Showing posts with label Mindfulness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mindfulness. Show all posts

28 August 2015

Having Seen a Form with the Eye...

If the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15) represents the epitome of early Buddhist metaphysics, then what would its counterpart be in terms of practice? After all it is one thing to accurately define the terms of Buddhist practice, to make it clear that we are examining experience and that we are not speculating on the nature of reality, that the proper domain of application of Buddhist thought and training is the world of experience. Most people are familiar with the "meditation" suttas, especially the Ānāpānasati (MN 118) and the Satipaṭṭhāna (MN 10). But is there something between metaphysics and meditation? On one hand I've already explored the Spiral Path texts (Western Buddhist Review) which give a general outline of the Buddhist program in more practical terms, corresponding to the threefold way of sīla, samādhi and paññā. However, I've also noted that sīla or Buddhist ethics seems to defined in different ways at different times (Ethical Modes in Early Buddhism).

My Pali reading group is reading the Cūḷahatthipadopamasuttaṃ (MN 27) which seems to suggest layers of practice of exponentially increasing intensiveness. The broad basis is ethics. Following the precepts establishes the basis for Buddhist practice. Then one practices restraint of the senses to eliminate the hindrances, preparing the mind for meditation., which prepares the mind for insight. 

I can easily be seen how this relates to the Spiral Path teachings. But instead of sīla, samādhi, and paññā we have an extra layer: sīla, saṃvara, samādhi, and paññā. In fact, in the Spiral Path we can see that what I have previous labelled sīla is in fact typically more like saṃvara. This essay is mostly about the saṃvara aspect. However, the hatthipadopama also provides a context that allows us to see, what I previously mistook for two kinds of ethics, as distinct practices of differing intensity.

In the hatthipadopama the practice of saṃvara revolves around the phrase so cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā 'having seen form with the eye, he...'. By looking at what ideal practitioners do having seen a form, we get a sense of how the early Buddhists expected a skilled practitioner engages with the practice of saṃvara
so cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā na nimittaggāhī hoti nānubyañjanaggāhī. yatvādhikaraṇamenaṃ cakkhundriyaṃ asaṃvutaṃ viharantaṃ abhijjhādomanassā pāpakā akusalā dhammā anvāssaveyyuṃ tassa saṃvarāya paṭipajjati, rakkhati cakkhundriyaṃ, cakkhundriye saṃvaraṃ āpajjati.
Having seen form with the eye, [the ideal disciple] doesn't grasp at signs (nimitta) or at secondary characteristics (anubyañjana). Since dwelling with the eye-faculty unrestrained, mental events (dhammā) of covetousness and grief, evil, unwholesome stream into [their mind], for that reason they practice restraint (saṃvara), they protect the eye-faculty, they undertake restraint with respect to the eye-faculty.
The analysis is repeated for each sensory mode. This passage or a close parallel of it is found through out the four main Nikāyas, e.g.
  • DN i.70, i.270;
  • MN i.180, i.268, i.346, i.355, ii.162, ii.226, iii.2, iii.34, iii.134 (as iii.2, abbreviated),
  • SN iv.104, iv.111, iv.176, iv.178,
  • AN i.113, ii.16, ii.39, ii.152, ii.153, ii.210, iii.99, iii.163, v.206, v.348, v.351
So having seen form with the eye (cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā) the practitioner is not (more literally) "a grasper of signs" (nimitta-ggāhin). The etymology of nimitta is uncertain, though likely related to the verb √ 'to measure'. Generally it means 'a sign or omen'. The latter is an important connotation. However there are several other main senses and most likely here it refers to 'outward appearance, mark, characteristic, attribute, phenomenon.' From this point of view, the problem apparently is not that we grasp the form itself, but that we grasp the mental image of it. 

