Why Evan Thompson Isn’t a Buddhist

A conversation with scholar Evan Thompson about his new book “Why I Am Not A Buddhist” and why Western Buddhism could use more non-Buddhist friends.

Sam Littlefair
31 January 2020
Evan Thompson.

Sometimes, Buddhists think they have all the answers. Scholar Evan Thompson calls that attitude “Buddhist exceptionalism.” In his new book, Why I Am Not a Buddhist, Thompson offers a truly compelling critique of Buddhist exceptionalism and of modern Buddhism as a whole. But he doesn’t reject Buddhism outright. In fact, he identifies himself as a “good friend of Buddhism,” and he makes a strong case for why Buddhism could use more non-Buddhist friends. Thompson spoke with me about his book, his criticisms of modern Buddhism, and his hopes for a more cosmopolitan Buddhism.

Sam Littlefair: Where did you get the idea to write the book?

Evan Thompson: The initial impetus to write the book came from my participation in a number of events that brought together Buddhist meditation practitioners and Buddhist scholars and scientists who were doing research on meditation. I had been working in this area of the neuroscience of consciousness and the study of meditation. When I would participate in these events, people would just assume that I was a Buddhist. And, when I would say “Actually, I’m not a Buddhist,” they would be surprised and want to how I could participate in these events.

It got started as a way of responding to that question. So, the title, Why I Am Not A Buddhist, that initially came to me in response to people saying, “You’re not a Buddhist? Why not?” Then I realized that it was echoing Bertrand Russell’s famous essay “Why I’m Not a Christian.”

SL: What is a Buddhist?

ET: There is no one way to be a Buddhist. At the very beginning of the book, I say that there are different ways of being a Buddhist in the modern world.

Like, traditional Asian forms of Buddhism, what people sometimes call “ethnic Buddhists” — you are raised in a family that practices a traditional Asian form of Buddhism, and it’s just part of your culture your upbringing.

Another way is when one becomes a monk or nun and renounces the secular world and takes up a monastic form of practice.

And then there’s the idea that I’m really critically concerned with in the book, of what’s called “Buddhist modernism.” Even within that sort of context of Buddhist modernism, there are different ways to be a Buddhist. One line that you often hear is that to be a Buddhist is to recognize the three jewels of Buddha, dharma, and sangha. If one has declared an allegiance to that, then that’s enough to be a Buddhist. One can do that in a modern way by thinking, “Buddhism isn’t really a religion; it’s a path of spirituality,” or an “inner science of mind.” I can think of myself as a “secular Buddhist.” It’s the idea that Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion.

When Buddhist modernists say that Buddhism isn’t a religion and try to use science to justify Buddhism, that’s an instance of misunderstanding what religion is and what science is.

A philosopher who is knowledgeable about the Tibetan Buddhist way of framing things might say that one way to be a Buddhist is to accept the “four seals”: the propositions of no-self, impermanence, that all conditioned things are tainted, and that nirvana is liberation. If one subscribes to those four ideas, you can say that’s what it is to be a Buddhist in more philosophical terms.

SL: What is Buddhist modernism?

ET: Buddhist modernism is a form of Buddhism that arose in 19th-century Asia out of Asian Buddhist responses to European colonialism and the assertion of the superiority of Europe and the Christian religion, which was presented as the religion that was most compatible with science. The Buddhist modernist reformers had a very clever move that they made — almost like an Aikido move. They turned it around and said, “Well, actually, Buddhism is much more compatible with science, because we don’t assert the existence of a creator god, and we don’t assert the existence of an eternal soul, and we stress the law of cause and effect, and we emphasize personal insight and direct experiential realizations.”

So, they crafted Buddhism in a way that presented it as modern and scientific. And then that form of Buddhism was exported to the West and then re-imported back to Asia. So, we have this complex trans-cultural, trans-regional form of Buddhism that claims that Buddhism is a scientific path, a rational path, that the Buddha was a rational empiricist thinker.

See also: “Yes, Buddhism is a Religion,” by Scott Mitchell

This is the form of Buddhism that shaped the way that Buddhism is talked about and the way Buddhist communities conceive of themselves in the West. And this is what I’m criticizing in the book.

