August 23, 2013

Wrong Mindfulness

An Interview with Hozan Alan Senauke

Hozan Alan Senauke is a Soto Zen priest, activist, and the former director of Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He is an advisor to the International Network of Engaged Buddhists and founder of the Clear View Project, which focuses on social change and relief efforts in Asia. He also happens to be an accomplished folk musician.

In March, Radio host John Malkin interviewed Senauke on his show “The Great Leap Forward” on Free Radio Santa Cruz. The two spoke about the confluence of Buddhism and social justice, Buddhist Anarchism, and where Engaged Buddhism stands today.


What is the interaction between practices like meditation and social change? When I began an activist path I did not see any interaction. I wasn’t practicing Buddhism then and I had pretty much turned away from Judaism, the religion I was born into. Judaism and Christianity have very strong social justice components that have always existed within them. But I was very assertively a secular person; I wasn’t interested in religion.

When I became interested in Buddhism there was not this thing that we would now call “Engaged Buddhism.” In Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh was creating something by this name. This was done by taking Buddhism out of the monastic life and temple life into the streets to help people.

Related to this, in the United States there was a key essay written by beat poet Gary Snyder that talked about what he was then calling Buddhist Anarchism. A lot of what Gary had to say right from the beginning had to do with a way of looking at Buddhism that remains completely relevant today. At that point I still didn‘t see the connection, but Gary had it really integrated.


In “Buddhist Anarchism” Snyder says, “The mercy of the West has been social revolution. The mercy of the East has been individual insight into the self/void. We need both.” I’ve studied anarchist literature to an extent. Robert Aitken really studied it very thoroughly and in fact gave his library of anarchist books to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship when I was there in the late 90s. He drew the idea of “building the new within the shell of the old” from the Wobblies [an international industrial labor union]. In a sense you can see this idea in the early Buddhist sangha, in the community. The Buddha drew models of self-organization, direct democracy, of collective and consensus decision-making, and he created a community that grew and grew in the course of his lifetime and afterwards. You could say that the early Buddhist sangha was deeply democratic. And it wasn’t a representative body. Each person had to take responsibility for him or herself, and they’d come to decisions collectively and collaboratively. I think there is some parallel there.


When you worked at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship you had a sign with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, “Mindfulness must be engaged.” Mindfulness has now been brought into many different realms of our culture, and that seems generally beneficial. But I recently saw an article about mindfulness being used by the US military. This seems like an odd combination. It is true that all Buddhism is engaged because the precepts and teachings are all about how we are all in relation to everyone and in relation to everything around us. That by definition is “engaged.”

When the Buddha was teaching in North India 2500 years ago, the reality of peoples lives was almost completely socially determined by gender, caste, occupation, and the tribe they were born into. Basically, where you were born was where you stayed, in a geographic as well as social sense. In that context, what the Buddha taught was something that could be seen as a kind of radical individualism. He taught that your actual position in the world and your value in it was not to be based on your birth but on your actions, and that you had to take responsibility as an individual for your actions. Fast-forward to what we have today in the West, a terribly individualist ideology. The greatest threat to Buddhism, or any progressive movement, is that it can be turned into a commodity that is sold back to you. We are constantly being sold this commodity of individualism. I believe that 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. Engaged Buddhism addresses exactly that intersection of our individual responsibility and individual involvement in the creation of systems of suffering.

The problem that you point out about mindfulness is important. I feel there is a risk of mindfulness being seen as a technology, presented as a technique, which is sold back to us. What I’m concerned about in terms of this increasingly popular approach is that it’s being psychologized and marketed.

Certainly a lot of it is very good. Mindfulness is now happening in schools and prisons, in settings where it is truly useful. But I worry about it being brought into a corporate context and a military context. In those contexts people are being helped to find ease and suffer less within systems that are causing suffering. Right Mindfulness would be looking at the actual function of that system as well as the freedom that an individual within that system feels. I don’t wish ill to people working in corporations or people in the military; everyone has the right to be at ease and to live without oppression. On the other hand, I think that an Engaged Buddhist perspective looks at the function of that system. That’s the larger, often neglected view of mindfulness.


When you look around at systems of suffering, what is most grabbing your attention for change? On the widest scale, we can recognize that we live in a system that wants to make the world safe for multinational corporations. I don’t know what the most effective way to engage with that system is, but we are right in the middle of it. And we are privileged by it. I spend time in other countries and I’m constantly brought face to face with my own privilege. It’s something I wrestle with. We all need to wrestle with this because it’s not sustainable. Multinational corporations are not creating a system of sustainability.

