How Cancel Culture is Trashing the Dharma:Tale of a Slandered Mindfulness Teacher
by Blake Shields Abramovitz
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
— Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
I could say a lot more to flesh out my personal saga (see Part One of this article). It could be a whole Netflix series, I swear. But despite my inborn narcissism, to which I freely admit, me feeling perfectly heard is not the purpose of this article. There’s something much bigger at stake, if you can imagine, something we should all care about, even non-meditators: The health of the Dharma in the West.
Here’s a point no one should ever really have had to make: In communities ostensibly dedicated to the cultivation of wisdom and compassion, no one should have to fear having their lives detonated for some banal comments about current events.
So, what happened here?
I contend that my story is no weird anomaly, but that a corrosive set of ideas is currently flooding American Dharma communities. This singular way of thinking stems from a long intellectual tradition: Its roots can be traced as far back as Marx’s Conflict Theory, through post-modern philosophers like Foucault and Derrida, the Frankfurt School, critical legal theory, critical race theory, intersectionality, and wildly popular contemporary figures like Robin Diangelo and Ibram Kendi. It has been assigned various appellations: Applied post modernism, neo-Marxism, cultural Marxism, identity-Marxism, wokeness. The most precise, according to mathematician, author and meditator James Lindsay, who co-wrote a book on the topic, is:
Critical social justice theory.
For more context, I recommend Cynical Theories, by Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose. In a nutshell, the theory insists that Western societies are absolutely riven with oppression, that oppression is the irreducible foundation of our civilization. Every sector is shot through with all manner of chauvinistic bigotry, and thus life is best understood as a zero-sum war between more and less advantaged identity groups.
The only moral response to this vile system, the theory goes on, is to commit oneself body and soul to tearing it down, and replacing it with… something. That part’s a little fuzzy. Or muzzy. But no matter — on the other side of la revolución, a utopia of equity shines like some new Jerusalem. If you’re dubious of the enterprise, then by God you are complicit in the problem, and probably an oppressor yourself.
Any attempt to defend the liberal project on the grounds that it has inaugurated an age of unprecedented global equality, wealth, and freedom (which it has) is furiously rejected. Indeed, liberalism itself is just a trick, a prop for consolidating the oppressor’s power — it must be dismantled and replaced.
Now, I don’t want to overstate the prevalence of this ideology in Dharma communities. Presumably, there are still cells that haven’t been infected. But we mustn’t understate it either. There is abundant evidence that it is increasingly pervasive not only in Dharma circles, but across almost every sphere of American life. (According to a revealing recent poll, for example, 62% of Americans report that they are afraid to express their political opinions. That is not to say that critical social justice theory is what’s scaring everyone. But it’s certainly a contender for the blue ribbon.)
As pertains just to the Buddhist subculture, stories like mine and others’ can serve as anecdotal evidence. But we’ve also seen a breathtaking rise of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committees, diversity quotas in boards and teacher trainings, racially segregated practice groups, and a swelling of radical opinion among established meditation teachers (for just one striking case, see L.A. Dharma teacher Mary Stancavage’s Facebook page).
Other goings on come to mind: A recent social media offering from L.A. Dharma teacher Joseph Rogers, where he approvingly reposted an NPR article explicitly supportive of looting and rioting. Or: In late 2016, Joanna Hardy, then the guiding teacher of Against the Stream, a major Dharma center in Los Angeles, informed a mostly-white class that she preferred not to be around white people in the wake of Trump’s election (I was in the room). In 2017, a trans activist and meditator colleague informed our class in a presentation that failure to ask everyone one meets about their preferred pronouns is to be complicit in violence against trans people. Some months later, a group of Bay Area meditators took the trouble to drive down to L.A. with a missive from their teacher: She would not be participating in our mentor training at Against the Stream on the grounds that it was “a white supremacist organization.” Her evidence? On its website, Against the Stream suggested it could be “better” than its forebears in Southeast Asia. (Ironically, the reason given on the website was that those communities excluded gays and women).
If you can believe it, I’ve saved the most appalling of my examples for last: On June 29 of this year, Lama Rod Owens, a beloved East Coast Dharma teacher, gave an hourlong interview on Google Talks. Now, Owens is not just some rando. The interview has been viewed over 3,600 times. Moreover, this fellow is an actual lama; he’s written a book, Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger; he has thirty thousand followers on Instagram; and he teaches regularly at major centers.
Allow me to quote the interview at some length:
For me the rage, the anger of white folks really stems from the ways in which whiteness is a condition and a conditioning that is actually just an expression of harm against black and brown people in general.