The early Buddhists were dismissive of fortune telling and omen reading.† Here the implication is that the experience of a form, the signs by which we know we are having an experience, are like the omens that foretell events. For anyone who is a skeptic the omens are meaningless, at best a coincidence at worse completely unrelated except in the imagination of the credulous. The unawakened treat the nimittas that arise from seeing forms as being like omens. The skilled practitioner sees them for what they are.
† Some years ago now the late Professor David Pingree noticed that the Brahmajāla Sutta contained a list of omens which monks are forbidden to use. See Persian Influences on Indian Buddhism.
This is a very important distinction. It suggests for example, that it's not the money we grasp, when we grasp at wealth, but the mental counterparts of it. In other words it's not the physical act of grasping that is problematic, but the mental concomitants of it: basically the desire for the pleasurable experiences we associate with the act.

The practitioner is also not a grasper of secondary characteristics (anubyañjana-ggāhin). The base word is byañjana or vyañjana, a word that is used for words and letters. Like nimitta, byañjana can refer to a sign or characteristic. With the prefix anu- it means 'accompanying characteristic, secondary attribute. Thus we can take this as relating to papañca (see my two essays on the word and the meaning). Nimitta is the experience of contacting a sense object, where anubyañjana is our internal reflection on, or reaction to, the experience, the experience of having had the sense experience. 

So the practitioner does not grasp at either of these types of experience. Things arise in our sensorium and they pass away. When we allow this process to take it's natural course without imposing our desires and aversions onto it, then we are free. But if we do impose them, then evil, unwholesome thoughts invade out minds, such as desire (abhijjhā) for more pleasure, despondency (domanassā) at the cessation of pleasure or the failure of pleasure to arise. So in order to be free of unwholesome thoughts we protect the sense faculties.

Sometimes this is referred to as indriyesu duttadvara or "guarding the gates of the senses". In turn, as I explored long ago in my essay on the Buddha's last words, appamāda (often translated as 'vigilance' or similar) is also found in this context and etymologically means 'not blind drunk' or in context 'not blind drunk on the objects of the senses'. Which here clearly refers to practising restrain as sense cognitions arise and pass away. Yes, we can also practice wise attention, and not seek out overt stimulation, but the key is what we do with sense experience that arises and passes away.


A similar passage is referred to as saṃvarapadhāna 'striving for restraint' (DN iii.225), and vaṇaṃ paṭicchādetā 'dressing a wound' (MN i.122, AN v.538) or uttariṃ karaṇīyaṃ 'the highest obligation' (MN i.273). Another minor variation (DN iii.269, 291, AN ii.198-9, iii.279, v.30, cf. DN iii.244) puts the above more simply:
Idhāvuso, bhikkhu cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā neva sumano hoti na dummano, upekkhako viharati sato sampajāno.
Here, friend, a bhikkhu, seeing form with his eye he is not elated or despondent, he dwells stoical, mindful and attentive.
An important variation for understanding the Buddhist account of suffering and liberation occurs at MN i.266:
So cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā piyarūpe rūpe sārajjati, appiyarūpe rūpe byāpajjati, anupaṭṭhitakāyasati ca viharati parittacetaso.
Seeing a form with the eye they are attracted to a pleasing type of form and averse to an unpleasing type of form, they dwell without establishing mindfulness of the body and with an unprotected mind (parittacetaso)
Unsurprisingly this failure to protect the mind sets off a chain reaction which is can be seen as a subset of the twelve nidāna (or the nidānas could be an expansion of this list). And thus they give rise to all the different kinds of disappointment, discontent and suffering (kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo). In some passages (SN iv.119, SN iv.184, iv.189, iv.198) the verb sārajjati is replaced by adhimuccati 'drawn to'. In these passages the contrast is between having guarded doors (guttadvāra) and unguarded (aguttadvāra).

