The mindfulness crisis and the end of Consensus Buddhism

Secular “mindfulness” courses, promoted as stress-reduction treatments, have become more popular than Buddhism. A meditation method based on modern vipassana is their core.

Many Buddhists have strong mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s great that so many more people are experiencing the benefits of Buddhist-style meditation. On the other hand, “mindfulness” seems like weaksauce kitsch; it’s missing most of what’s important about Buddhism. There’s a worry that if Buddhism is “unbundled,” with its most attractive part available separately, it will disintegrate,1 and critical aspects of the whole will be lost. And isn’t the whole greater than the sum of its parts?

But… what is the important rest of Buddhism?

That’s a genuinely difficult, important question. I wrote about it in a post three years ago that foreshadows this one.

As I wrote that, Consensus Buddhism was organizing a political consensus that ethics is what makes it different from, and better than, secular mindfulness.2 They promoted and argued this in dozens of blog posts, mainstream media op-ed pieces, and pseudo-academic journals.3

In my 2012 post, I asked:

Is there any significant point on which American “Buddhist ethics” and mainstream American secular liberal ethics disagree?

My last several posts have explained why the answer is no. “Buddhist ethics” has nothing to do with Buddhism; it just is mainstream American leftist ethics. People who want that can get it elsewhere with less hassle, just as people who want meditation can get it elsewhere with less hassle.

So if Buddhism = mindfulness + ethics, there’s nothing left of Buddhism. It’s over.

What is the argument?

The organized Consensus response implied that secular mindfulness is not just different from Buddhism, but somehow wrong. However, few (if any) of their articles said so explicitly; much less did they explain why. This makes it difficult to understand what they think the problem is. I have tried hard to steelman the argument, but have failed so far.

A coherent argument might go:

Teaching mindfulness meditation without ethics will have such-and-such a bad outcome. Therefore, you shouldn’t do it. To prevent people doing it, we should take such-and-such an action.

But no one said that; instead they expressed vague “concern” about “appropriateness.”

Overall, the response consisted of agonized emoting, without any clear logic or conclusions. There is no “therefore” anywhere, and no statement of what should be done. Some of the most-cited essays appear to contradict themselves frequently, sometimes even within a single sentence:

This is why Buddhists differentiate between Right Mindfulness and Wrong Mindfulness. The distinction is not moralistic: the issue is whether the quality of awareness is characterized by wholesome intentions and positive mental qualities that lead to human flourishing and optimal well-being for others as well as oneself.4

(“Wholesome intentions for the well-being of others” seem an unambiguously moral issue.)

The primary “concern” about “appropriateness” is the propriety of teaching mindfulness in corporations and the military. Here one might expect an argument like:

Teaching mindfulness without ethics in the military is wrong because what soldiers do is kill, which is contrary to Buddhist ethics, and mindfulness might make them more effective at killing. To prevent this, we should organize a political coalition to try to shame the US military into stopping. This will fail, obviously, but sometimes you have to speak out against evil anyway.

Instead, Ronald Purser’s “The Militarization of Mindfulness,” which is as strong a denunciation as I could find, concludes:

the contemplative community needs to reflect on whether military adaptations of [mindfulness] are in accordance with the dharma. And if they are not, both the Western Buddhist sangha and leaders in the [secular mindfulness] community need to confront the thorny ethical dilemmas with courage and honesty.

The recommendation is to “reflect” and to “confront ethical dilemmas,” not to actually do anything. In fact, none of the pieces I read recommended actually doing anything.

This is the pattern of Protestant-derived ethical practice. The two steps are (1) soul searching, to locate sin within yourself, and (2) struggling to install the correct moral attitude. This mentalist version of ethics is all in your head; external action is not important.

What’s ethics got to do with it?

Many secular mindfulness teachers have responded to the critique. Some5 made what I consider the correct dismissal:

Ethics is not our business! It has no more to do with meditation than with carpentry. Occasionally, ethical issues do arise in carpentry, and possibly carpentry training should include a little teaching on that. Ditto mindfulness.

