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Last Updated: 05/27/2015
From suffering to liberation: Mindfulness meditation in critical pedagogy
David Golding

This article explores the problems and possibilities of implementing Buddhist mindfulness meditation in critical pedagogy. Buddhism and critical pedagogy are compared, particularly their conceptions of suffering, liberation, and self. Challenges to the adaptation of critical pedagogy in Buddhist cultural contexts are addressed. Mindfulness meditation is proposed to enrich critical pedagogy and expand its cultural applicability.


Most religions teach that the human spirit must be awoken. Transmission of spiritual knowledge is seen as the conduit through which people can be liberated from false views. Religious pedagogies often confront the paradoxical challenge of seeing reality from within its compelling theater of illusions. From birth, we are swept forth in a ceaseless current of desires, temptations, and false perceptions that pull the spirit deeper into sleep. If illusion is so powerful and all-encompassing, how can awakening take place?

Theories of education are frequently concerned with the transition from ignorance to awareness. Since learners are embedded within the social structures they seek to understand, how can education expand one's perspective beyond their immediate location? Critical pedagogy in particular intends to develop a critical consciousness to examine the oppressive functions of our linguistic thought-world. It aims to help the oppressed examine the nature of oppression in order to liberate themselves. The origin of critical pedagogy is often located in the works of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who led adult literacy programs in Northeast Brazil throughout the mid-20th century. Critical pedagogy draws heavily from Catholic liberation theology (Stenberg, 2006). Although not explicitly religious, critical pedagogy approaches education as an experience of spiritual liberation.

Freire's theories have had considerable influence beyond Brazil, including educational and social movements in the Philippines (Cortez, F. G. F., 2013; Paredes-Canilo, 2007, p. 3), India (Siddhartha, n.d., pp. 3-5), and Bangladesh (Rafi, 2003, pp. 3909-3910). Recently, some have proposed a “critical spiritual pedagogy” that draws from both Freire's pedagogy and Eastern religions to engender critical consciousness (Adarkar & Keiser, 2009; Pigza & Welch, 2010; Ryoo, Crawford, Moreno, & McLaren, 2009; Wright, 2003). Along these lines, I will explore theoretical and practical possibilities for implementing Buddhist thought within critical pedagogy, and the applicability of critical pedagogy to Buddhist cultural contexts. Mindfulness meditation is explored as a nexus in which both Buddhist and Freirian liberation can arise.

In comparing critical pedagogy with Buddhism, I incur numerous risks. It would be a disservice to present Buddhism as a secularized philosophy that Western scholars can remove from its cultural origins and transplant to whichever context they see fit. In doing so, aspects of Buddhism that support Western liberal ideas are often appropriated, whereas teachings that challenge the Western paradigm are conveniently omitted. As a Euro-American writer, my perspective represents a primarily Western, colonizing worldview that is over-represented in critical pedagogy (Ryoo et al., 2009, p. 135). My knowledge of Buddhism is from informal discussions and readings of canonical texts, and is somewhat removed from the religious practices of my cultural origin. The cultural practice of Buddhism usually differs considerably from the teachings of the Pali Canon, the former often neglected by Western academics (Jarow, 2002). Thus, I encourage the reader to see my efforts as a reach towards Buddhism from the perspective of critical pedagogy, and not vice versa.

There is also considerable risk in comparing a major world religion to an educational theory only loosely connected with Catholic liberation theology. Apart from ethnographic differences, Buddhism and critical pedagogy represent fundamentally disparate ontologies. In Buddhism, the self is an illusion, and the absence of any identifiable self (anatta) is one of the defining characteristics of existence. In Catholic liberation theology, the self (or soul) is a holy manifestation of God that must be fully realized. Attempting to reconcile these perspectives risks emphasizing only their superficial qualities. Accordingly, I posit the following comparisons not as an attempt to syncretize the two, but rather to inspire further inquiry into the possible relationship between Buddhism and critical pedagogy.

Similarities: Suffering and liberation

Buddhism and critical pedagogy both offer practices to transform consciousness. The practitioner begins in an unsatisfactory state: suffering in Buddhism, and oppression in critical pedagogy. These states are generated by one's continuous and misguided efforts to alleviate dissatisfaction. Buddhism and critical pedagogy explore the causes of suffering and oppression to enable truly liberatory thought and action.

