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

Owen Flanagan [ref] James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy at Duke University [/ref], 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.


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

  1. The hard problem of consciousness is a side track here, but gets me often excited when someone writes about it.

    The thing that has always bugged me on functionalism theory of consciousness is that it is relative to a conceptualization of the physical system. There is no natural conceptualization. Given a stone, one can postulate on it an almost infinite number of potential conceptualizations following “the right” dynamics, at least briefly. According to functionalism, then, any stone with any thermal motion of its molecules has numerous momentary mental states and qualias, all the time. Functionalism is not natural at all.

    Unless the whole setup of assigning consciousness to material systems is somehow flawed, and if functionalism is ruled out, consciousness must then be a fundamental property of matter, the substance itself. (This line of thought probably follows Searle and Chalmers somewhat closely, I’ve read neither in detail.) Not much more can be said, except that a lot of options are left open. The theory of the substance itself is problematic, for all interpretations of quantum mechanics are somehow weird from the naturalistic point of view. (The multiverse approach may be not, but there Occam has surely lost his razor…)

    1. Janne,

      Solving the hard problem is above my pay grade. I think (although I am not sure of this) that Flanagan would not think of consciousness as a fundamental property of elementary particles or strings but as an emergent property that only arises at a certain level of complexity within certain systems. I’m sure he would also say that it’s useless to speculate as to whether stones experience qualia (how would one test such a claim?), but that common sense would suggest that there is no particular way that it feels like to be a stone. (Of course, one could bypass the question of consciousness altogether and just discuss the levels of information contained within a system — but that’s cheating, as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t resolve the most interesting questions, for example, what evolutionary advantages do conscious entities possess when compared with their close cousins, philosophical zombies? In other words, what work does consciousness actually do?)

      Always nice to encounter another person who gets excited by such questions. Too bad no answers. I personally suspect that the question of how to get from brain states to qualia is conceptually unresolvable. Dennett tries to solve the problem by abolishing qualia altogether. Flanagan thinks when we know more about neurophenomenology we will find the answer, and it will be a Naturalist one. Good luck to everyone.

      1. Yes, we are not going to solve this. 🙂

        The only way to know about the existence of qualia, beyond one’s own, is to ask. Something like “you see this strange light of consciousness, and you sometimes wonder it?”. That it is a problem for you assures me that you have a similar experience, so in some sense at least we can communicate of the existence of qualia. But to do that asking, answering and introspection, certain computation and a functional computational system is required. In this sense Dennett is right. From the naturalistic point of view the niche of qualias is of about zero size.

        But to say that every intelligent cognitive system would possess qualias is wrong (for me), for it would be functionalism. (And indeed, it seems that even some people don’t get their existence. :))

        And our inner experience could be dark as well. From the naturalistic point of view, the world would be fine without anyone experiencing anything subjectively.

        Maybe we could in future build various implementations of cognitive systems, and have a chat with them?

        Matter is not really divisible. Isolated particles or strings or whatever are not very well defined, as we know from quantum mechanics. Therefore we do not need to assign qualias to the smallest building blocks, for their existence is shaky and assigning anything to them is also a version of the conceptual relativism that functionalism suffers of.

        So qualias may be a property of the matter, but to manifest they need the cognitive organization we have. For them to be non-functional, the non-functionality should somehow “leak” into the experience and function of the functional level (neurons etc.). That is easy, through the QM properties of the matter. Brain may not be a quantum computer, but for certain it is not isolated from the nondeterminism and collapse like a deterministic computer is.

        Now I’m in “quantum mysticism” where I don’t want to be.

        Qualias may be unresolvable. But the world is really strange. I have a feeling we don’t quite get the whole picture yet.

      2. Oops, I forgot to comment the evolutionary thing. To me qualias and consciousness as a computational function (not subjective experience!) that increases fitness are not identical. It may be that something like consciousness is needed for qualias to manifest, to be observable. But for sure self-reflection etc. can be present “in the dark” without any qualias, and would likely to be evolutionary very useful. It may be that there is some kind of other aspect of computation in the brain that appears with the qualias, I don’t know. This is very close to mysticism and I throw this stuff at the intuitive level without caring much about falsifiability or even internal coherence. Just some thoughts. I almost never think these nowadays and lack proper background to discuss this at the level of sophistication of real philosophers.

        1. Thanks, Janne, for your interesting and stimulating discussion. I’m not going to carry it further because, like you, I lack the background and sophistication to go beyond where we currently are. Other readers are invited in.

          I agree that intelligence doesn’t require consciousness, and certainly, if feedback is seen as self-reflection, neither does self-reflection. I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about qualia without consciousness, though. Does consciousness add an evolutionary advantage over non-conscious intelligence? I like to think so — but its hard to imagine what might constitute a test. Human vanity?

          1. Human vanity, yes. 🙂 Thanks Seth, this is an interesting side track. For someone who rejects functionalism but insists that there still is something to explain or speculate about, David Chalmers may be a philosopher to read.

            Maybe I’ll get and try to read Flanagan first, though. Looks like an interesting book. So many books, so little time…

  2. Well written review, Seth. However, this piece and some other things I’ve read lead me to suspect that Flanagan is just another misinformed non-Buddhist who can’t see the dharma forest for the trees.

      1. I was going to expand on that in my comment but had to much to say. I started to write a blog post about Flanagan a couple of months ago. So I just updated it and published it.

  3. @ Seth:

    Flanagan wonders whether the Buddhist metaphysic of emptiness/selflessness logically necessitates its ethic of compassion.

    I don’t know if you saw Mark Knickelbine’s critique of this on “The Secular Buddhist”. Interestingly, on the same site, Ted Meissner interviews David Chapman about his book “Buddhism for Vampires” which you may find interesting. It helps reveal the different flavor of Buddhism that David values.

    You are right: It is an amazing age in that we can freely access so many fine writers so easily. Thanx for the post.