I like to think of myself as trying to be a good friend to Buddhism, because Buddhism is an extremely deep and profound and valuable human tradition. So, what I’m trying to do in the book is to bring out what I see are the problems with Buddhist modernism to talk about whether Buddhism in the modern world can go beyond Buddhist modernism.

SL: In the book, you criticize Buddhist modernism. But you also say that you don’t feel that you can subscribe to any of the other traditional threads of Buddhism that you described. Could you say more about that?

ET: If we take them one by one, in the case of what is sometimes called ethnic Buddhism, I’m not Asian. I’m of European descent, and I was not raised in a traditional ethnic Asian form of Buddhism. It’s not really possible for me to be a Buddhist in that sense.

When I was younger, I thought about what it might mean to devote myself for part of my life to a monastic form of Buddhism. But, that didn’t appeal to me.

And, I suppose the more significant point is that in the so-called Western World — North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand — to be engaged with Buddhism is to be engaged with Buddhist modernism in one way or another. Because, Buddhism in this modern world is so shaped by Buddhist modernism.

SL: In the book, you talk about how the word “enlightenment,” in Buddhism, comes from the Protestant enlightenment worldview, which was very rational, which is ironic because, in Buddhism, “enlightenment” is arguably very faith-based.

ET: That’s right. The term “enlightenment” has a very rich and deep history in Christianity. And it was taken up by the philosophers of the so-called “age of enlightenment,” who emphasized thinking for yourself and rationality and science. Max Mueller — one of the founding figures of the academic study of religion, one of the early translators of Sanskrit and Pali texts —used the term “enlightenment” to translate the Sanskrit bodhi, which means awakening. In doing so, he presented Buddhist awakening as a rational, empirical insight into how things are, molded very much by the Christian metaphor of removing the dimness, seeing things illuminated, which, for Christians, meant in the light of God and Jesus Christ.

SL: How does Buddhist modernism give way to Buddhist exceptionalism?

ET: I use the term Buddhist exceptionalism to describe the idea that Buddhism is fundamentally, essentially different from any other religion. It’s exceptional in being based on the figure of the Buddha who is a rational free thinker empiricist. This is, again, this European, Protestant-informed construct of the historical Buddha — about whom we actually know very little. I argue that Buddhist exceptionalism is a central component of Buddhist modernism. Buddhist modernism is so steeped in Buddhist exceptionalism that it’s one of the central limitations.

When Buddhist modernism forms out of, for instance, [Japanese writer] D.T. Suzuki’s writings — which are very influenced by modern Japanese thinkers, who are influenced by [American philosopher] William James — and D.T. Suzuki says, “Zen isn’t really a religion. It’s about direct experience. And religion is about belief.” And he says, “Zen is the true heart of all religion. It’s the essence of all religion.” It’s an assertion of a kind of superiority of Buddhism. And so that’s what I call Buddhist exceptionalism. And it’s central to Buddhist modernism.

We see that in all sorts of statements that people will make today when they say “Buddhism isn’t really a religion, it’s a mind science.” Or, “Buddhism is different from other kinds of religions because it’s not about belief, but about direct experience.” My argument in the book is that this way of thinking takes Protestant Christianity as the reference point for what religion should be — which is a matter of belief — and says, “Buddhism isn’t a matter of belief. It’s a matter of experience.” From a scholarly perspective on the study of religion, Buddhism is certainly a religion: its central concepts are about liberation and salvation; it’s structured in terms of the idea of existence as suffering; and liberation from suffering is the realization of awakening or nirvana. These are fundamentally religious notions.

SL: What are your key criticisms of Buddhist modernism?

ET: Buddhist modernism is the idea that Buddhism is either not a religion or is fundamentally different from other religions. I challenge that idea by pointing out that the, that the formative concepts in Buddhism — the whole Buddhist way of looking at the world: that existence is unsatisfactory, that liberation comes from the realization of not-self — those are religious notions.

