In A New Buddhist Path, David Loy attempts to bring into dialogue what he calls the transcendent and immanent streams of Buddhism that can roughly be mapped today onto the eastern (“religious”) and western (“secular”) Buddhist traditions. He asks, ‘What is the meaning of enlightenment—is it an escape from the world, or is it a form of psychological healing?’ and attempts to chart a new course for Buddhism that is true to its other-worldly roots while remaining appealing to a secularist west.
I have been thinking about this in relation to the popularity of mindfulness education, especially in schools. We teach mindfulness at King’s and are always keen to stress its academic respectability (after all, Oxford has a Mindfulness Centre) and its clinical utility (the NHS uses it to treat depression). We tend also to stress that pupils meditating with us are not being indoctrinated into some mystical Asian religion. No, mindfulness is safe and respectable (which I suppose religion is inferred not to be!).
And yet, the religious foundations of mindfulness are hiding in plain sight. Take one of the most popular introductions to mindfulness (Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World): while there is barely a mention of religion in the main pages of the book, the bibliography is full of references to seminal works on Buddhist meditation. It is clear that the modern mindfulness movement, for all it laudable clinical developments, has been very reliant on the teachings of Buddhists such as Thich Nhat Hanh.
In my view, this is all fine. Not everyone wants to practice an overtly religious meditation, be it Buddhist or Christian or whatever, and despite the inevitable backlash, I remain a fan of teaching mindfulness to children in a non-confessional environment. My point is simply this: secular meditation is now being taught all around us and this provides an opportunity for Religious Studies teachers. It is likely that many of our pupils are having more experience with mindfulness than with worshipping in churches and temples. This new development is ready-made for discussions of spirituality, physicalism, transcendence, prayer, etc. If mindfulness is taking place in your school, make sure the RS classroom is, well, mindful of it!