Book Review of Owen Flanagan’s “The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized”

Owen Flanagan [1], is my favorite living analytical philosopher because he writes clearly, deals with topics (theory of mind, ethics, what it means to live well) that I actually care about, is what smart would be if smart was on steroids, and has a wonderfully dry sense of humor.  He’s a Naturalist, which is to say, he eschews supernatural explanations, dislikes dualism, and is disinterested in questions that are unfalsifiable by either logic or empirical observation.  He’s not a Buddhist, but he has a keen interest in (and sufficiently deep understanding of) Buddhism, as well as recent efforts to test Buddhist claims using scientific methods.  He wonders whether Buddhism can be tamed sufficiently to be of interest to Naturalists.  He also wonders, once one has stripped Buddhism of everything supernatural or dualistic, whether what remains is recognizably Buddhist, and whether it is philosophically deep, interesting, or useful.  In other words, the same issues that interest The Existential Buddhist.  I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him speak on three separate occasions at conferences organized by the Columbia University Center for Buddhist Studies, so I looked forward to reading his new book with great anticipation.  I’ve not been disappointed.

Flanagan writes:

“Imagine Buddhism without rebirth and without a karmic system that guarantees justice ultimately will be served, without nirvana, without bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves, without Buddha worlds, without nonphysical states of mind, without any deities, without heaven and hell realms, without oracles, and without lamas who are reincarnations of lamas.  What would be left?  My answer is that what would remain would be an interesting and defensible philosophical theory with a metaphysics, a theory about what there is and how it is, an epistemology, a theory about how we come to know what we can know, and an ethics, a theory about virtue and vice and how best to live.  This philosophical theory is worthy of attention by analytical philosophers and scientific naturalists because it is deep.”


What’s left, among other things, is a metaphysic that focuses on impermanence, emptiness, selflessness, and unsatisfactoriness, and a virtue theory that emphasizes mindfulness, compassion, lovingkindness, equanimity and overcoming greed, aversion, and delusion.  Pretty good for a start.

Flanagan then goes on to explore a number of interesting questions.  What has psychological and neuropsychological research on meditation, mindfulness, Buddhism, and well-being proven at this point?  Flanagan explores this question thoroughly without the irrational exuberance that sometimes accompanies this topic, clarifying what is meant by (and how to measure and explore the relationships between) meditation, Buddhist belief and insight, and achieving Buddhist well-being and/or happiness (as opposed to other kinds of well-being and happiness).  He also explores the relationships between Buddhist, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic and contemporary Western conceptions of well-being as well as exploring the current philosophical status of the concept of virtue.

Flanagan explores whether Buddhist conceptions of virtue are either too demanding — or not demanding enough.  For example, what is really meant by impartiality when it comes to compassion?  Does Buddhism really expect Bodhisattvas to love/care as much about strangers as they do about intimates?  Imagine a situation where two houses are on fire, one containing your child, the other a stranger.  You can rescue only one. Does Buddhist impartiality really require you to flip a coin to decide who to save?  If you did just that, would you really be more virtuous than the person who instinctively chose to rescue his own child — or would you have descended into becoming inhuman?  You can see where this line of questioning leads.  On the other hand, what level of actual compassionate activity — as opposed to merely developing compassionate mental states — does Buddhism really require?  While the Bodhisattva vows to save all beings, what level of compassionate activity is required of the Arhat, or the cave-dwelling yogi?

Flanagan wonders whether the Buddhist metaphysic of emptiness/selflessness logically necessitates its ethic of compassion.  Could the realization of selflessness lead to either hedonism or withdrawal in some individuals, rather than to lovingkindness?  Flanagan also wonders whether Buddhism puts too much emphasis on compassion, and not enough on fairness.

All of these are interesting questions, well worth wrestling with.

In the end, while Flanagan decides that a naturalized Buddhism is worthy of serious attention as a prescription for living well, he’s too much of an ironic cosmopolitan to privilege Buddhism over all other prescriptive systems (e.g., Plato’s or Aristotle’s).  He’s happy to live in a pluralistic postmodern world in which all of the world’s wisdom traditions are open to learn from, and one is not obligated to adhere to one as if it were the only truth.

He concludes:

 “Cosmopolitans relish the hybridity of the world, the exhilarating anxiety that comes from  lacking confidence in any single traditional way of living and being, while at the same time being hopeful and grateful that the wisdom of the ages can accumulate into new ways of being and doing that advance the project of flourishing.  Philosophy’s contribution is to examine the great traditions of the past for useful insights into what to do now and next.  For that purpose, for going forward, Buddhism has something to offer.  Is it the answer?  Of course not.  Nothing is the answer.  This is something Buddhism teaches.”

