Toward a Socially Responsible Mindfulness

Toward a Socially Responsible Mindfulness

on May 16, 2015 in World We Live In | 10 comments



The big news in the Buddhist world this week was a gathering of Buddhist teachers and leaders at the White House – yes, that White House. My heart leaped with joy when I saw photos of members of the group holding up three banners with these words:

The Karma of Slavery is Heavy
I vow to work for racial justice

The Whole Earth is My True Body
I vow to work for climate justice

 U.S. Militarism Breeds Violence Not Safety
I vow to work for peace and freedom

The banners were lovingly hand-painted by members of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in the San Francisco Bay Area. BPF is an organization near and dear to my heart – I worked there for many years, and served as its executive director from 2004 – 2007.

This dharmic-based activism is a good lead-in to something I’ve been intending to write about for a very long time.

Even though I often use the word “mindfulness” to describe the principle at the very foundation of my work, I have to confess that I have a lot of resistance to using the ‘m’ word.

Over the past few years as mindfulness has taken root in the public discourse, I’ve felt grateful that this practice which has long been part of my life is being widely shared and made accessible to many more people. Yet at the same time I am concerned, with others, that its original intention is becoming distorted. We’ve all observed how our capitalist/consumerist culture can take anything and turn it into a commodity.

Many months ago, I had a vision of creating a “Socially Responsible Mindfulness Manifesto,” a document that I imagined could serve as a rallying point for those of us who hold mindfulness in a larger context and see its potential as a vehicle for personal and collective liberation. Part of the manifesto would be a pledge signed by people who teach mindfulness in secular settings — a vow that we would hold awareness of social and environmental issues as we do this work and not be complicit with unjust conditions.

I thought of a number of people who I deeply respect to be part of a working group on this document and sent them a first draft. I want to especially acknowledge two people who took time to give the document a thorough read and responded with important feedback. Mushim Patricia Ikeda, whom I’ve known since our days working together at BPF, contributed a perspective of inclusivity, reminding me of the importance of writing a document that was relevant to Buddhists from all backgrounds, not just Zen practitioners. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi  – a respected Buddhist scholar, Theravadin monk, and founder of Buddhist Global Relief – contributed the gift of integrity. He pointed out places where the document was at odds with the teachings of the Buddha, and helping to contextualize mindfulness both historically and doctrinally.

When the first round of feedback came, I was unsure how to move forward or if it even made sense to continue with this effort. However, the more I considered the insightful comments that were offered, the more I realized that this process might be worth sharing with you. Even if there isn’t a “Socially Responsible Mindfulness Manifesto” to show yet, there is a lot of good thinking about what this might look like and what purpose it can serve. Stay tuned.

And I still passionately believe in the reason for the document in the first place: If mindfulness is indeed a ‘movement,’ I want to be part of a movement that supports people to wake up to the connections between us, that helps us to see that personal stress reduction is not separate from fair wages and safe working conditions, that does not hide from questions about power and privilege.

Both Mushim and I thought it might be beneficial to share the email conversation that Bhikkhu Bodhi and I had about this subject. My thanks to Mushim for putting this in a dialogical format that helps to illustrate the important points. I certainly learned a lot from this engagement!


Maia: For socially-engaged spiritual activists, secular mindfulness practices seem to offer a liberatory potential, in terms of helping to create more embodied and mindful social justice movements. What’s your take on this idea?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: From a Buddhist perspective, “the most emancipatory context” for the practice of mindfulness is one dedicated to the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice—which from the early Buddhist perspective is the attainment of emancipation from samsāra—and for me it is questionable that the use of mindfulness practice in secular settings has this aim. I don’t begrudge the efforts to find new applications of mindfulness, and I agree that these applications should be bolstered by an ethical framework and used for salutory purposes. But I think one has to be cautious about assuming that these modernist applications are identical with—or even congruent with—the practice of mindfulness in its original context.


