In response to the question of whether mindfulness is a religion [“Events,” Winter 2003] and, therefore whether Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat for police officers and other civil servants violated the separation of church and state, I would start by pointing out that mindfulness is a spiritual practice, not a religion. Like most spiritual practices, however, it is inextricably intertwined with a religious tradition, in this case that of Vietnamese Zen Buddhism.
With all due respect to Thich Nhat Hanh (in whose tradition I practice) and his attempts to promote nonsectarian spiritual practice, I am wary of disconnecting spiritual practices from religious teachings. I fear that this could leave the practices watered down, as has happened to yoga, or practitioners without intellectual guidance when they hit a crisis in their practice. But I do not think this close link between mindfulness and Zen means that the retreat violated the separation of church and state—I think both the author, Mark Phillips, and Americans United for Separation Between Church and State misunderstand the original purpose of this separation, imagining it means that religion should have no role in public life.
The original intention behind the separation of church and state was not to exclude religion from public life but to keep the state from setting up one religion above all others—thus protecting both democracy and the independence, and therefore integrity, of all religious traditions. In this way, multiple religions can (and should) play an important role in public life, offering their wisdom in the difficult task of creating a more compassionate and just social order. I think Thich Nhat Hanh has something valuable to offer many police officers, tools that will allow them to do their work in a more compassionate, less destructive way. But other religions have equally valuable tools. Indeed, for many people, spiritual practices linked with other traditions, such as Christian contemplative prayer or Wiccan ritual, may be better suited to their temperament. I would say we need more retreats such as this, drawing on more traditions; by involving a multiplicity of religious traditions in public life, we can best support both the separation of church and state and a more compassionate, just society.
—Matthew Williams, Boston, Massachusetts
That's A Lot of Borscht!
I was disappointed by “Borscht Belt Buddhism” in your 50th anniversary issue. As a longtime resident of the Catskill Mountains, and as a longtime reader of Tricycle—since your first issue, in the fall of 1991—I am disappointed that you allowed the inaccurate use of the term “Borscht Belt” to describe the location of the six Zen centers! The author used the phrase as a general description for all of the Catskills, which it is not. “Borscht Belt” was derived from the venues for Yiddish humor at the summer resorts in Sullivan County in the southwestern Catskill Mountains. These famous hotels gave comedians like Jerry Lewis and Buddy Hackett their start. In fact, in books and online materials, the area is commonly referred to as “Sullivan County’s Borscht Belt.”
Only one of the dharma centers mentioned in the piece is actually in the Borscht Belt—Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-Ji, in Livingston Manor, New York, situated in northern Sullivan County. The Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York, is on the border of Ulster and Orange Counties, and it’s a toss of the coin as to whether one could say this is the Borscht Belt or not. The remaining four centers mentioned are grossly misplaced.
—Deborah Dobski, E-mail
Correction: The photographs for “Practical Pilgrim” in the Winter 2003 issue should have been credited to Barbara Biziou.
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Image 1: © Neal Crosbie
Image 2: © P.B. Law
Image 3: © Frank Olinsky