be translucent, like a filter that goes over your camera lens. Otherwise, you shouldn’t notice at all that I practice Buddhism.

    • That sounds like the descriptive form of religious identity to me. Perhaps I should have articulated more fully the inclusion of self-reflective awareness of a relation to the tradition as part of that.

  2. Hello, Richard. The article is now correctly linked. The Scribd was a very early draft (which was offered to Ron Purser and David Loy among others for comments). The final version is significantly different following peer-review and published online in Mindfulness.

  3. Pingback: Ignorance of the Buddhadharma is no excuse, I (redux) | Richard K. Payne

  4. Pingback: General Update | The Non-Buddhist

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