Ignorance of the Buddhadharma is no excuse, 2: (reset) Payne on Monteiro, Musten, and Compton

In my enthusiasm I made the unfortunate error of posting prematurely—mea culpa. The post that appeared for a short while with much the same title as this one, though with a different subtitle, discussed an article by Ron Purser forthcoming in the journal Mindfulness, an article that was itself a response to another article in that same journal. The journal editor has requested that the post be held until Purser’s article actually appears in print. As a professional courtesy, editor to editor as it were, I am of course quite happy to comply.

Purser’s essay is a response to the article “Traditional and Contemporary Mindfulness: Finding the Middle Path in the Tangle of Concerns,” by Lynette M. Monteiro, R.F. Musten, and Jane Compson, Mindfulness, published online: 29 April 2014. Since this is an already published essay, and has been made available by the lead author on Academia.edu, I hope that there is no problem about going to the source, as it were. Here we examine one rather small section of their essay, the claims they make regarding there being three components comprising all mindfulness based interventions.

(note: in the following, page citations are to the unnumbered page of the text as such of the version published online; in this instance the text of the essay is preceded by a title page and colophon which I am not counting—in my ignorance regarding whether a standard exists for citing this new kind of publication, i.e., online in advance of the journal publication and therefore unnumbered, I hope that this is at least clear; if anyone knows of a new standard for citing such works, I would be grateful to know what it is)

(another note: this is not personal, I don’t know Monteiro, Musten or Compton; I presume that they are all well-intentioned and I have no reason to doubt that the work they do at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic does provide the symptom relief that they discuss in their article)

One of the issues central to the therapeutic appropriation of Buddhist practices is that such appropriations almost always employ those practices in a framework that reinforces belief in an autonomous self and action based on such belief, rather than working to de-reify the self. That is, they actively promote the value of a personal ātman, rather than working to awaken the person to the dysfunctions resulting from clinging to the personal ātman. In other words, they reinforce the mistaken belief that the personal ātman is permanent, reliable, a stable and trustworthy center in a changing world. (Those of you familiar with Glenn Wallis’s blog “Speculative Non-Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real,” now archived, will know that Tom Pepper has been particularly effective at calling attention to this problem in the therapeutic appropriations of Buddhism.)

Much, if not most, or maybe even all, of the modern Western spiritual literature can be interpreted as the quest to locate this personal ātman, languaged under such phrases as “finding one’s true self.” Such conceptualizations of human existence dichotomize our existence into a false, shallow or inauthentic self, defined in opposition to a true, deep or authentic self. This simplistic “spiritual psychology” is so widely employed and often reinforced that it is taken as obviously true, something everyone knows, neither giving rise to doubt nor requiring justification. It is, in other words, part of contemporary popular religious culture that can be deployed to create unreflective acquiescence, to soothe, a soporific to induce a gentle comforting sleep.

Monteiro, et al., claim that what they call “contemporary mindfulness” integrates Buddhist understandings of how the mind works (see the second item in the next paragraph). This suggests that a close consideration of the conceptual system at the base of “contemporary mindfulness” to determine whether this is the case or not is worth pursuing. (note: we will be considering Monteiro, et al.’s, representation of contemporary mindfulness, and not attempting a survey of different kinds of mindfulness practices as found in the present)

In their discussion of mindfulness-based interventions (referred to as MBIs), Monteiro, et al., claim that “Despite their diversity, mindfulness-based interventions can be viewed broadly as an integration of three approaches or stances to the cultivation of well-being,” (p. 4). These three components, which they claim are the common sources of all MBIs, are (1) contemplative/meditative practices, (2) “the understanding of how we experience the flow of events in our body/mind,”  and (3) to “shift away from experiential avoidance” (p. 4). Much of what the authors claim in their analysis of putatively “traditional and contemporary” mindfulness is informed by this explanation of the construction of MBIs.

