Recently Evan Thompson released a book with the provocative title Why I Am Not A Buddhist. The book is an interesting constructive exploration that draws heavily on Thompson’s long background in the mind sciences as well as a deep engagement with Buddhist studies and Indian philosophy and culture in general. As such it is well worth a read. Perhaps not surprisingly given my own identification, however, I do not think its case against being a Buddhist is strong. In a nutshell, Thompson makes at most a case against being one certain kind of Buddhist, and there is a lot more of Buddhism to consider.
Why is Thompson not a Buddhist? He answers succinctly:
Since I see no way for myself to be a Buddhist without being a Buddhist modernist, and Buddhist modernism is philosophically unsound, I see no way for myself to be a Buddhist without acting in bad faith. That is why I’m not a Buddhist. (19)
So Thompson identifies only two ways of being a Buddhist – and rejects both. But I don’t think either rejection is sound. In both cases, he provides reason to reject only a very small portion of what he actually rejects. On the first: why can Thompson not be a non-modernist Buddhist? A few pages before he dismisses the option in a sentence: “Since I didn’t want to join a traditional Theravāda, Zen, or Tibetan Buddhist monastery, the only way to be a Buddhist was to be a Buddhist modernist.” (16) But such a claim would be startling to the millions and millions of traditional Asian Buddhist laypeople who still constitute the majority of professed Buddhists worldwide – and always have. They are neither monks nor modernists. So not to join a monastery hardly means that one cannot be a non-modernist Buddhist. (It also seems a little question-begging to frame the decision in terms of not wanting to join a monastery, since so much of the tradition identifies our desires – our wants – as the heart of our problems.)