Ethics and Buddhism Illustration by James Thacher
Illustration by James Thacher

As mindfuness has made greater inroads into public life—from hospitals, to schools, to the workplace—its growing distance from Buddhist thought and practice has become a hotly contested issue. Is mindfulness somehow deficient because it lacks Buddhist ethics, and should Buddhist ethics be replicated in mindfulness programs and workshops?

Psychologist Lynette Monteiro, founder of the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic, points out that the “seeming absence of the explicit teaching of ethics in the MBI [Mindfulness-based Intervention] curriculum” is the “thorniest” basis for criticism. Underlying the discussion of ethics in mindfulness, however, is the presumption that there exists an inherent relation between religion and morality. Yet this focus on morality—thought to define the practice as religious rather than secular, Buddhist rather than non-Buddhist—is based on Western presumptions about religion inherited from Christianity, not Buddhism.

Views on morality and mindfulness tend to fall into three categories: inherent, integral, and modular.

The argument for an inherent relation claims that mindfulness training by itself, without any instruction in morality, leads people to higher moral standing. This is the claim made, for example, by David DeSteno, who says that an eight-week instructional program in meditation—without any accompanying instruction in morality—increased compassionate responses to the suffering of others threefold.

An integral relation, on the other hand, is one in which mindfulness and morality are understood to be inseparable, and the specific morality of the Buddhist tradition is thought to already form a part of mindfulness training. In this view, the success of mindfulness tradition requires practitioners to change their moral orientation to the world in specific—that is, Buddhist—ways.

Finally, a modular relation views mindfulness training and morality as distinct and separate, existing independently of one another. Separate modules like mindfulness training and training in morality can be linked together like Legos to create different structures. Under this conception, the kind of morality attached could just as well be Christian or humanist as Buddhist.

Mindfulness researchers and proponents alike have become entrenched in well-defined and increasingly institutionalized positions regarding ethics. But the fundamental ground of each of these positions—the way in which Western culture conceives of religion—has been ignored. That conception is built on a basic narrative trajectory that leads from primal, blissful harmony in Paradise, through sinful disobedience and ejection from Paradise, to a final atonement and reconciliation. This biblical narrative is fundamentally ethical in nature, hinging as it does on sinful action as the cause for the fall from grace. Many in the Western Buddhist communities have absorbed this cultural identification of religion with morality uncritically and perhaps unconsciously. It is, after all, an assumption so well established as to be invisible to us.

Yet if we look at the Buddhist narrative structure, we find it follows quite a different trajectory. Humanity’s original condition is not one of blissful harmony but rather of ignorance repeatedly leading to suffering. Recognizing this sets one on the path to awakening.

This fundamental difference between the two traditions suggests that the emphasis on morality in present discussions of mindfulness is rooted not in the Buddhist tradition itself but in the cultural preconceptions of Euro-American society.

This is not, of course, to say that the Buddhist tradition does not value morality, only that morality does not play the salvifically central role that it does in Christianity. Rather than being the key to attaining redemption for one’s original sinful failing, morality constitutes a condition for effective practice in Buddhism. After all, in the Buddhist tradition, while morality is conducive to awakening, it is not considered sufficient. Instead, it is a necessary preliminary.

One traditional characterization divides Buddhist practice into trainings in morality, meditation, and wisdom (sila, samadhi, prajna). The order is not incidental, as the practitioner moves from morality, through meditation, to wisdom—each supporting the next to constitute an integrated whole.

The cultural presumption that religion is primarily a matter of morality and that instilling moral behavior is its purpose has the effect of promoting a negative conception of human behavior. Consider, for example, the widespread assumption in the United States that moral behavior follows from being religious, and that anyone who is not religious—having not learned the importance of controlling his or her base and animal desires and motivations—is likely to be immoral.

These values and presumptions also inform the self-improvement culture of our society within which mindfulness training—in both secular and Buddhist forms—exists. The strong moral imperative to improve oneself has its origins in Protestant religious culture, which promoted the exercise of self-control to overcome one’s inherently sinful nature.

The moral imperative toward self-improvement is evident in the negative views held toward people who are not running, dieting, learning a foreign language, meditating, doing yoga, or any of the several dozen other ways society offers for you to improve yourself. Certainly, anyone not involved in such activities is thought to be lazy, stupid, indolent, and—studies surely suggest—will die younger and suffer more than all of those pursuing self-improvement.

One of the strongest motivators for individuals to pursue mindfulness is this imperative toward self-betterment. But such a moral imperative is not wholly consistent with Buddhist thought. Unlike Protestantism, the Buddhist path does not involve a moral control being exerted over the self and its natural animalistic tendencies, but rather the development of greater insight into the conditioned nature of existence. Indeed, the dualism of a self controlling the self feeds the illusion of a separate, independently existing self.

It is this modern moral imperative toward self-improvement that has transformed Buddhist practices from the activities of a relatively small number of monastic specialists into mass-marketed lay workshops, trainings, books, online courses, and so on. Just as the monastic values of late medieval Christian Europe became generalized as appropriate for everyone, so now the monastic values of Buddhism are being propagated and marketed as part of how one can improve oneself.

Arguing over whether introducing clients to the four noble truths is necessary for mindfulness training, and whether it then makes that training Buddhist rather than secular, neglects the roots of mindfulness in the particulars of Buddhist thought, especially those concerning ethics.

This does not resolve any questions about whether mindfulness training programs should teach morality or what kind of morality they should teach, or even the relation of morality to mindfulness training. Instead, highlighting the contradictions between the cultural presumptions that regard morality as the key to salvation and morality’s role within the Buddhist framework might challenge participants in the debate to question why it has become such a hot-button issue. After all, unless the debate changes the ground of shared presumptions, the existing impasse will only become more deeply entrenched.

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