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The PBG and The False Promise of Mindfulness

ahhh mindfulness

Within a week of coming out of my recent 6 month silent vipassana retreat, I found myself pulled back into the tumbling vortex of daily life. Within two weeks I had broken out in shingles, my doctors warning me that I could lose vision in my left eye if I wasn’t careful.

“Are you stressed?” the ophthalmologist asked. “Maybe you should try meditation.”

The experience of a vipassana retreat isn’t very well-represented by the stylized images of meditation we regularly come across in the media: people with perfect posture keeping their thumb and index fingers touching oh-so-lightly for a frozen eternity. These images of cool-looking yogis are largely informed by and perpetuate powerful misconceptions about the nature of “mindfulness” in our contemporary era. In reality, the longer the meditation retreat, the deeper, generally, is the drop into the uncool. Practitioners often come back to the wider world acting like people who have buried below the earth for a thousand years: squinting at the sun, flinching at every sudden noise, and taking every chance we can to hide in the bathroom until we adjust to so-called “real life” after a few days. You can make it look cool in a magazine. But it’s pretty hard to make it feel cool.

While mindfulness-based meditation is powerfully liberating on its own turf, the mind/heart, the results are less predictably useful in the broader society whose foundational values are often at odds with the qualities of understanding and kindness a yogi seeks to cultivate. Meditation practice can have very real benefits outside of oneself but these effects are beyond predictability and the road toward them is meandering and mysterious.

I was acutely aware of this as I nursed my fragile, stinging eye. While noting “stabbing, stabbing, aversion” during my convalescence, I came across an online article that began dubiously: “It may have started as a trend among Silicon Valley tech companies, but mindfulness seems to be here to stay for all of us.” The piece proceeded to layout “13 Things Mindful People do Differently Every Day,” such as “take walks,” “seek out new experiences,”and “let their minds wander.” Being a recent yogi myself, I wondered why “smash their computers on the floor” didn’t come up. Maybe if the list had gone to 15 it would be there; right after “floss their teeth every night” or “pay their bills on time.”

What has happened to traditional Yoga since it came into contact with “the West” has now happened to the core tool of Buddhist practice: it has been reformulated to make sense within the bounds of what we understand, value, and hope to become; a God in our own image, as it were. The aspiration to attain worldly success through devotion is not at all new to Asian Buddhism but mindfulness-based meditation as an expression of it is new and seems to have parallel life throughout contemporary Asia as well. Thus, it is appears that this new phenomenon is not simply a cultural desalination program in the West that has turned the ocean of the Buddha’s teaching into vast warehouses of bottled water: It’s also a historical process of political economy, specifically, what Karl Marx termed the bourgeois relations of production.

From this perspective, the newfound popularity of mindfulness might be understood as something of a “petty-bourgeoisification” of the Buddha’s teaching. The “Petty Bourgeoisie” (from here on, let’s just call them “the PBG”) is essentially the middle and upper-middle class: people who don’t have to sell their labor power for wages (the proletariat) but who aren’t involved in large-scale capital accumulation and appropriation (the “big” bourgeoisie) either. They are store owners, managers, lawyers, doctors, and educated professionals of all stripes. I’m using “PBG” because the term “petty-bourgeoisie” has become rather toxic: the result of a century of Communists around the world using the phrase to condemn anything and anyone that questioned or challenged the orthodoxy or party-line; sometimes to humiliation, sometimes to death. Marx himself had a much more nuanced view of “The Notorious PBG”: he understood its tenuous position to be the non-personal result of an historical process from which their complicated class interests and actions were an unavoidable result.

Marx was well aware that many PBG are sympathetic to the hardships facing the working class, but they generally restrain from revolutionary solidarity with them. Why? Because the PBG identify with bourgeois success and often have a vested interest in capitalism and the society it has created. The liberal PBG want to expand the benefits of capitalism without acknowledging the negative social conditions that it necessarily creates. Therefore, they are more inclined to tinker with legal structure of bourgeois society rather than overthrow it: a reformist rather than revolutionary approach. While discussing the history of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1851 coup d’état in France, Marx polemicizes against the social-democratic movement of the PBG,

The peculiar character of social-democracy is epitomized in the fact that democratic-republican institutions are demanded as a means, not of doing away with two extremes, capital and wage labor, but of weakening their antagonisms and transforming it into harmony. However different the means proposed for the attainment of this end may be, however much it may be trimmed with more or less revolutionary notions, the content remains the same. This content is the transformation of society in a democratic way, but a transformation within the bounds of the petty bourgeoisie. Only one must not get the narrow-minded notion that the petty bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest. Rather, it believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within whose frame alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided. [1]

So it is with the PBG approach to mindfulness: people often do not want to escalate the antagonism between delusion and wisdom, they want to transform it harmoniously. Many people love the Dalai Lama but few are inclined to seriously take on the radical struggle against greed, hatred, and delusion themselves. They are seduced by the notion that mindfulness will help them achieve higher worldly aspirations by increasing their mental capacity or by softening the emotional edges of capitalist alienation. Mindfulness appears to be that secret ingredient that promises to smooth over life’s rough patches and give us the winning edge in whatever game we are playing. With a little meditation in the morning we will be more successful parents, athletes, investors, students, soldiers, activists, prisoners, wardens, guards, and executioners. But just as Marx did not call for harmony between classes as a response to the antagonisms at the root of bourgeois society, the Buddha did not call for a smoothing out of the rough edges of suffering or a negotiated peace with greed, hatred, and ignorance. He called for their complete usurpation, abolition, and annihilation by the forces of love and wisdom. He posited mindfulness as one essential tool for a process of disenchantment that illuminates the profoundly unstable, undependable, and disappointing nature of everything in existence: a revolutionary rather than reformist approach. In one classic refrain, he states,

