american buddhism revisited

[Before we begin: if anyone is going to make a Buddhist approach to Western literary theory work, it’s Erin McNellis. I can’t imagine a stronger source of counter-arguments than her recent essay collection, which I reviewed here.]

Dear American Buddhism: it’s over. I hereby renounce all participation in you, even from the sidelines.

Two years ago, I wrote this post about meditation. Then as now, I was troubled by several things about Western practices of meditation. It is universally considered “good for you,” even though nothing, including broccoli, is always good for everyone under all circumstances. It is often linked with a critique of our noisy modern lives, but not with any collective effort to improve our noisy modern lives. (Instead, you’re supposed to go off to your corner and clear your head.) Finally, the term is incredibly broad, especially for something with supposed medical benefits; it is really a broad rubric, covering a huge range of practices.

Readers responded (mostly at the Valve, which was thriving at the time) by pointing out that a range of different ways of meditating do share a similar goal: the attainment of “mindfulness.” This gave me pause. Even though I could easily think of situations where generic “mindfulness” would be a hindrance, I could also understand trying to become more focused and “present,” as we say nowadays.

Fast-forward to the present day. One of my friends sends me a letter partly about Buddhism and psychoanalysis, writing that the two could co-exist within psychotherapy. Psychoanalysis provides some ways of talking about fundamental psychic structures, while Buddhism suggests an approach closer to CBT. CBT is “cognitive-behavioral therapy,” a modern treatment based on correcting observable patterns (habits, acts) rather than internal states (trauma, repression).

She’s quite right, and that’s probably why it struck me right then that my feelings went beyond losing interest in meditation. I was over, way over, the entire nebula of American Buddhist thought. The way it has been translated, literally and culturally, has made it one of the biggest time-wasters in recent intellectual history. Consider, for example, what happened just now at the junction of Buddhism and CBT: Buddhism gets reduced to a philosophy indifferent to subjectivity. This is exactly how it is used, but far from what it really is. Buddhism insists on relinquishing desire, not ignoring it.

First, I’m revising what I said before about meditation. The reason that few people discuss the negative effects of meditation is very simple: it doesn’t do much, including anything especially harmful. I’ve known lots of people who meditated and lots who didn’t, and, as a group, there is nothing that distinguishes people who meditate. They are not calmer, more observant, or more productive. I’m wincing as I write this, thinking of my friends who cherish meditation, but it’s the truth. It’s not a bad thing that they (or anybody) meditates — it’s just not very significant viewed from the outside. Whether or not meditation does work “behind the scenes,” it never comes onstage, except verbally.

“Mindfulness” is a will-o-the-wisp. You can spend your time chasing it. You can also spend a lot of time discussing it. Neither accomplishes very much. At the end of the day, it’s like so many other cults of this or that mental state (flow, hypomania, inner peace, confidence, “psyching up,” etc). Retrospectively, you can look back on a period of time and say something like “I was in a state of flow” or “I had a great feeling of confidence the whole time.” Prospectively, though, we already know a great deal about what actually affects mental states — food, sleep, exercise, drugs/medication — and none of those things are as important as a good work plan, or, when one is on a social call, having something to say. (Assuming the situation is not extreme. If you haven’t eaten in four days, then I would certainly recommend food over a new work plan.)

Non-attachment is a philosophical principle practiced by nobody I know. I don’t know a single person trying to attain freedom from desire, or even anyone who is taking major steps in that direction. The monastery system in Southeast Asia is a remarkable institution, in part because there’s an actual code of conduct. From the way people throw around phrases like “a Zen attitude,” you’d think that non-attachment means remaining calm if your television breaks. By all means, remain calm. But even if you do throw a fit, you’ll be glad to know that no weighty religious or philosophical matters are at stake. Thinking otherwise would be like me calling myself “Confucian” for attending a family reunion.

Less central concepts, such as samsara and karma, are just not very Buddhist, as we use them. The Golden Rule was not a Buddhist innovation; as for keeping one’s distance from “the world,” that tradition goes back to the Greeks.