At the core of Buddhism's teachings is an understanding of the human condition as one of suffering. People suffer because they continually strive to fulfill desire. Clinging (upadana) and desire (tanha) ensnare human beings in a cycle of pursuit and disappointment. All suffering, according to the Atthi Raga Sutta, arises from one's attachment to objects, feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and desires. When people believe that their pursuit to satisfy desire will eventually lead to satisfaction, they are trapped in illusion. Only by recognizing the origin of suffering as clinging and attachment can human beings be liberated.

Freire's (1993) critical pedagogy sees the oppressive social reality as the principal source of suffering. The culture of oppression valorizes the oppressor, instilling the belief that only the oppressor is fully human (p. 27). The oppressed therefore continually strive to become the oppressor: “In their alienation, the oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressors, to imitate them, to follow them” (p. 44). The reality, according to Freire, is that the oppressors are also dehumanized because their existence relies upon the dehumanization of others. If the oppressed can see the universally dehumanizing nature of oppression, their desire to become oppressors will dissipate, enabling rehumanization. As with suffering in Buddhism, Freire believes that “to surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes” (p. 29). Critical pedagogy aims to liberate the oppressed by developing a critical awareness of oppression's causes.

Buddhism and critical pedagogy both begin with a careful examination of the present, unsatisfactory situation. Buddhist art often depicts the bhavacakka, which visualizes the cycle of illusion, clinging, and suffering as a circular prison held in the clutches of Mara, the demon that tempts people with desires and distracts them from the spiritual life. Freire (1993) also sees people as prisoners “of a 'circle of certainty' within which reality is also imprisoned” (p. 21). By questioning that which we have assumed to be true, we can cut through illusion and develop profound liberatory insight. Awareness is the first step towards liberation in both Buddhism and critical pedagogy, but knowledge alone is not enough.

Buddhist liberation is a synthesis of thought and action. The first two Noble Truths of Buddhism are the existence of suffering and attachments as its cause. The remaining two are the possibility of its cessation, and the Noble Eightfold Path as the way to realize its cessation. The Noble Eightfold Path is a practice of the mind and body to reduce attachments. To inspire practitioners to follow its tenets, Buddhist teachings impart a deep conviction (saddha) that the end of suffering is possible in this lifetime. The practice develops deeper insight (vipassana) into the nature of suffering and brings the practitioner closer to liberation.

Critical pedagogy also involves the mutual reinforcement of awareness and action. Developing the conviction that change is possible is the first goal of critical pedagogy. The oppressed are empowered when they “perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform” (Freire, 1993, p. 31). As this conviction grows deeper, critical pedagogy becomes both a theory and a way of life. Liberatory thought inspires liberatory action, which in turn imbues the practitioner of critical pedagogy with more insight as to oppression's nature. “One must emerge from [oppression] and turn upon it... by means of the praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” (p. 33). The world and the practitioner of critical pedagogy are transformed together.

Realizing liberation as a personal experience is necessary to the practice of both Buddhism and critical pedagogy. In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha advised his students that learning and reasoning are not enough for liberation; one must directly experience that attachment is the source of all suffering. The Buddha saw himself not as the liberator of others, but as a guide indicating the way towards liberation. Freire also warns that if the oppressed are merely liberated by another, a new dependency and subordination is established (p. 36). To be truly free, the oppressed must liberate themselves. The end of suffering is a holistic, deeply personal pursuit.

Union of thought and action moves experience beyond dualisms like perception and reality, self and other. Freire (1998) says that perceiving himself “to be in the world, with the world, with others, brings with it a sense of 'being-with' constitutive of who I am” (p. 55). Experiencing one's interconnection with others is contrasted by the oppressors, who “fail to recognize others as persons... [and] who cannot love because they love only themselves” (1993, p. 37). Critical pedagogy rehumanizes the practitioner by developing a compassionate sense of connection with others. Experiencing oneself as an actor within, rather than acted upon by, history and society is at the root of critical pedagogy's empowerment.

In the Mahanidana Sutta, the Buddha also describes the illusory separation of perception and reality. By breaking down the barrier between self and other, compassion is developed and one's actions work towards the liberation of all. Comprehending and experiencing non-self is a crucial step towards liberation. Although this emphasis on non-self and compassion may appear congruent with Freire's understanding of reality, it signals a divergence in Buddhism and critical pedagogy's conceptions of self and liberation.

Divergences: Ontologies of the self

Before exploring the possibilities for Buddhism and critical pedagogy to contribute to one another, it's important to note some differences in their understandings of the self. Critical pedagogy sees the self as an incomplete project that is developed and realized over the course of a lifetime. Buddhism, on the other hand, sees the self as illusion. These discrepancies result in different methods of learning and knowing.

