Who’s Missing the Point?

Owen Flanagan is a professor of philosophy at Duke University who just published a book entitled, “The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized” (MIT, 2011). According to the publisher:

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?”

I doubt that such a person will be helped much by Flanagan, who seems like a pretty confused guy to me. I have to wonder about someone who feels that the Mahayana concept of nirvana is “hocus pocus.” To me, concerns of this nature are literary in nature, a matter of understanding how the writers of the sutras used imagery and allegory. Just because they wrote about bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves doesn’t mean they intended it to be taken literally.

Now I haven’t read Flanagan’s book, but I’ve read about it and read the first pages on Amazon. That’s enough for me to get his general thesis and I find it a bit flawed. Buddhism is already naturalized. If you choose to view it that way.

I also read a piece Flanagan wrote for the Huffington Post. In “Bourgeois Buddhists: Do Americans Miss the Point of Buddhism?” he inflicts these astounding words upon the unsuspecting reading public:

Buddhism has about as little to do with meditation as Jesus’s message of love has to do with prayer, which is some, not entirely nothing; but almost nothing. Thinking that meditation is the essence of Buddhism would be akin to a group of converts to Catholicism thinking that real Catholics say Mass everyday because priests do.”

Acutally, thinking that meditation is not the essence of Buddhism, just because Asian Buddhists, at least in modern times, do not practice meditation as much as many Americans suppose, is akin to a group of converts to Catholicism thinking . . .

Granted, we in the West may be have our own misapprehension about Asian Buddhists, but by putting the focus back on meditation as the prime point, I think we are “naturalizing” Buddha-dharma. I see the problem as entirely the other way around: most Westerners tend to approach Buddhism from the philosophical angle first, and when it doesn’t make sense at first blush or match up to their preconceived notions, if there are a few T’s uncrossed and I’s undotted, they are quick to dismiss or start poking holes in it. I have described many times on this blog how such concepts as rebirth and karma can be viewed reasonably and non-supernaturally. It’s there, if you want it. It’s really up to you.

Flanagan says,

One wonders whether American Buddhists, especially those who think that Buddhism is largely about meditation, and the personal psychological goods, the self-satisfaction on offer from sitting in, what has become, a laughably bourgeois pose, aren’t missing something essential about Buddhism, about what Buddhist philosophy is mainly and mostly about, namely, wisdom and goodness.”

No, what’s laughable is a professor of philosophy and a non-Buddhist who thinks that spending a few hours with the Dalai Lama and reading some books and research papers (and who thinks that “mindfulness” meditation is “almost entirely self-centered”) qualifies him to point out how the rest of us have somehow missed the point.

I’ve done some looking around online and I’ve seen where Flanagan talks a lot about recent research on the brains of Buddhists, but I haven’t seen him talk about his own experience with Buddhism and meditation. Perhaps he does so in his book. But I have a whole slew of other books to read first. I did see where “Flanagan argues Buddhism matters not just for practical reasons, but for philosophical ones.” Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that he’s suggesting that the philosophical aspects are the main thing, and I can’t believe that anyone with a real grasp on dharma would think that.

I can’t help but feel that perhaps he’s missed the point. The philosophy is just there to support the practice. It’s the practice, that “bourgeois” practice of meditation, that is the prime point. That’s how we open our minds to wisdom and goodness on a deep, intuitive level.

Crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s is not as important as capturing the spirit of Buddha-dharma. That’s another point that many people seem to miss. If you want to read a good book about Buddhism, I recommend “Stopping and Seeing: A Comprehensive Course in Meditation“, Thomas Cleary’s partial translation of the Mo Ho Chih Kuan by T’ien-t’ai meditation master Chih-i.  It’s not the easiest book in the world to understand, but even if you get only a fraction of it, you will come far closer to capturing the spirit of Buddhism than you probably could reading a hundred books like Flanagan’s.

Here’s a quote from “Stopping and Seeing” that I’ve shared before. I’ll probably share it again many more times:

The second issue is explaining this stopping and seeing (Skt.: samatha-vipassana; Ch.: chih-kuan) so as to promote four kinds of concentration by which to enter the ranks of enlightening beings. One cannot ascend to the sublime states without practice; if you know how to churn, only then can you obtain ghee.