Buddhist modernism says that science has shown that there is no self. It uses science to try to legitimize Buddhism. I argue that the scientific story about self is actually much more complicated than that. It’s not that “science says that there is no self.” Science says that self is a construction, and, from a scientific point of view, it’s actually a very useful and functional construction. Whereas, from the Buddhist perspective, it’s a problematic illusion.

I also criticize a recent form of Buddhist modernism that is sometimes called neural Buddhism, which is the idea that neuroscience shows the validity of Buddhist meditation by showing how Buddhist meditation changes the brain in beneficial ways and (again) proves that there really isn’t a self — because, if you look inside the brain, there is no self to be found. So, I argue that, first of all, the evidence for the effects of Buddhist meditation on the brain are very tentative. There’s a lot of hype around that. And, it’s not really the right way to think about what meditation is. Meditation is as much a kind of ritual, communal practice as it is something that occurs in an isolated individual, inside their head. Many of the beneficial effects of meditation may come from the community support structure and the sociality of the practice

Then, when Buddhist modernists say that Buddhism isn’t a religion and try to use science to justify Buddhism — that’s an instance of misunderstanding what religion is and what science is and the relationship between religion and science. Religion is about communities, texts, traditions, and practices that give meaning to life and life’s great events, like birth and death. Religion has frameworks for understanding those events. And those frameworks have to do with community and, and shared practices and rituals. And science is about the knowledge that we acquire when we are able to agree publicly and inter-subjectively on modes of investigation, ways of testing things, tools — like mathematics — that we can use to model and check things. Asking whether science and religion are compatible or incompatible is like asking whether religion and art, or science and art are compatible or incompatible. It’s not the right kind of question to ask. Religion isn’t inherently incompatible or compatible with science. It depends on how you practice religion and how you think of science.

SL: On the point of using science to legitimize the Buddhist notion of non-self, I’m looking at an article from Quartz, published 2015, and the title is “Neuroscience backs up the Buddhist belief that ‘the self’ isn’t constant, but ever-changing.” And the main source in the article is: you.

ET: Yes. That’s a good one to point out. So, journalists never get to write their own titles, so I’m going to assume that the author of that article didn’t write that title. In any case, I don’t mean to criticize her or whoever came up with the title.

The point that I made in the conversation with her is that, from a scientific perspective, the self is an ongoing construction on different levels. Some of it is biological. Some of it is social. Some of it is historical. Some of it is linguistic and cultural. The analogy I use is that the self is like a dance. A dance exists in the dancing and a self exists in the ongoing process of self-making. So, from the, from the scientific point of view, there’s no single, essential, inner, static self pearl. There is an ongoing dynamic process of self-construction. That idea, in some ways, connects to Buddhist ideas, but it’s also fundamentally different from the Buddhist idea that the self is an illusion. In the book, I have a chapter on self, and it’s exactly on that issue.

SL:  I was surprised when I read that part of the book, and I went back to this article, and realized that you never actually make the claim in the title.

ET: That’s right. It is not my view, and I’m not quoted as saying in that article that science shows that the Buddhists are right.

SL: But it raises an interesting question. You’re seen as a leading thinker on bringing together Buddhist views with science. When you criticize Buddhist modernism, do you feel like it’s something you yourself have contributed to?

ET: That’s a great question, because it goes to some of the personal and intellectual story behind the book. At an earlier phase of my work, particularly when I was working on the book called The Embodied Mind, coauthored with the neuroscientist Francisco Varela and the psychologist Eleanor Rosch, who were both Tibetan Buddhists. When we wrote the book, which was published in 1991, we used Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist meditation practices to present a way of understanding the lack of a fixed essential self, and the discovery that the mind is a complex network of interdependent processes. I worked on that book when I was a graduate student. I think it’s fair to say it was the first book that related Buddhist philosophy to cognitive science, the scientific study of the mind, and the Western philosophy of mind.

In that phase of my work, which carried over into my work with the Mind and Life Institute — an organization that brings together scientists and philosophers with the Dalai Lama and with Buddhist scholars to have dialogues about scientific topics — I did in a way, see my work as an attempt to bring Buddhism into a rich exchange with Western science and Western philosophy. That is still very important to me. The Buddhist intellectual and philosophical tradition, I think, is really one of the world’s deep philosophical traditions. But, at that point in my life, I was very much thinking of Buddhism in a Buddhist modernist way without actually realizing it, and was very much caught up in that Buddhist exceptionalism. In fact, I very much believed that Buddhism was either not a religion or it had elements that are scientific — in that they could be extracted out of the context of being a religion to be brought into engagement with science.

