Sunday, August 28, 2011

Buddhism lite

As an undergraduate majoring in art history, I felt a strong attraction to some Buddhist art, especially Chinese sculptures which conveyed an ethereal beauty and calm. Painted mandalas also appealed to me as mind maps.

In those days I read a few Buddhist scriptures in order to get some background for these aesthetic perceptions. I also fell into the Zen fad for a time. Only with my retirement did I begin to think seriously about becoming a Buddhist, and I read more deeply. At the end of the day, though, I found that I was not really ready for the renunciation that a true commitment would call for.

I have always suspected that many Western converts to the faith were only committed to a kind of “Buddhism lite” that did not call for any serious reformation of conduct, merely providing a gloss of confirmation for life patterns already adopted.

Now a new book seems to confirm this intuition. If is :The Bodhisattva's Brain" by Owen Flanagan.

Here is part of the book’s blurb: “If we are material beings living in a material world--and all the scientific evidence suggests that we are--then we must find existential meaning, if there is such a thing, in this physical world. We must cast our lot with the natural rather than the supernatural. Many Westerners with spiritual (but not religious) inclinations are attracted to Buddhism--almost as a kind of moral-mental hygiene. But, as Owen Flanagan points out . . . Buddhism is hardly naturalistic. Atheistic when it comes to a creator god, Buddhism is otherwise opulently polytheistic, with spirits, protector deities, ghosts, and evil spirits. Its beliefs include karma, rebirth, nirvana, and nonphysical states of mind. What is a nonreligious, materially grounded spiritual seeker to do? In The Bodhisattva's Brain, Flanagan argues that it is possible to subtract the "hocus pocus" from Buddhism and discover a rich, empirically responsible philosophy that could point us to one path of human flourishing. "Buddhism naturalized," as Flanagan constructs it, contains a metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics; it is a fully naturalistic and comprehensive philosophy, compatible with the rest of knowledge.”

I like the expression “opulently polytheistic,” which seems apt for Mahayana Buddhism, where such exuberance has long fostered the production splendid works of art. The caves at Dun Huang in Western China are just brimming over with examples. However, the idea of “subtracting the hocus pocus” seems banal and anticlimactic. After all, such lite versions of Judaism and Christianity have long been on offer; most of us find them unappealing. If science and secular philosophy provide the answers, why do we need the supposed confirmation of an emasculated theology to back them up?

Sam Harris, an atheist writer who has dabbled in Buddhism, holds that it can enrich the study of the human mind. However, Flanagan seems skeptical about this claim. Others who admire the book include the Christian religious thinker Alastair MacIntire, who maintains that this approach can throw light on “human flourishing,” and Patricia Churchland, a professor of philosophy who specializes in the study of the brain.

AS I pointed out in Abrahmicalia, one of the problems with the current attack on religion is that it is mainly restricted to the Abrahamic triad. Is Buddhism a viable alternative? Maybe, but not in this ghostly, etiolated form.



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