    1. Thanks for directing me (and readers) to Mark Knickelbine’s post. I agree with Knickelbine — but I think Flanagan might agree with him too. Flanagan’s point was that selflessness, in and of itself, does not logically necessitate compassion — but he left the door open for the possibility that one might empirically deduce the value of compassion from lived experience. Flanagan’s point resonated with me because in my first few years meditating I wasn’t experiencing any increased sense of compassion as a result and I wondered about the necessary connection myself.

      1. In the comments on Mark’s post he says:

        I hope I didn’t give the impression I disliked Flanagan’s book. To the contrary, I think it’s very important. On one hand, he puts the breaks on our tendency to rush to assume that the neurological benefits of mindfulness have been scientifically ”proved.” As he points out, they haven’t, not only because we don’t have the technology to do so as of yet, but also because we first have to be clear on what those benefits might be. He goes on to try to determine how we could define a naturalized Buddhism in such a way as to be able to determine whether dharma practice leads to a demonstrably better or happier life.

        That would almost be enough to make me buy Flanagan’s book because I was always under the impression that there was a huge amount of empirical evidence confirming the benefits. I think I have read you saying that you were involved in many studies too. Did you read this in his book? What did you think?

        1. Flanagan was specifically addressing the claim that brain research had demonstrated that Buddhists were happier than other people. He pointed out that finding changes in EEG gamma wave amplitude or finding a leftward shift in prefrontal cortex activation, for example, doesn’t really prove anything about relative happiness. For example, the fact that Buddhist meditator Matthieu Ricard has the greatest leftward prefrontal cortex activation of anyone ever tested and that leftwardness is correlated with positive affect in general doesn’t prove that a) Matthieu Ricard is the happiest human ever or that b) his leftward shift was caused by being a meditator. He then discusses the methodological and logical problems of how one operationally defines “happiness” and “Buddhist practice.” I think his analysis is spot on.

          1. Great, thanx. That helps. With that analysis and your recommendation — knowing your background — I will be buying it. It is interesting that often the influences of those outside a religion can often help preserve what is of value in the religion than those who know all the hymns and confessions.

            Thanx for the analysis

          2. Yes, I think there is good evidence of neurological, psychophysiological and even psychological effects of meditation and it is kind of believable. But to be strict, what is a positive effect, let alone happiness, is a much harder problem that easily gets philosophical.

            “Kind of believable”: The studies are not strictly controlled, and it is actually hard to even imagine a well-controlled study on the effects of meditation. What would the control group actually do? Just sit? 🙂 Differences observed in comparative non-randomized studies could in principle be there before the treatment, that is, meditation is caused by the differences and not vice versa, but I do not think that is believable, at least not in all the studies (that I have seen, which is not too many). Then there is at least one new longitudinal study about the effects of a long retreat coming out. It completes the evidence from a slightly different perspective.

  4. First of all, what is your definition of consciousness? I invite you all to read, if you haven’t done so already, a tour de force, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by psychologist Julian Jaynes. There is a good Wikipedia article about his theories, which are elucidated in the book with splendid scientific rigor and a superb multidisciplinary analysis: To quote the article, “Jaynes defines consciousness—in the tradition of Locke and Descartes—as ‘that which is introspectable.’ Jaynes draws a sharp distinction between consciousness (‘introspectable mind-space’) and other mental processes such as cognition, learning, and sense and perception—which occur in all animals.” In a way, with this definition in mind, Janes provides the answer to Seth’s question, “Does consciousness add an evolutionary advantage over non-conscious intelligence?” The answer, in a nutshell, is that consciousness arose because of the stresses on the “bicameral” mind as it strove to respond adequately to novel situations in an increasingly complex circumstances and amid the rise of city-states. Bicameralism implies the direction of volition in human beings by voices emanating in one part of the brain and “speaking” to another part, that is, auditory hallucinations. Janes argues that bicameralism ruled until as recently as 3,000 years ago. It broke down thanks to the development of metaphorical language and because our inner voices were not capable of guiding us any more in our more complex world. In other words, we humans were not “conscious” for most of our evolutionary history. We often assume that consciousness has always been with us. Janes shows this is not so. We became conscious because we had to in order to survive. If you think about it, consciousness is unnecessary for many things even today. Who hasn’t driven in a car a few miles, for example, before waking up and not really knowing how one got to the destination? And what is the concept of being in the “zone” that athletes speak of if not acting without consciousness? There is so much to say about this topic, I don’t even know where to begin. I will just conclude with the point that the very idea of organized religion, dependent upon priests, prophets, oracles and the like, is bound with this breakdown of the bicameral mind, according to Jaynes. Before the breakdown, people needed no intermediaries, hence no religion. Their own voices, or those of the gods, guided them, like they did the heroes in Homer’s epics until Odysseus, who exhibited early forms of consciousness, including guile and cunning. Only after the voices became silent, we started to depend on priests, etc.

  5. Amaury, Thanks for joining in here! Based on the Wikipedia article (I haven’t read the book) Jaynes defines consciousness as introspectability, a kind of metacognitive process, but he’s not arguing (so far as I can tell) that ancient humans lacked qualia. His argument seems to be that a certain kind of language-based interhemispheric reasoning about internal experience emerged in recent human history which has been useful in problem solving — but computers can do similar “introspective” tasks without qualia. In other words, the problem Jaynes is addressing is a different sort of problem.

  6. Hi Seth,

    I found your site through your comment at Barbara O’Brien’s post about the Buddhist Ethics conference. I’m glad you enjoyed it too. I’ll keep Flanagan on my radar and appreciate your thoughtful review here.

    All the best,

    Justin w.

    1. Hi Justin! Glad you found your way to this site. I don’t think Barbara is overly fond of Western academic Buddhist scholarship. Oh well, you can’t please everyone.

      I enjoyed reading your summary of the conference on your own blog, American Buddhist Perspective . Since you’re a student of Damien Keown’s, I wonder if you could also read through my previous post on Buddhist Ethics since it’s essentially a rehash of Damien’s speech, and correct an errors or omissions I may have made and add any comments you think might be helpful?