Catholic liberation theology forms the foundation of critical pedagogy's self as an ongoing project for fulfillment. In liberation theology, the human soul is a site of the battle between good and evil. God's will is acted upon within the soul, collectively manifesting as society and history (Berryman, 1987). Resistance to oppression humanizes because it aligns the soul and society with God's will. Freire (1998) believed, “my own unity and identity, in regard to others and to the world, constitutes my essential and irrepeatable way of experiencing myself as a cultural, historical, and unfinished being” (p. 51). The self engages in the struggle between good and evil at the individual and social levels simultaneously. Liberation takes place when good defeats evil, when one rehumanizes themselves using critical consciousness, and when the poor and marginalized advance their struggle for justice.

Buddhism, on the other hand, understands liberation as the cessation of suffering, which results from clinging to the idea of a self. There is no “soul” or “spirit” within human beings, and no deity acting through human consciousness. What appears to be the self is in fact a series of forms, sensations, perceptions, and thoughts, within which a distinct soul cannot be found. Liberation relies not on the development of the self, but on the realization of non-self. Unlike liberation theology, transformations in the social or political structure are not necessary for Buddhist liberation. The Buddha did reject the self-proclaimed moral superiority of society's powerful by criticizing, in the Vasala Sutta, the Brahminist caste system. However, he saw one's social location as a vanity with little relevance to liberation. In Buddhism, all people have the opportunity to find liberation in this lifetime.

The possibility for liberation is restricted in critical pedagogy. The dualistic opposition of good and evil means that not everyone can liberate themselves. Freire (1993) strictly delineates who can and cannot work towards liberation: “It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors. The latter, as an oppressive class, can free neither others nor themselves” (p. 38). Freire draws from liberation theology in his understanding of the oppressor and the oppressed as spiritual states inscribed into one's soul. Social location in critical pedagogy determine one's relationship to the dualistic moral system and ability to liberate.

Freire's (1993) consciousness-building may not be compatible with the non-attachment to experiential phenomena advocated by Buddhism. Critical pedagogy's key aim is to develop “critical consciousness,” which replaces the dehumanized mentality that characterizes oppression. It does so by critically deconstructing the oppressive elements in language and generating a new language of resistance and liberation, which “stimulates the appearance of a new perception and the development of a new knowledge” (p. 96). Critical pedagogy’s empowerment through affirmation of personal perspective may contradict the belief in non-self that informs education within Buddhist societies.

Preserving harmony and resisting oppression in Buddhist cultures

Buddhist cultures are often characterized by a de-emphasis of individual will to preserve social harmony. The Buddha called for a stable, cooperative society in which people fulfill their duties as designated by class and gender. Women exist to serve their husbands, servants exist to serve their masters, and political subjects exist to serve their rulers. In the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha taught that the servants and workers have a moral responsibility to serve their masters well, taking only what the master grants them, and even awaking earlier and retiring to bed later than their masters. Similarly, the 59th Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya recommends that a wife serve her husband as a female slave. At the highest level, the Buddhist social order is to be preserved by a monarch who, by ruling with virtue, brings his subjects closer to spiritual liberation, as detailed in the Kutadanta Sutta.

How, then, can a pedagogy that resists oppression be applied in Buddhist cultural contexts without threatening the social order so fundamental to Buddhism? To achieve liberation in Buddhism, one must serve others rather than serve oneself. By contrast, Freire's (1993) pedagogy explicitly aims to develop a “critical consciousness” that transforms the oppressed from “beings for others” into “beings for themselves” (p. 55). Freire's stark assertion that the powerful have no possible role in the liberation of those over whom they have power appears at odds with the Buddha's description of a benevolent monarch. These distinctions are challenges to the practice of critical pedagogy in Buddhist cultural contexts.

Matzen (1996) addresses some cultural challenges to applying critical pedagogy in Thailand. He identifies key contradictions between Buddhism and critical pedagogy that arise in Thai education, especially their understandings of the teacher and self (pp. 6-7). Whereas critical pedagogy seeks the humanization and full realization of an individual, the Buddhist belief in non-self is a central value of Thai culture. The goal of Buddhist teachings is not to empower one's own perspective, but rather to transcend it entirely. Therefore, “Thai students do not question teachers' authority, or challenge teachers, all of whom have greater social status than students” (p. 6). Such practices preserve harmony within the classroom and within the larger Buddhist society. Thai educational methods would likely be characterized by Freire as the “banking model of education,” in which the teacher knows and the learner receives and recites knowledge. Since the Buddha's first teachings were transmitted orally and not textually, his monastic followers highly valued the ability to memorize and accurately repeat teachings (Analayo, 2009). Matzen cautions that the Freirean critique of rote learning should not be applied to Thai education. To do so may marginalize Thai culture, subordinating it to Western frameworks that are inadequate for its analysis.

