Secular Buddhism — What Got Left Out of Meditation?

buddhaphoto by Riaz Padamsee (creative commons)

Of course, the cultural background for mindfulness meditation is Buddhism. Whether it come from Japan, Tibet, Burma. David Chapman (no relation) digs into the topic of cultural background, cultural imperialism, cultural omission —  in provocatively and incisively. If you’re the least bit curious about some of the history beyond a vague “yeah, it’s Buddhist stuff” then you really should check his stuff out.

For browsing, here are a few of his assertions about how the mindfulness/secular Buddhism that we’ve come to know, came about:

Christianity: Everything offensive to Victorian Christian morality had to be removed, in Asia, in the 1800s.

Scientism: Meditation has to claim to be compatible with “science” and “rationality.” Popular ideas about what’s “scientific” have changed in the West over the past 150 years. What’s left of meditation has survived challenges from each version.

Romantic mysticism: Westerners thought the goal of meditation was a spiritual experience—oneness with all beings, maybe—through attention to the self. Meditation methods that weren’t about spiritual experience, or not about the self, got dropped.

Late 20th-century morality: Meditation had be eco-granola-consensus-therapy-correct in the 1970s through ’90s.

Only something extremely bland could pass all these challenges. That’s what we’re left with: modern “mindfulness meditation.” It’s relentlessly nice and couldn’t possibly offend anyone’s ideological sensitivities.


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Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

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