Clarifying Why I Am Not a Buddhist: A Response to Amod Lele (guest post by Evan Thompson)

Let me begin by thanking Amod Lele for taking the time to read my book and to write two posts about it here and at his blog, Love of All Wisdom. His criticisms are stimulating and I would like to clarify my position and arguments by responding to them.

Our main disagreement concerns what historians call “Buddhist modernism.” This is the modern and transnational form of Buddhism that downplays the metaphysical and ritual elements of traditional Asian Buddhism, while emphasizing personal meditative experience and scientific rationality. Buddhist modernism is the culturally dominant form of contemporary Buddhism, especially in the West. Lele advocates what he calls the “eudaimonistic strain” of Buddhist modernism, whereas I argue that Buddhist modernism in all its strains is philosophically unsound.

Since Buddhist modernism is the most substantial issue between us, I’ll first address Lele’s eudaimonistic version of it, which is the subject of his second post. Afterwards, I’ll respond to the other criticisms in his first post.

Eudaimonistic Buddhist modernists recast Buddhism as a path for promoting human flourishing and ameliorating suffering. They don’t believe that consciousness survives bodily death, they reject the idea of rebirth, and they conceive of awakening as a psychological state of well-being rather than as nirvāṇa, whether nirvāṇa be understood as liberation from all mental afflictions in this life (so-called nirvāṇa with remainder) or as final liberation from saṃsāra, the cycle of conditioned existence (so-called nirvāṇa without remainder).

Lele says that I don’t mention this eudaimonistic strain of Buddhist modernism. It’s true that I don’t mention it by name. (Seth Zuihō Segall’s Buddhism and Human Flourishing: A Modern Western Perspective appeared after my book was published, so I wasn’t able to consider it.) Nevertheless, eudaimonistic Buddhism, as Lele describes it, is little different from Robert Wright’s version of Buddhism, which I devote a whole chapter to. Wright differs from the eudaimonistic Buddhists Lele mentions mainly in using evolutionary psychology to support his version of naturalistic Buddhism. But the result is essentially the same: We’re offered naturalistic Buddhism as a path for human flourishing, in which awakening or liberation consists in a psychological state of well-being.

Lele says that I give little reason to reject eudaimonistic Buddhist modernism. My aim, however, isn’t to reject using Buddhist ideas in the project of ameliorating suffering and promoting human flourishing. On the contrary, I defend a cosmopolitanist version of such a project, in which engaging with Buddhism, especially the Buddhist intellectual tradition, plays a central role. Rather, I take issue with the rhetoric and logic that Buddhist modernists typically use in pursuing this project. In addition, contrary to how Lele reads me, my aim isn’t to persuade anyone not to be a Buddhist. Rather, my aim is to lay bare the philosophical problems with Buddhist modernism.

Buddhist modernists recast Buddhist concepts in a way that makes them incongruent with their traditional meanings and functions. They thereby miss (and miss out on) the radical and challenging aspects of the Buddhist tradition. They mistakenly project their revisions back onto the “historical Buddha” as a way to legitimate them. Finally, they claim that Buddhism is inherently more open to this kind of modernist recasting than other religions are. In other words, they promote what I call “Buddhist exceptionalism,” the mistaken belief that Buddhism is superior to other religions in being inherently rational and empirical.

I don’t mean to imply that all Buddhist modernists do all of these things all of the time. Rather, there is a frequency distribution to these traits. Still, the traits are typical ones. Again, my target is a closely interrelated cluster of ideas, which the term “Buddhist modernism” designates collectively, and that continues to have a huge influence in shaping contemporary Buddhist discourse, and discourse about science and religion in general.

To see what I mean, consider Lele’s embrace of the idea of karma. His rendering of it is incongruent with its traditional meaning and function. Lele says that its core meaning can be separated from the idea of rebirth, because “the core idea is also the core idea of eudaimonism: that an agent’s good actions and good states of character typically improve the agent’s well-being (flourishing, eudaimonia).” But this idea isn’t the core idea of karma, if “core” means what lies at the heart of the concept’s formation. On the contrary, the core problem, which drove the formation of the concept, is to explain why bad things happen to good people. In other words, the fact to be made intelligible is precisely the opposite of what Lele asserts, namely, that an agent’s being good often doesn’t improve its well-being. The traditional idea of karma is meant to rationalize this shocking and disturbing fact. Karma provides a framework for making sense of this cosmic affront to our human sense of fairness. The rationale it offers is that, despite appearances, an agent’s being good will actually make things go better for it, if not in this life, then in the next one. Notice that this rationale also makes an agent ultimately responsible for everything that happens to it. All the bad things that happen to an agent are the consequence of what it has done, if not in this life, then in a previous one. The idea of karma functions analogously to a theodicy; it answers to the question of the problem of evil.

The Buddhist modernist is likely to respond that, although this may be true as a matter of ancient history, we’re now in historical and conceptual position to seize on the idea that being good makes things go better for you in the long run, and to extract this idea from its encrustation in the rebirth cosmology.

