Monday, November 20, 2017

Buddhism is more Western than you think.

Robert Wright does a review of Adam Gopnik’s review (in the New Yorker) of Wright’s book “Why Buddhism Is True.” The whole piece is very clearly written and worth reading, and I want to pass on a few clips:
In recent decades, important aspects of the Buddhist concept of not-self have gotten support from psychology. In particular, psychology has bolstered Buddhism’s doubts about our intuition of what you might call the “C.E.O. self” — our sense that the conscious “self” is the initiator of thought and action…There is a paradox that can surface if you pursue the logic of not-self through meditation. Namely: recognizing that “you” are not in control, that you are not a C.E.O., can help give “you” more control. Or, at least, you can behave more like a C.E.O. is expected to behave: more rationally, more wisely, more reflectively; less emotionally, less rashly, less reactively.
Here’s how it can work. Suppose that, via mindfulness meditation, you observe a feeling like anxiety or anger and, rather than let it draw you into a whole train of anxious or angry thoughts, you let it pass away. Though you experience the feeling — and in a sense experience it more fully than usual — you experience it with “non-attachment” and so evade its grip. And you now see the thoughts that accompanied it in a new light — they no longer seem like trustworthy emanations from some “I” but rather as transient notions accompanying transient feelings.
There’s a broader and deeper sense in which Buddhist thought is more “Western” than stereotype suggests. What, after all, is more Western than science’s emphasis on causality, on figuring out what causes what, and hoping to thus explain why all things do the things they do? Well, in a sense, the Buddhist idea of “not-self” grows out of the belief undergirding this mission — that the world is pervasively governed by causal laws. The reason there is no “abiding core” within us is that the ever-changing forces that impinge on us — the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes — are constantly setting off chain reactions inside of us.
Indeed, this constant causal interaction with our environment raises doubts not only about how firm the core of the “self” is but, in a sense, how firm the bounds of the self are. Buddhism’s doubts about the distinctness and solidity of the “self” — and of other things, for that matter — rests on a recognition of the sense in which pervasive causality means pervasive fluidity.
…psychology has lately started to let go of its once-sharp distinction between “cognitive” and “affective” parts of the mind; it has started to see that feelings are so finely intertwined with thoughts as to be part of their very coloration. This wouldn’t qualify as breaking news in Buddhist circles. A sutra attributed to the Buddha says that a “mind object” — a category that includes thoughts — is just like a taste or a smell: whether a person is “tasting a flavor with the tongue” or “smelling an odor with the nose” or “cognizing a mind object with the mind,” the person “lusts after it if it is pleasing” and “dislikes it if it is unpleasing.”
Brain-scan studies have produced tentative evidence that this lusting and disliking — embracing thoughts that feel good and rejecting thoughts that feel bad — lies near the heart of certain “cognitive biases.” If such evidence continues to accumulate, the Buddhist assertion that a clear view of the world involves letting go of these lusts and dislikes will have drawn a measure of support from modern science.


  1. There's a book by David McMahan "The Making of Buddhist Modernism" which argues, quite convincingly, that where Buddhism appears most like Western thought, it can often be shown to have been drastically altered to fit the Western conception in advance. This has also been my area of research for some years now.

    The case of so-called "not self" is aposite. That phrase is a mistranslation and misrepresentation of the underlying Indic term, anātman. It was never about a "self", but instead a denial of the Brahmanical ātman. The ātman is a reflex of absolute being or Brahman. In other words, what early Buddhists sought to deny in their anātman doctrines was *absolute being* rather than a homonculus theory of the mind.

    And the reasoning is simple. Absolute being is associated at that time in India with permanence and unchangingness. Since experience per se is always changing, our minds cannot comprehend something that does not change. So even if there is absolute being, it is beyond our capacity to experience it or be affected by it. Absolute being is irrelevant to the Buddhist project.

    The idea that the Buddhist worldview is "that the world is pervasively governed by causal laws", is also precisely a modernist interpretation.

    Early Buddhist texts do not mention *any* laws governing the world. The world as you use the word, is seldom mentioned at all and is never characterised in any general way. But worse, the law of action and consequence (pratītyasautpāda) is not a *causal* law at all. Causality forms no part of Buddhist thought. At best our doctrines talk about *when* a cause might occur, but not how or why. The law is in fact mostly used to describe the necessary conditons for the arising and ceasing of mental activity.

    Later the doctrine is slaved to the doctrine of karma with disastrous results - a lot of metaphysical hooey. But even then the laws are conditional, not causal.

    I think McMahan has nailed it. Where Buddhism looks modern, it is in fact simply modernism in disguise. Buddhists have always been concerned to legitimise their teachings (anxiety on this score pervades our literature for 2000 years). What better way to legitimise your religion than to appropriate the mainstream and re-present it as Buddhist? Which is what we have done for 20 Centuries now.

    Part of the problem is that academia mostly takes Buddhism on its own terms and has yet to put those terms under the scrutiny they deserve. MacMahan is a pioneer in this sense, though his former teacher Robert Sharf was also critical to some extent (more narrowly focussed). But there is very little critique of Buddhism Modernism outside of complaints about the use of mindfulness as a therapy.

    I've been a Buddhist for 25 years, and was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order 12 years ago. But I've also just published my 12th peer-reviewed article on the history of Buddhist ideas (and have written more than 500 essays on my blog exploring just such issues).

  2. Fascinating points! Thanks very much for sending them.

  3. Your comments remind me of Harvey Cox's 1973 book, "The seduction of the spirit" on the Use and Misuse of people's religion.