The Mindful Schools Two-Step: A Dangerous Path, but for Whom?

In a blog post for the Huffington Post’s Education section Candy Gunther Brown, PhD, suggests that secular mindfulness meditation practices in the public school system should be treated similarly to theistic prayer practices in the public schools. Insofar as those theistic practices are forbidden, so should the Buddhist practices, no matter the name by which you call them. I am deeply sympathetic to her suggestion, even though I myself am both a public school teacher and an ordained lay Dharma teacher. But Dr. Brown’s rhetoric around the matter is misleading, partly because the people promoting these secularized practices are themselves confused about what they are saying and doing. 

To clear some of these muddy waters, let’s start with an analogy that we are all familiar with, whether we are Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Satanist, Secularist, or Nihilist: walking. Most of us walk, some of us more than others, and some of us not all that much. Some of us not at all because of disabilities or other features of our bodies that push us to move in other ways, and I do not mean to exclude you from this conversation, so please substitute your method of travel for walking in the following discussion. For those of us that walk, the following should sound familiar.

Starting at point A, you move one leg in front of the other and repeat until you reach point B.

OK – now that walking is established, let’s ask: should we ban walking from public schools? (And to be clear, I will have the Lemon Test, a supreme court established test to check whether a practice counts as overly religious, in the back of my mind while writing this.) Probably not. One can walk with any frame of mind, and so there is nothing religious or non-religious about walking. Let the walkers walk, I say.

The analogy so far is not apt because I have not discussed teaching walking in the schools. In fact, there are many reasons to teach walking at school. Sometimes, when reading a particular kind of novel where a character has a swagger, it might be useful to teach students how to walk like the character so they really get into the story’s world. In Physical Education, you could teach racewalking, which is a particular form of walking that is also an Olympic sport. In math, you could devise a way of walking that teaches binary numbers and call it ‘binary walking’ and have a blast geeking out with your students. In any of these cases, it seems like we should not prohibit walking at school. Let the Supremes have a break from dealing with these walking shenanigans.

Now suppose you are at a school and your students are just bumping into one another left and right. They walk into the halls and next thing you know books, papers, notes, and soda are all over the floor. It would be wise to start a school-wide program that teaches students how to walk and pay attention to their walking at the same time. (This is not unlike teaching a sport where you have to teach a student to both perform the action and be aware of the action at the same time. It is also similar to any meta-cognitive practice in more academic classrooms.) Should this be banned? Should the Supremes be called on the red phone and asked whether they smell a lemon? No, surely not. We are talking safety for the students and less work for the janitors. There is nothing religious here, just good old fashioned meta-cognitive walking.

But what about the fact that Christians and Buddhists alike – I don’t mean to exclude the Hindus, Satanists, and Nihilists on this one, I just don’t know how they teach walking – in some contexts teach meta-cognitive walking? They teach practices that involve walking and being aware of one’s walking at the same time. And when that awareness fades, there are practices for bringing that awareness back to one’s walking. This seems like what the school is doing. That’s lemon walking for sure, one might say. Not so fast. This is where vocabulary and concepts matter. Before you go and cry lemon, make sure you actually get that sour taste in your mouth first.

Just because two acts appear formally similar, or functionally similar, doesn’t mean they are the same act. The intentions hidden behind the act matter. And with this comes the concepts under which the act is initiated and the purposes for which the act is performed. Meta-cognitive walking – walking with awareness of one’s walking and in order to be safe in the halls – is not religious walking, whether Buddhist or Christian. There are no spiritual concepts involved here and no spiritual goals. Just personal and community well-being. And if that is religious, then all of public school is religious, but that is for another conversation.

Christian and Buddhist walking is, in some contexts, done using spiritual concepts to conceive of one’s act and for spiritual purposes. If this kind of walking is taught in the public schools, then we have a problem for both the Christian and the Buddhist (and whatever religion is trying to sneak their goods onto our feet). The key claim here is that vocabulary, concepts, and intentions matter for making this distinction. Since we can’t tell what goes on in a student’s mind when they walk (thank you, whoever or whatever brought us about, for that opacity), then it really matters what concepts and vocabulary we use when teaching our walking practices because that gives us some evidence of what the students will be thinking. As long as those concepts and vocabulary are religion free, then put away that Lemon Test for another day.