Bhikkhus,  on one occasion I was dwelling at Uruvelā on the bank of the river Nerañjarā under the Goatherd’s Banyan Tree just after I became fully enlightened. Then, while I was alone in seclusion, a reflection arose in my mind thus: ‘This is the one-way path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the passing away of pain and displeasure, for the achievement of the method, for the realization of Nibbāna, that is, the four-establishments of mindfulness.’ (SN 47.43, The Path) [2]

He continues elsewhere,

 What four? Here a bhikkhu dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed covetousness and displeasure in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating feelings in feelings… mind in mind… phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed covetousness and displeasure in regard to the world. This is the one way path for the purification of beings… that is, the four establishments of mindfulness. (SN 47.18, Brahma) [3]

Given our contemporary social foundation, it is unsurprising that the character of many new mindfulness programs reflects the persistence of “covetousness… in regard to the world” in the form of desires to be more capable of success within the parameters that many people understand and value. Nevertheless, one can see that this approach explicitly contradicts the Buddha’s design for his method of liberation.

The temptation of Buddha by Mara.

The temptation of Buddha by Mara. The Buddha used mindfulness as a tool to conquer greed, hatred, and delusion, rather than chasing worldly success.

In Marx’s analysis, the mechanics of Capitalism eventually put intense downward class pressure on the PBG. This pressure is generally resisted and agonized over by the PBG until the inevitability of their proletarianization is fathomed and the spark of revolution may be glimpsed in their minds. The ensuing alliance with the proletariat has been at times a critical factor in the success or failure of a revolutionary moment. It is resonant with the classical insight experience of dissolution that confronts a yogi as they deepen in their practice. The experience, in which the profound instability of all phenomena is fathomed, can be one that inspires the meditator to go deeper and find liberation within this truth or that pulls them back from further progress out of fear. For the Buddha, the broader process of revolutionary disenchantment, of which this experience is a part, could take eons,

For a long time, bhikkhus, you have experienced the death of a father… the death of a brother… the death of a sister… the death of a son… the death of a daughter… the loss of relatives… the loss of wealth… loss through illness; as you have experienced this, weeping and wailing because of being united with the disagreeable and separated from the agreeable, the stream of tears you have shed is more than the water in the four great oceans… It is enough to experience revulsion towards all formations, enough to become dispassionate toward them, enough to be liberated from them. (SN 15.3, Tears) [4]

Some critics characterize the middle class’ newfound interest in meditation as escapism or evidence of their anti-social self-absorption. Perhaps it is actually a sign of what Marx predicted: that the PBG is feeling stressed by downward economic pressure and is seeking ways to manage that deep disenchantment. When their class-slippage becomes apparent, the PBG is more likely to grasp at their class identity with increasing desperation until the stabilizing revolutionary qualities have properly been cultivated. Similarly, a yogi must go through the process of loss again and again before they are able to turn their energies away from any investment in conditioned phenomena.

Marx believed strongly that the proletariat needed to engage in non-revolutionary political, social, and economic organizing in order to build the organizational and educational capacity needed for revolutionary leadership, action, and institutionalization, and to succeed in their revolutionary mission when conditions were ripe. Some “more radical” contemporaries of Marx disagreed, believing that workers should mobilize solely for revolutionary action, regardless of social conditions, and criticized Marx himself as being a reformist. Perhaps, then, these reformist approaches to mindfulness are necessary entry points that can begin a longer process of spiritual radicalization.

Most dedicated Buddhists around the world take a very very long view of the process of liberation, recognizing that the inner revolution is not simply a matter of will-power but of committed ethical integrity, rigorous mind training, and deepening sensitivity to reality. Indeed, they often commit over many, many lifetimes, to cultivating wholesome mental qualities that will support them in the eventual overthrow of greed, hatred, and delusion. This long view doesn’t make people less dedicated or their approach less “revolutionary,” it means they have fathomed the magnitude of the project and are pacing themselves appropriately; cultivating both patience and determination. Essential to this view is the understanding that the humility, kindness, and wisdom that come from this path are rewards of the practice in and of themselves and to look beyond them for our motivation, to external markers that satisfy our unexamined personal and social delusions, is folly. Keeping the north star of complete liberation always ahead of us is a fundamental part of staying on the path with integrity.

Any entry point into a sincere meditation practice is wonderful, indeed it is priceless, and any mental or physical suffering that is alleviated therefrom is extremely valuable. I know many people whose starting place in meditation practice was a world away from where they ended up in their quest for “stress-reduction”. On the other hand, I was relieved to hear about the new systematic review and meta-analysis: “Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being.” The study surveyed 47 different studies on the efficacy of meditation practice on a variety of mental phenomena. It showed “modest” or no evidence of improved anxiety, depression, pain, mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight among the 3515 participants. It also found “no evidence that meditation programs were better than any active treatment (ie, drugs, exercise, and other behavioral therapies).” As more and more people make more and more money from the mindfulness movement, it probably won’t matter much what future research proves. Most likely is that we begin the absolute bourgeoisification of mindfulness where the owning class and the bourgeois state try to use it as a tool for the reification of class dominance and imperialism.

If this sounds over-dramatic, consider another recent essay, “The Militarization of Mindfulness,” which highlighted a $4.3 million grant the U.S. Army and Department of Defense has provided University of Miami researchers for a so-called “Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training” for pre-deployment soldiers as well as $31 million for a “positive psychology” program that will include mindfulness education for 1.1 million soldiers. The Dalai Lama himself gave his approval of the program. I can only imagine that His Holiness has such profound faith in revolutionary nature of mindfulness that he is unconcerned with the utterly dubious ethics associated with training soldiers to be more mindful killers. If so, he is obviously taking the longest of long views.