But this move brings us back to the original problem. Bad things often happen to good people. So, the proposition that an agent’s being good typically improves that agent’s well-being is not obviously true as a general descriptive proposition about the world. (There’s also the problem of specifying what “typically” means here.) This is especially the case if “well-being” is taken to mean, or mostly to consist in, being happy (as it’s typically taken in Western society today). So, we better have other reasons for being good, specifically normative reasons. (Agents should do what is right, they should perform their duties, they should act according to ethical roles, they should be good to improve overall welfare, etc.) In any case, eudaimonizing the concept of karma without facing up to this problem—the problem of evil—seems facile. Traditional Buddhism recognizes the problem, even if its answer is unacceptable to many of us today, but Buddhist modernism often does not. (Stephen Batchelor’s book on evil is an important exception.)

Eudaimonist Buddhist modernists will emphasize that, for the Buddhist, karma is the mental factor of intention (cetanā), and they will maintain that the moral valence of present intentions influences future mental states. So, for example, if you cultivate wholesome intentions, then unwholesome reactive attitudes will diminish and you will be happier.

I don’t dispute the proposition that, given a certain conception of well-being, cultivating mental intentions in accordance with that conception increases the likelihood of experiencing that kind of well-being. What I deny is that the conception of well-being can be derived from science or justified by descriptive (non-normative) psychological propositions about how things are (as, for example, Sam Harris tries to do).

Lele objects to my asking whether we really need Buddhism for the idea of psychological liberation, where that means being aware of emotions and not being unduly influenced by them. He counters: “Not everything in Buddhism needs to be distinctively Buddhist and only Buddhist.”

That’s a fair point. But it raises the question, what, exactly, is distinctively Buddhist about eudaimonistic Buddhist modernism? It’s not the eudaimonized idea of karma, for we can find that also in modern Hindu traditions and Jain modernism (not surprisingly, since karma isn’t an exclusively Buddhist idea). It’s not eudaimonism, for the idea that eudaimonia (however defined) is achieved through virtue (however defined) is the core idea of any virtue ethics. Lele writes: “There is plenty more that we Buddhist modernists draw from Buddhism that goes well outside of Western common sense—the rejection of righteous anger, for example.” But ancient and modern Stoics also regard anger as a destructive emotion that needs to be curbed and counteracted by positive emotions and rational understanding.

So, Lele hasn’t told us what makes eudaimonistic Buddhist modernism distinctively Buddhist. (Perhaps it’s the idea of not-self, which I critique in Chapter Three.)

Let me be clear: I have no objection to anyone who feels more at home with Buddhist conceptions of virtue, and of wholesome versus harmful emotions, than with analogous conceptions in other traditions (Stoicism, Christianity, Confucianism, etc.), who accordingly wishes to articulate virtue ethics mainly from the evolving perspective of the Buddhist philosophical tradition, and who thus identifies as a Buddhist. Rather, my objection, again, is to the Buddhist modernist rhetoric and logic that often frames such a project. I object especially to the Buddhist exceptionalist idea that Buddhism is somehow more suited to such a project than other religious or philosophical traditions.

Let me take this opportunity to state explicitly something that I only allude to in the book (see pp. 80-82, 158). I submit that the driving engine—historically and philosophically—of Buddhist thought is the following set of propositions: All conditioned and compounded things are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self (the so-called three marks of existence); and nirvāṇa is unconditioned peace. Another formulation is the so-called four seals (which, according to Tibetan Buddhism, minimally identify a view as Buddhist): everything conditioned and compounded is impermanent; everything contaminated (by the mental afflictions of beginningless fundamental ignorance, attachment, and anger) is suffering; all phenomena are devoid of self; and nirvāṇa (unconditioned cessation of affliction) is peace. The fundamental reason I’m not a Buddhist is that I don’t accept these propositions, including their modernist renditions, and my philosophical project doesn’t include trying to reformulate them in acceptable modernist terms. But that’s not my main point here. Rather, it’s that unless one grapples with the radical philosophical and existential challenge that these propositions pose to our usual ways of thinking and being—especially to the modernist project of searching for well-being in the form of happiness and psychological well-adjustment—one hasn’t really heard what the Buddhist tradition has to say. Moreover, as a modern cosmopolitanist philosopher, I submit that every philosophically minded person should confront these propositions and the arguments for them, and think through them deeply for themselves.

This brings to me the main reason why I reject the Buddhist modernist psychologizing of liberation (see p. 82). Lele doesn’t address this reason. It’s that human existence can’t be fully understood in terms of the descriptive concepts of empirical psychology, including the idea of well-being as an operationalizable and measurable trait. Rather, we must understand our human form of life and our particular ways of being in the world in light of the norm of authenticity, of how we choose to lead our own lives given our lack of any fixed nature or essence, and in the face of our inevitable death. If we’re going to recast the Buddhist idea of liberation in modern terms, then I submit we should understand it as involving a profound reconfiguration of our existence as governed by the norm of authenticity, not simply as a change to our mental states and traits as psychology conceives of them. (Here I sympathize with those Buddhist modernists, such as Stephen Batchelor and Keiji Nishitani, who look to existential phenomenology, rather than empirical psychology, to understand liberation.)