At (MN iii.216, iii.239; AN i.176) the phrase is part of a very differently worded teaching, but still seems to aim at the same approach. The Saḷāyatana-vibhanga Sutta appears to be influenced by Abhidhamma categories of dhammas. It revolves around the idea of manopavicāra 'mental exploration' which Buddhaghosa relates to applied and sustained thought (vitakkavicārā MNA v.20). In the Theravāda Abhidhamma there are 18 kinds of manopavicāra which are based on the 18 dhātus.*
* the 18 dhātus are the six sense objects or external bases (cha bāhirāni āyatanāni); the six sense faculties (indriya) or internal bases (cha ajjhattikāni āyatanāni), and the classes of cognition (cha viññāṇakāyā).
The procedure is like this:
Cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā somanassaṭṭhānīyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati, domanassaṭṭhānīyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati, upekkhāṭṭhānīyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati.
Seeing a form with the eye they investigate (upavicarati) a form which is a source of misery, or investigate a form which is a source of elation, or investigate a form which is a source of equanimity.
This sutta makes some distinctions. For example there is a contrast at MN iii.219 which asks about the six kinds of equanimity associated with household life. Here a householder having seen form with the eye uppajjati upekkhā bālassa mūḷhassa puthujjanassa... "He gives rise to the equanimity of the foolish infatuated hoi polloi, etc.". This kind of equanimity is of a lesser kind, because it dhammaṃ sā nātivattati "It does not transcend the dhamma." Dhamma here probably means "mental-object", which is how Ñāṇamoḷi & Bodhi translate it. The sutta continues to outline a complex system of practice.

In Practice.

At the end of the section on saṃvara the hatthipadopama says
so iminā ca ariyena sīlakkhandhena samannāgato, iminā ca ariyena indriyasaṃvarena samannāgato, iminā ca ariyena satisampajaññena samannāgato vivittaṃ senāsanaṃ bhajati araññaṃ rukkhamūlaṃ pabbataṃ kandaraṃ giriguhaṃ susānaṃ vanapatthaṃ abbhokāsaṃ palālapuñjaṃ. 
Endowed with this noble mass of virtue, and possessing this noble restraint of the senses, and possessing this noble mindfulness and attentiveness, he resorts to the wilderness, the foot of a tree, a mountain, a grotto, a mountain cave, a cremation ground, or a pile of straw in a clearing in the jungle. 
And here, of course, he or she sits down and deals with the five hindrances, and having abandoned them (pañca nīvaraṇe pahāya), enters the first jhāna, and so on. In the hatthipadopama, having purified, stabilised and made their mind malleable through jhāna, the practitioner then turns their mind to insight. In this case it is through contemplating the tevijja, i.e. the three mystic skills: the knowledge recollection of former births (pubbenivāsānussatiñāṇa); knowledge of the death and rebirth of beings (sattānaṃ cutūpapātañāṇa); and the knowledge of the destruction of the āsavas (āsavānaṃ khayañāṇa). It seems very likely that the early Buddhists saw this passage as literal: they believed in rebirth and they believed that knowledge of the way that beings were reborn was attainable. But the tevijja is not the only description of Buddhist insight practice and anyone of them could be substituted at this point.

Thus there is a sequence of increasingly intensive practices:

sīla - saṃvara - sati-sampajāna - nīvaraṇe pahāya - jhāna - vipassana

What we can take from this, is that simple ethics is not sufficient to sustain a meditation practice. It is certainly necessary, but in fact we must prepare through a far more rigorous approach to sense experience. This essay has focussed on saṃvara or restraint, but having established saṃvara, there is still some way to go before attempting meditation. One must be mindful, in the sense of paying close attention to ones movements and actions. Certainly hatthipadopama associations sati-samapajāna primarily with awareness of the body. And then one is ready to tackle the hindrances. And it's not simply that the layers follow on from each other in a linear way. Each seems to me to be an order of magnitude more demanding. It's not a simple step from sīla to samādhi. In fact samādhi is several orders of magnitude more intensive than even a quite rigorous practice of sīla.