When I think of the Buddhist precepts, which are ethical precepts, they are all about relationships. I’ve boiled them down to one: vowing to live in a way that is not at the expense of other beings. In a sense it’s very grand and impossible, but it’s also a really powerful motivation.


John Malkin is the editor of Sounds of Freedom, a collection of interviews with musicians on social change and spirituality.

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workbc9's picture

Question:To Hozan, John, others
Is mindfulness a technology?
I think from your statements in the article you see it as such.
But you make a judgement and distinction that if its is used or plugged-in into a system which is "good" like Buddhist Peace Fellowship you are supporting it whereas you do not if applied to a "bad" institution like the military or corporations.
So if your a Buddhist and using the technology but not active in "social change", defined by the minds of that group, what are you? Good, bad, meaningless.

noradhussey's picture

Remember government and the military are not one and the same. The military serves at our governments request. Your representatives. The serviceman (interesting term don't you think) does not choose the war or the mission he or she is sent to serve. Our country's people who we elect are the ones that make those decisions. For most service men and women the reason for entering into this vocation comes from a sense of duty, service, many times sacrificing. Corporations interests and economics may be the real reason we go to war but these decisions are made through our political systems... don't blame it on the soldier, sailor, airmen or marine. Yes they are very large organizations and there certainly needs to be checks and balances. Those young folks that are out there are caring for one thing..thier sister or brother on either side of them, not those lofty goals that some politician has set forth. Initially they are there to serve their country but ultimately they are there as comrads attempting to keep one another safe even if it may require putting themselves at great risk.

jackelope65's picture

There is little doubt that the military has protected US citizens and others from those who wished to oppress the masses but a transition occurred with Vietnam,( Where I participated as a volunteer.) as well as subsequent wars where the government and the military deliberately fooled the public ( Saddam Hussein did not cause 9/11 nor did he possess weapons of mass destruction as demonstrated by the CIA ) and the purpose of the war was not for the public but to protect the resources of large corporations such as oil companies. Mindfulness of the facts should cause soldiers to question the validity and purpose of more recent wars as well as their own participation. My father had warned me about the truth of Vietnam but I needed the experience and time to meditate upon the facts. I also agree that present corporate goals will destroy this world as we know it with the possibility of cataclysmic changes that may already be too far gone to reverse. True mindfulness would also demonstrate that these corporations are driven by our own greed, attachment, and jealousy demonstrated by our insane consumerism. We must emulate the Buddha, give up excessive wealth, and live more simply.

currents's picture

The idea that the Buddha would have changed his teachings to be more socially explicit now is fascinating and the fate of that commodity of individualism can't be emphasized enough. There is a risk of all of Buddhism, with an emphasis even on sitting on your cushion, to be like a technology of the self (Foucault) so it is not only mindfulness that might be an issue. Yes, I know that mindfulness has become a fad and has reached into areas that are perhaps questionable, but such appropriations by secular entities are going to happen and are not necessarily harmful. It really depends on the actual use. In Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction many of the teachers are also Buddhists, but they make mindfulness a secular quality that perhaps deserves another name? To condemn the whole enterprise is to undermine something that has helped people with pain, stress, illness, and end of life. You can see some contempt when the word "psychologized" is used as a pejorative (and placed next to "market"). But stop and think for a minute. Since when is psychology a negative thing? And why would a discipline also devoted to the study of the mind and suffering not be welcomed if not expected to look into one that also takes this as an area of considerable interest? A desire for a certain kind of purity seems lurking behind this somewhat off attitude it seems as well as a mistaken notion of what psychology does and is about. There are Buddhists who are also therapists who also use mindfulness with veterans. Is this not also engaged Buddhism?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Shakyamuni's move from royal isolation to seeking the truth of life's suffering was a social revolution for the time. Buddhism teaches letting go of self...ishness. Mahayana was a movement to return to Shakyamuni's original motivation, that of the bodhisattva.

