I Dunno–What Do You Think?

Back in July, the Los Angeles Times ran an article by Nick Street, a Soto Zen priest and fellow with News21, a Carnegie-Knight initiative in journalism education at U.S.C. I’ve been mulling over it since I read it.

In the piece, Street looks at the teaching of meditation in public schools.

    Scientists at the University of Massachusetts established the effectiveness of meditation for reducing stress and anxiety in the 1980s. And recent studies at U.C.L.A. concluded that kids with attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorders showed clear improvement in concentration and cognitive abilities after learning techniques similar to those used at the Oakland school.

    These studies have lent credibility to a growing movement to introduce meditation and mindfulness programs into the nation’s schools. The number of such programs has jumped from just a handful five years ago to more than 100 at the start of the coming school year. In Southern California, the David Lynch Foundation is sponsoring start-up transcendental meditation programs at two publicly funded schools–one in Inglewood and another in Sun Valley.

The author goes on to consider the potential legal trouble around introducing meditation practice to K-12 students.

    “It’s not the business of schools to lead kids to inner peace through a spiritual process,” says Edward Tabash, chairman of the national legal committee for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Tabash, a self-described secular humanist, predicts an imminent court battle. “I can quite frankly see a coalition between religious fundamentalists and atheists challenging this.”

    Last fall, the Pacific Justice Institute, a legal advocacy group for conservative Christian issues, launched an opening salvo. The institute took up the cause of parents who objected to a TM school program in Marin County, which prompted the Lynch Foundation to withdraw its support.


    “What’s religious about learning to follow your breath?” asks Wendi Caporicci, a devout Catholic and the principal at Oakland’s Emerson Elementary. George Rutherford, the principal at Ideal Academy, takes a similar view of transcendental mediation, which he has practiced for over a decade. “I’m a Baptist, and my wife has a doctorate in Christian education,” he says, adding that TM “is not a religion.”

    A federal district court came to a different conclusion in 1979. The court said TM couldn’t be taught in publicly funded schools in New Jersey because the practice–with its ties to a specific spiritual leader–violated the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment.

At this point, Street chimes in with his own views on the constitutionality of teaching meditation in public schools. Some are quite provacative.

    The common rallying point for any anti-mindfulness coalition would be opposition to teaching practices that trace their roots to Buddhism and Hinduism in public schools. Why should mantras and meditation be allowed to slip past the formidable barrier of legal precedent that has largely kept prayer out of the schools for the last 50 years?

    The short answer to that question: When they’re stripped of their Eastern cultural trappings, meditation and other mindfulness techniques are not religious practices, so there’s no reason to ban them in public schools. Choral music comes out of Christian church traditions, but no one objects to a school choir.


    …The medical study of TM and Buddhist-derived mindfulness techniques has changed both the practices themselves and attitudes toward them. The new “medicalized” meditation and mindfulness programs seem more likely to pass constitutional muster.

    The Supreme Court has already weighed in on what counts as a religious practice or belief. In United States vs. Seeger (1965), the court determined that a conscientious objector who justified his claim of exemption from the draft by quoting Plato, Aristotle and Spinoza couldn’t be compelled to serve in the armed forces because his beliefs occupied a place in his life “parallel to that filled by God.” It would be hard to argue that meditation has replaced religion for people like Rutherford and Caporicci.

    None of the hallmarks of religious systems–doctrine, cosmology, ethics, clergy, devotion to a deity or reverence for a prophetic teacher–figure into these mindfulness and meditation programs that are beginning to raise the ire of church-state activists. More to the point, these programs teach skills–how to pay attention and regulate the emotions–that many parents and teachers are eager for kids to learn.

It seems to me that from a religious studies vantage point, there are problems with the suggestion that “medicalized” or “secularized” forms of Buddhist and/or Hindu meditation are somehow areligious. Now, don’t get me wrong: I certainly think that these meditation practices have benefits and applications outside of organized religion…but I seriously question the notion that they can ever be completely “stripped” of their “cultural trappings.”

The great Buddhist scholar Richard Gombrich is particularly convincing on this point. Speaking about the “liberal, Protestant” Buddhist movement in modern Sri Lanka, he writes:

    The recurrent claim that Buddhism is not a religion on a par with others but something of a different order, maybe a ‘way of life,’ so that the other religions are or may be compatible with it, is, among other things, an attempt to reclaim Buddhist uniqueness. What is being claimed, usually in a very vague and muddled way, can be expressed in my terms: that the other religions are all right on the communal level, but only the Buddha pointed the true way to salvation. [1]

Gombrich goes on to make what I think is an extremely astute observation about what is happening when one attempts to secularize Buddhist meditation, writing:

    To use meditation for secular purposes is to try to adapt Buddhist soteriology to life in the world. [2]

The different traditions of meditation that exist in the world–Buddhist or other–were all developed with particular soteriological goals in mind. They certainly didn’t occur in vacuums. Looking specifically at Buddhism again for a moment, even if we want to understand it as some kind of “transhistorical set of techniques for quieting the mind and attaining liberation,” Marilyn Ivy contends that we’re still talking about something that is unmistakably Buddhist:

    Perhaps we should talk about post-Buddhism instead, an amalgam of therapy, breath awareness, and mindfulness techniques suited for the inhabitants of postmodernity. Yet as in ‘post’-anything, the post still bears the trace of that which has been superseded: post-Buddhism is still post-Buddhism. [3]

I am a Buddhist practitioner–happily and proudly so. I am also a certified teacher of mindfulness meditation. Do I think mindfulness meditation as it was taught by the Buddha can benefit beings? You better believe it. Do I think it should be taught in schools? No. To my way of thinking, this violates the separation of church and state. (Besides, to echo the sentiments of Edward Tabash of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, I’m not really sure this sort of thing is the providence of public schools anyway.) I am, of course, fine with meditation being taught in before-or-after-school programs that students, faculty, and staff at public schools could choose to be a part of or not, but I think that making a meditation program part of the school day is problematic. (If we were talking about “secular” programs of prayer or worship, would the conversation have gone this far?)

