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.)