Why I Am Not a Buddhist

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Evan Thompson
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , January
     2020.
     240 pages.
     $18.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300226553.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In a provocative, extended essay titled Why I Am Not a Buddhist, philosopher Evan Thompson challenges the idea of Buddhist exceptionalism, the dominant strand of “Buddhist modernism” and its “confused ideas” (1). Thompson is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the son of American social philosopher, cultural critic, and poet William Irwin Thompson (1938–2020). Evan Thompson became acquainted with Buddhism as a child in the Lindisfarne Association founded by his father, which was a kind of commune. Since his father’s turn from stout Catholicism to Buddhism is an important element in the author’s own thought, the volume may be seen in line with the long, shared history and alliance of Catholicism and Buddhism.

In this work, Evan Thompson seeks to correct the overly positive image associated with Buddhism in the West. While it is still not clear whether Buddhism is best regarded as a religion or as a philosophy or “teaching,” it is still looked on quite favorably in Europe and North America. Numerous books extol the scientifically proven benefits of meditation and mindfulness for everything ranging from business to romance. Conferences, courses, and celebrities promote the notion that Buddhism is spirituality for the rational individual in a modern age. It is compatible with cutting-edge science and may itself be considered a science of the mind. In this provocative book, the author argues that this representation of Buddhism is misleading, if not fundamentally false.

Thompson develops his thesis in six chapters of lucid and entertaining prose: on the myth of Buddhist exceptionalism (chapter 1); Buddhism and truth (chapter 2), which is a direct response to journalist Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment (Simon & Schuster, 2018); the question of self-renunciation (chapter 3); “Mindfulness Mania” (chapter 4); enlightenment rhetoric (chapter 5); and cosmopolitanism (chapter 6). Thompson argues that the goals of science and religion differ, and that efforts to seek their unification are wrongheaded. The result is a mistaken view of both. His own preferred worldview is what he calls cosmopolitanism, which has deep roots in both Eastern and Western traditions.

In his introduction, Thompson defines Buddhist exceptionalism as the belief that Buddhism “is superior to other religions in being inherently rational and empirical, or that Buddhism isn’t really a religion but rather a kind of ‘mind science,’ therapy, philosophy, or way of life based on meditation” (2). He is convinced that this perspective “distorts Buddhism, and it distorts science and religion” (55). Based on a perceptive critique of the way Christianity has influenced (and to a certain extent fostered) Buddhist modernism, Thompson concludes that Buddhist modernism has become entangled in misguided and limited conceptions of (positivist) science and spirituality, for instance the idea that science tells us how the world really is apart from human intervention and that spirituality amounts essentially to a narcissistic preoccupation with the self: “At the same time, the Buddhist modernist rhetoric of enlightenment as a nonconceptual experience outside of language and tradition has reinforced anti-intellectualism and irrationalism. The Buddhist intellectual tradition has the resources to mount its own critique of Buddhist modernism” (189).

While Thompson’s critique has its appeal, a deeper engagement in the realms of theology and science, philosophy and the history of religion would have strengthened his argument. There are six points that stand out. First, the ensemble of questions related to Buddhism’s place along the spectrum of philosophy and religion could be addressed in greater depth to uncover the roots of the Western reception of Buddhism, especially with regard to Catholicism. (Thompson focuses on the Protestant reception.) Second, Thompson does not take up the question of the relation between Western forms of Buddhism and their Asian ancestors. A third point is closely connected to the second: the distorted image of Buddhism as promulgating a purely peaceful view of the world. Numerous recent studies draw readers’ attention to the fact that there is a need to differentiate between Buddhism as established or state religion and as “spiritual tag,” the form under which it became so attractive for many disappointed with Western Christianity (see Michael K. Jerryson, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road: Buddhism, Politics, and Violence, Oxford University Press, 2018; Vladimir Tikhonov and Torkel Brekke, eds., Buddhism and Violence: Militarism and Buddhism in Modern Asia, Routledge, 2013).

Fourth, a more thorough analysis of the complex interaction between the history of Christianity and of Buddhism could be revealing. This leads to the fifth point, specifically that not only is the relation between Buddhism and science insightful, but also the relation between Buddhism and Stoicism, which is an important philosophical element of Christianity. Sixth, as Thompson himself recognizes, it is important to better understand why modern science turned to Buddhism and why Buddhism, as the established religion in several European colonies in Asia such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar, turned to modern (Western, natural) science as an apologetic strategy.

The book is impeccably written and edited. It includes copious endnotes and an index. It is a timely introduction to the problematic Western reception of Buddhism in the past decades and a valiant articulation of its superficialities. As a side effect, it may serve as a reminder and warning of the unrelenting and rampant commercialism that has taken hold of the field of spirituality. It also makes an important contribution to the history of science, drawing attention to much-needed research into the spiritual world of contemporary natural sciences.

On the internet, one can find an interesting two-hour dialogue with journalist Robert Wright in which Thompson unfolds his ideas and discusses his work. The book is recommended for readers from a wide range of backgrounds, from natural scientists to historians of religion and philosophers. By refraining from needless polemic, as in the fruitful dialogue between Wright and Thompson, the book draws readers’ attention to numerous fields of further research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philipp Reisner is visiting lecturer in American studies at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf and Johannes Gutenberg-Universität, Mainz, Germany.

Date of Review: 
March 12, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Evan Thompson is professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is the author of Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, among other books.

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