Maia: Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally [emphasis mine] to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” Some might say that the practice of mindfulness allows us to increase our awareness of aspects of wellness and disease as they manifest within our individual bodies and emotions, and also within our social systems as well. From that place of increased awareness, we are in a better position to take skillful action to address the causes of disease. Do you think that the practice of mindfulness meditation automatically or inevitably leads to social responsibility?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: There is the rub: the idea that mindfulness is inherently nonjudgmental. In the Pali texts, mindfulness is always conjoined with the faculty of judgment (dhammavicaya), through which one engages in assessment, evaluation, and discrimination, and thereby endeavors to eliminate what is harmful and to arouse and strengthen what is wholesome and beneficial.


Maia: Because of a cultural tendency to focus on private wellbeing rather than collective wellbeing (a tendency more often present in people with economic and other kinds of privilege), we may overlook one of the teachings of the Buddha: the teaching of interdependence. In the words of Thai Buddhist activist and author Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa,

“Buddhism is not concerned just with private destiny, but with the lives and consciousness of all beings… Any attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its social dimension is fundamentally a mistake. Until Western Buddhists understand this, their embrace of Buddhism will not help very much in the efforts to bring about meaningful and positive social change, or even in their struggle to transform their ego.”

From our perspective, Buddhadharma was never intended as an escape from reality, rather it is a way of being present to reality. This includes the reality of unhealthy working conditions, low wages, and environmental destruction. Therefore, our understanding of mindfulness in the Buddhist sense is not limited to personal wellbeing; it is inclusive of social, economic, and environmental concerns. What’s your take on this?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: Technically, I don’t think this wider sphere of concern is the domain of mindfulness but of its companion, sampajañña, “clear comprehension.”


Maia:   Our primary concern is that the concept and practice of mindfulness is all too often co-opted to serve as a diversion from dealing with issues of social, economic, environmental, gender, and racial injustice.

Dr. Funie Hsu (postdoctoral fellow at UC Davis School of Education) eloquently articulates this concern: “The particular brand of mindfulness that is gaining widespread acceptance serves to bolster long-standing systems of power: making them more efficient, potent, and acceptable under the pretext of inner peace.”

We are deeply concerned about this tendency to use secular mindfulness to move away from difficult questions about power and privilege.

It appears to us that mindfulness can be used as a spiritual bypass – or it can be a vehicle to raise awareness of injustice and structural oppression in all its forms, including classism, racism, and sexism. Do you think that mindfulness has the potential to create spaces for authentic (and often difficult) conversations about these realities as well as for meaningful and effective responses to them?

Bhikkhu Bodhi:   I’m not so sure that the above is the function of mindfulness itself. It seems to me that recognition of these forms of injustice and oppression is incumbent on us as citizens in today’s world, but I’m uncertain whether and to what extent this is actually fostered by mindfulness in the meditative sense. It seems to me that this awareness develops by paying close attention (through active cognitive engagement, not meditatively) to events happening around us. Perhaps mindfulness practice establishes the ground for greater sensitivity and responsiveness in relation to the suffering of others, but I’m not sure that the practice itself “raises awareness” of these things.

The great leaders of social transformation, both in theory and action, for the most part do not practice the meditative mode of mindfulness, and the foremost exponents of meditative mindfulness in a Buddhist setting hardly promote large-scale social transformation. Contrast for example the African American Christian clergy involved in human rights campaigns, or the Christian and Jewish clergy who have led the campaigns against US military involvement around the world, with the Buddhist meditation masters. The former, with perhaps a few exceptions, don’t practice meditative mindfulness, while the latter show only a marginal concern with social justice issues.

Perhaps a type of awareness different from Buddhist meditative mindfulness is what is needed to foster recognition of these issues. Of course, adding meditative mindfulness to the arsenal of techniques may be helpful in some respects, but let’s not assume that it is intrinsically the sufficient antidote. It seems meditative mindfulness can swing either way, even among earnest practitioners: toward or away from greater awareness of justice issues. The catalyst must therefore be something other than mindfulness itself, perhaps an awakening of the sense of conscience and responsibility for the fate of others.



