If there is any real doubt that contemporary western Buddhism has been completely co-opted by neo-liberal ideology, let’s look at the hidden assumptions and positions in the description of an up-coming Tricycle online course entitled “The Whole Path: Kindness, Meditation, and Wisdom.”
It begins innocuously enough:
This course will cover each aspect of the Buddha's eightfold path to guide you toward the transformative wisdom that is to be uncovered.
It then offers this as the first two Units:
Unit I: Ethics as a Source of Self Respect: You will be shown how ethical conduct supports a healthy view of ourselves and, in doing so, supports our meditative development.
Unit II: The Five Precepts: The Buddha recommended that lay practitioners abide by five simple guidelines. They provide us with an opportunity to reflect on our values and to train our self-discipline in ways that gently support our wellbeing.
Right there! Can you see it? The whole focus on ethical training is actually being presented as being about the developing of “self-respect,” and “a healthy view of ourselves” in order to do nothing more than “support our meditative development.” The actual precepts encoding the ethical training are presented as simply “five simple guidelines” for doing nothing more than “reflecting on our values,” ultimately to “support our wellbeing.”
There’s nothing mentioned about the fact that living within social structures, the Buddhist ethical precepts are designed to investigate, uncover, and transform those structures and our relationship to them! There’s not even a hint that ethical behavior has relational implication and function! It serves neo-liberal ideology to make the current economic system seem "natural" (it's been said that people can envision the end of the world more easily than the end of Capitalism!) and along with the economy, the neo-liberal individualist subject/consumer.
Now, the Buddha, as one example, listed “business in weapons” as first among those “businesses” a practitioner should not participate in. This is more than sadly ironic when the US military now offers mindfulness to "enhance performance" and deal with stress caused by its very institutional structure and mission! The modern neo-liberal “buddhist” cannot countenance anything so radical as criticizing and rejecting militarism and so makes ethics all about feeling good about oneself and simply "being in the moment!"
This is also why we see more and more corporations offering “mindfulness” to its employees to deal with the stress of the corporate structure, situating the full cause of stress in the liberal subject rather than investigating the assumptions, expectations, and institutional structures as factors that cause employee stress!
Unit 3 | Concentration: We will learn to gather our scattered mental energies and settle them, find tranquility, and empower ourselves to take action. How concentration arises and can be cultivated will be explained.
Unit 4 | Mindfulness: The ability to really know what it is we are experiencing is a critical ingredient for deep insight to arise. You will be helped to understand and apply mindfulness as you bring receptivity and a kind, curious awareness to your practice.
This sounds good until we look beneath the surface. Embedded in this description is the hidden assumption of a detached mind or "awareness" from which we can sit and view reality. There is again no hint that awareness, consciousness, the mind, conceptualized as mental formations, is not a thing and that like all other phenomena is a construct, very much conditioned by the web of social relations.
When the buddha taught satipatthana (the domains of mindfulness) he included in each domain the social relationship, which is why we see repeated over and over: “aware internally, externally, and both internally and externally.” For instance, aware of "the body internally" is being aware of my body, its posture and components and how it is impacted by the environment. Notice, by bringing attention to how my body is affected by the social and physical environment we see that mindfulness includes the relational aspects: there is no body independent of myriad other factors.
Aware of "the body externally" is me being aware of your body. What does your body say to me? What might your body be feeling? What, in our culture, does a black or brown body, or a body gendered as male or female or non-binary express? And aware of "the body both internally and externally" asks me to investigate how our bodies relate to each other in a patriarchal society. How do our bodies impact each other as we move within this wider culture?
Absolutely none of this enters into the practice of "Neo-Liberal Buddhism" which focuses almost exclusively on the atomistic individual. Notice how the moderator at this Google sponsored event avoids any questioning of what the protestors were saying and feeling, and puts it back onto the question of what the individuals in the audience felt during the protest! To question the motivations of the protestors and to actually center their point rather than the feelings of the audience members would require them to look into the tech industry's effect on homelessness and we can't have that!
Mindfulness is not mere "bare attention" as it has been reduced to by many contemporary teachers, but rather it's a broader investigation of causal relations. Rather then the mere non-judgmental observation of some hypothesized atomistic "self," mindfulness looks as how the present moment arises in order to gain clarity so that we can end the causes that lead to duhkha or continue those factors that lead to greater suhkha.
Unit 5 | The Three Characteristics: Through mindfulness, the Buddha saw that all experiences have three characteristics. Seeing these characteristics for ourselves is decisive. We begin to loosen up. We don't take life quite so personally. will The significance of these characteristics and how they free us will be explained.
Unit 6 | A Life of Wisdom: With these insights, we will see so much more of who we are and how connected we are to others. This will inevitably lead to the development of greater love and compassion in our lives.
Here again, on a first read there may not seem much wrong with this. But along with the detached awareness we find a detached atomistic self which is understood to be free from all social structures, an atomistic self free to choose to enter into social relationships while not taking any of it all that seriously.
Note too how the three characteristics are not actually enumerated: impermanence (anicca); not-self (anatta); and duhkha (suffering/distress/dissatisfaction). I'm thinking perhaps without the spin most often given, these three characteristics of life don't sell too well in a market economy!
Now, I am not saying this teacher knows that she is propagating neo-liberal ideology and doing it purposefully, nor am I denying that she believes in the truth and benefit of what she is offering here. I am most definitely not saying that this is an example of cynical bad faith. This is pretty much what all buddhist celebrity teachers are offering and is symptomatic of how fully neo-liberal ideology has been interpellated into the mainstream, contemporary, secular understanding of buddhism, yoga and "new age spirituality" which itself has had an oversize influence on buddhism and yoga.
As in the yoga community, contemporary practitioners look to these ancient teachings and see only their own self-image and desires reflected back, reassuring them that what they already think and believe is what the ancient yogis taught. It’s another symptom of the dumbing down and anti-intellectualism permeating contemporary “spirituality.” The few who are willing to make the effort to actually engage with and use these teachings to deconstruct, question, and critique in order to actually see what can be learned by engaging with the teachings rather than using them as a self-reflecting mirror are often marginalized and ostracized.
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Poepsa Frank Jude Boccio is a yoga teacher and zen buddhist dharma teacher living in Tucson, AZ.