In my book, I argue that such an idea of liberation is fundamentally religious, not in the sense that it requires belief in rebirth, but rather because it’s oriented toward an idea of transcendence. By “transcendence” I mean a kind of normative meaning that lies outside the conceptual framework of scientific naturalism (which isn’t to say it’s supernatural). I also mean a radical transformation of our being, which, from the perspective of not having undergone it, cannot but look transcendent in relation to ordinary existence. This idea of liberation is religious also in the sense that personally embracing it constitutes a “conversion” (metanoia), a fundamental change of mind and heart.

To summarize: Buddhist modernism, insofar as it tries to justify Buddhism using scientific naturalism, enervates the radical existential soteriology of Buddhism (which isn’t to be confused with supernaturalism). It thereby does violence to Buddhism itself (especially its philosophical core) and constitutes a kind of category mistake in the science-religion dialogue and philosophical reflection on the meaning of human life.

Lele says that I give no argument for my claim that “without the Buddhist religious commitment to awakening and liberation, the Buddhist ethics of knowledge has no solid philosophical basis and therefore has no power to reflect critically back on science” (p. 186). What I mean by “religious” here is the sense of the term I’ve just explained—a sensibility oriented toward transcendence. (See Tim Crane, The Meaning of Belief, for a similar Durkheimian conception of the religious sensibility in a monotheistic context.) It’s true, as Lele says, that neither the sentence before the one quoted above nor the following ones give an argument for my claim. But that’s because the sentence comes at the book’s end and I’ve already argued for the claim throughout the whole book (see especially Chapters Two and Five, where I argue for the ideas stated in the previous three paragraphs ).

Lele maintains that none of what I identify and criticize as the core of Buddhist modernism belongs to the core of eudaimonistic Buddhist modernism. I hope the reader can already see why I think this is wrong. Eudaimonistic Buddhist modernism (as Lele presents it) tries to recast Buddhist concepts, such as karma and liberation, in a naturalistic way, thereby making them incongruent with the driving philosophical engine of Buddhism. It thereby misses out on the enrichment that comes from squarely facing the radical aspects of Buddhist thought. In this way, eudaimonistic Buddhism typifies the core tendencies of Buddhist modernism. It makes Buddhism comfortable, not challenging.

My assessment of Buddhist modernism brings me to Lele’s criticisms in his first post. He argues that I ignore large parts of Buddhism and that my criticisms of Buddhist modernism apply only to a few of its tenets and to a small portion of Buddhism altogether.

When Lele describes my position, however, he mixes up my philosophical critique of Buddhist modernism with my personal story, which I give in the Introduction so that the reader will know how I came to be involved with Buddhism and my motivation for writing the book.

First, the personal story. For years, colleagues and people I’d meet at conferences assumed that I was a Buddhist. This was mainly because of my participation in the Mind and Life Dialogues and the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute. People were surprised when I told them that I wasn’t a Buddhist, and they asked me why I wasn’t. This was how the title of my book first came to me. I wanted to explain why I am not a Buddhist.

Unlike Bertrand Russell, however, who completely rejects Christianity in Why I Am Not a Christian, I’m not trying to persuade anyone not to be a Buddhist (or not to be religious). Instead, I’m giving a philosophical critique of Buddhist modernism. My critique comes from my participation in the science-Buddhism dialogue, especially through the Mind and Life Institute, and my experience of Buddhist meditation retreats (taught by Asian and Western teachers). My aim is to show that Buddhist modernist thought needs serious reform, to correct misconceptions about Buddhism and the relationship between science and religion, and to describe my own cosmopolitanist perspective.

Lele says that I identify only two ways of being a Buddhist—being a traditional monastic Buddhist and being a lay Buddhist modernist. But I single out these two ways of being a Buddhist when I’m talking about the ways that were personally available to me. I’m not saying there are no other ways of being a Buddhist; on the contrary, I explicitly mention traditional Asian lay forms of Buddhism. My point is that, given that I didn’t want to become a monastic Buddhist, the only other option available to me was to be a Buddhist modernist.

Lele suggests that my not wanting to join a monastery may be question-begging from a Buddhist point of view. But I’m not arguing against monastic Buddhism as a meaningful way of life; I’m stating that I had determined that it wasn’t the right life for me. If that’s question-begging to a Buddhist, then so be it. By the same token, if my decision not to accept Jesus Christ as my personal saviour and not to become a Christian monastic is question-begging to a Christian, then so be it.

Every Buddhist centre I’ve encountered over the years is steeped in Buddhist modernism. (I’ve visited many in North America and Europe since I was a young teenager.) Although this point is autobiographical, it connects to a larger cultural point, which is that Buddhist modernism is the most widespread and culturally dominant form of Buddhism in America and Europe. Hence, it’s the main object of my scrutiny. (Lele thinks my phrase “European and American Buddhist modernism” is odd given that I live in Canada, but “America” properly refers to North and South America, not to the United States.)

Lele seems to suggest that another way I could be a Buddhist is by attending Asian Buddhist temples in North America. I’ve visited such temples, appreciate them, and have benefited from them. But I’m a guest in these places. Although many of them might welcome my joining them, it would be presumptuous of me to assume that they would.

Moreover, it would be misguided to think that a good way to be a Buddhist is to try to become a member of a culture that isn’t one’s own. I’ve heard Tibetan teachers say that Tibetans didn’t start dressing like Indians when Buddhism came to Tibet, and the Dalai Lama is known for saying that generally it’s best to keep the religion and culture one was born into. (In my own case, like many kids of the 1970s, I was raised in an eclectic and syncretic mix of modern religions, which included Buddhism. So, figuring out my relationship to Buddhism has been an ongoing personal issue.)

