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.