  7. I’m coming late to the debate, but I was struck by what Flanagan thinks will be left when we’ve finished trashing traditional Buddhism and welding it to the West – a project I’m actively contributing to:

    “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.”

    I’m a vocal polemicist against traditional Buddhism but this philosophical view is just barking up the wrong tree. Western philosophers have been asking the wrong questions for centuries! Buddhism has no defensible philosophical theory with a metaphysics – it has multiple competing and mutually exclusive theories. All of them pointless. Buddhism’s attitude to metaphysics seems to swing between abhorrence to blind acceptance. For my money there will be no metaphysics at the heart of the new Buddhism, i.e. no interest in being per se. But all beliefs have metaphysical implications. On the whole the new Buddhism will be very sceptical about all metaphysical claims.

    But especially there will be no ontology – dabbling in ontology has lead us astray in the past (into the disastrous Abhidharma project for instance). As close as we will get to ontology will be to ask ourselves the question “what am I experiencing right now?”

    There will be epistemology but it will be of a very limited kind. We will not ask general open ended questions such as “what can we know?” These lead nowhere, and answers change as fashions change. We may well ask “what can we know about experience?” Or we may ask “what is it about the way I experience the world that makes it unsatisfactory?” Note that these are not new questions.

    Morality is probably the most vexed of all of these because it is the one that we really can’t ignore. At present there is no single Buddhist morality or ethical system. But I suggest that the common element is empathy. Using this term helps to link into some of the more promising neuroscience and psychological research. But I do not think the terms virtue and vice have much value – they are too relative. One man’s vice is another man’s virtue.

    So I would see Buddhism emphasising empathy, and paying attention to experience and the processes by which we have experiences. I would see us shunning metaphysical speculation for a more phenomenological approach. I would see us moving away from talking in terms of knowledge and truth towards understanding and structure (a phrase I stole from I also imagine Buddhism without rebirth which is no longer credible (or salient in my view). Karma can stay – actions do have consequences – but in a radically cut down version. I place strict limits on the applicability of pratÄ«yasamutpāda – it only applies to the arising of mental states. Hence the limits on epistemology.

    The is not doubt that in embracing scientific rationalism we must make a decisive break with tradition. At present I think Buddhists are unaware that this has driven us into an unconscious and unproductive Romanticism which seeks to re-enchant the world (so we can be children again). No doubt things will change with the passing of the Babyboomers who dominate the Buddhist landscape for now. (Yes I’m influenced by David Chapman!)


    1. Hi Jayarava! I guess I have a better opinion of Western philosophy (also Romanticism, the Abhidhamma, and Baby Boomers!) than you do. There’s a lot to be gained by reading Aristotle, Epicurus, Hume, Locke, etc. You might want to give them a second chance.

      When Flanagan is talking about Buddhist metaphysics, he is talking about anatta, sunyata, anica, and dukkha. It’s metaphysics, but a very experience-near metaphysics. I don’t think you intend to jetson those concepts from Buddhism, but I may be mistaken.

      We agree on rebirth and karma, but disagree about virtue. There’s probably broad agreement across cultures and historical eras (with some notable differences, too) about what constitutes virtue, from Aristotle to the Buddha to contemporary Positive Psychology. It’s probably not true, for the most part, that one man’s virtue is another man’s vice, except in a trivial sense. Compassion, Kindness, and Equanimity would be big ones for Buddhism. I’m all in favor of cultivating character strengths.

      1. Hi Seth

        You’re probably right and I’m a little too reactionary about Western Philosophers. I haven’t ever made a concerted study of them, but I do use their concepts most days.

        Re anatta, ō›ō«nyatā I’m not sue I agree that they are metaphysical concepts. One of the themes of my approach is that initially pratÄ«tyasamutpāda did not, was not applied to anything other than arising of dhammas. I think trying to apply the idea to everything – turning them into a metaphysics – was/is a mistake. So keep them by all means, but don’t make the metaphysical.

        There are a number of qualities that are widely considered to be virtues and vices. But is that enough. You’d think that we we’d all agree that killing to a vice. But not always. Sometimes apparently killing is not only OK, but preferable. I’ve been discussing the idea with David Chapman who made this point quite eloquently.

        My idea about using empathy is partly based on reading about positive psychology. Jeremy Rifkin is particular interesting on the subject.

        Best Wishes

    2. ”Karma can stay.” Thank you, Jayarava, so much for leaving us this little crumb. I think it is just wonderful that folks like you, Chapman and others are thinking ahead for all of us and taking it upon yourselves to make all the decisions about what parts of Buddha-dharma we can keep and what parts we can throw away, not to mention so creatively rewriting Buddhist history. However, since it all seems so ”pointless” I wonder why you bother.

      I do agree with you about truth and knowledge. Who needs that stuff? And I’m glad that you put strict limits on the applicability of pratÄ«yasamutpāda. I applied too much samutpāda once and it was horrible. In fact, I say let’s stamp out pratÄ«yasamutpāda altogether. It just leads to emptiness and no one needs more of that either.

      Lastly, like you, I sure do look forward to the passing of those good-for-nothing Babyboomers. Things will be so cool when they are finally gone. They’ve been mucking things up ever since the King of Siam invented Western Buddhism. Or was that the Wizard of Oz?

      1. Hi David,

        Sounds like I have pushed some buttons for you, which was of course my intention in phrasing my comments that way. Sometimes I’m a bit (too) flippant but behind my words is quite a lot of research and reflection. I’m quite serious on the whole.

        I would invite you to read my commentary on the Kaccānagotta Sutta – ‘Is Paá¹­icca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything?’ – which you can find, along with some other resources on paá¹­icca-samuppāda, here:

        Most of my comments flow from this investigation. Failing that there are now 260+ essays on my blog which, though fragmentary, represent the process by which I got to this point. Looking forward to a positive engagement with you on this subject.

