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.
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."
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
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.