Let’s cut to the chase on my disagreement with Dr. Brown. She suggests that mindfulness practices should be prohibited because they are religion in disguise. She says that even though different words are used to describe the practice, religion is still afoot and so suggests that the practices should be banned alongside school prayer. She is wrong about this. The vocabulary does matter. When students are taught calming practices, breathing practices, or other stress reducing practices using words that are not religious (and the really sticky part here is that the term ‘mindfulness’ is both a secular term and a religious term of art, so just because it is used doesn’t mean we have religion in our midst), then the practices pass the Lemon Test and are OK for school consumption. Yes, there are those misguided celebrities and teachers out there that are trying to sneak their Buddhism into the classroom, but that is not part of the test. The test is about what actually gets taught. And as long as what gets taught is religion free, then the students are not being coerced into religion. Sorry Dr. Brown – there is a huge difference between prayer and the practices you talk about, and whereas prayer ought to be prohibited, the practices you mention, if taught in a non-religious way, should not.

Now, for our agreement and to those misguided celebrities and teachers. Remember I said I was an ordained Buddhist teacher (and high school teacher) and I take the Buddhist path seriously. One part of our path is noble speech or right speech or truthful speech. Basically, it is not to be sneaky about our speech. Not being sneaky means not being deceptive, not intentionally lying, not fooling others, and so on. There is no secret here. If it feels sneaky, then it most likely is. Furthermore, the teachings around morality and cause and effect, sometimes called the teachings of Karma, tell me (and perhaps only me) that I am responsible for my sneakiness. If I talk in a sneaky way, then that talk has downstream effects on me as well as those that I speak to. If I intentionally hide the Buddhist practice and teach it under a different set of concepts, I have to ask why am I doing this. Why am I being sneaky? Maybe the person I am teaching wouldn’t want to learn if I mentioned the path to them. Don’t I need to respect this? You bet I do!

And this is where I think I agree with Dr. Brown, although it has nothing to do with the public schools. I think we are both upset that people are taking religious practices and using them to serve their own ends. The Buddhist enthusiasts today are trying to get Buddhism into the school under different names. And as a Buddhist I can only raise an eyebrow or two at their misguidedness. This strikes me as sneaky and although the Buddha never said it directly, I am pretty sure he intended us not to be sneaky in our words, actions, and thoughts. We Buddhists (well, we human beings really) need to investigate our intentions and our actions and take a good hard look at whether we are acting in accord with the Buddha’s path (or just a path of basic goodness or fairness). Teach students to be aware of their emotions, their breathing, their walking, and so on. This is good for all of us. But do so (and intend to do so) in a non-religious way or do not do it at all. For those of us Buddhists trying to sneak the religion into the classroom without being transparent about it, well, the Buddha surely gave a Lemon test somewhere in the Sutras and I am pretty sure what is being pushed ain’t no lemonade.


Changing the World, One Scrap at a Time

So, instead of posting here, I recently wrote a post for the Crazy Wisdom Journal that is published by the Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tearoom in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The post is a response to a recent article they published about Haju Sunim and the Sangha at the Ann Arbor Zen Temple.

You can find the post by clicking here: Changing the World, One Scrap at a Time.

If you are ever in Ann Arbor, check out Crazy Wisdom and the Ann Arbor Zen Temple!

A Rose Not Called ‘Rose’ Would Smell As Sweet – Unless You Forgot to Smell It! (On The Name Of Our Pracitce)

What is the name of our practice, the practice that descends from the lineage of Bodhidharma back to the Buddha, not a lineage of genes or bloodlines, but a lineage of no-thing, the only thing that can be transferred without loss and without gain from body/mind to body/mind?

The question is easy and difficult. Easy because naming is easy and those that have come before have already named. Difficult because with naming comes a fertile ground of delusion, where ignorance spreads like wildfire.

Case in point: try ‘Zen’. If we practice in this lineage that descends from Bodhidharma back to the Buddha, do we practice Zen Buddhism?

No. Zen is the Japanese branch of this lineage. There are questions of historical and spiritual importance that only apply to (Japanese) Zen Buddhism. One example is illustrated by this post over at Wild Fox Zen. Are Shikantaza and Koan practices compatible or mutually exclusive? Is Koan practice part of Dogen’s teachings or rejected by him? These questions (and many others concerning (Japanese) Zen Buddhism) do not arise for (Korean) Sŏn Buddhism or (Chinese) Chán Buddhism; they are not, in a sense, of spiritual importance to practitioners of those schools and need not be of historical importance either.

