Monday August 6, 2007
It probably won’t come as a great surprise that I’m not really a regular reader of the California Catholic Daily but the following article recently caught my eye. The article concerns the teaching of meditation and mindfulness techniques in schools, and asks whether meditation should be taught in publicly funded schools in the US. No doubt many committed Buddhists might all agree that, yes, meditation should be taught in schools – and everywhere else – because it is a Very Good Thing. I, however, am not so sure, but probably for different reasons than the California Catholic Herald.
I do not in principle think that teaching meditation in schools is a bad thing, it is just that there would need to be a great deal of thought, and a great number of changes, before anything like this was introduced. The problem is, that often proponents of meditation in schools – or proponents of meditation in general – are playing two hands at once. On the one hand, they are saying, “Look, this is a secular practice. We’re just watching our breath. It takes no special beliefs of any kind.” Yet on the other hand, they are often committed to a whole raft of obscure articles of faith that, although they are not formally taught as a part of such secular meditation practices, nevertheless inform them. This double-handed game is a precarious business, and is no doubt partly what makes the California Catholic Herald jittery. It is understandable that this should be so: they fear that meditation may act as a trojan horse for all kinds of crazy ideas, but – as good Catholics – they are inevitably attached to their own sets of equally crazy, but sadly incompatible, ideas.
In the UK, this is complicated by the fact that education is not secular in the first place (nothing is, in fact, for in the UK the church and state are still hitched together). The British government have an incomprehensible fondness for religious schools, or – because it sounds more cuddly – “faith schools”, believing them to be essential to the development of a just and ethical society, and I believe – although I haven’t checked this – that a communal act of worship is still mandatory in UK schools, however loosely this is interpreted. Such an environment is already one in which are played precisely these same double-handed games as are played by at least some of the advocates of apparently secular meditation: on the one hand the assertion of broadly human values; and on the other the commitment to bafflingly strange and partisan claims about the world.
Such two-handed games are unsatisfactory. Even if we had a non-religious education system (which would be good, I think), we would still need more research before introducing meditation. And it is no good claiming that there has been plenty of research into meditation within the Buddhist traditions. Yes, there has been plenty of practice of meditation, but what is needed is evidence-based scientific research. It may be the case that Dorje Logjam, for example, has been meditating in a Himalayan cave for fifteen or fifty years. He may have many virtues. He may have a radiant smile. He may know an awful lot about meditation. His brain might do clever things when we put him in the lab. But if he then starts talking about rainbow bodies1 and suchlike, then we may think that he has a less firm grasp upon other realities than would be ideal.
Of course, some may say that in the end the kind of context in which Dorje Logjam is working is essential. Science will in the end give way to a new Buddhist understanding of the world. Quantum physics is often invoked here, because it has the virtue – like the talk of rainbow bodies – of sounding impressive and being largely incomprehensible to most of us. But if we don’t hanker after such a Buddhist theocracy (and I really don’t), and if we want to teach meditation as a secular practice, then it is necessary to leave this context to one side and to ask afresh whether meditation is something that we might want to introduce into our education system. And this requires a lot of hard, empirical research, a thorough investigation of what meditation actually does – not anecdotally, but systematically, and not on Dorje Logjam’s own terms, but on terms that make sense within the society in which it is proposed that this meditation is taught.
As it is, we simply don’t know enough. Does meditation work for everyone? If so, what kind of meditation? Does it have dangers? What training is necessary for somebody who is to teach it? What is the purpose of meditation? Does it have undesirable side-effects? Once again, committed Buddhists may dismiss these questions. But they are worth asking. It is not good enough to say “It works for me”, because we are not all alike. It is not good enough to say “Dorje Logjam says…” because relying upon this kind of authority is not really a substitute for empirical work. What we need before introducing such things into our education system is a systematic and non-partisan study. But first, I think, we need an education system that is truly secular.
1 Wikipedia has the following on the topic. “The rainbow body or Jalü or Jalus (Wylie ‘ja’ lus) in the Tibetan language, is the physical mastery state of Dzogchen of the Nyingmapa Mantrayana and the Bönpo where the trikaya is in accord and the nirmanakaya is congruent with bodymind and the integrity of the mindstream (the heartmind) is realised as Dharmakaya. The corporeal body of the realised Dzogchenpa which is now hallowed, returns to the pure primordial energetic essence-quality of the Five Pure Lights of the five elemental processes of which it is constituted through the Bardo of Mahasamadhi. This is then projected as the mindstream through the process of phowa…” So, now you know. If, however, you remain puzzled, Dorje Logjam will be pleased to answer your queries.
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