So, whiteness in America was only created to disproportionately marginalize black people. And there’s an unconscious knowing of that, I think there’s a lot of anger that comes out of that.
Of course, the anger comes from the hurt. Like when you realize that like, “Oh, I’m white and conditioned to be white in opposition to blackness. And what do I do to reconcile that…? There is a mountain of trauma that I have to turn back into to begin to reconcile that reality for myself. That my whiteness is inherently an act of violence against black and brown people in this country…”
My point is that these repugnant ideas are now widespread in Dharma circles. Lots of otherwise decent, intelligent people have drunk the Kool-Aid. No one even bats an eye.
I hope you’ll indulge me in a little comparative exercise. Let’s contrast three core principles of Buddhism with their corollaries in critical social justice theory. I hope the ironies are unambiguous.
Buddhism teaches that when you encounter another human who is suffering, you can ease their pain by staying with them. In the sleet of their grief, you can be a lighthouse, a harbor, simply by maintaining your connection with them. And this may not be raucous fun exactly, but it ranks among the most meaningful items in the catalogue of the human experience.
Now, the Buddha was clear that the aspiration here is to offer our compassion to everyone. “Like a mother who protects her child, her only child, with her own life,” he said, “cultivate a heart of unlimited love and compassion toward all living beings.” (From the Karaniya Metta Sutta.)
To widen the sphere of our concern without limit, until we can hold everyone in a caring embrace — “Every hung-up person in the whole wide universe” (Bhikku Bob Dylan) — that was the idea.
Critical social justice theory’s take on compassion involves a slight departure from this: Compassion is to be reserved for particular groups, and the groups in which one can claim membership dictate the degree of compassion to which one is entitled. The groups (decided upon, naturally, by critical social justice theory) are demarcated by: Race, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
There’s a beautiful phrase from early Buddhism. One is meant to repeat it in meditation as a noble aspiration:
May all beings be happy
May all beings be free
May all beings everywhere know peace
Granted, there are variations on it, but I’m almost certain it didn’t go:
May all members of X identity group be happy
May all who check Y intersectional boxes be free
May all those trying to burn down the patriarchal tyranny know peace
That is not because the early Buddhists held problematic views, or failed to do their anti-racist homework. It’s because the original evokes liberation, nobility of spirit — and the second is a recipe for ruin.
In his book The Coddling of the American Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers insight into what’s going on for people who think in this extraordinary way:
…The human mind is prepared for tribalism. Human evolution is not just the story of individuals competing with other individuals within each group; it’s also the story of groups competing with other groups — sometimes violently.
We are all descended from people who belonged to groups that were consistently better at winning that competition. Tribalism is our evolutionary endowment for banding together to prepare for intergroup conflict. When the “tribe switch” is activated, we bind ourselves more tightly to the group, we embrace and defend the group’s moral matrix, and we stop thinking for ourselves. A basic principle of moral psychology is that “morality binds and blinds,” which is a useful trick for a group gearing up for a battle between “us” and “them.” In tribal mode, we seem to go blind to arguments and information that challenge our team’s narrative. Merging with the group in this way is deeply pleasurable — as you can see from the pseudo-tribal antics that accompany college football games.
But being prepared for tribalism doesn’t mean we have to live in tribal ways. The human mind contains many evolved cognitive “tools.” We don’t use all of them all the time; we draw on our toolbox as needed. Local conditions can turn the tribalism up, down, or off. Any kind of intergroup conflict (real or perceived) immediately turns tribalism up, making people highly attentive to signs that reveal which team another person is on. Traitors are punished, and fraternizing with the enemy is too.
Conditions of peace and prosperity, in contrast, generally turn down the tribalism. People don’t need to track group membership as vigilantly; they don’t feel pressured to conform to group expectations as closely. When a community succeeds in turning down everyone’s tribal circuits, there is more room for individuals to construct lives of their own choosing; there is more freedom for a creative mixing of people and ideas.
So, when critical social justice theory carves society into competing factions, it encourages a primitive, black-and-white mentality where everyone is either a righteous victim or a devil. That is not just a wee regression. It represents a slide back to a pre-modern ethos, which privileges tribe — not individuality, not a common human identity, but tribe — as paramount. In this state, nuance is intolerable, and the capacity to stay connected in the midst of disagreement — that is, when it counts — evaporates.
That isn’t Dharma. There’s no Omega point here toward which meditation practitioners should want to be traveling. A tree bearing such rancid fruit should never have been permitted to take root in American civic life at all, let alone in communities whose members aspire to the highest rungs of ethical development.
The word sangha means community in Pali, the language the Buddha spoke.
