Why is Evan Thompson not a Buddhist? (1)

Recently Evan Thompson released a book with the provocative title Why I Am Not A Buddhist. The book is an interesting constructive exploration that draws heavily on Thompson’s long background in the mind sciences as well as a deep engagement with Buddhist studies and Indian philosophy and culture in general. As such it is well worth a read. Perhaps not surprisingly given my own identification, however, I do not think its case against being a Buddhist is strong. In a nutshell, Thompson makes at most a case against being one certain kind of Buddhist, and there is a lot more of Buddhism to consider.

Why is Thompson not a Buddhist? He answers succinctly:

Since I see no way for myself to be a Buddhist without being a Buddhist modernist, and Buddhist modernism is philosophically unsound, I see no way for myself to be a Buddhist without acting in bad faith. That is why I’m not a Buddhist. (19)

So Thompson identifies only two ways of being a Buddhist – and rejects both. But I don’t think either rejection is sound. In both cases, he provides reason to reject only a very small portion of what he actually rejects. On the first: why can Thompson not be a non-modernist Buddhist? A few pages before he dismisses the option in a sentence: “Since I didn’t want to join a traditional Theravāda, Zen, or Tibetan Buddhist monastery, the only way to be a Buddhist was to be a Buddhist modernist.” (16) But such a claim would be startling to the millions and millions of traditional Asian Buddhist laypeople who still constitute the majority of professed Buddhists worldwide – and always have. They are neither monks nor modernists. So not to join a monastery hardly means that one cannot be a non-modernist Buddhist. (It also seems a little question-begging to frame the decision in terms of not wanting to join a monastery, since so much of the tradition identifies our desires – our wants – as the heart of our problems.)

More could surely be said about that point, but the bulk of Thompson’s critique is focused on Buddhist modernism, and I consider myself a modernist Buddhist to at least some extent. So let us turn there. Notice first that in Buddhist modernism as in other kinds of Buddhism, Thompson explicitly ignores much of Asia:

Although the context of my critique is Buddhism in the modern world, the scope of my critique is Buddhist modernism, or more precisely, Buddhist modernism in Europe and North America, since Asia is evolving its own unique forms of Buddhist modernism. My critical arguments apply to European and American Buddhist modernism, not to every form of Buddhism or Buddhism as a whole. (20-1)

But this will not do! If Thompson’s “critical arguments apply to European and American Buddhist modernism”, then even if those arguments are every bit as successful as he wants them to be, they will necessarily still fail to show that “Buddhist modernism is philosophically unsound”, since they will not have shown this about Asian Buddhist modernism. Just as one can be a non-modernist Buddhist without being a monk, one can also be a modernist Buddhist in a way that – effectively by Thompson’s own admission – he has not shown to be philosophically unsound.

Even within “European and American Buddhist modernism” (a curious phrasing from someone who lives and teaches in Canada), the scope of Thompson’s critique turns out to be quite limited. He defines Buddhist modernism as “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.” (15) But the actual critique he offers of Buddhist modernism – what supposedly makes it philosophically unsound – does not actually address a large portion of even the European and American forms of Buddhist modernism thus defined (or the Canadian or Australian).

Thompson says this of “Buddhist modernist discourse”:

Its core tenets—that Buddhism is a “mind science”; that there is no self; that mindfulness is an inward awareness of one’s own private mental theater; that neuroscience establishes the value of mindfulness practice; that enlightenment is a nonconceptual experience outside language, culture, and tradition; and that enlightenment is or can be correlated with a brain state—are philosophically and scientifically indefensible. (188-9)

First of all, one of these tenets is not like the others. Most of these tenets are framed in a modern Western vocabulary that classical Indian Buddhists would not understand without significant translation work, and distinguish modernist Buddhism – or rather a certain Western strain of it – from the classical. But the tenet that there is no self, of course, is nothing of the sort. That idea goes back thousands of years and permeates the entire surviving Buddhist tradition, modernist and otherwise. It has had countless philosophical defenders. It may well be wrong – I go back and forth on it myself – but it is hardly “indefensible”!

