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 (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 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 Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 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” (Mahāpariṇirvāna 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.)