Phyllis Robinson (2005), a Zen practitioner and educator, encountered similar challenges when applying critical pedagogy to teach Buddhist nuns in Cambodia. She observed that “the nuns were very reluctant to speak up in the sharing sessions” (p. 102) because in Buddhism, knowledge is developed over the course of multiple lifetimes by good conduct, rather than through the assertion of personal perspective encouraged in critical pedagogy. Like most monastic practitioners of Buddhism, “Cambodian nuns are traditionally not engaged in the practice of building up their sense of confidence in a self, but in dissolving ego attachment” (p.104). Critical pedagogy's understanding of the soul as humanized by the validation of personal perspective contrasts Buddhism's culture of non-self. This division manifests culturally, necessitating a methodological adaption of critical pedagogy to incorporate Buddhist modalities.

A mindful critical pedagogy

Although Buddhism and critical pedagogy seem to disagree on the relationship between self and liberation, they share the belief that liberation begins with awareness of the nature of suffering. Buddhism “hold[s] in common with critical pedagogy the notion of knowledge as emancipatory” (Paredes-Canilao, 2007, p. 3). Critical pedagogy posits sociolinguistic deconstruction as the key methodology to develop knowledge, but Buddhism emphasizes an emotionally detached yet concentrated examination of thoughts as they arise and cease, a form of meditation described in the Satipatthana Sutta. A contemporary interpretation of this technique, often called mindfulness meditation, has gained considerable influence in the West (Wallace, 2002). Many have proposed the implementation of mindfulness meditation in critical pedagogy as a way to experience for oneself the origins of oppression (Adarkar & Keiser, 2007; Milojevic, 2005; Orr, 2002; Patel, L., Atkins-Pattenson, K., Healy, D., Haralson, J. G., Rosario, L., & Shi, J, 2013).

Mindfulness meditation is an “ancient and codified system of training your mind, a set of exercises dedicated to the purpose of becoming more and more aware of your own life experience... We learn to listen to our own thoughts without being caught up in them” (Gunaratana, 2011, p. 25). Practitioners focus their attention on the breath, noting all physical, mental, and emotional phenomena that arise without rejecting or clinging to them. The impermanence of all things is directly observable in the constant arising and passing of experiences. This allows the meditator to reduce clinging and desire to the illusions that once seemed fixed and unchangeable. Mindful awareness “that one has so far been living in maya or illusion is in itself emancipation from the illusion” (Paredes-Canilao, 2007, p. 20). Since mindfulness meditation is a technique to systematically examine one's experience, it has the liberatory potential to transform oppressive mind-states.

Orr (2002) suggests mindfulness meditation as a technique to become aware of oppressive mental formations. For example, meditation could help deconstruct “masculinity to expose its contradictions and to reveal to the male student his own conflicted position as both oppressor and oppressed [in order to] successfully challenge sexism” (p. 485). In this example, conceptions of masculinity are mental formations. Following Collins (2000), attachment to mental formations constructs the illusion of self and a social identity located in the matrix of oppression. Buddhist mindfulness techniques can be used in critical pedagogy to develop awareness of the ephemeral, amorphous, imperfect nature of oppressive sociocultural constructs.

Mindfulness meditation, through its structured observance of one's mind, could be a powerful tool for the oppressed to recognize and resist their own internalization of the oppressor's worldview. Critical pedagogy begins with the challenge that “So often do [the oppressed] hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing and are incapable of learning anything—that they are sick, lazy, and unproductive—that in the end they are convinced of their own unfitness” (Freire, 1993, p. 45). By observing their thoughts during meditation, they realize that their negative self-perceptions are situated in a dehumanizing culture that reflects the oppressor's narrative.

The oppressor limits the actions of the oppressed with dehumanizing cultural beliefs: that the oppressed are morally inferior to the oppressor, that the oppressed are dependent upon the oppressor, that history, culture, and politics are the domains of the oppressor, that oppression is inevitable, and so on. Mindfulness meditation is a way to liberate awareness from these perceptions. It is “presymbolic... a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before you conceptualize the thing...” (Gunaratana, 2011, pp. 131-132). Meditators strengthen their faculties of pure awareness, which can reveal a reality that contradicts the narratives of internalized oppression. Mindfulness meditation can work to “eject this image [of internalized oppression] and replace it with autonomy and responsibility” (Freire, 1993, p. 29).

