Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Owen Flanagan's "The Bodhisattva's Brain": Book Review

This philosopher from Duke applies neurobiology and psychology to "Buddhism naturalized": a way to achieve "eudaimonia" or a steady-state of ethical happiness (not the smiley-face touchy-feely blissed-out caricature) and flourishing in the moral sense of that term. Humans, Flanagan reasons, may benefit from adapting a secular approach stripped of gods, nirvana, and "superstitious nonsense." He wants to get beyond Buddhism as "mental hygiene" or "moral self-improvement" or, tellingly, "self-indulgence." He looks to its metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics as a natural philosophy.

He reminds us that "there are only Buddhisms, no Buddhism." (xii) Meditators in its Eastern societies tend to be fewer than Westerners suppose--they in turn are chided for often practicing meditation as the primary avenue to awakening without concentrating on the wisdom literature and study necessary, it seems in Flanagan's subtext, to achieve true insight. This may annoy readers, but Flanagan's point is that meditation in itself, disconnected from an ethical action or moral investigation leading to actualized improvement of one's self and others (however impermanent) has been too often left on its own as the "sine qua non" exercise by which the West defines a reductionist view of Buddhism. He compares this to how many Christians may pray without formally doing so during the day, or often at all. (See p. 106.) His main point is to show how mindfulness predominates among Eastern Buddhists.

He wishes to explore where brain chemistry intersects with meditation claims, and he finds less substance than what a decade or so ago he and his colleagues were attributed (by the media or some Buddhists) to have discovered as tangible evidence that happiness could be located on a brain scan, or that meditation led to such a steady state. Intriguingly, twice he in passing alludes to his surprise in meeting the Dalai Lama as to his apparent differences in how he regards reincarnation not in whatever "literal sense" can or cannot be aligned with "anatman," no-soul as contrasted maybe (Flanagan raises this elsewhere also in passing) as a flow of energies transferred from being to being. Unfortunately, at times Flanagan brings up such points so casually as asides that it frustrated me.

Owen Flanagan remains a skeptic, and in a fine section investigating the claims of the Dalai Lama (especially in "The Universe in a Single Atom" also reviewed by me) he compares and contrasts "karmic causality" with "the natural law of causation" in light of neo-Darwinian theory. This is challenging territory. A postscript calls this "an essay in Comparative Neurophilosophy." He concludes his attention to Buddhist epistemology by declaring that science will resist the attempts of those who say consciousness is an illusion or that choices are not made by sentient beings as agents. "There is no longer any need for bewilderment, befuddlement, or mysterianism from Buddhism or any other great spiritual tradition in the face of the overwhelming evidence that all experience takes place in our embodied nervous systems in the world, the natural world, the only world there is." (90)

Therefore, the inflated claims that at the turn of the millennium sprouted in the popular media as neuroscience was given a dubious credit for "proving" how Buddhist meditators demonstrated a happier cerebellum are debunked by a relentlessly empirical Flanagan. He insists, as an atheist and a rationalist, that any such claims be backed by proof that is not untestable, ungrounded, nor false. So far, consciousness appears to be physically based, and no leap into the ethereal for spiritual "proof" can convince his "naturalist" and materialist insistence.

Part two of this dense if brief study (it can be tough going as parts feel more like lecture notes than smooth prose for the uninitiated; many great insights are found relegated to endnotes) tackles Buddhism as a natural philosophy. He returns to the happiness question as he tries to advance the study of "eudaimonia" as a "condition for the possibility of happiness" directing us away from our "first nature" bent on our "untamed desires" towards a "second nature" akin to the Buddha's happiness as was taught by him and his followers, as "selfless persons" open to impermanence, to eliminating suffering as much as possible in the here and now, and to flourish free of delusion.

Accepting "no-self" impels us, in Flanagan's take on Buddhism, to be more kind and more compassionate, as we let guilt and anger go, and the delusion that such states define our identity in a fluctuating passage through formless time and space where we instead find a "metaphysic of morals." While Flanagan rushes past this-life nirvana vs. a post-mortem one, and his discussion of no-self might have been simplified with an earlier (he passes by it on p. 144 of 207 pp. of the main text) inclusion of conventional vs. ultimate truth-claims of existence that Buddhism makes, he segues into moral psychology and "fluxing" to give a helpful East-West comparison few studies have, by taking on scientific studies as well as philosophical explications.

Even if personhood is always changing, moral character traits for a no-self arise to spur happiness; this ontological and ethical connection Flanagan emphasizes as "eudaimonistic virtue theory." This chapter moved from basic to academically advanced discussions where Flanagan answers his peers regarding earlier cognitive research, and the shifts can be sudden. He sensibly compares and contrasts Aristotelian virtue theory (even if for Aristotle, our characters have staying power) to Buddhist solutions of how to live with "virtue, happiness, and flourishing," even if "anatman" is the real human state of no-self and emptiness ultimately comprises the nature of things. Qualifiers persist in this open-ended inquiry. Choosing the best projects to devote one's life to compassionately, unselfishly, and wisely appear to enhance long-term, if still this-life limited flourishing, in Flanagan's perspective.

His final chapter situates Buddhist happiness within liberal and classical "therapies of desire."  He addresses the Abhidhamma's classifications of the "three poisons" and how "wholesome" vs. "unwholesome" or "neutral" classifications of states of consciousness may spark insight into normative assessments made by philosophical Buddhist texts defining what we call phenomenology. He places Mill's utilitarianism and Jesus' Golden Rule next to Buddhist ethical recommendations for a similar style of impartial or universal ideal of compassion or loving-kindness. While Flanagan still finds Buddhist recommendations somewhat vague as to how much compassion, the bias when considering the "self-purified life of the arahant versus the active life of the bodhisattva" sums up the reason, perhaps, for the book's title. (Amazon US 4-23-12)

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