Buddhism, social action

Saffron-washing part 2: Response to Thich Nhat Hanh

Several folks have posted this Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH) interview to me, after my recent dip into the Google-Mindfulness-Buddhism-Capitalism debate following the Wisdom 2.0 protest. There’s a good debate about it on Be Scofield’s Facebook wall, and a smaller one on mine after this post, and I don’t need to repeat many of the elements of the discussion in those threads that I agree with.

[Frank Jude Boccio’s and Matthew Remski’s responses particularly enunciate positions I am inspired by, and many others chimed in fruitfully since I first wrote this post a week ago: Narayan, Carol, Nathan, and Emma on Be’s thread, and Elanne and Jonathan on mine, thanks, all of you, for an enlivening discussion! This post is slightly edited based on these conversations.]

I’ll respond just to two aspects of this phrase in the Guardian article:

“as long as business leaders practice “true” mindfulness, it does not matter if the original intention is triggered by wanting to be more effective at work or to make bigger profits” (TNH).

1. “true mindfulness”?

I don’t know how literal this translation & paraphrase is, or if it’s accurate to TNH’s position in the subtlety we’re subjecting it to. To the extent that it is, I would need him to first define “true” mindfulness in detail (meaning, not just by saying “as in the Satipatthana”, but with significant comment). It’s not only exclusionary and stratifying — who determines “true” mindfulness? — but gives an easy out: If a corporation or person behaves non-compassionately, they must have been practicing “untrue” mindfulness.

This charge is implied in much of the critique against corporate mindfulness. (Including perhaps mine, in which I want to distinguish between the mindfulness that’s part of the 8fold Path and framed in a socio-ethical commitment and attention-focusing practices being offered in a supposedly “value-neutral” context.)

2. “original intention”

The claim by some of the mindfulness boosters is that it’s a magical practice that heals even if your intent is otherwise. That states of focus and calm — by their very nature — condition kindness (and even inspire social activism). This is the gist of the interesting convo under Be’s post. Be’s critique, and many others in the broad conversation about “secular mindfulness” now, are asserting that the techniques of Buddhist practice, like mindfulness, are ethically neutral — that they do not inherently give rise to ethical action or particular political values. I agree with this general critique, but then want to be more specific. Mindfulness (samma sati, literally “Right/wise Remembering” in the Pali version of the Eightfold Path) is not a stress-reducing mind exercise but a precise inquiry into specific aspects of mistaken perception. It is cognitive reframing and behavioral psychology. And it is embedded in the full Eightfold Path which contains the vital elements of View, Intention, and ethical action.

My standard Buddhist response to the idea that meditation is inherently wise-action-producing is to recall the story of Milarepa, who used powerful meditative/yogic states of concentration to become an evil sorcerer, basically, FOR THE PURPOSE OF revenge! “Right Intention”, which consists of the intentions toward non-harming, kindness, and renunciation [of sense desires], along with all the ethical limbs of the path, support mindfulness in the 8fold Path model. Yes, he turned toward the dharma afterward, but the story makes it seem like it was remorse that changed his path, not the mind states of concentration that were his practice as a sorcerer.

How it is manifesting now is as an argument about whether “mindfulness” is ethically neutral without any agreement on what it is. This is why I think the conversation so often gets nowhere. Is it the techniques of calm and relaxation and centering of mind (either concentration techniques like śamatha or simplifications like “present moment awareness”)? From a Theravada Buddhist perspective as I understand it, I cannot separate any element of the Eightfold Path out from the others, and so cannot address specific meditation techniques outside the context of that full framing structure. And the entire Buddhist path, with all its elements, is completely framed within a very specific social ethic.

How that ethic is suggested to manifest in action changes with the various schools, but since mindfulness arrived in these public fora through Theravada teachers initially (and Frank Jude Boccio makes a good point about how different it is from Zen), we can remember that the ethic being proposed by an Asian integrated monastic-lay Theravada community hinges substantially on renunciation, both through the dāna (generosity) practice of the laity and the ascetic practice of the monastics.

