Remembering the Present: Mindfulness in Buddhist Asia. J. L. Cassaniti, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018, 318 pp.
What does “mindfulness” mean? Throughout North America, it primarily seems to signify a type of performance-enhancing, self-focused (or even self-centered) practice, somehow associated with Buddhism. Psychological studies and neuroscientific studies have given scientific backing to the notion that mindfulness can improve health, and seminars in board and classrooms alike offer trainings in it. Meanwhile, Buddhist studies has become attentive to the histories of modern meditation, including excellent books that have focused on figures and movements in Burma/Myanmar and their influence on key figures in the growth of North American mindfulness (Braun 2013; McMahan and Braun 2017; Turner 2014).
The growth of mindfulness talk in North America has frustrated some in Buddhist Studies. These discussions of mindfulness can obscure more than they clarify. Mindfulness in North America is often introduced as a singular practice going back to the historical Buddha, which is nevertheless nonreligious. Without assessing that characterization, modern Southeast Asian Buddhists do, in fact, practice a wide, diverse range of practices that are classified or translated as mindfulness. Additionally, in most of these primarily Buddhist countries, mindfulness is part of a more generalized and popular vernacular that describes orientations toward daily activity and the tasks of moral self-improvement. So, what are we talking about when we talk about mindfulness? Some of these conversations can be frustrating, as it seems nobody’s paying any attention to the words they’re translating.
Thankfully, this is not the case with J. L. Cassaniti’s new book, Remembering the Present: Mindfulness in Buddhist Asia. In previous publications, Cassaniti has investigated how religious practices embed in Thai lives generally, including notions about the constitution and cultivation of particular affective states and types of selves. As a psychological anthropologist, she has written about the intersection of mental health and mindfulness practices in Thailand. She is particularly well suited to survey what Buddhists in Southeast Asia mean by mindfulness, what they do to cultivate it, and what it means in their lives. Cassaniti does this without succumbing to older scholarly habits from text-bound versions of Buddhist Studies and acultural scientific surveys of mindfulness, a construction of a few intercultural interlocutors, which often omits the origins, histories, or specifics of mindfulness practices as developed in Buddhist Asia. Instead, Cassaniti sets out to investigate what Buddhists in Theravāda Buddhist countries—Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka (with a conclusion that compares these to North America)—actually mean and do about the words that they use to refer to mindfulness.
Beginning in Thailand, the location of her primary work, Cassaniti conducted large, survey-based studies, in cooperation with students from local universities. The first three chapters describe the way different types of Thai Buddhist monks talk about mindfulness, her own repeated experiences with meditation retreats, and the ways in which mindfulness, mental health, and spiritual power are bound together in Thai Buddhist culture. These chapters also outline her primary analytical categories on which her comparisons were then made, which she calls TAPES, referring to temporality, affect, power, ethics, and selfhood. The last three chapters move beyond Thailand and deploy translated versions of the survey in Burma and Sri Lanka, while concluding with comparisons to North America.
Cassaniti is an engaging writer, and the orientation toward individual representative examples brings more narrative depth to this analysis of a large-scale survey. Throughout, Cassaniti is generous with her interlocutors, avoiding any attempt to declare a single correct interpretation, and instead portraying the diversity of ideas and practices, most frequently via the use of Weberian ideal–typical portrayals, a trend in Southeast Asian studies. Nevertheless, the use of the TAPES categories allows her to also point out the similarities and distinctions across these contexts.
These types of surveys are relatively rare in Buddhist studies of Southeast Asia, and Cassaniti’s work represents an important step forward in the diversification of types of information on religious life in Buddhist Southeast Asia. It provides insight into how these diverse ways of religious life play out in everyday life, thereby organizing ideas about time, emotions, power, ethical choices, and selfhood.
Cassaniti concludes that while there are significant distinctions among the ways that mindfulness is practiced and conceived of in the countries of focus, as well as in North America, there are also important similarities, which might point to a more robust understanding of mindfulness. North Americans, for example, are less interested in how mindfulness improves morality, and more interested in mindfulness as a selfhood-enhancing practice centered on performance enhancement. But we might also overlook the ways that the individual self-help orientations to mindfulness in the West overlap significantly with similar orientations in Southeast Asia. While some of these are the results of Thai institutions, for instance, importing mindfulness practices from North America, the orientations toward mindfulness as a source of self-help inclusive of the laity go much farther back in Southeast Asia than the 20th century, as several others have demonstrated.
The book is very clearly laid out, written in an engaging and accessible style, and it is appropriate for undergraduate classes and up. Sometimes, I felt Cassaniti’s singular focus on mindfulness obscured other vital issues that could have helped shed additional light on her project; this is especially true in the chapter on Burma, where violent and genocidal attacks on Rohingya Muslims have been cheered and even inspired by many Buddhist monks for years. Published in 2018, this situation deserved some attention.
Cassaniti’s approach is successful in part because she is more dedicated to producing a diverse set of representations and less in proving a singular correct answer. She is also convincing in her arguments that mindfulness cannot effectively be separated from the cultures in which it is embedded. For instance, Cassaniti suggests that Thai practitioners will likely benefit more from Thai-styles of mindfulness, and Americans from American-style mindfulness. Ultimately, Cassaniti shows how mindfulness in the West could learn a lot from how Asian Buddhists practice and think about mindfulness.
Braun, E. 2013. The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McMahan, D. L., and E. Braun. 2017. Meditation, Buddhism, and Science. WorldCat.org, New York: Oxford University Press. Turner, A. M. 2014. Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma. Southeast Asia: Politics, Meaning, and Memory; Southeast Asia—Politics, Meaning, Memory. WorldCat.org, Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.