It should also be said that Asian Buddhist temples in the West are hardly free from the pervasive influence of Buddhist modernism.

This brings me to my philosophical critique of Buddhist modernism. Lele says that I ignore most of Asia in my critique. But I don’t see things this way, for several reasons. First, Buddhist modernism originated in Asia in the nineteenth century, is transnational, and includes Asia today. Buddhist modernism has become (in David McMahan’s words) the “lingua franca” of modern, cosmopolitan Buddhism and the “meta-language” for interpreting the fundamental elements of Buddhism and situating them in the modern world. Second, I discuss many influential Asian Buddhist modernist thinkers and teachers, specifically the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, S. N. Goenka, Mahasi Sayadaw, Yamada Ryōun, D. T. Suzuki, and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Third, many of the Western Buddhist teachers I mention or cite (Stephen Batchelor, Nyanaponika Thera, B. Alan Wallace, and Shinzen Young) have spent years in Asian Buddhist monastic communities. Finally, when I write that “the scope of my critique is… Buddhist modernism in Europe and North America, since Asia is evolving its own unique forms of Buddhist modernism,” (p. 20), I simply mean to indicate that I’m not writing about, say, attempts to modernize Buddhism in contemporary China. For these reasons, it’s unfair to say that I “ignore” (intentionally disregard or refuse to acknowledge) Asia; rather, I explicitly take notice of Asia but am careful to make clear that transnational Buddhist modernism, specifically as it operates in North America and Europe (which is where I’ve lived and worked), is the principal object of my critique.

Lele thinks that I mistakenly equate Buddhist modernism with “neural Buddhism,” and that because my critique is restricted to neural Buddhism, it doesn’t address a large portion of Buddhist modernism. Here I think he misunderstands my argument.

My principal objection is to what I call “Buddhist exceptionalism,” which is a fundamental part of Buddhist modernism. Buddhist exceptionalism is the belief that Buddhism is superior to other religions in being inherently rational and empirical, or that Buddhism isn’t really a religion but rather is a kind of “mind science” based on meditation, or is a superior path toward realizing the ineffable and nonconceptual nature of things. (The latter is the romanticist-transcendentalist version of Buddhist exceptionalism, and typically opposes itself to “scientific Buddhism.”) I argue that these ideas, and the assumptions about religion and science on which they rest, are mistaken.

Neural Buddhism is a scientistic version of Buddhist modernism (as I say on p. 19). Its principal ideas are that “enlightenment” is a brain state or has a unique neural signature, that mindfulness practice consists in training the brain, and that cognitive science has corroborated the Buddhist position that there is no self. Neural Buddhism is a visible and influential version of Buddhist modernism in North America today. Its ideas infiltrate Buddhist modernism even among Buddhist modernists who don’t accept it as a full package. I argue both that it’s mistaken about the empirical facts about the brain’s role in cognition and that it’s the product of conceptual confusions.

Two things Lele says about neural Buddhism need correcting.

First, B. Alan Wallace is decidedly not a neural Buddhist. He is opposed to materialism, thinks that the fundamental nature of consciousness isn’t physical, and believes in rebirth. I don’t mention these aspects of Wallace’s thinking in my book; I discuss just his Buddhist modernist idea that meditation is a kind of scientific observation and that Buddhism is a mind science. (I critically evaluate nonphysicalism about consciousness and the belief in rebirth in my previous book, Waking, Dreaming, Being.)

Second, it’s not the case that I have ever accepted neural Buddhism. Although my co-authors and I did argue in The Embodied Mind that cognitive science supports the Buddhist no-self view, we argued from the perspective of enactive cognitive science, according to which cognition is constituted in the relation between the activity of the whole body and its environment, not by the brain per se. This perspective is opposed to the brain-centric view of cognition that figures in neural Buddhism (see Chapters Two and Four). I’ve also never thought that the value of meditation or the meaning of “enlightenment” are matters that neuroscience can decide.

The description of the “core tenets” of Buddhist modernist discourse that Lele quotes comes from the last two pages of the book (pp. 188-189), where I’m summarizing the current Buddhist modernist discourse specifically in relation to the science-Buddhism dialogue. In that context, the claim that there is no self means that the self is a brain-generated illusion. Although the concept of no-self is central to Buddhism from its beginning, the version that appeals to neuroscience for its corroboration is recent. Lele objects to my saying that the no-self claim is “indefensible,” given that it’s been philosophically defended by Buddhists for millennia. What I mean to be referring to here, however, is the claim that neuroscience establishes that there is no self in a way that corroborates Buddhism. This claim conflates the way that cognitive science analyzes and models the self as a biological and social construction with the way that Buddhism analyzes the self as the illusory object of “self-grasping.” I say on the last pages of the book that this no-self claim is “indefensible,” because I take myself to have shown earlier in the book that it’s not justifiable by argument (see Chapter Three).

