Cherry Picking the Bodhi Tree: A Response to Lele (Guest Post by Evan Thompson)

Why I Am Not a Buddhist is mainly a philosophical critique of Buddhist modernism. I criticize certain widespread misconceptions about Buddhism, and about religion and science, that Buddhist modernists promote. My aim is to spark better conversations about these topics among Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. I thank Amod Lele for undertaking such a conversation in his original posts about the book and his subsequent ones replying to my response.

Here I would like to summarize and assess how things stand in our conversation from my perspective.  

Lele’s main point in his eight-post reply is that my critique of Buddhist modernism doesn’t apply to his form of eudaimonistic Buddhism. As he says, he doesn’t accept Buddhist exceptionalism (the idea, prevalent in Buddhist modernism, that Buddhism is uniquely rational and empirical among the world’s religions), he rejects the idea that empirical science can establish the normative validity of eudaimonistic Buddhism, and he doesn’t try to put his novel and modern Buddhist ideas into the mouth of the so-called historical Buddha. So, his eudaimonistic Buddhism doesn’t suffer from these Buddhist modernist faults. In addition, he acknowledges and values the radical and challenging aspects of the Buddhist tradition, though he doesn’t accept them all.

I agree with Lele about all of this. Bringing these points about eudaimonistic Buddhism into clear view is a useful upshot of our conversation.

Nevertheless, significant disagreements between us remain. Lele describes his recasting of Buddhist concepts as congruent with their traditional meanings, whereas I see him as cherry picking and eliding incongruities. Cherry picking Buddhist sources and eliding incongruities between traditional understandings and modern revisions of Buddhist concepts are typical Buddhist modernist traits. For this reason, I see Lele’s eudaimonistic Buddhism as still falling within the scope of my critique.

Our disagreements are especially evident in our exchange about karma, so I’ll focus on that part of the conversation.

I assert that the problem of accounting for why bad things happen to good people lies at the core of the formation of the concept of karma. Lele states, however, that the core of an ethical or philosophical concept isn’t to be found in its origins (the reasons for its initial appearance) but rather in how the concept functions in ethical or philosophical texts. In addition, the ethicized idea of karma (good mental actions lead to good outcomes, and bad mental actions lead to bad outcomes) first appears in the context of answering the question of what happens to a person after death (Bhadārayaka Upaniad 4.4.5; Olivelle 1998, p. 21). In short, Lele says I’m wrong about how we should go about determining the core of the concept of karma, I’m wrong about its core function in traditional Buddhist philosophical texts, and I’m wrong about the question behind the concept’s formation.

Let’s start with the concept of karma in Buddhist philosophical texts. Lele claims that its core is eudaimonistic, whereas I think it’s eschatological. Eschatology in general and karmic eschatology in particular are concerned with rationalizing why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. According to karmic eschatology, in the long run—in the next life—people will receive the good results of their good actions, and the bad results of their bad ones. Without this eschatological core, the eudaimonistic aspect of karma—that good mental actions bring about good results—has no warrant and motivation for traditional Buddhist philosophers. This is abundantly clear in Śāntideva.

Lele cherry picks Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra (Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life). Śāntideva holds (1) that good actions develop good habits that make our lives go better, and bad actions develop bad habits that make our lives go worse; and (2) that developing such habits is what results in better and worse rebirths. Lele proposes to drop (2) and retain (1). But if our aim is to give a coherent reading of Śāntideva, this kind of cherry picking won’t work. The main reason is that, for Śāntideva, (1) requires (2) for its warrant and motivation. In other words, without the backdrop of the karmic eschatology, the belief that good actions make things go better in this life is not sufficiently supported. Rather, its warrant and motivation drain away.

