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Buddhism: The Most Accurate World Religion?

Posted by Josh Rothman  August 24, 2011 11:07 PM

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Buddhism is in vogue in the West, and has been for a long time. Partly, it's that Buddhism seems "spiritual" without being too religious; it's also that Buddhist practices, especially meditation, are popularly associated with happiness, contentment, and well-being. To distracted, dissatisfied, and overworked Americans, being Buddhist is a sensible and practical lifestyle choice. Exercise, eat well, get enough sleep, and meditate.

In The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, Owen Flanagan, a distinguished philosopher at Duke, argues that this practical approach to Buddhism misses the point. Buddhism matters not just for practical reasons, but for philosophical ones. Subtract the "hocus-pocus" about reincarnation, karma, and "bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves," and you'll find a rigorous, clear-eyed account of the universe and our place in it -- an account, in fact, designed to satisfy even the most ardent modern-day materialist. Buddhism matters, in other words, because it's actually right.


The Zen monk Hsuan Hua.
Flanagan isn't talking about Buddhism as it's actually practiced around the world, in a bewildering array of different traditions. His subject is "Buddhism naturalized" -- that is, Buddhism stripped down to a core set of philosophical (and, crucially, non-supernatural) claims. Naturalize Buddhism, and you're left with a basically materialist, deterministic view of the world. If it existed, the "Buddhist Credo," Flanagan writes, would be something like: "I believe that everything is impermanent, that everything (including my state of mind) is subject to the principles of cause and effect, and that given that I am among the things-that-there-are, I am impermanent and subject to the laws of cause and effect." Physicists, biologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists would agree; today, it's a scientific fact that human beings live in a material, determined world, and are themselves determined and material.

In the Western tradition, materialism and determinism have been cause for despair. Buddhism is useful, Flanagan argues, precisely because it's undaunted by them: It actually takes this world-view as its starting-point, and then goes on to ask moral questions about how we ought to behave in an impermanent, materialist, determined universe. In fact, in the Buddhist world, materialism and determinism can be morally informative. You have to work pretty hard, through meditation and study, to accept the materialist reality. But, once you have accepted it, you understand that you aren't as important or permanent as you think you are -- that, in a fundamental sense, your self or soul doesn't really exist in any lasting way. (That's a conclusion, incidentally, shared by Western philosophers like John Locke and Derek Parfit.) This, in turn, suggests a moral idea: that satisfying your own personal needs and wants shouldn't be your number-one priority. Instead, you should focus on projects that benefit everyone, and work to become more kind and generous to your fellow human beings.

The real value of Buddhism, Flanagan thinks, is that it finds moral meaning in our material world. That, he points out, makes our Western obsession with "happy" Buddhists seem pretty shallow by comparison. Buddhism isn't about being happy, but about seeing the world as it is, and figuring out how to respond to the facts responsibly. Our Western moral systems, upended by the Scientific Revolution, are still figuring out how to do that -- but, for Buddhists, there was never anything to upend. In fact, Flanagan argues, Buddhist tradition records 2,500 years worth of "experiments in living" with materialism. In philosophical, spiritual, and practical ways, it shows the way to a morally meaningful materialism: towards a way of life in which recognizing the truth -- "that I am a selfless person metaphysically" -- can reveal "that I have reason to be less selfish morally."

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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