Lele states that none of what I criticize and say are the core tenets of Buddhist modernism are core to eudaimonistic Buddhist modernism. But this isn’t true for two of the authors he mentions. Buddhist exceptionalism frames Ken Mcleod’s book. He writes: “The forms Buddhism has taken in many cultures, including our own, may suggest that it is a religion. It is not. Buddhism is a collection of methods for waking up from confusion” (p. xi). Neural Buddhism plays a central role in Dale Wright’s What is Buddhist Enlightenment? (which I cite). He appeals to neuroscience as a way to adjudicate the Buddhist debate over whether awakening is gradual or sudden, and he rules in favour of gradualism: “neuroscience has taught us how to conceive of the gradual path in terms of ‘experience-dependent neuroplasticity,’ the gradual transformation of the brain through intentional sculpting of the experiences available to it,” and this is a reason “to prefer the gradual side of Buddhist thought and practice” (p. 197). But this assessment misunderstands the gradualist versus subitist debate, which arises partly as a reflection from within the tradition on the nature or status of its own normative and soteriological claims, and is also about scriptural hermeneutics. These are matters neuroscience can’t decide. (Neural Buddhist ideas also play a role in Wright’s conception of “contemporary enlightenment:” see Thesis Seven of his “Ten Theses on Contemporary Enlightenment,” at pp. 211-212).

Lele writes that modern eudaimonistic Buddhists “place meditation above traditional ritual and emphasize scientific rationality.” I’m not sure whether Lele is saying that meditation isn’t ritual or that modern meditation rituals are preferable to traditional meditation rituals. If he means the second, he doesn’t tell us why. If he means the first, then I think he’s mistaken. Meditation, whether traditional or modern, is ritual. When you meditate you engage in a practice of transforming the self (and the community) by repeatedly performing certain scripted actions and adopting certain roles, which serve to continually remind you of how things are or how they can be imaginatively envisioned, according to a governing conceptual framework, which in turn you work to assimilate through those very actions. The idea that meditation isn’t ritual because it’s supposed to be a practice for well-being or examining the mind is a typical Buddhist modernist misconception.

Let me conclude by saying again that my aim isn’t to convince Buddhists not to be Buddhists, or to argue more generally that one shouldn’t be a Buddhist. Contrary to what Lele implies, I never argue against one’s affiliating oneself with Buddhism. On the contrary, my cosmopolitanism explicitly upholds the importance of the Buddhist tradition and its presence in the world today. So, it’s no part of my message that the conversation between science and Buddhism precludes one’s being a Buddhist (again, contrary to what Lele implies). Rather, I claim that Buddhist modernism impedes this conversation.

Thanks again to Lele for initiating this discussion and the other editors of The Indian Philosophy Blog for making this space available for it. (Thanks also to Bob Sharf and Sean Smith for helpful comments and discussion.)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

26 Replies to “Clarifying Why I Am Not a Buddhist: A Response to Amod Lele (guest post by Evan Thompson)”

  1. I have studied early Buddhism – i.e., the Theravada tradition (I learnt from an excellent teacher in Asia – although she is not well known). I would say that Buddhism is definitely NOT a religion – one does not have to blindly believe anything.

    Buddhist teachings comprehensively describe how the mind works, how thoughts come and go, what the present moment is, how the thoughts we experience in the present moment is conditioned by the past, etc. These are things one can observe for oneself and verify for oneself.

    If someone only focuses on the theory part however, then one would miss everything that is important in the teachings and would tend to argue and argue. It is only in PRACTISING that one can understand the teachings – this is ‘experiential learning’ (that is opposed to intellectual studying).

    When studying Buddhism, it is also important to separate ‘conventional realities’ from ‘ultimate realities.’ Studying the brain, etc., and how science works involves conventional realities. Ultimate realities are about our direct experience and the moment by moment manifestation of experience. The more one meditates and contemplates how the mind works, the more one would develop faith in the teachings – this is not blind faith, but faith that comes from understanding (just like how we have faith in science).

  2. Thanks so much for this—it’s very helpful in understanding the disagreement. But there’s still something that I’m not sure about. I worry that the book doesn’t really take on the most philosophically sophisticated contemporary defenders of Buddhist modernism. For example, take Mark Siderits who defends Buddhist reductionism while rejecting rebirth and karma. A scan of the book only reveals a few tangential engagements with contemporary Buddhist philosophers like Siderits, Charles Goodman, Monima Chadha, and others. So in that respect I worry that the book doesn’t take on the strongest versions of the “modernist” position.

    • Thanks for this comment. The book was written for a more general audience, not a specialized philosophy one, so I don’t go into the technical details of Buddhist philosophy, as explored in the writings of the authors you mention. I know their work and admire it. However, my concern is with the larger cultural phenomenon of Buddhist modernism and issues about science and religion, which their work doesn’t address. I will say here, however, that I disagree with Siderits’s reductionism and physicalism; much of my disagreement is independent of Buddhist philosophy. I’m also not persuaded by his attempt to ground ethics in purely impersonal, consequentialist terms.

  3. Wonderful elaboration on the book, which I really enjoyed reading (along with Waking, Dreaming, Being). I have a slight disagreement though with the notion that meditation is a ritual–it surely has ritualistic elements (and some may use it as such), but in practice, it’s more like playing an instrument (or learning how to play it).