For Śāntideva, this life is one in a beginningless series, in which everyone has been related to everyone else in countless ways. This rebirth cosmology underwrites the mind-expanding Mahāyāna narrative in which all beings strive over countless aeons to be happy and every sentient being has been your mother. This narrative is powerful, inspiring, and motivating. It gives you the strength to counteract anger with compassion and to recognize your own faults. Thus, in chapter 6 on the virtue of patience (the chapter from which Lele quotes), Śāntideva writes: “In the past, I too have inflicted such pain on sentient beings; therefore, I, who have caused harm to sentient beings, deserve that in return./Both his weapon and my body are causes of suffering. He has obtained a weapon, and I have obtained a body. With what should I be angry?” (6:42-43; Wallace & Wallace 1997, p. 66). Towards the end of the chapter, Śāntideva adds: “since my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life, I should long for him like a treasure discovered in the house and acquired without effort” (6:107, Wallace & Wallace 1997, p. 73). (Crosby and Skilton’s translation has “enemy” instead of “adversary.”)

These statements, and the metaphysical and normative framework they express, give you a way to understand and respond to all the bad things that happen to you in this life, even if they seem undeserved. The passage helps you to reappraise them as being also good things. They give you an opportunity to practice forbearance and compassion, which are inherently good, and thus make your life internally better. When you cultivate these virtues good consequences will accrue to you, if not in this life, then in a future one, so eventually your life will also be externally better. Most importantly, the bad things are also good things because they give you an opportunity to arouse bodhicitta, the mind that strives to awaken, and to practice the perfections that constitute the bodhisattva path.

In these ways, for Śāntideva, the karmic eschatology supports and permeates the conviction that good habits make our lives go better. Remove that eschatology, and his philosophical arguments fall apart.

Let me turn now to the question of how we should determine the core of a concept. Lele’s method is exegesis of philosophical texts. In my view, this isn’t the right method for a concept like karma. Trying to determine the core of the concept of karma by looking at how the concept functions in Buddhist philosophical texts by Śāntideva or Vasubandhu or Dharmakīrti is like trying to determine the core of the concept of God by reading Anselm or Thomas Aquinas. You get rarefied, intellectual abstractions, Buddhological or theological, as the case may be. Of course, these abstract conceptions are meaningful for their respective intellectual traditions and for philosophy more generally. But only intellectuals, especially philosophers and theologians looking at things from inside their own tradition, would mistake such abstractions for a concept’s concrete, functional, and living core.

In the case of god concepts, we have evidence from anthropological and cognitive scientific studies of Hindus and Christians that people don’t adhere to “theologically correct” conceptions when they think about gods or God in relation to the world and their own lives—when they reason about divine intervention, for example (Barrett & Keil 1996; Barrett 1999). Studies of how people think about karma—about what it is and how it relates to their own lives—provide similar evidence (White et al. 2017; White et al. 2018; White & Norenzayan 2019). In other words, there are generally large gaps between one or another preferred theological or philosophical rendition of a religious concept and its actual psychological and social instantiations.

For these reasons, textual exegesis and philosophical analysis are inadequate for understanding the driving core—the beating heart and lifeblood—of concepts like karma, God, salvation, liberation, awakening, and suffering. Instead, we need analyses of concepts that are genealogical—that trace a concept’s origins and conditions of possibility—as well as studies from cognitive science and anthropology of how concepts actually function psychologically and socially. In the case of karma, such studies indicate that the concept is fundamentally a way to handle the problem of why bad things happen to good people and vice-versa (White et al. 2017; White et al. 2018; White & Norenzayan 2019).

It’s important, in this context, to distinguish between inside versus outside perspectives on religious or soteriological concepts, or between “descriptivist” versus “redescriptivist” accounts of religious discourse (to use Brent Nongbri’s terms). If we’re talking from a position inside the Bhadārayaka Upaniad and our aim is to describe what the text says (or takes itself to be saying), then we should say that the sage Yājñavalkya presents an ethicized concept of karma in answer to King Janaka’s question about what happens to a person after death. Nevertheless, from a position outside the world of the text, using historical, anthropological, and cognitive scientific methods and evidence, we can redescribe the text as grappling with the question of why people are born into strikingly different fortunate and unfortunate circumstances, and why people experience strikingly different fortunes and misfortunes in their lives. This is the question that the ethicized idea of karma is supposed to answer.

