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Towards a Fifth Foundation of Mindfulness: Dhamma and Decolonization

Towards a Fifth Foundation of Mindfulness: Dhamma and Decolonization

Both dhamma practice and structured intellectual activity serve as decolonization practices for me. Some years back, when I was questioning the assumptions I had developed about my own dhamma practice, I entered a graduate program strongly informed by anti-colonial and post-colonial thinkers. To my surprise, the intellectual practices of these thinkers were extremely complementary to Theravadan Vipassana practice because of their deconstructive natures. Over time, I have come to regard this intellectual work almost as a fifth foundation of mindfulness (traditionally there are four).

These thinkers were questioning and destabilizing myriad ideas transplanted from Europe, many of which had become internalized and institutionalized in colonial and post-colonial societies. In dhamma practice I was destabilizing ideas and assumptions about my self, a self that had been shaped by imperial relationships between the United States, Japan, and Taiwan, by having grown up in a settler colony in occupied Lenape territory.

These scholar-activists—with names like Fanon, Kincaid, Césaire, Chatterjee, Mohanty, Said, Spivak—were trying to think into what colonization and imperialism had done to their various societies and peoples. Their intellectual practices were connected to real-life anti-colonial struggles going on around them at every level—social, cultural, economic, political, psychological. There were also many European and United Statian scholars whose work was crucial to me, such as Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Butler, and more.

In my experience, a background in these thinkers’ critiques of capitalism, modernity, and post-modernity can deepen dhamma practice. For example, in Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault shows the effects of capitalism’s hitching of human bodies to the clock in the name of efficiency and productivity. The European laborer’s body had to be trained by a measured work day to be precise and efficient in its activities, in order to achieve a certain amount of production within a number of hours—extracting the maximum amount of profit (see my previous post for more on surplus value). This way of life spread around the world, often through colonization or imperialism.

As I would sit for long periods of meditation during silent retreats, I could sense the effects of capitalist discipline on my body. I recalled how my body and mind had been reluctantly trained to accept the nine to five work day. I felt my relationship to capitalism through the aches and pains, illnesses, weariness, muscular problems, and disabilities that were present. I knew that the relatively decreased mobility in one shoulder was connected to repetitively moving a mouse forty hours a week, that the way my shoulders slumped forward echoed the demands of typing on a keyboard every day. I wondered if I had a very physically demanding job whether I would be able to sit cross-legged on the floor at all. Other bodies are negatively impacted by capitalist discipline much more intensely than mine.

Inside the settling of mind that comes with being on a silent residential retreat, some of these knots loosened and evaporated, and others were more persistent. These are things that tend to happen naturally on an extended retreat. The mind and body gets a chance to step away from the habits of life, the physical actions and mental movements that must be repeated everyday in order to earn a living. They eventually mold and embed themselves in the body. Of course, this molding would happen in life regardless of capitalism. But with mindfulness we might begin to see that our economic system’s demand on time, muscle, energy, and creativity—for the sole purpose of profit—can impose lower quality of life as well as disabilities on us.

I can imagine a long-term residential retreat where we practice mindfulness in a traditional manner, but with a wider awareness of how the sensations, thoughts, feelings, and states of mind that arise might be situated in these larger social forces. Not with the intent to investigate their content, which might divert us from mindfulness, but with full recognition that the internal and external phenomena we experience as human beings are intimately tied to how society relates to us, as racialized, gendered, economic beings. We can include these in our awareness and begin to undo their effects, while we attack the machinery of capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and more.

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Comments (7)

  • Tom Pepper

    The long-term retreat you “imagine” here seems to me to have enormous potential for really waking people up, teaching a real understanding of what depending origination means, and producing practitioners who see fully that their supposedly “pure awareness” is determined by the social formations in which they live–that reducing suffering requires changes in social formations (as seems to have been clear to the earliest Buddhist sangha), and can never be accomplished by simply retreating from engagement in the world and producing an deep “true self.”