As the oppressed challenge and transform their own ideas, mindfulness meditation enables personal and social transformation by revealing the impermanent and unsatisfactory nature of all phenomena. As perception emerges from the oppressor's thought-world into mindful awareness, the oppressed “come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation” (p. 64), empowering themselves for further liberatory action. Personal and social transformation become spiritually and physically possible. Mindfulness-based education can deeply connect participants to issues explored in critical pedagogy, recentering attention from abstract ideas to the body and its immediate social environment (Bai, 2001).

If critical pedagogy runs the risk of destabilizing social relations by encouraging the assertion of egoistic perspective, mindfulness meditation ensures that critical pedagogy is rooted in compassionate reflection and non-self. “For more than three millennia, Buddhist traditions have been developing practical lessons that cultivate mindful awareness and compassion, lessons that effectively transform students and educators from human beings that blindly suffer into insightful and caring people who understand suffering, its causes, and its contexts and who consequently strive to overcome their own and others’ suffering” (Adarkar & Keiser, 2009, p. 248). Insight and care is essential in critical pedagogy, which Freire (1993) envisioned to be “an act of love” (p. 27). Mindfulness meditation develops the compassion necessary to move beyond egoistic clinging and understand perspectives from different locations within power structures.

Mindfulness meditation, by developing direct insight into the causes of one's suffering, could also help the oppressor to see their own dehumanization and its origin, greed. For Freire (1993), the oppressor's psychology is one of greed and selfishness (pp. 40-41). Although greed can lead to material gain, it also results in the oppressor's unknowing self-dehumanization. Greed (lobha) is one of Buddhism's three main hindrances to liberation that mindfulness meditation works to overcome. Freire insisted that the oppressor cannot work towards liberation, but critical pedagogy must adapt this assertion to be useful in Buddhist contexts. In Buddhism, delusion is not inevitable. Meditation is a tool for anyone to achieve liberation. This could be incorporated into critical pedagogy without rejecting Freire's claim that the oppressor must not co-opt the struggle for liberation, which is primarily a struggle of the oppressed. With mindfulness meditation, it's possible that the oppressor begins to see themselves as also ensnared in delusion, greed, and dehumanization, and therefore bearing no moral superiority over those they have oppressed.

However, mindfulness meditation cannot rectify all discrepancies between Buddhism and critical pedagogy. Unlike critical pedagogy, meditation does not operate on the level of conscious thought. “It is that ability of the mind to observe without criticism... It does not take sides... It is not thinking” (Gunaratana, 2011, p. 133). Robinson (2005) was challenged by Freire's conception of liberation as “the realization of critical consciousness, which is an activity of the thinking mind,” rather than as the calming of the mind and ego. In trying to reconcile Buddhism with critical pedagogy, she asks, “If one is liberated only at the level of thought, then what lies unexamined beneath it all?” (p. 121) There are limitations to critical pedagogy as an instrument of Buddhist liberation, and to mindfulness meditation as a way to develop Freirean critical consciousness.


In an era of dehumanizing educational practices, a critical spiritual pedagogy is necessary. Mindfulness meditation as an educational practice constantly refocuses attention on participants' innermost experiences. By remaining aware of the transformational processes that critical pedagogy facilitates, participants direct their own liberation.

Mindfulness meditation can strengthen critical pedagogy and make it more applicable in Buddhist cultural contexts. However, more efforts are necessary to engender a critical spiritual pedagogy. Can internalized oppression be removed from self-perception without developing new forms of clinging and attachment? Is it possible for critical pedagogy to operate on a more mindful, subtle level than conscious thought? These questions are both challenges to critical pedagogy and pathways for its further development.

Critical pedagogy is applicable beyond its Western paradigms of origin because dehumanization and internalized oppression are global phenomena. In order to be truly liberatory, critical pedagogy must be aware of its own religious and cultural biases. Adapting critical pedagogy to other contexts may entail a reconfiguration of its core tenets. To work towards the many forms of liberation in the world's religions, educators must employ a plurality of critical pedagogies.


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David Golding teaches International Development and Sociology for the University of London in Sri Lanka, and Conflict and Peace Studies for the University of Colombo. This year, he will begin reading for a PhD in Education and Social Justice at Lancaster University.