Mindfulness in this traditional context can’t be separated from renunciation of sense pleasures as a primary ethos both individually and communally, and from the very concrete social action of reflecting on the results of our actions, and choosing actions for their non-harming results.

Back to TNH’s claim: I thus reject magical thinking that asserts that “mindfulness” (which I may never write without scare-quotes again) intrinsically conditions compassion and non-harmful action. If it did so, it might be an entire spiritual path unto itself. All the evidence I’ve seen, and the assertion in every Buddhist text I know, is that focused attention alone, even if attentive to unfolding experience in a very clear way, is insufficient for liberation, and that the cultivation of compassion and wise action are independent practices requiring intention and skillful means of their own.


Now the rant:

Why are some people so desperate to assert that they can have the cake of mindfulness = health = happiness = emotional intelligence = better relationships = better sex = more productivity = less stress = longer life = etc… all within the sugary yumminess of late capitalist consumption-driven global empire, and feel no inner conflict or dissonance?

Maybe because only through asserting the separation (read disembodiment) of a delightful and powerful practice (calming body & mind by focusing on this moment’s sensations & emotions in a non-judgmental way) from any ethical framework that could cramp the corporate-consumer style is the only way to continue to have both.

More simply said: I think that Buddhist mindfulness if applied to its radical potential is completely incompatible with global capitalism. How do I simultaneously renounce attachment to sense-pleasures and still buy enough to keep the GDP afloat? The only way it works — and this is what I mostly see (and do, for sure, though as little as I can) — is to ignore the renunciation and non-harming piece.

With all due respect to an elder: Thich Nhat Hanh, I think that your words, in the context of the current conversation around the effects of corporate action, will be too easily appropriated by that system and used to support action that is harmful. Your imprimatur, like that of the Dalai Lama, carries significant weight, and in this case it gives the impression that you are giving the CEO’s an easy pass, emphasizing only their individual and employee well-being and less-stressed-ness, and absolving them of the direct harmful effects their corporations’ actions are having on communities and the planet. I think that as a powerful voice in postmodern global Buddhism, your teaching to them could be much sharper, enunciating the principled stand against violence and injustice that your own writing and activism helped start 40 years ago.

[This last paragraph is new, altered from the original, in which I used the word “naïve”. Conversation with trusted friends convinced me that that word carried a pejorative tone, and felt disrespectful to TNH, who is of course a respected elder in my tradition. I do want to balance offering a sharp critique where I think it’s appropriate, with respect for my teachers and elders, and ended up agreeing with my friends.]

7 thoughts on “Saffron-washing part 2: Response to Thich Nhat Hanh”

  1. One of the many lotuses says:

    Non-harming – seems like an appropriate place to begin encouraging corporate giants of capitalism to look at the impact of their practices on the global culture as a whole. While some may not feel inner conflict or dissonance, there are surely many that do. Thich Nhat Hanh encourages the planting of seeds of consciousness in fertile soil of awareness, not an easy task no matter what your job is. I think much more kindness is required in order to facilitate these discussions about Mindfullness in the corporate world. The 8 Fold path in the world of Corporate traditions is being very much re-framed in the social context and like any new path is not going to adhere to a previously trodden one. It all requires tremendous patience, encouragement, commitment to a daily practice and support for any real change.
    Maybe somewhere in there, some magic happens, maybe not. Read FLASHBOYS by Michael Lewis.
    A lotus to you.

  2. Josh Lamson says:

    Hi Sean- just had a thought while reading this, not fully worked out but I thought I’d toss it in. TNH’s comment strikes me in a similar way, my shorthand critique is that it’s a failure to distinguish between samadhi and samma samadhi (2 mass shooters have been meditators in the last 5 yrs). However, TNH and DL etc take pains to point out this difference in other contexts.

    But I’m just realizing now that TNH’s remarks belong to a position which has been well fleshed-out by Buddhist types over the last couple decades coming from a place of sufferance- Buddhists, “ethnic” and “convert”, have been living as a sort model minority voice for some time and put a lot of thought and effort into developing a laid-back, take-it-or-leave-it sort of missionary activity. The thought that so many people would be meditating still strikes most of us as a little bizarre (maybe not you in the Bay area!)

