In a recent Aeon article, “The Problem of Mindfulness,” graduate philosophy student Sahanika Ratnayake claims, among other reasonable claims she makes, that mindfulness, just because it rests upon a no-self (anatta) doctrine, promotes detachment from one’s thoughts and feelings and, in turn, nullifies one’s ability to deliberate upon one’s thoughts and feelings as well as, and more important still, one’s willingness to take responsibility for them. When Buddhism came to the West in the 1960s, it got a free pass. But this, as you can see, no more.
Critiques of the unexamined importation of Buddhist practice into the West seem to me quite often apt and timely. Consider the low-hanging fruit case of Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, a prominent Zen roshi who was involved in repeated acts of sexual misconduct throughout the course of his very long life (he lived to be 107). How, we might ask, can a Zen master be truly enlightened and thus see the interconnectedness of all beings at the same time that he acts with such cruelty? And he, I assure you, was not the only Zen master who acted viciously.
What I hear the many critiques of Buddhist practice, I often say: “Yes and.” We need to give up on the idea that Buddhism or Advaita or whatever can provide us not just with a theory of mind and a metaphysic but also with a moral philosophy, a political philosophy, and a sound ecological practice; that is to say, we need to give up on the idea that any Eastern practice can readily provide us with everything we seek. Instead, we should see Buddhist practice as a modality that needs, in keeping with thinkers like Ken Wilber, to be brought into contact with and thereby synthesized with other, often very different streams of thought. We need what I’d like to call an “all hands on deck” approach.
Only then, for example, can we engage in necessary ethical deliberation that philosophy rightly urges us to undertake even as we also give ourselves over to seated meditation practices that may disclose secrets about the nature of consciousness otherwise unavailable to us. Yes and. For note that on the relative level, true, I am a moral agent whose conduct should be conducive to the flourishing of all beings; therefore, I must take full responsibility for my conduct in particular, for the life I lead in general. Meanwhile, on the absolute level, I am Awareness. In short, I am both.
We need philosophical contemplations and meditative practice; we need Aristotle and the Buddha and surely many other thinkers besides these two to enable us at once to transform ourselves and to make sense of the time we’re living in.