(another brief aside: the categories that they construct their argument around—traditional and contemporary—are themselves inadequately theorized and lack clear definition in relation to the history of Buddhism. Hence in the sentence above those categories are marked with “putatively” as well as being placed in quotation marks. While they give a nod of deference to Cantwell Smith’s 1962 The meaning and end of religion when discussing the historical background of Buddhism, there is no substantive academic history of Buddhism listed in their bibliography. Cynics take note: this is not simply quibbling, but rather evidence of the lack of grounding in the actual history of Buddhism common to many of the therapeutic appropriations of Buddhist practices, i.e., part of the decontextualization that Jeff Wilson refers to as the “mystification” of mindfulness. While claims regarding the origins of contemporary therapeutic mindfulness often accord with this claim by Monteiro, et al.—that they are based on both Western psychology and Buddhism—there is an almost universal lack of historical understanding and a depressing lack of interest in that history. As a consequence the Buddhism represented is partial or selective at best. As I have previously discussed, the totality created by blending Western therapeutic conceptions with secondary sources about Buddhism that are already informed by Western therapeutic conceptions does not in fact do what is claimed about bringing the two together, but only creates that illusion.)

The following attempts to explore the resonances that Monteiro, et al.’s claims sound in contemporary popular religious culture and contemporary popular Buddhist discourse. It is those broader belief systems that their claims activate and which serve as the plausibility structure (see Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, 1967, reprint 1990, New York: Anchor Books, Random House, p. 45) that makes Monteiro, et al.’s claims appear obvious and unproblematic to some if not many readers of their article.

The authors explain the first of the three components saying that it “is composed of various contemplative practices that are spiritual and/or religious” (ibid.). This evaluation reflects the cultural practice of distinguishing technology from ideology. This distinction presumes, wrongly, that technology is value-free and context-neutral, and that meditative or contemplative practices can, therefore, be selected out of any religious tradition without distortion. It also assumes that the medicalized therapeutic employment is itself value-free and context-neutral, making the cultural frameworks of market capitalism invisible. There is, however, no value-free and context-neutral human situation. To pluck a practice out of its context in 18th century Tibet or 13th century Germany or 19th century American Southwest, and try to shake off the cultural significances by claiming that those are merely accidental cultural accretions around the essence, only recreates those practices in a new cultural framework—as well as exercising the arrogance of imperialism in the claim to be able to determine what that essence is better than the practitioners of that tradition.

One might note as an example that a great deal has been made about how inappropriate it is for new age-y entrepreneurs to offer weekend sweat lodge experiences. Can one really claim to identify the essence of sweat lodge practice sanitized of any Native American cultural accretions? Or imagine the response were someone to attempt to introduce “secular exorcisms” into medical settings. These comparisons raise the question, Why it is that Buddhism seems to be particularly vulnerable to such therapeutic expropriations? (This follows on Megan Bryson’s insightful analysis of the use of Buddhist images and languaging as part of creating appealing products, which she presented at AAR/2014/San Diego, and reflected in the substance of her website “Zensanity.”) Such appropriations are part of a wider colonialist propensity in which the colonized (Buddhism in this case) is exploited for resources to be utilized by colonizers (religio-therapeutic entrepreneurs), who in turn disdain and diminish the colonized in order to justify exploiting them. For all the mouthing of pious platitudes regarding respect for the buddha, dharma and sangha, to presume that those who wish to use Buddhism for their own ends have the capacity—unlike actual Buddhists—to distinguish “essence” from incidental cultural accretion is both arrogant and disdainful of the tradition itself.

The second component is key to the logic of the argument presented by Monteiro, et al. Their claim is that MBIs employ a model of the working of consciousness that draws on Buddhist concepts, but while at the same time claiming that “these concepts are also found in psychotherapeutic approaches such as focusing therapy” (ibid.) This points up another common rhetoric in this kind of discourse, that “it is all the same anyway.” Again, no theorizing is given here to support the claim, but implicit is a psychological version of Perennialism—the religious theory that there is only one TRUTH and that all religions are simply pathways leading toward it. In its psychological form, the notion seems to be that there is only one kind of human mind, and that all psychologies are simply pathways leading to it. As with the first component, both religious Perennialism and its psychological variant dismiss any differences as simply irrelevant to the single core “truth” revealed by a kind of triangulation—whatever is the same from two or more different perspectives must be the truth.

What this ignores is the differing functions for which the two systems—Buddhist philosophy of mind and Euro-American psychotherapies—have been constructed. Or, not just an ignoring, but rather bringing to bear another questionable rhetorical strategy to erase such differences. That is the claim that both seek to relieve suffering. Monteiro, et al., deploy this rhetoric in the introductory paragraph: “both the traditional Buddhist and contemporary views of mindfulness share a functional intent (to alleviate suffering)” (p. 1). By erasing differences in this way, both Buddhist philosophy of mind and psychotherapeutic conceptions of mind are so reduced in their uniqueness and complexity that they can easily be equated with one another.

