It is easy to imagine the benefits of a Buddhist police force: wiser, cooler heads to keep the peace in America’s embattled streets, or perhaps a kinder, gentler traffic cop. But in Madison, Wisconsin, police captain Cheri Maples argues that the most compelling reason to teach police officers the Buddhist practice of mindfulness is to better equip them to deal with the emotional and mental stress that comes with the job. A nineteen-year police veteran who has participated in several retreats with famed Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Maples has experienced for herself the benefits of mindfulness practice. Determined to bring the practice to her colleagues, she organized a visit by Thich Nhat Hanh, who led a five-day nonsectarian retreat for civil servants and their families at Green Lake Conference Center outside of Madison.

But not all are so pleased with the idea of police officers and other civil servants attending retreats. Americans United for the Separation Between Church and State (AU) has expressed its view that offering such a retreat is a violation of the First Amendment’s proscription against state-sponsored religion. AU claims that it is unconstitutional for the government to encourage its employees to attend a religious retreat, and notes that eyebrows would be raised if officers were encouraged to attend Bible study groups or an Islamic retreat. AU demanded the retreat’s cancellation.

Maples contends, however, that mindfulness is a crucial tool for the dangerous field of police work. There have been countless technological advances in American police forces, she points out, and the number of officers killed in action has steadily decreased. Yet the number of suicides among police officers in the United States is increasing.

“We’re not losing officers tactically but losing them emotionally,” Maples explains. She requires all officers in her unit to attend a three-hour presentation that addresses the emotional turmoil typically associated with being an officer, and aims to heighten awareness of perhaps the greatest risk of police work: misplaced anger. After the retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh addressed this, explaining that the retreat was very difficult for the officers precisely because of such anger issues, but that the experience still proved tremendously helpful. Tung Nghiem, a nun in Thich Nhat Hanh’s order, said that among the participants there was a strong feeling of suffering, most of which came from how other people perceived them. Many of the officers had never discussed these feelings with either their peers or their families, and according to Maples they showed a commitment to continuing to deal with these previously repressed emotions.

Though the retreat was clearly of benefit to many of the participants, AU does not agree with Maples’s arguments for holding it. “[Maples] has explained that ‘mindfulness’ has helped her deal with the rigors of police work. While Captain Maples is entitled to hold these beliefs, the Constitution forbids her from using her government position to assert beliefs that advocate or endorse religious points of view,” said AU executive director Barry Lynn in a press release. This begs the question: Is mindfulness practice necessarily religious?

Maples points out that she made it clear to all organizers and participants that the retreat would be a nonsectarian event and entirely voluntary. “Besides the robes worn by leaders, there will be no reference to Buddhism,” she said prior to the retreat. To underscore the nonsectarian nature of the event, Maples notes that she has attended several of Thich Nhat Hanh’s regular retreats, which, while explicitly Buddhist, nonetheless attract participants who still consider themselves Christian or Jewish. Attention to the breath and breathing are already part of an officer’s tactical training, Maples explains, and the retreat sought to develop that skill in an attempt to reduce stress and anger. But AU representatives argue that because a Buddhist monk is leading the retreat, the context is inescapably religious. “If it’s going to be a secular program, you would have it led by a secular teacher,” said Joe Conn, an AU representative.

Wisconsin’s statutes refer to police officers as “peacekeepers,” and Maples explains that this is truly their job. Like Thich Nhat Hanh, she argues that the first step in making, keeping, and demanding peace is cultivating inner peace. Thich Nhat Hanh strove to keep peace throughout two wars in his home country of Vietnam. Can his retreats teach peace without Buddhism? AU claims they cannot. For either side to prove its case would require solving the long-standing question of whether mindfulness training is necessarily religious.

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