The Problem with Calling Buddhism a Science

Michael Sheehy reviews “­­­Why I Am Not a Buddhist,” by Evan Thompson.

Michael Sheehy13 August 2020
Untitled, Heads, 2002 Jun Kaneko. Photo by Dirk Bakker. © Jun Kaneko Studio L.L.C.

We could easily imagine a book today being titled, Why I Am a Buddhist. Such a hypothetical author could claim that he is not religious, nor does he believe in the triple gem of the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Instead, he could argue that he identifies as being Buddhist because his life experiences, including his meditation experiences, have shown that (1) when things are born, they eventually die and when they come together, they eventually fall apart; that (2) there is physical and emotional pain that we feel by virtue of being alive; that (3) after close inspection, there is no persistent essence or identity to things in the world, including one’s own personal identity; and that (4) exceptional states of being exist beyond concepts, time, or location. This author could identify as being Buddhist because he found these so-called “four seals” or marks of existence that are explained in the Buddha’s teachings to be verifiable. He would claim that impermanence, pain, selflessness, and nirvana are not religious beliefs, but rather are objects of empirical inquiry that can be scientifically validated, and that is why he is a Buddhist.

Such a hypothetical book, at least according to philosopher Evan Thompson, would reflect the worldview of a Buddhist modernist—precisely the worldview that Thompson seeks to rebuke in his most recent book, Why I Am Not a Buddhist.

While Thompson’s book is not autobiographical per se, to appreciate why this book is important we have to know something about the author’s story. Evan Thompson, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a pioneer in the reconfiguration of traditional cognitive science and one of the central figures in the Buddhism and science dialogue. Thompson’s collaboration with Francisco Varela, the founding scientist of the Mind and Life Institute, led them to coauthor with Eleanor Rosch the groundbreaking book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. This was the first book to seriously advance the relevance of Buddhist philosophy to cognitive science. Since Varela’s death in 2001, Thompson has been a regular and formidable presence in Mind and Life Institute programs, and a stalwart advocate for the need to include cross-cultural philosophy in the scientific engagement with Buddhism. Thompson’s background is important not only for the reader to understand why the author is not a Buddhist, but more to the point, how the author has come to argue against current developments in contemplative neuroscience, and even the Buddhism and science dialogue.

Why I Am Not a Buddhist is Thompson’s argument against Buddhist modernism, the reinterpretation of Buddhism to suit modern Western cultural ideas and practices, in particular what he terms “Buddhist exceptionalism,” the belief that Buddhism is superior to other religions because it presents itself to be rational and empirical.

Buddhist modernism is traced to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century encounters between Asian Buddhist reformers and European colonizers. In these early exchanges, having learned a few tricks from missionaries who presented Christianity to be scientific, Asian Buddhists presented Buddhism to Europeans as a rational religion, without a god, founded by a human. Over the past century, this way of thinking about Buddhism as being scientific has influenced the transformation of many Asian Buddhist traditions into modern hybrid forms of Buddhism. Thompson specifically takes issue with the claim made by the Dalai Lama in several Mind and Life Dialogues that Buddhism is a “science of the mind,” or the even more zealous claim of a “Buddhist science.” Thompson’s principle argument is this: Buddhists are Buddhists not because they have scientific proof but because they embrace a vision of the world that provides a meaningful life. Even if a Buddhist chooses to interpret Buddhism to be in harmony with science, it doesn’t follow that science confirms or disproves Buddhism.

Thompson takes particular issue with Buddhist modernist views of no-self. Citing contemporary philosophers whose views are supposedly informed by Buddhism, and who take the self to be an illusion, he argues that these views are not consistent with cognitive science, because cognitive science does not confirm that the self is an illusion. He contends that for cognitive science, concepts of self do not entail a personal essence or an independent thing, but are rather understood to be an ongoing process that constructs or enacts a self. Thompson uses the analogy that the self is like dancing: dancing is a process that enacts a dance, and just like the dance is no different from the dancing, the “I” is no different from the process of the self. The problem with this line of argumentation is that this is the Buddhist view of the self—while debated in early Buddhism, the Buddhist view that historically won out is that the self is an ongoing process of construction that enacts an identity. For Buddhists, the self is not an illusion; it is like an illusion, just as it is like dancing. Here, a reader could easily misinterpret the view Thompson ascribes to Buddhist modernists—that the self is an illusion—to be representative of Buddhist views. In doing so, they might not connect the dots, which reveal that cognitive science and the Buddhist view of the self are in fact remarkably compatible.

Not surprisingly, Thompson targets popular ideas about mindfulness: first, that mindfulness is an inward awareness of your private mind, and second, that the best way to understand the effects of mindfulness is to look inside your brain. As he explains, these two ideas reinforce each other. That is, if you think that mindfulness is directed inward, you are likely to think that looking inside your brain is the best way to measure mindfulness. This way of thinking has led to the “train your brain” mantra of “neural Buddhism” that feeds the current mindfulness mania. As Thompson explains, your mind is not your brain, nor is it inside your brain; your mind includes your whole body embedded in the world, and lives in between you and your world, your social relationships, and your culture. If you understand that your mind, and thereby mindfulness, is not merely a private experience that is located in your head, you understand how it is a mistake to map mindfulness states onto brain areas or neural networks. This assertion—that meditation is a social and cultural practice—is the book’s most compelling argument. One can hope that it will be recognized by researchers so that any science of meditation examines how cultural practices orchestrate the skills of meditation.