Most,6 however, have taken a defensive line:

You don’t understand—we do teach ethics, but covertly. In fact, we teach the whole of Buddhism, but without the jargon and mythology, which most of our students would reject.

Here the Consensus side has one, and possibly two, valid points. First, teaching ethics covertly seems unethical; and it seems especially unethical if it’s supposedly a specific religious system of ethics being taught covertly in secular institutions. Purser points out prominent MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) teachers describing it as totally secular when speaking to non-Buddhists, but as including the whole of Buddhism when talking to Buddhists.

Second, the critics point out that mindfulness meditation alone, even including its supposed implicit ethics, is unlikely to bring an end to capitalism and the military.7 It might not even significantly transform them! One can only agree. If any secularists say it will, I am reasonably confident they are mistaken.8

But what’s the point of this? That mindfulness instructors should tell soldiers that they will certainly go to hell if they kill anyone? That they should recite the litany of evil actions of Google when they teach there? No one has suggested such a thing. Would the military or Google allow that? No. Would it be effective if they did? No.

The idea that meditation plus ritual invocations of sacred leftist values would end or transform capitalism and war seems just as laughable as the idea that meditation alone could. Railing about corporate evil always scores you virtue points, and Buddhist critics recite long lists of specific corporate and military wrong-doings. This seems meant to underline that those people are really, really bad, as if we didn’t know they thought that. But everyone does know.

I want to find a coherent argument, but (as in the whole debate) the thinking appears associationistic. It operates at the level of sympathetic magic. Corporations and the military are ritually impure. We Buddhists have been contaminated by their impurity, transmitted to us by the secularists, so to purify ourselves we must perform public rituals of repentance. The secularists seem to fail to realize how impure the demonic institutions are, so we’re reminding them forcefully. If they still refuse to take part in the purification ritual, they must be cast out as witches lest they continue to channel impurity to Buddhists.

The debate is confusing partly because the two sides have almost identical worldviews. It’s a hairsplitting theological dispute between one sect and a recent schismatic offshoot. In fact, most of secularists wear two hats, and are also Consensus Buddhists. So it’s as much an internal debate as a schism.

Which ethics?

The Buddhist side of the debate always mentions that the tradition insisted on the importance of learning meditation only with, or even after, extensive training in ethics. This is essentially false. The word translated as “ethics” is sila, which in the meditative context meant specifically “renunciative discipline.” Vipassana was seen as the final phase of a long renunciative path. The absolute minimum sila was the Eight Precepts, which include complete celibacy. Trying to meditate if you had any lustful feelings would be a pointless failure. Complete celibacy was required even in some modern lay meditation systems the Consensus founders learned in Asia in the 1970s.

Besides that, few if any Consensus Buddhist leaders maintain even the Five Precepts. Whatever sort of ethics they are talking about, it has nothing to do with traditional Buddhism.

It’s interesting that, although they are criticizing the secularists, they do not allege any specific ethical lapses by them, at all. All of the specific ethical criticisms are of corporations and the military. They do not say that “consorting with demons is sinful,” but that seems to be the implicit form of the argument.

The military kills people, which does violate the First Precept. Otherwise, however, the “ethical” criticisms concern issues of social justice. The boundary between ethics and politics is nebulous; but social justice is usually considered a political matter, not an ethical one. Nevertheless… as Hozan Alan Senauke suggested in an interview on “Wrong Mindfulness,”

if the Buddha were teaching today he would be teaching a more explicitly social doctrine. He would recognize that we have created systems and structures of suffering and that the suffering is not just about individuals experiencing racism, sexism, and various kinds of oppression; what we have are structures of suffering that also have to be addressed.

This is a fine example of FTFY Buddhist ethics.

Several authors go further, and claim that meditation always was rooted in social justice. For instance, Purser and Loy:

Decontextualizing mindfulness from… its foundation in social ethics amounts to a Faustian bargain.9

And here’s Funie Hsu of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship:

We must ask with pressing compassion, “What of the central tenet of mindfulness—social justice—in this [secularized] curriculum?”

