from post-sectarian to neo-sectarian

It seems to me that one of the dynamics foundational to the rise of mindfulness as a movement has been a general disregard, and in some cases disdain, for established Buddhist sectarian identities—what we can call a “post-sectarian” sensibility. For a research project, I’ve been reading Robert Schuller’s autobiography and was struck by the important role of sectarian identities in mid-twentieth century Christian America. These sectarian identities still play important roles in the present as well. Arriving in Orange County from Chicago, he makes mention of the Presbyterians and Methodists, contrasting them with his own Reformed Church. As an outsider, one of the “unchurched,” these distinctions make little difference to me. I find myself instead thinking of them in terms of the history of national churches in Europe (hence, the earlier name of Schuller’s church, Dutch Reformed Church), and the history of ethnic immigration to the US. The nature and importance of theological/doctrinal/ideological distinctions between these groups is not only largely opaque to me, but also (usually) not at all significant, since I am largely unaware of the issues involved.

By analogy, then, the distinctions between the Mahāvihāra and Abhayagiri in Sri Lankan history, or between the Taego Order of Korean Zen (Sŏn) and the Sōtō Zen of my friends Ron Purser and Daijaku Kinst, respectively, or between Nishi Hongwanji and Higashi Hongwanji, are no doubt equally opaque to outsiders—even to those interested in Buddhism as part of the popular religious landscape in the US today. This lack of understanding extends to other academics as well. The reviewer’s comments on a paper I submitted for publication long ago indicated that s/he was unaware of the difference between Shin and Shingon, i.e., between Jōdo Shinshū and Shingon-shū.

[an aside: Such disregard is, however, also a name for ignorance, and ignorance means that propagandistic representations may be uncritically accepted as true. One that comes to mind is the claim, widely made by Secular Buddhists for example, that the Pāli canon is the common foundation for all of Buddhism. Mistaken conceptions of the nature of scripture, the history of the Buddhist canon, and groundless claims that the Pāli canon is unproblematically the word of the Buddha abound in Secular Buddhist and mindfulness discourses.]

I can understand, therefore, that for most people who take up mindfulness for one reason or another attention to lineage may seem to be simply irrelevant, petty power-mongering, or inanely old-fashioned. Traditional lineages are (almost) entirely irrelevant in terms of the markers of value in our present society, which instead values celebrity, but also promotes an ideology of techno-hip capitalist amnesia—an active and intentional disregard for understanding the past and its role in giving form to the present. Such willful ignorance (one form of self-delusion, moha) subjects the subject to the common conceptions (including preconceptions, misconceptions) of the day. This is the post-sectarian context within which the mindfulness movement has been developing.

Already, however, it would seem that the movement is well on the way to its own neo-sectarian status. In its headlong rush to commodification, the mindfulness movement has embraced both popular religious cultural conceptions of inner wisdom, universal spirituality, and the like on one hand, and more broadly based social values related to the authority of science and medicine on the other. While both of these two dimensions shape the commodification of mindfulness, medicalization in particular motivates formal training and certification as ways of demonstrating the authority of the individual operating in a medical setting. In other words, under the guise of training and certification, we have a neo-sectarianism coming into being. This is made evident in the way that individuals claim descent from specific teachers, as when during the forum on mindfulness at Lion’s Roar, two of the teachers assert their own close association with Jon Kabat-Zinn.

As alternate commodifications of mindfulness create training and certification programs, neo-sectarianism will become firmly entrenched—yes, this is a prediction. Already the acronyms crackle in the air: MBSR, MBCT, etc. And there is an accompanying demarcation of programs as distinct offerings by different institutions. Given the expectations of the medicalized model, however, there has also already arisen a movement toward the establishment of national standards and certification. In the forum just mentioned for example, Diana Winston says that “I’m currently involved with creating a national accreditation board for certifying programs and individuals, which I hope will also involve continuing education units and an ethics board.” In economic terms, given that it will be the large, well-funded institutions like UCLA who will have the social cachet to set the standards, this will effectively be a monopoly.

At the same time, however, given the neo-sectarian nature of such commodifications, we can expect to see schismatics and heretics. While the medicalized side may well do its best to distance itself from such messy realities of religion, such distancing requires a willful amnesia.

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One thought on “from post-sectarian to neo-sectarian

  1. Yes, good to turn the spotlight on these developments! I was dismayed recently to hear about cultish, dissent-quelling behavior at a center for MBCT that shall remain nameless. And I wish that more of the neo-sectarians could see that their disdain for traditional lineages is essential for the formation of neo-lineages and insiders. But that kind of reflexive awareness is precisely what would obstruct the development of this new market in products providing “capitalist amnesia” and anesthesia. What is disturbing to me is not only that the “species diversity” of practices is being radically reduced. More disturbing is the sanitization that removes the self-deconstructing aspect of “traditional” practices (Madhyamaka is oft-cited, but this is found even in the Guan wuliangshou fo jing)….

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