A review of Evan Thompson’s ‘Why I am not a Buddhist’

Evan Thompson, a philosopher of cognitive science and phenomenology, and a key facilitator of dialogues between Buddhists and scientists, has recently published a book called Why I am not a Buddhist.  The book’s title is a bit misleading in that Thompson is not claiming that Buddhism has a fundamentally mistaken view of the world or that Buddhism plays a pernicious role in contemporary society.

Actually, the opposite is the case. Thompson sees himself as a friend of Buddhism and argues that certain Buddhist insights about human experience are exceptionally valuable, including its ‘radical critique of our narcissistic preoccupation with the self’ (p. 189). He contends that the Buddhist philosophical tradition has rich insights which can contribute to the development of a cosmopolitan philosophy which facilitates diversity, cooperation, and well-being.

The problems with Buddhist modernism and Buddhist exceptionalism

The target of Thompson’s critique is instead a form of Buddhism which has become predominant in the west today: Buddhist modernism. In his view, Buddhist modernism claims to retain Buddhism’s original and essential core through its emphasis on personal meditative experience and scientific rationality while jettisoning the metaphysical and ritual aspects of traditional lineages of Buddhism.

An inherent part of Buddhist modernism is what Thompson calls Buddhist exceptionalism. This is the notion that Buddhism is superior to all other spiritual traditions and religions because it provides us with a scientific understanding of how the mind functions and thus enables us to experience the world as it really is. Unlike other religions, Buddhism is essentially a mind science whose insights are totally consistent with current developments in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, etc.

Thompson rejects the claims of Buddhist modernism and Buddhist exceptionalism on several grounds.

First, he argues that all versions of Buddhist modernism are inescapably religious, if we understand religion in the broadest sense. Like all other religions, Buddhist modernism includes a community of believers who hold certain matters as sacred and believe that there is a transcendental source of meaning to our experiences and the world. Further, Buddhist modernists think that certain meditative practices and insights can lead to the relief of suffering and, possibly, complete liberation from suffering.

In short, Buddhist modernism is not simply a science of mind but a religion with a specific understanding about how to find meaning and a soteriological theory.

Second, Thompson offers trenchant philosophical critiques of key elements of Buddhism modernism. Because he believes that ‘….Buddhist modernism is philosophically unsound, I see no way for myself to be a Buddhist without acting in bad faith’ (p. 19).

The bulk of the book is his critical analysis of the key elements of Buddhist modernism, including:

  • the identification of Buddhism with science
  • the notion of ‘not-self’ premised on the view that the self is a brain-generated illusion (what Thompson calls ‘neural’ Buddhism)
  • the belief that mindfulness provides us with an unmediated experience of reality, and
  • the concept of enlightenment or nirvana

Thompson argues that these key elements are problematic either because the claims in support of these elements are mistaken or that there is a vibrant debate among Buddhists on these issues for which no particular perspective can be assessed as the ‘truth.’

Not-self or a different notion of the self

Thompson makes many valuable points, but I particularly found useful his examination of the notion of the self. Thompson points out that Buddhist modernists assume a dichotomy between a self which is unconstructed or independent and a self which is simply an illusion, generated by habitual processes in our brains (the ‘right’ view).  Using the techniques of neuroscience, we can actually observe the neural correlates of this process of creating a false illusion of the self.

In fact, such a dichotomy is mistaken. Thompson discusses how in philosophy and science an alternative notion of the self has been developed, one in which the self is understood as a ‘….developmental and social construction and as not existing apart from experience’ (p. 108). From this phenomenological perspective, the self is a ‘multifaceted construction, made out of different kinds of self-awareness….To say that the sense of self is a construction….doesn’t logically imply that there is no self or that the sense of self is the presentation of an illusion’ (p. 113).

Further, Thompson contends that the Buddhist modernist notion of ‘not-self’ is a normative and soteriological claim, not a scientific truth of psychology. Buddhists hold as an important ethical value the need to abandon the sense of being an independent self and view such an understanding or insight as the basis for liberation from mental suffering.  In this sense, not-self is a fundamentally religious conception.

