Customer Reviews: The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized
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on November 10, 2011
Owen Flanagan is my favorite living analytical philosopher because he writes clearly, deals with topics (theory of mind, ethics, what it means to live well) that I actually care about, is what smart would be if smart was on steroids, and has a wonderfully dry sense of humor. He's a Naturalist, which is to say, he eschews supernatural explanations, dislikes dualism, and is disinterested in questions that are unfalsifiable by either logic or empirical observation. He's not a Buddhist, but he has a keen interest in (and sufficiently deep understanding of) Buddhism, as well as recent efforts to test Buddhist claims using scientific methods. He wonders whether Buddhism can be tamed sufficiently to be of interest to Naturalists. He also wonders, once one has stripped Buddhism of everything supernatural or dualistic, whether what remains is recognizably Buddhist, and whether it is philosophically deep, interesting, or useful. I've had the pleasure of hearing him speak on three separate occasions at conferences organized by the Columbia University Center for Buddhist Studies, so I looked forward to reading his new book with great anticipation. I've not been disappointed.

Flanagan writes:

"Imagine Buddhism without rebirth and without a karmic system that guarantees justice ultimately will be served, without nirvana, without bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves, without Buddha worlds, without nonphysical states of mind, without any deities, without heaven and hell realms, without oracles, and without lamas who are reincarnations of lamas. What would be left? My answer is that what would remain would be an interesting and defensible philosophical theory with a metaphysics, a theory about what there is and how it is, an epistemology, a theory about how we come to know what we can know, and an ethics, a theory about virtue and vice and how best to live. This philosophical theory is worthy of attention by analytical philosophers and scientific naturalists because it is deep."

What's left, among other things, is a metaphysic that focuses on impermanence, emptiness, selflessness, and unsatisfactoriness, and a virtue theory that emphasizes mindfulness, compassion, lovingkindness, equanimity and overcoming greed, aversion, and delusion. Pretty good for a start.

Flanagan then goes on to explore a number of interesting questions. What has psychological and neuropsychological research on meditation, mindfulness, Buddhism, and well-being proven at this point? Flanagan explores this question thoroughly without the irrational exuberance that sometimes accompanies this topic, clarifying what is meant by (and how to measure and explore the relationships between) meditation, Buddhist belief and insight, and achieving Buddhist well-being and/or happiness (as opposed to other kinds of well-being and happiness). He also explores the relationships between Buddhist, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic and contemporary Western conceptions of well-being as well as exploring the current philosophical status of the concept of virtue.

Flanagan explores whether Buddhist conceptions of virtue are either too demanding -- or not demanding enough. For example, what is really meant by impartiality when it comes to compassion? Does Buddhism really expect Bodhisattvas to love/care as much about strangers as they do about intimates? Imagine a situation where two houses are on fire, one containing your child, the other a stranger. You can rescue only one. Does Buddhist impartiality really require you to flip a coin to decide who to save? If you did just that, would you really be more virtuous than the person who instinctively chose to rescue his own child -- or would you have descended into becoming inhuman? You can see where this line of questioning leads. On the other hand, what level of actual compassionate activity -- as opposed to merely developing compassionate mental states -- does Buddhism really require? While the Bodhisattva vows to save all beings, what level of compassionate activity is required of the Arhat, or the cave-dwelling yogi?

Flanagan wonders whether the Buddhist metaphysic of emptiness/selflessness logically necessitates its ethic of compassion. Could the realization of selflessness lead to either hedonism or withdrawal in some individuals, rather than to lovingkindness? Flanagan also wonders whether Buddhism puts too much emphasis on compassion, and not enough on fairness.

All of these are interesting questions, well worth wrestling with.

In the end, while Flanagan decides that a naturalized Buddhism is worthy of serious attention as a prescription for living well, he's too much of an ironic cosmopolitan to privilege Buddhism over all other prescriptive systems (e.g., Plato's or Aristotle's). He's happy to live in a pluralistic postmodern world in which all of the world's wisdom traditions are open to learn from, and one is not obligated to adhere to one as if it were the only truth.

He concludes:

"Cosmopolitans relish the hybridity of the world, the exhilarating anxiety that comes from lacking confidence in any single traditional way of living and being, while at the same time being hopeful and grateful that the wisdom of the ages can accumulate into new ways of being and doing that advance the project of flourishing. Philosophy's contribution is to examine the great traditions of the past for useful insights into what to do now and next. For that purpose, for going forward, Buddhism has something to offer. Is it the answer? Of course not. Nothing is the answer. This is something Buddhism teaches."

I find myself in agreement with Flanagan -- up to a point. I share his postmodernist sensibility. It's wonderful to live in an age when we can read Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Marcus Aurelius, the Buddha, Hillel, Rumi, Spinoza, Hume, Mill, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, James, Buber, Russell, Dewey and Wittgenstein side by side. We are blessed by an embarrassment of riches. Every wisdom book we consult, every novel we read, every symphony we hear, every sunset we enjoy can teach us something new and deep about life. Openness to learning and experience is a key to a life well lived.