This gives us the sense that meditation proper is actually quite an advanced practice. We sometimes talk about the necessity for basic ethics in relation to meditation, but we seldom seem to have the approach of exponentially increasing focus leading to concentration. There's a passage from the Upanisā Sutta on the Spiral Path which supplies an image for this kind of progressive approach:
Just as monks, when the gods pour down rain over the mountains and water flows down the mountainside filling up the branches of the crevices and gullies. Having filled the crevices and gullies small lakes are filled, and then the great lakes. The great lakes being filled, the small rivers fill up. The small rivers fill up the large rivers, and the large rivers fill up the great ocean.
The passage is much more common in the Chinese Spiral Path texts found in the Madhyamāgama (see my draft translations), it's attached to almost all of the Chinese Spiral Path texts, not just the counterpart of the Upanisā. This suggests that it struck a chord with early Buddhists in the North. It is trying to say that if one only fulfils (paripūreti) the first stage, then practice overflows into the next. Another Spiral Path text describes this process as natural (dhammatā). Though experience shows that progress still requires continuity of purpose.

To me, Buddhism begins and, more importantly, ends with experience. This kind of approach to increasingly intensive explorations of experience seems particularly significant. It's probably not enough to be generally ethical and to attempt some meditation techniques. The text and it's counterparts suggest that a far more systematic approach is required. And that each layer of practice is more demanding then the previous. When we skip layers we all too often find ourself floundering because we have not done the preparation. 


For some comments on this sequence of increasingly intensive practices and its parallel in Patañjali's Yogasūtra see: The Yoga Sutra: a handbook on Buddhist meditation? 

21 February 2014

Commodification and the Buddhadharma

image: moneysister
In the world of modern Buddhism there seems to be a growing concern about commodification of the Buddhadharma. I'm seeing more and more complaints about it from Buddhists. Commodification is a process in which something which is not usually considered to be bought and sold is transformed into a product with a monetary value. I have for instance argued that the re-packaging of our thoughts and emotions by websites like Facebook to help them sell advertising constitutes a commodification of the self. I argued that this was a bad thing. "Our online persona becomes like a soap opera that is processed and sold as entertainment and enriches those who facilitate the process, with little or no real benefit to us despite the hype." However when one looks more closely at the concerns one often sees that they are based in a Romantic picture of Buddhism and they generally ignore our history. Buddhist ignorance of Buddhist history is something to be really concerned about. We tend to believe the lovely stories about our chosen religion that are completely unrealistic. We don't see the problems that we face in the light of how earlier Buddhists faced them, we don't even see that they faced them. This makes us and our age seem much more different from the past than is the case. 

The Romance of Buddhism.

In an interview in Tricycle Online Mu Soeng, said "Most people forget that they began practicing [sic] for the sake of liberation." Really? Because in twenty years of practising Buddhism I've rarely met anyone who confessed to begin practising for the sake of liberation. We usually have no idea what liberation is at the beginning. Of course some people are attracted by notions of transcendence, especially if they've taken hallucinogens, but most people I meet are simply looking for ways to suffer less or to live better (i.e. to make the most of saṁsāra). Liberation is a concept internal to Indian religions, it's not a concept we can understand prior to beginning to practice. Even the idea that, having become Buddhists, each one of us is striving for liberation is a Romantic conceit. Most of us are far too settled and comfortable to be taken seriously as genuinely seeking liberation. We seem loath to admit to this, but it is natural and entirely consistent with our history. It takes a particular personality and temperament to really take on the challenges involved and most of us are not up to it. 

The idea that every Buddhist might be actively striving for liberation is one that has no history. The number of people genuinely striving for liberation has always been dwarfed by people of less inspiration and less commitment, who are none-the-less sincere in their support for the Three Jewels and their attempts to live good lives. Most of us are just hanging around with Buddhists and though quite pious in our own way, cannot realistically expect to be liberated.

