Last time I noted that Evan Thompson’s Why I Am Not A Buddhist does not establish a case against being a Buddhist in Asian traditions, including Asian Buddhist modernist traditions. His critique focuses instead on Western Buddhist modernists. I do count myself among the latter, so the critique is intended to apply to Buddhists like me. Yet I do not think it hits its target. Thompson’s critique, as described last time, focuses on a neuroscience-linked, supposedly empirical variety of Buddhism that he calls “neural Budddhism”, exemplified by Robert Wright and Alan Wallace. But neural Buddhism does not exhaust Western Buddhist modernism.
Many of us Western Buddhists are modernists in that we do place meditation above traditional rituals and emphasize scientific rationality – and that rationality means avoiding the supernatural elements that many would call “metaphysical”, including traditional cosmology and especially rebirth. So we fit Thompson’s definition of Buddhist modernism as what “downplays the metaphysical and ritual elements of traditional Asian Buddhism, while emphasizing personal meditative experience and scientific rationality.” But that doesn’t mean we commit the errors Thompson attributes to Wright and Wallace, with the list of “core tenets” that he provides and that goes beyond that downplaying. We may or may not subscribe to some of the tenets Thompson criticizes, but they are not core.
Rather, my own Buddhist modernism is of a eudaimonist strain, of the sort probably first articulated by a different Wright, Dale Wright, and more recently expounded in works by Seth Segall and to some extent Ken McLeod. We Buddhist eudaimonists are modernists in that we reject unscientific views – views that seem implausible given the findings of natural-scientific research. Foremost among these views, in a Buddhist context, is rebirth. Observational evidence seems to indicate that, contrary to most of past Buddhist tradition, consciousness does not survive bodily death. But while we reject rebirth, we do not reject karma, for we believe that the core idea of karma is also the core idea of eudaimonism: that an agent’s good actions and good states of character typically improve that agent’s well-being (flourishing, eudaimonia).
This is the strain of Buddhist modernism that I find most persuasive, and it is not mentioned in Thompson’s book. Thompson gives himself, or anyone else, little reason not to be this kind of modernist Buddhist, Western or otherwise. Where his critique comes closest to hitting Buddhist eudaimonism is probably on the concept of “enlightenment” (that pervasive English mistranslation of concepts like bodhi, whose Sanskrit and Pali meanings are closer to “awakening” or “liberation”). Segall, for example, says:
The enlightenment that most modern Western Buddhists really believe in is neither the cessation of rebirth, nor the complete and total end to suffering and sense desires, but the amelioration of suffering and the development of discerning wisdom regarding desire. (Segall 64, emphasis his)
Here awakening comes down to a well-being (eudaimonia) that is something of a psychological state. This part of eudaimonist Buddhism, Thompson does have some criticisms of. He claims:
the easy idea of liberation as a psychological state seems flat. Do we really need Buddhism for the idea that craving is maladaptive? Isn’t it common knowledge that to be psychologically well adjusted is to be aware of emotions and not be unduly influenced by them? (83)
I don’t think the question of whether we “need Buddhism” for the idea of psychological liberation is entirely fair. There is plenty more that we Buddhist modernists draw from Buddhism that goes well outside of Western common sense – the rejection of righteous anger, for example. Not everything in Buddhism needs to be distinctively Buddhist and only Buddhist; if it were, it would be barely intelligible to non-Buddhists at all.
My own Buddhist modernism is not strongly committed to the idea of full awakening or complete liberation from suffering – and this in part because traditional Asian Buddhisms have often likewise not been so committed in practice. For them, the ethically operational concept is karma rather than nirvana – and I am committed to a Buddhist modernism that interprets karma, rather than nirvana, in psychological (and to a lesser extent social) terms. I suspect that overall karma is considerably more amenable than nirvana to such an interpretation.
In other places where Thompson refers to such a Buddhism, he sometimes appears to rely on assertion over argument. As when he says: “Indeed, without the Buddhist religious commitment to awakening and liberation, the Buddhist ethics of knowledge has no solid philosophical basis and therefore has no power to reflect back critically on science.” (185) Neither the previous nor the following sentences do anything to justify this claim. It seems to me that it is false.
Where does all this lead us? In his last chapter Thompson urges a “conversation” between Buddhism and science. That is something I’m all in favour of. But such a conversation does not preclude one’s being a Buddhist – any more than it precludes being a scientist! Thompson rightly agrees that neither Buddhism nor science has all the answers – but given that point, how is affiliating oneself with Buddhism any less conversational, or any less cosmopolitan, than affiliating oneself with science? It seems to me that we have good reason to follow both – recognizing that there are points where they disagree, and striving to resolve those inconsistencies. I think naturalizing karma is a good example of how to do the latter and do it well.
Thompson says, “The question I would pose to Buddhists is whether they can find other ways to be modern besides being Buddhist modernists (or fundamentalists).” (189) It seems to me that this question has been answered. If “Buddhist modernists” are defined in terms of the specific tenets of “Buddhist modernist discourse” that Thompson has articulated (aka neural Buddhism), then I think that Buddhists like Dale Wright and Seth Segall and myself have already done so, and I wish Thompson’s book had paid more attention to this alternative.
All this implies to me that Thompson hasn’t offered sufficient reason to not be a modernist Buddhist. As we saw last time, he also hasn’t offered sufficient reason to not be a non-modernist Buddhist. I would like to recommend that he give both these options another look.