Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Real Buddhism scholar to "neural Buddhists": The Buddha does not infinitely morph and would never drop two g's for "meditation gear"

Columnist David Brooks, like Faith Popcorn and Douglas Coupland, has a knack for seizing and defining the cultural moment - think, for example, of his BoBos in Paradise. Sensing that materialism is a spent force (with the pop science media the very last to catch on, as we often chuckled in The Spiritual Brain), Broooks suggests "neural Buddhism" instead:

It goes somethng like this: Okay, okay, we admit that the mind isn't just the brain. We now know beyond all reasonable doubt that materialist explanations for mental phenomena are ridiculous. But how can we minimize the adjustment to our worldview?

Hmmm. That's somewhat like asking whether we can have an American Revolution and still mnimize the adjustment of our views of government.

But Brooks's first attempt to define our moment has started a very interesting discussion, which is being continued at The Immanent Frame, described as a blog on "secularism, religion, and the public sphere", produced by the Social Science Research Council.

Editorial assistant over at Immanent, Nathan Schneider draws my attention in particular to eminent Buddhism scholar Donald S. Lopez, Jr.'s critique, "The Buddha According to Brooks":

"This neural Buddhism may indeed lead to big cultural effects," writes Lopez. "But if it does, it will be important to remember how we got there, and what might have gotten lost along the way."

Lopez points out that what "neural Buddhists" mean by Buddhism is largely Western and modernist, comparable to the "historical Jesus" of post-Christian academics.

What would come to be called “original Buddhism” or “primitive Buddhism,” became the domain of European and, later, American and then Japanese scholars. They would create a Buddha and a Buddhism unknown in Asia, one that may never have existed there before the late nineteenth century. Just as there was a quest for the historical Jesus, there was a quest for the historical Buddha, and European Orientalists felt they found him. Like Jesus, the Buddha wrote nothing and, unlike Jesus, nothing that he said was written down until four centuries (rather than four decades) after his death. This Buddhism then became a model against which the various contemporary Buddhisms of Asia were measured, and were generally found to be lacking, not only by Europeans, but eventually by Buddhist elites in Asia as well.
The Buddha was transformed from a stone idol into a man of flesh and blood, a man very much of modern times.

And just think, a man who has precisely the current opinions, too. Anyway, Lopez explains further,

This is the Buddhism of Brooks and the Buddhism of the burgeoning business of Buddhism and neuroscience. Here, researchers who often identify themselves as Buddhists measure the effects of meditation techniques that are not unique to Buddhism. Their Buddhism bears the mystique of the infinitely morphable, the ever modern, the perfect alternative; we can be confident that whatever these neuroscientists discover will somehow be “Buddhist.”

I bet. After all, it's hardly well defined enough to be definitely not Buddhist.

Actually, I wish the neural Buddhists well. I am glad that they now realize that their minds are not electrified jellies.

However, I am also glad Dr. Lopez is setting the record straight about the thought traditions of Buddhism as it has really been known to countless millions of people for thousands of years.

See also:

"Materialists start to come to grips with global failure but materialism dies hard" (May 14, 2008)

"Neural Buddhists, Christians, and the Mud that failed" (May 23, 3008)

"Neural Buddhism: Do neurons get reincarnated?" (May 25, 2008) (No, actually, they get recycled.)
Note: the image is from "In the footsteps of the Buddha", Buddha Path