    One uses different techniques, say, to deconstruct sensual experience (as in, e.g., noting a la Mahasi Sayadaw or Shinzen Young) or to reach deeply restful states (e.g., in jhana practice or “awareness of awareness,” as taught by teachers like Shaila Catherine and B. Alan Wallace, respectively). In a sense, mastering these techniques are very worldly goals that can then be used for soteriological ones (but some meditators may choose to forgo this second step).

    What’s more, according to the (Theravada) 4-path model, one drops belief in rites and rituals right at first path (stream entry). So if meditation were a mere ritual, it wouldn’t make much sense to continue (if one practices in the Theravada tradition) after this step, but in fact evidently meditation is essential to reach the next three milestones. I’m not saying that the 4-path model is correct, but just wanted to give this as another counterargument to the idea that meditation is used merely ritualistically (which was my take-away from the author’s critique).

    Though, being not a philosopher myself, I may have missed the boat on perhaps some valid arguments for the practice of music (or cooking, which is similarly algorithmic, but can also yield “transcendent” results) being largely a ritualistic practice and activity. Apologies if I missed this.

    Other than that minor niggle, this is a great overview and elaboration of some very valid criticism of Buddhist exceptionalism and modernism. I look forward to additional views and discussions. I have high hopes for both cosmopolitan and Buddhist philosophies and theories of consciousness.

  4. Thanks for this comment. I’m glad you liked the post. On ritual: In saying that meditation is ritual, I don’t mean to say that it’s merely ritual. Meditation can be lots of things, depending on the practice. My point is that whatever else it may be, it’s certainly also always ritual. The claim that one drops rites and rituals upon taking up the path is a rhetorical and ideological claim–a way of differentiating the Buddhist path from (for example) Vedic practice. Nevertheless, ritual, in the sense I define in the post, is always present (in how one sits, in how one creates a setting for the practice, in how one understands what one is doing and its purpose, and in according meaning to the states that are experienced). Also, for me, “ritual” isn’t a pejorative term, as it tends to be heard in modern Western culture. I think ritual is essential to human life.

  5. Dear Evan

    I have not read the book, but I am largely in tune with the arguments you produce here in this piece, and with such clarity, as always. I especially like the point that in trying to make Buddhism palatable to modern beliefs, we end up ignoring the really challenging and perhaps valuable parts of Buddhism.

    I study buddhist philosophy, though I am not a Buddhist. I believe Buddhist philosophy has something to contribute to humanity’s future, to our understanding of the world and ourselves. But for this to happen we have to begin by taking Buddhism on its own terms. Otherwise we will miss its originality.

    Unlike philosophy though, religion is to do with here and now. People live their lives in the here and now, and they need religion for living. When it comes to religion, you seem to assume that religion is necessarily to do with a set of beliefs. You seem to treat religion as an unproblematic cultural universal. There is much literature on this. It does seem to me that my being Hindu or Buddhism is not so much to do with holding a set of beliefs. This compulsion for Buddhist modernism or humanism to work out a believable set of propositions in tune with our sensibilities perhaps comes from the need to have a particular kind of religion.

    If we do still want to look at religion as a cultural universal, we will need to produce a more universal conception. But that is, again, a philosophical task. One good example of such an attempt is by my late friend Navjyoti Singh in his essay “Role of Good Manners as a Bridge between World Religions in the Sanatana Tradition” ( in Peter Koslowski, ed., Philosophy Bridging the World Religions: A Discourse of the World Religion, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003, pp. 66-95)

    Thanks again for your sharp articulation of important issues concerning the culture of modern Buddhism.

    Avinash

    • Avinash, thanks very much your comment. The issue of religion is important. I definitely would not identify a religion with a set of beliefs, or religion more generally as a matter just of beliefs. That is a Protestant conception of religion and doesn’t work for other religions, especially for religion in the ancient world. As for whether religion is a cultural universal, that is a tricky issue. I’m inclined to think that it is, but we need to distinguish carefully between “religion” used as a scholarly term for naming and analyzing certain kinds of human practices, and whether the community itself has a corresponding concept. The community may not, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t analyze their practices using that concept from the outside to characterize them. In any case, I certainly wouldn’t say that religion is a matter of holding certain beliefs (especially reflective ones). I think of it as a matter of practices, rituals, and interpretive frameworks for understanding life’s events.

  6. “There have always been arguments showing that free will is an illusion, some based on hard physics, others based on pure logic. Most people agree these arguments are irrefutable, but no one ever really accepts the conclusion. The experience of having free will is too powerful for an argument to overrule.”
    All the experiments show that brain scans can predict—not perfectly, mind you—what a subject will do before she has become conscious of that decision. And they cast severe doubt on the notion of libertarian free will: that at a given moment we could have decided to take any number of alternative decisions. People hate these results, and try to impugn them, for they don’t like the idea that decisions are determined by the brain before we think we’ve made them….But to someone who’s science minded, determinism is the only game in town. Setting aside pure indeterminism…our choices and behaviors are the results of the laws of physics, and at any one time (leaving aside quantum factors) we could have made only one decision. If you doubt that, then you’ve bought into either the numinous, the supernatural, and mind/body dualism. Religious people, of course, are the most ardent believers in libertarian free will, because, at least in the Abrahamic faiths, you have a free choice about embracing God, Jesus, or Allah, and if you don’t you’re doomed.
    I’ve harped about the hegemony of naturalism and determinism before, and emphasized its importance in structuring society and the judicial system…I’ve also dismissed compatibilism as a semantic game constructed to ensure that people don’t become nihilisitic or depressed if they realize that they don’t have free will in the classical you-could-have-done-otherwise sense.” https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2020/04/26/a-very-short-story-on-free-will/

    • Kevin: Buddhist teachings do not contradict what you are saying. This relates to the separation of relative and absolute realities (also known as conventional and ultimate truths). If you read the following article, you will understand: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2158244015583860 ).
      This issue is also related to ‘non-self nature’ described in Buddhism (i.e., ultimately, we do not have ‘control’ – it is a matter of causes and conditions leading to other causes and conditions).