        There are serious intellectual/philosophical problems in Buddhist doctrine. Many of them are solved by reinstating the Buddha’s own limits on paá¹­icca-samuppāda, and having learned of this I have become an evangelist for the idea. Additionally some doctrines are inevitably swept aside by the discoveries of science – though at the same time some are reinforced. The history of our own ideas is probably a more devastating critique of present day Buddhism than science is however.

        I think we all know the strengths and weaknesses of the Baby Boomer generation. I’m not the only one who is ambivalent about them.

        1. @Jayarava — Your paper on dependent origination is very thoughtful and well reasoned. It’s a good interpretation of what the Buddha of the Pali canon thought — but this same reasoning may not apply to later Mahayana reinterpretations of the Buddha’s teachings.

          1. Hi Seth

            I would say that it certainly does not apply to Mahāyāna Buddhism, and that Mahāyāna Buddhism involves itself in all sorts of philosophical problems – such as having to propose two distinct levels of “truth” – as a direct result of this failure to stay within the domain of experience. The teaching of Two Truths is in fact incoherent and unnecessary. As I argue here:

            Part of the proposal being put forward by people like me, Daivd Chapman, and others is that we look again at these religious dogmas. We must do this for Buddhism to survive it’s encounter with the modern world and remain as an active force. I am one of the more conservative revisionists in that I think we can rehabilitate Buddhism by looking at the early context and focussing on what is principial. I have not succumbed to calling myself a secular Buddhist for instance.

        2. I don’t think anyone would argue with the idea that the 12 nidanas were/are not supposed to be a ”theory of everything.” However, the nidanas are just one aspect, or application, of pratitya-samutpada, just as ”disappointment” is only one aspect of dukkha.

          The notion, which I fully support, ”of the process of dependent arising happening in the present moment and related to the ”birth”Ÿ of the ”I”Ÿ conceit,” would seem to deflate any objections to the usefulness of the nidana concept.

          And usefulness seems to me to be the key question: is pratitya-samutpada with a wider scope at all useful? Certainly applying it to the relativity and ultimate emptiness of views, as does Nagarjuna, I think is very useful. Equating it to a Grand Unified Theory, maybe not. But then GUT is about particle physics, so that’s kind of a case of apples and oranges. On the other hand, considering how the Abhidharma view dhammas as particle-like pieces of reality, who knows?

          As far as the Two Truths are concerned, you write, ”This pragmatic position avoids any argument about relative and ultimate. Such a duality is simply unnecessary. But once we begin to take sides, to insist that dhammas must either be real or unreal, or worse that objects in the world are real or unreal, then we come into a dilemma because neither stance makes sense in light of the nature of perception.”
          You are just restating Nagarjuna’s argument, and to some extent the Buddha’s, which that we shouldn’t take sides. Things — whatever things are to you — are not either/or. That’s The Middle Way. Now, I don’t think it is possible to adequately deal with the Two Truths without considering Nagarjuna’s statement that the ultimate is only approachable from the relative. That, in my opinion, is what he means when he says, ”Those who do not understand the Two Truths fail to understand Buddhism.”
          You also write, ”Many different explanations of this duality are supplied throughout the history of Buddhist philosophy. I’m going to go out on a limb and argue that all of these explanations are wrong.” I find this an incredibly arrogant attitude, and I am leery of those who think they know better than everyone else throughout history. Such an attitude, it seems to me, would cripple any possibility of practice, or progress along the path. This goes back to my question before — if Buddhism is so wrong, then why bother with it?

          1. My argument is not about the nidānas. They *are* incoherent but that is a different discussion. I use the Theory of Everything as a *metaphor*. I think both points are clear to anyone reading my essay with an open mind.

            Nāgarjuna, as I read him, was not concerned with existence per se – indeed he quotes the Kaccānagotta Sutta in a Sanskrit version (at MMK 15.7) to this effect: existence (bhava) and non-existence (abhava) *do not apply* to the world (loka). [The Pāli has atthi ‘it is’ and natthi ‘it isn’t’ but the meaning is clearly the same] This is perfectly straight forward if by loka you understand the world of experience – and I explore the history of the word, and cite *many* texts to demonstrate that this is indeed what is intended in the Kaccānagotta Sutta. If you take loka to be the world in general then the statement is nonsensical. In order to make sense of it one must invent categories like ultimate truth and relative truth to try to cover up the incoherent results. If we take a step back, as I suggest, then we simply don’t need to invent these categories. This is an application of Occam’s Razor. If we do not accept the notion of ultimate truth, and there seems no good doctrinal reason *to* accept it, then we need not argue about what the ultimate truth is. The Buddha aimed at liberation from suffering, not for ultimate truth, or so he keeps saying in the texts. Indeed, as David Kalupahana eloquently argues in his history of Buddhist philosophy, ultimate truth was the preoccupation of another group entirely in the Buddha’s day, namely the Brahmins.

            I am far from the only person saying these things – though one of the few saying it outside of academic journals so far. And not much of what I say is original – as you can see I cite my sources!

            Contra what you say I am convinced that the path is open to everyone, and I have become more and more convinced that it is useful to keep Buddhism in the domain of experience, precisely because it cuts down on the doctrinal noise and nonsense. It focusses practice where it will be most effective and makes it clear how we can expect practice to change our lives.

            Look at the history of doctrinal wrangling and dispute in Buddhism which begins at the beginning and carries on throughout our history. So much hot air! And during all of it the doors to the deathless appear to have remained open. So I have no fear that asking a few difficult questions and pointing out some doctrinal inconsistencies will do any harm to anyone.

            Really all I am doing is reiterating what I read in the Pāli Canon, and in the Mō«lamadhyamaka Kārikā. You can follow my references and read the same texts as me and tell me why you come to a different conclusion based on the evidence. I would be genuinely interested to read a response along these lines. Or you can just be sarcastic, cite tired old dogma, and cast aspersions on my character which I am genuinely not interested in reading. Up to you really.

