Buddhism Naturalized


"Cosmopolitanism — such a great word! Have you read Camus?" the fellow sitting next to me on the Metro says. He must have glanced over my shoulder as I read the postscript "Cosmopolitanism and Comparative Philosophy" of The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized by Owen Flanagan. We chat, and I learn that William is also a fan of Rumi, the Sufi poet who has recently appeared on my far-too-long must-read list. I express skepticism about big-city life for some people, who can't handle the unnatural stress and would be healthier in a small one-church village. "That's just where I escaped from!" William tells me. His verbal and physical mannerisms are — how to put this delicately? — reminiscent of what a dear friend calls "the Small Spoon" if two men are cuddling in bed. At the NOMA Station as he leaves the train we shake hands, limply.

But back to the book. Picking at scabs? Quibbling over words? Displaying philosophical arrogance? Flanagan does each of those a few times too often for Bodhisattva's Brain to be great. Maybe it could have been a few excellent short essays, but then it wouldn't have been publishable. At intervals the author, a Duke University philosophy professor, tosses in dry humor, sharp insights, and thoughtful advice. But he can't resist interminable wrestling matches with definitions of terms, repetitive lists of categories, name-dropping, self-promotion, and densely inconclusive "That said, ..." point-counterpoint.

That said, when he comes up for air in the final pages Flanagan suddenly becomes a first-person human being again. He talks about his problems with Buddhism: ethics that focus on compassion rather than justice as fairness; a tendency to attract passive-aggressive narcissistic followers, especially in the West; and the failure to explain why, if everything is impermanent, what "... makes a life of maximal compassion more rational than a life of hedonism." But Flanagan isn't a Buddhist. He disagrees strongly with mystical non-scientific aspects of that faith, including rebirth, karma, etc. His conclusion:

... Philosophy's contribution is to examine the great traditions of the past for useful insights into what to do now and next. For that purpose, for going forward, Buddhism has something to offer. Is it the answer? Of course not. Nothing is the answer. This is something Buddhism teaches.

Tres Zen, no? Other excerpts, perhaps, to follow ...

^z - 2013-06-02