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  • What's Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn't): Zen Perspectives ed. by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum and Barry Magid
  • Wakoh Shannon Hickey
WHAT'S WRONG WITH MINDFULNESS (AND WHAT ISN'T): ZEN PERSPECTIVES. Edited by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum and Barry Magid. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016. 177 pp.

In this engaging anthology, a dozen American Buddhist teachers, ordained and lay, offer critiques and reflections on the contemporary mindfulness movement: secularized programs of meditation and yoga to reduce stress, improve mental and physical health, and enhance performance in personal and professional life. Beginning with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight-week course developed in 1971 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, programs now include a range of Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) for depression, addiction, eating disorders, relationship enhancement, childbirth and parenting, elder care, workplace productivity—even one designed to make American soldiers more effective and resilient in military combat. Mindfulness has generated billions of dollars in clinical research, dozens of training organizations, more than a dozen degree-granting programs in universities and medical schools, serial publications, and countless continuing-education programs for licensed professionals.

The authors in this volume all endorse rigorous, long-term meditation training for those inclined to undertake it, but most are skeptical that the commercial success of mindfulness is a good thing. "As mindfulness gets absorbed into a culture that runs on the engines of consumerism, competition, and the glorification of the individual self, it runs the danger of turning into one more brand trademarked for purely personal gratification," the editors say (p. 6). While it can indeed be helpful to make meditation and yoga more widely accessible to people disinterested in Buddhism or Hinduism, important spiritual and ethical dimensions of these traditions get lost when meditation training is secularized, commodified, and marketed as a technique for self-improvement.

The book contains an introduction, an epilogue, and eleven chapters divided into two sections: "Critical Concerns" and "Creative Engagement: Zen Experiences with Mindfulness Practice." The first section offers a set of theological-philosophical, psychological, scientific, and political critiques of the mindfulness movement, from [End Page 281] modernist, white, convert, American Zen perspectives. The second section offers personal reflections on authors' meditation training in Buddhist contexts. A group of three essays compares the different but perhaps complementary approaches to meditation taken in Zen, a Māhāyana tradition, and in the Theravāda/Vipassana tradition. Others discuss the roles of mindfulness in creativity, environmental activism, feminist analysis of Buddhist institutions, and the art of sandwich making. Robert Sharf, chair of the Center for Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, contributes a characteristically trenchant historical epilogue.

It's quite a candy box, with morsels that will likely appeal to different groups of readers: scholars interested in modern Buddhism in the West; practitioners and teachers of Mindfulness, Vipassana, and Zen; researchers in meditation and health; and people interested in interfaith dialogue about contemplative practice and pedagogy. All could find tidbits here worth nibbling. Various essays could prompt engaging discussions, debates, and exegeses in college or seminary classrooms, sangha study groups, or academic colloquia.

The authors share certain biases characteristic of predominantly white, convert American Zen. They were trained in and lead religious communities organized more like American Protestant congregations than like Asian Buddhist or Hindu temples. Their approaches to Buddhism foreground meditation. Sharf points out that this modernist, meditation-centric version of Buddhism is actually quite a departure from the ways Buddhism has been practiced traditionally, throughout most of its history in Asia.

All eleven authors are white, five are ordained as Zen priests, six are lay Zen teachers, and all but one priest and two laypeople are male. The authors live and teach on the West and East Coasts; most indicate a Left Coast political orientation. All the priests and one lay teacher are trained in the Sōtō Zen lineage of Shunryu Suzuki and San Francisco Zen Center (as is the author of this review). Three lay teachers belong to the Sanbōkyōdan lineage of Taizan Maezumi, founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles and the White Plum Asanga, which combines elements of Rinzai and Sōtō Zen. Two of them...


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