On oxymorons, briefly

The author of a review over at Trike of the Steve Jobs movie used the following phrase:

These days, Buddha branding of all sorts of things has created the oxymoron of a Buddhist consumerism.

I have nothing to say about this review nor the movie since, I’ll be honest, I didn’t read the whole review and I haven’t seen the movie. I do have something to say, briefly, about the “oxymoron” of Buddhist consumerism and what it reveals about unexamined and unquestioned biases and implicit theologies.

Somewhere along the way, folks began to advance and then uncritically accept the notion that because there are strains of Buddhism that teach the value of non-attachment that it logically follows that Buddhists should not be attached to wealth, that they should not engage in the endless buying of things. To say that “Buddhist consumerism” is an oxymoron is to imply that Buddhists cannot or should not be consumers. There is a not-too-subtle value judgment there that if you’re a Buddhist (or perhaps just a “good Buddhist”) you are not also a consumer. And, if you are consumer, then, at best, you shouldn’t be attached to your stuff or, at worst, you should feel bad about it.

Continue reading “On oxymorons, briefly”

The stories we tell

From America’s most trusted news network: Study Finds Every Style Of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults.

Our daughter turned four last year. Hands down, the past four years have been some of the most joyous, profound, fun, exhausting, and frustrating years of my life. I feel like I must look like those before and after pictures of the President: oh, look how youthful and bright-eyed I am in this picture from 2010. Look how much grey in my beard now. And my knees. My god how my knees ache. When did I get this old?

And whereas the exhausting frustration of parenting comes surly from arguing with the irrational mode swings of this tiny human my wife and I created, exhausting frustration also comes from a genre of literate I like to call “You’re Doing It Wrong.”

Continue reading “The stories we tell”

Not everyone must be Buddhist

I was just going to tweet the following sentiment. But then it became a short rant. It may not be long enough for a bona fide blog post. But I can’t think of where else to get this off my chest. More substantive posts are forthcoming. I promise.

I cannot tell you how sad it makes me that any time anyone dies, a certain Buddhist magazine tries to connect them to Buddhism, however tenuously. It is not just the opportunistic attempt to generate hits that bothers me (but it does). It’s the sense that for this person’s life to have meaning, they must have some connection to Buddhism. If nothing else, this is simply dishonest. Rather than appreciating this person — who can no longer gift us with their art, music, writing, wisdom, compassion, whatever — on their own terms for who they were, we must find some way to appreciate them because of a connection to Buddhism. The world has been populated with amazing beautiful human beings long before Buddhism was a thing and will be populated by amazing beautiful human beings long after. We need not force them into this tiny (Buddhist) box to appreciate that beauty. Be grateful for what we received from them, as it was, Buddhist or not, fully and honestly.

Dispatch from AAR

For context, it’s Monday afternoon, and I’ve found a comfortable spot to write in the Tibetan sand mandala exhibit. As such, I am surrounded by chanting and the sound of sand mandala construction, a repetitive metal scratching from their implements as the monks construct the mandala. Oh, and, of course, the occasional cell phone going off.

Continue reading “Dispatch from AAR”

Buddhist Studies at AAR

In a few days’ time, thousands of religion scholars will descend on the city of Atlanta. Consider yourself warned.

As in years past, I have compiled a list of Buddhist-y things happening at AAR. I was hopeful to be able to do that this year; however, time has gotten away from me. Which is just as well. The good folks at H-Buddhism has done the hard work for us, providing us with this list of panels with content related to the study of Buddhism.

A couple of things not on the list:

Monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery will construct a sand mandala. The opening ceremony will be Saturday morning; it’ll be deconstructed Monday evening.

The AAR has a resource for social media best practices. Even if you don’t use social media at these things, it’s good to know what the expectations are, what others might be up to.

And as much as I want to attend the Buddhism Section Saturday morning, I’m torn by an equally strong desire to check out the Religion and Science Fiction Group’s panel on the many tentacles of Cthulhu.

Sigh.There’s always a schedule conflict.

Worth Fighting For

In a previous incarnation of this blog — indeed what feels like a previous incarnation of my life — after receiving some well-deserved and pointed criticism, I wrote a post about the pitfalls of blogging while on the academic job market. I had begun blogging while still in grad school, when the only people who knew I existed were friends and family, and for many years, my blog reflected my life. I was as likely to write about my romantic life as I was to write about Buddhism as I was to complain about then-President Bush. Over time, the blog became more overtly political and less concerned with my personal life; nevertheless, I intentionally blurred boundaries between the personal and the professional, for better or worse. For worse — well, that was the cause of that pointed criticism I received, and it caused me to consider the professional consequences of this particular type of public speaking.

This was in 2009. A lot has changed since then. Continue reading “Worth Fighting For”

Mindfulessness

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to participate in the Mindfulness and Compassion conference at San Francisco State University. (Round-ups can be found here and here.) I’ve been meaning to write something about the experience, but nothing has gelled.

Last week, Ron Purser kindly forwarded this article to me and a dozen or so other folks (many of whom attended the conference). It’s worth a read. In sum, the author discusses her disillusionment with mindfulness practices as she learned them because, among other reasons, they tended to make her less engaged with the world rather than more engaged. Rather than quelling the mind and its distracted trains of thought, she wonders if distraction and multitasking aren’t actually good things.