As part of this conversation, Bhikkhu Bodhi showed us a document he created on “Modes of Applied Mindfulness.” He gave his permission for it to be shared, recognizing that it is a work in progress. I am including it here because I find it a very helpful way to see the nuances inherent in bringing mindfulness into diverse domains, and that each mode has its openings and limitations.


Function: to facilitate insight

Ultimate aim: enlightenment, liberation from birth and death

Problem: may lead to narcissistic self-absorption, indifference to inequities of social- economic institutions and policies and ecological destruction

Secular Therapeutic

Function: to help people deal with physical ailments, psychological traumas and stress, addictions and conflicts, alienation and hopelessness

Ultimate aim:  to enable people to become more peaceful, hopeful, equanimous, patient; less reactive, more considerate and compassionate

Problem: people may be conditioned to deal solely with their individual challenges without being moved to confront larger structures of social and economic injustice

Secular instrumental

Function: to help people become more effective in their roles and assignments: more effective as corporate leaders, workers, athletes, students, soldiers, etc.

Ultimate aim: to enhance productivity within the boundaries of existing social and economic institutions

Problem: May acclimatize people to unwholesome roles, sustain corporatist, militaristic, consumerist programs


Socially transformative

Function: as a Buddhist practice, to provide a means of fostering structural transformation toward the social ideals of the Dharma: greater social and economic justice, environmental stability, peace, equality, etc.

Ultimate aim: to promote realization of a just, peaceful society and world

Problem: to ground these ideals on textual sources and develop a theoretical foundation for an ethic of Buddhist engagement in the world.

Possible tensions between this application of mindfulness and its classical role that need exploration and resolution.


Please share your thoughts on “socially responsible mindfulness” in the comments below — do you find this a helpful construct? not so helpful? If you teach mindfulness practice in secular settings, what’s your take on addressing social justice issues that may arise in the course of your work?


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  1. I teach secular mindfulness to children and families and have always emphasized social responsibility. My largest ongoing class is a compassion-based social engagement program for families. We meet monthly to learn a new aspect of practice and then put it to work in the community. Past projects include sharing “Lovingkindness Valentine’s” at a senior assisted living center, giving away lemonade and treats at a “Generosity Stand” in the center of town, and preparing and donating meal-boxes to children and families in need. This month we’ll visit an organic farm to learn about sustainable agriculture and food equality — then harvest vegetables to donate to another local nonprofit that prepares and delivers meals to cancer patients.

    I’ve been practicing for two decades and see many of the concerns you have about secular mindfulness existing within nonsecular communities also. I love your work, Maia, and would love to see you encouraging secular mindfulness teachers to see that personal stress reduction is not separate from fair wages and safe working conditions in a way that empowers and ennobles. What I often feel instead from the nonsecular critics of mindfulness is attachment to their view of practice.

    I’ve just come home from a retreat with nearly 100 educators all doing this work. Through them, through secular mindfulness, the teachings are finding their way to children and underserved communities. The work your championing is being done. I think that deserves applause, not condemnation.


    July 16, 2015

    • Hi Chelsea,

      Thank you for the great work that you are doing to make social responsibility an integral part of the mindfulness practice that you offer in your community.

      I am realizing that some of the language in the interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi may imply that I am ‘targeting’ teachers of secular mindfulness. That actually isn’t the case… the point I’m trying to raise isn’t the secular/non-secular divide, but rather the orientation toward justice in addition to charity. I use those words because they echo a distinction that the late William Sloane Coffin made quite a bit. He once said, “Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation.”

      It’s important and worthwhile work to be serving underserved communities… and I want to hold the question how can we transform the system so that those inequalities are eliminated. A tall order, and maybe more than is appropriate to expect of mindfulness, as Bhikkhu Bodhi pointed toward. But I believe in holding big questions…

      It was not my intention to belittle or dismiss the good work that is going on, but to expand the conversation. If there is some way in which my words have not felt empowering or ennobling, I am open to hearing specific feedback on that.