While the Buddha and Marx have deeply divergent perspectives on the nature of human suffering and emancipation, in many ways they thought very similarly about these very different things. There are places where their perspectives function as imperfect mirrors of each other, of the inner and the outer revolution. These reflections and refractions can help us see that much more is at stake in this contemporary mindfulness phenomenon than merely the lifestyle whims of the PBG. Mindfulness as taught by the Buddha is not merely a pacification of stress but one important aspect of a deep engagement with suffering that has a revolutionary nature, distinct from but in some ways complementary to that of the social revolution. Appreciating mindfulness for its revolutionary potential is not simply respectful of the Buddha’s teaching, it may be the only thing mindfulness is actually good for.

My shingles eventually went away on its own and my eye seems to have made it through the turmoil unscathed. I’m not sure my meditation practice helped at all but thanks to mindfulness, I had truly accepted the possibility of my loss of vision in a way that I never would have otherwise been able to do. It teaches me every moment about the undependability of things and this has powerfully developed my heart toward a natural response of peace and compassion in the face of suffering. Part of me longs for the day when a study proves, once and for all, that mindfulness is entirely useless for anything beside the development of wisdom and kindness. If it can’t make us beautiful or successful, if it won’t heal the world, if it won’t help us lose weight or win the game, maybe it will get tossed aside by the big money-makers and those seeking to affirm, achieve, and fortify the bourgeois relations of production through contemporary spirituality. Then, those who are interested in liberating their minds from the forces of greed, hatred, and delusion can get back to work without feeling like they are missing the boat on the “mindfulness revolution” just because their lives aren’t magically and blissfully transformed through meditation. Until then, it would be good, at the very least,  if people didn’t go around thinking that it all started in Silicon Valley.

[1] Marx, Karl. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York, International Publishers, 1963) p50.

[2] Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikāya, (Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2000), p1661.

[3] Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p1647.

[4] Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p652.

Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey is a teacher of Vipassana (Insight) meditation and other practices from the Theravada Buddhist tradition. He is a student of Michele McDonald in the lineage of Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma and is the resident teacher for Vipassana Hawai’i. His teaching aims to inspire the skills, determination, and faith necessary to realize the deepest human freedom.  
Jesse was a co-founder of The Stone House, a center for spiritual life and social justice in Mebane, NC and was a Board member for BPF for several years. He is currently writing a book about the Buddha, Karl Marx, and his dad.


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Comments (34)

  • Shaun Bartone

    Awesome analysis! It really helped me understand why I continue to feel so out-of-sync with the two buddhist communities I’ve been a part of—we’re all a bunch of PBGrs. As a part-time instructor at a university, I’ve been proletarianized by employment precarity. So in addition to teaching, I also work as an organizer for my teacher’s union. I’m also the only flaming faggot in my sangha, which makes me feel really weird. But what I struggle with is the feeling of having failed at being middle class, and yet I persist in trying to fit into this PBGr mentality. Suffering! I think instead of trying to find a better sangha that’s not so PBG, I should just understand it as a condition that I have to deal with.

  • Max Airborne

    Great article, Jesse. Thanks.

  • Craig Triplett

    Thank you, Jesse, for giving me words to help me explain why I feel so uneasy with the mindfulness movement. I will share your article with others who are also struggling.

  • min

    Samatha Vipassana
    Samatha – mindfulness – if practiced properly, you get calm mind. But we are different, not possible to be same – some develop mindfulness fast, some never. Those with various attachments should practice differently, not to imitate those (e.g. forest monks) who have given up everything. Generally, if you have the right method, you should be fine. You’re supposed to develop Samadhi – calmness, stillness. This phase is the same to everyone. However, there are 40 kammatthana.
    Vipassana is different – can be different to everyone, but still it is based on what you practice in Samatha.

    Generally, people practice breath meditation – Anapanasati. The start is very important – instead of calmness, one can develop ego. The line is quite thin. If one is not natural, naturally breathing in and out,, one might develop ego. Here, many people drift away instead of concentration – they will never develop mindfulness, but sink in thoughts and stress.

    For the right methods, you got to find teachers who can give you the right methods. Some good books can help too I hope. Watch Ajahn Chah’s teaching if you it’s easy for you. There were many many genuine meditation centre such as Goenka in India, Moekok, Mahasi, etc from Burma/Myanmar.

  • Zac Reisner

    The mention of the “The Militarization of Mindfulness”, reminds me of the example of Rinzai teacher Oda Sesso Roshi, abbot of Dai-Tokuji in Kyoto. Normally, when giving a dharma lecture, the Roshi would enter the Buddha Hall and ascend the High Seat to deliver the talk. But one day he came out and sat down on the floor in front of the High seat, on the same level with all the other monks. The talk was the lecture on the fear of death, and he said, ” When I give this lecture, I do not sit on the high seat, because of the way this teaching was misused to train Kamikaze pilots during WW II”.
    It may be that the Dalai Lama knows what he’s doing in this regard, but perhaps he needs to hear this little story. Oda Roshi’s point was that the integrity, the sincerity of practice is non-negotiable. It’s nothing more than honesty to oneself and others, plain and simple. As Ken Kesey said, “You are either ON, of OFF the bus”.

  • TJ

    I’ve done a number of extended meditation retreats. It was work. Though I never had a raw feeling after. Everyone’s different.

    And Marx? He was all about fantasy. The Buddha was about reality. Look at Marx’s legacy and compare it to the Buddha’s. Then maybe reconsider comparing their philosophies.

    Why do you want to separate the “real” effects of meditation from the “spiritual” effects? It’s all the same thing.

