Comfort-Food Buddhism

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. Continue reading “Comfort-Food Buddhism”