Are We “Abusing the Buddha?”

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Mindfulness is all the rage, if you haven’t noticed; since January, related articles have been published in Time Magazine, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Yet does popularity come with a price? Buddhist teacher and social activist Michael Stone is concerned that the secularization of mindfulness and dissemination to “institutions of organized violence” (i.e., military, police) sacrifices the ethics of traditional Buddhism, particularly that of ahimsa, or non-violence.

Stone’s concerns sound reasonable. After all, most western fantasies depict Buddhist monks (or Indian yogis) meditating peacefully. Yet Shaolin Chan (Zen) Buddhism was adopted by large numbers of Japanese Samurai, whilst monks of this order are thought to have practiced martial arts since the 7th century. Monasteries of Tibetan lamas once waged war on one another. And in the seminal yogic text the Bhagavad Gita, an epic battle characterizes the spiritual path. This does not legitimize violence in the context of Buddhism, but illustrates its complexity.

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While Buddhism espouses non-violence, “during times of war killing ‘the enemy’ is defined as good, and even moral.” This relates to the Buddhist teachings of wholesome and unwholesome action. Killing in self-defense, for example, is considered far less unwholesome than killing for greed, and killing an animal is less unwholesome than killing a human being.

Stone contends that mindfulness training absent its ethical context will fail to prohibit acts of war or brutality, and may even enhance such efforts. Yet the Buddha observed that following certain actions, “Unwholesome factors increased and wholesome factors decreased,” indicating such actions were “to be avoided.” Following other actions, “unwholesome factors decreased and wholesome ones increased,” encouraging the embrace of such actions (D.II,281 – THIH, p.330 (cf. Kalama Sutta, A.I,188ff). In sum, simple awareness of unwholesome actions may give rise to wholesome actions.

Given that war is a fact of life in today’s world, what can be done to create more honorable warriors? Offering mindfulness training to troops that will serve regardless of whether or not they practice may facilitate more ethical and conscionable behavior. It may make the difference between shooting innocents in a moment of sublimated fear and rage and pausing to realistically assess the situation before acting.

Stone also contends that offering mindfulness in police and military settings prioritizes the perpetrators of brutality and implicitly sanctions their violence, whilst the victims’ suffering is largely ignored. Unconsidered are the high pre-existing rates of traumatization and poor mental health (including depression and disordered eating) of service members relative to the general population. Suffering begets suffering. Victims may later go on to become perpetrators, and enroll in the military or other service occupations.

Denying service members the practice of mindfulness on principle, as Stone proposes, and providing them only to abuse survivors, would engender greater suffering than healing, ultimately creating greater injustice. It is only once we appreciate the unconscious perpetuation of conditions giving rise to suffering that we can appreciate the importance of sharing mindfulness with all.

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Such logic underpins efforts to bring mindfulness to prisons as well as domestic violence shelters, reaching out to those who have both enacted and received injustice, in the hopes that mindfulness will promote forgiveness and compassion, and prevent both re-incarceration and re-victimization.

What are your thoughts on the secularization of mindfulness practice, and the use of such techniques in the military, police forces, or corporations?

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