Unless you’ve been in silent retreat for the past several years, you know that the “mindfulness revolution” sweeping the country is now playing out in the public sphere. The schools are no exception, and not everyone is happy about it: Is mindfulness an educational tool, teaching skills that make kids more attentive and emotionally balanced? Or is it a religious practice—Buddhism in secular clothing—violating the Constitution’s separation of church and state? Is it a universally beneficial practice, or are its proponents introducing a cultural bias when they bring the practice to underserved schools? Weighing in are Dr. Candy Gunther Brown, Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, and Dr. Saki Santorelli, Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
NO—with its roots in religious tradition, teaching mindfulness in public schools violates the separation of church and state.
Wouldn’t every schoolchild and teacher be better off if they had the tools of mindfulness meditation? To those who have experienced the benefits of mindfulness, the answer to this question may seem an obvious “Yes!”
Such confidence in the practice of mindfulness meditation, however, can create an ethical blind spot that ignores its religious content, as well as the context of its implementation. Although it is not uncommon for proponents of mindfulness to assert, in certain contexts, that mindfulness is purely secular, it is also common for them, in other contexts and particularly among fellow Buddhists, to declare that mindfulness embodies the essence of buddhadharma—a case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too. Certain leading proponents envision “secular” mindfulness as “stealth Buddhism,” a “skillful means,” or a “Trojan horse” for mainstreaming the dharma.
When it comes to bringing mindfulness meditation into public schools, this can create a problem. Children and their parents expect—and laws require—public schools to offer secular education that is neutral toward particular religions and religion in general. There are reasons for this limitation. Public schools serve children, parents, and teachers from diverse cultural backgrounds, many of whom already have deeply cherished religious traditions and spiritual resources that they find effective.
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