Buddhism without the Hocus-Pocus

Owen Flanagan. The Chronicle of Higher Education. January 2012.

You could say that my formal association with Buddhism began when I was invited to participate in a weeklong discussion in Dharamsala, India, with the Dalai Lama and a handful of scientists and Buddhist adepts on the topic of destructive emotions. Why not? I thought. I knew a bit about Buddhism, and believed in the worth of comparative philosophy. If there is wisdom about mind, morals, and the meaning of life, then studying different traditions might reveal what it is.

Ideas hatched (not by me) at that 2000 meeting, the Eighth Mind and Life Conference, led to some widely discussed brain-imaging experiments that allegedly showed that Buddhists are unusually happy. Because I had been present at the original discussions about whether Buddhism—specifically, certain kinds of Buddhist meditation practices—might produce positive changes in the hearts and minds of practitioners, I was frequently asked to speak and write about those experiments. According to the news media, they did show conclusively that Buddhism, perhaps uniquely among the world’s great wisdom traditions, produces happiness. The publication of Daniel Goleman’s popular book about the conference, Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue With the Dalai Lama (2003), helped establish the consensus that Buddhists are, in fact, the happiest people in the world.

By then I was speaking and writing quite a bit about the purported connection between Buddhism and happiness, and I was also immersed in serious study of Buddhist philosophy. (For the record, I am not a Buddhist.) As a philosopher who has spent most of my life thinking about the nature of mind, the mind-body problem, and how mind, morals, and the meaning of life connect, as well as trying to make the world safe for a fully naturalistic view of mind, I was intrigued and frequently bewildered by having an inside seat at one of those rare moments when science—in this case, cognitive science—philosophy, and religion (or something like religion) intersect.

Since that conference, the hyperbole around the idea that neuroscience can empirically vindicate the claims of one lived philosophical tradition (Buddhism) to yield something like happiness at a higher rate than other contenders has been jaw-dropping. Here were people—Buddhists or folks who believe that Buddhism is the correct answer to the question “How ought I to be and live?”—who were typically immaterialists about consciousness, looking at the brain for markers or correlates of a happy and good life.

I adopted the role of a sort of epistemologist-participant-observer from the planets of analytic philosophy and 21st-century cognitive science in relation to these Buddhism-neuroscience discussions. It has been interesting to watch a lived philosophical tradition explore empirical evidence of its efficacy. I tried to follow the dialectic closely, and in my book The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, I offer a report of the lessons learned.

The short version of the report card is this: There is no good scientific evidence that Buddhists are happier than other people. But since when did Buddhism get into the racket of promising happiness? Aristotle said that all people seek eudaimonia, which is normally translated as fulfillment or flourishing, not as happiness. Eudaimonia is not a purely subjective state. According to Aristotle, you cannot know if a person is eudaimon until—possibly long after that individual is gone—you see how the grandkids turn out.

And in any case, what does happiness have to do with meaning and significance? Was Socrates happy? Confucius? Jesus? Buddha? Buddhism, like most other great spiritual traditions, normally offers meaning or purpose, not happiness, or at least not anything like ordinary happiness.

The examination of how one might study the relationship between Buddhism, or, for that matter, any religion, and positive states of mind by brain imaging opens up a set of thorny issues about the kinds of flourishing on offer from different spiritual traditions and where that flourishing is located—whether in the head or in the communal lives of adherents. If the flourishing is, as I believe, in adherents’ communal lives, then it is not going to show up on brain images. Looking for eudaimonia in the brains of individuals is like looking for a baseball game in the heads of its 18 players.

Besides using the recent surge of interest in Buddhist meditation and its alleged effects to tell a cautionary tale about excessive enthusiasm for brain imaging in the study of well-being, I also take up this question: Can Buddhism be demythologized?

So the second, more constructive aim in writing the book was to introduce my fellow philosophers, as well as the many scientific naturalists who, like me, are allergic to hocus-pocus, to a deflated, secular Buddhism, what I call “Buddhism naturalized.” Buddhism, like Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophies, is comprehensive. It contains a metaphysics—everything, including me, is impermanent—an epistemology that is empirical (the Dalai Lama says that if science disproves rebirth, Buddhists should give it up), and an ethics—a way of conceiving the human predicament, human nature, and human flourishing—that is philosophically sophisticated and not simply superstition, a karmic mechanism for moral control, and an opiate for the masses.