      Maia Duerr

      July 23, 2015

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful consideration of what is becoming a major problem. It reminded me of an important teaching that I learned from Zoketsu Norman Fischer in our Everyday Zen dharma study group. Dogen is often seen as a teacher of emptiness because of his enigmatic style. In the context of Japanese culture, Zen became identified with the warrior culture. Mindfulness brought an awareness that ultimately everything was empty and thus killing didn’t matter. In Dogen’s later years he started to write more about ethics and karma because the problem was becoming apparent.The deeper understanding is that samsara and nirvana are the same. I think the tension between pure mindfulness and ethical awareness of karma is inevitable and Buddhists will always have to operate at the tumultuous edge between the two.

  3. Really appreciate this very thoughtful discussion about the current focus of mindfulness being primarily on private wellbeing rather than collective wellbeing. It is indeed a very important issue and I welcome a continuation of this discussion. HH Karmapa spoke in Seattle recently and I was struck by his remark that the compassionate action network does not really need the word “action” In their title because true compassion includes action!

    Looking forward to hearing more,
    warm wishes,

    Erica Rayner-Horn

    May 30, 2015

  4. Great post, Maia. I’d love to see an active “Socially Responsible Mindfulness” movement develop, infused with ideas like Bhikkhu Bodhi’s “Conscientious Compassion” and active involvement in communities. Please do move forward with this; with the support of Mushim and Bhikkhu Bodhi, I could really see it taking off.

    One, perhaps off topic, thing I’d like to see is more emphasis on Buddhist historical groups and individuals who have integrated social action into their sanghas; so that these can serve as inspiration and direction (along with, of course, Christian and other socially active groups). This could help break the misconception that Buddhism is/has been about individual self-help and needs to borrow from others, e.g. Christianity, in order to put forth real social values.


    May 17, 2015

  5. Thank you for this article. It’s a much needed discussion. I appreciated Bikkhu Bodhi’s text defining different modes of mindfulness and his contribution on mindfulness, whether using it as a ground for social justice means aligns with its classical intent. I think as Buddhists we can use all our tools. Mindfulness is not our only tool, and perhaps if it’s all one uses, it is enough to begin to apply it to look into our privilege, power and oppression. I also do not want to assume that all who are practicing mindfulness are operating from power and privilege. I think mindfulness can be a powerful tool for helping us recognize and perhaps deconstruct systems of power within us whatever our identity locations, that helps the person if they are to act towards social change, be a vehicle or a tool themselves of liberation in the service of living beings.

    Brian Kimmel

    May 17, 2015

  6. Thanks so much Maia for this really thoughtful and timely piece. The washington trip was a good PR move, and I wish we all had the time to dialogue and engage with one another about some of these important issues. Anyway, as usual, your article here is very good. Very much appreciate it.

    Joshin Brian Byrnes

    May 17, 2015

    • Thanks for being there and representing Upaya, Joshin! And yes, how wonderful it would be to have a forum to engage more deeply on these questions. Maybe that’s a vision we can hold together and help to manifest.

      Maia Duerr

      May 17, 2015

  7. Thanks Maia for sharing this work in progress – very helpful!

    Larry Yang is doing a lot of teaching out of the Satipatthana Sutta, where the Buddha lays out the Four Foundations of mindfulness – of the body, feeling tones, mind states, and dhammas. In the refrain between each set of instructions, the Buddha describes contemplating internally, externally, and both internally and externally.

    I think of external mindfulness as a kind of close observation of the experiences of others, which for me keeps mindfulness more engaged in the world. However, I also think that mindfulness alone doesn’t have the power to help us observe our own privilege, since one of the delusions of privilege is thinking that our experience is universal.


    May 17, 2015

    • Speaking of privilege for some of us will conjure up images of our underprivileged background, which we see newly presented for us in the faces of the people we meet who are underprivileged now. That old Chesnutt about teaching people to fish rings through the ages. Take the Dharma to the oppressed, to the hard to reach and let them seize power and strength. Then let us see Buddhists engage in revolution – slow, meticulous, compassionate revolution.

      Neil Kelly

      November 2, 2015

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