I begin to wonder if this idea that we can all be liberated is in fact part of the commodification of Buddhism in the West: the selling of Buddhism as a cornucopia and universal panacea. Sure, in theory we can all be liberated, but in practice most of us won't be. We make our contribution in other ways - be it making donations, helping to organise a teaching centre, or even just being a positive presence in the community (or writing essays). Being a member of a vibrant and supportive community of people with a common goal and sense of purpose can make us a great deal happier. It will bring out the best in us and help actualise our potential, whatever our potential is. For Buddhism to thrive it is quite important to have such a community around the more serious practitioners in order to support and sustain them.

But most of us are people are towards the middle of the bell curve. This "we're all Buddha's" stuff is like saying "We're all capable of getting a PhD and should all be enrolled in a program and pursuing research". No one would take this idea seriously. Some people do very well to get a bachelors degree, while others do fine with a basic education.

So Buddhists say things like "Most people forget that they began practicing [sic] for the sake of liberation" and it keeps the punters on the hook (and this may not be conscious because we unconsciously pick up on what the people around us are saying and repeat it to reinforce our group membership). Buddhists worry about not practising enough or in the right way and they become consumers of what Buddhist "teachers" are selling: they buy books, attend expensive seminars and retreats, and mālās, and little vajras to wear around their necks, and get a tattoo of a mantra and so on. As long as they are not at ease with who they are, they keep spending money on more teachings, more initiations, and more paraphernalia. Burn more incense, light more candles. There's a kind of anxious piety about many Buddhists, linked to an exaggerated concern for authenticity. The anxiety that the "true teaching" will be lost in the crowd of "false teachings" is visible in every layer of Buddhist literature, but quite pronounced in the voices of Buddhist converts from societies which have been largely Christian for centuries. Heresy is a particular anxiety for Christians as they only have one shot at heaven and they've left their mark on our psyches. Maybe we're getting spillover from that.

The Mindfulness Heresy

One of the problem areas that has emerged recently are the so-called Mindfulness Based Therapies (MBT) spawned by John Kabat-Zinn's application of Buddhist awareness techniques to managing pain. One sees and hears a great deal of bitterness, resentment and/or contempt towards practitioners of MBT from supposedly tolerant and pacific Buddhists. But let's be clear, the reason we've heard of JKZ is because his approach to pain management was incredibly successful in helping people with with chronic pain. And as someone who suffers from chronic pain I have nothing but respect and admiration for JKZ.

There seem to be two main complaints about MBT. That it is incomplete; and that it commodifies the Buddha's teaching.

Some Buddhists imagine that MBT is being touted as an alternative to Buddhism (it isn't) and that MBT is positioning itself as a competitor to Buddhism (it isn't). When martial artists claim to use Buddhist principles and practices in order to better defeat opponents in combat, we Buddhists have not complained that they are trying to undermine Buddhism or steal our ideas. If anything most Buddhists seem attracted to the idea of a martial wing to our culture as the fascination with samurai persists. As Buddhists we apparently see ourselves as in possession of a (the) panacea that we must retain control over. And the popularity of MBT compared to tradition Buddhist teachings has threatened our control over the ideas and practices of Buddhism. MBT has escaped from the hegemony of Buddhist orthodoxy. This is something to laugh about. It's hilarious.

The apparent commodification of Buddhism by practitioners of MBT seems to be a more problematic issue. MBT is generally speaking quite expensive. In the UK it is much more expensive than a beginners meditation class. But not more expensive than other types of pain management or psychological therapy. The idea behind this complaint seems to be that Buddhists have always taught for free. But this is simply not true. At the very least, as is shown at some length in Reginald Ray's book Buddhist Saints in India, Buddhist teaching was part of a social contract in which laypeople agreed to provide for all of the material needs of the entire monastic and forest-dwelling community in return for pastoral care and instructions. I will say more about the funding of Buddhism below, but we need to be clear that sustaining a group of people who do no productive work requires resources to be diverted from the productive part of society. Buddhist teachers have always been supported. And historically this has lead to massive accumulations of wealth (and therefore power) in monastic communities.