  7. Hello Evan: Thank you for being willing to debate – it shows that you have an open mind.
    I want to make the point that no matter how you label people (e.g. ‘a Buddhist modernist,’ ‘an Eudaimonist Buddhist,’ ‘a neuro-Buddhist,’ ‘a devoted Asian Buddhist who engages in rituals’), if someone takes the time and effort to genuinely understand Buddhist teachings, they would clearly understand within themselves that the teachings are not only philosophically SOUND, but are also verifiable – this ‘verifying’ is done by observing the ‘here and now.’

    Deep Buddhist teachings are difficult to understand, and as a result, not all Buddhists are able to clearly explain the teachings. This would explain why you were not convinced from meditation retreats taught by Asian teachers and from science-Buddhism dialogues. I have also noticed that teachers at ‘Mind and Life Summer Research Institute’ have only a very basic understanding of Buddhism (they seem to be obsessed with the brain though!).

    People who take the time to carefully study deeper aspects of Buddhism (by practising meditation, etc., – I am one of them!) know within themselves that the teachings are correct. Therefore, they would not bother to spend time arguing about these matters with people who appear to be confused about the teachings (and seem to be clinging to their own views/ideas about Buddhism!). I may have also considered commenting here an utter waste of time – but I do have time these days (thanks to covid-19!), and I decided to write.

    I noticed several misunderstandings in what you have written, but I decided to comment specifically on the following points:

    MEDITATION: Meditation is NOT a ritual – definitely not in the Buddhist context. Buddhist teachings explain TWO major categories of meditation. One is calming meditation and the purpose of this meditation is to quieten the mind (this involves taming the mind of its ‘monkey mind’ tendencies). Perhaps you frequently get caught up in thoughts that are related to this book you wrote, constantly proliferating about what that/this person said and even thoughts about “what if…” or thoughts about “I should have said this/that in the book” and so on. So, getting the mind to quiet down is the first category of meditation and this can be done through breath meditation, by focusing on body sensations and by many other methods. The second category of meditation is about understanding the mind (by observing the mind – this is generally known as ‘vipassana’), and a calm mind is NECESSARY in order to observe and understand the mind – this involves understanding the deeper aspects of the teachings. To understand what these deeper aspects are, you can take a look at the articles (published in academic journals) that I have referred to at the end of this comment.

    REBIRTH: I am not sure if you know that there is an OVERWHELMING amount of scientific research that supports this possibility. For example, research (conducted by Dr. Ian Stevenson, Jim Tucker and many other researchers) has carefully investigated children who remember and report past lives. In these studies, children who present with memories of previous lives are extensively interviewed and if they give specific names or locations (cities, towns), the previous life individual is traced and verified using death certificates and autopsy records, etc. They have studied thousands of such cases (there are many academic articles and books written by these researchers). If anyone wants, I can provide many academic citations that report details of such investigations.

    RITUALS: Even in modern society, various rituals (i.e., established, ceremonial acts or features) are often carried out for example at weddings, graduation ceremonies, funerals, parties, etc. These rituals help create community and mutual support, and also help make the ordinary into something extraordinary. When it comes to religious rituals, however, there is a general assumption amongst people that rituals are somehow superstitious beliefs. Regarding this, Buddhist rituals are not mere superstitious blind observations but actions that have a reflective meaning. For example, prostrating and bowing is done to show gratitude to the teachers and their teachings, and this is not different from how Westerners shake hands when they meet a dignitary, or how individuals salute when the national anthem is played. Regarding the meanings of the rituals, perfume of incense in temples is used to remind people of the pervading influence of virtue, the lighting lamps symbolize light of knowledge, and leaving flowers (that would soon fade and die) in front of the Buddha statue helps one to contemplate the universal law of impermanence. Rituals may also somewhat soften the overall teachings that are very difficult to convey in words and are hard to comprehend. Further, emotions such as faith, devotion, gratitude and reverence can calm the mind and help one develop meditation. Rituals such as bowing can also be powerful in strengthening a person’s humility and the ability to let go of self-centeredness.

    KARMA: Do you know that karma is only ONE of ‘five causal laws’? So, things like ‘why bad things might happen to good people’ do not apply. The causal laws are: physical laws, biological laws, psychological laws, volitional laws, and universal laws (this is explained in the articles I have listed at the end of this comment. They refer to karma as ‘volition’ (mental, verbal and bodily volition).