Thompson also takes on enlightenment. He suggests that Buddhist modernists reinterpret enlightenment to be consistent with their scientific worldview: some demythologize enlightenment by turning it into a rational psychological state, while others romanticize enlightenment by turning it into an intuitive, nonconceptual epiphany. He explains how neural Buddhists have taken this a step further by arguing that there are neural correlates of enlightenment experiences that can be detected in the brain. Building on his argument about mindfulness, he reasons that if enlightenment is psychologically plausible, as Buddhist modernists claim, then it must have specifiable psychological content that can be identified, which is impossible given the diversity of views on enlightenment within Buddhism. Thompson takes the stance that either you have faith in enlightenment or you believe in science; if the latter, then you have to give up the idea of enlightenment because enlightenment is a nonconceptual realization that cannot be scientifically discerned.

Thompson is correct in asserting that enlightenment is not a brain state. Any attempt to reduce human experience to neural correlates is not only nonviable but silly—especially the profound social and embodied expressions of spontaneity, responsiveness, caring, fearlessness, and so forth that Buddhists associate with enlightenment. It is also, however, a mistake to reduce Buddhist realization to faith alone. In Indian Mahayana Buddhism, the term most closely translated to be “faith” (Skt., sraddha) is explained in the classical literature to be threefold: lucid faith, faith of certainty, and faith of longing. The first, lucid faith, emerges from experiences in the presence of something greater than oneself, for instance, being inspired by staring up at galaxies sparkling in the night sky and thereby developing confidence in the powers of nature. Faith of certainty emerges from experiences of testing, observing, and learning how things work—an example would be having confidence that when you turn the key, the car engine will turn on. Faith of longing aspires for what lies beyond the confines of the ordinary mind, and is perhaps closest to what Thompson means when he writes that “Buddhism is based on belief and faith in the Buddha’s enlightenment.” For Thompson, faith in enlightenment is what makes Buddhism religious; it is also what makes enlightenment unscientific. But what if faith, at least the kinds described by Buddhists, is different from blind or naive belief in an abstraction—what if, as Buddhists describe, it is the confidence born from an experience? For many Buddhists, at least as described in the classical literature, faith in enlightenment comes about not only from aspiring for what lies beyond the norms of ordinary life, but also from having tasted the possibility of enlightenment for yourself, often through meditation or another catalyst. Once you have a taste, you cultivate confidence in your ability to sustain that experience through various practices that purposely enact, mimic, and imagine enlightenment. While it is the case that Buddhist modernists take it too far by claiming enlightenment is neurological, it is also worth noting that Buddhists have historically employed processes for checking, validating, and building confidence in first person proof about the experience of enlightenment.

As Thompson rightfully acknowledges, Buddhists have for a long time grappled with the puzzles and paradoxes of enlightenment. In fact, the elusive nature of enlightenment has proven to be one of the greatest impetuses for philosophical, artistic, literary, and contemplative innovation in Buddhism. Because there are such diverse visions of nirvana, argues Thompson, enlightenment must be concept dependent, and therefore any experience called “enlightenment” must also be dependent on a concept. He does not think that nirvana is an objective state, that it exists independent of concepts, or that the language that describes enlightenment has a referent that is outside the sphere of concepts. He illustrates this using the examples of money and love, neither of which exist without our concepts about them. This isn’t to say that experiences of enlightenment do not exist, but that enlightenment experiences are themselves concepts. Further, conceptualizing enlightenment shapes that experience. Fair enough—however, this argument is suspiciously Buddhist! There is in fact a history of Buddhist discourse that recognizes nirvana depends on the concept of it, yet for Buddhists, this does not mean that nirvana is dependent on concepts. In response to this argument, Nagarjuna wrote the following in his Verses on the Middle Way:

If it were something,
nirvana would be dependent
and would wither and die …

Were nirvana nothing,
It would be dependent
Like all other nothings.

While Buddhists have historically acknowledged that it is natural to use concepts to name nirvana, and have even developed languages to express enlightenment experiences, they have also been careful not to reify nirvana by concepts.

Thompson closes with a plea for cosmopolitanism, the idea that all humans belong to a single community, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. He states that for Buddhism—or any religion—to make contributions to global culture, we must be respectful of the particularity of human lives, and this requires respecting our differences. He encourages us to draw concepts and vocabularies from many religions and philosophical traditions, but also cautions that in doing so, we have to be careful not to distort these traditions. The primary concern of Why I Am Not a Buddhist is that Buddhist modernists are distorting both the significance of the Buddhist traditions and the relationship between Buddhism and science.

Photo of blue text over white bacground that reads "Why I am not a Buddhist."
“Why I Am Not a Buddhist” by Evan Thompson
Yale University Press, January 2020 240 pages; $26

As Buddhism seeps deeper into Western cultures, and as the dialogue between Buddhism and science progresses, Thompson’s cautions against the distortions of Buddhist modernism need to be taken seriously. While we must be wary of the pitfalls of Buddhist exceptionalism, we must also acknowledge that Buddhism is unlike any religion that has to date adapted to the modern world. This means that the assimilation of Buddhism into new Buddhist lives requires thinkers like Thompson, who refers to himself as a “good friend to Buddhism,” to give critical, caring, and creative feedback. And while we must identify the mistaken, or what Thompson calls “confused” ideas of Buddhist modernism, we might also be cautious not to mistake all modern Buddhist views with Buddhist modernism. As Buddhism transforms before our very eyes, let’s be careful not to fall into the binary trap of thinking that all Buddhists are either Buddhist modernists or traditionalists, and that to be Buddhist, you must be one or the other. There are Buddhist ideas that resonate deeply with contemporary knowledge, scientific and otherwise, and if Buddhists are self-aware, sensitive about consequence, and smart about context, then they have remarkable contributions to make in the modern world.

Michael Sheehy

Michael Sheehy

Michael Sheehy, PhD is a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and contemplative studies. He is the director of scholarship at the Contemplative Sciences Center and faculty in religious studies at the University of Virginia.