Buddhism became something of a cultural phenomenon in the '60s and '70s in America, and has enjoyed a recent resurgence as both a "spiritual but not religious" option for spiritual seekers and as a possible source for a technology for escaping anxiety and depression. In this last respect, a growing number of scientific, especially neuroscientific, studies have touted Buddhism as being or having the secret keys to a peaceful and happy life. According to one reading of these studies, the American pursuit of happiness may just have found its end in an ancient Asian philosophy and religion.
These trends provide a background context for Owen Flanagan's The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, though the provocation to write the book is the philosopher's own personal engagement in some the dialogues between scientists and Buddhists that have received much press in the last twenty years. Flanagan's book comprises two naturalistic projects: the first is focused on the questions of whether Buddhism produces flourishing and happiness and whether neuroscience can study this question, the second is a comparative philosophical inquiry into Buddhism as a form of life that offers itself as a means to attaining eudamonia (flourishing/well-being) and happiness. The two projects are connected by the careful analysis of what exactly is involved in creating a good life and attaining happiness, and by Flanagan's commitment to scientific naturalism. Naturalism, in the book, is the thesis that natural stuff is all there is and natural causes bring about all that happens. If the science is good, it should explain the natural causes of the purported happiness of Buddhists, and if the form of life is to be palatable to a certain group of Westerners (Flanagan refers several times to his tribe of analytic philosophers and scientific naturalists) then it must offer its advantages without appeal to spooky causes or promises for happiness in the hereafter.
Both parts of the book are equally well-researched, carefully-argued, and clearly-articulated. Flanagan writes about science, philosophy, and history with an engaging prose style that is simple and clear without being tedious or pedantic. The main lines of argument do not require a background in neuroscience or philosophy and do not presuppose much familiarity with Buddhism, yet the abundant endnotes and references to Pali and Sanskrit terms offer the technical apparatus necessary to pursue further research. Furthermore, the book is novel and rich enough to prove rewarding to specialists in one or more of these fields. That said, it seems that both parts of the book will not be of equal interest to all readers. There will be some who care both about the science of well-being and philosophical doctrines for attaining it (Buddhism, by the time it is naturalized does not retain many of the doctrines and practices that substantiate its status as religion), but many who are interested solely or primarily in the science or the practice aspects. In this regard, the book works well as two independent halves. Each half works well with the other to provide a more comprehensive overview, but each also stands alone without fragmenting the arguments.
The two halves also fare well in a comparison with recent work in the "science of Buddhism" or "Buddhism for Westerners" genres that have become readily available and relatively popular in recent years. The first half of the book, focused on neuroscience, is far more cautious (though without becoming pessimistic) about the scientific studies than are many of the articles and books produced about Buddhism, meditation, and happiness research. Flanagan is careful to pick apart the claims the studies can credibly support and separate them from the sometimes overblown claims made about those studies. In this section, he offers a sympathetic, critical appraisal of the research that generalizes to neuroscience research on other topics, offering criticisms of how studies are structured and what they can legitimately reveal. One important criticism is that we cannot claim to study happiness without getting clear on how we are using that term and, in particular, whether we mean to include just a feeling or are more general way of life. To study happiness we must do a good job studying what is "in the head", but also recognize when a phenomenon like being a good, happy person is about more than just what happens in the head. In addition to this concern about framing the studies well, the research on Buddhist practitioners has sometimes taken exceptional individuals (usually monks), studied them in small groups (some studies have had an n=1), and then generalized to claims that Buddhists are the happiest people on earth. Flanagan notes the several ways such studies are flawed, as well as giving attention to the difference between what is studied and what is reported about what is studied, even confessing his own failures to write responsibly about this in the popular press. He provides a useful consideration of scientific inquiry into happiness and Buddhism that is specific but offers resources for reconsidering neuroscientific studies and press reports well beyond just studies of Buddhism. His cautious optimism is a welcome change from some popular accounts of the wonders of neuroscience and the neuroscience of Buddhism in particular.
The second half of the book offers a secularized form of Buddhism, considering whether a Buddhism made respectable for materialists would still be a significant option beyond those ways of life already on offer to secular, modern Westerners. Can we have the benefits of religion without giving up our secular commitments? Similar accounts have been offered in recent years, some claiming to be getting back to the roots of Buddhism before more supernatural ideas accumulated as Buddhism made its home in the several societies in Asia where it spread and developed. The Bodhisattva's Brain offers a Buddhism stripped of rebirth/reincarnation, nirvana as a state beyond this life, and karma as a cosmic force. Stripping Buddhism of these elements is common in the secularized versions on offer in recent books; what Flanagan offers uniquely is a more careful, nuanced consideration of Buddhism as a way of life, the claims made in its favor by Buddhists through the years, and the arguments that they offered. He finds much to like, noting that the core metaphysics and epistemology of Buddhism should be palatable to contemporary, analytic philosophers because they reflect many of the same concerns and methodological ideals. In addition, Buddhism offers a connected metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, something found less often in recent philosophy; the three strands form an interconnected form of life rather than a set of separate doctrines. He does offer some criticisms of the ethics: it is insufficiently attentive to justice, overestimates the value of compassion, and offers insufficient connection between some doctrines like no-self and compassion. Flanagan gives helpful comparisons to Aristotle's exploration of eudaimonia and happiness, as well as Aristotle's successors (Stoics, Epicureans) who extended his theoretical account with practical applications. This comparison reveals how Buddhism works as a compatible but unique account of the good life and how to obtain it. The historical comparison is carried out while retaining a "cosmopolitan" approach that recognizes its own anachronism and ethnocentrism, yet remains focused on getting answers to the questions we face here and now from whatever sources we can.
For true believers, the book will surely come across as giving short shrift to the plausibility of more supernatural Buddhism and as unnecessarily antagonistic to metaphysical doctrines such as karma as well as the cultural richness of particular traditions. But Flanagan is not writing for such an audience, he is writing for his own tribe: those convinced that we do not need the supernatural to give a good account of a good life but may recognize that we could use further guidance on both the theory and practice of having good lives. The Bodhisattva's Brain does not offer full resources on practice, largely passing over the research on meditation and offering no significant appraisal of its different forms. In fact, Flanagan downplays the role of meditation in being a Buddhist. This seems well justified based on the research he cites and his own travels in Buddhist countries. What it ignores is how central meditation has been to Buddhism's appeal and how often it has been the focus of research. In this aspect, the two halves of the book are not well-connected. However, there are plenty of other books that offer more detail about the practical aspects of putting Buddhism's psychological technologies to work and discuss the possibility for changing mental habits through meditation. There are few (if any) that offer such a rich consideration of the relationship between Buddhism as a way of life, the prospects it offers for happiness, the scientific research into these claims, and the philosophical underpinnings of such a form of life. It is all the more impressive that such a well-argued account is also a delight to read.
© 2012 Dennis Trinkle
Dennis Trinkle II is a Ph. D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. He specializes in philosophy of mind, psychology, and psychiatry. At present, he is working on a dissertation about the nature of mental disorders.