    NOT-SELF: Here, it is important to separate conventional and ultimate realities. The Buddha talked about ‘a person’ in the conventional sense, but in the ultimate sense, he explained that what we consider as a ‘being’ is only sense impressions and mental phenomena that are constantly changing with constantly changing causes and conditions. You can check out the following articles to understand this as well.

    References:
    Karunamuni, N., and Weerasekera, R. (2019). Theoretical Foundations to Guide Mindfulness Meditation: A Path to Wisdom, Current Psychology, 38(3), 627–646.

    The Five-Aggregate Model of the Mind. SAGE Open, 5 (2). Karunamuni, N. (2015).

    • Thank you, TLC, for taking the time to post these comments.

      I won’t dispute with you about your conviction that Buddhist teachings are verifiable and correct, since you’re already convinced of this. I would like to point out, however, that every religious/philosophical tradition or system says the same thing about their own teachings. Also, once one makes that kind of assertion, one can’t avoid entering into the realm of critical dialogue and debate. Buddhism has done (and has had to do) this throughout its history—with Brahminical and Jain practitioners and thinkers in South Asia, with Confucians and Daoists in China, and with Western religions and philosophies. Furthermore, this is a blog for all of Indian philosophy, not just Buddhism, so asserting the correctness of Buddhism, and by implication the incorrectness of other Indian traditions, is question-begging from their perspective.

      MEDITATION
      I am familiar with the distinction between śamatha and vipaśyanā meditation. It’s true that, speaking from within some (but not all) Buddhist perspectives, such practices may not be categorized as ritual. But speaking from the perspective of how the term “ritual” is used in anthropology and the study of religion, which is the sense I give in my post, these meditation practices definitely count as rituals. For example, mindfulness meditation practice, as described in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, is ritualistic in the sense that one engages in a practice of transforming the mind and body, by repeatedly performing certain scripted actions (observing the breath, feelings, mental states, etc.), and these repeated actions remind you of how things are (impermanent, not-self, etc.), according to a governing conceptual framework (the Buddha’s teachings, specifically Abhidhamma), which in turn you work to assimilate mentally through those very actions.

      RITUALS
      I do not think rituals are superstitious beliefs. I think they are essential to human life. I also think they are fundamentally important for overcoming self-centredness. So, my point about meditation being ritual isn’t a criticism of meditation at all. It’s rather meant to correct what I think are popular misconceptions about both ritual and meditation.

      KARMA
      You make an important point here about the different kinds of processes that operate in the physical and mental realms. Karma is only one of them. So, my statement that you’re responsible for everything that happens to you needs to be made more precise: everything in the domain of volitional act and result that happens to you is a function of your previous volitional acts. Nevertheless, this does not affect my basic point about the concept of karma arising as a way to make sense of why good and bad things happen to people in a way that appears unfair and requires explanation.

      NOT-SELF
      I’m familiar with the distinction between the conventionally existent person versus the ultimately nonexistent self. I discuss this distinction in my book (as well as in other writings). One of my complaints against “neural Buddhists” is that they often don’t understand or respect this distinction, or they forget to apply it.

      • Thank you very much for your comments.

        I would say that something OBSERVABLE is not a belief. If that was the case, science should be considered a belief. In science, students are told to observe things like how everything is made up of cells, how the water cycle works, etc. Do you call science a belief? Science is about verifiable truths. They are verifiable because scientists before them did the hard work of finding out those ‘truths.’ Similarly, the Buddha did all the hard work of finding out how the mind works etc. [it is stated that the Buddha spent aeons of lifetimes attempting to understand the truths (as a bodhisattva) and during his final lifetime, he understood these deep ultimate truths, and that is what he taught the world]. In other words, what the Buddha taught it is not a belief system, but VERIFIABLE TRUTHS.

        Since your book is about Buddhism, I am only commenting about Buddhism – others can comment on other religions if they wish to do so. However, I really do think that other religions are also pointing to the same type of truths, although they use different terminology. Buddhism however explains things very clearly, without using any beliefs.

        Regarding meditation – this practice might look like a ritual to an ignorant observer who only goes by book definitions of meditation, but if you understand what it is, it is not a ritual at all. I know about the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, and even practice it – it is not about thoughtlessly trying to follow blind guidelines – it is done with much intelligence, by asking questions and by attempting to understand things within oneself. The sutta lists calming meditation practices as well as wisdom related meditation (such as understanding the five aggregates). One can observe for oneself that we only have one thought moment at a time and how each experience (whether it is a sensory experience or a thought) is fleeting, and also observe and question where the ‘self’ is in all these constantly changing phenomena. None of these are beliefs, but attempts to understand ‘things as they are.’

        • The problem is the concepts you apply to the observations and the risk of confirmation bias in mediation. Also, Evan was clear religion is not just beliefs. He was also clear that ritual is useful. It is the conceptual exceptionalism that is the problem.

          • Hello Roy: What do you mean by “the concepts you apply to the observations”? Please clarify this. Buddhism is beyond exceptional because it systematically presents how our minds work, etc. Also, conceptually understanding things through observation (i.e., meditation), etc., is NOT blind belief – it is the method used in science as well. For example, if someone presents a theory in science, that seems plausible (e.g. continental drift, germ theory, etc.), then scientists systematically study it using observations, etc. I also suggest that you read the articles I included in a previous comment here.

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