Vague Platitudes to Avoid Life’s Hard Questions: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Comfort-Food Buddhism
by Tom Pepper
My first experience with the “mindfulness” craze was in psychology class. Nobody seemed very clear on what mindfulness meant, but they were all sure it was a “Buddhist concept.” It seemed harmless, if not at all helpful, so I ignored it. Until they showed us the educational dvd on mindfulness, which I believe came from the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA.
In this video, a well-meaning psychologist spoke earnestly of how mindfully living “in the moment” would cure everything from ADHD to post-traumatic stress to addictions. When she got to the description of how we should learn to ignore everything but our sensory experiences, I thought, well, she just doesn’t know much about the history of psychology, or she would be aware that such practices have been tried, and nobody can EVER do that. Not even for a moment. And she doesn’t know much about Buddhism, or she would know that such “bare awareness” is not at all what the Buddha meant by sati. Then, she began to describe how one could mindfully walk to the guillotine to be executed, and I laughed so hard I had to leave the room.
I didn’t think much of the new fad of mindful-everything, and figured it was harmless, and irrelevant to Buddhism. I didn’t think any Buddhists were so mistaken about the concept.
Then, I read Thich Nhat Hanh. I discovered that this concept really is coming from a Buddhist, and it became much more troubling to me. I had never read Thich Nhat Hanh until about four years ago, when a study group in my sangha decided to read his Answers from the Heart. I wasn’t much interested in the kind of night-stand Buddhism that is usually found in the books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. These books seemed mostly interested in making a quick buck off of the American middle-class readers who just want to feel better about themselves without too much effort, and like to think they are more open minded and spiritually advanced than average. I pretty much dismissed Thich Nhat Hanh without reading him.
I sometimes wish I had left it at that.
Having now read nearly a dozen of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, I have to say that I think his version of Buddhism is troublingly simplistic, not really helpful at all, and overall damaging to the possibility of any real understanding of Buddhism spreading to the United States. His Tuesdays-With-Morrie-style empty platitudes make people think they’ve learned something profound, when they have actually only strengthened their attachments to the delusions that are the real source of misery in our culture. I read Answers from the Heart with a knot in my stomach, wondering: don’t people realize this is just a bunch of banal clichés? Isn’t it obvious he is oversimplifying every problem to the point of absurdity?
Nevertheless, I pressed on with the reading, trying to find something useful in the book, something to say when the study group met. Then, I got to the “Children’s Questions” section, and, well, I lost hope. Let me give a specific example of the problem.
In answer to a child’s question about what “we can do to become enlightened,” Thich Nhat Hanh says:
When you drink your tea, and know that you’re drinking your tea, you’re concentrated, you see that drinking tea is something you like to do. So drinking tea mindfully is a kind of enlightenment. (p. 147)
No, it really isn’t. It may be a kind of contentment, and may be very useful in helping restore peace of mind, relieve stress, and help us go on with our day. But it is NOT enlightenment. Nowhere does the Buddha say that what he means by awakening is enjoying a good cup of tea–or anything even remotely like it. Even if mindfulness was the same as concentration, which it isn’t, neither is it the same as enlightenment. They are not even a beginning, or lower level of, enlightenment. At most, they are a preparation to train the mind, so that we will be able to begin working toward enlightenment. Now, this is an answer to a question by a child, and we could say that this is just skillful means, that he is encouraging the child on toward that fantastic castle-city. But my problem is that this is the same thing he says in all his books, repeatedly, not just to children, and he never gives any indication that he sees this as only a first step. For Thich Nhat Hanh, drinking tea, chopping carrots, and looking at flowers simply is what the Buddha meant by enlightenment.
This may be comforting to the bookstore Buddhist who wants to believe her garden parties or his golf swing really is the end of the Buddhist path. But it is very, very clear from everything that the Buddha says about his own awakening that he had something much more in mind. And it may not always be so easy to accept.
Certainly what Thich Nhat Hanh says sounds, at first, like wonderfully “wise” answers—until we realize he hasn’t told us anything we couldn’t get out of a fortune cookie. For instance, when he discusses “engaged Buddhism,” he tells us to encourage our leaders to “understand the world situation” (103), and to “bring about awareness”(104), but he never says anything specific about what would help, or what exactly should be done. Who doesn’t think that leaders who understand the problem would be a good thing? There’s nothing Buddhist about that. What about discussing a Buddhist position on the absurd naiveté of the voluntarist idea that leaders could change the world if they just wanted to? What is the Buddhist position on the problem of structure and agency in social formations? These are harder questions, clearly, and require more than fortune-cookie answers.