So it seems to me that Buddhists complaining about the success of MBT is bizarre and laughable. But complain they do. Indeed the backlash against MBT may be growing if rumblings in the blogosphere are anything to go by. 

Naïveté and Romanticism

This is not to say that consumerism is a good thing. Consumerism is not a good thing. But neither is it an entirely new thing. One of the problems Mu Soeng sees is the rise of the teacher who wants to be a teacher for the kudos. Becoming a Buddhist teacher is a source of social standing and charisma (in the sense of the ability to influence one's social group and perhaps beyond). It's a way for some people to climb the social ladder. But again this has always been true. There are Pali texts reflecting just this problem - bhikkhus who went forth because they got a better living as a monk than their previous life. In Japan in the late 8th century people were pretending to be Buddhist monks in order to avoid forced labour. People become Buddhists for all kinds of reasons; they become "teachers" for all kinds of reasons; they become followers for all kinds of reasons. Some followers are only satisfied by a charismatic and ambitious teacher, which is why such people are able to succeed.

The general assumption seems to be that the teacher-pupil relationship is an asymmetrical power relationship - that it is characterised mainly by the exertion of power by the teacher. Typically, for some reason, as followers we expect to give up responsibility for decision making to our guru, even when the main teaching is take responsibility for yourself. Most people seem to be hopelessly naive and puerile when it comes to the religious life. Many are looking for a parent substitute and easily slip into a subordinate, childlike state in the presence of their teacher. Traditional Buddhist teachers do seem to encourage this unfortunately, though I think many Asians have been tripped up by how puerile we Westerners really are.

At present the fashion is to blame the teacher when something goes wrong. I'm not quite sure where the ideology of asymmetric power relationships comes from, but it is stated as an absolute fact time and again in the various sex scandals. It seems to me to be incredibly unhelpful in sorting out the problems that ensue from abdication of responsibility to a parent substitute because it completely ignores that side of the problem. One positive thing one can say about theism, is that at least the parent substitute is an imaginary figure in the sky, rather than a human being. Imaginary friends seldom let us down in the way that humans are wont to do. It really is unfortunate when people prey on naivete. But how else are the naive going to grow up except through betrayal? Naivete is positively dangerous in adults. We see the disastrous results all around us.

It is only when we realise that our parents are not omniscient and omnipotent, that they make mistakes, that they are not always kind and good to us, that we begin to grow up. If we reject that transition and go looking for a guru to play God, then we should not be surprised by the behaviour of the gods. In fact if we read mythology we discover that Gods are often immoral in the extreme. Greek myth for example is often bowdlerised for consumption by children, but the adult versions show how capricious, unsentimental and amoral (not to say immoral) the gods can be. One subjugates oneself at one's own risk.

Historically Romanticism was a reaction to the perceived mechanistic worldview of the Enlightenment thinkers. In Nietzsche's terms the dominant paradigm had become decidedly Apollonian. Romantics embraced Dionysus partly as a way of disrupting that. Certainly Romanticism is valuable in the way that it revalorises nature and the environment. In the present day, however, I see Romanticism as encouraging escapism and naivete. It's all too easy for us to escape into the world of imagination these days and to fail to engage with the practical problems facing us: from the baleful influence of Neolibertarianism (with it's roots in a dehumanising Utilitarianism and Game Theory) to the increasingly urgent problem of climate change. These problems of the material world are too remote for those who see themselves as spiritual beings, floating above the turbulence and uninvolved. Rather like our idealised Buddha figures who float above the world on pretty flowers, depicted as eternal youths and damsels.