I was very excited to go on the retreat. And it was a very intense and joyous and uplifting experience — almost a little too joyous and uplifting.

On the personal side, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the way that the science–Buddhism dialogue was evolving, especially in the context of the Mind and Life Institute. It became very ideological. There were scientists who were committed practitioners of Buddhist meditation who, I think, wanted to use science to justify Buddhism. As a philosopher, I found this really problematic. I started to read more about the history of Buddhism, and I realized that what we were doing was the latest chapter of something that had begun in the 19th century, and that it was actually very problematic precisely because of the misrepresentations of science and religion and Buddhist exceptionalism. So I started to review and revise and think about my own work.

I also related that to my own experience of various Buddhist meditation practices. To give a concrete example: in 2008, I participated in an insight meditation retreat for scientists and clinical researchers at the Insight Meditation Society, led by Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg. They have a standard seven-day retreat format, which is a progression into an acquaintance with Burmese Vipassana insight meditation practice in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw.

I was very excited to go on the retreat. And it was a very intense and joyous and uplifting experience — almost in a way that was a little too joyous and uplifting. So, it made me sort of suspicious. At the retreat, there were, many people I knew who were scientists, clinicians, philosophers, grad students, postdocs, and professors, and we were all practicing together. So, there was this very intense group atmosphere. And the idea was that we were embarking on an investigation of the mind that was stripped of dogma. In scientific terms, you could say it was a method of inner observation and introspection that was rigorous and rational and scientific. This was very compelling to me.

But, all along the way, during the retreat, there was this little voice off to the side — my skeptical philosopher voice, which said, “You know, this isn’t really about seeing things as they are. This is about learning to sculpt your experience in a certain way. You’re being given certain concepts, like impermanence and moment-to-moment arising and you’re using them to attend to your experience in a certain way, and you’re accentuating things in your experience, and you’re not speaking — because it’s a silent retreat — so you’re internalizing these instructions and concepts in a powerful way. And you know that everybody else is doing this. And this is kind of a collective social construction that we’re all reinforcing for each other. It’s as much about creating a certain mode of experience as it is about revealing anything pre-existently there.”

So, I started to think about that and it led me to think that things aren’t as advertised. Not false advertising, but just that people are presenting things as being a certain way, when careful examination and scrutiny shows that’s not the only way of thinking about them. That led me into reading a lot about religious practice and ritual and the social aspects of religion. And I realized that a meditation retreat is a religious event. The silence, the rituals, the sculpted practices — how you walk into the room, how you acknowledge or don’t acknowledge others — the discourse you learn, the interviews you have with the teachers. All of this is a social, ritualistic construction that shapes people’s inner lives.

That experience led me to go back and rethink what was going on in the science–Buddhism dialogue as I had been participating in it. So, in this book, I want to share the results of those reflections in a way that is friendly towards Buddhism. My criticisms are meant to be friendly ones that grow out of my own involvement with Buddhism and my belief that it really is a very fundamentally important human tradition. But, I want to bring these things out and have people reflect on them.

SL: I want to flip one of the earlier questions on its head. For a lot of people, calling yourself a Buddhist or not isn’t necessarily a big deal. Why is it important to you to not call yourself a Buddhist?

ET: There are two ways to answer that.

On the personal side, it has to do with my own upbringing. I was a kid in the 1970s. I was raised in an alternative spiritual-slash-educational community that was founded by my parents, William Irwin Thompson and Gail Thompson. My dad had been a university professor. He quit the university in the early 1970s because he felt that the universities were not providing the kind of knowledge and worldview that the world needed in order to survive looming crises of energy and environment. So, he created an alternative institution called the Lindisfarne Association. It was a commune in 1970s fashion. It also had scholars and scientists and artists and activists and religious, spiritual teachers flowing through it for conferences and living in the community. So, I grew up around teachers from different religious and spiritual traditions. Including many Zen Buddhists and Tibetan Buddhists. So, I became acquainted with Buddhism very early. I was very attracted to in some ways, but also uncomfortable with it in other ways. So, it’s kind of been an issue for me, since my childhood, to figure out my relationship to Buddhism.