But it means much more than that.
It’s meant to refer to a community that holds itself to exquisite standards, a kind of moral academy to which you matriculate once you’ve made a momentous decision: To be a good person no matter what the world has done to you. It implies a shared pledge to goodness, a compact to love well.
Well, what kinds of practices might actualize this high vision? Far greater minds than mine have labored at answering that question, and it’s beyond the scope of this paper. But I’m going to go out on a limb, and speculate about what sangha isn’t:
When conscientious kindness is swapped out for open smears and enmity, and when this is not only tolerated but tacitly endorsed by community leaders — Elvis has left the building.
When the ethic of forgiveness is perfectly inverted, so that any violation of one peculiar political canon is, as a matter of course, responded to with smears, severed relationships, and excommunication — the fat lady has sung. It’s over.
When aggrieved parties are no longer encouraged to confront those who’ve upset them, but are encouraged instead to tattle on them anonymously, and anonymously demand punishments be levied against them; when their claims of feeling “unsafe” are seen as ample justification for evading tender, human conversations — the compact of goodness is broken.
And when the agreement, essential both to Buddhism and any spirit of liberalism, that people are entitled to different perspectives is jettisoned; when in its place an asphyxiating orthodoxy takes hold — sangha is dead.
But this is precisely how critical social justice theory plays out when its tenets are taken seriously. I know this. I’ve seen it. This is what has been more or less successfully imported into our meditation communities in the name of justice.
Mindfulness is of course all the rage now (you can’t walk into a Whole Foods without someone bopping you over the head with a mindfulness magazine), and some teachers overstate its promise. (It’s quixotic to imagine you’ll ever learn to make your mind behave.)
But it’s not unreasonable to hope you could learn to stop it from making you misbehave. So, something triggers you, and everyone in your interior theater goes bonkers. The whole chorus line erupts in some perverse mockery of “Cats” (and “Cats” was already bad enough). Well, so it goes. But if you can then stop and bear witness as all your worst urges ring out, you might get half a chance not to do anything horrible. Or as Bhikkhu Carl Jung put it in his memoir, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will rule your life, and you will call it fate.”
By my lights, that is an absolutely central function of mindfulness — and social justice theory eviscerates it.
How? Simple: By stipulating that it is not permissible to suggest to a member of a less advantaged group that they might be, say, overreacting. If a person is deemed oppressed in the right ways, raw emotion becomes acceptable grounds for speech and action.
Anyone who dares encourage such a person to slow their roll and inquire into what might be going on for them will stand instantly accused of “punching down — ” that is, of bigotry. “How dare you impose your privileged, white Western notions of mindfulness upon this honorable representative of _______ oppressed group?” (If you don’t believe me, teachers, try it out. See what happens. Try it at Spirit Rock. Try it at IMS.)
This explicitly guts the soul of the Dharma. I’m sorry, but it does. And it does so specifically for community members who might need the clarifying light of real Dharma most. That is tragic, and, I’m tempted to add, disgusting. At its essence, it is a particularly twisted form of bigotry and discrimination.
How is a student supposed to find liberation when their spiritual guides are telling them it’s fine to remain imprisoned in their rage, and vent it in inexcusable ways? The role of a teacher is precisely to shake students from the trance of their self-pity and righteousness. Gently, yes, and with compassion — but courageously, and over and over and over.
I would never deny the imperative for a psychologically informed mindfulness, or the need to tread lightly around certain trauma profiles. But trauma readiness does not mean letting political vendettas and unhinged amygdalae wag the dog in our sanghas. On the contrary, as any competent therapist will tell you, permitting wounded people to spray everyone with their unintegrated hurt is as damaging to them as it is to the community.
I want to address myself now to my fellow mindfulness teachers: The Dharma is a threshing floor, not a cuddle puddle. We all know that. So, if not gently shaking, just what is it that we are doing? Are we committed to the uncompromising spirit of these teachings, or not? Are our meditation communities meditation communities at all? Or are they something else now? And what is that, precisely?
If these teachings were good enough for us, will they not serve for a gay black millennial with an autoimmune condition? How disadvantaged must someone be exactly before we stop telling them what the Dharma is? That it’s hard? That it involves getting over yourself — definitionally — no matter how much melanin is in your skin, or what gender you identify with?
And where do we suppose this wild indulgence of aggrieved mind-states is leading us? What effect do we imagine it might have on the matrix of relationships in which we are all irrevocably nested? And what kinds of students and teachers-to-be will we be loosing upon the world when, out of simple fear, we shield them from the very teachings that made us sane?
To be continued…