On the other hand, the cosmopolitan runs the risk of dilettantism -- of tasting everything but never committing to anything -- of never exploring anything in sufficient depth. Whatever truth lies within Buddhism is a lived truth. The only way to understand the path is to live it -- not just compare and contrast. If you want to understand meditation, you have to meditate. If you want to understand emptiness, it must be experienced in your bones, not just understood intellectually. If you want to tame greed, aversion and delusion, you must work at it moment-by-moment in all its manifestations. All this requires genuine commitment. Committing to Buddhism doesn't mean agreeing with all its tenets. It doesn't mean giving Buddhism a monopoly on wisdom or truth. It doesn't mean Buddhism can't stand some improvement. Buddhism is the ongoing work of fallible human beings -- not the word of God. Buddhism naturalized is a grand idea -- but it needs to be inhabited, not just consulted.

That being said, I can't recommend this book enough. It's thoughtful in the best sense of the word. It you're a Buddhist (or someone leaning towards Buddhism) who likes to wrestle with philosophical issues, it will help you to think things through more clearly. If you are a Buddhist who is inclined toward Naturalism, it's always nice to find another ally. Best of all, it's fun to read.
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on November 2, 2011
I am a practicing Western Buddhist and a life long skeptic. I found this book perfect in addressing not only some of the outrageous claims made by "boutique" Buddhists and by the modern Buddhism "industry". Ironically, Buddhism seems to be the only world religion that can accommodate this kind of scrutiny with aplomb as gain strength by it. The author can be blunt, and even harsh at times, but never without sound reasoning and philosophical basis, and yet never loses his obvious deep admiration, and affection, for the basic tenets. One DOES have to read past the first third of the book find his love for Buddhist thought as it glacially works its way into Western culture in a meaningful way. This work is dense, complex, and educational, but written in a perfectly accessible style. Five stars, no doubt, and the only one getting a five in my Buddhist library.
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on September 21, 2011
Ever since he took part in the Mind & Life Dialogue with the fourteenth Dalai Lama on "Destructive Emotions" (2000), Owen Flanagan (himself not a Buddhist) has proved to be an attentive, articulate and stimulating thinker on Buddhism, Buddhism and Science, and meditation research. He takes Buddhism seriously enough to be critical of Buddhists' stances, and is always intent on furthering, not smothering the discussion. His writings are always an engaging read in more than one sense of the word.

In "The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized" Flanagan takes up themes he first touched upon in his "The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World" and other writings by imagining a Buddhism without the 'hocus pocus', Buddhism naturalized: "if there is or could be such a thing". What remains, Flanagan says, "would be an interesting and defensible philosophical theory with a metaphysics, a theory about what there is and how it is, an epistemology, a theory about how we come to know and what we can know, and an ethics, a theory about virtue and vice and how best to live." How much more credit from a non-Buddhist could a Buddhists want?

Sure enough, Flanagan raises some tough, perhaps uncomfortable questions too, especially for Western Buddhists: What is the evidence for the claim that there is a connection between Buddhism and happiness? What does that claim even mean? What empirical claims being made by Buddhists have actually been confirmed in the lab? Why do few Buddhists meditate, traditionally? Do the Dalai Lama and scientists really abide by the same epistemic rules, or it there a hitch? What difference does a key difference between Aristotelian and Buddhist ethics make?

Even where he expresses skepticism, though, the thrust of Flanagan's argument remains constructive, pointing the reader towards a better question, or a more thoroughgoing approach. It is only fitting that Flanagan's last response opens, rather than closes the discussion: "Aristotle saw clearly that our natures contain a healthy dose of fellow-feeling. His vision of the virtuous person is one who grows fellow-feeling. From a Buddhist point of view, what Aristotle failed to see was that growing these seeds even more fully, to the point where compassion and lovingkindness take over our heart-mind, would make us morally better and happier, too. Maybe, maybe not."
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on September 21, 2011
I never had much time for Buddhism or eastern thought till I began to read Flanagan. He separates the psychobabble chaff from the real core of Buddhist thought and teaching. It may not be comfortable to those who think they have gotten Buddhism from a novel by Herman Hesse. But it's the real deal.
What Flanagan teaches us is three things: the scientific pay-off from taking Buddhism seriously, the continuity of human values across cultures, and maybe most important for his readers, a handle on how religion and science can be brought together to make people's lives better.
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on September 21, 2011
I believe this book represents nothing less than the beginning of a new genre within secondary literature on Buddhism and cognitive science. Until now, the vast majority of books on the subject were written by insiders with an agenda to legitimize Buddhist claims in light of new scientific findings. While I believe this can be a productive avenue of discourse (when done right), the time has come for more critical thinking. And this is it!

