My new book, Buddhism and Human Flourishing: A Modern Western Perspective (Palgrave MacMillan, 2020) is due out this spring. You can sign up here if you want to be notified when it is published. That book devotes several hundred pages to developing an argument I intend to present here in brief. It’s an argument about why certain traditional interpretations of Buddhism will not work for us today, and how they need to be—and are being—reinterpreted to make them more consistent with how we, as modern Westerners, make basic sense of the world. In this essay I do more than simply present my argument in brief. I also frame and develop it differently than how it is framed and developed it in my book.
I want to begin by laying out three broad philosophical propositions that underlie my critique of traditional Buddhist philosophy. If you agree with them, I think my critique of traditional understandings of Buddhism inevitably follows. If you disagree with them, you will understand exactly where our views diverge.
Proposition One: Reality-in-Itself is Unknowable
The first proposition is that we that we can never know what reality is in-itself, but only what reality is for creatures-such-as-us. By “creatures-such-as-us,” I mean creatures that can only detect a limited part of the electromagnetic spectrum by sight, a limited range of acoustic frequencies by ear, and a limited number of chemical structures by smell or taste. If there are other things happening in the world—and there are a great many of them—radio waves, ultrahigh frequency pitches, non-odorous gases—we can’t know about them without the aid of instrumentation.
In addition to our sensory limitations, our human minds organize experience in terms of Kant’s a priori categories of time, space, and causality. We don’t see the world “as is,” but only as our minds organize it for us.
Even more importantly, the aspects of the world that appear to consciousness do not present as patches of color and shape, but as “objects-for-use.” We understand them in terms of the various ways we can interact with them as defined by our past experience and limited by our imagination. When we see tables and chairs, for example, we understand them immediately in terms of the kinds of uses we can make of them—tables are for putting things on, chairs for sitting on. Their meanings are implicit at first glance. We don’t have to deliberate about what they are. We know what-they-are-for-us immediately from all of our prior dealings with them as living agents in the world. It isn’t something our minds “tack on” to visual images post-perception according to laws of association. That allows tables and chairs to stay as unproblematic parts of the settled background when our intentions focus us on other aspects of the visual field—for example, when we are searching for signs of an expected friend’s arrival. The tables and chairs are there practically unnoticed, but if anyone calls our attention to them, we already know just what they are.
Another way of stating this first proposition is that we can’t know reality, full stop. We can only know what reality-is-for-us. Given this proposition, the Buddhist claim that meditation allows us see reality “as it really is,” is a non-starter. Meditation enables us to experience our inner and outer worlds in fresh and newly meaningful ways, but it never gives us access to the world free from our own point-of-view.
Proposition Two: Languages Cannot Provide Complete Descriptions of Reality
The second proposition concerns language. One way to state this proposition is that the nature of reality is so intricately complex that no language system—or coordinated group of language systems—can describe it completely. Whatever we have to say about reality omits important aspects of it—perhaps an infinitely large number of aspects. Each language system, if it is useful, captures some salient features of reality that are useful to us for some purpose. Our everyday language refers to tables and chairs as “solid.” The language of physics describes tables and chairs as mostly empty space. The language of Wordsworth and Keats is useful for some purposes, the language of quantum mechanics is useful for others. Religion is a language that may describe important features of the world that the languages of the sciences omit. Languages are tools rather than complete descriptions of the world. When physics completes its “theory of everything,” it will never be able to tell us whether Elizabeth Bennett is a more admirable fictional character than Anna Karenina.
We can immediately see the limitations of language when we imagine trying to describe the taste of a strawberry to someone who has never tasted one. What can one possibly say that captures the entirety of the experience? No matter how lengthy and skillful our description, something vital gets omitted. Something very similar occurs when we try to capture the detailed texture of a dream in words: it’s like trying to capture water with a sieve.
Buddhist philosophy is another language system for describing the world. It introduces new terms such as “emptiness” and “suchness” which describe important aspects of the world previously undescribed. But whatever Buddhism is, it is just an alternative language system for describing matters of importance to us. It can never be a final, fixed, complete language of everything.
Proposition Three: The Good Life
The third proposition concerns the nature of the human project: what exactly are we doing here? It suggests, as Aristotle did in his Nichomachean Ethics, that we are all trying to live the best lives we possibly can according to our individual understandings of what “a good life” consists of.
There are many different possible understandings of what “a good life” is, but this is not an arena where anything goes. For one thing, a good life must be a reasonably happy one, whatever we understand “happiness” to mean. A life of unrelenting depression and anxiety would not count as a good life. But just being “happy” is not sufficient for a life to be “good.” Manic persons may be phenomenally happy while conducting their lives in ways that lead to assured ruin. Psychopaths may be pleased with themselves, but we wouldn’t want to give their lives a nod of approval.
