Scholars of religion and/or Buddhism are well aware of the particularities and diversities of religious practices in their local contexts. Still, there seem to be some concepts that appear universal in their meaning and application, especially among a nonscholarly public. Mindfulness is one such concept. In Remembering the Present: Mindfulness in Buddhist Asia, Julia Cassaniti—a well-known scholar of Buddhism in Thailand, with a background in psychological and medical anthropology—successfully debunks this popular assumption of the universality of mindfulness.
The monograph is an exploration of mindfulness in three Theravāda Buddhist countries: Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Comparing the outcomes of her exploration in these countries to the way mindfulness is perceived and practiced in the United States, Cassaniti gives insights into the many natures of mindfulness, and advice on how it could be professed and practiced. The intended audience of the book therefore is not necessarily scholars of religion or Buddhism but mindfulness practitioners and psychology students. She argues that a comparison between mindfulness in Asia and the United States will make these readers “better understand how all psychological concepts are made in and through, rather than apart from, the historical, power-laden, social influences of cultural practice” (x). The clearest difference between the mindfulness discourse in Asia and the United States is that “people in Theravāda Asia are more likely to incorporate memory and time into their mindfulness practices than are people in the United States, [and] emphasize in relative terms too different aspects of the affect, power, ethics, and (non-)self of the practice” (245). Recognizing these differences is an important aspect in developing mindfulness practices for diverse possibilities of living well, and in getting a better grasp of the pluralism of mindfulness—and hence its medical and psychological applications.
To substantiate her argument, Cassaniti did two years of data collection in Chiang Mai (Thailand), Kandy (Sri Lanka), and Mandalay (Myanmar). There, she spoke to over six hundred people about mindfulness. To understand and analyse the concept, Cassaniti divides her gathered insights into TAPES: five domains of mindfulness or “associations to mental processes that we may have when we think about the concept, assumptions about how the mind works and what a good life looks like” (15). The TAPES are temporality (the importance of the “now” as present moment of awareness), affect (the development of positive feelings), power (a method for self-empowerment and self-care), ethics (a nonjudgmental and nonmoralistic orientation), and self (the realization of who one is and can be). Even though these are at times described as universal and acultural, Cassaniti’s aim is to show that each of these is in fact “quite local and variable in culture” (17).
After an introductory chapter—in which Cassaniti clearly describes the everyday presence of mindfulness in Asian countries and her research methods—the book continues with three chapters on mindfulness in Thailand. Cassaniti respectively explores mindfulness as described and experienced by Buddhist clergy and laity, and the way it is applied in everyday life, for example, in mental hospitals and through the media and politics. Especially this last chapter is interesting to read, as it contextualizes mindfulness in everyday life, clearly indicating the normalcy of the concept in Thailand. Each chapter ends with an exploration of some of the TAPES domains. The following two chapters take a somewhat similar approach (mindfulness as described by monks and laity, and in everyday life), respectively in Burma and Sri Lanka. The chapter on Burma also ends with an exploration of TAPES, while this seems to be missing in the chapter on Sri Lanka. The majority of the book is thus on mindfulness in Thailand, which makes sense considering Cassaniti’s long history of researching Buddhism in that country.
The conclusion does not offer a summary of the previous chapters, but reaches back to the main goal of the book. Here, Cassaniti explores similarities and especially differences between mindfulness practices in the East and in the West. Again, she does this using the five domains of TAPES. What we primarily learn from this exploration is that Buddhism in Asia is not just personal but social. The one weakness of the conclusion is that, in order for her to get her point across, Cassaniti glosses over the subtle but significant differences she found between Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka, making the conclusion feel like an East-versus-West comparison. While this does drive her main argument home convincingly, one is left wondering whether in this she does enough justice to the plurality of Buddhism in Asia.
The main strength of the book is its comparative aspect. Cassaniti decided to research mindfulness as it is practiced not only in Thailand, but also in two other places “where [Theravāda Buddhism] is also considered to be a dominant part of the contemporary social and religious world” (153). She chose Burma because it “spawned much of the world’s modern vipāssana movements” (159) and is therefore “contemporary influential” (194), and Sri Lanka because of “the traditional bastion of the religion” (194). The comparative aspect makes clear that Buddhism is both regional and global. Narratives of different locales influence how Buddhism is perceived and practiced somewhere else. These comparisons are not only between the West and East, but also across regional space. Only through these comparisons do these variations become really clear.
An academic weakness to the book is the overall lack of a thorough theoretical framework. Cassaniti goes to great lengths to explain Buddhist concepts from different angles, primarily referring to the works of various Buddhist scholars. Through this, a well-detailed, almost theological work comes into existence, describing mindfulness and its relation to meditation. For those not knowledgeable about the many rich concepts within Buddhism, the book is insightful and detailed. For those who want an even better understanding of the concepts, there are extensive endnotes and a glossary at the end of the book, explaining over one hundred Buddhist concepts and terms. However, for an anthropologist or religious studies scholar, a thorough theoretical grounding to place the insights into context seems to be missing. At times, Cassaniti mentions anthropological or psychological insights, such as Geertz’s webs of significance (7) or “a Weberian emphasis in the scholarly analysis of personalities” (51). Unfortunately, she leaves it at just mentioning these, without explaining what they mean or how exactly they can be applied to her work. While this can be justified considering the audience of the book, it might leave religious studies scholars wanting more.
Cassaniti’s book is overall a great read for those wanting to know more about the multiplicity of mindfulness and the different ways in which it can (and, at times, should not) be applied. For those knowing mindfulness solely from a Western perspective, it offers a wealth of detailed information on how the practice is applied in everyday life in Asian countries, and the insights could benefit health professionals in the United States and other Western countries.
Mariske Westendorp is an anthropologist and religious studies scholar postdoctoral fellow at the Groningen University, Netherlands
Date Of Review:
February 19, 2021
J. L. Cassaniti is assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Washington State University. She is the author of Living Buddhism and Remembering the Present.
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