The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized Hardcover – Aug 12 2011
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Buddhist doctrines about meditation, compassion, and well-being have begun to greatly
enrich the scientific study of the human mind -- but we have long needed a careful analysis of the
philosophical merits of these ideas. In The Bodhisattva's Brain, Flanagan has
delivered it in fine style. This is an unusually wise and useful book.
Landscape, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The End of
What has Buddhism to teach us about human flourishing? What has neuroscience to teach
us both about human flourishing and about the claims of Buddhism? Owen Flanagan's adventurous and
intriguing pursuit of answers to these questions is matched by the impressive ingenuity of his
attempts to accommodate those answers to the commitments of scientific naturalism.
In this masterpiece of insight and clarity, Flanagan takes us on a profound but still
personal journey, as he contrasts philosophies of life held by Westerners and those held by
Buddhists. Ever true to the path that logic carves, shrewdly sensitive to the human search for
happiness, and with a unique accumulation of knowledge, Flanagan has given us something very new:
... if you are interested in current debates at the interface between religion,
science and moral philosophy, there is much in this book that will engage you.
Brilliant.... Flanagan brings much needed clarity, insight and sophistication to the
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.
It is true that science has yet to produce good explanations of consciousness, value
and free will. The suggestion brought to the fore by Flanagan -- that Buddhism may be a source of
insight in these areas -- is a welcome and tantalizing one.
[T]he most important question may be whether the cultivation of Buddhist virtues will
lead to the sort of happiness that comes with the sense that... life has meaning and value....
Flanagan has many insightful things to say about this claim.
Owen Flanagan writes with warmth, wisdom and wit. The Bodhisattva's
Brain is a milestone of cosmopolitan thought and should be read widely by philosophers,
cognitive scientists, theologians and anyone concerned with human flourishing and the meaning of
A trailblazing work which opens up new horizons for exciting comparative work in
philosophy and psychology.
Scholars and cognoscenti of Buddhism may find this a somewhat frustrating book; but
all interested in Buddhism may read it and find discussions of interest and value.... Above all,
Flanagan has put on the table the issue of what a naturalized Buddhism is. If Buddhism is to move
into the West significantly, I think it will have to go this way. The book, then, opens the way for
many important future debates.
About the Author
Owen Flanagan is James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He is the author of Consciousness Reconsidered and The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World, both published by the MIT Press, and other books.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
"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.
"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.
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."
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.