September 07, 2012

Buddha Buzz: Buddhist News from Around the World, Week of September 3

Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

These days when I read about Buddhism in the mainstream media—heck, when I read about Buddhism in the Buddhist media—it's more like, mindfulness, mindfulness, everywhere, and not a drop of dharma.

It's not that I have anything against mindfulness. It's just that I can't jump on the mindfulness craze bandwagon because every time I read an article about so-called "mindfulness" I'm reminded of a visit that Thai forest monk and Pali expert Thanissaro Bhikkhu paid to the Tricycle offices a few months ago. While he was here, I asked him what Buddhist concept he thinks Western Buddhists most commonly misunderstand. He responded, "mindfulness." Oof. We are in trouble.

The prolific Pali translator covers the topic in detail in his new book Right Mindfulness, which was just released on Access to Insight (as always, the book is free to download). Here's a juicy excerpt:

For the past several decades, a growing flood of books, articles, and teachings has advanced two theories about the practice of mindfulness (sati). The first is that the Buddha employed the term mindfulness to mean bare attention: a state of pure receptivity—non-reactive, non-judging, non-interfering—toward physical and mental phenomena as they make contact at the six senses. The second theory is that the cultivation of bare attention can, on its own, bring about the goal of Buddhist practice: freedom from suffering and stress. In the past few years, this flood of literature has reached the stage where even in non-Buddhist circles these theories have become the common, unquestioned interpretation of what mindfulness is and how it’s best developed.

The premise of this book is that these two theories are highly questionable and—for anyone hoping to realize the end of suffering—seriously misleading. At best, they present a small part of the path as the whole of the practice; at worst, they discredit many of the skills needed on the path and misrepresent what it actually means to taste awakening.

The main aim of this book is to show that the practice of mindfulness is most fruitful when informed by the Buddha’s own definition of right mindfulness and his explanations of its role on the path. As he defined the term, right mindfulness (samma-sati) is not bare attention. Instead, it’s a faculty of active memory, adept at calling to mind and keeping in mind instructions and intentions that will be useful on the path. Its role is to draw on right view and to work proactively in supervising the other factors of the path to give rise to right concentration, and in using right concentration as a basis for total release.

Early this week Smithsonian magazine published a lengthy article about Buddhism, Burma, and Aung San Suu Kyi. The piece ends with the line, "Even in the darkest corners of the regime’s gulag, Buddhism served as a source of light." The Smithsonian specializes in history, so perhaps it's not fair to expect them to include current events in their "Buddhism in Burma" sum-up, but it should be said that Buddhists haven't exactly been a "source of light" in Burma recently. Just last weekend, Burmese Buddhist monks staged a rally in support of the expulsion of the Rohingya Muslim minority:

Burma Monk Rally

In our last Buddha Buzz item for this week, yesterday The Atlantic posted an interesting interview with David Foster Wallace's biographer, D.T. Max. If the title doesn't pique your interest enough—"David Foster Wallace: Genius, Fabulist, Would-Be Murderer"—there's also some small mentions of Buddhism in it. (Apparently, Wallace was a bit of a Buddhist.)


Image: From Voice of America.

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davidscottlewis's picture

I appreciate the point that "... it should be said that Buddhists haven't exactly been a "source of light" in Burma recently. Just last weekend, Burmese Buddhist monks staged a rally in support of the expulsion of the Rohingya Muslim minority ..."

The Independent (London; U.K. national daily) recently published a good piece on these acts of darkness: .

Whether right or wrong, I hold monks, be they Buddhist or Christian, to a higher standard -- and these Burmese monks are nothing short of a disgrace. I realize that there are far fewer Catholic Christian, Orthodox Christian or Anglican monks than there are Buddhist monks, but why do Christian monks seem to be a lot better behaved? Part of the explanation might rest with the proposition that Christian monks, in general, are much better educated than Buddhist monks. But I suspect the problem is much deeper and might lie with the notion that many Buddhist monks view themselves as an ethnicity rather than as part of a religious order per se. Yet, this is hardly an excuse for their deplorable behavior.

Regarding David Foster Wallace, seems as if neither Buddhism nor Christianity was "good enough" for him. People needing psychiatric help need to get psychiatric help. Religious practices can certainly -- and often do -- help many, but when there's a chemical imbalance in one's brain, not addressing the issue is akin to playing Russian Roulette, perhaps quite literally (in some cases).

aewhitehouse's picture


It seems that political circumstances have changed Buddhists and Buddhism around the world. It seems difficult to maintain practice in light of political tumult in different regions. Let's hope that Burma stablizes and the monks can focus again on reality.


Dominic Gomez's picture

Mindfulness is one of those notions that gets lost in translation. In the '60's it was nirvana. Everyone had to be there (usually with the help of some controlled substance) or be square. Then came "The Zen of (fill in the blank)". But that's been the case with folks since Day 1 nearly 3,000 years ago in what is now Nepal. Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings were new and revolutionary to people of his time and place as well.

ldsachter's picture

Though it’s certainly true that Mindfulness practices have benefited many people, I think it would be unfortunate to see them as 'the' central Buddhist practice. My experience as a Zen teacher has been that they are profoundly helpful on many levels, but limited in others.

You can find an article I’ve written about this subject at: In it I've tried to address some of the differences between dual and non-dual practices, and how these various practices actually relate to a person’s aspirations. A more in-depth discussion, particularly regarding the role of the unconscious in dharma practice, can be found at: www.PsychoDynamicZen.Org.

aewhitehouse's picture

Hi Dominic,

Mindfulness is but one spoke in the eightfold path while we are caught in Samsara. I wish focus would be placed evenly on the entire path, but while Mindfulness is the focus du jour I am enjoying the teachings nonetheless.


Dominic Gomez's picture

I imagine for people today there just isn't enough time or patience to do all 8 disciplines.