    I don’t think that his comments are quite so naive as one might first think, but rather belong to an earlier and well-articulated stance which has become rapidly outdated, and he like most of us may be scrambling to catch up.

    Back to work!

    1. seanfeit says:

      Hi Josh, I like this historical analysis — that he’s articulating an earlier and maybe now outdated stance. Makes sense to me. I think a lot of the dissonance around right now is happening where the ideological stances of our dharma seniors are appearing outdated and new approaches necessary. I’m loving the punchier outliers of my dharma generation right now, though of course want to walk the line between passionate critique and disrespect carefully.

      1. Josh Lamson says:

        Sean- me too. The dharma world is definitely getting shaken up; I certainly don’t see a need to be casually destructive, but it’s clear to me that many ad hoc arrangements that have developed over the last generation don’t necessarily need to be perpetuated indefinitely, and that the consequences of some of them at an expanded scale could even be harmful.

        We’ve all heard statements like TNH makes in your original post thousands of times. Those of us that have made our commitments may not even notice them, but they’re part of a sort of PR exercise that has been necessary or useful in order to keep this alternative religious experiment going for a while now.

        Dharma centers and groups have basically needed to do two things: establish a benign presence and provide modest economic support for themselves. We do versions of the same things as individuals; what do you tell your grandma when you go on retreat for a month? what do you tell your boss? It’s a more or less defensive posture, which doesn’t define the depth of your commitment, but it allows you to pursue it with minimal friction.

        But my impression is that that posture has become a cultural meme, and it’s beginning to have a life of its own, fueled and driven in part by conditions that I don’t really understand yet, and moving in directions that are surprising to me. Mindfulness meditation got the Colbert bump last night by way of a newscaster who used it to deal with panic attacks- and they didn’t just talk about it, the guy gave decent instructions, Colbert meditated and they did a jump cut, so it probably went on for a few minutes, then they did a little meditation interview (he had some drowsiness), then Colbert plugged the book, looked into the camera and said “you should do this”. That blows my mind.

        All the meditation slogans about benefits and adaptability have always had a little asterisk (*) after them, and it seems to me that our job right now is and will continue to be to develop and deepen just what that (*) holds.

  3. ekknox says:

    Thank you for both this post and your original one on this topic, which I believe I learned of from Frank Jude Boccio. Your writing on these topics is the clearest and most balanced I’ve read.

    I think that Thich Nhat Hanh is both naive about the co-optation of Buddhist teachings and quite unaware of what sati in either the sutta sense of the term or as it has been understood and practiced in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism for many centuries actually means. In that he is certainly not alone!

    Meanwhile, your last couple of paragraphs call to mind Ajahn Buddhadasa and Dhammic Socialism. He certainly would’ve agreed wholeheartedly with you that the dhamma and capitalism are fundamentally incompatible, and that mindfulness removed from the eightfold path is a dead end.

    As to the origins of TNH’s misunderstanding of mindfulness, as well as the term’s misuse by Jon Kabat Zinn and the American vipassana movement, I think you have to look to Burma and the invention of vipassana in the 19th century, as detailed in Erik Braun’s new book on Ledi Sayadaw. I’ve commented on this at some length in a blog post that may be of interest:


    Thanks again for your writing!

    1. seanfeit says:

      Hi Ekknox, thanks for that. I don’t think TNH is unaware of sutta or practical sati at all. He’s one of the most venerable monastic teachers of mindfulness! He knows the details inside out. What I think he’s missing here is the effect of his words in this particular context where there’s some hot discontent right now. And as Josh commented just below, he may be speaking to a certain script that is quickly becoming dated.

      Yes, I can imagine Ajahn Buddhadasa giving a very different talk to those CEO’s! Pranams to Buddhadasa, and I’m glad you bring up Dhammic Socialism — it’s worth bringing more fully into this conversation.

      I’m excited to read Erik Braun’s book, and haven’t yet, and look forward to reading your post. Thanks for sending it. All best, sean.

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