    So, when are you going to do it? Why not move from imagining to carrying it out, and have such a retreat? The only real difficulty, it seems to me, is that it might be hard to find many practicing Buddhists in the West who have your “wider awareness of how the sensations, thoughts, feelings, and states of mind that arise might be situated in these larger social forces.” and you might have to include some of the readings you mentioned, some serious study of Marx or Foucault along with the sutras, but why not? I’m particularly fond of Lefebvre’s “Critique of Everyday Life” as a starting point. How do the actions of our everyday life construct us, and both reproduce the existing social formation and cause our own suffering?

    I don’t mean to be flip here–this really would be one way of being faithful to the real, original purpose of Buddhism, of facing the difficulty that has been part of awakening for thousands of years. Most Westerner’s seem to think that the difficulty in Buddhism is in learning to sit in painful positions for long periods of time, never talk (or think), and stop trying to make the world better and “accept” it until we die. But the real difficulty is what you are pointing to in this post-llearning how we are dependently arisen, and how we can change our conventional selves to reduce suffering. So do the retreat! Wake people up!

  • Kenji

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for the support and encouragement. This is an idea that has been rolling around in my brain for a few years now and I would love to develop it further. I think there are others out there who have similar thoughts about dhamma, and I think there will be a critical mass around it in the coming years. I look forward to continuing to think into it, and hopefully seeing it implemented somehow.


  • John Eden

    This is a most interesting and inspiring perspective for me. I am a long-time meditator and anti-capitalist, yet it has always been challenging for me to reconcile the two. I was a Zen practitioner for many years and a few years ago began to practice at a Vipassana Center. This tradition seems more or less neutral toward activism, so it’s been a conflict for me. Your comments help me to see how the practice itself is a form of activism, or at least is supportive, when understood in this way, of a radical development of consciousness. I would love to participate in a 10-day with your context… please keep me in mind if it becomes reality. Meanwhile, I’m practicing with renewed enthusiasm for seeing the social implications of all those sensations and defilements… Thank you!

  • Rachel

    Thank you for this post, Kenji! I finally figured out why my right shoulder & arm are so messed up. Duh!

    More importantly, though I am grateful that you, too, are connecting the inner and outer dots. With apologies for touting my own horn: This is a central argument in my thesis “Overcoming Stereotypes Against Singles.” I show how the external stereotypes against singles (as lazy, incomplete, deficient) are internalized as shame (with the story that there’s something wrong with us). I believe that only if we see this connection do we get that we cannot liberate ourselves unless we also change culture (and vice versa!).

    Since I wrote the thesis a couple years ago, I’ve expanded this idea to what I call “cultural trauma,” which are basically the beliefs that we have that reflect internalize cultural norms – whether that’s around marriage, race, gender, age, or any other box. Again, if we don’t fall into that norm, we are pegged as somehow deficient, which is internalized as shame.

    If we don’t understand this connection, we set ourselves up for being retraumatized as soon as we’re back in the cultural norm-soup. I still have to remind myself, for example, that I don’t believe marriage is a social panacea or that finding The One will make me eternally happy (never mind that there isn’t The One). Or that work has to take the form of a 40-hour job.

    I could envision that a retreat could be very powerful in helping us see the connections and start undermining them.

  • Bezi

    Hey! Uh Huh. Totally. I’ve been lurking (liteweight) on the site over the last couple of days, looking at all the provocative and insightful posts and threads, trying to figure out where to jump in the convo, and you’ve just given it to me. Good looking out!

    I think this is a SUPER idea. My life is also informed deeply by Theravada, being where I wandered unawares a decade ago into an inexpressibly blissful, paradigm-shattering moment of what I can only think to call “nirvana” since nobody I’ve ever spoken to could even remotely relate or help me precisely categorize exactly what happened. I feel like I grok many of the things you’ve said in this and other posts of yours here on the site. I’m a middle-aged black male in a deep and ongoing dzogchen, the taxonomy of which is reconciliation between an internal sense of limitlessness and liberation (due to anicca), and the apparent external reality of the institutionalized Three Poisons – which appear both as “ignorance, attachment and aversion”, and “greed, ill will and delusion”. The key aspect to that ecstatic moment in the Joshua Tree meditation hall (sadhu Goenkaji!) was the dynamiting of all the categories and personas I’d previously taken for granted were “me” – “African American”, “male”, “rapper”, “Bostonian”, “Capricorn”, “intellect”, etc. When I as ‘perceiving subject’ found myself merged with ‘perceived object’ I came to know at the experiential level that what Siddhartha said was true… and I’m taking some license here… that this is all a seamlessly integrated, endlessly elaborate and compelling but ultimately transitory illusion. It helped that this comported with what one of my personal heroes, Herr Einstein, had to say about reality.