  8. Warning, naive questions follow:

    (1) Isn’t it fair to say that there is not one “pali canon thought”?
    (2) Isn’t it fair to say that we can’t be sure that we can objectively distill what part of the pali canon has the buddha’s original thought?
    (3) Is it possible that some “later” Mahayana teachings may be more true to some of the Buddha’s actual teachings even though recorded later?
    (4) Mahayana rhetoric is that the Buddha taught different thought for different people. Do non-Mahayana hold this to be true?
    (5) Do we really care what the original Buddha taught, or should we care what works better? [not that we clearly know how to measure that — as apparently Flanaghan claims.] So what if Mahayana is later but it works better for a certain age. Heck, Nichiren preached a dispensationalism too — what if he is right and Shin Buddhism works better — not to mention Vajrayana stuff or Monistic New Age Buddhism.

    I am sure these are perennial debates, but as a naive beginner, I find them curious and no one to talk to about it.

  9. Hey Sabio

    1. yes
    2. yes
    3. yes
    4. yes
    5. What works is clearly preferable. Though I would add that what makes sense is also preferable to what does not.

    My main concern in my writing is about how we present, and how we make sense of what works. At the moment we wrap our excellent techniques in a lot of mumbo-jumbo, superstition, metaphysical non-sense, and cultural trimmings. I’d like to reframe all of our practices in terms that are consistent with a modern world view. After all this is just what the Mahāyānists did beginning a few centuries after the Buddha died. The Mahāyāna continued to develop in Indian, including some rather major innovations, for about 1000 years, where it overlapped with the development of Tantra beginning around the 6th century. Outside of India Buddhist developed for about 1500 years. Doctrinal innovation has often been driven by confusion and the loss of key teaching. But lately the Dharma has been rather moribund. And clearly over the years some doctrinal dead ends have been explored.

    Those of us who seek to reform and reframe Buddhist practice are all passionate about its *survival*.

    My own penchants for mining the Pāli scriptures for useful information is not an attempt to recreate ancient Buddhism, but to find the best way to make sense of it in the present – to look for antecedents that make more sense than the received tradition. I’m an archaeologist of ideas, but I’m also trained in the sciences and want to make sense of the Dharma within the scientific worldview! I persist because it is a successful strategy in the sense that Buddhism makes more sense to me now that it did. It has helped me to move beyond Buddhism as mere book learning and going through the motions, to Buddhism as an internalised world-view that I employ constantly in daily life. It has helped me to make clear what is obscure, against the weight of traditions that are heavily invested in obscurity.

    Best Wishes

    1. Jayarava,

      I don’t want to respond point by point, but just want to make some general points.

      1) I am largely sympathetic to a Buddhism that is experience-near and phenomenologically based rather than being theory-heavy. We are in the same camp here. The more we can learn from experience itself the better — although theory has it’s place too — as long as theory is not ruled out by our current best knowledge about the way things like universes and brains operate.

      2) I am not so sure that sticking with the Pali Canon and finding ways to make it science-friendly is the best way to go. I am more partial to being conversant with all of the Buddhist tradition(s) and letting all of them speak in some way, as contradictory as they are. They are all attempts by different eras to find what resonates in their particular time and place. In other words, I’m not convinced that any one Buddhism is ultimately more useful — different forms and practices may be relevant for different eras and cultures, and we should maybe be free to pick and choose from all in terms of finding what is relevant for us today. Even if some of the teachings are paradoxical or contradictory, there may be some practical experiential value in a syncretic Buddhism. [I’m thinking here of a story about Ajahn Chah being asked why he was giving opposite instructions to two different students. His answer was something to the effect that he could see the path they needed to follow, and Person A was drifting off too far to the left of the path and Person B was in danger of drifting off too far to the right –he was directing both of the students back to the middle, but the instructions had to be the opposite for each of the students.] I’m not big on purity.

      3) Regarding the Two Truths — I’ve recently found it helpful to think of the two truths as different descriptive levels of phenomena, in the same way that biology and quantum mechanics are different descriptive levels of reality. There’s our everyday world, for example, in which borders exist between nations states, and another vantage point, earth as seen from outer space perhaps, where national borders are seen to not really exist. Or we can talk about how the “Big Dipper” exists on one level, and not on another. There is our everyday reality in which we exist as separate and relatively enduring entities, and another descriptive level in which we are an interconnected and ever-transforming energy process. Both are true for different purposes. I would reform the two truth formula by suggesting that both truths have equal ontological status – one is not more real than the other, just as biology is not more real than quantum mechanics. But, the Heart Sutra already points to their equal ontological status when it states that form is emptiness and emptiness form. In any case, I don’t feel any need to jettison the idea of two truths and find it helpful.

      1. I don’t stick with the Pāli Canon, but I do prefer it for its accessibility and the ease of learning Pāli over Sanskrit (which I have also studied) or Chinese or Tibetan. I don’t think one can really come to grips with Buddhist ideas in English alone.

        Re the two truths you just prove my point. Neither existence nor non-existence apply – according to both the Buddha and Nāgarjuna. The Big Dipper cannot “exist” on one level, nor “not exist” on another. Because what you call the Big Dipper is only an *experience* arising from sense object meeting sense faculty in the presence of sense cognition – that’s all we have access to: 5 physical senses and the mind. The *experience* of the BigDipper is conditioned, and that experience neither exists as a distinct object nor does it not-exist – since you *are* having the experience (even now with memory as the sense object). This is Nāgarjuna talking as much as anyone (MMK 15.7 if you are interested).

        If we wanted to get carried away we could also quite straight-forwardly and without any paradox finish off the syllogism and say that the *experience* is neither existent, nor non-existent, nor neither, nor both. Experience *is* ontologically vague.

        The Two Truths are useful, but not for the Buddhist project. And in the realm of understanding phenomena physics is even more useful.

        1. Jayrava, I was not trying to prove or disprove your point about experience and existence. I was suggesting that I still personally find the concept of two truths helpful. (I’m fond of Lama Surya Das’s metaphor that daily practice means living at the crosshairs of the relative and the absolute.) If it doesn’t help you in your practice, feel free to drop it. if you want to discuss why it’s unhelpful, elucidate. Ex cathedra statements about what’s useful to the Buddhist Project (is there only one?) — less helpful.

