Lecture One: Enaction 1.4

1.4 Caveats


Evan Thompson, one of the co-authors of The Embodied Mind, recently reached a more critical position concerning the way the dialogue between today’s cognitive science (or science more generally) and Buddhist philosophy and practices could or should be articulated. In his provocative Why I am not a Buddhist (2020) he presents and takes issue with the phenomenon of ‘Buddhist modernism.’ His discussion might be important in order to single out some caveats that we shall keep in mind in the development of the upcoming lectures. In particular, Buddhist modernism is the more widespread form of Buddhist thought and practice that Western audiences are likely to encounter and equate with ‘Buddhism’ tout court.[1] As Thompson also acknowledges in his introduction to the revised edition of The Embodied Mind (pp. xxiii-xxiv), this modernist declension was the lens through which Buddhist philosophy and practice was conceived and presented in that book. But Buddhist modernism is not ‘Buddhism’ tout court (and the latter might well not exist, except as a general umbrella term). In summarizing his core thesis, Thompson writes in his conclusions:

My argument has been that Buddhist modernism distorts both the significance of the Buddhist tradition and the relationship between religion and science. Buddhism gained entry to Europe and North America in the nineteenth century by being presented as a religion uniquely compatible with modern science. Now, in the twenty-first century, Buddhist modernist discourse is at its height. But this discourse is untenable, as we’ve seen. Its core tenets—that Buddhism is a “mind science”; that there is no self; that mindfulness is an inward awareness of one’s own private mental theater; that neuroscience establishes the value of mindfulness practice; that enlightenment is a nonconceptual experience outside language, culture, and tradition; and that enlightenment is or can be correlated with a brain state—are philosophically and scientifically indefensible. In my view, the significance of the Buddhist intellectual tradition for the modern world is that it offers a radical critique of our narcissistic preoccupation with the self and our overconfident belief that science tells us how the world really is in itself apart from how we’re able to measure and act upon it. (Thompson 2020, 188-189)

To unpack some of the claims that are summarized here, we can briefly run through the main points of Thompson’s discussion. First (chapter 1), he presents and counters ‘Buddhist exceptionalism,’ the view that Buddhism would be more akin to a ‘science of the mind’ rather than to a religion, and a certain type of meditation practice would amount to a direct observation of cognitive structures. Buddhist exceptionalism thus understood tends to dispense with explicit soteriological and normative components traditionally entrenched in Buddhist philosophies and practices. But this attempt, Thompson argues, is doomed to fail. Deprived of its soteriological basis, Buddhist practice loses its meaning, while it cannot be equated with (scientific) controlled experimentation. More generally, the presentation of certain Buddhist views as akin to science or even scientific in nature is misleading, since it entails a doubtful positivist account of science as concerned with representing things as they are in themselves, and it dismisses the existential and deeper layers of meaning that Buddhist notions traditionally presuppose.

Thompson illustrates this latter point (chapter 3) by considering current discussions of the self, the Buddhist modernist claim that the self is purely an illusion, and the way in which several neuroscientists try to provide support for that claim. We shall come back to this in more depth in Lecture Two. But to anticipate, Thompson’s view is that the self is a process through which a whole world of meaning is enacted. The self is a construction, it is not something endowed with independent ontological existence, and yet this does not entail that the self is an illusion; in fact, claiming that the self is nothing but an illusion is not warranted even from a scientific point of view.

Also relevant is Thompson’s review (chapter 4) of current scientific debates about ‘mindfulness’ practice (which is perhaps today the most commonly known form of meditation derived from Buddhist traditions). He takes issue with what he sees as an individualist and positivist approach to studying mindfulness practice and its cognitive components:

Mindfulness meditation isn’t a kind of private introspection of a private mental theater. Meditative introspection isn’t the inner perception of an independent and preexistent, private mental realm. Mindfulness meditation is the metacognition and internalized social cognition of socially constituted experience. (Thompson 2020, 138)

The idea of conceiving of meditation as based on social cognition is particularly interesting, and it follows from the enactive and embodied approach we explored so far. It can be shown that metacognitive skills (which include the ability to monitor mental states, discern their nature, and sustain attention) are derived from, and developed and fostered by social interaction skills. In this sense, metacognitive skills are a form of ‘internalized social cognition.’ This resonates with the analogous claim, made by Hadot (Lecture Zero), about the originally social nature of Hellenistic meditation and philosophical exercises. The way that socialization constitutes and shapes meditative practices drastically affects not only the sort of experience they can yield, but also the meaning that can be constructed on their basis. In Lecture Thirteen we shall encounter an instantiation of this claim by reflecting on how the most refined and seemingly introspective aspects of early Buddhist practice are both conceptualized and trained as a consequence of analogous ethical attitudes that are first enacted and executed in a social context.