Yes. Since practitioners (myself included) in this loosely knit set of practices trace their lineage back to the Buddha through Bodhidharma, they must continually and sincerely confront the heart-essence of that lineage, the lineage of no-thing, the only thing that can be transferred without loss and without gain from body/mind to body/mind. If (Japanese) Zen Buddhism has developed responses to the ineffable song of the heart-essence, then the (Korean) Sŏn Buddhist or the (Chinese) Chán Buddhist ought to listen deeply. Intentionally not doing so reeks of delusion.

So the situation is complicated, to say the least. But when our discourse lumps all of this into Zen Buddhism and acknowledges the other practices by occasionally using their names, if at all, we are sowing seeds of delusion among potential practitioners and seasoned ones alike. For example, Buddhadharma says, “We are fortunate to have the support of Editorial Advisors who represent a wide variety of communities and traditions—Theravada, Zen, Pure Land, and Vajrayana.” That is not a wide variety by any means, if you take into account the diversity of responses to what drives practice. However, if Buddhadharma were genuinely sensitive to the diversity of the real world (and I have no reason to doubt the people there are sensitive in this way), they would run out of ink and room to print! Remember, the situation is complicated, to say the least.

So what is the point? Our words have karmic effects on those around us. When we speak, we shape the body/minds of those who hear. When we speak in a way that is out of tune with reality, the body/minds that listen are also out of tune with reality. When we speak in a way that is in concert with reality, the body/minds that listen are also in concert with reality. Our responsibility is to be careful with our words because that is being careful with awakening – our awakening as one body, one mind.

Recognizing the limitations of our names because of their historical existence is liberating in at least two ways. It is liberating because when we get hung up on a problem that seems of utmost importance, we can remember that it is of no importance and move towards easing our body/minds. At the same time, it is liberating because getting hung up is how we move forward with practice; knowing the how and why of our hangups illuminates the path forward. In a sense, these two ways are not two, yet as Uisang says in the Ocean Seal they are “not confused or mixed, but function separately.” [1]

For my own part, I will try to use Sŏn/Chán/Zen Buddhism when I hope to write about our practices in general. When talking about a particular lineage, I will use the name for that lineage. And I will fail most of the time at accomplishing what I hope to say.

For example – the astute reader will be asking about (Vietnamese) Thiền Buddhism. And the fact that we who practice Sŏn/Chán/Zen Buddhism do not all share the same lineage back to Bodhidharma, so the differences are even more extreme than we make them out to be. And that the lineages sometimes have wholes in them, gaps between generations of teachers and masters and nuns and monks. And more. Oh the doubt and the unknowing mind that permeates the heart-song of our practice!

As Juliet says of Romeo in Skakespeare’s play: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose // by any other name would smell as sweet” (Act II, Scene II). Yes, oh Juliet, how true the words. The rose would smell as sweet were it called ‘horse’ or ‘manure’. But call a rose ‘manure’ and you might find unsuspecting lovers walking up to piles of manure suspecting that something is not so sweet about the smell.

Call it Sŏn, Chán, Zen, or Thiền and you still have the same sweet smelling practice. But be careful not to lead unsuspecting practitioners to piles of manure. And be careful to smell the practice, whatever the name, before you put your nose in it.


[1] This excerpt is from Uisang’s Ocean Seal of Hwaom Buddhism as translated by Steve Odin in Process Metaphysics and Hua-Yen Buddhism. You can also find the Ocean Seal in the (free and online) Collected Works of Korean Buddhism, Vol. 4, p. 103.

Threefold, Twofold, One-fold, No-fold – Intro

After posting the revised “About Me” section, I looked back at the previous entry “Return to Write.” That entry was posted almost exactly a year ago to the day! Oh my! I returned to write only not to write. Sounds like the Diamond Sutra. For another time.

For now, I want to lay out a puzzle of sorts. I have been interested in this puzzle for a while and I hope to explore it here in some detail. And I hope that others join in as well! For now, I want to lay out a preview of the puzzle.

The background: Buddhist training is a threefold training in morality, meditation, and wisdom.

