Demonstrating my own approach to the subject, I paid some bills while concentrating as much as I could on what Sharf had to say.
Which was pretty darn interesting, albeit involving quite a few abstruse Buddhist terms.
You should watch the video yourself if you want to know exactly what he said. Below I'll share some recollections of his talk, along with my own take on the themes that resonated with me.
Don't assume spirituality or meditation equates to mentally healthy. Consider someone detached from the world and other people.
Doesn't feel strong emotions. Isn't upset by negative events or elated by positive ones. Looks upon physical reality as an illusion. Feels that truth is to be found elsewhere than everyday existence. Spends a lot of time alone, not moving, speaking, or thinking much.
Is this an enlightened being or a depressed person?
What if he/she also was disengaged from sexual activity? Does calling this state of consciousness "spiritual" make it mentally healthy? Sharf asks these sorts of questions, coming down on the side of being skeptical about world-denying meditative practices.
Pure awareness is at odds with traditional Buddhism. Mindfulness is a fairly recent notion, according to Sharf. Many Buddhists now believe there is some sort of sensory pure awareness which precedes conceptual and linguistic divisions.
So I guess it's like this: instead of looking at Serena, the dog who has been part of my life for 14 years, and seeing a much beloved canine who I love and have many memories of, a supposedly more enlightened me would just see a moving mass of fur, bones, and such.
Maybe I wouldn't even call this a "dog." Or know it is Serena.
As above, this strikes me as decidedly mentally unhealthy. Also, un-Buddhist'y. Doctrines of emptiness and dependent origination deny that anything, including consciousness or awareness, stands alone as an island unto itself.
Yet some mindfulness practices posit that seeing things "as they are," absent personal meaning or interpretations, is both possible and desirable. Not to Sharf, who looks upon that sort of mindfulness as mindless.
Mindfulness is being mindful of your own mind. Sharf speaks about how Zen warns against mental blankness -- doing nothing, feeling nothing, thinking nothing, while believing this is some special On the Road to Enlightenment state.
Such seems to be related to Perennialism, the idea that an objectively true vision of ultimate reality always has been part of the human experience, albeit described in different ways by various cultures. That is, the vision is the same, while descriptions vary because it is beyond words.
Well, nothing is marked by sameness. So this could explain why Perennialism and various forms of "quietism" (including pure awareness) go together.
Like Sharf, I've come to feel that when I'm mindful, what I'm aware of is my own mind, not objective reality. It isn't empty, but full. An empty mind is comatose. Which isn't a state of consciousness to be sought for.
Here's how Sharf describes his talk:
Buddhist scholars have shown that the form of “mindfulness meditation” (sometimes called satipatthāna or vipassanā meditation) that has become popular in the West is, at least in part, a relatively modern phenomenon; it can be traced to Burmese Buddhist reform movements that date to the first half of the twentieth century.
The features that made Burmese mindfulness practice—notably the form taught by Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982)—so attractive to a Western audience are precisely those features that rendered it controversial in the Buddhist world.
For example, Mahasi’s technique did not require familiarity with Buddhist doctrine (notably abhidhamma), did not require adherence to strict ethical norms (notably monasticism), and promised astonishingly quick results.
This was made possible through interpreting sati as a state of “bare awareness”—the unmediated, non-judgmental perception of things “as they are,” uninflected by prior psychological, social, or cultural conditioning.
This notion of mindfulness is at variance with premodern Buddhist epistemologies in several respects. Traditional Buddhist practices are oriented more toward acquiring “correct view” and proper ethical discernment, rather than “no view” and a non-judgmental attitude.
Indeed, the very notion of an unmediated mode of apperception is, in many traditional Buddhist systems, an oxymoron, at least with respect to anyone short of a Buddha. (Indeed, it is a point of contention even in the case of a Buddha.)
It is then not surprising that the forms of Burmese satipatthāna that established themselves in the West have been targets of intense criticism by rival Theravāda teachers in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.
This doesn’t mean that modern forms of “bare awareness” practice are without historical precursors. Both Tibetan Dzogchen and certain schools of Chinese Chan were, at least at first glance, similarly oriented toward inducing a mental state that was “pure,” “unconditioned,” “non-judgmental,” and so on.
Not surprisingly, these traditions were also subject to sharp criticism; they too were accused of heterodoxy—of promoting practices that contravened cardinal Buddhist principles and insights.
My paper will begin with the parallels between the teachings and practices of these three traditions, and suggest that some of these parallels can be explained by historical and sociological factors. I will then move on to the philosophical, psychological, ethical, and soteriological objections proffered by rival Buddhist schools.