The Lotus Scripture says, “Aspirants to Buddhahood cultivate various practices, seeking enlightenment” There are many methods of practice . . . The general term concentration means tuning, aligning, and stabilizing.

The Great Treatise [Nagarjuna’s “Great Transcendent Wisdom Treatise”] says, “Ability to keep the mind on one point without wavering is called concentration.” The realm of reality is one point; correct seeing [kuan] can stay on it without wavering . . .

This realm of reality is also called enlightenment, and it is also called the “inconceivable realm.” It is also called wisdom, and it is also called not being born and not passing away. Thus all phenomena are not other than the realm of reality; hearing of this nonduality and nondifference, do not give rise to doubt.

If you can see in this way, this is seeing the ten epithets of Buddhas. When seeing Buddha, one does not consider Buddha as Buddha; there is no Buddha to be Buddha, and there is no Buddha-knowledge to know Buddha. Buddha and Buddha-knowledge are nondualistic, unmoving, unfabricated, not in any location yet not unlocated, not in time yet not timeless, not dual yet not nondual, not defiled, not pure. This seeing Buddha is very rarefied; like space, it has no flaw, and it develops right mindfulness.

Seeing the embellishments of Buddha is like looking into a mirror and seeing one’s own features. First you see one Buddha, then the Buddhas of the ten directions. You do not use magical powers to go see Buddhas; you stay right here and see the Buddhas, hear the Buddhas’ teaching, and get the true meaning . . . You guide all beings toward nirvana, yet do not grasp the characteristics of nirvana . . .

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3 thoughts on “Who’s Missing the Point?

  1. Hi, I found you through Seth Segall’s Existentialist Buddhist site and added yours and his sites to my blogroll.

    Thanks for the review of Flanagan. I was at the Ethics conference (with Seth though we sadly didn’t meet) and found Flanagan to be a pretty friendly and thoughtful guy. That said, I agree with you that, “Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that he’s suggesting that the philosophical aspects are the main thing, and I can’t believe that anyone with a real grasp on dharma would think that.” As a philosopher of sorts, I agree that the ‘structure’ is there to help with practice. It’s important, but it’s not where we should spend all of our time, and it seems that some, not all, but some people tend to get way to caught up in the philosophy and forget about practice all together.

    Anyhow, as I mentioned on Seth’s blog, I’ll keep Flanagan in my radar, as I appreciate good philosophy. And perhaps, even if he’s wrong, he’s shaking the Bodhi tree in the way some people need today.

    All the best, Justin w.

    1. Thanks for leaving your comment, Justin. I’m sure Mr. Flanagan is a very nice guy. I just have a few problems with his approach. That’s one reason why in the next day’s post I talked about Charles Prebish (he sent me a nice email about it, btw), who, as you are well-aware, is a scholar-practitioner. Certainly scholars outside of Buddhism can offer needed objectivity, but it needs to come from a good grasp on what Buddhism is and is not, and based on the information I have, I have some doubts about Flanagan.

      I’ve always felt that practice and philosophy should be equally balanced. Obviously people lean in the directions their personal tendencies sway them, and so it can be a challenge to maintain that balance, to find the Chu-do, the Middle Way, which seems to be the key to all things Buddhist, in my experience.

      Thanks for adding The Endless Further to your blogroll, and I’m happy to return the favor with American Buddhist Ethics Perspective (sorry), although I do find the “In England” part a bit confusing. Maybe that will become clearer when you put up your “About” page.

      Cheerio.

    2. Pretty sure that Flanagan is just approaching the issue as someone that cares about philosophy and what does what has been called Buddhist thought in different places have to say about that. So looking at what he has to say should probably be done with that in mind, and maybe made more explicit in his writings.

      I’m sure he’s also aware how the perspective of someone seeking to take refuge would be different, so they’ll mostly care about whichever path is expected to deliver that refuge to them. In the contemporary Asian case that’s more likely to be giving to the monks because of the belief that will lead to reincarnation into a “better” form. In the contemporary Western case that’s going to be taking upon the meditation practice because of all the positive “mental” effects it’s supposed to cause. And in both cases, a historical case can be made connecting what is going on to the teachings of the historical Siddh?rtha Gautama, though of course many of the practitioners might be deluded about the strength of that case (and most probably don’t care).

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