    You should reconsider your decision to write articles without first gaining a bit of wisdom. And, obviously, I need to stay away from the BPF.


  • Zac Reisner

    One further thought- What you are describing regarding the “use” of mindfulness practice to be more successful everyday life, business, career, etc., is exactly what you hear all the time from a number of high-powered Christian televangelists; “God WANTS you to be wealthy and happy!”, completely ignoring the admonition of Christ to help the poor and downtrodden, focusing on the fruits of the spirit rather than storing up material treasures. Yoga in the US and other countries has been rife with various gurus preaching much the same thing as Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, or Jim and Tammy Baker. And of course raking in millions of dollars in contributions to help spread the Word of Salvation.

    Here in Oregon in the early 70’s, we had the Hindu ashram of Rajneeshpuram, where spiritual practice was distorted into the deliberate poisoning of the food and water supply of Antelope, Oregon, and the importation of several thousand homeless people to pad voting rolls, in an attempted takeover of the town and county government. The ashram featured guards armed with AK-47’s, checkpoints, and loudspeakers blaring the speeches of the infamous Ma Anand Sheela, in an effort to instill fear and paranoia of the local community and authorities. The Rajneesh himself was the owner of over 100 expensive cars such Rolls Royce, Bentley and Maserati sedans.

    But this is the extreme. Nonetheless, the subtle nature of self-deception in spiritual practice is always present. I like what Sokei-an told his students: “Poverty is your treasure; do not forsake it for an easy life.”

  • Belinda G

    LOVE this piece. Having spent months of my life in solo and silent retreat, and then emerging into my life as a campaigner, parent, partner and survivor (not to mention member of sanghas with their own shadows and craziness), it is beautiful and refreshing to hear this take on how “integrating” practice really is, what its transformative power really means, and how cooptation is a reality to be brought deeply into our practice both in and out of retreat as we work for a life-sustaining society. Thank you, Jesse.

  • Geoffrey Wood

    Nice piece, good insights on Marxism and Buddhism. I am a little uneasy with the desire to see mindfulness not relieve people from suffering, and of course there are plenty of studies and meta-analyses that show it does help. At the same time, i am uneasy with mindfulness being used, as you note, as a means of prolonging and better enduring an essentially inequitable and suffering-full economy and mindset. Long run, yes, i agree with HHDL, it is a tool that cannot but help one begin to see and address the fundamental dukkha that leads to aggravated forms of suffering. A glimpse here or there, a realization that one is not the ego or the stories and chains it binds itself with. While I would love the world’s suffering to rapidly decrease, for people’s general level of awareness and compassion to rapidly increase, i do not think that is realistic on my part. Grandiose, even. It also does not as you note jive with the Buddhas teaching that realization may take countless lifetimes and eons for individuals, and as societies are composed of individuals, i don’t see how it can go any faster than it can go. It is my impression that we don’t have long before a period of much greater global suffering ensues. In the face of that belief, limited, egoic though it may be, it is again difficult for me to wait, to allow people their small reliefs and even rejoice for them. Perhaps as discussed in the Lotus Sutra, people are like children in a burning house. Mindfulness practices alone like giving them a bandana to filter the smoke without motivating them to get the heck out and away from the flames.

  • Richard Modiano

    It seems to me that activity precedes consciousness. The working class is shaped by the activity forced upon it in a capitalist society. Working class consciousness is not best understood by taking a public opinion poll nor by how we vote but by how we act. Activity comes first, and in the course of that activity consciousness changes.

  • Santikaro

    Ah, the Wonderful West … where mindfulness and love are commodified as the same economic system ravages everything it can and sends drones at those who object.

  • Matt Spitzer

    Thank you Jesse for this insightful and well-thought out article, and everyone for your comments. I don’t know a whole a lot about Marx (but am interested and am learning more) but I like the comparisons you drew between his perspective on systemic suffering and Buddha’s perspective on personal suffering. Of course I realize that you are not arguing that the two are the same, just that there may be some similarities between their viewpoints.

    This article was particularly interesting and relevant for me. After completing my first meditation retreat at the age of 18 (a 10 day Goenka course) I had a great deal of difficulty reentering my daily life. This really upset and confused me at the time. If mindfulness and meditation is supposed to be “good” for you, why was it causing me so much trouble? As you pointed out, the society we live in is often at odds with the kind of compassion and wisdom that a yogi seeks to cultivate. But if mindfulness and meditation retreats just create people who are unable to interact successfully with the world, what good is it? Maybe it is no good. Maybe it is truly a revolutionary spiritual path that leads to the rejection of the world.

    But this is not how I relate to Buddhism. I think that there are powerful and relevant ways to incorporate Buddhist practice (not just mindfulness, but ethics as well) into daily life. This is what inspires me so much about Buddhism as it has developed in the West. Yes, there are a great deal of examples of the commodification of mindfulness in ways that demean it’s value. And I think that the use of mindfulness programs in the military is certainly worthy of criticism. But what makes me feel hopeful about Buddhism in the West is it’s ability to change our perspective on ourselves–and ultimately the world we live in–from one of self-centered desire to a broader view, which includes everyone and everything.

    That’s where I think the distinction between absolute and conventional truth as discussed by the Buddha becomes very important. In terms of ultimate truth, Buddhist practice is useless. Dogen-zenji, the 13th century Japanese monk who founded the Soto Zen school in Japan, put a great deal of thought into this dilemma. If from the ultimate view, we are already enlightened (which is what the Buddha said upon first awakening under the Bodhi tree), then why do we need to practice? Well, it’s because we do not realize it; we do not see our Buddhanature, nor do we see the Buddhanature in others. So we must “practice to give up the self we never had” (a quote from Norman Fischer, I think).

