Postsecular Charisma: Thich Nhat Hanh and the Ethics of Mindfulness

  • Marek SullivanEmail author
  • Alp Arat
Part of the Mindfulness in Behavioral Health book series (MIBH)


Current debates about the ethics of mindfulness swing between two poles: on one hand, critics of “McMindfulness” take issue with mindfulness’ corporatization under conditions of free-market capitalism; on the other, “Trojan horse” defenders of corporate mindfulness emphasize mindfulness’ capacity to change corporate culture “from the inside.” While the former emphasize the dangers of stripping away the religious tradition of Buddhism (including Buddhist ethics) from the secular practice of mindfulness, the latter assume such stripping away is impossible, since mindfulness will bear “Buddhist” ethical fruit whether practitioners expect it or not. We depart from both positions by suggesting, against the former, that Buddhist ethics are in fact harder to detach from the secular practice than both supporters and critics of McMindfulness make out, and, against the latter, that Buddhist ethics cannot be considered inherent in the practice of mindfulness itself. Drawing on theories of discourse and social constructivism, we argue, rather, that mindfulness has become joined to distinct ethical dispositions and practices through decades of discursive elaboration by charismatic mindfulness practitioners in the West—especially the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh—that link Buddhist ethics to the very meaning of mindfulness. Indeed, we suggest it is now impossible to practice mindfulness in the West without in some way connecting to distinct ethical dispositions, rooted in the Buddhist tradition and sanctioned by religious forms of authority. The complex intertwining of religious and secular justifications in current discourses of mindfulness leads us to categorize mindfulness-centered forms of charismatic authority like Thich Nhat Hanh’s as neither secular nor religious, but postsecular.


Mindfulness Ethics Charisma Self-authority Thich Nhat Hanh Postsecular 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Oxford University, Radcliffe Observatory QuarterOxfordUK
  2. 2.School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Glamorgan BuildingCardiffUK

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