For a certain phase of my life, I tried to be a Buddhist. I would go on meditation retreats. I tried to become a member of different sanghas in different cities that I lived in. But I always came up against something that was increasingly important to me as a philosopher, which was the recognition of the diversity of intellectual, philosophical traditions and the importance of their interaction, without shutting down a conversation by affirming allegiance to one. And this gets articulated in my book, under the heading of “cosmopolitanism.”

The Buddhist communities that I was interacting with had very much a Buddhist exceptionalist attitude, a sense of having found the true path.

Cosmopolitanism is a term philosophers used for a way of thinking that we see in Ancient Greece, in Europe in the Age of Enlightenment. There are versions of it in India. There are versions of it in China. It’s the view that human beings all belong to one human family. There are many different traditions and beliefs and ways of life, and they should be respected for their differences. We should care about the welfare of the different individuals in different communities, and one can have different allegiances and commitments to different communities or one can navigate back and forth between them.

What I struggled with in my own life and work was an allegiance to cosmopolitanism versus an attraction to Buddhism. At points, I wanted to become a Buddhist, but then found it didn’t work for all sorts of reasons. The Buddhist communities that I was interacting with had very much a Buddhist exceptionalist attitude, a sense of having found the true path, a sense of superiority, of sanctimony. While, at the same time, they were filled with interpersonal human relationship dynamics, often involving a lot of sexism and in some cases abuse of women on the part of the teachers. So, as a result of all of those different elements, it became important for me to really think about and clarify both philosophically and personally what my relationship to Buddhism was. And that, in effect, is what led to this book.

SL: Some Buddhists say it’s important to choose a specific spiritual tradition and devote oneself deeply to that tradition, and there can be a stigma against “spiritual shopping.” Do you think there’s an inherent conflict between Buddhism and cosmopolitanism?

ET: There can be a cherry-picking mentality in modern, so-called spirituality-without-religion. That’s not what I mean by cosmopolitanism. There is a sense of the term that carries that connotation, but I’m using to mean a philosophical idea, which is that one thinks of oneself as a citizen of the human community, first and foremost. Cosmopolitanism is an attempt to have an all-encompassing, universal vision that respects and encompasses the specifics and particularities of different communities and traditions.

I have no argument against someone who chooses to lead their life by identifying with a tradition and going deep into that. What I object to is the rhetoric that often goes along with that. In the case of Buddhist modernism, it’s the claim that Buddhism isn’t religious, or that it’s spiritual-but-not-religious, or that it can be justified by science.

Buddhism can be cosmopolitan. In different times and places, it has been part of a cosmopolitan community. In China, Buddhism interacts and intertwines with Taoism and Confucianism and is changed and shaped by them as much as it affects them. These traditions are always an interaction with each other.

I would object to an idea of authenticity or purity — the idea that I’m a member of a tradition and it’s the authentic and pure one. If it’s “authentic and pure” that means that it’s insulated unto itself and has a special, unchanging inner teaching that isn’t shaped by the world and history and context and culture. I think that’s just false. Everything is always changing and interacting with other things. That’s the world in which we live.

SL: Mahayana Buddhists take a vow to liberate all beings. You could argue that liberating all sentient beings means exposing them to the Buddhadharma. Do you think it’s an implied Buddhist belief that everyone should be Buddhist?

