Joshua Rothman (Boston Globe): Buddhism is in vogue in the West, partly because Buddhist practices, especially meditation, are popularly associated with contentment and well-being. As religions go, Buddhism strikes many people as a sensible and practical lifestyle choice.
Owen Flanagan, a distinguished philosopher at Duke, thinks this purely practical approach to Buddhism misses the point. In a new book, “The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized,’’ Flanagan argues Buddhism matters not just for practical reasons, but for philosophical ones. Subtract the “hocus-pocus” about reincarnation and karma, he argues, and you’ll find a rigorous, clear-eyed account of the universe and our place in it – one that would satisfy even the most ardent modern-day materialist. Buddhism matters, in other words, because it’s actually right.
Buddhism is practiced in different ways around the world. Still, Flanagan writes, if a stripped-down, unifying “Buddhist Credo” existed, it would affirm that “everything is impermanent” and, ultimately, “subject to the principles of cause and effect” – including the bodies and minds of human beings. Physicists, biologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists would agree. Science is based on the realization that human beings are part of a material world that’s driven by impersonal, physical laws.
In the Western tradition, this notion has been cause for despair. Buddhism, however, takes this worldview as its starting point, and then goes on to ask moral questions about how we ought to behave. It takes work, in the form of study and meditation, to accept that you’re just a part of the physical world, and that your soul doesn’t exist in any meaningful, permanent way. Once you’ve made the leap, though, you can live a more moral life. “Recognizing that I am a selfless person metaphysically,” Flanagan writes, “helps me see that I have reason to be less selfish morally.” The real value of Buddhism, he concludes, is that it finds moral meaning in our material world – something our Western moral systems, centuries after being upended by the Scientific Revolution, are still figuring out how to do.