This weekend I had an interesting email exchange with a person who identifies as a “secular Buddhist”, which seems like a redundant term, because in my life practicing Buddhism has never included religiosity of any kind. None of my teachers have ever asked me to believe anything. Instead I have always been encouraged to investigate and see for myself through contemplative research and textual study. This person is also an MBSR teacher and implied that MBSR is a form of secular Buddhism. Below are a sampling of my comments on that topic.
MBSR is a clinical intervention targeted at shifting symptoms and/or perception of symptoms of stress and physical pain. That is what I call relief from symptomatic suffering. The Buddhist teachings and Buddhist psychology are specific methodologies for awakening out of ignorance through direct recognition of emptiness, not-self. It would not matter how long an MBSR class lasted. There would never be any instruction in ethical conduct, teachings on emptiness or the nature of mind, or any mention of “the deathless”, the unconditioned. The idea that any MBI delivers this profound knowledge without mentioning it directly is preposterous and yet this is what Jon Kabat-Zinn and others have been claiming in scholarly articles since 2003. Jon goes so far to say that MBSR teaches the Buddhadharma… Only the Buddhadharma teaches Buddhadharma.
Buddhist philosophy of mind is very complex and profound and mindfulness is not the core of the Buddhist teachings. Mindfulness is merely a tool for recognizing emptiness (Mahāyāna), the deathless (Theravada), the clear light nature of mind (Vajrayāna)… but emptiness must be pointed to in order to recognize it.
The concept of liberation in Western Buddhism has been skewed by our culture’s attachment to self-entitlement, self-cherishing, and demands for individual comfort, security and continual pleasure. This is why liberation from suffering in the West is equated with less negative thoughts. Honestly, that is not the liberation of mind the Buddha was offering.
This is precisely why I authored a textbook on Buddhist psychology for mental health clinicians. One that teaches the actual dharma, with no compromises and detailed instructions on how to deliver interventions in the therapy room for awakening out of the suffering of ignorance, rather than just symptom reduction or achieving greater levels of conditioned happiness.
And I am not so keen on the idea of a “mindfulness movement”. Heroin addicts are very mindful when they prepare their kit and shoot up. Thieves are very mindful when they engage in robbery. The bulk of the Buddha’s teachings are on ethical conduct and philosophy of mind. Not on mindfulness meditation. And the meditation practices were not designed to make the practitioner feel good. The extreme result of this wrong view of liberation is McMindfulness—the mass marketing of mindfulness as a cure-all for everything or a path to greater happiness, wealth and security.
The Buddha complains of back pain and other physical maladies after his enlightenment. He was human being with a human body. Enlightenment does not mean the end of physical pain. It means recognizing the empty nature of all phenomena including the body, which dissolves any self-fixated afflictive mentation about phenomena. There is nothing to cling to… including the idea that the body must be free of disease and decay and death.
Human ignorance is primordial and deeply etched in our genetic code. Awakening to primordial wisdom takes commitment, study and practice.