What makes this book so brilliant is Flanagan's unique ability to be both critical and constructive. For instance, his analysis of the Dalai Lama's "epistemic welcome mat," and associated "caveat," sheds productive light on the entire enterprise of the Mind and Life dialogues. As a scholar of Buddhism, I am particularly fond of his clever distinction between "karma tame" and "karma untame." And I can honestly say that he has a strong grasp of the intricacies of Buddhist philosophy.

Whether you are a skeptic or a believer, there is something edifying for everyone in this book. I've assigned it to my students with great success.
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VINE VOICEon April 26, 2012
I didn't care much for "The Bodhisattva's Brain." The author, an academic philosopher,wants to reconceptualize Buddhism as virtue theory, rather than a spiritual tradition. To do so, he strips away the "hocus pocus" (his term) about karma, rebirth, nirvana, and other Buddhist concepts that can't be defended in naturalistic terms. He defines terms carefully, makes subtle distinctions, and constructs arguments. Comparisons are made to Aristotle's virtue theory. There are even references to neurophysiology literature! It's a strong academic performance, but enlightenment and liberation get short shrift, and Buddhism comes across as raw material for philosophy students, not a path from suffering to salvation. I suspect most readers will come to the book seeking something else. I gave up about 2/3 of the way to the end.
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on November 5, 2011
This is a remarkable book, overflowing with erudition, insight, grace, and wit. Flanagan does a masterful job thinking his way into Buddhist views while never losing sight of his critical stance or abandoning his command of contemporary cognitive science and analytic philosophy of mind. The result is a splendid example of Comparative Neurophilosophy in particular and Comparative Philosophy in general. This book is an exemplary and inspiring manifestation of a spirit of openness, curiosity, and deep practical respect that is altogether too rare in our purportedly "global" age. It is especially important and encouraging to see someone of Flanagan's stature pursue and produce such outstanding comparative work.

Philip J. Ivanhoe, City University of Hong Kong
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on May 31, 2014
An intrinsically trustworthy writer, Flanagan is committed to clarity and honesty in his writing. He's not a mush-brained mystic, and he does his best to rescue the wisdom tradition of Buddhism. I personally don't think he succeeds, because there is no there there, but I find his preliminary (and politely blunted) critique of both the clericalism of Tibetan Buddhism and its new helpmeet the current scourge of clear thinking, fMRI licensed neuro-babble. Unless you think Buddhism admonishes you to shut off your intellect, you owe it to yourself to read this book.
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on January 21, 2016
Owen Flanagan sets out to "naturalize" Buddhism -- and by that he means make it conform with "modern" science. Once having done that, he then looks at whether Buddhism is a way of life that encourages happiness, or at a lesser level, "flourishing."

OK, that's a lot of quote marks for one paragraph, so let's take them one at a time. First, "naturalize" is Flanagan's word for getting rid of superstition, magic and the other accoutrements that have been added since the original, more simple message first delivered several centuries before the birth of Christ. That's fine as far as it goes, but Flanagan is then forced by "modern" (more on that coming) science to discard karma and reincarnation, which are pretty much bedrocks of Buddhism.

A case could be made that Buddhism without karma and reincarnation isn't really Buddhism at all, which would leave Flanagan with a book about, well, not much at all.

As for the "modern" part of modern science, Flanagan assumes that what we know now is what we'll always know, and that the material limitations of our brains necessarily limits the ways in which karma and reincarnation can be reified. (I threw in "reified" because it reflects the philosophical jargon that Flanagan assumes the reader knows. "Consequentialism" and Heidigger's "Dasein" are just two of the references that Flanagan doesn't explain, and though that's far from a fatal flaw, it is a flaw.) It is possible, of course, that the extra dimensions required by string theory might contain mechanisms that allow for karma and reincarnation, but it is also possible that they won't. Still, I'm not sure Flanagan had to be quite so strict, though it appears "The Bodhisattva's Brain" is aimed at a professional audience as well as general readers.

Finally, the thrust of the book is about whether Buddhism can help human beings "flourish," which Flanagan carefully differentiates from "happiness." "Flourishing" is having various positive qualities, as defined by Buddhism, and Flanagan compares those positive qualities and their possible impact on people's lives with positive qualities that fit with other ethical and moral systems (notably Aristotle's).

Flanagan is an entertaining writer, and "The Bodhisattva's Brain" is compact and to the point, so all in all, I found it both engaging and educational. The criticisms are, in a sense, minor, though again, there would be many who say that removing karma and reincarnation from the belief system means that the discussion isn't really about Buddhism, but rather some truncated version of an ancient philosophy. Once past that hurdle, though, there's plenty here worth pondering.
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on May 5, 2014
I have been told by two scholars that this is a controversial book. I disagree. Flanagan does an excellent job of naturalizing Buddhism, a religion that already was close to being fully science compatible. Why not go the whole way. I'd love to see the Dalai Lama's comments.
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