I find myself in agreement with Flanagan — up to a point.  I share his postmodernist sensibility. It’s wonderful to live in an age when we can read Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Marcus Aurelius, the Buddha, Hillel, Rumi, Spinoza, Hume, Mill, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, James, Buber, Russell, Dewey and Wittgenstein side by side.  We are blessed by an embarrassment of riches.  Every wisdom book we consult, every novel  we read, every symphony we hear, every sunset we enjoy can teach us something new and deep about life.  Openness to learning and experience is a key to a life well lived.

On the other hand, the cosmopolitan runs the risk of dilettantism — of tasting everything but never committing to anything  —  of never exploring anything in sufficient depth.  Whatever truth lies within Buddhism is a lived truth.  The only way to understand the path is to live it — not just compare and contrast.  If you want to understand meditation, you have to meditate.  If you want to understand emptiness, it must be experienced in your bones, not just understood intellectually.  If you want to tame greed, aversion and delusion, you must work at it moment-by-moment in all its manifestations.  All this requires genuine commitment.  Committing to Buddhism doesn’t mean agreeing with all its tenets.  It doesn’t mean giving Buddhism a monopoly on wisdom or truth.  It doesn’t mean Buddhism can’t stand some improvement.  Buddhism is the ongoing work of fallible human beings — not the word of God.  Buddhism naturalized is a grand idea — but it needs to be inhabited, not just consulted.

Flanagan’s Naturalism is of a minimalist sort.  He’s not the kind of naturalist who believes all questions about the nature of reality have been answered once and for all — he just thinks that given the current status of our knowledge, Naturalism is our best bet.  I’m generally inclined in the same direction, but remain slightly more open-minded about surprising things we might still just discover about the relationship between consciousness and materiality.  I agree that dualism is nonsensical.  The trouble is, I still can’t wrap my mind around the “hard problem” of understanding qualia — how the raw feel of mental events arises as an emergent property of physical events.  The explanatory gap remains, at least for now.  Until it’s closed, I remain somewhat less committed to a Naturalist explanation.  Flanagan would probably think my agnosticism about this issue is due to failing to think things through logically enough, or giving insufficient attention to all the evidence.  Perhaps.  But I remain unconvinced.  I would agree with Flanagan, however, that the burden of proof lies with those who assert the existence of nonmaterial forms of consciousness.

That being said, I can’t recommend this book enough.  It’s thoughtful in the best sense  of the word.  It you’re a Buddhist (or someone leaning towards Buddhism) who likes to wrestle with philosophical issues, it will help you to think things through more clearly.  If you are a Buddhist who is inclined toward Naturalism, it’s always nice to find another ally.  Best of all, it’s fun to read.


Owen Flanagan

Owen Flanagan’s The Bodhisattva’s Brain (2011) is published by MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.


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  1. [1] James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy at Duke University

Everything Changes. Buddhism, too.

Glass Buddha (Susan Gott, 2011)

Religions and philosophies thrive, wither, or die according to their ability to address the existential concerns of a particular time and place.  As religions evolve, traditionalists strive to maintain ideas and practices which have lost their resonance, while modernizers strive to reinvent the religion to meet the needs of the moment.  Religions that survive over millennia manage to thread the needle between these two extremes.

Judaism, for example, evolved over time from the worship of a local semitic tribal deity, to a monotheism based on ritual animal sacrifice, to a rabbinic religion based on prayer, sacred texts, charity, and moral observance. There was plenty of in-fighting along the way between traditionalists and reformers — Hellenists vs. Maccabees, Nisnagdim vs. Hasidim, Orthodoxy vs. Reform.

Buddhism has also evolved in response to changing circumstances.  Many Buddhisms are long extinct — who remembers the Hemavatika or Rajagiriya? — while newer forms emerge with predictable regularity.  Today we honor many of the re-inventors (e.g., Nāgārjuna, Dōgen, Hakuin), but there was plenty of in-fighting along the way — Theravāda vs. Mahāyāna, Kamalaśila vs. Moheyan, Nichiren vs. Ryōkan, Wallace vs. Batchelor.

As we explore Buddhist evolution, it can be useful to examine how Buddhism has adapted — and continues to adapt — to changed existential circumstances.  We can ask,   for example, “What concerns did Buddhism address in 500 B.C.E. India?” and “What concerns does it address in the West today?”  Answers to these questions may help us understand the trajectory of Buddhism’s ongoing evolution.

Speculation about the existential concerns of a vanished culture and era is always perilous, but we can at least explore the concerns that animated the philosophical debates of that time and place.  All of the philosophical systems that emerged from the Indian subcontinent (e.g., Buddhism, Jainism, Advaita Vedanta, Yoga) were concerned with pretty much the same thing: liberation from cyclical existence.  Life was suffering, the endless cycle of rebirth was meaningless, and the doctrine of karma, based as it was on a set of Brahmanic ritual practices, had lost credibility.  The Buddha provided a way to moralize karma and elucidated a path for ending cyclical existence that resonated with his time.

