Is it possible to be both a naturalist and a Buddhist?

Review/Reflection: The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized  by Owen Flanagan* 

Naturalized Buddhism
Buddhism Naturalized

Is naturalism compatible with Buddhism? The answer is yes or possibly yes according to the philosopher, Owen Flanagan, and the whole book can be considered as an answer to this very question. Well, if you are a Buddhist or someone who has an interest in Buddhism or Buddhist philosophy, this is “a must read” book for many reasons you will be acquainted just by reading the introduction. He is one of the few philosophers of the analytic tradition to take Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy seriously. I am a Buddhist by birth (by natural lottery), but gradually, with my training in philosophy I became a Buddhist of a different breed, i.e. I became more and more skeptical about its metaphysical claims/theories such as reincarnation and karma (a metaphysical justice system) yet retained great interest to its intellectual and philosophical tradition. Flanagan argues, plausibly, that Buddhism is a comprehensive philosophical system and one should attend and treat it in such a manner rather than to be looked upon as just another eastern wisdom tradition.

Flanagan wades through many aspects of my skepticism about Buddhism/Buddhisms or what people think of as Buddha’s teachings. With a naturalist approach, Flanagan examines various concepts like happiness, virtue or wisdom and their interactions in its metaphysics, epistemology and moral philosophy, and that too through a comparative eye with western philosophical traditions. The naturalization project that he is proposing is the possibility of divorcing what he calls the “hocus-pocus” of Buddhism, i.e. notions such as karma and reincarnation, to a demythologized and a secular Buddhism with its comprehensive philosophy like that of Aristotle or Plato. He reiterates the Dalai Lama’s comment and commitment to scientific truth when the Dalai Lama says, ” if science disproves rebirth, Buddhists should give it up.” One must see that the Dalai Lama’s comment is quite shocking and revolutionary. And perhaps it is along these lines Flanagan is optimistic for such program of a naturalized Buddhism.

One of my favorite parts is his conceptualization of the Buddhist notion of “happiness” as opposed to the Aristotlian tradition while attending to similarities on their treatment of the basic relationship between intellectual and moral virtues, i.e. the absence of transcendence of morality in the state of perfection, but the embodiment of both virtue and wisdom as ends in themselves. Flanagan discovers by examining the list of virtues in both traditions that are necessary for human proper functioning (basic assumption in both traditions: nirvana for Buddha and eudaimonia for Aristotle) or the telos of human aspiration, he argues that while Buddhism lacks a notion of justice to its virtue theory, Aristotle lacks the compassion virtue (or hardly emphasized). This drives him in quandary and speculation about the political failure of the Buddhist states in this age of modern nation-states. I think this puzzle, legitimately, raises the question that if Buddhism is a comprehensive philosophical system, what is its political theory or does it have a conception of justice for social cooperation to facilitate achieving those subjective goals of liberation? Or is it the case that the ultimate human aspiration for nirvana is incompatible with politics or political life? These are some of my thoughts and questions that struck me by reading this book.

*Owen Flanagan is not a Buddhist.


2 thoughts on “Is it possible to be both a naturalist and a Buddhist?

  1. I cordially disliked this book. Rather than being prepared to learn from Buddhism or consider the critical questions it might pose about his own positions, Flanagan simply imposes his own unquestioned analytic philosophy/ naturalism onto Buddhism. The resulting account of Buddhism is very narrow, and pays no attention whatsoever to ethics or to the Middle Way because they don’t fit his paradigm.

    1. I agree with you more and less. However, it is not very clear if that is Flanagan’s main project, though it might look as if he is just imposing the standards of naturalism and analytic philosophy unto Buddhism to create a form of Buddhist worldview that is compatible with naturalism. Yes, the naturalization project is in some ways a one way interaction. He doesn’t emphasize much on the analysis of his tradition from a Buddhist perspective, but he does recognize and point out the fundamental differences. Cross-cultural philosophy demands investigation and interrogation of basic assumptions and methods in each traditions. Thanks for the comment.

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