In Sŏn/Chán/Zen Buddhism, it is often stated that meditation and wisdom are not two. A forceful and persuasive rendering of this identity or denial of two-ness (not the same thing) is found in The Platform Sutra through the function and essence discussion and the lamp and the light metaphor. I think this also goes back to The Awakening of Faith as well, but I will investigate that again for a later post.

So my question is: What about morality?

Seems simple enough, but it gets sticky and tricky, conceptually speaking. It is possible to grasp how meditation and wisdom can be not-two or related as in lamp to light, but that does not leave room for morality, which involves both intra-personal and inter-personal features of mind and body. In other words, the argument or experiences that support the not-two-ness of meditation and wisdom do not support a similar reduction of morality.

But then that leaves us with a two-ness. And that seems to cut against the Sŏn/Chán/Zen pursuit of the realization of non-duality that lurks behind the claims relating meditation and wisdom.

Did the ancestors simply forget about morality?

Enough for now. On your mark, get ready, Threefold, Twofold, One-fold, No-fold, GO!

About (a later cloud heap of skandhas named and named again) Me

May you be happy! May you be free from suffering! May you be at ease!

My name is Kusa. In the summer of 2014, after completing the Maitreya Buddhist Seminary under the guidance of Ven. Haju Sunim, I ordained as a lay Dharma Teacher. I remain affiliated with the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom (founded by Ven. Samu Sunim) both as a lay Dharma Teacher and as a continuing student of the Dharma and Korean Sŏn Buddhism.

I am also a secular teacher/student. After completing my doctorate in philosophy from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, I taught as a lecturer at Colorado College and University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Currently I teach English at a public high school in Colorado Springs. As part of the transition, I went back to taking undergraduate classes in English and graduate classes in Education. Everyday I become a student of the teenagers in my classroom, learning what makes them come alive and what puts them to sleep. Everyday the individual minds and energies that come crashing together in the classroom humble me!

This blog brings together all these streams into one mighty river! Well – sometimes this blog will be but a trickling mighty river. Remember, I am a public school teacher and my students are my priority. What I mean, however, is that this blog will bring together philosophical analysis with Dharma practice and study. These realms of thought and practice are not antithetical. Indeed, a brief read through the major texts of Buddhism, Sŏn/Chán/Zen Buddhism, and Korean Sŏn Buddhism is evidence enough that our greatest Buddhist teachers have been nothing less than great philosophers. I humbly submit my voice into this genre of Buddhist writing, expecting to stumble along the path that has been discovered and re-discovered by our female and male ancestors.

As I mentioned before in the previous “About Me” post, I approach and share the Dharma with open heart, open mind, and open hands. Your feedback on the posts, whether personal or academic in nature, is greatly appreciated.

And I still think the following captures a fragment of the Dharma path we walk in our everyday lives. We move through this world bounded by our surroundings, our culture, our habit energies, and so much more. Yet the Dharma encourages us to live with boundless heart and mind. The title of this blog – With(out) Bounds – reflects this subtle dance between boundedness and boundlessness. It also reflects the general spirit in which I approach the Dharma: as an imperfect human being vowing to cultivate the Buddha Way in body, speech, and mind.

Thank you for reading!

Note: This is the new “About Me” section for this blog, but I thought I would post it here as a general announcement of what is to come.


Return to Write

After seeing an old friend today, I was reminded that I have not posted here for some time. I will return to this blog soon. I do miss the writing practice! For now, I have one thing to offer: May all those in Colorado who are suffering from these storms find time to rest before heading back into the rain.

In my tradition it is said that Samsara is Nirvana and Nirvana is Samsara. In that spirit, may this rain of suffering be equally a rain of Dharma.

Whom are we not helping?

I recently read an article on implicit bias and modern prejudice. If you think you are free from acting with prejudice, think again.

As the author of the article aptly puts the question: Whom are we not helping?

This is also an apt way of framing the practice question. When we stop to help in the spirit of the Great Vow – All Beings, One Body, I Vow To Liberate – may we also stop and ask ourselves: Whom are we not helping? In this way, may we avoid reinforcing norms and boundaries and patterns that harm rather than liberate.

The article can be found here: What does modern prejudice look like?

Thank you for your practice! Thank you for working to end suffering in all the obvious and subtle ways it arises!