This is nonsense, of course. There’s no social justice in traditional Buddhism. That was added only in the early 20th century, in Chinese Humanistic Buddhism, which openly took its social concern from Christianity because there was none in Buddhism.

Hsu’s article makes me wonder whether the central complaint is “everyone must publicly swear allegiance to a leftist conception of social justice, and the secularists are trying to be closeted about it.”

No one needs these morality lectures, anyway

Who could learn what, from the inclusion of “Buddhist ethics” in mindfulness courses?

Christopher Titmuss:

I have some concern about these courses, which at the present time do not include any exploration into the main sources of major stress like war, environmental degradation, or tensions that exist between people and nation states.

War, environment degradation, and “tensions between people and nation states” are bad. This will not come as news to any Western adult. Nor does it have any practical relevance to the issues people come to mindfulness courses for.10 Presumably the intention, instead, is Victorian “moral improvement”: to induce everyone to endorse a stance of pious horror at the world’s ills.

War, environment degradation, and “tensions between people and nation states” are also topics about which traditional Buddhism has little to say, and sometimes says the opposite of what Titmuss believes. Consensus Buddhism, meanwhile, has nothing distinctive to say about these issues. You can get all the same stuff from Rachel Maddow, with better jokes, sharper analysis, and less jargon.

Today’s children spend their days awash in moral instruction to an extent unprecedented even at the height of the Victorian era: children’s television shows preach incessantly on subjects ranging from recycling to racism; teachers are asked to give homilies as well as instruction, on everything from drugs to civility.11

Any 12-year-old who has grown up in a leftish household can explain the horror of discrimination, and how greedy global corporations exploit workers, ruin the environment, and promote wars for profit. Nevertheless, Grandad Buddhist wants to lecture Google employees about how racism, sexism, and capitalism are bad, OK? Wow, thanks Gramps, that’s shocking news!

These were important insights in 1975, but leftist ideology has forty years of further development: layers and layers of stuff on top of the old New Left concepts every kid knows. Sexism is bad, but what is sexism? Feminism split into sex-positive and sex-negative wings all the way back in the 1980s, and has never healed the schism. They disagree fiercely about serious ethical questions. Which side does “Buddhist ethics” support, and why? I don’t think you’ll get an answer to that. Its “sexual ethics” are non-existent: “we undertake to be mindful about how we use our sexuality” is about the extent of it. Implicitly, Consensus Buddhism’s position is just “obey local cultural conventions of sexual morality.” When those are in dispute, all Buddhism can do is look awkward and say “compassion” a lot.

Hip social justice warriors are now fighting the TERF Wars and #Gamergate. You need to have swallowed gobs of poststructuralist queer theory to make sense of TERFs; has Buddhism got anything to say about that? (No.) #Gamergate adds an extra level of meta to itself every couple months. Last I checked, it’s about whether people are lying about whether or not it is about the fact that it used to be a disagreement about what the conflict was previously about. Before it got incomprehensibly self-referential, it may—or may not—have had something to do with video games. Has Buddhism got anything to say about that? (No.)

Consensus Buddhists can’t actually believe anyone would learn anything from sermons on “Buddhist ethics.” So why do they want every meditation instructor to preach it?

Some people like hearing familiar moral platitudes, as reassurance that they are good people. This desire is probably a common, compassionate reason Buddhist teachers repeat them. It doesn’t explain why Buddhists would want to force them down the throats of people who disagree.

What is the motivation?

Anthropologists make a useful distinction between “emic” and “etic” descriptions of native behavior. Emic analysis tries to get inside the natives’ heads, to figure out what they think their actions mean. Clearly, I have failed at that.

Etic analysis stands outside the culture, ignores the natives’ opinions, and tries to understand what they are up to in terms of general patterns of human behavior. I will attempt etic explanation in terms of:

I suspect all these do motivate the anti-secularist critique to some extent.

Sacredness protection

All human societies band together to protect, at any cost, whatever they hold sacred, against defilement by barbarians. The holy essence of Buddhism must be defended against appropriation and desecration.