          1. So far your comments seem to be related to abstract philosophy and not to practice – so I’ve been responding in kind. We generally reject propositions that are false as unhelpful. The proposition that there is a creator God is a good example of this. The proposition is false, or at best does not admit any evidence that can be tested and must be accepted on blind faith, and therefore it is unhelpful to believe in it. The proposition that there is an “Ultimate Truth” is in the same category as the creator God, therefore… etc. Quod erat demonstrandum.

            Could you say more about what you mean when you say you find the two truths helpful in practice? That might help me to clarify how my critique is relevant to you more personally. Though on the other hand I find this medium very poor for that kind of more personal communication and perhaps we’d best just leave it at that.

            I’ve enjoyed the exchange and look forward to reading your blog some more.

            Best Wishes

  10. Jayarava, you certainly mention the nidanas a lot, especially in relation to your interpretation of ”loka.” This ”theory of everything” seems to me more appropriate for a discussion of pratiya-samutapda as conceived in Madhyamaka thought, not with early Buddhism. So, I guess, color me confused.

    It would take too much time to try to address the logic behind Nagarjuna’s philosophy. Kalupahana’s view of Nagarjuna is just one of many. I agree with him when he calls Nagarjuna ”an empiricist par excellence.” I have some doubts about his notion that Nagarjuna was not trying to improve upon the teachings of the Buddha.

    No doubt, Nagarjuna had a number of goals in mind when he set about fashioning his Madhyamaka dialectic. One of them seems to be to address the concern you raise about doctrinal wrangling and dispute. He places much emphasis upon non-contentiousness (anapalambha), which K. Venkata Ramanan contends he saw as ”the very heart of the Buddha’s teachings.” For more about this, I would invite you to read my blog, The Endless Further, where I have discussed the emptiness of views quite a few times, including here,, here,, here,, and here.

    If you follow Nagarjuna to his conclusion, you will see where he finally arrives at a sort of ”no truth.” The ultimate truth itself is not truly ultimate; it, too, is empty. The Two Truths, among the many other concepts Nagarjuna uses, are merely devices, or tools, that can help enable us to achieve non-dualistic thinking.

    Frankly, it would be more fun to be sarcastic, cite tired old dogma, and cast aspersions upon your character. However, I don’t know any tired old dogma, nor do I know anything about your character, so I guess that just leaves being sarcastic.

  11. Hi David, Well I can see that you’re unwilling or unable to engage with this idea. I can see why some people find it threatening. That’s fine, there’s nothing says you have to think about anything. All the best, Jayarava

    1. “Hi David, Well I can see that you’re unwilling or unable to engage with this idea. I can see why some people find it threatening. That’s fine, there’s nothing says you have to think about anything. All the best, Jayarava”

      Translation: “You won’t see things my way, so the hell with ya.”

      I engaged in dialogue with you about this, what are you talking about? Frankly, the convenient way you are shutting down the conversation with me here suggests that you might be the one who feels threatened.

      1. What a fascinating dialogue to observe. No doubt meditation offers certain skills, but I often wondered how mythologized and overrated those skills are considering how much time the practitioners spend sitting on their butts yet show very little difference from the normal population. Certainly dialogue skills don’t seem to be something that comes with the various miraculous meditation packages out on the market nor with the wisdom of “right view”. Or, maybe there is a conversation-enhancing meditation that is only for the very advanced practitioners but you need to know Esperanto to really get it.

        [being playful — Sabio]

        1. Au contraire I think meditators do differ from other people. On the whole they don’t get involved in flame wars. Most of the meditators I know, the really serious meditators, are not using the internet at all let alone getting involved in this kind of discussion!


  12. @ Jayarava
    I greatly admire of your skills in languages — both your analytic and artistic skills. You put an incredible amount of energy into mastering many levels of language. Your work is brilliantly helpful.

    That said, I’d like to explore your statement that:

    I don’t think one can really come to grips with Buddhist ideas in English alone.

    I wonder if you agree with my following reactions to your sentence:

    (1) Studying Buddhism in Japanese seems no more helpful than studying in English except that if you want to under stand the various “Japanese Buddhisms” , the Japanese language would be extremely valuable. Likewise for Chinese and perhaps Burmese and Vietnamese … So indeed, if you really want to understand Buddhism in America, England, New Zealand or Australia, “English” is essential!

    (2) Pali is probably closer to the actual language the Buddha spoke and useful in analyzing what are *claimed* to be his teachings. But using Pali really only serves a small part of Buddhists objectives. Buddhism spread (after translation) by other languages and people completely unaware of original language.

    (3) Some people use their knowledge of the original language of a given faith to falsely add credibility to their arguments — we must be alert for such manipulations. (Here I wrote about the original source mystique)

    (4) Some people have a superstitious belief that speaking another language gets them closer to the divine or sacred. We need to watch for this cognitive error. (here I wrote about The Magic Language Bias)

    (5) Given the above, and even though I love other langauges, if we want to preserve what is valuable in Buddhism and put it into usable new forms stripped of anachronistic ballast. Or if we want to invent even better or different methods for the agreed goals of Buddhists, then knowing English may be sufficient in itself. And so in that case, your statement is inaccurate when it says:

    I don’t think one can really come to grips with Buddhist ideas in English alone.

    But to be fair, I don’t want to take it out of context. Foreign language study can be essential for certain projects — I just wanted to state the (perhaps) obvious caveats around your claim.

  13. Hi Sabio

    Yep. These are all valid points. Though I don’t think your conclusion is valid – one cannot understand Buddhist thought in English alone.