This line of thought is why I linked to Obeyesekere’s book Imagining Karma in my earlier response to Lele. Obeyesekere explains how the ethicized concept of karma, due to its origins, formation, and cultural and historical conditions of possibility, is fundamentally an eschatological concept.

So, for the reasons just mentioned, I stand by my claim that the underlying question that drives the formation of the concept of karma is why bad things happen to good people (and good things happen to bad people).

What happens if you wish to reject the eschatological core of the concept of karma while preserving the concept’s eudaimonistic aspects? If you’re a Buddhist who doesn’t find rebirth credible but wishes to keep the idea that there is a relationship between cultivating good mental states, bringing about good consequences, and helping others to do the same, then you face a very difficult problem with the concept of karma. You don’t automatically get eudaimonism when you remove rebirth from the karmic eschatology, as you would if the core of the concept were eudaimonistic. On the contrary, precisely because the core is eschatological, you wind up having to invent what is in effect a new concept. (In my view, this is what Dale Wright does.) You also have to advance additional reasons to justify eudaimonism in the face of other options, such as recasting karma in consequentialist terms, as Mark Siderits and Charles Goodman do. One reason philosophers disagree about how to articulate Buddhist ethics today is precisely because there is such a profound incongruity between the concept of karma, central to traditional Buddhist ethics, and typical, modern academic sensibilities.

Buddhist modernists need to face facts. Are you cherry picking what you like and rejecting what you don’t like? Then don’t claim to be congruous with your sources. Or do you want your revisionist project to be congruous with the tradition? Then don’t cherry pick. Trying to have it both ways is another example (among the many others detailed in my book) of how Buddhist modernists want to have their cake and eat it too.

The last point I wish to make concerns the idea of authenticity. In my earlier response to Lele I wrote: “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.” Please note that this sentence is conditional. It also doesn’t deny conceiving of liberation as entailing a change to those aspects of the human mind on which psychology focuses, but rather says that this focus is limited.

Lele responds that an existentialist norm of authenticity doesn’t fit more easily with traditional Buddhism than does a psychological notion of well-being, because authenticity conflicts with the Buddhist doctrine of non-self: “Traditional Buddhism would tell us there is, and can be, no such thing as an authentic self.”

But the version of authenticity I’m mentioning isn’t Sartre’s or Charles Taylor’s. It’s Keiji Nishitani’s and Stephen Batchelor’s Zen-influenced version, which is conceptualized precisely in terms of the realization of non-self. It’s also not strictly speaking correct that traditional Buddhism tells us there is and can be no such thing as an authentic self, because, for example, the Mahāyāna “Great Final Nirvana Sutra” (Mahāpariirvāna Sūtra) states that all sentient beings possess the Buddha nature and that Buddha nature is the self. Here everything turns on exactly what we mean by “self.”

Finally, when I introduce authenticity, I describe it as a facing up to the question 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.” Lele himself describes just such a moment in his own life when he writes, “sitting in the waiting room of a cancer clinic, I suddenly realized that if I was to have a chaplain to help me face death, I would want that chaplain to be a Buddhist.” So, although Lele may not mention authenticity explicitly, he embodies it.

Thanks again to Lele for continuing the conversation and to 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.

5 Replies to “Cherry Picking the Bodhi Tree: A Response to Lele (Guest Post by Evan Thompson)”

  1. I agree with the gist of this and yet doubt that people can be argued out of their faith commitments with our cog-biases being what they are, and more generally take this ” we have evidence from anthropological and cognitive scientific studies of Hindus and Christians that people don’t adhere to “theologically correct” conceptions when they think about gods or God in relation to the world and their own lives” even further as I don’t think that people are rule-driven/principled so that even their idiosyncratic/unorthodox reasoning/justifications (often after the fact, almost never before) aren’t uniform/predictive, brings into question whether it’s really valuable at the level of explanation/description to talk about say “Buddhism” or “Christianity” per say or better to avoid reification/misplaced-concreteness and talk along the lines of what people to in the name of?

