Evan Thompson has made a wonderfully detailed response to my earlier two posts that critique his stimulating Why I Am Not A Buddhist. It is a dialogue I am excited to continue. First a logistical note: I have a great deal to say in response, but I generally think that blog posts work better as relatively self-contained but relatively short pieces, so I’m going to space out my own long reply over eight posts. (All this is perhaps in keeping with Simon Critchley’s claim that the philosopher is one who takes time.) In order to stop the discussion from dragging on for too long, I will post these posts at a much more frequent interval than I usually do – three times a week, on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
To begin, I thank Thompson for his careful and thoughtful response. Its title – “Clarifying Why I Am Not A Buddhist” – is extremely apt. It shows me that there are points where I misunderstood the book’s claims, and I think the clarifications in his response make for a more fruitful debate. Above all: the book frames its critique of “neural Buddhism” in ways that did not seem to me to apply to the eudaimonic Buddhism that I hold. (Mike Slott of the Secular Buddhist Network appears to have got the same initial impression I did.) Thompson’s response makes it much clearer that he does indeed intend his critique to apply to me, and to fellow eudaimonist Buddhists like Dale Wright, Seth Segall, Ken McLeod, and possibly Slott. As a result, I think we are now much better able to dive into the real issues at hand, which I take to be crucial ones for my own philosophical project.
I framed my original two posts in a relatively general way that takes on the project proclaimed in the book’s title, looking at Buddhism as a whole, and Thompson replies to nearly all of the points I made in them. Many of these replies are well taken; I have many quibbles with them as well, but I think a lot of these quibbles are relatively unimportant. I will not attempt to address all of the points he makes; that would cause this discussion to proliferate endlessly. (Even without doing so, this post is the first of eight.) Rather, I want to focus in more depth on what I think is the core issue between us: Thompson’s rejection of the eudaimonist form of modernist Buddhism. There is more than enough to say about that issue alone. That means I will take up Thompson’s responses to my second original post and mostly leave alone the responses to my first one.)
I want to start with a part of Thompson’s approach that I am in deep sympathy with. Thompson’s injunction that we strive not to “miss (and miss out on) the radical and challenging aspects of the Buddhist tradition” is one quite dear to my heart. I think it’s important that we face with open eyes those aspects of traditions that are far from us and make us uncomfortable, as I noted in my preceding discussion of Seth Segall’s book; I had taken that to be a significant difference between Segall’s approach to eudaimonic Buddhism and mine. When we dismiss out of hand those aspects of a tradition that seem far from a modern sensibility, we run the risk of learning so little from the tradition that we might as well not have bothered. Thus I am deeply opposed to Chris Fraser’s approach to the Zhuangzi that says the Zhuangzi’s radical worldview “calls not for refutation so much as simply diagnosis of the psychological assumptions and ethical-religious beliefs on which it rests—beliefs that are no longer a live alternative for most of us today.” Maybe the Zhuangzi’s different ethical-religious beliefs should be a live alternative for us today. One way or another, it is important to wrestle with these views – to “grapple” with the “challenge that these propositions pose to our usual ways of thinking and being”, as Thompson says.
This is one of the reasons I’ve spent so much time challenging engaged Buddhism; among educated liberal anglophones who assume that political engagement is among our highest duty, I think engaged Buddhism does even more to make Buddhism “comfortable, not challenging” than eudaimonism does. The idea that maybe the highest human good is not about changing the world changed my life, and people whom I introduce it to still often find it unnerving. Buddhism made a giant difference in my life because it was so far from Western “common sense”. And I think it important to let those sorts of challenges make a difference for us.
Having said all that, one must still take a constructive position on a tradition one is learning from or identifies with, and this may well involve rejecting doctrines that previous members of the tradition have taken to be important. This is something that Buddhists have done throughout the centuries, from Nāgārjuna saying the Five Aggregates are ultimately unreal, to the Chan founder Linji saying “If you meet the Buddha, kill him”: proclamations that previous generations of Buddhists would have taken as throwing out their tradition’s core. I don’t think “conversion” is ever a wholesale phenomenon; when one newly joins a tradition, one carries over one’s preexisting ideas and must take them into dialogue with the new ones. To simply drop every preexisting idea that conflicts with one’s new tradition is, I think, an act of intellectual dishonesty that does not serve the new tradition well. So while one should not casually dismiss doctrines at odds with a modern sensibility (as I think Fraser does), one should nevertheless submit those doctrines to reflection – to grappling – and be willing to acknowledge those points at which that reflection indicates those doctrines are in fact false. I do not think, however, that to do so necessarily means moving outside the tradition.
In my case, I see myself as making two, connected, major departures from premodern Buddhism: one being the acknowledgement of worthy goals in life other than dukkhanirodha, beyond the removal of suffering, and the second being the rejection of rebirth (and therefore the reinterpretation of karma). I take both of these to be correct, and therefore good and beneficial modifications to the tradition – while still remaining open to the earlier tradition that would push me against them. In both cases I agree with Thompson that it is important to grapple with the challenges traditional Buddhism poses to our conventional ways of understanding, and in the next several posts I will explore the details of that grappling. I think the first of these modifications is in many ways a bigger and more difficult one, so I will start with it in the next two posts; after that I will turn to karma and rebirth, the modification that has formed the core of our debate so far.