This is also true of Buddhist aesthetics. Actual materials from the East, such as bamboo, are of course not inherently Buddhist. Minimalism, as a design philosophy, does not derive from Zen. (The fact that Steve Jobs said otherwise speaks to Jobs’s ability to market himself, as well as his need to create narratives of profundity.) It’s a natural extension of modernism. Eastern thought did influence modernism, but a long time ago, and in a hybrid form. Hinduism, and more particularly the Bhagavad-Gita, were more important than Buddhism back in the day. But you can’t walk into a bookstore and buy 365 Days of Arjuna. Even the spirit of Zen, with its keen absurdist humor, ends up travestied by these overstated connections — Mondrian paintings and Apple computers look beautiful, but they’re in deadly earnest and decidedly unfunny.

Minimalism isn’t the only way Westernized “Buddhism” has been translated into a style. It’s just the only respectable way. “Buddhism” can also be an interpersonal mode, expressed (for example) when people run through a visible breathing routine to calm themselves, all the while communicating perfectly well that they are upset, because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be having to calm themselves. Perhaps as much as half of the show Portlandia involves satirizing this blue state, skin-deep serenity.

As for Buddhism’s recent literary output and influence, the results have been mixed. Siddhartha is a worthwhile novel, though also a problematic one. Kerouac’s Zen book is derivative, and, considering how rapidly he reeled toward his own destruction, a bit depressing. “The Fire Sermon” is just a nice title: Eliot converted to Anglicanism five years later. I stopped reading On Anger when Hanh started theorizing that angry cows produce angry hamburgers, which in turn leach anger into our bodies through our stomachs. The underlying ideas — calmness, vegetarianism — are rationally defensible; they do not need to be buttressed with superstition. The Dalai Lama strikes me as a very kind, sensible person who is, through the accidents of history, in a position of world-historical significance. His books are thoughtful re-statements of commonplace ethical ideas.

Buddhist ideas pop up now and again within critical theory and casual philosophical conversation, but always as the road not taken. As with those moments when “cyclical history” or the “Christian idea of universal love” is Option A, Western thinkers tend to pause briefly at “non-attachment” or “departing the wheel of dharma,” afterwards selecting Option B. I think it’s fair to assert that these concepts are not seriously in play; they are trotted out to show open-mindedness and erudition.


None of this invalidates the original tradition. Buddhist ideas remain serious concepts in and of themselves, both insightful and potentially applicable to anyone’s life (regardless of nationality) if that person is willing to consider a radical course of action. Nonetheless — with all due respect to people like Schopenhauer or Hesse who did take them seriously — these ideas mostly spread in the West in the form of panaceas, modified and trivialized by consumerism. Buddhism rejects many core Western values: progress, passion, sociability, wealth. Western religious thinkers have, at times, critiqued one or several of these values, but nothing comes close to Buddhism’s absolute veto. Its cosmology is also hugely different from that of any theistic faith. To invest empty conversations about mindfulness, or generic conversations about compassion, with the reverence due to a religion with a real existence elsewhere is a mistake I am ready, finally, not to continue to make.


Another friend of mine, whose insatiable craving for knowledge has led him to make the most unusual experiments and has ended by giving him encyclopaedic knowledge, has assured me that through the practices of Yoga, by withdrawing from the world, by fixing the attention on bodily functions and by peculiar methods of breathing, one can in fact evoke new sensations and coenaesthesias in oneself, which he regards as regressions to primordial states of mind which have long ago been overlaid. He sees in them a physiological basis, as it were, of much of the wisdom of mysticism. It would not be hard to find connections here with a number of obscure modifications of mental life, such as trances and ecstasies. But I am moved to exclaim in the words of Schiller’s diver:-

‘. . . Es freue sich.
Wer da atmet im rosigten Licht.’*

-Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

*He may rejoice, who breathes in the roseate light!