currents's picture

The interview makes a distinction that perhaps is more modern and specific to Western cultures between what is social and therefore systemic and what is individual. There are different notions of the "self" in collectivist societies. "Self" and "selfishness" are not the same and one doesn't imply the other, unless you bend the idea of selfishness to mean just having a sense of separateness. The teachings emphasize letting go of that separateness, not necessarily of the whole notion of the self. And other teaching in the precepts and paramitas teach about the suffering caused by our concept of selfishness. My point was not about any of these things. I merely echoed what was stated in the interview at first and then pointed out that psychology is a bit unfairly handled. In many schools of modern psychology, the notions of "relatedness" or "constructedness" are undermining previous notions of a stable self-enclosed entity that used to be considered the self. That turns out not to be accurate as far as the way humans develop. It is introduced as a norm later on, based on a fairly recent philosophical idea, the Cartesian "isolated mind." This of course is a fiction, but a powerful one that is reinforced constantly. And the market economy assists in the reinforcement. Buddhism addresses the non-self and this construction, but it also has a social or ethical set of beliefs, a path that I do see as potentially socially revolutionary, but you have to work, as the interview makes clear, to get to that intersection between the social and more internal workings of the mind. Perhaps the founding of the path, the turning of the wheel, was a social revolution of sorts, but leaving the palace to seek enlightenment I don't think can be said to be a social revolution. It contains a critique, but it was also a traditional path to take. So that in itself a revolution does not make.

melcher's picture

Most of the prejudice against the military expressed in preceding posts is primarily class-based. As an intellectual playground for the primarily well-off, highly educated, privileged and white middle-classes who have never faced military service the prejudice is understandable. After all, we get to practice in relative safety while sending a very small cohort of our fellow citizens off to fight our country's battles and pay the blood price for our wealth and our freedoms. Some of us, sensing the contradictions, uncomfortable with the consequences, transfer our alienation to a hatred and distrust of government. Most of this knee-jerk reaction to institutions we've come to fear and distrust arises out of our own alienation from people who, due to social, economic or cultural factors are faced with a different set of choices than we are.

Not to say that institutions like the government or military are exemplary practitioners of virtue, but we need to remember that they are made up of our fellow human beings and not faceless entities. In the intricately woven web of our society we must remember our own connections and complicity with the actions taken and the benefits we gain.

sallyotter's picture

I was kind of horrified when i first heard about the military teaching mindfulness. But then I thought, "Maybe it will backfire! Maybe learning mindfulness will change how the young recruits see everything?" Wouldn't that be ironic?

smalasky's picture

The problem with the government vs multimational corporation discussion is that we continue to see them as separate entities. In fact, they have now become one. The mantra of the marketplace defines our Western culture. It is my hope that we can resist the idea that mindfulness is simply another commodity mindlessly sold and purchased by people who have forgotten the essential truth of all religions and people of good will -- don't do to others what you would not want done to you. All the rest is commentary.

Hktony's picture

How can there be buddhist mindfulness in the military ? Buddhist mindfulness teaches clear comprehension which eliminates greed hatred and delusion. If they practice mindfulness I is not based on the dhamma but on clear awareness of a situation just like a robber would need clear comprehension of his stealing. This clarity does not help eliminate the three bad roots but strengthens them.

Will.Rowe's picture

When I hear or read someone voicing fears or conspiracies of Multinational corporations, I am often at a loss at this seeing a tree while ignoring the forest. We live in a country where the government (NSA) has been exposed for recording our phone calls—the time, duration, and parties involved; and where the government collects emails from US citizens that are “incidental” and places them into Metadata bases. Despite the court overseeing them (FISC) informing the NSA of the violation of the Fourth Amendment (no warrants issued) and acknowledgement by Director of National Intelligence Clapper of this, President Obama’s administration still defends this, and this spying on us continues.

Facial recognition technology for crowds is getting very close to becoming a reality, within five years. No doubt our government will be monitoring our movement here also. The widespread IRS targeting of groups for political purposes continues.

These are not multinational corporations; this is our federal government monitoring our movements. Corporations cannot tax you, send you to war, search your residence, imprison you, or even execute you. Only government can do this. History has proven that governments, unchecked, will do this: 100 million dead by communists and the millions dead by the National Socialist Party of Germany.

Do not speak to me of fear of corporations; my fear is a reasonable one: fear of a powerful government that is becoming more totalitarian--through technology and desire to control—than even Stalin or Mao could have envisioned. “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” George Washinton.

mlfinkel's picture

Nicely said. And the way to engage with corporations that we don't like is to quit buying their stuff. Drop by drop we will empty their bucket.

Halflotus's picture

I would say that most corporations wield levels of inappropriate power actually THROUGH government.

A close look reveals that the FDA is controlled by Big Agra, the FCC is controlled by big-media, and the Congress is controlled by every special interest under the sun, most notably banks and the military industrial complex.

So the root of the inappropriate use of power actually originates from government. The left ignores the danger of government power, the right gives corporations a pass, meanwhile the ruling class has combined the corporate and government power into a system which serves special interests, rather than public interest and individual liberty.