But leave that curious point aside. More importantly: the other tenets on Thompson’s list are not the core tenets of “Buddhist modernist discourse”, or even of “Western Buddhist modernist discourse” – even as Thompson himself has defined it. They are core to just one strain of Western Buddhist modernism, which Thompson calls “neural Buddhism” and which he associates with writers like Robert Wright and Alan Wallace. Neural Buddhism takes the Wilberian position that the core of Buddhism is in the replicable experiences of meditative practice, such that, as Wallace says, Buddhism’s “theories have allegedly been tested and experimentally confirmed numerous times over the past twenty-five hundred years, by means of duplicable meditative techniques” – and, Wright and others claim, they are also confirmed by modern neuroscience.

One sees why Thompson targets neural Buddhism, for it appears he once believed it himself. Thompson says his earlier coauthored book The Embodied Mind had “argued that cognitive science supports the Buddhist no-self view”, and now he thinks things are more complex. (87) And Thompson’s critique lands most strongly when directed at this view he once shared. He rightly claims:

Contrary to neural Buddhism, the status of the self, the value of meditation, and the meaning of “enlightenment” aren’t matters that neuroscience can decide. They’re inherently philosophical matters that lie beyond the ken of neuroscience. (19)

I agree with Thompson on these points for the most part. But Buddhist modernism, even within the West, goes well beyond neural Buddhism. That, I think, is why Thompson’s critique of Western Buddhist modernism fails to land. I will explain what I mean next time.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

5 Replies to “Why is Evan Thompson not a Buddhist? (1)”

  1. Thank you, Amod. I see why you want to engage with the issue. However, as you rightly noted, the title of the book is mostly “provocative” and its main thesis (unless I am missing something) is not that one cannot be a Buddhist today, but rather that the claim that Buddhism is supported by neurosciences, is unsound. Buddhism, he explains, has obtained a priviledged position among religions, as if its basic claims could be empirically verified. However, religious claims belong to a different universe of discourse as scientifically verifiable ones.
    Don’t you think that this is the real point of the book? In this sense, your last quote is very much to the point.

    • I think you’re right that the bulk of the book is devoted to proving something different from what its title implies. That said, Thompson does assert the title as a thesis “I see no way for myself to be a Buddhist without acting in bad faith” – and I think that’s what most deserves a response.

      I did consider writing about the idea of “Buddhist exceptionalism” that you discuss here, but overall I found it less interesting. I have continued to find the category of “religion” unhelpful for reasons I’m sure you’re familiar with by now. I agree with Thompson that it’s not helpful to say Buddhism is not “a religion like the others”, but I think it’s equally unhelpful to say as he does that Buddhism is “a religion like the others”. I prefer to employ the more MacIntyrean notion of a tradition of inquiry, which would include Theravāda Buddhism and Augustinian Christianity alongside Darwinian biology, Einsteinian physics and functionalist sociology, leaving “religion” out of the picture.

      Where I agree with him more – as I note at the end of this post –is that a lot of the important questions don’t come down to what is testable by psychological science. But those questions themselves include questions of epistemology and metaphilosophy, whether or not they fit within what might be called “religious”.

  2. I like how you summarize that Thompson identifies only two ways of being a Buddhist!! I agree this is very limited. I would add that although we have our “own private mental theater” (as stated by Thompson), our mental theaters follow a pattern, and operate based on our greed, hatred and ignorance. To come out of this, one has to see the three characteristics of existence through meditation and contemplation (i.e., develop wisdom and “see things as they are”). In other words, Buddhism goes beyond intellectual thinking although intellectual thinking can guide wisdom, as explained in the following article:

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

  3. Thomson is playing to the script of David Hume, who rejected both the occult science of the Ancients. and the new quantitative or mechanistic philosophy, so clearing the stage for his skepticism. The tyranny of that script over contemporary academic life saw me out of it. So it’s refreshing to hear it questioned, and in the name of intellectual culture rather than doctrine.
    You are quite right, Amod, to highlight the Wilber connection. He picked up the script as Freud read it from Brentano in correspondence with JS Mill, and made a fortune out of playing up the facile psychologism. All this is now reinvented or hypermodernised as The Fourth Industrial Revolution, aka Heuwei hardsell, which adds a certain urgency to the debate.

  4. Pingback: Clarifying Why I Am Not a Buddhist: A Response to Amod Lele (guest post by Evan Thompson) – The Indian Philosophy Blog

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