Those primary concerns no longer resonate with us today, at least not in the West.  It’s not so much that a maximalist, unnaturalized view of karma and a literal doctrine of rebirth have been proven false.  It’s just that these ideas no longer have much traction.  Most Westerners are satisfied with some alternative belief of what happens after death,  either some Abrahamic version of the afterlife, or a Naturalist view of cessation of consciousness.  Since most Westerners don’t believe in cyclical rebirth, the question of how to end it is not a front-burner issue.   A Buddhism that insists on unnaturalized karma and literal rebirth as essential core teachings is irrelevant to primary Western concerns. Westerners don’t become Buddhists because they want to end the cycle of rebirth  —  they’re motivated by some other inner disquiet.  While a naturalized version of karma and a metaphorical version of rebirth can be acceptable to Westerners, they will never be the core features that motivate Westerners to practice.

What, then, are the primary existential concerns that contemporary religions/philosophies have to address to acquire relevance?  Any such list would probably include the following:

  1. Naturalism and Materialism have seriously undermined Theism’s authority.  It’s harder today to define what’s right and meaningful by relying on “God’s word.”  At the same time, Naturalism and Materialism can’t fill the void left by Theism’s demise because they can’t — on their own — address fundamental questions of meaning and goodness.
  2. Western emphases on individualism, competition, achievement, and acquisition have driven rising living standards, but have also fostered a spiritual vacuum.
  3. Technological advances have raised the specter of global extinction, but our social and political arrangements have failed to rise to the challenge. At the same time, an exponential increase in the rate of technological change is driving an increased rate of social change. How can we address the global challenges of nuclear proliferation and climate change, and how can we adapt to the rapid pace of technological and social change?
  4. The Global Village thrusts peoples with vastly different histories, concerns, grievances, and perspectives into more intimate contact, straining traditional allegiances and identifications, increasing potential conflict, and increasing demands that we be able to adopt multiple perspectives.
  5. As the problems of infectious disease and subsistence-level poverty gradually recede in importance in the developed world — albeit, much too slowly! — problems of inequality, overindulgence, and chronic disease move to the foreground.  At the same time, global inequality and the difficulty of integrating emerging societies into the established international order persist.

Does Buddhism have core features that directly address these concerns?   I think it does.

  1. Buddhism provides a non-theistic ground for defining the desirable and ethical.
  2. Buddhist teachings on impermanence, interdependence, and the constructed nature of the self resonate with Naturalist accounts of the physical world and emerging ideas from the fields of ecology and neuroscience.
  3. While a maximalist, unnaturalized view of karma with supernatural connotations rubs against the grain of Western thought, a naturalized view of karma can reinforce the reality that our thoughts and actions have consequences in terms of our character development, relations with others, and long-term well-being.
  4. Buddhism offers an effective set of tools to help people accept pain, mitigate suffering and increase their personal sense of well-being, meaning, and fulfillment.  It builds core cognitive skills of mindfulness and discernment, decreases cognitive rigidity, and helps develop internal resources.
  5. Buddhist teachings on compassion, non-identification, non-greed, non-harming, and mindful listening can help resolve conflicts within the Global Village. These same values can also facilitate the further taming and civilizing of social structures Steven Pinker has described in The Better Angels of Our Nature.
  6. Buddhist teachings on impermanence can foster resilience in the face of change, while teachings on interdependence can deepen ecological awareness.
  7. Buddhism can help the West overcome its one-sidedness.  Buddhist teachings on non-greed, generosity, and compassion counterbalance Western consumerist and acquisitive values, ameliorating economic inequality and existential emptiness.  The Buddhist cultivation of inner being balances the Western emphasis on doing and achieving, while its teachings on interdependence balance the Western over-emphasis on individualism.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the direction Western Buddhism is taking.  Its emphasis on human thriving and well-being, mindfulness, values, ethics, and social engagement   is entirely predictable.  For most Westerners, a modest meditation practice will suffice to improve their subjective sense of well-being.  While there will always be adepts who will access deeper meditative states and make greater commitments on the path of Awakening, the average Western Buddhist will most likely make do with less.  This is the way Buddhism has always been  —  One path for the householder, one for the ordinary monk, a third for the exceptional adept.

Some will be dissatisfied with a naturalized Buddhism that focuses on human well-being.  Fortunately, more traditional forms of Buddhism will still exist for them to turn to.  They’ve been around for a long time and aren’t going anywhere soon.  If Hasidic, Orthodox, Reform, and Secular Judaism can exist side by side in our modern era (as do  Liberal and Fundamentalist forms of Christianity), so can traditional and naturalized forms of Buddhism.

It’s just that most of us will opt for a Buddhism that speaks our own language and addresses our deepest concerns.


The Buddha image used in this post is my photo of a copyrighted work of art by Susan Gott, used with her permission.  

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