in Meditation

America Charmed by Mindfulness

Luck charms at Japanese Buddhist Temple. Peter Thoeny, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Lucky charms at Japanese Buddhist Temple. Peter Thoeny, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In Japan, Buddhists use lucky charms to bestow health, love, and business success. In America, meditation is a device used for granting wishes.

In Japan, Buddhists seek practical benefits through the use of amulets, lucky charms, magical symbols, and fortune-telling devices. The average Japanese practitioner of Buddhism uses these devices to fulfill wishes1. The Japanese appreciate the worldly benefits of Buddhism: the bestowal of  health, love, business success, and protection from harm. Buddhism has adapted to Japanese culture to better provide for material benefits.

“This pattern repeats itself in modern America, but with a twist”, writes Jeff Wilson in his book Mindful America. Americans are not inclined to seek the material benefits of Buddhism through use of magical amulets, lucky charms, or fortune-telling devices–instead Americans turn to Buddhist meditation, says Wilson, which fits better into the prevailing scientific worldview. Hence, the proliferation of medicalized articles about meditation and mindfulness in the American media. Medical science is appropriated to make claims that meditation has therapeutic and practical benefits.

The American Dream, Randy OHC, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The American Dream, Randy OHC, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Mindfulness has been adopted in nearly every American institution, including clinics, hospitals, schools, corporations, prisons, military, and pop culture. Mindfulness, originally a Buddhist tradition, has been transformed to deliver the cultural benefits desired by Americans. The transformation of Buddhist tradition, or for that matter any religious tradition (including yoga, which is a transformed Hindu tradition for Americans), allows traditions to integrate and adapt to a new host culture2. For Japanese Buddhists, a physical device, an amulet or charm, grants wishes. In American culture, a mental device, mindfulness or meditation, bestows health, love, and business success.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting health, love, and material success. Humans crave to survive and thrive. But, what are our means to that end? “Luck” certainly plays a role in what we can accomplish. We have limitless methods at our disposal–such as exercise, education, and relationships. Do Americans need “sophisticated” charms, mental devices from Asia? More and more Americans are turning to Buddhist meditation and mindfulness for its practical benefits.

Questions for readers: Can practice of meditation and mindfulness help fulfill the “American Dream”? How are the goals and aims of Japanese Buddhists different from those of American practitioners?


1 Wilson, Jeff. Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture. Oxford University Press. 2014. Hardcover. p5

2 ibid p6

Leave a Reply

  1. Thanks for the reference. As always, I have much to say about the ongoing thing about mindfulness. As a practice, it is a relatively new thing and not everyone believes that it is a GOOD thing. Certainly, TMers think that attempting to be always mindful is a misinterpretation of ancient texts about enlightenment, and at least some research suggests that training your brain to never wander isn’t as good for people as advocates believe.

    For example, “mind wandering” is an essential part of the creative process, and research suggests that the more proficient you become at mindfulness-as-a-practice, the less your mind is able to let go and get the creative juices flowing (“incubation” is the technical term).

    As well, mind-wandering is also seen as essential to sense-of-self, and one of the most consistent physiological findings for mindfulness practitioners is that they disrupt the same brain circuits thought to be responsible for sense-of-self.

    Naturally, I wouldn’t mention these potential drawbacks to mindfulness unless I thought that they were strengths of TM practice… 😉

  2. @saijanai: You bring up interesting points about the creative aspects of allowing the mind or imagination to wander. I’m not sure that “mindfulness” is explicitly anti-“mind-wandering”, but I see how that could be implied. There are so many methods, teachers, and definitions of mindfulness. Before we make blanket statements, perhaps we ought to define a particular method. The researchers themselves are aware of the studies limitations and biases. The general public seem to buy the headlines when the medical science seems to support reader’s pre-existing biases.

    In future, I recommend that you cite any references made to particular research findings or study articles.

    Thanks for your comments.