The value of cosmopolitanism

The purpose of Thompson’s critique of Buddhist modernism is not to reject Buddhism as a whole, but to identify the ways in which Buddhist perspectives can play an important role in an ongoing dialogue among all human beings about the values, facts, and theories which are essential for human flourishing. Rather than being the sole and ultimate truth, Buddhism should be seen as one of many perspectives and practices which need to be part of a conversation among diverse peoples. This conversation is one of the essential ingredients of cosmopolitanism, a philosophical perspective and ethical stance.

Thompson advocates a version of cosmopolitanism developed by Kwame Anthony Appiah in his book, Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers. Appiah’s cosmopolitanism is based on two principles: ‘….we have an obligation to all human beings….[and] each of can and should value particular human lives….’ (p. 175). The bottom line:  we should welcome and respect differences among people while we offer compassion and care to all human beings.

It’s not hard to see how the centrality of compassion, non-harm, and mindfulness in Buddhism is consistent with such an approach. What Buddhism brings to the conversation is a radical critique of how we normally view our selves and our place in the world, and how we can move away from this common self-conception.

Is secular Buddhism just another form of Buddhist modernism?

A final note. Thompson does not discuss secular Buddhism except to offer, in a footnote, a criticism of Stephen Batchelor’s efforts to reconstruct the historical Buddha’s core insights through an interpretation of texts in the Pali Canon. Does his critique of Buddhist modernism apply to secular Buddhism?

Well, that depends on the type of secular Buddhism one espouses and practices. Although secular Buddhism, or a secular approach to the dharma, is a very recent phenomenon, there is a wide range of perspectives among secular Buddhists.

Certainly, there are secular Buddhists who see their practice as closely connected to certain forms of Buddhist modernism, including Insight meditation, or to the secular mindfulness movement. Those secular Buddhists thus accept some of the Buddhist modernist notions that Thompson is critiquing.

However, Stephen Batchelor, Winton Higgins, and others (including myself) have been advocating a secular approach to the dharma which is not just the most recent version of Buddhist modernism. This type of secular Buddhism goes beyond and critiques Buddhist modernism in the following ways:

  • We don’t see secular Buddhism as anti-religious and recognize that a secular approach to the dharma includes a deep concern over values and ultimate concerns.
  • We emphasize the ways in which the ethical and pragmatic insights of the historical Buddha are guides to living a life that facilitates human flourishing. They are not metaphysical or scientific truths about the world.
  • Rather than engaging in a sterile debate about self vs. not-self, we focus on understanding the self as an embodied, social experience.
  • We are skeptical of efforts to use neuroscience to ‘prove’ the truth of Buddhism.
  • We don’t see the goal of a secular approach as achieving nirvana, understood as the unconditioned and a state of absolute non-suffering.
  • We prioritize the creation of democratic sanghas, recognizing that the path to human flourishing requires us to walk on the Eightfold Path at the interpersonal, community, and society-wide levels.
  • Finally, we understand that Buddhism is just one of several perspectives which are crucial to promoting human flourishing. Consistent with the cosmopolitanism advocated by Thompson, Stephen Batchelor has asserted that ‘A practitioner of the dharma aspires to nurture a culture of awakening that finds its inspiration in Buddhist and non-Buddhist, religious and secular sources alike’  (Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism, p. 321).

In all these ways, the secular Buddhism being developed by Stephen Batchelor and others has moved beyond the premises of Buddhist modernism and constitutes a qualitatively different approach, what Stephen has called Buddhism 2.0.  This new ‘operating system’ of Buddhism has the potential to play a key role in the conversation, dialogues, and collective practices that we need to foster human flourishing in a world united by a cosmopolitan philosophy and ethics.


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6 Replies to “A review of Evan Thompson’s ‘Why I am not a Buddhist’”

Gary Barrett

A very good review that has increased my understanding of Evan Thompson’s book. Thank you. 🙂

Voice of philosophy@jopan1

Author seems to have approached Buddhist principles the right way.

