Human Practices

Tuesday January 16, 2007

Leaf in the Snow

Last Tuesday I taught my first meditation class for a couple of years. I have wanted to get back into teaching meditation for some time: it is something that I have always enjoyed doing, but I have put off doing so for some time largely on account of my own shifting relationship with meditation and my own continually changing understanding of what meditation is, in particular my own move away from a more formally “Buddhist” understanding of meditation.

The new class is at Birmingham Botanical Gardens, and I advertised it as a “secular” or “non-religious” approach to meditation practice. This approach is one that is growing in popularity – a good example is the the University of Bangor’s mindfulness centre. But this transposition of meditation from its traditional context is one that raises all kinds of interesting questions, not to say controversy. What is lost in translation when you move mindfulness and meditation practices away from their traditional frameworks?

Whilst at the Sharpham Centre last summer, we spent a morning discussing this with Jenny Wilks and Duncan Moss, who teach mindfulness-based stress reduction. The question of what is lost in translation inevitably came up, and some claimed that this kind of approach to meditation was a “watering down” of traditional Buddhism. This is an understandable concern, but it is not one that I share. As I mentioned last summer during the discussions at Sharpham, there is no a priori reason to assume that this watering down – if this is indeed what it is – is necessarily a bad thing.

I myself prefer to avoid the language of “watering down”, which seems to already assume too much. Instead I am interested in this: meditation and mindfulness not as Buddhist practices, but as human practices. Of course, the context of our practice is, in one sense, very different from that of the Buddha’s time (we live in a vastly different cultural context from that of the Buddha) and we need to take this into account; in another sense, it is almost exactly the same (we are, biologically, constituted in the same way, with more or less the same kinds of minds and bodies and social tendencies). So there is a delicate task of translation to be attempted. But even if delicate, we should not be overly cautious. Rather than becoming anxious about some abstract idea of the “dharma” becoming “watered down”, it is more instructive perhaps to lay concerns about this abstraction we call the “dharma” to one side, and instead to look at the human practices of meditation – both the cultivation of stillness and the development of inquiry, mindfulness and ethics and to see them simply as human practices, patiently exploring which practices are beneficial and conduce to well-being and which do not. And then we might find that, whilst much is lost in translation, we have gained more than we could have imagined.

Image: Sillur on Morguefile

# · Pat

Great post!
Gautama was in search of enlightenment and found it. His “guidelines” are supposed to help attain it.
But how often are they misinterpreted or have been influenced over the ages to something else? What more are they now than constricting barriers making people too narrow minded?
Meditation itself, without any belief might suit many more. For where else is enlightenment to be found than at this point in time, in the world of here and now? It does not lie in the rules of religion nor in the stories of old. It lies open to everybody willing to open their eyes unhindered by the fog of preconceived ideas. So maybe those who are too set on religion should try watering it down. Maybe it would help to drink water instead of wine.

# · ck

This is very close to what I’ve been reflecting on. Many of my long-time ‘skeptical’ concerns have been dissolved by recognizing that human beings share some pretty basic biological facts. At the same time, that’s opened me up to a new way of “appropriating” religious practices—I blogged about it a few weeks ago.

I’m glad to see someone more experienced than I having the same thoughts. I’ll look forward to more reflections.

# · ray

I like your term “human practices”. I have used the mindfulness techniques inspired by Kabat-Zinn in my own work. Excellent they are too. I remember reading about when Kabat-Zinn was about to meet the Dalai lama and was struck by a fear that his eminence would criticise him for watering down the dharma! The Dalai lama actually commented on how much suffering there was in the world and that anything that helped to relieve it (and MBSR does that) is to be supported. Kabat-Zinn was greatly relieved!

meditation is a good practice for all. For myself, i was attracted by its clinical applications and through that, found Buddhism. It is a little ironic that I now follow a path (Amida-shu) which emphasises nembutsu, faith and devotion rather than a meditation practice!

# · Gareth

Curiously, I opened the comment box to make reference to an article that was highlighted in an email from Ray (above, and hello Ray!)

