Series Four Volume 2

Presenting the Dharma Essence in an American Vocabulary: Apologetic Strategies in the Writings of Jon Kabat-Zinn

This essay explores the apologetic strategies of Jon Kabat-Zinn, developer of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, with particular attention paid to two essays published in 2011 and 2017, respectively. I argue that the core of Kabat-Zinn’s apologetic strategy to defend MBSR from accusations of “watering-down” Buddhism lies with his understanding of the “essence” of the dharma as the Buddha’s expression of the Four Noble Truths. This expression by the Buddha is taken by Kabat-Zinn to be based on the Buddha’s own experience, and hence to be universal, unconstrained by cultural and historical context—even by Buddhism itself. By first tracing the development of Kabat-Zinn’s understanding and placing it within the broader intellectual context of Buddhist modernism, this paper demonstrates the logic at work in Kabat-Zinn’s apologetic strategy for MBSR. Having established the logic at play, the paper then turns to elucidating how this logic functions in two of his articles and how it has developed in light of the changing political climate between 2011 and 2017. This paper concludes with a consideration regarding whether Kabat-Zinn’s apologetic strategy can be considered Buddhist or if it something altogether different—a “transcultural collage,” as Thomas A. Tweed puts it.

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