    But in the conventional world, practice may have some benefit. Of course, if we attach to this benefit and practice because of it, that will become a problem for us–it will lead to suffering. But that is not to say that the benefit is non-existent. As you said, the ways that practice benefits ourselves and others can be meandering and mysterious, but I would argue (both from personal experience and academic study) that they are real. So we must figure out some way to hold both the absolute and conventional in a balanced way.

  • teejay henner

    Thank your article. Can share your concerns about eyesight, and the commercialization of all religions. Am 87 years old and losing all my faculties as well as hair and teeth. Have been a practicing Buddhist/Taoist for over 20 years. My mother was a pacifist and socialist who also taught me about Nirvana. Spent several summers at Forest Refuge (Loved it) and am a member of CIMC, (CAmbridge Insight Meditation Society) but now spend my time at home alone, am housebound and can no longer get to a Sangha.Read the Heart Sutra every morning and learning to live with paradox and look at the clouds. Also reading various translations of the Dhammapada.
    Have written a piece on “The Interdependence of all Beings which is about what happens after death.

  • David Forbes

    Jesse, as someone inspired by both Marx (no, he was not into fantasy as a previous commenter believes but was very concrete) and Buddha, I appreciate this thoughtful article. I like the analogy with the petit bourgeois–they have a lot of anxiety and they want to tinker with the system to make things less stressful for themselves, without acknowledging that there are systemic causes of the stress that need to be changed. Marx’s insight that they mistakenly universalize their own social position to everyone else’s reminds me of the current adaptation of mindfulness by numerous middle class members who want to feel less anxious without making the radical commitment to change the nature of both ego-attachment and commodity fetishism–the systemic roots that share many commonalities and that lead to the anxiety in the first place.

    Recommended readings:
    Beyond McMindfulness

    Occupy Mindfulness

  • teejay henner

    Thank you for your article. Can share your concerns about eyesight and the commercialization of religions.Am 87 years old and losing my faculties as well as hair and teeth. Have been a practicing Buddhist/Taoist for over 20 years.Spent several summers at Forest Refuge and am a member CIMC in Cambridge but now spend my time at home alone. Am housebound and can no longer get to a Sangha. Read the Heart Sutra every morning and am trying to live with paradox.

  • Joey Kimg

    Good article.,I was disturbed to learn about mindfulness as part of military training a year ago. To be blunt, I was a trained killer for the US Army (airborne ranger) from 1984-87. Teaching mindfulness to help people kill more efficiently is wrong on so many levels that I can not put it into words. Teaching mindfulness to veterans who are out of the killing business is another matter. Hatred is one of the 3 poisins

    Similarly, teaching mindfulness to business people for the purpose of greed (another poison)is ludicrous.

    But I can not praise Marx. The Bhagavad Gita says we are entitled to our labor, but never it’s fruits. Capitalists think the capitalists should get the fruits; Marx said it should be the workers. Both are equally misguided, for that way of thinking leads to attachment.

    Finally, Marx, like all western philosophers, is long on analysis, and short on solutions. In fact, he gave only one solution in all of his writings, and that was near the end of the Communist Manifesto where advocated the violent overthrow of the existing social order. The recent book, Why Civil Resistance Works studied 323 worldwide movements, protests, revolutions etc from 1900-2006. The conclusion : non-violence is twice as effective as violence. In other words, so,meven in the one time he gave a solution, Marx was dead wrong. Plus, like many Buddhists, I am a pacifist and philisophically can not support Marx.

    Joey King
    Veterans For Peace Board of Directors
    Buddhist Peace Fellowship

  • Katie Loncke

    Loving this article and all the thoughtful comments it is sparking. It’s heartening to see a comment section where folks can disagree without flaming each other!

    Jesse, your reminders about the ultimate ‘aims’ of conquering greed, hatred, and delusion (with love and wisdom) also reminds me of the book by Daniel Ingram, “Mastering The Core Teachings Of The Buddha.” Ingram inveighs against what he sees as watered-down dharma (I think he actually calls it “mushroom meditation” or something, where students are ‘kept in the dark’) tailored to the preferences of a paying audience, and avoiding some of the potentially disturbing or uncomfortable truths of the teachings.

    While, stylistically, an over-emphasis on the ‘hardcore’ elements of dharma can give off a macho / masculinist vibe that I’m personally not super into, I really appreciate the tone of honesty, clarity, and inspiration that you use here. Feelin it! Spiritual love isn’t some ever-pleasant, balmy spa treatment; it requires deep courage. (As does a commitment to bringing about a classless society. I have a lot of thoughts on Marx but will save them for now! :-)

    Thanks again to all for the discussion!


  • John Allan

    The article goes for the low hanging fruit of criticism of the ‘evil empire’ of increasingly corporatized and privatized western culture. Fair enough, definite problems there. But the article dances at the edge of another western neurosis; that of self-loathing. “We are not worthy.”

    Doing this lets the Mahasi method/technique and it’s Goenka “Vipassana’ variation completely off the hook. You cite the Buddha’s discourses as though the Buddha’s teaching and the logic of various Buddhist traditions are the same thing. BUT you do not analyze the faulty reasoning behind the Mahasi and Goenka experiments. The same goes for many other technique obsessed Buddhist meditation traditions. Of course people in the corporate sector and the military can develop their powers of attention, and it would be ‘mindfulness,’ but not necessarily “right mindfulness’- a huge area to think about.