It is naive to wish for a very powerful government and expect it to do more good than evil. Human history shows quite clearly that power corrupts even the noblest intentions, and a powerful government is a very very dangerous thing indeed. Which is why the US Founding Fathers so wisely engaged in LIMITED government power, as they lived to see the horrors of unchecked power in human hands.

Hktony's picture

Very well put, yet people continent to blame corporations. We have created PC educational and political mindset that has blinded people to the terror that govts can create.

maduryee's picture

i think, though, the point is not about the value of easing individual pain, in the military or otherwise, which no one would de-value. As I understand what Alan is saying, we could use a focus as well on the awareness of the impact of the structures and organizations of which we are a part, as part of our mindfulness work. This is the Bradley Manning dilemma, perhaps, among others. In the '70's the metaphor was comparing the work of pulling drowning people out of the river, with the work of stopping the forces upstream that were pushing them in the river in the first place. Both are important.
Mary Duryee, Ph.D.

drleroi's picture

The path of the warrior has long been a vehicle for mindfullness, as in Don Juan, Trungpa, and many martial arts discipline. Native american cultures often emphasize this. Ideally, we would live in a world with no more war, no more soldiers, etc. I think I would prefer that in the meantime, our soldiers be a little more mindful. Perhaps we would at least have less civilian deaths, rapes, massacres, etc.

spirasol's picture

It is commendable the work you do with the knotted up warriors. I sincerely hope you succeed. However, as someone mentioned above, is there nothing can be done up river? What impact and would it even be allowed if mindfulness became a part of basic training. Seems like it would be a highly unattractive ballet or a very diluted spaghetti western.

spirasol's picture

Soldiers are usually young and they are taught to fight an enemy that is elevated to be horrid. Only coming home, as you see with the record number of suicides do they become mindful but now not able to race what they have done to another human being.
It has been said that when warriors are sent to fight noble wars they are in some way protected and are wounded and die with honor, but when sent to war to do battle for something other than the professed reason, the warrior discovers it, and loses his armor in some way, becoming exposed and incredibly vulnerable.
Would it be wonderful if the warriors were sent for peace? And no, I can't imagine mindfulness being used for anything but as a cardboard shield. I don't know, maybe they need to stay asleep, let their conscience awakens and, like Bradley Manning, they will be warehoused for the greater part of their life.

Lynette Monteiro's picture

Yet again with the military and mindfulness. I would truly appreciate that this particular scapegoat is no longer flogged especially when there is so much ignorance about the actual use of mindfulness interventions with the military (and in other corporations). There is no evidence of the use of mindfulness to create super-soldiers or more corporate sheep. Our work with the military has been to ease the suffering from PTSD, OSIs (Occupational Stress Injuries), and other significant moral wounds experienced by men and women who did what they could with the life they have. Trying to get these program started in the military is extremely difficult and having news sources and credible teachers cry wolf does not help. Please, please. Do your homework.

Lynette Monteiro, PhD, C.Psych.
Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic
Ottawa ON

Ceri S's picture

Dear Sangha Arana

I am presently studying for an MSc in Mindfulness Based Approaches at Exeter University in the UK - I am writing an essay at the moment, examining issues around applications of mindfulness in contraversial settings, and I would love to be able to read your article - you have only private permissions on it - could you allow me to open the link?
Thanks for your help.
Warm wishes, Ceri Seel

Rob_'s picture

There was no mention of super soldiers or corporate sheep. I also see no one "crying wolf". Manufacturing a conflict from your own prejudices is not helpful. How about you do your homework by reading what is said and than post comments toward this content? What a novel idea.

celticpassage's picture

Shaolin monks come to mind as do Samurai and the founder of Aikido Morihei Ueshiba and even Bruce Lee.

Dominic Gomez's picture

As long as mindful militarism does not equate with "Onward, Christian soldiers! Marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before" we should be OK.

workbc9's picture

I think that is what Hozan is advocating!
If you used mindfulness for "social change" it's good but if for corporations or military it's bad.
"Onward Buddhist/Mindful soldiers. marching to social change, with the flowery robes, mandalas, and prayer beads going on before"

Dominic Gomez's picture

workbc9: Buddhism's concern is the creation of a peaceful society based on individual happiness. My observation is that "mindfulness" per se is severely handicapped in that respect. The military, corporations and organizations for social change are only as effective as what they can get out of their people, whether doing mindfulness or not.