Killing the Buddha

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As a pioneer in workplace mindfulness, we're always looking for new perspectives on our field. So, when we came across Work Pray Code by Carolyn Chen which was published last month, we decided to do a series of articles exploring this work with you. Our hopes are to encourage conversation and critical thinking. This excerpt is the second article in our Work Pray Code series. Check out the first article in the series here!

By Carolyn Chen

[Various consultants] and coaches teach Buddhist meditation in companies for different reasons, but they share the same challenge: how to sell a religious product in a professedly secular workplace. They are what I call meditation entrepreneurs. They include three groups: contractors who teach meditation for a fee, such as meditation teachers, executive coaches, and companies producing meditation products; company administrators, such as human resources professionals and executives who develop or teach meditation within their companies; and company employees who are starting grassroots meditation groups. They are “entrepreneurs” because they are selling an old religious practice repurposed as a new workplace productivity tool. While some of my research participants strategically refer to meditation as “mindfulness,” a point I will discuss, others just call it “meditation.” I use both terms, meditation and mindfulness, interchangeably, as they did with me.

In order to sell meditation, entrepreneurs feel they must remove its religious qualities and replace them with nonreligious ones that align with the company’s goals. I call this process “killing the Buddha.” This startling phrase comes from the well-known Buddhist koan or puzzle posed by the prominent Chan (Zen) master Linji Yixuan in ninth-century China: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” There have been various Buddhist interpretations of this teaching, including the virtue of stamping out religious fetishism, and the importance of removing the illusion of a separate self. Here, I mean the “killing” of religious trappings in the practice of Buddhist meditation in Silicon Valley.

“Killing the Buddha” isn’t something that’s happening only in Silicon Valley. Even though mindfulness is a Buddhist practice, Buddhism is hardly mentioned in the current explosion of secular self-help mindfulness that promises to improve nearly every aspect of life, from parenting to eating, from losing weight to grieving and having sex (Wilson, 2014). According to one study, 22 percent of businesses in the United States offer mindfulness training. There is no consensus over exactly what “mindfulness” is, but the parading of this astounding number in business magazines suggests it is very popular in corporate America.

The term “secular mindfulness” is a source of deep tension among both practitioners and scholars of Buddhism. Buddhists have vigorously debated whether secular mindfulness is a departure from, or the radical embrace of, authentic Buddhist teaching (Wilson, 2019; Gleig, 2019; Kucinskas, 2018; Purser, 2019). Scholars have disputed whether Asian spiritual practices like yoga and meditation are religious or secular when practiced in settings such as schools and gyms. My concern is not to adjudicate whether corporate meditation is “true” Buddhism, or whether it is secular or religious, but rather to unearth the assumptions about the religious and the secular that become clear when meditation crosses the threshold between them. When someone enters religious life as a monastic, he or she must renounce the ways of secular life and replace them with those of religious life. The monastic leaves family and job, marking the crossing of boundaries by putting on robes, shaving the hair, and living in a religious community. When a religious practice enters the secular world of work, it too must “renounce” parts of itself and take up new secular habits. What does Buddhism have to give up, what does it have to take on, and what does it become in order to be a part of the tech company?

Excerpted from Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes a Religion in Silicon Valley by Carolyn Chen. Published by Princeton University Press, March 8, 2022. 

Are we producing a new kind of "Buddhism that works" in the workplace? In what ways is it dangerous? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

References:
Gleig, Ann. American Dharma: Buddhism beyond Modernity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018).
Kucinskas, Jamie. The Mindful Elite: Mobilizing from the Inside Out (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018). 
Purser, Ronald E. McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality (London: Repeater Books, 2019). 
Wilson, Jeff. Mindful America: Meditation and the Mutual Transformation of Buddhism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Carolyn Chen, a sociologist, is associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes a Religion in Silicon Valley and Getting Saved in America: Taiwanese Immigration and Religious Experience. Carolyn is also the co-editor of Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity and Religion among the Latino and Asian-American Second Generation. 

3 comments

Amy Phoenix

My sense is that we will see the impacts of this over time, and already are. Unfortunately, when a teaching is distorted - whether by interpretation, strict adherence to such and/or by stripping it of essential elements that are integral to its foundation - we will see those distortions in those who practice. As a practitioner, what you've shared here directly relate to some of my greatest concerns and inner conflicts with sharing in secular settings. We're pointing to the truth, within constructs which distract from and oppress the exact truths we are pointing to; a conundrum indeed. 

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Lowell Arye

You’re raising interesting points around work and meditation which we in the West must examine.  Interestingly, in newly independent Burma (Myanmar) a Theravadan teacher, U Ba Kihn, created 10 day Vipassana retreats for  government workers in the Auditor’s General Office.  Workers had increased sila (morality) including taking no more bribes, to more focus and happiness in the workplace.  I for one would love to see organizations creating these kinds of retreats for workers, including leadership.  

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Fred Guenot

Thanks a lot for your insightful articles. 

Here I want to react simply by reminding us that Buddhism is not a religion but rather a philosophy if we look at the original thoughts. Studying and teaching philosophy to get inspired, even in the work place, is a nice way to raise awareness and give the opportunity to people to question themselves, their environment and, I believe, progress is the path of individual and collective growth for the benefit of everybody.

When we look at our world, this teaching should have a place absolutely everywhere. Thanks for your time and attention.

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