Eudaimonist Buddhist modernism and the norm of authenticity

I now finish my present reply to Evan Thompson’s response. Let us return to Thompson’s general critique of Buddhist modernism. He doesn’t “reject using Buddhist ideas in the project of ameliorating suffering and promoting human flourishing.” On that, it seems, we are in agreement. Rather, what he objects to is “the rhetoric and logic that Buddhist modernists typically use in pursuing this project.” So let’s revisit what he takes issue with in this rhetoric and logic:

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 think that I have shown how, contra Thompson’s claim, my recasting of karma is not incongruent with its traditional meanings and functions. I am aware of Buddhist tradition’s radical challenge to worldly existence, and I take it seriously, but in the end I do not accept it. I acknowledge these views of mine are an innovation and a recasting, not one that Śāntideva or the sutta authors (let alone the mysterious historical Buddha) would have accepted, even though there are continuities with those thinkers’ ideas. Nor am I a “Buddhist exceptionalist” in Thompson’s sense. So in the end, I do not think that Thompson’s critique of Buddhist modernist rhetoric and logic applies to a eudaimonist Buddhism like mine.

There is one more important point in Thompson’s response that I have not yet addressed. He rejects many varieties of Buddhist modernism, including eudaimonism, but does put forward an alternative, an apparently preferred form of modern(ist?) Buddhism. Thompson says: “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.”

What is this “norm of authenticity”? He explains it in the post as “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.” Such an ideal of authenticity sounds existentialist, and Thompson says he sympathizes with “those Buddhist modernists… who look to existential phenomenology… to understand liberation.” But I don’t think an existentialist norm of authenticity is any easier a fit with traditional Buddhism than is a psychologically oriented notion of well-being. I take existentialism to be basically a form of qualitative individualism, in that it urges one to be most authentically oneself. Indeed, to refer to what I have called qualitative individualism, Charles Taylor uses the phrase “the ethics of authenticity“.

But qualitative individualism runs smack into the Buddhist doctrine of non-self. Traditional Buddhist philosophy would tell us there is, and can be, no such thing as an authentic self. So likewise it would view a Sartrean emphasis on choice with suspicion: it is not the choice that is determinative. Insofar as choice exists at all (rather than everything being the product of determining causality), there is a right choice – to seek liberation from suffering and the craving and clinging to self that trap one in it – and a wrong one, to continue craving and clinging to the self. To make the right choice leads one to forego one’s selfhood, authentic or otherwise, and transcend it through monastic self-discipline; to choose a norm of authenticity is to remain clinging to self, and avoid a radical transformation.

Now, if you’ve been following this series so far, you know I don’t endorse the rejection of worldly life any more than Thompson does. Indeed I have deep sympathies for qualitative individualism and have looked for ways that Buddhism and qualitative individualism could be made compatible. So I am not making a deep constructive objection to Thompson’s approach here. My point is just that I don’t think his preferred approach, of following a norm of authenticity, gets us any closer to the kind of radical transformation that traditional Buddhism advocates than does a more psychologically oriented conception of well-being. The former is no less comfortable and no more challenging than the latter.

This concludes my present reply to Thompson. Since our dialogue now spans almost a dozen posts, my final post in this series will be an index collecting the correspondence in one place.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

One Reply to “Eudaimonist Buddhist modernism and the norm of authenticity”

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