    Just one of the problems with Mahasi/Goenka approaches is that they confuse right effort with force and self-abuse. Encouraging people to make resolves or vows to sit still for increasingly big lengths of time. JUST PLAIN STUPID. Leads to enormous physical and psychological stress because you have an impermanent body/mind and cannot succeed and consequently are a failure. “Ah but if I can just do the technique right……” For this the Buddha BEFORE he was the Buddha is ‘quoted.’ He makes a silly vow to not get up from under the Bodhi Tree until he was awakened. “Though the blood dry up in my veins I will not move. etc” This conveniently suits macho fantasies BUT forgets that AFTER he woke up the Buddha forbade the making of so called permanent vows or oaths There is a Viniya rule against it. You got shingles. I know of 2 cases if permanent hearing damage – stress induced tinnitus, and a bit of knee damage. I never did a Goenka “vipassana’ course myself. Came back from stint in robes in Thailand in early 70’s and found this had hit Australia. Friends couldn’t meditate with me as Goenka had forbidden people doing different practices sitting together. My response. “This is a heresy.” I realized it had more to do with Goenkas Brahmin family origins than the Buddha’s teachings. Stories I heard later around his purity obsessions confirmed this. Then some think that Mahasi will be the real deal. Sorry folks, seems to be founded on the later abhidamma idea that there are certain irreducible aspect of reality which they call ‘dhammas’ . And reading accounts of people who met Mahasi , like Admiral Shaddock, Mahasi comes off like a high functioning Asperger’s person. Referred to himself in the 3rd person, huge memory etc. And the method seems to me so mechanist.

    While Marx had some interesting ideas. Some like to think that people like Lenin, Stalin, Mao and various other mass murdering Tyrants distorted the teaching of Marx. – ALWAYS remember he had blood on his hands in the rejection of change via democratic means in favour of violent revolution …Here’s Marx in 1848. “There is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror.” This is what he means in the citation you have about engaging in ‘non-revolutionary’ development….. to prepare for revolution.
    There is plenty in the Buddhas teachings that will address similar things that you called on Marx to do.
    John Allan

  • aneeta

    enjoyed this article very much because what it attempts is to find the balance between our spiritual, internal and often-made individual revolution with the revolution needed in our external society, one that has the exact qualities that marx and the buddha teach us to struggle to abolish: greed, hatred and delusion. and unlike the commentator’s view about marx’s ideas being “fantasy,” the “fantasy” that another world is possible and will be made only through the people rising up to challenge and struggle to alleviate our collective suffering, i very much think that this “fantasy” is based in the lived hystory of people doing just that. this “fantasy” can be seen throughout hystory in the slave rebellions, in the revolutions of haiti, of russia, in the decolonial struggles, of the recent uprisings in brazil, india venezuela, egypt and softly, occupy, in the daily strikes and agitations of workers. we see people feeling deeply that their suffering is not necessary and that they can choose to act collectively to lessen it and in some cases, hope to abolish it. this “fantasy” can also be seen in our spiritual landscape, people struggling to learn of themselves, to challenge their ego, to break down their delusions, their greed, aversion and hatred.

    the “fantasy” that marx had that a revolution of our external system of capitalism can form, that we can get to some unknown place where our potential as living beings can be more fully realized is just as far-fetched as the “fantasy” that the buddha put forth, to have our internal system so dissolved to have something entirely unknown take its place- a self liberated. but just like the real life hystories of people challenging themselves and the system to fight for their liberation from slavery, both chained and waged, we have our internal experiences of challenging ourselves to look at ourselves more fully, to sit with our suffering and move through it. in both situations, we know liberation in bits and pieces, in small moments, but it’s those momentary experiences that can be our grounding, our faith that the emancipation of our people is not fantasy, it is lived and possible.

  • Richard Modiano

    For those who are not familiar with Marx’s writing I’d like to point out that his analysis of capitalism is what is important and lasting. By contrast, his political positions were usually contingent on a particular historical moment, so that during the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871 he advocated revolution, in the 1880s he believed that with universal male suffrage the working class could and should create a political party to represent its interests and capture power at the polls. The Second International emerged from this position with the encouragement of Engels after Marx’s death.

    As to revolution, it’s unpredictable and uncontrollable. If a sociologist who took an opinion poll in Budapest in September 1956 or in Paris in April 1968 could not have predicted the working class upheavals that occurred a month later. Indeed, the workers themselves did not know in advance of the moment of action what they would find themselves doing when that moment came.

    It’s not a question of going door to door and convincing working people to be ideal socialists. You’ve got to take people as they are, with all their contradictions, with all their nonsense. But the fact that society forces them to struggle begins to transform the working class; they have to deal with their own reality and that transforms them.

  • Richard Modiano

    By the way John, if anyone who advocates for revolution has blood on their hands, who among us has clean hands? Certainly not those who advocate for the preservation of the status quo.

  • John Allan

    There is a big difference between advocating and working for ‘radical’ change of corrupt social structures and saying the only way that it will happen is in via butchering those you disagree with or whose presence doesn’t measure up to, or fit into ones, ‘vision’ of reality. One is simply revolution the other is bloody revolution. Stalin slaughtered Millions of peasants, in part because they did not fit into the simplistic working class, middle class etc. model. Many were serfs as in near slaves but many were more independent ‘self-employed’ people. They were unruly and a bit ‘uppity’ as they were for the tzars too. Stalin butchered them. Pointing out the brutal reality of the Marxist agenda for putting his vision into reality DOES NOT mean I advocate for the status Quo. Pol Pot’s Year Zero is rooted in Marxs notion of ‘rebooting’ everything via bloodletting and dictatorship. The so called ‘intermediate’ stage before the PIE in the sky peoples paradise that never happens is a demon doomed to eat every one because of lust for ‘power over’ and the Buddha’s observation than ‘Not by enmity in this world is enmity undone.” By valuing the term ‘dictatorship’ as in the so called dictatorship of the proletariat, as the intermediate stage Marx et al reveal their profound antipathy to any system other than a power over, one and give explicit approval for brutality – non brutal dictatorship is a contradiction in terms. The rest of his interesting legacy is tainted by his extremism.
    The Buddha was wary of the new model of ‘kingship’ that wiped out the system of Tribal Republics he was born into. He recommended the model of the Council as an appropriate model of governance and criticized ‘kingship’ as it is, ‘were one person puts themselves above all others.’
    Cheers John Allan

  • John Swindle

    PBJ is also good but can lead to attachment.