You may be familiar with philosopher Robert Nozick’s “experience machine” thought experiment in which a scientist offers a person the option of either: a) living a relatively decent life with good enough relationships, good enough health, and a good enough job, albeit accompanied by life’s usual frustrations, disappointments, and losses, or b) being hooked up to a machine in which one would have no real accomplishments or relationships, but would have a dream-like consciousness of one successive moment of bliss after another—a life much happier than a “real” life. Given this hypothetical choice, most people would opt for the real life. We want something more from life than just smiley-faced happiness. We want a life that is in some way objectively “good” as well.
Buddhism and The Good Life
This brings us to the matter of Buddhism. If we weren’t born Buddhist, why bother with it? The answer is, we hope it will make our lives better in some way—that it will make us happier, or better people—whatever those terms may mean for us.
Buddhism offers a particular set of promises in this regard that are rather extraordinary. It promises, among other things, an end to all suffering. It claims it can make us virtuous in all kinds of ways—filled with compassion and loving-kindness, and spontaneously devoted to non-greed, non-harming, and non-grasping. It claims it can free us from attachment. It promises a gnostic experience that can radically improve our lives, decentering us from our preoccupation with our “selves” and connecting us more intimately to the world. The Buddhist “enlightenment mythology” suggests a lengthy and arduous path of practice followed by a transformative experience that completely and irrevocably changes us for the better so that we are perpetually content and always do what’s right.
Western culture offers a competing vision of well-being with a more modest set of promises. The competing vision is Aristotle’s eudaimonia, or human flourishing. Aristotle thought that the good life was a life of virtuous activity. He thought that if we developed strengths of character through practice—strengths such as courage and honesty—and if we developed our capacity for practical wisdom—knowing the right thing to do in each situation in accord with reason—and if we had the relative good fortune of having sufficient possessions, friends, and health—then we would be as happy as we possibly could be. Not perfectly forever-after happy, but as good as it gets for humans.
Now I want to suggest that most modern Westerners find it relatively impossible to believe in the Buddhist Mythology of Enlightenment. We’ve all heard about “enlightened” gurus and Zen masters who exploit and abuse their students. We may have met Buddhist teachers we greatly admire, but they, to all appearances, seem to retain various and sundry “imperfections.” If anyone has attained perfect Enlightenment, we haven’t met him or her, and neither has anyone we know. Perhaps they exist in a cave somewhere in Nepal, but most of us know in our bones that will never be us, just as we know that if we practice the piano for the next 10,000 hours we will never be Vladimir Horowitz. It’s just not in the cards for us.
Even if it could be in the cards for us, would we really want to spend all those years in a cave? Is that really what we want when we aspire to a better life? Do we really not want to have any attachments? No attachments to parents, children, and spouses? Do we really want to have infinite and impartial compassion, loving strangers and insurance salesman the same way we do our children? Do we really want to give up all our desires? No desires for good food, good health, useful work, moving aesthetic experiences, and reciprocal love and friendship?
I suspect the answer to all these questions is “no.” We want desire fulfillment, but we want to pursue the right desires in the right kind of way, and in a way that doesn’t compromise our values. We want the right kind of attachments to the right kind of people that express mutual love, friendliness, respect. We know that good relationships may not last and that losing them will cause us grief—but we also think avoiding attachments to prevent the pain of loss is an impoverished way to live a life. We want to extend good will and compassion towards all people, but love our families and friends more than acquaintances and strangers. These are all Aristotelian rather than Buddhist aspirations.
So, if we Westerners are really at heart Aristotelians, what good is Buddhism? I want to suggest that Buddhism contains features Aristotelianism lacks, and that a syncretic Buddhist-Aristotelian model of the good life makes better sense than one or the other alone. I want to further suggest that Buddhist practice can be done within this Buddhist-Aristotelian frame, and that this is what most Western Buddhists are in fact already doing without acknowledgment.
What features does Buddhism possess that Aristotelianism does not? First, Buddhism emphasizes certain virtues that Aristotelianism ignores—compassion, first and foremost. Second, Buddhism offers a practice—meditation—that increases one’s qualities of mindfulness and discernment and greatly improves the quality of one’s life. Third, Buddhism offers a critique of Selfhood that de-emphasizes self-gratification and increases identification with others. Fourth, Buddhism offers a vision of the all-togetherness-of things that stresses interdependence and connection—a vision of the wholeness of being and our belongingness in the world. Our ability to maintain this vision while negotiating the vicissitudes of life with its various losses, traumas, discouragements, and disappointments may be Buddhism’s most important contribution to well-being.
In this Buddhist-Aristotelian frame, when we meditate or engage in compassionate activity, we’re building the character strengths, skills, insights, and states of mind that increase the likelihood of feeling happier and being better people. I think that is sufficient reason to practice diligently.
In addition, when we give up the mythology of perfect Enlightenment, we get something back in return. We no longer measure our progress against an unrealistic yardstick. The goal of practice is no longer a fantasied perfection, but just to be better than we were the day before. We no longer have to strive to achieve an unobtainable trans-human state. We no longer have to struggle against any and all desires and attachments. We just need to become more discerning as to which are in our own and other’s best long-term interests and which are not. This is a do-able program.