(yet another more tangential notes: in this section—in which the uniformity of Buddhist and psychotherapeutic philosophies of mind are equated—the only source the authors cite is Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught (1974); this work, however, is itself informed by the rationalizing and psychologizing of Buddhist modernism, and is not therefore a reliable independent witness to Buddhist philosophy of mind, reliance on works already holding the same view is a petitio principii fallacy; a further thought, this one regarding Perrennialism: two of the sources that the authors use are Karen Armstrong’s Buddha and Great Transformation. Like Huston Smith before her, Armstrong is deeply committed to Perennialism, which informs her (mis-)representations of Buddhism. Additionally, citing Armstrong, Monteiro, et al., buy into the rhetoric of an Axial Age, which far from being an established fact, is a very dubious historical speculation, and one that serves to marginalize everyone not part of the Greek, Indic or Sinitic cultures.)

In regard to the third component, the authors say “While the protocols of the specific program will vary, MBI programs have the common intention to reduce mental dispersal, which can encourage avoidance of our experience, so that we have a direct contact with our unfolding experience. Ultimately, the practice leads to taking responsibility for our own experience and cultivating the wisdom to manage it skillfully” (p. 4.). Each of these two sentences are problematic, and, as noted previously in relation to other aspects of the essay, are expressed without a clearly articulated theory.

The first of the two sentences quoted above refers to having “direct contact with our unfolding experience.” This assertion is so much of a commonplace that the uncritical reader may not stop to ask: What does this mean? How does it work? Why is it good? In the absence of any such theoretical explanation, the assertion appears to be simply a vacuous platitude.

The claim does resonate with elements of the plausibility structure of popular religious culture, specifically with the idea that it is possible to have direct, unmediated experience, and that this kind of experience is privileged as incorrigible, i.e., in the philosophic sense of not subject to correction. This notion of direct, unmediated experience is at the core of Western religious conceptions of mysticism and informs theologically rooted definitions of religion as experience from the early nineteenth century (for discussion see “Grandfather to Contemporary Buddhism in the West—Friedrich Schleiermacher?“). This idea has worked its way into contemporary popular religious discourse largely through the Romantics and their formative influence on psychology. Despite its common usage and wide acceptance it has (quite successfully to my mind) been refuted by a variety of thinkers over the last century. Most thoroughly and extensively by Richard Rorty in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, 1979), as well as also in the several treatments of this topic by Steven T. Katz.

The second sentence is also problematic. This is the claim that “practice leads to taking responsibility for our own experience” (p. 4) Perhaps this is just undertheorized (or poorly written), but how is it possible for experience to be something that one takes responsibility for? I can understand taking responsibility for one’s actions, but not one’s experience. Unless, and this is a distinct possibility, concealed by lack of explicit theorizing there is an idealist conception of mind at work here. Similarly, we find them claiming that “Mindfulness-based interventions have adapted to and influenced conventional perspectives of the individuals capacity to heal through their own wisdom” (p. 5). These two expressions share the idea of an autonomous self, deeply concealed and infinitely powerful, just waiting to be tapped into. This inner resource of life and vitality is a fundamental conception of the self for the Romantic tradition, but does not constitute part of the Buddhist philosophy of mind. It cannot simply be assumed that Buddhist philosophy of mind, in any of its myriad instantiations, is unproblematically identical with Western conceptions of mind, even the select ones that Monteiro, et al. mention.

Many of the therapeutic appropriations of Buddhist practice place those practices into new contexts, ones that support and reinforce the idea of an autonomous self, in the form of a deep inner healing wisdom or a true self or a Self or… Fundamental to Buddhist teachings, however, is a critique of all such beliefs regarding an autonomous self on the grounds that such beliefs are conducive to suffering. Rather than simply the alleviation of suffering, the goal of the teachings and the goal of practice in Buddhism is the de-reification of the autonomous self.


