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Can a Naturalistic Buddhism Make You Happy?

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by Owen Flanagan

In 2000, I was part of a small team of philosophers and Buddhist adepts invited to spend a few days in Dharamsala, India talking with the 14th Dalai Lama on the topic of destructive emotions. Several prominent neuroscientists attending the meetings were hatching ways to study the effects of Buddhist meditation. Soon after, the press – more than the scientists themselves – began reporting that Buddhists were the happiest people in the world and that brain imaging had shown this to be so. As a philosopher of mind I was well positioned to critically examine the evidence. There were several important matters to discuss: Does Buddhism promise happiness, and if so, what kind? Presumably it is not the familiar “happy-happy-joy-joy kick your heels” kind of happiness, not the Hugh Hefner kind of happiness, and it is not the ephemeral happiness that comes from winning the lottery. Instead, some say that Buddhism offers no kind of happiness, but it offers an end to suffering, which is very different. You have a headache. I give you aspirin. You are not suffering. But are you happy?

There is much hype in recent years about the good effects of Buddhist meditation on health, well-being, and happiness. This, plus the fact that in Buddhism there is no creator God, makes Buddhism especially attractive to liberal post-Abrahamic folk who think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” But is happiness important? Were Jesus, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, or Martin Luther King Jr. happy? It seems an odd question. They each lived great lives. They mattered. Aristotle said that happiness is not the most important thing, but meaning, purpose and fulfillment are. A malevolent person could be happy, but the meaning and significance of his life are worthless and evil. According to Aristotle, one cannot tell whether an individual flourished or lived in a fulfilled and fulfilling way, until after he is dead and gone, one sees how the grandchildren turn out. This means that flourishing, purpose and meaning are not completely subjective, not located solely in the head, and thus not to be seen there on brain scans.   

It became clear to me that although American culture hypes happiness, it is generally of a shallow type and that no great spiritual tradition ever promises anything like that sort of happiness. Finally, insofar as Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, etc. offer ways to flourish, they are each somewhat different from the other, and the conception of flourishing on offer always involves a theory-specific type of morally-advanced relationship with other people, sentient beings and/or the divine. Such relationships are not in the head. There are a host of reasons to beware the hype about the connection between Buddhism and happiness, as well as the thought that neuroscience could vindicate the claims of one spiritual tradition relative to the competition.

The first half of my book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized is devoted to the question of whether Buddhism is science friendly. The current Dalai Lama is personally very interested in science. He says that the belief in rebirth would have to go if science proved it impossible. The trouble is however, the standard of proof and disproof he recommends makes it impossible to prove or disprove the existence of anything. All the empirical evidence in the world can’t disprove the claim that I am a reincarnation and that I will have a rebirth nor can it prove that you are reading these words. There is truth and there is proof. Only mathematics trades in proof and disproof. Proof to one side, the 14th Dalai Lama is very interested in and enthusiastic about establishing neuroscientifically that Buddhist practices, and in particular meditation, can make one happy. I examine the question of whether happiness is something in the head that can be assessed by MRI. Before that though, I need to address the question of whether Buddhism promises happiness. If so, what kind? My answer to this is that there is no good evidence that Buddhists are happier than anyone else. The second half of the book takes up the question of what Buddhism would look like if one subtracted the hocus pocus about karma and rebirth. Can there be such a thing this is “Buddhism Naturalized”? My answer to this is that Buddhism can be naturalized, and that what is left is a deep, credible philosophy for our time.

Whether Buddhism contains a philosophy that really could be attractive to 21st century secular humanists means that it would require at a minimum, that Buddhist theory was consistent with science and thus broadly naturalistic, and so beliefs in karma, rebirth and nirvana would have to go. Can there be Buddhism without these beliefs? It is not entirely different from the question of whether Christianity or Islam can be naturalized. Can one call oneself a Christian if one is agnostic about God the Father and believes that Jesus was simply an exemplary person? 

My answer for Buddhism is that if one subtracts the beliefs in karma, rebirth and nirvana, what remains is a philosophy that should be attractive to contemporary analytic philosophers. “Buddhism naturalized” contains a powerful and credible metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. The metaphysics is an event or process metaphysics. There are no things, only events that unfold in a great beginning-less unfolding, the Mother of all Unfoldings. The self is one of the impermanent events. The epistemology is empiricist: experience first, then reason and only then do we consult the “scriptures,” which are themselves fallible compilations of wisdom from previous experience. The ethics teaches that goodness comes from compassion and Lovingkindness to oneself and to all other sentient beings. 

I believe that “Buddhism naturalized” is a serious contender, along with Confucianism and Aristotelianism, for a great wisdom tradition that offers a viable philosophy for 21st century secularists. It might seem odd to recommend these ancient theories as good for us now, but I do really think all three are worth a second look. The reason is that all three of these philosophies, from over 2 millenia ago, are less theistic, and thus more rational, in their core philosophy that the three Abrahamic traditions.

Some think that studying ancient wisdom traditions involves anachronism and ethnocentrism. One talks across too much time and one talks and thinks in a manner too biased by one’s own perspective for the inquiry and the reflection to be profitable. Plus, these are old dead people. I say, accept that such inquiry is anachronistic and ethnocentric and get over it. We live in the most exciting multicultural and cosmopolitan times, where people come from numerous different traditions. It is in paying respectful attention to where others are coming from that we can see more clearly how we see and do things, as well as the multifarious ways to do things differently.

I would like my book to undermine glib claims about neuroscience and what it can show or reveal about what really matters for human flourishing, namely living with worthy aims and in excellent social relations. I would like it if it made my fellow analytic philosophers appreciate what a rich theory “Buddhism naturalized” is, and make them more receptive to doing more comparative work searching for wisdom and less pedantic navel-gazing.


About the Author:

Owen Flanagan is James B Duke Professor and Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, Durham, NC.  He works in philosophy of mind, ethics, and comparative philosophy. He is the author of Varieties of Moral Personality: Ethics and Psychological Realism(Harvard 1991) and The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized.