Buddhism and Human Flourishing Report

Buddhism and Human Flourishing

A Report on the Workshop

June 25th 2013

2013-06-24 17.46.31The workshop was the second event in the Philosophy and Religious Practices programme and attracted approximately 50 participants from a wide range of backgrounds. Several participants were professionals in the healthcare sector, some were service users, some were practising Buddhists or people interested in Buddhism. Most of the speakers were working at the interface of Buddhism and suffering, either on an individual, or community/global level; engaging Buddhist ideas about the individual, embodiment, sentience, the Other, mind, relationality, Compassion and so on, with real human, environmental and global problems. The unique mix of professional, practising and reflective motivations made for a rewarding day of dialogue and debate.

Inevitably, amongst themes which emerged was the exponential growth of the take-up of Buddhist practices into mainstream health-care. Philosophical questions around the legitimacy of dislocating practices from world-view were raised, and the contributions that Mindfulness, Third Wave and Other–centred therapies are making not only to psychotherapy, but to addictions treatment, pain management, and palliative care were explored. Also up for discussion was the immense and many-faceted movement of Engaged Buddhism. This relates Buddhist practices and epistemology with social justice, politics, economics, environmental concerns, and considers the conditions of flourishing on a global scale.

Over the day, a conversation emerged between philosophers and Buddhism as it is lived and practised in some of these western and non-western contexts. We discussed whether there might be Buddhist responses to Slavoj Zizek’s accusation that western Buddhism shores up capitalism by presenting itself as a remedy to the stress caused by it. We probed the relationship between ‘Heart’ and ‘Mind’ in Buddhism, and its impact on the outworking of Buddhist ideas about the person. We explored whether conversations between Buddhist and western philosophy (and psychology) are terminally flawed by translation problems and by the reality of Buddhism’s internal diversity. We asked what kind of understanding of Buddhism is possible without practice. We sought to discover the underlying power dynamics and loci of authority in Buddhism. We discussed whether Western Buddhism is substantively different from other Buddhisms. We considered whether Buddhist practices can be (as they often seem to be) evacuated of ‘religious’ meaning. And we asked what, ultimately, might Buddhism(s) have to offer to well-being and flourishing on an individual and global level.

The following four ‘wordclouds’ provide a visual summary of many of the key themes emerging from the day:

Buddhism and Human Flourishing Word Cloud Whole Day (2)

(Above: wordcloud representing the whole day’s discussion)

Ratnaguna Keynote Word Cloud

(Above: wordcloud representing Ratnaguna Dharmachari keynote talk)

Peter Harvey Keynote Word Cloud

(Above: wordcloud representing Peter Harvey’s keynote talk)

Plenary Discussions Word Cloud

(Above: wordcloud representing the plenary group discussions)

The stage was set by our first key note speaker Ratnaguna Dharmachari of the Manchester Buddhist Centre who laid out the practical and practice-based philosophy of Buddhism, grounding his account in stories from Buddhist scriptures. Our second keynote speaker, Professor Peter Harvey presented an account of human flourishing form the perspective of the Pali Nikayas. Dukkha, he explained, could be understood as non-flourishing. Taking up the invitation to consider Zizek’s critique, he noted the shallow appropriation which ignored Buddhism’s focus on the centrality of developing discernment between wholesome and unwholesome (kusala and akusala) systems, the development of which would make visible the flaws in any economic system. As well as tackling economics, Harvey also explored the relationship between Buddhism and Western Philosophy and Psychology, and concluded with a focus on the practice of bowing.

In the afternoon there were three parallel sessions dealing with contemporary aspects of Buddhist belief and practice that directly impinge on public life in the UK: Buddhist responses to pain and addiction; psychology and mental health; social action and public engagement.


Buddhist Responses to Pain and addiction

Ratnaguna, who runs Breathworks at the Manchester Buddhist Centre, a centre to support those experiencing stress and chronic pain, outlined the approach he takes drawing on the Two Arrows story from the Sallatha Sutta. He explained how most people who have pain suffer twice over, with their physical pain augmented with mental pain. Accepting the inevitability of physical pain was a practical route to suffering only with the shot of one arrow. He explained how those he worked with ‘moved towards’ rather than cowered away from their pain. They owned and accepted it. He illustrated this process with accounts from people he’d worked with, and with poems he’d used or his students had written.  He explained how teachings fully embedded in a Buddhist worldview could be used on a practical level to reduce anyone’s suffering.

Dr Paramabandhu Groves explained his work with alcoholics and addicts in recovery both as a Clinical Psychiatrist, and at Breathing Space, part of the London Buddhist Centre.  He explained Mindfulness, and explored its role in a range of new/third wave therapies.  He demonstrated precisely how it can be used to disrupt the habitual cycle of addictive thinking and thus contribute to positive outcomes for addicts attempting to become abstinent and to maintain a recovery.

Buddhist approaches to Psychology and Mental Health

In the first paper, Caroline Brazier, course leader of the Tariki Training Programme in Other-Centred Psychotherapy, outlined her work in developing strands of Buddhist thought as a positive paradigm for therapy. In particular, she pointed to the problems surrounding attachment as a psychological concept involving addiction to the familiar and to the self. She sketched the alternative strategies that Buddhist thought gave rise to, arguing that what is therapeutically distinctive about Buddhist psychotherapy is its focus on the reality of the other rather than the experiences of the self. One leaves behind one’s projections by leaving behind one’s private experience.

