Owen Flanagan on the core elements of a naturalistic Buddhism

Imagine Buddhism without rebirth and without a karmic system that guarantees justice ultimately will be served, without nirvana, without bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves, without Buddha worlds, without nonphysical states of mind, without any deities, without heaven and hell realms, without oracles, and without lamas who  are  reincarnations  of  lamas. What would be left? My answer is that what would remain would be an interesting and defensible philosophical theory with a metaphysics, a theory about what there is and how it is, an epistemology, a theory about how we come to know and what we can know, and an ethics, a theory about virtue and vice and how best to live….Such a total philosophy….would be what I call “Buddhism naturalized,” or something in its vicinity. (p.5)

This is how Owen Flanagan, a philosopher professor at Duke University in the U.S., described his perspective on Buddhism in his 2011 book, The Boddhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. Flanagan’s naturalistic Buddhism is quite similar to the various forms of  secular Buddhism which have emerged in recent years. One area of contention, however, is Flanagan’s belief that consciousness, the mind, is fundamentally a physical, naturalistic process which scientific observation and theory will ultimately be able to grasp. For secular Buddhists like Stephen Batchelor and Winton Higgins, such an approach fails to recognize the essentially subjective, interpretive dimension of consciousness and human experience.

Whatever the differences, Flanagan shares with secular Buddhists the project of identifying in Buddhism perspectives and practices which are relevant to our contemporary world and consistent with the latest developments in contemporary philosophy, science, and ethical theory.

Flanagan presents the core elements of a modernist/naturalistic Buddhism in an essay in a recently published book, How to Live a Good Life: Choosing the Right Philosophy of Life for You (2020). Following the traditional division of the Noble Eightfold Path into three sections – wisdom, ethics, and meditation – he lays out the ‘three strands’ of a Buddhism stripped of the metaphysical and supernatural elements of traditional Buddhism. In what follows I provide a condensed version of his account of these elements and then identify a missing component in his account.

Wisdom

Flanagan believes that the wisdom of Buddhism resides in a ‘minimal’ metaphysics and a theory of human nature. The wise insights about human experience and the world are:

  • Everything is impermanent and the world is a fragile place, pervaded by suffering.
  • One major cause of suffering is the grasping ego. When we ‘deflate’ the ego, we reduce suffering and become more attentive to the needs and suffering of others.
  • Everything is part of a great ‘unfolding’ of causes and conditions.
  • Since the opportunities to improve ourselves and the world in this process of unfolding are limited, we need to be ever mindful so that we can intervene in a creative, compassionate way to make positive changes.

Ethics

For Flanagan, the ethical element consists of four folds of the Eightfold Path. We aim to accomplish what is good without hatred, greed, or delusion (right resolve); we do work that doesn’t harm others (right livelihood); we speak the truth in a kind, helpful and timely way (right speech); and we follow the basic precepts of not killing or harming, not engaging in sexual misconduct, etc. (right action).

In addition, Flanagan contends that the four brahma viharas or four emotional tones of the awakening mind  – loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity – are crucial to human flourishing.

Meditation

Flanagan sees meditation as crucial in two respects. First, mindfulness meditation assists us in understanding impermanence and recognizing the lack of a permanent, fixed self.  ‘This might help break the grip of the idea that I am the most important thing in the universe, and the case of weird or unhealthy identification, it might help me see that I am not defined by those identifications’ (p. 20).

Secondly, other meditation techniques focused on ‘heart practices’, such as metta meditation, help us cultivate the capacity to become more ethically inclined. They enable us to become more responsive to the suffering that we all experience.

Is there anything missing?

Flanagan rightly points out that the overemphasis in North America and Europe on one strand – meditation – is because Buddhism is seen by many in the West as primarily a tool to reduce stress and relieve discomfort. From this perspective, the value of meditation is that it enables us to become more peaceful and centered in a difficult world. Buddhism’s focus narrows as it loses the wisdom and ethical dimensions. Or, as Flanagan asserts, Buddhism becomes ‘about the self, not being less selfish’ (p. 21).

That’s very true, as critics of ‘McMindfulness’ like Ron Purser have emphasized. Yet, if we want naturalistic or secular Buddhism to avoid the trap of becoming just another mode of self-help in a capitalist society, then, among the core elements, we need to recognize both the social causes of dukkha and the crucial role of communities of practitioners – sanghas – in fostering individual change and social transformation. While Flanagan’s explanation of the three strands is not inconsistent with such concerns, he doesn’t address them. This is a significant gap in his account.

In his book After Buddhism (2015) Stephen Batchelor offers ten theses that summarize his approach to secular Buddhism. Several theses are concerned with the social dimension of a secular Buddhist approach, including his view that practitioners need ‘to understand and diminish the structural violence of societies and institutions as well as the roots of violence that are present in themselves’ (p. 321).

I have previously written about this topic as part of my effort to integrate secular Buddhism with an engaged, radical activism. In ‘Core elements of a secular and socially-engaged Buddhism’ I contended that the creation of democratic sanghas should be seen as equally, if not more, important than meditation as the ‘core’ of a secular approach. Sanghas not only ‘….provide essential support for individuals to develop their own practice. In addition, they can play a crucial role in developing in sangha members the capacities and skills needed to create a society in which the flourishing of each individual is mutually dependent on the flourishing of all individuals. Such capacities include greater discernment, the ability to participate with others and make decisions democratically, and the development of increasingly broader and richer forms of mutual solidarity.’

If we want Buddhism to be more than just another stress reduction technique, which Owen Flanagan clearly does, then we not only need to see each strand as interconnected, but also recognize that individual change and social transformation are integrally linked on the Eightfold Path.


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