Disengagement is the besetting problem of the last few generations. Present day Britain is once again dominated by Victorian thinking because successive generations of have either bought into the Neolibertarian lie, or simply dropped out of political life (the term for such a person in Greek was "idiot" from idios 'one's own'). The Romantic sees themselves as standing alone against an uncomprehending world. My own teacher has described the True Individual as characterised by "frequent aloneness". Romantics see the True Individuals as possessed of a refined soul in contrast to the gross materiality of the world. By contrast I argue that more than ever we need to see ourselves as inseparably interconnected with others and functioning better in groups than alone; and as rooted in the material world and willing to get our hands dirty to solve problems in the material world. What's worse is that Neolibertarians exploit the tendency to disconnect, encouraging and facilitating escapism while continuing to accumulate wealth and power. 

The Funding of Buddhism

If the legends can be believed the first Buddhists were rather extreme ascetics by out standards. There were more extreme lifestyles available at the time, but these people lived on one meal a day which they begged at the doors of whatever settlement they were near, made their clothing from discarded rags, and wandered from place to place. But if they did live this way it doesn't seem to have lasted long. Wealthy patrons already feature in the earliest literature and many of them are very wealthy. Maybe having your generosity immortalised in a sutta was a bit like today's naming rights? Anāthapiṇḍika's Ārāma (garden) as the Pāḷi equivalent of the "O2" arena? Soon the incrowd and socialites of ancient India were donating many expensive gifts and large sums of money to Buddhist beggars. They went from being possessionless beggars in rags, to being substantial property and land owners in silk robes in a relatively short space of time. And they have remained in this position ever since. People donated over and above what was needed in to gain merit for a better rebirth. Why Buddhist monasteries accumulate wealth is open for discussion.

When Kūkai visited Changan, the imperial capital of China in 804-6 CE, there were some 90 Buddhist temples, alongside substantial buildings belonging to other religions. Some of these temples recorded huge donations (e.g. a billion copper coins) and were possessors of incalculable wealth. What's more they were involved in usury and owned productive land. And as ever they were not subject to the usual taxes. The imbalance was so great in China that, much like Britain in the 16th century, the Imperium, on the verge of bankruptcy, turned on the Buddhists and took all that wealth by force, sacking the monasteries. Having a large Buddhist establishment in your economic sphere is a vast drain on resources and history shows that supporting such a large unproductive sector frequently leads governments into economic difficulties. This may be why Zen monks ended up having to work for a living in Japan, where they had plenty of experience of wealthy and powerful monks interfering in government. In Tibet the monks solved this potential problem by becoming the de facto government and convincing peasants that a revered religious leader reincarnated time and time again to be their king. This produced an isolationist, stagnant, despotic feudalism that was largely disinterested in solving problems in the material world, while at the same time selling the story that they were engaged in saving all beings from suffering using supernatural means. The irony with Tibet is that had the Chinese not invaded we might still never have heard of Tibetan Buddhism. 

One of the features of the work of Professor Gregory Schopen has been to show how ancient monasteries, to the extent that they have been excavated, were always involved in direct economic activity. From donating cash to monumental building programs to minting their own coins, all the evidence points to Buddhist monasteries as domains of power and wealth. The massive "university" at Nalanda was not built for free. We tend to forget that every building must be paid for. Land and bricks have to be bought, builders have to be paid and so on. All the evidence is that Buddhists were active in this sphere, though not productive. They simply accumulated wealth and property. And they still do. And what they offer in return is a little teaching, rituals to ward of misfortune, and the promise of a better rebirth for the donors. Buddhist monasteries have always been centres of wealth and power. Celibacy stops that wealth leaking away to children. 

It's clear that a great deal of effort these days is going into producing Buddhist consumer goods: "Dharma" books, DVDs, paraphernalia, cushions, statues, apps; and Buddhist services: retreats, seminars, workshops, pilgrimages and initiations. This seems, historically speaking, to be business as usual. Running Buddhism and expanding it is not cheap and Buddhists have more or less always had to generate a huge amount of cash to fund it. Perhaps our culture of consumerism is more intense than before. Perhaps the average person is considerably more affluent than before. But the basic pattern of attracting donors to fund the maintenance and spread of Buddhism, involving the material support of a large unproductive clergy, as well as the accumulation of wealth and power by ruling elites, is nothing new. Commodification is the historical norm from the earliest textual and archaeological records. The Romantic idea of Buddhists living "pure" spiritual lives unconcerned with the material world is a story that has never been true in Buddhism history. Unproductive priests require the material support of their followers.