The approach of religions and science towards God in His given meaning deserves a drastic change, and if possible, a thorough scientific enquiry, as explained in the following work:http://thewhyquestionofexistenceanswered.blogspot.com/2019/08/has-life-any-meaning-and-sense-why-life.html?m=1

kdn

I read the book, and Evan Thompson seems to have an intellectual-only understanding of Buddhism. Buddhist teachings mention three levels of wisdom – first there is intellectual understanding, then contemplating based on this understanding, and then most importantly experientially understanding of the teachings within meditation. In other words, ultimate reality concepts like ‘no self’ and enlightenment needs to be understood gradually and EXPERIENTIALLY, rather than being dismissed through intellectual arguments.

We also need to remember that the Buddha did not deny the self when considering ‘conventional reality’ – he even referred to himself as a person. When considering ultimate reality, however he described the moment-to-moment manifestations that are constantly changing where an unchanging “I” cannot be found in any of these manifestations.

He also mentions a statement by Ven Nyanaponika and asks “How can bare attention reveal the mind if it also changes it?”- here, an ‘experiential understanding’ is needed to answer this: when one is attentive, one may notice that an emotion such as anxiety has arisen – this observation (as well as any resulting insight into its changing nature) has the capacity to subside the anxiety (change the anxiety). All this ‘reveals’ the mind – promoting wisdom and understanding.

Additionally ‘faith’ in Buddhism is not blind faith– it can be compared to the ‘faith’ needed to take a course in a subject like astronomy. In Buddhism, as one sharpens one’s mindfulness (ability), the more one will understand and one’s faith increases.

I could write more, but I think this is a very misleading book, especially considering that he seems to only have an intellectual understanding of Buddhism.

Sansar

Well said. Excellent points about the limitations of a purely intellectual understanding. Your point about ‘faith’ in Buddhism, which is not ‘blind faith’, is an important one.

Ratnagarbha

Clearly this book has some useful insights, and could give rise to some valuable self-awareness for many a modern Buddhist, especially regarding the hubristic idea that Buddhism has been more or less proved by science. However some aspects of Thompson’s approach are I think trying to overturn key aspects of Buddhism in order to fit in with secular views. I don’t see that as going anywhere in the long term. Specifically while it is certainly relevant to point out that a bit of mindfulness on its own will not lead to unmediated experience of reality Thompson goes too far here. The whole point of Buddhism is, in the end, to have an unmediated experience of the truth – having discarded all views as the suttas say. That is what Enlightenment is from one point of view, as well as being of course a final, unconditional end of suffering – which Evans also won’t accept. Of course he is free to reject what he sees as unhelpful and antiquated, but my argument would be that this is such a radical departure from the last 2000 years of tradition that in effect he is starting a new system altogether. Just another path of self development with bits and pieces of Buddhism, self-help psychology etc…

Secondly a word to the reviewer and to the secular Buddhist network. I find your point about not being anti-religious, while no doubt sincerely meant, seems to have peculiar not to say disingenuous implications. The revealed religions that predominate in the West still believe that their sacred book is direct revelation from god of ultimate and overriding significance for mankind . The vast majority of liberal Christians believe that the Bible is the ultimate book for mankind even if they don’t take it literally. Muslims even more so with the Quran. And I think most Hindus believe that the Vedas are the one true text for human society if you poke about a bit… And these revealed sacred texts of course concern a creator God or gods.. So these key and core values of many ‘revealed’ religions of the world are something that secular Buddhists surely can simply not agree with. Wouldn’t it be better to say that rather than trying to sound nice…!

Mike Slott

Thank you, Ratnagarbha, for your comment. Just a brief note regarding your second point. When Stephen Batchelor and other secular Buddhists, myself included, assert that we’re not anti-religious, it’s not because we’re hiding our true feelings and beliefs. Certainly, those who have a secular approach to the dharma are skeptical about beliefs in deities, transcendent processes, etc. and we are critical of the fundamentalism of most organized religions. When we say that we are not anti-religious, we are distinguishing ourselves from some secularists who advocate a militant atheism which denigrates all aspects of religion. Our purpose is not to oppose religion, but to develop an ethical, wise approach to human flourishing. Whether God exists is not the key question; many of us believe that this is an unknowable matter and take an agnostic position on it. And finally, to the extent that one aspect of most religions is to grapple with matters of ultimate concern (e.g. How should I live my life? What gives life meaning? ), a secular approach to the dharma has in common with most religions that same concern.

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