It’s easy to critique this woman and her teachers and her (mis)understandings and their (mis)appropriations of mindfulness. It’s easy to draw quick conclusions from this and point our fingers and say that either she didn’t “get it” or they didn’t teach her right. It’s easy to point to some other version of mindfulness (“traditional,” “Buddhist,” monastic, whatever those terms mean) and make the claim that these other versions are more authentic, more correct. And then to lament the secularization of mindfulness. Alternately, it’s easy to leave all that aside and make the claim that mindfulness is in some way universal, not something that Buddhism “owns,” and whereas this woman had a bad experience, a lot of positive good has come to people who have engaged the practice. In short, it’s easy to use this article as evidence of one set of ideological claims or another — claims either in support or critical of secular mindfulness, its value, its limitations.

Collectively, this article and many more like, represent not mindfulness itself but a growing narrative about mindfulness. Rather than concerning ourselves with the questions of whether or not this version of mindfulness is “really” Buddhist, rather than concerning ourselves with questions of whether or not the secularization of mindfulness is a good thing or a bad thing, rather than asking whether or not mindfulness really “works” in any way close to the way its apologists claim — all very good critical lines of inquiry — I’d like to suggest that these articles, this narrative genre, be taken at face value. Regardless of this version of mindfulness’s relationship to any other, it is a version of mindfulness that is being perpetuated in a growing body of popular sources, creating its own narrative truth. It is becoming naturalized. Like it or not, historically accurate or not, this is what mindfulness means. To quote the article:

I dove into what was an open-ended experiment to see if I could correct the things about me that were loose and scattered, and reap the touted benefits of mindfulness. It was a good time for me to try, because I was about to go through a pregnancy, and wanted to be a good parent, a “mindful” parent, as all the parenting books suggested. Besides, since this way of being was supposed to greatly improve my life, to make it feel more meaningful, and to even help me lose weight, who was I to argue with it?

This is the narrative. Some aspect of modern life is pathologized and problematized (we’re too distracted, there are too many iDevices). Mindfulness, described alternately as singleness of attention and “thinking about nothing” is offered as the cure. It is valued as the thing that will create meaning in all aspects of our lives, from the vague and abstract (making life meaningful) to the mundane and particular (loosing weight). And critical thought is discouraged. Indeed, who are we to argue when all of this sounds so good?

(In passing, I’d like to note the never-ending layers of pathologization going on here, the creation of dichotomies, the explicit labeling and valuing of those dichotomies, and the endless deployment of fixes. Weight gain is a problem. A life without meaning is a problem. Distractions and cell phones are problems. A lack of productivity is a problem. Here is this fix. The irony, of course, is that mindfulness is supposed to be the nonjudgemental awareness of mental phenomenon, here deployed in the service of endlessly judged problems.)

This narrative should not surprise us. It did not come into being with Jon Kabat-Zinn. It is not unique to secular mindfulness. Its origin is implied in the article when the author lists all of the various practices she engaged in on her mindfulness journey — meditation, yoga, books by gurus, aura readings. This is familiar territory. This is the New Age/self-help narrative that has been a central aspect of American popular religion for at least the last four decades. This is not new.

(See Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s Selling Spirituality for a good overview.)

To note how this narrative overlaps with pre-existing narratives is not to discredit some aspects of mindfulness practice (or Buddhist practice, for that matter). For every New Age dilettante with a Native American dream catcher hanging from his car’s rear-view mirror on his way to a yoga class on his lunch break, there are countless persons who use the same signs and symbols for wholly different reasons, often to great effect. Whereas the author of this article may not have “succeeded” in her quest for a more meaningful mindful life (whatever that might mean), the same practices have no doubt helped countless people overcome a host psychological and physical aliments. To note that this narrative stinks of the same snake-oil as other quick-fix self-help products is not to dismiss mindfulness in its entirety. It is merely to be critical of one of its current meanings.

Mindfulness has now taken on at least three different meanings: (1) some “traditional” Buddhist meaning, (2) a “legitimate” psychotherapeutic meaning, (3) and a quasi-New Age/self help meaning. Each of these meanings can be critiqued; each of these meanings has its own underlying ideological assumptions and agendas. And, obviously, they overlap. But being clear on what it is were are critiquing, and what we are not, provides us with a clear way forward.

Updates

A couple of quick professional updates, filed in the “self-promotion” category.

First, a big box of books landed on my desk today. After much hard work, Natalie Quli’s and my edited volume, Buddhism Beyond Borders, has been printed and is ready for purchase. Or for review copy request. Or for borrowing from your local library. It was a supreme joy to work with Dr. Quli who has a sharp intellect and keen eye for typos, two things I am deeply envious of.

Second, the Board of Trustees of the Institute of Buddhist Studies generously bestowed upon me an endowed chair, the Rev. Yoshitaka Tamai Professor Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Studies. Rev. Tamai was an influential minister at the Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple in Denver, Colorado, serving for half a century and deeply devoted to the spread of Buddhism in the United States. It’s an honor to hold a chair in his name. (It also means I may be traveling to Denver in the not too distant future. Something to look forward to.)

Lastly, a couple of weeks ago I finished a draft of the other book. Editing now, and I hope to be able to get the final draft completed and sent off to the press before the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. If all goes well, another box of books will land on my desk a year from now.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled internet.