I was listening to the radio recently and someone said that one can tell the health of a religion by whether it is looking for converts or heretics. The implication was that looking for converts is a sign of health and looking for heretics a sign of ill-health. Clearly different parts of the Buddhist world are at different places on this spectrum. It's partly this that makes the reaction to MBT as a heresy alarming. But also it's another reminder that Buddhists don't really understand their own history and they don't understand economics. And isn't this because these are "material world" subjects that are considered to be below the spiritual aspirant who has renounced the world?

Isn't this another manifestation of the ontological dualism outlined in my essay, Metaphors and Materialism, this split in our minds between matter and spirit. Don't we, as Buddhists, long to belong to the world of spirit, free of the corruptions of matter? Aren't we simply disgusted by bodies, money, and sex? Don't we imagine ideal worlds in which we have bodies of light, all our wants fulfilled with no effort; where everyone loves each other but no one has sex? And isn't that really the problem we have with the supposedly new, but in fact ancient phenomenon of commodification and the practical application of our techniques? It spoils the illusion that we are part of something so spiritual that you can't buy it over the counter.

The production of food involves costs - it require input from the three factors of production: labour, capital and land. We would probably add a fourth factor these days: knowledge. These costs must be met or food production becomes unsustainable. So labour generates wages, capital generates profit, and land generates rent. What knowledge generates in compensation I don't know (my Marxist economics is a bit out of date!). If someone gives up their spare time to teach then maybe they can do so at little cost, except for the lost opportunities to do something else with that time (and the preparation time). But if someone gives up their working time to teach then we must provide them, one way or another with the means to survive or even to thrive. Since in the West we have no culture of supporting people in the traditional Buddhist manner, teachers must charge a fee or go get a job. And if they have a job they'll do a lot less teaching. We either have to create a culture in which ordinary Buddhists give up a substantial portion of their own income to support teachers (the tithe of old) or reconcile themselves to paying fees. History suggests that this has always been the case.

In any case, if we're going to have a discussion about commodification let's do it with some awareness of our own history and the politics of our day!


Some views of Mindfulness etc. in no particular order
  • Why Mindfulness isn’t a Good Thing (…or New) The Naked Monk. (13 July 2013)
  • TIME's Beautiful, White, Blonde 'Mindfulness Revolution', Huffington Post (29 Jan 2014) though generally the Huff is a HUGE FAN.
  • Corporatist Spirituality. Richard K. Payne. (18 Feb 2014) See comments from me and RKP.
  • Protesters crash Google talk on corporate mindfulness at Wisdom 2.0 conference. Tricyle. (17 Feb 2014) Though note that the protest itself was not about Mindfulness, but "about Google and other Tech giants" forcing up rents in some areas of San Francisco. [Read the comments also]
  • Mineful Response and the Rise of Corporatist Spirituality. Speculative Non-Buddhism. (17 Feb 2014). SNB specialises in angry and reductio ad absurdum arguments.
  • The mindfulness business: Western capitalism is looking for inspiration in eastern mysticism. The Economist. 16 Nov 2013.
  • Beyond McMindfulness. Huff Post. 7 Jan 2013.
  • Enlightenment Engineer: Meditation and mindfulness are the new rage in Silicon Valley. And it’s not just about inner peace—it’s about getting ahead. Wired.  (18 Jun 2013)
  • Mindfulness is Political: Viśvapāṇi and other posts on his blog. (ca. 20 Feb 2014). A bit of balance. 
  • diy dhamma drama or here we goes agin. 108zenbooks.