But what do you think? I’m always interested in reader feedback, but I especially want to hear from you on this. Have I missed the mark? Is Street right on the mark? Are neither of us near the mark? What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments section. (Commenting requires a Blogger account. If you don’t want to create one, you can email me your comments. Just follow the link in my profile page.)


  1. Richard Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), 199.
  2. Ibid., 208.
  3. Marilyn Ivy, “Modernity” in Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr., 328 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005)

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4 thoughts on “I Dunno–What Do You Think?

  1. Here’s a comment emailed to us:

    Hello Chaplain Fisher,

    I don’t have a log-in for Blogger, so I thought I’d email in my response to your recent post, “I Dunno…”

    Good, thought-provoking post. Your comments on “cultural trappings” really caught my attention. I find that many conversations with Americans about Buddhist meditation practices often walk a very thin line between either ignoring the cultural backgrounds each practice grew in and out of, or trying to sideline “cultural elements” as somehow inconsequential.

    Neither is correct, since both do Buddhist practice the disservice of ignoring its long history within culture, shaped by and shaping its environments–environments that, it really ought to go without saying, experienced Buddhism as religious.

    Granted even that the West (usually unwittingly) treats secularism like a religion, trying to fully adapt Buddhism to a “secular” society by elimination of religious or cultural elements strips something vital out of the experience of Buddhist practice.

    I’m with Ivy: if we’re going to call the shift in attitude and approach we in the West have to Buddhism, let’s call it post-Buddhism–though you won’t catch me calling myself a “post-Buddhist.” Perhaps because I live and train in Asia, where Buddhism is Religion in all the good and bad ways, I’ve found that deliberately cultivating the unseen but palpable sense of the sacred that we commonly associate with religions (but not “transhistorical sets of techniques”) is central to my ability to practice mindfulness and compassion.

    Buddhist meditation doesn’t belong in public-school curriculum, post- or otherwise; but what I’m more concerned about is losing the sense of sacred that enlivens and enriches any spiritual/religious life, including Buddhism. Not that I think you have to “be” Buddhist to practice meditation, or that there’s not benefit from meditation regardless of one’s own religious (non-)affiliation… But you’re right: the conversation wouldn’t have gotten this far if it were prayer or worship instead of meditation, and that says a lot about the difficult in-between place Buddhism in the West is in right now.

    I enjoy your blog, and am especially pleased to see the number of Buddhist Chaplains on the slow increase! Thank you for all your work and practice–

    Yours in the Dharma,
    Soen Joon Sunim hapchang

  2. The Venerable Loden Jinpa has posted a reply at his blog. Please take a look.

    I have one thought in response to his comment “It seems to me that regardless of origins of mindfulness meditation. If it is going to benefit kids then why not have such a program.”: If scientific studies similar to the ones referenced in Street’s article were to appear tomorrow suggesting that, say, prayer offered similar benefits, then should we allow teachers and administrators to lead students in prayer too?

  3. The difference is, there has been a consistent stream of prayer studies that show unambiguously that prayer is ineffective. Nearly all studies in support of the idea that Person A’s prayers have a measurable effect on Person B have been exposed as shoddy or fabricated. They are usually funded by groups with a vested interest in religion, not knowledge.

    Whereas there have been many reputable scientific studies that clearly show the benefits of meditation. It seems to be a question of framing- schools can talk Buddhism, religion, or they can talk psychology. If the process and benefits of meditation are introduced as neurological phenomena, then the question of the Establishment Clause would be moot. Religion really doesn’t need to be a part of it, now that science has weighed in in the affirmative.

    (yay science!)

  4. The secular prayer thing is just a hypothetical. You’re right, though, in fact prayer has not been shown to be beneficial the same way meditation has.

    It’s really the precedent set here that concerns me. If it’s OK to teach meditation as long as it’s “secularized” (whatever that means) and scientifically verified, that kind of opens the door for any other religious practice that might be able to present itself as “secular” and similiarly beneficial.

    Now, if I may recycle/re-word my comments from elsewhere

    Regardless of whether or not meditation can be scientifically validated, aren’t religious ideas still the driving force behind meditation instruction? Put another way: Would you say that TM and zazen and shamatha-vipassana are the same in their understanding and instruction of meditation? Personally, I don’t think so, and that’s where I think Gombrich makes an essential point: when you get right down to it, what’s being “secularized” are religious soteriologies.

    I’m not debating the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Science has given us every reason to see the benefits as enormous. But, as I see it, mindfulness meditation has religious ideology all over its DNA, and is therefore inappropriate for teaching as part of the curriculum in American public schools. As I said, though, it would be appropriate for voluntary before-or-after school programs. The U.S. Department of Education has been very clear on all this:

    Students may…participate in before or after school events with religious content, such as ’see you at the flag pole’ gatherings, on the same terms as they may participate in other noncurriculum activities on school premises. School officials may neither discourage nor encourage participation in such an event.

    The right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion free from discrimination does not include the right to have a captive audience listen, or to compel other students to participate. Teachers and school administrators should ensure that no student is in any way coerced to participate in religious activity.

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