5 thoughts on “Ignorance of the Buddhadharma is no excuse, 2: (reset) Payne on Monteiro, Musten, and Compton

  1. Mindfulness has been “appropriated” from Buddhism? Baloney. 🙂 Have mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises, kindness, compassion, ethical thinking and conduct, concentration and contemplation practices, and even wisdom itself all been appropriated from Buddhism? LOL…I seriously doubt that you really thinks that. I’m sure you know perfectly well that nearly every ancient culture (many far preceding what we now call ‘Buddhism’) that we have anthropological / historical knowledge of, valued all of these, and highly developed them. And these things are, and have been, valued by countless millions in modern Western culture. None of them are owned by Buddhism in the way that superiorist hyper-religious Buddhists loudly insist they are. This insistence is just smokescreen and isn’t their real beef. The hidden subtext of what you (and other neo-Buddhist fundamentalists) are saying is so nakedly transparent…even though you’ve gone to great lengths not to be forthright about it. You hint at it here:

    “For all the mouthing of pious platitudes regarding respect for the buddha, dharma and sangha, to presume that those who wish to use Buddhism for their own ends have the capacity—unlike actual Buddhists—to distinguish “essence” from incidental cultural accretion is both arrogant and disdainful of the tradition itself.”

    Translation: “Actual Buddhists” own the truth (you condescendingly means _religious_ Buddhists…and erase the fact that non-religious Buddhism has existed for centuries…also see ** note below), and non-religious practitioners of mindfulness, concentration, and contemplation, who value ethics, clarity, moral intentions and actions, and who value knowledge of cause and effect and the interdependent, interrelated, transient nature of existence etc… are too stupid to know that these things are contraindicated, dangerous, and ineffective without the inclusion of the “essences” that you hint at but cowardly don’t name, (specifically, religious materialism and the supernatural bits).

    ** There is also a very strong, well researched argument that what has been labeled and understood as ‘Buddhism’ since the 18th century wasn’t regarded as a religion and wasn’t centralized around ‘the Buddha’ until Western / Christian colonialism labeled and centralized it as such in the 18th century.

    Related to this, you lose all credibility here:

    “Much, if not most, or maybe even all, of the modern Western spiritual literature can be interpreted as the quest to locate this personal ātman, languaged under such phrases as “finding one’s true self.” (…which he makes clear is _not_ beneficial…in fact, it’s harmful because it’s narcissistic and promotes self-solidification and self-obsession, according to him)

    …which is enormously inaccurate and absurd. Either you are stupendously ignorant of the broad and diverse modern Western spiritual tradition, both Christian and non-Christian (and modern psychotherapy), or you think we are. Modern Western so-called ‘spiritual’ literature (and psychology) has been explicitly clear that “finding one’s true self” necessitates seeing completely through the “small self” in order to discover the “whole self”…whole self explicitly referencing the nature and experience of the Western equivalent of Eastern emptiness (meaning that we, and all matter, are not solid, separate, or self-existing), and that ethics, kindness, and right behavior are critically integral to this process and ultimate awareness: an awareness that has nothing to do with religiosity and supernatural fantasies…in fact, accessing this state of ‘whole self’ —non-dual perception (clarity)— requires the abandonment of such delusional self-absorbed, hungry, self-reifying supernatural fantasies. Fundamentalist Buddhists dismiss this as “Universalism” and reject it in order to protect their self-solidifying sense of being special and having access to the real “Truth”.

    Both Christian and Buddhist fundamentalists are now using variations of the same script. Fundamentalist Christians insist morality does not exist outside of their religion and a belief in their brand of supernaturalism, when what they’re really grumpy about is that irreligious people aren’t interested in Christian supernatural fantasies and know that morality isn’t dependent on these fantasies. And fundamentalist Buddhists insist that they own ethics, kindness, integration (experiential awareness of cause and effect, interdependence, and impermanence), and intentions and actions informed by clarity and kindness, when what they’re really grumpy about is that irreligious Dharma practitioners aren’t interested in Buddhist religious materialism and supernatural fantasies and know that waking up to reality isn’t dependent on these obscurations. I’d respect these guys (and it’s nearly always guys) more if they were just honest about that.

    This discussion reminds me of the white marble depictions of people in contemplation from Çatalhöyük,Turkey, 8,000 years ago…as serene as any Buddha image, and in the same pose. Looking at these images, are we really to believe the fundamentalist Buddhists’ assertion that those who deeply engaged in contemplative exercises in this culture, and cultures all over the globe, for many countless millennia, don’t and didn’t have highly refined ethics and codes of conduct, didn’t have a highly refined understanding of cause and effect and the nature of material existence, and didn’t emphasize clarity and kindness, and that these modalities, realizations, and aspirations didn’t exist until 2,500 years ago when one (likely mythical) person sitting under a tree in India “discovered” them? It takes a certain kind of delusional arrogance and profound lack of historical analysis to think so, and I don’t think you really think this at all. These talking points of the new fundamentalist Buddhist movement are a disingenuous smokescreen that mask the subtext…”we own the Truth and the truth is supernatural (that is, above and beyond the laws of nature)”. This subtext, so cherished by fundamentalist Buddhists, is nothing other than religious materialism, a reflection of materialistic patterns of thought and perception. The alleged “war against Buddhism” that fundamental Buddhists blather on about is a demon of their own making that they conjure up and then aggressively attack, in order to protect a self-solidifying personal identity and view of existence that is fundamentally at odds with the core message of Dharma.