    If we take a Japanese Buddhist term like “kaji” (ōŠ æŒ) then we need to know how it is used in the Japanese context to mean the interactions between the Dharmakāya and the practitioner. If I’m writing about it I also need to take into account the difference that 1200 years makes to how Kō«kai used it compared with contemporary Shingon or even Reiki practitioners. Just knowing modern Japanese however will not allow us to understand the Buddhist usage – because it just means something like “adding and holding” which tells us nothing. We need to know that the Japanese is a translation of the Sanskrit adhiṣṭhāna, via the Chinese. Most writing about Tantra is from an Indo-Tibetan point of view so we need to be careful to distinguish any differences in nuance across time and space. In order to render this into English we need to take into account the linguistic and cultural context. And what word do we generally chose in a Shingon context: “grace” – a word which is incredibly loaded down with Christian theological implications and fails to capture the active participation of the sādhaka. So we must understand our own language as well and unpick any false trails that are laid down by the history of a word like “grace”.

    On the whole our Buddhist technical jargon originates in a milieu that speaks a relative of Sanskrit or Prakrit. The texts we have were all more or less standardised on Sanskrit or Pāli more than 2000 years ago. A very few survive in GāndhārÄ« and these tend to support the idea that Pāli and Sanskrit are reliable guides to understanding the terms. Where there are Chinese parallels these texts also support the notion though they were often working through Central Asian intermediaries. Tibetan texts are usually rather mechanical translations of the Sanskrit (and sometimes Chinese) originals – so don’t add much to this particular discussion. Translation is all about choosing a denotation which gives a sense of the original without adding or subtracting too much. Understanding a Buddhist technical term is all about understanding the connotations and implications.

    So we don’t deify the language of the texts, but in order to grasp the nuances and put them into terms that people can understand we need to know about those languages and our own language. What I’ve found is that the popular presentations of Buddhism often smooth out inconsistencies and problems – we ignore the inconvenient facts of problematic definitions or translations. Once you start to study these things then it quickly becomes apparent that no translation is entirely trustworthy. Every translation is a compromise, and sometimes it is an unacceptable compromise. No translation can fully capture the original. This is true not just just in Buddhist texts, but in every walk of life. There is even a school of thought that says translation is impossible – that what we call a translation is in fact always an original composition. I don’t necessarily agree, but I have a lot of experience of reading texts in Pāli and comparing translations and feeling dissatisfied.

    Basically I did an intensive year of Sanskrit and found I made progress but that reading real texts was difficult – I could read the Heart Sō«tra OK with it’s tiny vocab and simplified syntax) but not much beyond that. And not many of the texts that really interest me are in Sanskrit (The PrajÁ±Äpāramitā texts being the main exception – and partial translations of those appear scattered through my mantra website along with observations of the Sanskrit used in mantras). Japanese I found very difficult and gave up on. Tibetan never interested me. Pāli however is relatively easy, the entire canon is available for free in more than one recension, and there are lots of Buddhists working in Pāli who can help with problems.

    It’s not about making a fetish of language, or any particular language, just acknowledging that language is important. In a sense if you want to really get inside a stranger’s head, you have to speak their language. It’s not until you have learned another language that you realise how differently other cultures think. And English speakers are all too often monoglot and Anglo-chauvanist.


  14. @Jayarava – In thinking about the relative and the absolute, I don’t take the term “absolute” literally. Instead I think about the relative as our everyday commonsense shared experience of the world, and the absolute as our experience of the world in certain meditative states in which the interdependence and momentary flux of the world is more apparent and the arbitrariness of conceptual boundaries are clearer. Both are ways of seeing the world with different intentions, and both are important ways of seeing the world for different purposes. One, for examples, allows us to see anicca and anatta more directly, the other is better for ordinary daily transactions. Having bifocality is useful. When I refer to the non-everyday level of experience, I’m not trying to reify into something more than a level of experience. Is this helpful in understanding where we may agree/disagree?

  15. Hi Seth

    Thanks for trying. Where we appear to agree is that what we are talking about is our experience of the world, rather than the world per se; and the nature of experience, rather than the nature of reality. Yes? This is what I mean about where pratītya-samutpāda applies.

    A non-literal reading of absolute truth is, ipso facto, a truth which is not absolute. You are telling me that you, like me, don’t believe in an absolute truth. But at the same time you describe as “helpful” a doctrine whose major proposition is that there *is* an absolute truth. This involves a logical contradiction.

    I actually don’t agree with you about splitting experience into domains. Daily life goes more smoothly the more you realise that experience itself is marked with emptiness (sarvadharmāḥ ō›ō«nyatālaká¹£aṇā as the Heart Sō«tra says) – in my experience anyway. It is true that one cannot always function in meditative concentration but surely this is a different issue? I don’t see it as related to the Two Truths doctrine at all. It’s related to the requirements of activity versus stillness.

    I suppose this just highlights that there is often a disjunct between practice and doctrine. I’m interested in making sure that doctrine accurately reflects experience, and serves practice – and willing to sacrifice traditional doctrine for clarity. In your case the Two Truths doctrine does not really serve as you apparently don’t believe in one of the Truths. Rather than bending these old doctrines to fit our purposes, we should just state in our own words what we are thinking and doing. If nothing else it makes communication, and therefore empathy, a darn sight easier!

    Best Wishes

    1. Jayarava,

      We agree that whatever is absolute reality (the “thing in itself”) is unknowable by direct experience, and can best be known through inference and logic and best described, maybe, in mathematics. It may have no intuitive counterpart in the world of sense experience. This is not the reality either of us are discussing here in the two truths. We are talking about the world of lived human experience.

      I believe the two truths apply to different domains of experiencing that are are marked by different intentional sets, and that the disjunction between these experiential domains requires some way to help them inter-translate. (There are probably more than two such experiential domains — we could talk about the different experiential domains of the jhanas or of shikantaza or of rigpa or of sambhogakaya, for example, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.) Turning these experiential domains into ontological categories through a process of reification is an unnecessary afterthought (we agree here too), but the problems the theory of Two Truths is attempting to address is fundamental and real. This is maybe where we disagree? For example, how do you move from an experiential domain in which there is neither good nor bad, neither victimizer nor victim, to one in which we ought to behave ethically? The problem of how to integrate insights obtained from different states of consciousness is one that has interested me for almost half a century. I don’t think its a trivial one.

