“Moving Body, Knowing Mind” review

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Moving Body, Knowing Mind:
Ritualizing and learning at two Buddhist centres in Toronto
Patricia Q. Campbell
Oxford University Press, 2011
ISBN 9780199793815   $39.95 paperback
Hardcover also available

From the publisher:
Knowing Body, Moving Mind investigates ritualizing and learning in introductory meditation classes at two Buddhist centers in Toronto, Canada. The centers, Friends of the Heart and Chandrakirti, are led and attended by Western (sometimes called “convert’) Buddhists: that is, people from non-Buddhist familial and cultural backgrounds. Inspired by theories that suggest that rituals impart new knowledge or understanding, Patricia Campbell examines how introductory meditation students learn through formal Buddhist practice. Along the way, she also explores practitioners’ reasons for enrolling in meditation classes, their interests in Buddhism, and their responses to formal Buddhist practices and to ritual in general.

Based on ethnographic interviews and participant-observation fieldwork, the text follows interview participants’ reflections on what they learned in meditation classes and through personal practice, and what roles meditation and other ritual practices played in that learning. Participants’ learning experiences are illuminated by an influential learning theory called Bloom’s Taxonomy, while the rites and practices taught and performed at the centers are explored using performance theory, a method which focuses on the performative elements of ritual’s postures and gestures. But the study expands the performance framework as well, by demonstrating that performative ritualizing includes the concentration techniques that take place in a meditator’s mind.

Such techniques are received as traditional mental acts or behaviors that are standardized, repetitively performed, and variously regarded as special, elevated, spiritual or religious. Having established a link between mental and physical forms of ritualizing, the study then demonstrates that the repetitive mental techniques of meditation practice train the mind to develop new skills in the same way that physical postures and gestures train the body. The mind is thus experienced as both embodied and gestural, and the whole of the body as socially and ritually informed.


  • An expansion of the usual conception of ritualizing beyond physical postures and gestures.
  • A focus on ritualizing rather than formal ritual.
  • Repetitive mental acts in meditation are shown to train the mind to develop new skills in the same way that physical postures and gestures train the body.

An exploration of the ways in which the body-mind learns. The study regards the mind as embodied and gestural and the whole of the body as a knowing entity.

About the author:
Patricia Campbell is currently Assistant Professor, Eastern Religions, Mount Allison University, NB. She is a long-time practitioner associated with the Zen Buddhist Temple in Toronto. Knowing Body, Moving Mind is her first book, and it was her PhD dissertation, completed in 2009.

The Sumeru review:
As a technological design teacher, I am very familiar with the application of learning theory, and explain Bloom’s taxonomies to students on a regular basis. In fact, Campbell’s overview of how we westerners learn is entirely congruent with the current literature and direction of western pedagogy. In other words, it could be applied equally congenially to Buddhist centres, air cadets, drug rehabilitation centres, bar mitzvah classes for adults, dance and yoga academies, etc.

In the context of understanding how a specific demographic segment of westerners come to Buddhism, within the western paradigm of “classes”, Campbell does a great job of drawing out the underlying processes and relating them to the larger schema of Bloom’s work, to researchers in the field of performative ritual, and to the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

As a western Buddhist practitioner and community organizer for more than 40 years, I have had the opportunity to visit many Canadian Buddhist centres. I found myself repeatedly looking for myself and other Buddhist practitioners in Campbell’s book, and found it difficult to do so. The focus is entirely on those beginning practice, who may not even identify themselves as Buddhist. The venues of Campbell’s research are two western Buddhist centres that are not mainstream, as she herself notes. Given that there are approximately 500 Buddhist centres in Canada at this time, much more study needs to be done into the wide spectrum of other rituals, practices, and learning pathways that those organizations or loosely-knit groups offer.

I was surprised that negative aspects of ritualization never came up in Campbell’s book. Cults share many of the same techniques in capturing the identities of converts, and that should have been addressed in the text. Canadian Buddhism has had its share of cults over the years. Tendencies by some groups toward re-literalization of Canon material as a legitimizing stance are touched on briefly, but not the deeper implications (such as fundamentalist trends in right-wing Protestant Christianity and other faiths).

By the same token, syncretizing influences, such as t’ai ch’i classes, are mentioned, but not explored in any depth. I spent many years practicing t’ai ch’i as an adjunct to my Buddhist practice, because I was not able to find a similar benefit within our received Dharma tradition. The interpenetration of different philosophical traditions here in Canada would also be a study of some value in assessing where Canadian Buddhist organizations have yet to broaden their foundations.

Lastly, as Charles Prebish and many Asian Buddhists have pointed out, meditation is hardly the sine qua non of Buddhist practice.

In short, I’d give Moving Body, Knowing Mind a qualified thumbs up: Great for what it included, but frustrating in what it left out.

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