  2. Imagine you were a Eudaimonist. You believe or find value in the concept of “the good life,” and judge that this should serve as your guide for how to live in this world. Granted, this concept and its historical expressions – Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, Plato, Aristotle, etc. – arose in the ancient Greek world. But there’s something to be said for Buddhism being akin to these systems of thought, for after all, the Noble Eightfold Path is also a roadmap for how to live. And, if you believe Christopher Beckwith’s account in his book “Greek Buddha,” there’s a strong relationship between Pyrrhonian Skepticism and early Buddhism.

    Now, say you wish to live the Good Life, how are you to go about this? In my estimation, one place to begin would be to look at historical precedent.

    But perhaps there’s already pushback against this decision. Perhaps, if you’re a philosopher you say, “You should let thought itself guide you into the logically necessary position.” Or, if you’re a neuroscientist, you might say, “We should first and foremost understand the brain and what this tells us about ourselves.”

    There are other possible contrary positions, but the point I wish to make is that you need a framework – philosophical, scientific, or otherwise – that allows you to express the concept of Eudaimonia as a coherent system that addresses living in all of its complexity and nuance.

    Without such a framework, you’re left with an empty signifier. Eudaimonia, “the good life,” is without explication.

    As I wrote above, I believe ancient traditions offer this, though I’d note that these traditions cannot possibly be accepted “as is” because modernity offers a radically different context than previous eras. (For more on this argument, see a letter I wrote to a friend here: https://letter.wiki/conversation/747).

    In my estimation, the question becomes, if you wish to use ancient traditions as a means of expressing Eudaimonia, then how do you avoid the pitfalls of scientific-reductionism and deconstructionism (the latter being a rigorous logical and skeptical argumentation against a belief system)?

    Both invalidate “as is” traditions. Such arguments are probably familiar to many of us, and many of us likely find them convincing.

    That invalidation is where Evan Thompson seems to dwell most fully, while Amod Lele seems concerned with Eudaimonia, for which he’s turned to Buddhism as the fullest, most adequate expression – or at least, that which is most suited to his character.

    In Lele’s case, as far as I can tell, it’s ok for him to “cherry pick” and re-express traditional Buddhism because his ultimate goal is to express Eudaimonia, not to be a traditionalist, nor to “escape karma” and “attain liberation” – in the traditional eschatological sense of these phrases.

    Rather, such concepts are open to progressive and even radicalizing reinterpretations that suit our particular zeitgeist; Lele will conserve whatever he believes worth conserving, and what suits the demands made by his analysis of Eudaimonia.

    Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu makes an observation in “Buddhist Romanticism”: that many who follow this modern admixture of Buddhism combined with German Romantic sensibilities are first and foremost Romantics, and secondarily Buddhists. This is to say, they use Buddhism to express their Romanticism. I believe this is a fundamentally sound point.

    With this in mind, I might charge that Lele is first and foremost a Eudaimonist who’s taken Buddhism to express Eudaimonia. If so, I don’t believe that he can be faulted. The reason is, Eudaimonia is a concept that only has meaning within an expressive framework, such as what Buddhism can provide.

    His task now is to explicate a system of Buddhist-derived terms, thoughts, and connections, in order to express Eudaimonia, especially in the weird time that we all live within. I personally celebrate this effort, and have already benefited from his work.

    True, Buddhism is not necessary for Eudaimonia, but it is sufficient. I sense that some of this argument is Thompson arguing for Buddhism’s lack of necessity, and Lele arguing for its sufficiency for expressing Eudaimonistic concerns. If this is correct, then there might not be as wide of a disagreement between these two thinkers as we might otherwise suppose.

  3. As I see it, Buddhism is not about arguing and arguing regarding who said what and who is right, but about silently observing how causes and conditions lead to other causes and conditions, and also how every experience (representing the five aggregates) constantly arise and cease. These core teachings can be understood by ANYONE – regardless of the label one would assign them – a ‘Buddhist modernist,’ ‘an Eudaimonist Buddhist,’ ‘a neuro-Buddhist,’ ‘a devoted Asian Buddhist’ and so on.