    But at the same time, as many here have already pointed out, cultural, social, politicial, economic and existential traumas from our brush with industrial, and now technical capitalism, are at least equally “real”. I’m a pretty appreciative fan as well of the Fanon, Focault, Cesaire, Chatterjee, Said crowd. Some of those others you mentioned I haven’t read yet. If you could give some first names I’d probably look into them. Some of the thinkers who’ve helped hold me down as I shook off the imperialist programming were Paulo Friere, Gertrude Stein, Raoul Vaneigem, Mircea Eliade, Betty Friedan, Camille Paglia, of course Malcolm, Martin, Huey P, Angela Davis, but also Barbara Marx Hubbard, Watts, McKenna, Deepak, Dyer, Das and that crew. Being an aging b-boy, I’ve also been duly influenced by my probably lesser known anti-colonialist Hip Hop peers: KRS One, Rakim, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Sista Souljah, etc. As broad a field as that may be to draw from (!), it actually hangs together thematically pretty nicely, in that each person’s work is the work I presume we’re all on about here… to paraphrase the radical rap duo Dead Prez, “gettin’ free.”

    Words and images from them come and go from my awareness when I sit, as well as a whole host of other phenomena similar to the ones you listed like pain, weariness, labored breathing, strange skin palpitations, muscle tension, slumping, etc. What’s so fascinating – and potentially explosive – is that I gradually discovered these all constitute a kind of psycho-somatic language in which all of my karmic records are housed. I’m still learning to read it but it’s turning out to be a kind of Rosetta Stone of the soul. Each sensation is linked to a thought, an emotion, a belief, memory or behavior. As the connections are made, novel and startling insights occur. If this is true for others, it’s definitely why Buddhism is an indispensable part of whatever collective healing / transformative situation is trying to emerge here. These methods pierce falsehoods of every conceivable kind. The practitioner is revealed as the ultimate agent; the only course available is full and total acceptance of personal responsibility.

    As if that weren’t heavy enough, engaged Buddhism takes it one critical step further. I tried to launch a student-led organization to integrate self-actualization and social agitation which I called the ‘Lotus Party’ at Berkeley City College, based on an engaged Buddhist model. Meditation was absolutely a central part of what I had in mind, for the very reasons everybody’s discussing. But this idea of a dedicated retreat specifically for the purpose of confronting individual and collective internalized colonialization… man. That’s the BUSINESS. It’s got to happen. It’s both inspiring and relieving to know there are folks thinking along these lines. This is a direction I call myself having been moving in for a long time. I mean… what if it was mostly silent (of course that’s where the tutelage begins, in silence), but then at the end of each day there was something like a debriefing discussion period in which participants could BRIEFLY talk about the sensations that arose for them, and how they might be linked to specific racial, class, gender, size and ability distortions? That could be mad powerful. Potentially very motivating… and bonding. It’s like WOW. We really ARE alike in the most important ways. Jeez – I get giddy just contemplating what might be possible…

  • Katie Loncke

    Bezi, just wanted to say welcome, hella appreciating your inspiring and poetic visions of the possible (Rosetta Stone of the soul? Love it), and can’t wait to get down on the engaged Buddhist tip in all kinds of ways. Are you still in the Bay these days? Hope you’re well!


  • Bezi

    hey Katie! Thanks. Yupyup – still here in the Bay, holding it down. Trying to make a pretty momentous move into dedicated Sangha life somehere here in No. CA…

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