Mindfulness Is Inherently Political

Submitted to Journal of Global Buddhism


Mindfulness Is Inherently Political

Because Existential-Material Exposure To Vulnerability Arrives Without Choice

As A Promise Of #MakingRefuge Shared-In-Difference


Edwin Ng, Independent Scholar

Ron Purser, San Francisco State University

Zack Walsh, Claremont School of Theology




“The idea of a refuge is that, when you’re in that refuge, you feel like you have that safe space and support and nurturing. That’s what I’d really push for if I had more than six months left.”

-       Arun “Angry Asian Buddhist”[1]


This paper claims that the work of mindfulness is inherently political because exposure to vulnerability, at once exposure between the human and nonhuman, is a basic existential fact of life that is also reproduced by the workings of power in uneven material conditions of living and dying. As professed engaged Buddhists this is an honest way for us to resituate mindfulness as part of a larger praxis-ideal of “making refuge”, which has critical purchase beyond Buddhist contexts because what kind of promise would the promise of refuge be if it is not shared-in-difference? We propose the idea of making refuge as a conceptual placeholder and an analytical rubric for identifying the multifaceted ways by which the conditions of trust and safety necessary for living and dying well together may be cultivated across manifold lifeworlds by the co-inhabitants of a precarious planet. The work of making refuge is something all of us must perform in differing ways, and with differing degrees of ease or difficulty, because our shared exposure to vulnerability is at once a fact of existential-material inequality and injustice. Exposure to vulnerability, and thus the promise of #makingrefuge, is something we share-in-difference.


We will risk saying at the outset that the inherently political nature of mindfulness practice is not strictly speaking an argument that warrants debate, because it is not actually a claim and more like a frank admission. That is to say, to admit and accept mindfulness as inherently political is a way to speak honestly, and to invite reciprocity when speaking, about the vicissitudes of life we try to address with the help of mindfulness, whether it be for stress-reduction or creative performance or sociopolitical-ecological activism or the cessation of dukkha. It is one thing to be careful in how we pay attention to the habits and effects of thinking and speaking about mindfulness; it is another to be locked down in debates that would contest this bare or “empty” fact of exposure to vulnerability. It seems quite beside the point to contest the inherently political nature of mindfulness because the fact of mortality, the precariousness of existential-material exposure to vulnerability, is not something anyone can choose to do without. By being so insistent at the outset it may seem like we are foreclosing inquiries with others. But we are just honestly trying to stress the urgency of fresh inquiries on mindfulness as part of a larger praxis-ideal of making refuge. Because the idea of refuge is not just a reference to the vows of the Triple Gem. We are not just being honest for our own convenience nor are we trying to flaunt dharma authenticity or exploit the symbolic cachet of Buddhism for our own profit. If the promise of #makingrefuge speaks to you (and we trust it does because who hasn't had to share conditions of trust and safety with others?) we are making an honest plea for you to consider the conceptual and analytical reorientation we are proposing.


We begin first by explaining how the idea of refuge is formulated at the intersections of Buddhist, feminist, and posthumanist concerns about developing non-binary, caring ways of relating the human to the nonhuman and vulnerability to resistance in "social", "ecological", or yet unimagined ties of entanglement with the world-in-becoming. We explain how our idea of making refuge seeks to expand the conceptual and analytical scope of mindfulness discourse by redirecting inquiries towards a consideration of exposure to vulnerability. We will then draw from these intersections an ethos of response-ability for reorienting the meanings and uses of mindfulness across diverse contexts. The reorientation we are proposing will be explored with the participants of a think tank we are convening for the Mind and Life Institute with co-support from the Lenz Foundation. We will share preliminary ideas on the theoretical framework for testing fresh ways of practicing mindfulness, in areas like critical pedagogy and liberal arts education, ecological activism and sustainable living, minority rights and struggles.


Given that a think tank’s purpose is to explore viable responses to the issues of the day, the latter part of the paper will consider how an ethos of response-ability might help to guard against the ideological-political dangers circumscribing mindfulness commentaries. Specifically, we trace habits of discourse influenced by the characterizing of mindfulness as “the universal dharma without labels”. We examine how these habits are mired in universalizing claims of authenticity as they wield easy affordances in branding themselves with and/or disavowing Buddhism’s symbolic cachet. We want to assess the un/intended effects of harm they might engender by mapping them against broader debates on the legacy of colonialism, white privilege and supremacy, racism and cultural erasure and appropriation in the ongoing translation of Buddhism in the West. These matters concerning reparative justice and the safety and dignity of minoritized, marginalized, and excluded people, have taken on renewed urgency especially in the American context with the ascendancy of far-right political movements; so we will discuss these matters with reference to the historical challenges facing Asian American Buddhists and questions concerning recognition of indebtedness and responsibility. Amongst other aspirations, we hope that a consideration of the shared promise of #makingrefuge and the accompanying ethos of response-ability would help those of us who are harmed by or concerned about these matters, to better build conditions of trust and safety for living and dying well together.


[1] Quoted in Littlefair (2017)