Specifically Jeff Wilsons article at Tricycle, Meditation a rare practice:

“In Japan, where virtually all Soto Zen practitioners live, Soto Shu emphasizes moral behavior, respect of elders, charity, and chanting in front of the home altar. Meditation is not a central practice and is generally only performed by a minority of the clergy, who are themselves a very small minority of members”

Meditation plays a vital role in one’s practice – but it is not the be all and end all of Buddhism by any means…and of course you list ‘development of inquiry, mindfulness and ethics’ which are essential, and to which the Dharma can provide a great guide, and framework

(‘The development of stillness’ a useful tool, but can one remain still and still get things done?)

But the things within this enquiry exist outside the sutras – to me it seems that while all this wealth of material exists, it would be foolish to ignore it.

But if truth is eternal, other avenues of enquiry should lead to the same place.

(Or similar places, perhaps, given our limited nature)

# · Will

Thanks for all the interesting comments, folks.
A few thoughts. Firstly, stillness. For me, stillness isn’t doing nothing. I’ll write on this a bit later today. It’s not a matter of immobility as the stilling of certain kinds of fruitless turbulence – whether bodily or mental, which can aid activity.

The second thought is on the sutras. The sutras are certainly rich resources – which is why I’m about to embark on studying Pali myself – but at the same time, they are documents that need to be interpreted in the light of everything we know of life outside of the sutras. This goes for any text. I’m not sure that I see the sutras as repositories of eternal truth (in the singular), but rather as texts that contain much that can lead to a deeper understanding of certain basic truths (in the plural) about our existence.

All the best,


# · Vishvapani

Thanks for raising this point, Will. I agree that ithe language of watering down is unhelpful – I’m currently training in ‘mindfulness based pain management’ with breathworks, and for the people on our courses mindfulness is a much-needed medicine for urgent difficulties.

Still, I think there is always a context for every practice. You have the Satipatthana view of mindfulness as ‘the direct path’ to bodhi; you have teh language of ‘stealth Buddhism’ (I think this is from Jon Kabat-Zinn); and you have sati as one of the five spiritual faculties, or the limbs of the eightfold path. This is before we get to social, cultural, psychological and doctrinal meanings. Truly, there is no such thing as ‘bare awareness’!

# · Jayarava

I found this quite thought provoking. I’m kind of reassessing how much I value the traditional terminology – this issue of the discourse which we use in relation to our Buddhist practice is very much a live on. Even within Buddhism and especially in a non-sectarian environment, we have many competing styles of discourse. And then there are the non-Buddhist contributions. I find certain psychologists – Martin Seligman, Joe Griffin, and Elaine Aron – seem to provide me with a more useful way of articulating my experience at present. I have a few friends who are deeply interested in Western philosophers (Schopenhauer, Spinoza for example) and we are a long way from seeing how they might inform our presentation of Buddhism. However I’m aware that the discourse of the Buddhist masters was specifically designed to be used in the context of meditative practice.

I have tended to take the view that it is best not to take any particular tradition on it’s own terms, but to evaluate it in a broader context. This way I hopefully don’t get bogged down in fundamentalism. I’m aware at the same time that traditions grew up for good reasons, and that I’m hardly in a position to offer a critique from the point of view of profound realisation. I’ve also been reading critiques of our order which do not take us on our own terms, and that is an interesting experience.

I tend to agree that abandoning the traditional terminology does not represent a watering down, although in terms of meditative experience I wonder how far a secular terminology can go. Perhaps what needs to happen is that we organically grow into a discourse of meditation which is more than simply a translation of the traditional terms – ie rather than simply translating texts some of us will have to have a very deep experience of meditation and find ways to express that experience and communicate it to others. Isn’t this is more or less what the Zen masters of Japan did?

I have wondered whether the only advantage to calling Buddhism a religion is the tax status of our charities, and that otherwise it confuses the issues of what it is that we do, and what we offer.

Congrats on all the Blogisattva nominations!

Comments are turned off for this article.

  • Today's Most Popular

  • Related Articles

  • Featured Articles