In the second paper, Mary Welford, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and the Director for Therapy at the Compass Therapy Centre inReader & Atherton Saltash, Cornwall, spoke of her development of compassion-based therapy as an alternative to CBT. She returned especially to the distinction between heart and mind that was developed all day – and saw the problem of CBT is that one may well articulate the solutions as often as possible, but what matters is feeling different. She detailed the strengths of this methodology and the medical evidence for its effectiveness. She concluded by drawing attention to the focus on caring, compassion for self and compassion for others in this model for psychotherapy.

A number of questions were pursued in the fruitful conversation that followed, including the meaning of ‘attachment’ in this context, the role of the self in psychotherapy and the relation between the optimistic visions of these forms of psychotherapy with the pessimism to be found in the Lacanian/Freudian mainstream of psychoanalysis.

Buddhist Approaches to Social Action and Public Engagement

The social action and public engagement session was presented by Jamie Cresswell and Gina Clayton. Jamie is a member of the Soka Gakkai International Buddhist organisation – a global lay movement dedicated to the concept of Kosen Rufu – or working for world peace and the elimination of all suffering by capturing the essential pulse of Buddhism. He unpacked this further with regard of the Buddhist ethical imperative of upholding the dignity of all life – both human and non-human. He said, ‘A darkness that requires dispatching is our entrenched inability to confer dignity to all living things and a failure to recognise that one’s own potential is linked to the ability to recognise it in the Other.’

The ethical concept of Kosen Rufu is reinforced through various liturgical practices including the chanting of the mantra nam-myoho-renge-kyo  in front of a gohonzon or mandala, and can also be characterised by other ideas. The first is that of Human Revolution which is suggests that the path towards universal compassion begins with the ‘polishing’ of one’s personal life (as one might polish a tarnished mirror);  away from complacency and powerlessness towards drawing out the full potential of one’s humanity.   Then there is the idea of Global Citizenship which builds further on the idea of the human revolution. Global citizenship begins with wanting to make a change at one’s local level through the example of living out a strong and compassionate individual life. It is through exchanges at the human to human level that local changes become global. Jamie reminded the audience that this strand of Buddhist thinking originated from a period of Japanese history (in the 13th century) when Buddhism had been co-opted as a state religion and had thus become ossified – ‘the dharma was low’.

Gina chairs two refugee and asylum seekers charities in Sheffield and thus is directly involved in issues of working with discrimination, conflict and the workings of the government bureaucracy. As she herself says, ’What I do is a kind of peace work – I work in situations where things are not at ease.’  She went on to describe how Buddhism relates to a ‘socially-engaged life’. In contrast to perhaps other Buddhist traditions which focus on the eternal destiny of the soul by withdrawing from the pressures of the world, she sees no incompatibility with activism and the purifying of one’s heart. She focuses on the teachings of non-self, gratitude and foolish beings. This last doctrine reminds humankind of the conditionality of its existence. We are relatively powerless to change events because we don’t know or understand the full range of conditions which are relevant to each case.  ‘What can I do with my desire for change?’ I can do my best to alter conditions, but this, Gina stresses, must be done in a spirit of modesty and humility, and in engaging with the importance of each encounter with being. She concluded by saying that this ethical and spiritual outlook gave her the necessary strength and resilience to follow what she called the ‘fiery path’ of social action.


In keeping with the practice based focus of the day, participants were invited to experience some Mindfulness of breathing meditation after the close of proceedings, led by one of Chester’s Professional Doctorate Students, Ruth Stock, who is using the DProf to reflect on her use of mindfulness as part of her professional practice.

Some reflections from participants:

  • [I wanted to come because ] the topic interested me.  Buddhism has probably never come across as affluent a society as the modern western one.  I wanted to see how it could contribute to taking it or things forward.  How Buddhism could help take the best of the East, and add it to the best of the West, to advance things in the global community we now live in, or at least for which there’s a (real) potential.
  • The day met & surpassed my expectations…. The speakers were authoritative, well-informed & engaging.  The idea of practice as the lynchpin of Buddhist Studies was rightly & effectively underlined, by all speakers.
  • Excellent speakers, good discussion, and it helped me think though some of the wider issues.
  • I appreciated the efforts, throughout the day, to encourage audience participation.
  • [I]t was this ‘encounter’ with views of articulate practitioners that was valuable, and which, among other things, generated, or fed into, difficult questions in my own mind concerning who speaks with authority about a tradition.
  • It would be good to explore what Christian and Buddhist understanding of meditation/contemplation/mindfulness have to say to each other.
  • I already pursue critical and philosophical thinking about religions. The workshop has encouraged me to pursue these modes of thinking in greater depth.

 speakers & organisers


4 responses

13 07 2013
Ratnaguna, On Buddhism and Humanity | Philosophy and Religious Practices

[…] University of Chester with its workshop, Buddhism and Human Flourishing. A report of the day is available here. Over the next couple of weeks, we will be continuing the conversation with a series of blog posts […]

13 07 2013
Peter Harvey, Buddhism and Human Flourishing: Key Ideas | Philosophy and Religious Practices

[…] from the University of Chester's workshop, Buddhism and Human Flourishing (report of the day available here), Prof. Peter Harvey summarises the main points of his keynote talk from the […]

13 07 2013
John Reader, Reflection on Buddhism and Human Flourishing | Philosophy and Religious Practices

[…] from the University of Chester's workshop, Buddhism and Human Flourishing (report of the day available here), John Reader reflects on the […]

20 07 2013
Daniel Whistler, The Theory/Practice Relation in Buddhism | Philosophy and Religious Practices

[…] from the University of Chester's workshop, Buddhism and Human Flourishing (report of the day available here), Daniel Whistler reflects on the […]

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