And they require thought, which Thich Nhat Hanh consistently discourages. I began counting all the disparaging remarks about “philosophy” and “rationalism” and “intellectuals,” but really, there’s no point. I think Thich Nhat Hanh’s anti-intellectualism is pretty obvious in all his books. On his understanding of the dharma, the Buddha believed thinking was the source of our problems, and just sipping a cup of tea in the garden would clear everything right up. Now, Americans hate thinking, so I can see why this is popular. To quote Heidegger, is there any greater anxiety today than the anxiety in the face of thinking? But the Buddha doesn’t seem to have this terror of mental effort. The figure of the Buddha presented in the Pali canon clearly knew all the major philosophical trends of his time, and developed a fairly sophisticated one of his own. It isn’t all that complex, but it is very difficult because it is thoroughly counter-intuitive, and requires not just thought, but also practice. This is an important point. We need to both practice, and to be able to think clearly about what we are practicing and why. Samadhi, in fact, seems to originally have served as mental training to produce the powers of mind necessary for complex philosophical thought in a non-literate culture, where one couldn’t just take notes or “google” something.
Like many self-help Buddhists, Thich Nhat Hanh is adept at telling people what they want to hear, and making it sound profound. When he tells the luxury-car-driving nuclear warhead designer to keep his job, because he will do it mindfully, I wanted to scream. Really, go ahead and facilitate mass murder, just do it in a mindful fashion? Would he have said the same to Himmler, when he was drawing up the plans for more efficient mobile gas chambers? Weapons-dealing is one of the things the Buddha most explicitly says is NOT right livelihood. So sure, go ahead and keep whatever job you have, and don’t worry about whether you are producing bad karma; but, you should realize that you will never become enlightened, are not practicing Buddhism, and will contribute to the dukkha of countless other people. But, hey, as long as you are mindful while driving your Mercedes, right?
Answers from the Heart is full of evasions, vacuous platitudes, and empty clichés. Consider some of the questions in the “spiritual practice” section. When someone asks what “looking deeply” means, he defines it as “being deeply aware”(66). Yeah, real helpful. “What is the best way to nourish our bodhicitta?” We should desire to ”help awaken other people, relieve their suffering, and bring them happiness”(68). Okay, this is a (vague) definition of what bodhicitta is, but it doesn’t tell us how to acquire it, and tells us nothing about what will really bring people happiness. All this feel-good empty advice is not just harmless, because it makes people think they are actually learning Buddhism, when they are learning nothing at all. Thich Nhat Hanh merely helps people strengthen their existing tendency to avoid facing the hard questions and solving the hard problems, the tendency to be only as “engaged” as we can be while we watch reality television and surf the internet, drive our luxury cars and drink our tea. We only need to wish people well, not do anything about it that might actually put a crimp in our lifestyle. Instead of challenging people to face the truth, Thich Nhat Hanh produces the worst kind of capitalist post-modern ideology, and calls it Buddhism.
So, one final point, on the idea of anatman. Thich Nhat Hanh absurdly conflates ideas of a “healthy sense of self,” self esteem, and a sense of superiority, and then suggests that what is really meant by “no-self” is simply not being a narcissist. Having compassion is our “true nature of no-self”(75). This ridiculously oxymoronic phrase is the worst explanation of anatman I have ever seen, and I’ve read some bad ones. No-self means realizing that we have an essential true nature of compassion? Yikes! If he was going for the Zen paradox here (to realize no-self is to realize our essential self), that would be bad enough, but clearly this particular example is just a case of convoluted thinking.
I used to be indifferent to Thich Nhat Hanh, thinking he was a harmless popularizer; but the more I read of his books, the more I think he is one of the worst things to happen to Buddhism in America since Alan Watts. People are just getting over the idea that Buddhism means dropping acid and having sex with your students. Now they are likely to think it means sipping tea and looking at flowers, and general anti-intellectual American complacency. Maybe that’s just a feature of the audience–the baby boomers are getting old. Thich Nhat Hanh, though, seems consistently better able to reinforce delusions than remove them.
But of course, this is what sells. The bookstore Buddhist wants comfort, not challenge. She wants to be reassured that the only test of the truth of anything is whether it corresponds to what she already believes (this is what the Kalama Sutta says, right?). And that “the Buddha says” that “intellectualizing” is the source of suffering, and that we must accept everything in the world, including our own mind, and never make an effort at improvement. The Buddha says these things, right? It’s on that plaque I bought at T.J. Maxx, it must be true. Thich Nhat Hanh has paved the way for a whole host new teachers who spout platitudes in soft voices at retreats and sell their books online. Everyone’s afraid to ask them a question, because pointing out that what their saying is simplistic or just plain wrong is rude. And, if you do it, they get irrationally angry, call you names, and start listing their “qualifications,” then condescendingly smirk at your ignorance. After witnessing this once or twice, most people just won’t dare to ask a question. They choke down the cloying comfort-food version of Buddhism, and when they can’t stomach any more move on to something else.
Enough with the mindfulness already. There’s nothing wrong with thinking! For millennia, even Buddhists did a lot of it.
A pdf file of this essay is available on the “Articles” page.