Is it possible to take an ancient, comprehensive philosophy like Buddhism, subtract the hocus-pocus, and have a worthwhile philosophy for 21st-century, scientifically informed secular thinkers? It strikes me that among the world’s major spiritual traditions, Buddhism (I’d say Taoism and Confucianism as well, but that is a different essay) isn’t ethically or politically dangerous and is, in its saner forms, extremely sophisticated philosophically, even credible. The history of the West has been and continues to be the story of bloodbaths rooted partly in preposterous faith claims, whereas Buddhism has been kindler and gentler, despite being a proselytizing tradition like Christianity and Islam.

Many Westerners are attracted to Buddhism (or at least its Western manifestations) because it offers one way to be “spiritual but not religious,” the currently favored answer to the religion question on social-networking sites.

That is an interesting development. Historically, Buddhism is atheistic or quietistic when it comes to a creator God. Siddhartha (the birth name of Buddha) put the creation question, as well as most other standard metaphysical questions, aside as impractical or beyond human understanding, or both. But many varieties of Buddhism are opulently polytheistic insofar as spirits, protector deities, ghosts, and evil spirits abound. Buddhists in East and Southeast Asia believe in rebirth (reincarnation) in about the same proportions as most North Americans believe in heaven. Amusingly, many believers in heaven find belief in rebirth superstitious and thus silly, whereas, from a reflective, naturalistic perspective, both are silly.

Is a fully secular, naturalistic understanding of Buddhism possible? Are secular, naturalistic Buddhists really Buddhists?

Naturalism comes in many varieties, but the entry-level union card—the famous empiricist David Hume is our hero—expresses solidarity with this motto: “Just say no to the supernatural.” Rebirths, heavens, hells, creator gods, teams of gods, village demons, miracles, and divine retribution in the form of plagues, earthquakes, and tsunamis are things naturalists don’t believe in. What there is, and all there is, is natural stuff, and everything that happens has some set of natural causes that produce it—although we may not be able to figure out what those causes are, or were.

Why be a naturalist? World historical evidence suggests that naturalism, vague as it is, keeps being vindicated, while the zones “explained” by the supernatural get smaller everyday. Naturalism is a good bet.

Imagine Buddhism without rebirth, without a karmic system that guarantees ultimate justice, without nirvana, without bodhisattvas flying around on lotus leaves, without Buddha worlds, without nonphysical states of mind, without deities, without realms of heavens and hells, without oracles, without lamas who are reincarnations of lamas. What would be left? 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 know and what is possible to know; and an ethics, a theory about virtue and vice and how best to live.

This philosophical theory is worthy of attention by analytic philosophers, scientific naturalists, and anyone who wants to lead a good life. It is plausible, even philosophically defensible. Buddhism naturalized, if there could be such a thing, is compatible with the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution and with a commitment to scientific materialism. Buddhism naturalized would be a total philosophy, if it could credibly be called “Buddhism” after subtracting the superstition and magical thinking (although those aspects are psychologically and sociologically understandable).

Such a theory might shed light on the human predicament, on how finite material beings such as human animals fit into the larger scheme of material being. Buddhism naturalized, if there could be such a thing, delivers what Buddhism, possibly uniquely among the world’s spiritual traditions, promises to offer: no false promises, no illusions, no delusions. False, self-serving belief, moha, is a sin for Buddhists.

It is a fair question to ask of Buddhism, or any other great spiritual tradition, whether it contains a useful and truthful philosophy for our time, a philosophy that is compatible with the rest of knowledge as it now exists. Can Buddhism be naturalized, tamed, and made compatible with a philosophy that is empirically responsible and does not embrace the low epistemic standards that permit all manner of superstition and nonsense?

We also need to call to task those glib souls who claim that science, specifically neuroscience, can tell us what constitutes true happiness and how Buddhism (or any other philosophical tradition, for that matter) can produce it. Such claims are scientifically premature as well as philosophically naive. Flourishing and happiness are not in the head, or at least not only in the head. They might be in our hands, if we pay close attention to which among the myriad experiments in living work well and which not so well.

History, sociology, anthropology, behavioral economics, comparative philosophy, even what I call comparative neurophilosophy are required, and also happily available, as tools for understanding better whether and how human flourishing is possible. After all, how to live well—how, as finite beings, to find meaning in a material world—is a really hard problem, the hardest problem of all.