The trend to mindfulness would seem to signal mass recognition of the need to slow down and pay attention in a turbo-driven, reactive society. Yet its migration from ashram to boardroom is not without tensions. High-profile Buddhists are taking off the gloves, albeit thoughtfully; they say mindfulness is part of a continuum—one of the seven factors of enlightenment—not a self-help technique or “a path which can lead to bigger profits,” as the Financial Times put it. And long-time practioners worry that mindfulness repackaged as a quick fix or a commercial platform could in fact lead to mindlessness, and reinforce the very problems it’s trying to heal.
…Donald Lopez, a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan, calls “secular Buddhism” an oxymoron: “Buddhism has always been a religion,” he says. “To see it as a way of life is a modern conceit that disparages the lives and religious practices of Buddhists over thousands of years.” The author of The Scientific Buddha, published in 2012, says belief that “mindfulness” is an ancient Buddhist practice is a fallacy: “There’s a cachet that comes from saying some ancient sage a millennium ago in India invented these things,” he says.
There’s an omnipresent tension between those who use religious teachings as a means of reinforcing an egocentric worldview and those who use them as challenges to it. Same as it ever was. I will note, though, that Alan Watts claimed Buddhism itself was a reinvention of existing traditions for the sake of particular needs:
Hinduism is not a religion, it is a culture. In this respect, it’s more like Judaism than Christianity, because a person is still recognizable as a Jew even though they don’t go to synagogue. Jewish people, coming from a long line of Jewish parents and ancestors who have been practicing Jews, still continue certain cultural ways of doing things, certain mannerisms and attitudes, so they are cultural Jews instead of religious Jews. Hinduism is the same sort of thing; it is a religious culture. Being a Hindu really involves living in India. Because of the difference of climate, of arts, crafts and technology, you cannot be a Hindu in the full sense in Japan or the United States.
Buddhism is Hinduism stripped for export. The Buddha was a reformer in the highest sense; someone who wants to go to the original form, or to re-form it for the needs of a certain time.
In panta rheism, such sectarian distinctions are irrelevant, of course. The headwaters are unimportant as meaning and truth can be found at any point along the river, wherever water flows.