Lastly, for our purposes is also worth emphasizing Thompson’s critique (chapter 5) of the Buddhist modernist account of ‘enlightenment,’ the supreme soteriological goal of Buddhist practice. ‘Enlightenment’ is a mid-nineteenth century rendering of the Sanskrit root budh- (the root of the epithet ‘the Buddha’), which literally means both ‘to know’ and ‘to awake.’ Thompson aptly shows how this translation plays well with European ideas connected with the focus on individuality in Protestantism, and the focus on individual rationality in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment movement, which we also briefly touched upon in Lecture Zero, when discussing Taylor’s narrative.

Buddhist traditions do not offer a unanimous account of what the experience of Enlightenment or Awakening actually amounts to. Views encompass a whole spectrum that moves from a purely negative description (the complete extinction of mental defilements) to more positive, albeit apophantic, accounts (some access to a transcendental unconditioned reality). Buddhist modernism tends to align with an understanding of Enlightenment as a ‘nonconceptual and intuitive realization of how things are’ (Thompson 2020, 156). However, this notion is utterly unintelligible when it is divorced from a soteriological background, which is not reducible to the domain of scientific investigation (pace the modernist). Hence, either Enlightenment is something that puts Buddhism beyond science, or one has to reduce it to some sort of mental or psychological state open to scientific investigation, but very difficult to map onto traditional Buddhist sources, practices, and texts. As an alternative to this conundrum, Thompson surmises that Enlightenment eventually remains a concept-dependent experience:

any experience called an ‘enlightenment experience’ is concept-dependent. I’m not saying that ‘enlightenment experiences’ or ‘experiences of awakening’ don’t exist. I’m sure they do. I’m saying that calling an experience an ‘enlightenment experience’ is to conceptualize it and that conceptualizing it shapes it. Again, think of love. The idea isn’t that people don’t experience love. Of course they do. The idea is that their experiences of love depend on their concepts of love, that their concepts of love shape the experiences they call ‘experiences of love.’ Many of the other things I said about love hold for enlightenment. The concept of enlightenment is multivalent and doesn’t have an unequivocal experiential referent. Some forms of enlightenment, such as the ascetic forms upheld in ancient India, are inaccessible to most of us today. (Thompson 2020, 161)

The idea that Enlightenment is ‘concept-dependent’ might sound almost heretical from the point of view of several Buddhist traditions, which strongly emphasize that this experience goes beyond any form of conceptualization. However, as Thompson notices, the fact that non-conceptual elements are prominent, does not mean that the experience as a whole is non-conceptual in nature. Being ‘concept-dependent’ simply means that the nature and identity of the object at stake requires a particular concept in order to be located and engaged with, or else enacted. Even the experience of ‘a complete cessation of any engagement with conceptual constructions’ can be constructed as precisely the concept of this particular experience. In other words, without such a concept, it would be impossible to stumble upon this experience, in the same way in which without the concept of a city it would be impossible to really ‘be in’ or ‘visit’ that city (after all, a city is not its landscape or just any collection of buildings and other artifacts). While contentious, this point opens up an interesting possibility: depending on various circumstances in which Buddhist practice happens to be embedded, the goal of practice can receive different forms of conceptualizations and hence actually aim at different targets (which might be more or less reconcilable in the end).

Historically, this is in fact what happened. Consider the major divide between the ‘older schools’ (like the Theravāda) and the ‘new schools’ (the Mahāyāna in its various ramifications). The former put a strong emphasis on achieving awakening in this very life by individual adepts. The latter instead present adepts practicing for the sake of becoming themselves buddhas at the end of a long progress that span on manifold lifetimes during which they engage in activities beneficial for all sentient beings. Not only doctrinal, but also social and geographical factors shaped this sort of divide. However, if the history of the evolution of Buddhist views and practices already witness a correlated evolution of the ways in which the final goal and the adept’s striving for it has been differently constructed, we might well ask what the most appropriate way of constructing that goal given our current contemporary situation would be. As Thompson puts it: ‘which concept of enlightenment is appropriate and worth elaborating here and now? Which concept and social practices of enlightenment or awakening are worth reaching for?’ (Thompson 2020, 164). We shall come back to these questions in Lecture Eleven, after having gained a better vantage point to address them.

  1. For a more extensive treatment of Buddhist modernism, see David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism (2008).


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