In this dispute, the Consensus was cast as “the traditionalists” against “contemporary mindfulness.”12 This is highly ironic, considering that only a decade ago, the Consensus was “modern Buddhism,” and “the traditionalists” were advocates of mid-20th-century Westernized Asian export Buddhism. That, in turn, was “modern Buddhism,” as contrasted with “traditional Buddhism,” which—although it predated Western influence—was itself only a few centuries old. Each of these layers deliberately obscured the previous one. Each “tradition” fought to preserve its sacredness against the successive waves of barbarian invaders—unsuccessfully.

MBSR as “stealth Buddhism” is a more-Consensus-y version of Consensus Buddhism. It takes one step further the Consensus program of stripping anything un-American out of Buddhism.

But what was lost? Not ethics; there is no “Buddhist ethics,” and MBSR promotes, covertly, the same American leftish morality Consensus Buddhism did overtly.

All that MBSR removed—its designers are explicit about this—was brand identification. The word “Buddhism” is gone, along with the few dozen Pali and Sanskrit terms the Consensus retained. That’s all.

The Consensus critique was incoherent because there was already nothing left to protect. Their writing was bewildered because they were casting around looking for a holy essence, and they couldn’t find anything. Consensus Buddhism had already thrown it away, and forgot it had done so.

I sympathize. I too feel called to protect the sacredness of Buddhism, and I have my own reservations about secular mindfulness. I do worry that successive modernizations risk permanently obscuring what is most valuable in Buddhism. It is not that earlier versions are necessarily better overall, but that they contain particular resources—principles and practices—which obscurations make unavailable.

However, the holy essence I want to preserve was already thoroughly stomped on by the Consensus itself, and buried under a pile of muck.

The formula “Buddhism = meditation + ethics” has obscured, for Westerners, almost all of Buddhism. “Buddhism = mindfulness + branding” does no worse.


Partly the dispute was just a turf war. In a cynical interpretation: if meditation is separated out from Buddhism, we’ll have nothing left to sell.

Purser writes:

Contemporary mindfulness teachers are fond of saying that traditional Buddhists “don’t own mindfulness” (Goldstein 2013) or as Monteiro et al. (2015, p. 7) noted, “whether Buddhism has sole propriety rights to the concept of mindfulness and its dissemination.”

Consensus Buddhism was not able to enforce its property rights. It couldn’t; any such project is obviously doomed. The Consensus Buddhists can try to make “contemporary” teachers feel bad, but mindfulness meditation has escaped into the wild; it’s way too late to hold onto it. The horse has bolted, found a home in lush mountain fields, romanced a pretty mare, and raised a family of fine foals. And the barn door is still ajar.

So there is a fallback position:

However, the dispute here, as Shonin et al. (2013) showed, is not one of intellectual property but of truth in advertising. Instrumental and de-ethicized forms of mindfulness might be better represented by shedding the term mindfulness altogether and relabeling their programs as some form of attentional control training.

I.e., we should be allowed to keep our brand name, at least; give it back! (Despite the fact that “mindfulness” is a dubious translation of sati.)

The cynical interpretation would be plausible, except that “mindfulness” teachers get paid a lot better than “Buddhism” teachers.13 And whereas “Buddhist teacher” once had some prestige value, it’s now a lower-class service job. Some individual teachers have rebranded themselves as mindfulness instructors, for better pay and respect. Why not all?

Tribal loyalty signaling

Saying “capitalism is bad!” is always worth a few points—it’s outgroup-punishing—but wins way more points if you invent a new reason capitalism is bad. “Capitalism is bad because it teaches meditation!” was novel, and the first dozen people to say it in print got a status boost.

Relative virtue signaling

“You people are collaborating with the enemy tribe!” is a strong argument that our clan is holier than your clan.