  • UB

    Thanks, you spelled out the problem with this whole mcmindfulness movement very well. It is something that’s quite unsettling. It’s possible this stage of reformation might just be what society needs to go through when taking the long view because being faced with true revolution of the self is scary and can easily cause people to run away from the practice completely.

  • frances neel

    Thank you! I have not been slapped awake so effectively since the journal, “the Radical Therapist” ,published in the early 1970s.
    I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker practicing in a disenfranchised area of Virginia. I teach many of my clients “stress reduction techniques” without reference to the Buddha or my own practice. As an analogy, I didn’t feed my children Pablum, would not refer to Pablum as nutritious. However misinformed, it did stave off starvation for many infants..
    Is it a self centered comfort to cling to the belief that “something” is better than nothing, whether you’re a solo LCSW, Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama. Speaking for myself, it is hard to keep Marx’s broad (pessimistic? correct?) view of (many/most) humans’ relationship with power in the forefront of my mind. I am aware that the Military establishment has co opted “mindfulness” as a technique to produce more focused (mindful) killers. Paraphrasing Angela Davis, if I’m not part of the solution, I’m part of the problem; then if I continue to participate in the commercialization of mindfulness practice by teaching disembodied techniques with the intention of helping to reduce suffering, have I participated in normalizing a peaceful practice for use in making war?
    Hmmm. Thank you? Of course, THANK YOU.

  • Bruno


    it is not clear to me what this article wants to show. The Buddha never claimed to fight politically against proto-capitalist institutions or even military institutions for that matter. He avoided any political business and responsibility as is well known from his renunciation of political duties. He had amongst his disciples rich donors, kings and princes, and warriors of the Kshatriya cast. He condemned violence of any kind, but still advised politicians of the times, who had to take violent measures (retributive justice, defensive war). He didn’t turn his back on them.

    The story of how Jetavana grove was donated by Anathapindika is very well known, the cost was incredibly high, including the following ceremony and modern thinking of the Marxist kind should find outrageous that the money wasn’t “spent on the poor” but instead offered to the clergy. And, mind you, the fact that Anathapindika was very rich didn’t prevent him to attain stream-entry.


    We also know that the Buddha didn’t discourage getting rich per se. (same link)

    “Householder, there are five reasons for getting rich. What five?
    “… A noble disciple with riches gotten by work and zeal, gathered by the strength of the arm, earned by the sweat of the brow, justly obtained in a lawful way, makes himself happy, glad, and keeps that happiness; he makes his parents happy, glad, and keeps them so; so likewise his wife and children, and his servants.
    “… When riches are thus gotten, he makes his friends and companions happy, glad, and keeps them so.
    “… When riches are thus gotten, ill-luck… is warded off, and he keeps his goods in safety.
    “… When riches are thus gotten, he makes the five oblations to kin, guests, spirit, kings and deities.
    “… When riches are thus gotten, the noble disciple institutes offerings of lofty aim, celestial, ripening to happiness, leading heavenward, for all those recluses and good men who abstain from pride and indolence, who bear all things in patience and humility, each mastering self, each calming self, each perfecting self.
    “Now if the wealth of that noble disciple, heeding these five reasons, come to destruction, let him consider thus: ‘At least I’ve heeded those reasons for getting rich, but my wealth has gone!’ — thus he is not upset. And if his wealth increase, let him think: ‘Truly, I’ve heeded those reasons and my wealth has grown!’ — thus he is not upset in either case.”
    — AN 5.41

    Now I get it that due to our Greek and Latin historical philosophical roots we are more sensitive in the West to social justice and to the importance of political institutions. But this was never much of an issue in India and proximate Eastern areas. The democratic model was imported, even though it seems that the early Sangha knew how to vote for their communal decisions.

    The challenges have therefore to be tackle through new ways. Personally I go along David Loy’s analysis, 100% :

    Where I do not get the point of the article again, is the dubious claim that degeneration of Dharma comes principally from new movements such as Mindfulness trends. This is not so. Monks in countries like Thailand (Theravada then) are used to bless banks and even weapons!

    As for the militarization of Mindfulness, why not talk of the militarization of Dhamma as well ? I was in Lanka in 1983 right during the events and saw how monks approved of the violent retaliation against the Tamils (even though many Tamils didn’t support the Tigers). They rejoinced in the looting and I saw some of the stuff looted ending in a monastery I was in the next day of the big burst. War against the Tamils became a “just war”, a kind of Buddhist Jihad.

    This is very well documented. A good read on Buddhist nationalism in Lanka is “The Work of Kings” by Sri Lankan anthropologist H.L. Seneviratne, but there are many others, some directly on this war. I do not have personal opinion on the right for Buddhists to defend themselves, it is very difficult to figure out, but one has to be fair and not give the idea that only Western degenerate “Mcmindfullners” go wrong.

    I agree that McMindfulness is becoming troublesome due to lack of ethics (and deontology) and possible greed (it becomes like the Reiki business). Good articles that explain the issues have been quoted above.