      I “believe” in both truths. It’s just that I don’t ontologically privilege one of them over the other (as much of Buddhist thought does), although there is an everyday sense in which one of them seems more “deep” than the other because of the way it overthrows ordinary intuitions.

      1. Seth, I’m not sure that ”Buddhist thought” in general privileges one of Two Truths over the other. Nagarjuna explains that they are not two contrasting truths, but rather, two sides of the same coin. Both are equally valid. I think some modernists fall into the trap of viewing everything from the ultimate view, but as far as I can recall there is little of that in traditional Buddhist literature, at least the concept of the Two Truths is being dealt with directly.

        One exception is identified by Ian Charles Harris in his book, ”The continuity of madhyamaka and yogācāra in Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism” where he points out that the ”Mahavibhasa” held that only the ultimate exists. Harris also notes that Kumarila in the 7th century maintained that it was absurd to have two separate truths and that actually Nagarjuna was putting forth only one truth (ultimate) along with a falsehood (relative). But Kumarila was not a Buddhist and obviously he made the mistake of viewing the two truths as separate.

        1. Thanks, David, for the clarification. I got into a brief discussion of this during a q-and-a session at the recent Columbia University conference with Mark Siderits, a scholar of Indian philosophy and metaphysics at Illinois State University. He seemed to think privileging absolute reality was a necessity within the Indo-Tibetan system. You make a good case for a different view!

          Reader’s might appreciate David’s longer discussion of this topic here.

          1. I’m sure he knows more about it than I. But I was also making a rather general remark, being mindful of the Chinese/Japanese point of view, which tends to be a bit more holistic, in my opinion.

  16. The ongoing debate among Western Buddhists…

    Flanagan *has* complained of two things about the contemporary flavor of Western Buddhism: The conflation of meditation with dharmic work that can lead to the very dilettantism you cite.

    In Flanagan’s complaint, the obsession with meditation has led to the obviation of the other salient moral, ethical & social injunctions of Buddhism in a sort of inadvertent dilettantism from the “bliss” angle.

    I tend to agree, and that the other Buddhist hangups like enlightenment, has served to repel people otherwise likely to adopt any dharmic system because of the implicit judgment of not measuring up.

    Gotama allowed for a fair degree of latitude: No absolute mandate to pursue nibanna or every jhana, reincarnation was optional, I think he even allowed for setting enlightenment aside. That flexibility has lent, perhaps, to a Buddhist big tent of syncretism, and sometimes a farrago of inconsistent ideas.

    Well then, if some can have their Pure Land or their nam myoho renge kyo :-), then we’ve all pretty much been given permission to experiment with it, keeping mindful of the noble truths & eightfold path.

    So Buddhism’s really coming to the West!

    Who knew?

    Well, the old oxcart’s been needing a fourth wheel for a while anyway.

  17. Leebert’s comment looks interesting — I just got it in the e-mail. But when I click to come here, I have to scroll up and down to try and find it. I gave up. Interesting comment, though.

  18. Sorry, I haven’t read all 53 comments, so perhaps am asking a question that has already been answered above, but…. can you comment on how Buddhism-without-dogma is different from Stoicism?

    1. Mark, what a great question! No one has actually asked it on this blog before, so reading all the prior 53 comments would have availed you nothing. The answer depends a great deal of which form of Buddhism you are addressing. There is more similarity between Flanagan’s naturalized Buddhism and Stoicism, for example, than there is between Stoicism and more traditional Buddhist forms. But in any case, there are significant similarities — the emphases on taming the passions, living modestly, the exercise of virtue, meditation on the present moment, the universality of mankind, and acceptance of reality as it is are common to both. I am personally a great admirer of the Stoics, and would not be surprised if it turned out that there was some ongoing communication between the Stoics and Buddhists in ancient times, or if both schools had common influences. More traditional forms of Buddhism differ from Stoicism when it comes to ideas like rebirth, karma, celestial Bodhisattvas, Nirvana, and mental events without underlying physical substrates. I don’t know enough about Stoicism to be sure about this, but I suspect that Buddhist meditation techniques are more diverse and richly developed than Stoic techniques, and that the Buddhist emphases on compassion and lovingkindness may be more prominent. The idea of bodhicitta – the motivation of seeking enlightenment for the sake of all beings, may also be unique to Buddhism. The end point of aspiration – – becoming a Bodhisattva or Buddha — is also a grander (or more grandiose?) vision than the aspiration to sagehood in Stoicism. The Stoic ideal of “living in agreement with Nature” seems closer to Taoism than Buddhism. Finally, I wonder if the intention of fully inhabiting the present moment may be more realized in Buddhism than Stoicism — but I couldn’t say for sure. Maybe a reader who has a better knowledge of Stoicism than my passing acquaintance can respond?

      1. I know less than you, but wanted to mention that I’ve seen the comparison arise elsewhere — assertions that Stoicism is a philosophy similar to Buddhism.

      2. I’ve also wondered if there were communication between the two, I guess. I think there’s some archaeological evidence for Rome/China contact, but it’s thin. And if it had been extensive, you might have had a Roman Empire with the compass, the stirrup, and gunpowder, and we’d all be speaking Latin right now.

        I wonder if it isn’t more likely that the two philosophies are similar because philosophies/religions tend to elaborate themselves in response to the demands of the time. To some extent, they are what their society needs them to be, so…. two big empires, same historical time roughly…..?

        1. I was actually thinking more Greece-India than Rome-China. The large empire issue doesn’t apply so much to the Buddha’s community. But your main point is a good one — existential conditions and issues during the Axial Age may not have been all that different around the globe, and conditions may have called for answers that addressed similar existential needs. I personally believe that what is universal about the Dharma is readily re-discoverable in every age and social order, and is not, strictly speaking, copyrighted by Buddhism.

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