ET: That’s an interesting question. It depends on the kind of Buddhist you are. If you believe in rebirth and a vast cycle of lifetimes, you could see that maybe you’re not a Buddhist in this life, but in another life you’ll be a Buddhist. So, they can take a longer view, and that might relieve some of the pressure to proselytize

But, it’s an interesting question for modern Buddhists who may disavow the idea of rebirth — what it means to take the bodhisattva vow. “All beings free from suffering.” Does that mean that all beings have to become Buddhists? It doesn’t necessarily logically follow. It does mean that one is striving for the awakening of all beings. And then one has to ask, you know, what exactly does that mean? And one of the things I say in my book is that modern Buddhists have to work out for themselves what the answers to these questions are, and what those answers mean practically. It would be problematic for a Buddhist, I think, who isn’t a fundamentalist to assert that everyone should become Buddhist. Any missionary religion faces this problem if it wants to be modern and liberal. If salvation is through Jesus Christ, does that mean everybody has to become Christian? This is a problem for modern religion. And I think, what’s important for Buddhist modernists is that they really recognize and grapple with that question.

SL: You focus most of your critiques focus on Buddhist modernism and Buddhism as it is practiced in the West today. That left me wondering if you feel that there are problems in the Buddhist scripture or orthodoxy, like the four seals or the three jewels.

ET: There are formative, fundamental Buddhist ideas that we see across all different variations of Buddhism, like the Four Noble Truths, dependent origination, nirvana, samsara. But the way they get articulated in any given text or tradition varies a lot, so I want to acknowledge that in some ways the devil is in the details. But, we could zoom out and look at something like the four seals, which is one way that’s really important for Tibetans to mark what’s distinctive about the Buddhist worldview. The four seals are: everything is impermanent, everything is non-self, all conditioned things are tainted, and nirvana is peace. I am not a Buddhist in the sense that I don’t subscribe to those four ideas. Specifically, I don’t subscribe to the idea that all conditioned things are tainted.

You could argue that this is really deep down in the guts of Buddhism, the idea that things are fundamentally unsatisfactory. Whereas, nirvana is what is truly satisfactory, truly peaceful. You could say that that’s a core, structural idea of Buddhism. As a philosopher, it’s not an idea that I subscribe to. I have profound respect for the idea. I think it’s an expression of a very deep human realization. But I don’t subscribe to it because my worldview is one in which conditioned and impermanent things are part of the nature of the cosmos. They’re not inherently contaminated or tainted or unsatisfactory. They can be occasions of suffering, but they can also be occasions of other things. So, if we wanted to go to the core of why I’m not a Buddhist, speaking philosophically about the central commitments of Buddhism — not just Buddhist modernism — that would be why I’m not a Buddhist.

SL: One last question. You have a take-no-prisoners approach in your book. In your criticisms, you name names, like B. Alan Wallace, Robert Wright, the Dalai Lama, and even your mentor, Francisco Varela. Are you worried about getting any angry letters?

ET: So, my mentor, Francisco, is dead and gone. So I’m not gonna get angry letters from him. These are things that I argued with him about, in an earlier phase of my thinking. We had friendly arguments around some of these things. And he brought me up to question things, not hide my views. I’ll offer a personal anecdote.

I mentioned that I grew up in this community, the Lindisfarne Association, and Francisco lived with us as a scholar in residence. My father was running a program in New York City with a lot of visiting lecturers, and there was a philosopher who came and gave a lecture on Plato. I was a teenager, and I was studying Plato.

Afterward, the lecturer asked me what I thought of his lecture, and I gave a very non-committal, polite response. But I had said earlier to Francisco that I thought this person really misunderstood Plato. But I didn’t say that in my response. I said, “Oh, well, you know, it was an interesting and enjoyable lecture.” Later, Francisco really scolded me. He said, “You shouldn’t do that. You had your ideas and views about it, and you knew something about it, and you should have said what you thought! If somebody asks you what you think, you’re under an obligation to tell them.” It was very friendly, but he really chided me. I was 15 years old and it really stuck in my mind. So, in the case of Francisco, he would have wanted me to write this book. He would not necessarily agree with everything in the book, but he would’ve wanted me to write it.

As for other people, I don’t know how they’re going to respond. Some of them are friends, and I hope that they will be provoked and will come back, and, if they criticize me and disagree with me, that’s fair play. That’s just part of the discussion. But we’ll see.

Sam Littlefair

Sam Littlefair

Sam Littlefair is the former editor of LionsRoar.com. He has also written for The Coast, Mindful, and Atlantic Books Today. Find him on Twitter, @samlfair, and Facebook, @samlfair.