Article by Manu Joseph: Why ‘mindfulness’ and ‘zen masters’ make little sense

The latest column by Manu Joseph in Mint is interesting and I thought of reproducing it here.

A file photo of Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who helped pioneer the concept of mindfulness in the West (Photo: AP)
A file photo of Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who helped pioneer the concept of mindfulness in the West

A few days ago, when the second most famous monk in the world, Thích Nhat Hanh, died, many famous people across the world celebrated him as an evangelist of “mindfulness”, as though it really exists. They also referred to him as a “zen master”, as though they know what it means. They could not have, because no one knows what a zen master is, or what a zen master does. The title is not like a karate black belt that you attain after a set of accomplishments. ‘Zen master’ is Western nonsense born out of an important source of nonsense —unhappy Caucasians searching for the meaning of life and finding it in something that is almost never pastel, and quaint enough for it to be exotic but not so alien that it is incomprehensible. The legend of Nhat Hanh and the fame of his “mindfulness” are products of this.

In Nhat Hanh’s words, “Mindfulness is to be aware of what is going on… When you breathe in, and if you know that you are breathing in, that is called mindfulness of breathing. When you drink your tea, and if you are aware that you are drinking your tea, that is called mindfulness of drinking.” And so on.

This is not nonsense. The immersive present is even pleasurable; just that it cannot be a full-time job for anyone even in a monastery. In any case, even if we assume that some people can actually always live in the present, why is the fierce focus on a passing moment of banality so exalted? So what if you learn to focus on the moment? Why is this spiritual or philosophical or superior to being lost in thought, being in the trance of a majestic idea, mulling our histories, or getting excited about the future? Intellectually, some of the most joyous things we do are never a marination in the present. Introspection, for instance, is entirely about the past. And an observation is not the act of seeing, as people claim; it is always the memory of seeing.

There is a perception that everything monks in maroon robes do is wise, deep and peaceful, and everything that others do frivolous and leads to anxiety. In fact, I think monks are probably deeply unhappy people; they are fleeing some deep sorrow, or their mental states might be more brooding than joyous. I do not think seekers like Nhat Hanh know more than us—what we are, why we exist, and why there is something instead of nothing. Everyone, including monks, are groping around in primordial darkness.

Once, we had nothing to do and we studied every moment, like animals, and it was boring. Modern life is the result of a deliberate and desperate attempt of humans to escape the tedium of “mindfulness”. We were reminded of this very recently when we were locked down in the pandemic. We were stuck in a long present, without any movement towards an illusory future. We fled it, inventing purpose and risking our lives.

Just because the joy of purpose is not permanent, we have allowed some men in distinctive dresses to convince us that going back to a time when all of life was monastic will lead us to happiness. The fact is that the monastic pursuit of joy is as fleeting as the more material pursuits. This is why our rural cousins who live amid breathtaking beauty want us to find them big-city jobs, even if some Indian cities are perhaps the ugliest places on earth. They have had enough being mindful of walking, of waking, of milking cattle. They want pace and fun.

The existence of false paths to happiness and joy has damaged the lives of millions of unhappy people who may have been better served if they were not given false promises.

You may have heard of Nhat Hanh only after he died, but he was far more influential than you realize. If you have heard of “living in the present”, it has come to you largely because of Nhat Hanh, through a complex route: He was born in a socially-influential family in Vietnam; for reasons that are unclear, he decided to become a monk; he was a political guy, and he soon antagonized older men; but as he had a social headstart, he could use opportunities to go West, where people saw in his ideas whatever they wished to see, as they did with Aung San Suu Kyi’s. But then when she opted to be practical, she did not live up to the Western ideal. Nhat Hanh did.

The problem with powerful people, even famous monks, is that they can be dangerous. In the early 1960s, some Buddhist monks immolated themselves as a part of what they claimed or thought was political protest. Decades later, in a conversation with Oprah Winfrey, Nhat Hanh said, “It was not suicide because in a difficult situation like in Vietnam, to make your voice heard is difficult. So sometimes we had to burn ourselves alive in order for our voice to be heard around…That is an act of love and not of despair.”

How often we have seen this. Some people who need to be rescued from depression kill themselves, and the articulate then explain a “cause” that somehow aligns with their own political motives.

What if the truth is that the suicidal only fabricate grand reasons for their final act? Those who gain from their death then make them into heroes; and this heroism in turn attracts other suicidal people to imitate not only the act of suicide, but also the method. It is probably not a coincidence that in the past 13 years, over a hundred Tibetan monks, too, chose the same method of political protest—they immolated themselves.

When Thích Nhat Hanh was justifying the suicides of monks to Winfrey, I wondered if he was being in the present. Or if he was mindful enough to ask himself why some monks burn themselves for a cause, while some live on till 95.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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