    Also, as I see it, Buddhist teachings are exceptional and verifiable – and we shouldn’t forget that the Buddha himself advised people not to accept his teachings blindly, but to examine everything (including his teachings) carefully, in the way a goldsmith would analyze impurities in gold. In this sense, Buddhist teachings go beyond science – because science is currently ‘stuck’ in materialism and considers the mind to be inside the head, etc.

    With practice and deeper understanding, I have noticed that specific teachings of the Buddha that I previously thought of as “does not make much sense” has begun to make a lot of sense. So, for people who keep arguing about Buddhism, I would give the simple suggestion of taking the time to practice the teachings. The Buddha also talked about how we cling to views (attach as “my view” which is superior to “your view”) due to our ignorance, instead of understanding how views themselves originate through our past conditionings.

    Regarding sources, I would suggest sticking to the Pali Cannon, which many agree represent the earliest known teachings of the Buddha – I too find these early teachings to be very useful.
    Evan also seem to be confusing conventional and ultimate realities when discussing the “self.”

  4. Although I have not yet had a chance to read Evan’s book, I have greatly enjoyed these exchanges between Evan and Amod.

    I was reflecting on my own reasons for not personally identifying as a Buddhist, and it occurs to me that it has less to do with any particular beliefs and more to do with my non-membership in any Buddhist communities. After all, there are members of Buddhist communities who don’t believe in rebirth (like Stephen Batchelor) and there have been Buddhists who believe in persons (the much-maligned Pudgalavādins). As I think Amod pointed out somewhere many traditional Buddhists believe all sorts of things not found in the classical Buddhist texts discussed on this blog.

    I was thinking about Amod’s personal story about why he is a Buddhist (i.e., wanting a Buddhist chaplain at the hospital), and I reflected on my own story about when I finally gave up on the issue of whether or not I was a Buddhist (a question that had consumed me for a long time). Over a decade ago, I was participating in a Buddhist retreat, which was a very nice retreat, but I realized that this was simply not for me. While I found the community perfectly nice and I in no way begrudge others for wishing to be part of such communities, I realized I had little personal investment in belonging to it.

    If you consider that the sangha is one of the things in which a Buddhist traditionally takes refuge, the lack of desire to be part of a sangha seems like a reason in itself not to be a Buddhist. (I once talked to a person who claimed they were a Buddhist but had no interest in taking part in any Buddhist communities, which I found much odder than someone claiming to be a Buddhist but not believing in rebirth.)

    So, while I have been deeply philosophically influenced by Buddhist philosophy and I think we can all learn a lot from engaging with Buddhist texts and ideas, I do not claim to be a Buddhist.

    But this isn’t just about me. One tenet of modernism (that Amod or Evan may have discussed) seems to be that religion is primarily about one’s personal beliefs (an idea probably born in the West from the Reformation and the Enlightenment). But in pre-modern religious contexts and in fact in many contemporary religious contexts, community membership is equally, if not more, important than what one happens to believe.

    Of course, the concept of “belonging to a community” probably usually involves beliefs of some kind, but I think philosophers tend to over-intellectualize religious commitments. One’s membership in a religious community is not *only* about beliefs, which I think is something Amod was getting at.

    So I think I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with something like Evan’s thesis for something like Amod’s reasons!

    • Good points about the importance here of community membership, Ethan. Thanks for this.

      Important to our classical thinkers, including the Zen Buddhists, who seem to be our example of innovative adopters who are still authentically Buddhist, was the notion of discipleship. Or, slightly less than that, but still relevant, committed participation in the community.

      I’m still mulling over the tensions between “cherry-picking” and what we’d consider more legitimate ways that inheritors of a tradition, especially philosophers, take what they see as essential while sometimes ignoring other features.

      While I understand the old charge of “cafeteria-style religion” that may be easily cast at 60’s style syncretism, we don’t mind (and indeed find it attractive) when our heroes in the classical Indian scene incorporate elements of opposed traditions to innovate in their own, or when they challenge inherited siddhantas to innovate.

      Thanks again to Evan and Amod for this longer discussion.

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