Mindfulness and Ethics

I read a comment to James Ford’s HuffPo piece today Thoughts on Zen’s Sex Scandals and What Might Follow that got me thinking. The comment in part:

It seems to me that this is about ethics and mindfulness. I get the impression that most schools of Buddhism teach mindfulness, whether they call it that or not. If one presumes to teach others, the student will reasonably expect that the teacher has a firm grasp of, and commitment to Buddhist ethics and compassion. If so, a practice of mindfulness should alert the teacher that he is going astray.

These are two different issues to me. There’s lots of mindfulness teaching going on but not so much mention of ethics. Where ethics come up, usually in the guise of precepts, in the Buddhist context, there’s often a lot of equivocating, sometimes to the point of dismissing them entirely. “They’re just guidelines/suggestions/recommendations.” “They’re not like commandments from God.” “I can apply them as I see fit (usually then comes a line or two from the Kalama Sutra as rationalization)”

Ethics is a separate but related discussion to mindfulness. Since the secularization of mindfulness, to impose a Buddhist ethical viewpoint upon it would again bring it back into the realm of Buddhist religion. Many of those who take up mindfulness training in itself do not necessarily want to declare themselves as Buddhists. Many of the institutions that accept mindfulness training only do so on the condition of its secularization.

Mindfulness, in itself, does not concern ethics. It only provides the conditions in which ethics may be discovered lacking and applied.

6 comments on “Mindfulness and Ethics

  1. Buddhism aside – wouldn’t an all-embracing capacity to be attentive i.e. to be mindful of both the bigger and the small pictures, tend to lead anyone, other than a sociopath perhaps, towards ethical i.e. congruent, kind, caring .. ethical behaviors?

  2. Not necessarily. I wrote a post a while back called Mindful War about agencies using mindfulness to train soldiers to endure even more extreme situations, to resist PTSD and to be able to focus on the tasks they are to perform, which are mainly related to killing.


    The people teaching these courses are part of the defense community and some have studied mindfulness techniques for quite a while.

    Attending to a situation in a mindful manner does not guarantee any sort of reaction or outcome in a situation. How we process and react to what we perceive is far more a function of our context (social, cultural, learned) that of the act of perception itself.

    I also think that’s why some people fall into a hopeless nihilism in Buddhist practice sometimes. There has to be a structure (however temporary or provisional–the raft) through which these perceptions are interpreted. [Of course on the other hand, people can cling to the structure at the expense of really “seeing” too.]

    If the structure is conducive to caring and compassion that is how the perception will be understood by the relative (socio-cultural to my way of thinking) mind. Likewise if the structure is something else perception can be interpreted as something else. The analysis, assignment of meaning and ethical decision making process is an after-the-fact activity vis-a-vis actual perception.

    This to me relates to equanimity in many ways. Bare mindfulness neither turns towards nor turns away from reality. It just is, in it’s fullness of the moment. It is only when we process that experience with higher brain functions (which are very much conditioned) in order to make meaning in our socio-psychological context that it takes on an ethical (or not) tone.

    That’s just how it looks to me. Of course other people may see it differently.

  3. Yes .. of course .. you’re right. I am aware of the use of mindfulness in the military and elsewhere. I wonder though, about the long-term effects it might ultimately produce i.e. a more reflective soldier, a more reflective military. We have had a retreat center next-door to a Navy Seal training base, and I’ve never run into anyone there who is actually pro-war. Not to say these guys are necessarily representative..but they have had a lot of training in paying attention.

    Another thought on a completely different tack is how the use of Mindfulness to further Buddhist indoctrination i.e. a Buddhist world view, including both the precepts, as well as some of the amoral ‘nihilistic’ tendencies, that have emerged in western Buddhist over the years, may parallel the sort of militaristic indoctrination that we would expect goes hand in hand with the use of mindfulness training in the military. .. really to confirm your point, that mindfulness may indeed (at least initially) be entirely a-moral.

    Anyway, it’s a pleasure to interact with you after seeing your posts for some time now. Caitriona

  4. On a related matter, The Buddhist Peace Fellowship has a recent entry by David Loy which is about mindfulness in a business context and points to the need for some kind of context necessary for mindfulness practice. It includes a letter that Loy wrote to a Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil board member who is some kind of meditation practitioner.

    It’s here Can Mindfulness Change a Corporation?

    [I found this link via James Ford]

  5. When I see what appear intended as hopeful comments – like Caitriona’s reflection of mindfulness perhaps creating “a more reflective soldier, a more reflective military” – I see also a reflection of an assumption/judgment that those of martial occupation are somehow automatically otherwise.

    What is this but yet another cultural/social bias, reflecting a limited view, which itself limits reflection? A sort of intellectual laziness/luxury that a warrior can neither afford nor long sustain amid the realities/duties of their profession. Given the commitment it takes to follow such paths, it would seem an odd assumption to conclude them as a group to be less than thoughtful or unaware (or able to easily remain so without grave personal cost).

    In battle, mindfulness is not some optional intellectual/spiritual practice/pursuit. It’s a choiceless matter of life and death. Imminent and inescapable. As good a definition of mindfulness as any. ;)

    • Kristopher – I could agree more AND I have always understood and worked with mindfulness from multiple perspectives – mindfulness of big picture, consequences, contexts .. rather than only mindfulness in, and off, an arbitrary and amputated, present moment, One can certainly learn to be mindful here and now while remaining a robot – blindly obeying orders from on high. I think this conversation depends on how we choose to define the somewhat abstract word ‘mindfulness’ perhaps we should consider he question – mindful of what?

      And I agree with you about the general prejudice against the military in certain circles, and while I personally have great respect and regard for the individuals I know who are or were in the military, I think there is a military culture which is itself in blind service to its political handlers.

      – appreciate your thoughts

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