American Buddhism?

I have recently come across this article which interestingly analyses the phenomenon of “mindfulness” in Western corporate environments, and particularly in Silicon Valley. It vaguely reminded me of a post I wrote back in 2016 about the issue of “Mindfulness”, and how this buzzword was spreading around the business world devoid of its religious meaning. Now I would like to expand on that topic, by slightly criticising Chen’s article.

Firstly, I would like to point out how I totally agree with the analysis that Chen gives on how Buddhist teachings have been bent to fit the logic of profit in a capitalist world, and found her research absolutely fascinating and on point. However, what I would like to criticise is her use of the term “American Buddhism” to refer to the productivity-driven practices often referred to as “mindfulness”. While I agree that there is a section of American Buddhists, including monks as Chen mentions, who have embraced the Western credo of individuality and success at any cost, there are many others who genuinely found something valuable in the Buddhist teachings, and have made an effort to make them “palatable” to the Western mind.

This might be seen as a contamination, a deviation from traditional Buddhism, as non-conforming in traditionally Buddhist terms. However, as religions and ideas travel, they always tend to adapt to the new place and society they meet (think about Chan Buddhism in China and Zen Buddhism in Japan), but this does not necessarily mean that the ideas or the core values are not retained. I don’t think the traditional Buddhist religion found today in (for example) Burma, Korea or Thailand can work for our Western society, where Buddhism is not a long-lasting, deeply rooted presence. It must undergo some changes in order to be embraced by a much more secular, science-driven, Christianity-influenced society as the one we I live in.

Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean, as Chen implies and as many have indeed done, exploiting Buddhist teachings to legitimise reckless capitalism and workforce exploitation. There are many Buddhist monks and nuns, both of Western and Asian origin, as well as lay practitioners who are honestly and plainly trying to spread the Buddhist teachings in the West, working under the conviction that these can benefit the Western world as much as anyone else. These people give free Dhamma talks, publish free guided meditations as well as books and Buddhist calendars. They do not do it for profit, they do not separate the Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation from the rest of the Noble Eightfold Path, including its abstinence from alcohol, from killing and from dealing in anything to do with killing, alcohol, guns, and so on (the precept known as Right Livelihood). The ethical precepts are as important as the spiritual ones, and are equally stressed by all the Buddhist teachers I’ve had the great pleasure to meet or listen to.

In conclusion, I don’t think it is fair to dump all American Buddhists into one category, letting big corporate giants who co-opted some Buddhist teachings for their own interests speak for everyone. As it would be hard to talk about “American Christianity” or “American Islam” as one monolithic entity, so it is for American Buddhism. I wish Chen or the person who interviewed her had made that clear in the article.

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