The contemplative community needs to reflect on whether military adaptations of [mindfulness] are in accordance with the dharma. And if they are not, both the Western Buddhist sangha and leaders in the [secular mindfulness] community need to confront the thorny ethical dilemmas with courage and honesty

suggests a Maoist struggle session in which Consensus Buddhists could verbally abuse and humiliate the secularists for ideological impurity. Which is what they seemed to want to do. The defensive “We do too teach ethics!” reaction from some secularists suggests it worked, at least a bit.

Badge policing

I suspect a major motivation was exclusionary. (See my earlier post on Consensus Buddhism’s deliberate exclusion of various groups.)

The hope was to keep meditation out of reach of bad people, such as soldiers, business executives, and (shudder) Republicans.14 If Republicans are allowed to meditate, meditating no longer proves you hate the military, capitalism, and (shudder) Republicans. It no longer proves you are a good person. It no longer proves your loyalty to the leftist tribe.

The Consensus could police the badge by making sure meditation was always taught along with great dollops of “Buddhist ethics” (i.e. leftist tribal posturing, including frequent denunciations of militarism, capitalism, and sexism). That drove the bad people away.

But once the “ethics” was allowed to be implicit, some Republicans didn’t notice it.

And that was the end.

The end

Consensus Buddhism’s attempt to save itself from the barbarian horde came too late. It failed.

Consensus Buddhism is over. Over as a hegemonic political force: it could not prevent a major schism, in which the schismatics absconded with the sacred treasure.

Consensus Buddhism will, I hope, continue to benefit those whom it benefits; but it can no longer stand in the way of alternatives.

  1. The shattered Buddha statue in this site’s header image is a reference to that. 
  2. More traditional Buddhists have a different response, that Buddhism is about enlightenment, the total and permanent end of all suffering, next to which stress reduction is trivial. This is true to tradition; but not, in my opinion, realistic. However, it does give a consequential answer to “what do you have to offer that secular mindfulness doesn’t,” and so should be taken seriously. 
  3. I have read at least a couple dozen of the articles most often cited in the debate. I did not find that enjoyable, and can’t recommend that you follow my example. For a lengthy (but partisan) review article with numerous citations, see Ronald Purser’s “Clearing the Muddled Path of Traditional and Contemporary Mindfulness: a Response to Monteiro, Musten, and Compson.” 
  4. From Ron Purser and David Loy’s “Beyond McMindfulness,” which is the central text for the movement. 
  5. Papers by Lindahl and Davis, for example, take approximately this line. See also Payne’s “What’s Ethics Got to Do with It? ” for an interesting outsider view. 
  6. The most-cited paper taking this general line is “ Traditional and Contemporary Mindfulness: Finding the Middle Path inthe Tangle of Concerns” by Monteiro et al. The last two paragraphs of Seth Segall’s “In Defense of Mindfulness” are a particularly clear and concise statement. 
  7. Frequently-cited arguments to this effect are due to Kevin Healy and Christopher Titmuss. See also Purser’s long review, which devotes several pages to the topic, and his recent “Corporate mindfulness is bullsh*t: Zen or no Zen, you’re working harder and being paid less.” 
  8. I have not found any clear-cut instances of secularists making such claims, but have not made greatly strenuous efforts to locate them. 
  9. Actually, if Purser and Loy understood that mindfulness meditation was invented in the 20th century, by people who were promoting a modern social agenda—albeit not the same one Consensus Buddhism has—it would be quite true that it has a foundation in social ethics. But generally Consensus Buddhist marketing promotes “the ancient tradition of vipassana as taught by The Buddha Himself,” so that’s probably not what they meant. 
  10. The political wing of Consensus Buddhism argues that individual suffering largely reflects structural social injustices. To whatever extent this is true, I don’t see how it could be helpful to preach it in an eight-week meditation course. 
  11. David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise
  12. For example by Monteiro et al. 
  13. “Mindfulness” teachers are better paid than “Buddhism” teachers, even though most Buddhist teachers are enormously better trained and more knowledgeable about meditation. I think this should be a major issue for all Western Buddhists—students as well as teachers. I am resisting writing more about it. 
  14. For the record, I am not a Republican, nor any other species of rightist. (I am also not a leftist of any sort, nor a centrist.)