9 July 2021

If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Tranquillise Him

I marvel at the subtle and slippery nature of mindfulness in all of its guises, whether that be as a theoretical construct, a psychological process or a set of practices. Mindfulness resists all efforts to be pinned down. It presents itself as a vast canvas for our projections.

And project we do. The fields of health, education, business, politics, sport and entertainment are awash with mindful-this and mindful-that. Do such manifestations herald a kind of cultural transformation? What kind of future do they point towards? It has been 40-odd years since the ‘mindful revolution’ began and 20 years since it gained traction, yet any semblance of a ‘mindful society’ appears as far away as ever.

Cultural Appropriation

Ronald McBuddha
This is not to undervalue the many good-hearted and well-intentioned mindfulness practitioners in western societies or the growing army of trained facilitators who help stressed and struggling people through teaching meditation skills. But the evidence base for any systemic change is meagre. What we are witnessing is hardly a revolution, is it? The last 20 years demonstrate considerably more success at monetising mindfulness than mastering it.

What might the West have missed in the uptake? Answers to that pressing question can be found in both the forces that shaped mindfulness’s journey westward and the toxic influence of contemporary neoliberal ideology it contacted along the way. These would fill a book. Since this is a blog post, let me contribute just one image that captures something of the current predicament. Like all archetypal symbolism, this image shows up over the place but rarely receives attention.

Unconscious Awareness

Meet the ‘crouching buddha’ (sometimes called the ‘resting buddha’). In the UK, where I live, statues like these can be found in gardens and on mantelpieces across the land. Even without any knowledge of Buddhist iconography, one might guess that this is a non-traditional form.

Crouching Buddha
Curiously, nobody seems to know when or where this form originated. I canvassed a selection of world-renowned scholars of Buddhist art, museum curators and antique dealers. None of them could say for sure. 

However, they did make highly uniform and educated guesses: the form is contrived; it is most likely between 20 – 40 years old; it was probably first manufactured in East Asia for the western consumer market. All asserted that its function is purely decorative, unlike traditional Buddha forms. As a symbol for western mindfulness, it’s a neat fit.

Ambivalent Attachment

‘Mindfulness’ may not be ‘Buddhist’ but Buddhism is fundamental to understanding mindfulness. Put on the spot, few western mindfulness ‘experts’ (trainers, researchers, advocates etc.) now dispute this. Yet many convey an ambivalent or confused relationship with Buddhism. When I have probed such people on this matter, their prevailing tendency is to retreat, one way or another, into the comfortable certainties of a secular-materialist worldview that has gone largely unexamined.

Each to their own. But the irrational part is these people are equally unwilling to disregard the Buddhist fundament. They may have a limited grasp of how contemporary subdivisions of traditional, secular and immanent Buddhism contextualise much of what they do, but they love the rootsy legitimacy that ‘ancient wisdom’ confers to their work and so are happy to employ the B-word in fast and loose ways.

I wonder if these people privately worry that mindfulness de-ethicised and reduced to proficiency in present-moment attentiveness doesn’t make great sense. Perhaps they even intuit that the tangible, pragmatic benefits of meditation are necessarily linked to larger philosophical and spiritual enquiries that go beyond all isms. If so, such thoughts are rarely shared.  

‘Code-switching’

This ambivalence about the origin and complex nature of mindfulness often takes the form of ‘code-switching’ (read all about it in this important book). It works like this: the mindfulness advocate when engaging people in a secular setting (e.g. a school, boardroom or a funding organisation) deliberately downplays (‘switches off’) any reference to Buddhism. 

When that same advocate is around others open to Buddhism or where there is a perceived benefit to promote the spiritual aspect of mindfulness, they will ‘switch on’ the Buddhism to declare their mindfulness programme to be a vehicle for teaching the dharma.

I have been running mindfulness courses in secular settings for 14 years and can attest to how easy it is to ‘code-switch’, often without realising I’m doing it. It is deceptive and misleading. It leads to confusion for all concerned. It is not a good look for practices supposedly grounded in honesty and mutual respect. I feel relieved – a little embarrassed too – when my words are challenged and my insincerity is brought to my attention.

I wonder, too, if ‘code-switching’ might provide a clue for understanding some of the current dislocation of western mindfulness. For it is the kind of psychological sleight-of-hand that we tend to resort to when we don’t totally understand what we’re dealing with, or we haven’t thought things through, but we’re not willing to admit it. Rather than acknowledge our inconsistencies, we will obfuscate, prevaricate, complicate – do anything, in fact, to ensure that we remain in a state of comfortable ignorance. The crouching buddha nicely symbolises such a state of wilful clouding over.

Wakey Wakey

Sitting Buddha
Traditionally, Buddhist statues serve a purpose: to remind the observing human of wholesome qualities – joy, compassion, wisdom and serenity – they already possess and may further cultivate. Statues come in numerous styles and postures but they commonly display a certain liveliness, vigour and grace. 

Statues symbolise not just the historical buddha but your inner one. ‘Buddha’ is an honorific title meaning ‘one who is awake’. It refers to the wise and compassionately aware aspect of you. How ironic that the crouching buddha form is ‘one who is not awake’ – a representation of a being who holds nothing in mind and is ignore-ant of the world.

An interesting thing you can do with Buddhist statues is to imitate them. For example, if you sit like the buddha in the adjacent image – grounded through the sitting bones, upright spine, shoulders relaxed – over time you will notice an energetic balance of mental calmness, stability and alertness. These qualities lay a solid foundation for the development of one’s meditation practice. 

By contrast, try sitting like the crouching buddha. When I tried it, I felt confined and detached. It’s the sort of posture I could easily slide into if I were feeling listless or bored. It’s a posture that also engenders a certain self-consciousness and conceit, which are shadow qualities of mindfulness.

Crouching Buddha Hidden Meaning

On the upside, here’s a little scoop about the crouching buddha: he may be contrived but he has a precedent. According to Dr. Christian Luczanits, senior lecturer in Tibetan and Buddhist Art at SOAS, there is a unique representation of the historical Buddha leaning on his knee from the Gandharan period (3rd century BCE – 1200 CE), which resurfaced in a modified form in 13th century China. It signifies the moment after enlightenment when the Buddha is reflecting on whether or not to teach his experience.

Thinking Buddha
It is, therefore, a thinking posture, not dissimilar to more recent sculptures such as Rodin’s The Thinker. Note that the head remains alert. It seems that even at his most vexed and in need of a bit of self-propping-up, the Buddha was regarded as a person concerned with how best to engage with the world. 

Alas the same cannot be said for his crouchy descendent, who is not thoughtful, regards only himself and is, therefore, a fitting symbol for all forms of McMindfulness that have wheedled their way into our lives over the last two decades.

So, the next time you see an advert for mindful baking, or read about soldiers improving their kill rate through meditation practice, or hear some ‘expert’ explaining how they can plot your mindful awareness on their new graph, you may want to pause to consider the subtle and slippery nature of mindfulness in all of its guises. And breathe. These are the proverbial blind men surrounding the proverbial elephant, knowledge slipping through their fingers. Be careful around them because they have the power to blind you too.

In these testing times, navigating the world of mindfulness is a job in itself. Know that you are not alone. There are many of us, sheltering indoors, doing our best to wise up. In idle moments we prop ourselves up on our knees in front of Netflix and watch Headspace: Unwind Your Mind the way you can’t not look at a car crash, while out in the back garden our little buddha statues doze quietly, cold as stone. It’s no revolution but at least it’s a wake-up call.

If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Tranquillise Him

I marvel at the subtle and slippery nature of mindfulness in all of its guises, whether that be as a theoretical construct, a psychological ...