    In the mindfulness, just the mindfulness…let go of all that other junk.

  2. Hi Richard,

    Interesting piece. I would make just one suggestion: perhaps it would be better avoid the rhetoric of true buddhist/false buddhist. I would agree that the most useful part of the practice of Buddhism is the attempt to break through reification, and to dismantle the mistaken idea of a transcendent and unconstructed “self.” However, surely we can accept that there are Buddhist practices and schools of thoughts going back many centuries (long before the advent of Shin Buddhism) which serve exactly to produce and reify this idea that there is an eternal “true self”? They aren’t “false Buddhism,” but are simply Buddhists who are mistaken about the nature of reality, right? The point is to allow the debate about the nature of reality to take place–to avoid shutting it off with a rhetorical move.

    It seems to me that perhaps your real point of contention is with the use of the term “Buddhist” to avoid dificult critical and theoretical work? The essay you are critiquing seems to do just this; the authors produce “vacuous platitudes” and use the claim that they are “Buddhist” to absolve themselves of the necessity to do the real theoretical work. What exactly would it mean to “cultivate wisdom to manage [experience] skillfully”? Sounds nice and new-agey, but the term “wisdom” is just a floating signifier here, empty of conceptual content, and they never explain what it would mean to “manage experience,” much less address the status of the entity referred to only in the possessive pronoun (our) that supposedly has, but remains outside of, the world of experience. If they didn’t add some Buddhist-sounding terms, they might have more trouble getting away with passing off such new-age self-help fluff as science, right?

    The point isn’t that “sati” has never been used by “real Buddhists” to reify the illusion of self. The problem is that the mindfulness industry is attempting to employ the same Western ideology of the subject that has been around at least since Locke (or blame Descartes, or Aquinas, or whoever): the idea of an unconstructed “soul” inhabiting a sublunary “body” that is often unruly or hard to manage, but ultimately can be forced into ascetic self-discipline so that the “soul” can be saved/free/content. As you point out, this idea of the “pure self” is hard to support, given the centuries of devastating critiques it has been subjected to (Rorty is just one among many, right?); so, the response is to add some “ancient Eastern wisdom,” and then recycle the same old ideology of the subject, this time forbidding critical thought (because it is somehow politically incorrect or something to think critically about something with a foreign-sounding label on it).

    Moneiro et. al. use the rhetorical strategy of “traditional vs. contemporary.” All those Buddhist purists are just stuffy and old-fashioned, attached to outmoded ways of doing things that don’t really work in today’s world; we want to do exactly the same thing, but have hip new ways to do it. As you point out, of course, the point is that what they are doing is not the same, but exactly the opposite of what some (not all) Buddhists understand the goal of sati to be. To put it in terms of old/new or true/false is likely to make it difficult to address the real issue: can we think critically about the implicit theory of the subject that underwrites the mindfulness project? For those Buddhists (and Western philosophers) attempting to demystify the illusion of a “true self,” the answer is yes. For those wishing to produce such an illusion in support of a capitalist ideology of the subject, the answer is no–to make this project possible the implicit theory, because it is conceptually fatally flawed, must remain behind the curtain of the magical term “Buddhist.”

    I’ll look forward to reading the response by Purser, when it appears.



    • Thank you, Tom. I will make some additional comments in the next post. Hopefully this won’t take so long as figuring out what I mean by mindfulness being beneficial—an issue that Monteiro, et al., help with by distinguishing symptom relief from awakening, and I assume also from birth in the Pure Land, though they don’t talk about that…

  3. Richard.
    Reading your post and the comments I was reminded of two Suttas that would pay the Mindfulness industry to read, absorb and dare I say practice!
    62 False Convictions (Drishtigata)- can be found on http://www.Columbia.edu
    and the Gotami Sutta on http://www.accesstoinsight.org
    Ps thank you for your post on Unno an inspiring man
    (UK based based Buddhist or more correctly, a Dharmafarer which is the correct word for one or follows the teaching of the Buddha)

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