    As for the question of scientific “evidence”, I think the main argument is that the definition of mindfulness is not clear and it is therefore difficult to know what is measured. A very good paper is this

    But I agree too with what has been said above, that Goenka’s method is not free from possible criticism, the main one being its sectarianism (“we are the only one” brainwashing). Yet as far as I know the centre dedicated to this style of Vipassana retreat in France is the only one that can offer full retreat without asking for a fee, and I think nothing is even asked for the first time. This is probably unique and a very good point for those who have not much resources.
    “All courses are run solely on a donation basis. All expenses are met by donations from those who, having completed a course and experienced the benefits of Vipassana, wish to give others the same opportunity. Neither the Teacher nor the assistant teachers receive remuneration; they and those who serve the courses volunteer their time. Thus Vipassana is offered free from commercialisation.”

    Finally, I’m surprised, considering the Marxist developments and the social concerns, that Bhikkhu Buddhadasa is not even mentioned.

  • Susan McLaughlin

    Excellent question. I teach the same techniques to prisoners. What’s the best practice here?
    Many thanks!

  • Eden

    Thanks for a very thoughtful and thought-provoking essay here, Jesse. I think your use of the Marxist analogy is perfect, despite the problems we may have with Marx himself. As someone fairly familiar with Marxist thought, it helps me to see the nature of what is going on in the interior practice. Your indictment of McMindfulness is on point, and your willingness to accept that it does help some, and may be a doorway into real practice for some, keeps you from sounding sectarian or obsessive.

    I would encourage you to keep writing articles, as you seem to have developed the requisite wisdom to communicate with those of us open to hearing.
    As for the criticisms of the Vipassana techniques, I would recommend you look into it deeply. I have been doing Buddhist practice for many years, mostly Zen, but had a few years with the Goenka strain recently. There is, as someone above mentioned, excessive emphasis on a single technique, which put a lot of pressure on me to “do it right” and eventually – well, along with other dogmatic aspects – pushed me away from the practice. It is a good practice, but the context is out of balance. As the commenter said, coming more from SNG’s Hindu background than from Buddhism. Also, two guys back in the lineage, Ledi S., he’s teaching only anapanna. So where does the technique actually come from?

    Anyway, don’t take the criticism too much to heart. You are onto something here and we get it. Buddhist teaching and practice is at heart a revolutionary thing, and we can’t sit by and allow it to be diluted and co-opted without at least pointing out that this is not really Buddhism. Maybe they should just go and try baptizing people and see if that makes them more productive workers and soldiers.

  • Jacqueline Kramer

    As Buddhism moves West there is a need to provide entry points for a wide, diverse range of spiritual needs. If some people get benefit from just mindfulness, what’s the harm? Does it harm those who wish to inquire deeper? It is hubris to think that everyone should be at, and approach, their path the way we approach our path.

  • Richard Modiano

    It seems to me that the caution is against seeing mindfulness as a panacea for all that ails you. Further, there’s much historical evidence for mindfulness in the service of oppression. It should also be noted that formal meditation practice has always been the practice of a minority relative to the greater sangha, and this prevails today in the US; the combined membership of all Pure Land schools and Nichren schools outnumbers many times the numbers who practice formal meditation.

  • Anthony Nolan

    An excellent article for which thanks very much. I was introduced to the dharma by an old mate, a profound critical thinker and radical, who suggested that Buddhism was a reasonable way to stay sane in an objectively mad world. He was right! As a post-marxist and current dharma paractitioner my view is that the dharma provides a spiritual practice by which we can sustain ourselves as agents of change for the better, for justice, equality and ecological sanity. However, when the dharma is used for mere personal advantage, for example to achieve greater peace of mind and equanimity about a world that is burning with suffering, then this is a misapplication of the dharma.

    I share with the author and some commenters here similar experiences of alienation in a couple of sanghas. It took years to figure it out because most sangha members were delightful people but what stood between me and them was class/cultural difference. I grew up on the docks in the Australian coal and steel town of Newcastle; a place so immersed in generations of class oppression and grittiness that it affected mind/body profoundly. It is not a history to overcome, shed or leave behind; there is no shame in that class background. That shamelessness, however, is precisely what created barriers between me and the corp execs I used to meet at short retreats, evening sessions and long retreats.

    I don’t mean to be harsh but certainly intend to be forthright: some people work for giant giant corporations that trash the planet and go on eco-adventures to the Arctic for their holidays; some people attend corporate winter sleep-outs to raise money for the homeless and then go back to work downsizing and grinding minimum income workerswith a clear conscience. I’d hate to think that the dharma was being used for similar purposes.

  • Cristina Moon

    Thank you, Jesse, for an excellent article and for opening up your own personal experience as an entree to a rich and challenging discourse. I’ve really appreciated the comments and clarifications by David Forbes, John Allan and Richard Moliano above, as well.

    To Richard’s point that we have to take people as they are, I do want to point out and disagree with one fundamental dehumanizing opinion stated several times in the comments and in the article itself. Even killers are people, and therefore suffer.

    I was never a soldier but I have spent time in conflict zones with rebel guerillas and former conscripts for a military dictatorship. I’ve also met a few American veterans and know that all of these people have experienced suffering related to the actions they took in combat — whether they saw them as justified or horrific mistakes they wished they could undo — as well as simply the stresses of being in a war zone.

    I am with His Holiness. It’s not up to us to hold back the Dharma and meditation practice if it can help people. My understanding of the use of mindfulness in the military is that there is no evidence or motivation about the practice making soldiers “more efficient killers”. The data and intention is actually to prevent soldier, civilian and even enemy casualties and to prevent PTSD. That may be efficient, but it’s also right.

    And our approach to righting the system doesn’t have to be Either-Or, but Both-And. We can make existing institutions more humane and ethical while also working to dismantle them. To think we can’t is to allow the power we do not control to divide us and dictate its own tools as the only ones we can use. We cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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