Buddhist Modernism

Is Buddhism uniquely suited among religions for scientific investigation? Evan Thompson debates the question with Sam Harris.

The term Buddhist modernism suggests that what many people in the West today take as an authentic form of Buddhism is better understood as a 19th century response to European colonialism coming from within Asia itself. In Evan Thompson’s telling, Buddhist modernism is a reform tradition whose exponents exported a version of Buddhism more suitable to Western audiences by abstracting and then emphasizing only certain aspects of Buddhism’s varied cultural, ritual, and metaphysical formations to make it seem more compatible with secular conceptions of science, rationality, and empiricism. To make matters more complicated, Thompson continues, this reformed Buddhist modernism was then re-imported back into Asia, refiguring the practices of ethnic Buddhism through newfound European influences.

Buddhist modernism, in turn, gives rise to what Thompson calls Buddhist exceptionalism, the view that Buddhism is exceptional among religions in being uniquely science friendly and suited to the modern world of empirical laboratory research. Now, if you’re following the logic here, then you can see that the thesis of Buddhist exceptionalism is only true given the effects of Buddhist modernism. In other words, if Buddhism appears uniquely suited for investigation and dialogue with modern science, then it’s because Buddhist modernism formulated an alternate version of itself designed for appeal on these grounds. The truer story, says Thompson, is that Buddhism, properly understood in its varied complexity, is not more or less amenable to scientific validation then are other religious or spiritual traditions. (And I’ll make the additional claim that scientific validation understood in this narrow sense is not a sufficient criterion for assessing the value of these traditions anyway.)

Along these lines, one could imagine a form of Christian modernism that achieves a similar feat. In fact, a certain reading of Max Weber’s secularization thesis will take you some of the way in explaining both Buddhist and Christian modernisms, and how, given the proper preparatory treatment and exculpation of certain inconvenient metaphysical and ritual commitments, both could appear as empirically justifiable belief systems from the perspective of modern scientific investigation. Now, some of you secular Westerners may be tempted to draw a bright line between the commitments of Buddhist practice and those of your Christian peers, but that only proves Thompson’s point: The bright line between them is an artifact of reading Buddhism as such in the terms given to them through reformed Buddhist modernism. Their view of Christianity, on the other hand, is interpreted along its fuller cultural and metaphysical contours, perhaps owing simply to proximity. My thesis: Westerners are more familiar with the fullness of Christian commitment and ritual because its expression is still part of the cultural fabric of life in the West, but their Buddhism is the Buddhism of Buddhist modernism, not the ethnic Buddhism of Asia, and so the comparison ends up trading in a false equivalency.

The dispute over Buddhist modernism and exceptionalism formed the basis for Thompson’s recent discussion with Sam Harris on his Waking Up podcast. Needless to say, I think Thompson gets things mostly right, and Harris mostly wrong. If you know Harris, then you'll already understand that he supports versions of both Buddhist exceptionalism and modernism, arguing that Buddhism is alone among religions in being conversant with scientific rationality and is therefore amenable to empirical investigation using modern means. Thompson successfully (to my mind) pushes back on both claims, arguing that Buddhism is neither a priori uniquely suited for the modern worldview or its science, and that other religious practices and rituals contain just as much (or as little) opportunity for scientific study as does Buddhism, and this is so for the reasons I described in the opening of the essay.

I don't know the Buddhist scholarship the way Thompson does. I do, however, have some authority to push back on Harris’s characterization of religious, philosophical, and contemplative traditions in the West, especially at their Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Christian sources. (Hearing Harris talk about these topics should trigger the Gell-Mann Amnesia warning bell in any informed listener.) The rich comparative work of placing practice traditions in dialogue will have to wait for another day, but to push back on Harris’s reading of the West, one could do worse than start with the Platonic pilgrimage of theoria, the contemplative mysticism of Plotinus, the negative theology of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite or the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, Pierre Hadot’s recovery of askēsis as the fulcrum of philosophical practice, and the contemporary advocates of contemplative and centering prayer taught by Thomas Merton or Martin Laird. Then there are of course the interdisciplinary dialogues already underway, comparing, for example, Hadot with Buddhist practice traditions, or Jay Garfield’s efforts to make Buddhist philosophy legible to Western academics, to say nothing of Thompson’s other works that draw together phenomenology, neuroscience, and Buddhism.

I won’t pick up that discussion here. Instead, I want to look at two further concepts that came up in the Harris–Thompson dialogue, which I think shed further light on the discussion, and that Harris couldn't quite grasp. These are the notions of religion and social construction (the latter term being a terribly freighted word). Harris repeatedly drew a line between "religion" and "empiricism," unable to see that religious practice, including in the West, in its healthy expression is a kind of empiricism, both as an exercise in transformation aimed at an ideal, and as an investigation by which truths about the world can be discovered. Harris was also unable to grasp the idea that the cultures of which religions are a part imply that religious practice is a construct, but that construct does not mean simple relativism or naive anti-realism, but is rather a necessary form of creative and evolving participation with the ideals of a tradition. Harris’s thin understandings of religion, practice, and empiricism help shape his confusion around Buddhist modernism and exceptionalism.

In the end, I think Thompson made his case, and if you have the requisite historical, philological, comparative, and hermeneutic skills, then I believe you will find that Thompson’s view simply is richer and more informed than what Harris could bring to the table. Thompson’s larger contributions to understanding Buddhism, science, and religion in the West and elsewhere are absolutely essential, since there’s no shortage of Buddhist modernism running around these days. Harris’s claims about Buddhism being uniquely suitable for scientific study only gets off the ground after the concrete, diverse, ritual cultural practices of Buddhism are replaced with the post-19th century reform movement of Buddhist modernism, and Harris misses this step. I don’t say any of this to disparage the potential fruits of scientific research into Buddhist contemplative practices, or the likely equally fruitful dialogue possible between other traditions and science. Rather, I want people to understand the sorts of cultural transformations Buddhism had to undergo historically in order to be amenable to Sam Harris-style scientific appropriation. So, if you find yourself thinking in terms of Buddhist modernism or exceptionalism, or if you've missed the empirical and participatory nature of religious practice, then I think you should check out the links contained in this essay, or better, buy Thompson's book.