The Philosophers Magazine’s reviewers have released a list of the ‘Best Philosophy Books’ published last year by taking into account of the twin virtues of philosophical rigor and readability. The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized by the philosopher, Owen Flanagan*, is one of the ten books selected. Here, I have written a short reflection piece on the book. I had the privilege of taking few philosophy courses with Flanagan and discussing the book with him. This book has influenced my thinking on Buddhist philosophy in general and my training in comparative philosophy, in particular.
Most philosophers are bright and well read. A handful has genuine insight. Very few are able to look at an ancient religious tradition and be both scathing about its supernatural excesses and sympathetic to its real wisdom. Hardly any can write clearly, rigorously and with vim and humour. A minority say things of importance to people outside the profession. Take these groups and arrange them in a Venn diagram. Owen Flanagan sits in the very lonely space where they all overlap. – Julian Baggini, founding editor of TPM
A prima facie question one would legitimately pose is to ask: 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 one is a Buddhist or someone who has an interest in Buddhism or Buddhist philosophy, this is “a must read” book for many reasons one 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 (natural lottery), but gradually, with my training in philosophy I became a Buddhist of a different breed, I became more and more skeptical about its certain metaphysical claims/theories such as reincarnation and karma (a metaphysical justice system) yet retained great interest in 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 treatment with western philosophical traditions. The naturalization project that he is proposing or arguing for 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 Aristotelian 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 the 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 and political life? These are some of thoughts and questions that struck me. The question of Buddhist political theory really is exciting, because when one looks around all the contemporary Buddhist states are either failed or troubled states. Is it the lack of a conception of justice beyond its metaphysical (karmic) justice system in Buddhism or can a state not run successfully on the principle of compassion? Flanagan of course does not offer answers to these questions or even consider to, but I think these are some very interesting and intellectually demanding queries to wrestle with.
Flanagan, Owen J. The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, MIT Press, 2011, MA.
*Owen Flanagan is not a Buddhist.