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The Case Against Classroom Zen

“There is no Eastern Solution,” asserts Christopher Hitchens in his manifesto against religion, God Is Not Great. He says that adherents to Buddhism, Western converts in particular, are “being asked to put their reason to sleep, and to discard their minds along with their sandals.” Citing Buddhist Japan’s support of the Nazis in World War II, Hitchens contends that those teachings dull the mind, making it more susceptible to outside influence.

But most philosophers paint a more nuanced picture of Zen Buddhism, its take on rationality, and its intended effects on the mind. Zen philosophy holds that discursive reasoning—that is, the employment of a valid and sound argument to reach a conclusion—cannot illuminate the true and ultimate structure of reality. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy applies the term “anti-philosophy” to Zen Buddhism, characterizing it by its contrast to the traditional Western conception of philosophy as “the establishment of ‘the kingdom of reason.’”      

A popularized version of Zen Buddhism, dubbed “McMindfulness” by critics, has recently attracted widespread attention in the U.S. Followers have argued for the inclusion of the practice in public school curricula on a utilitarian basis. The idea has started to take off: In an effort to reduce stress and promote the emotional well-being of students, educators across the country are learning about mindfulness and introducing meditation techniques into their classrooms.

But the trend has proven controversial. Opponents contend that the watered-down mindfulness practices are not useful without their religious context, and that requiring students to engage in the ritual performance of a religion—even if the ritual is performed in a secular context and stripped of its metaphysics—is wrong.

Though meditation can be very rewarding, public school teachers should not teach mindfulness meditation techniques for two related reasons. First, it is reductive to practice mindfulness meditation without an awareness of its metaphysical foundations. And second, even when performed in a secular setting, meditation is inextricable from its religious roots. The policies that incorporate meditation into public school curricula are analogous to policies that would incorporate prayer, which, because of the separation of church and state, are prohibited.  

Zen Buddhism rests on a rich philosophical framework that, if taught in an academic setting, could certainly have a place in public school classrooms. But when meditation is simplified and secularized, much is lost.

A glimpse at the underlying philosophy shows just how much.  


Zen Buddhists do not just put reason to sleep, as Hitchens argues in God Is Not Great. Japanese philosopher and Nobel Peace Prize nominee D. T. Suzuki explains in his book, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, that Zen opposes a certain kind of reasoning actively, not passively, and opts for something different. According to Suzuki, discursive reasoning is an inadequate knowledge-acquisition mechanism because it prevents us from examining ourselves and understanding our objective nature. In order to view oneself objectively, one must observe from a vantage point external to the “ego-consciousness,” which is the mental construction that places each of us at the center of our own universe.

We can only discover truth if we escape the “I” perspective, Suzuki writes. He emphasizes that this escape entails a rejection of discursive reasoning, the tool used by Western philosophers since Parmenides to arrive at knowledge.

But how can we escape the confines of our own minds? And what are the implications of doing so?

The Buddhist solution is a simple imperative with profound implications. To escape our minds, many Buddhists hold, we must discard the idea of the individual self, called the ‘Ātman’ in some Buddhist literature and in Hindu literature. As Smith College philosophy professor Jay Garfield described in a lecture at Yale last spring, the Ātman is the idea that human beings possess a consciousness that could hypothetically escape a human body and still exist as that same consciousness. Through meditation, Zen Buddhists believe, we become empowered to see beyond this illusion of selfhood, freeing us to confront our true natures.

Hitchens mistakes Zen Buddhism for anti-intellectualism. Rather, Buddhist philosophers promote another method to obtain another type of knowledge. Like many Western philosophers, they ask questions about human nature and the structure of reality, but they answer them in different ways and prefer different kinds of knowledge.

No aspect of meditation can be isolated from its philosophical roots. Hitchens correctly observes that Buddhism as a faith asks us to do something; but he is incorrect in his assertion that this something is to discard our minds, even if we do reject reason as a tool to obtain truth. There is a difference between reason and the mind: reason is a tool and the mind can decide whether to wield it.

Neither can meditation be isolated from its religious origins. Buddhism is decidedly a religion, and it asks its followers to subscribe to certain beliefs when meditating. The acceptance of these beliefs is so fundamental to the practice of meditation that to deny them and then attempt to meditate would defeat the purpose of the meditation as it was originally conceived.

It is against the law to promote certain religious beliefs in public schools. Public schools do not ask students to pray. It seems obvious that requiring or even strongly encouraging Jewish students to recite Christian or Islamic prayers would be inappropriate. Similarly, forcing students to meditate is to force them to engage in a specific religious practice. Though Buddhist meditation and prayer are not analogous, policies that incorporate them into curricula are, and policies of this sort have no place in public schools.   

This is not to say that public schools should not teach their students about Buddhism. Ideally, all schools would expose students to the philosophies of other cultures as a part of a global education. But one must distinguish between a theological education that promotes a religion and the academic field of religious studies. Public schools should be occupied with the latter, not the former. For Buddhists, mindfulness is a kind of all-encompassing education—but the fact that parts of this education are religious in character cannot and should not be forgotten. To ignore this aspect is to reduce the tradition and undermine the secular mission of public schools.

Simon Custer ‘20 is a sophomore in Silliman College.

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