In the spring of 2000, Owen Flanagan participated in the Eighth Mind and Life Conference, sponsored by the Dalai Lama. The Mind and Life Conferences are a series of dialogs among "scientists, philosophers, and contemplatives" to develop a greater understanding of psychology and the philosophy of psychology, to advance the understanding of the nature of reality, and to promote the well-being of people around the world. Flanagan had a passing familiarity with Buddhism prior to attending the conference, but between his experiences at the conference and the media attention he received following it, Flanagan's passing interest developed into something more serious. The result is The Bodhisattva's Brain. It is an attempt to naturalize Buddhism -- to pare away the magic, superstition, and untestable theses that is common within popular Buddhism.
Flanagan is what some might call a "hard headed" analytic philosopher, who has no patience for the "woolly minded" thinking that generally characterizes popular religions. So it is noteworthy that he would take the time to see what he might find valuable in Buddhism. Unsurprisingly -- though Flanagan himself seems surprised -- he finds much that is valuable. His surprised reaction indicates a prior lack of appreciation for the pragmatic nature of Buddhism and his final conclusions about what is valuable in Buddhism betray an immovable commitment to what Buddhist's would call mere "conventional" knowledge. Despite this, he shows a good understanding of many of the most important Buddhist concepts. The Bodhisattva's Brain is a landmark examination of Buddhism from a Western analytic perspective.
There are, however, a few concepts that seem overlooked or underdeveloped in the work. Flanagan appears to construe karma as a mysterious causal relationship in which what goes around eventually, magically comes around to an actor's benefit or detriment. Moreover, to escape what seem to be counter-examples, Flanagan claims that Buddhism employs the doctrine of reincarnation. This may be an accurate popular conception of karma, but Flanagan overlooks a more plausible account. Buddhism maintains that all things have a dependent existence, i.e., nothing exists separately from all other things. An aspect of this is causation. Simply put, all things have a cause and cannot exist apart from their cause. This is uncontroversial enough for physical events, but controversial when extended into the moral realm. It even seem unlikely that one's fortune or misfortune always is caused by something one did previously or in a past life.
The problem, however, evaporates when one abandons -- as Budhism does -- the idea of a distinct, persisting self. Without a self to which beneficial or harmful consequences are expected to return, the law of karma merely asserts that compassionate or harmful acts propagate in kind through the world. My greedy act will cause harm to others who will become afflicted by jealousy and subsequently will become disposed to act in harmful way themselves. Conversely, my compassionate act will erase affliction and dispose others to do the same. I suspect that Flanagan might object that this interpretation of karma departs too much from the popular conception, but it is grounded firmly enough in the doctrine of the non-existence of individual selves to claim a respectability within broader, more charitable interpretations of karma.
Flanagan is impressed with the Buddhist doctrine of anatman -- the idea that our individual selves are fictions. It is, essentially, a denial of the existence of an individual soul or at very least an immortal, individual soul. No doubt, stressing this doctrine places Flanagan's understanding of Buddhism on very firm ground. He does, however, overlook in important critique of this doctrine that lies within the Buddhist tradition itself. Around the second century A.D., Buddhists began articulating critiques of metaphysical claims of this sort. The movement became known as Madhyamaka Buddhism. Its most important exponent was Nagarjuna, and its most important metaphysical claim was that all things are sunyata or "empty." Flanagan appears to understand emptiness to involve either (or both) the dependent arising (dependent origination or dependent existence) of all things or else the infinite divisibility of all things. In either case, the existence (or at least independent existence) of objects is refuted. Flanagan does not seem to appreciate, however, the dialectic nature of Madhyamaka Buddhism. Emptiness is not merely an assertion of the doctrine of anatman and the non-existence of objects, it is the conclusion drawn from the refutation of all metaphysical doctrines, including the doctrine of anatman. Perhaps the closest that Western philosophy comes to this observation is Kant's antinomies. For an excellent treatment of this and Madhymika Buddhism generally, see T.R.V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, reviewed in this blog.
Flanagan further betrays a disposition toward an early form of Buddhism by his lack of attention to the six perfections of a bodhisattva: generosity, morality, vigor, forbearance, concentration, and wisdom. These perfections are outlined in detail in the monumental work, the Prajnaparamita, also reviewed in this blog. The Prajnaparamita is perhaps the most important sutra in the Mahayana tradition. Flanagan makes no mention of it. He does discuss aptly the four divine virtues: compassion, loving kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, and these virtues are clearly connected to the perfections of the bodhisattva, but they are limited largely to the moral aspects of the bodhisattva. To succeed in following the path of the boddhisattva, according to the Prajnaparamita, one needs to cultivate certain non-moral traits or dispositions. That Flanagan misses this link leads to his skepticism that embracing the doctrine of emptiness will naturally lead one to acquire the four divine virtues. Of course, it is not certain that if he (or anyone) were to focus attention on and accept the arguments in the Prajnaparamita that he (or anyone) would be led from the non-moral claims in the Madhyamaka tradition to the moral dispositions, but Flanagan's lack of appreciation for the importance of wisdom as laid out in the Prajnaparmita might well explain the extent of his skepticism on this score.
Flanagan would do well to explore more deeply two other concepts in the Prajnaparamita: (1) the distinction between conventional and ultimate truth and (2) "skill in means." He certainly recognizes distinction between conventional and ultimate truth, but consistent with his desire to keep Buddhism bounded within a naturalistic world view, he seeks to make sense of Buddhism only within the conventional realm. Here again, the Prajnaparamita's critical approach to all metaphysical claims helps one understand the futility of a full understanding of the world in strictly naturalistic terms. Naturalism assumes a metaphysics which cannot withstand the Madhyamaka critique. By letting go of all "absolutes," including naturalism, one achieves the wisdom (prajna) which is essential to enlightenment.
Finally, Flanagan would do well to appreciate the importance of the concept of "skill in means." The bodhisattva becomes a bodhisattva by perfecting the perfections. For example, by continuously practicing generosity, the bodhisattva hones his or her habits to the point that he or she is unaware that there is a giver, gift, or gift recipient. The bodhisattva does not think, "so-and-so is in need of this gift, so I will give it." Instead, giving becomes so natural that the "gift" is "given" without thinking of it as a gift. In such a case, the bodhisattva has achieved skill in means with regard to giving. The same skill in means is to be developed for the other perfections.
Enlightenment cannot be achieved without perfecting the perfections, but as only a Buddha has reached this level of spiritual development, it is impossible for us to assess the effectiveness of the path of the bodhisattva. This leaves the Buddhist open to the possibly reasonable criticism that his or her claim is untestable, but in fact, it only shows the limits of testability as a characteristic of truth. To see this, one might compare the claim that perfecting the perfections leads to enlightenment to an extremely adept mathematician's proof of an extremely difficult theorem. No one but the adept is able to understand the proof. Consequently, some faith is required of lesser mathematicians, if they are to accept the theorem; but this does not make the proof dogma. Similarly, the validity of the path to enlightenment may only be understood by those who have achieved "skill in means" and those of us with less skill must take it on faith, but that does not make it dogma.
There are a number of other complaints one might raise against Flanagan. For example, his criticism of most Western Buddhists as being self-absorbed and uninformed often seems uncharitable and condescending. He also too forcefully dismisses the importance of meditation to Buddhism. This is perhaps a function of his lack of appreciation for, again, the Prajnaparamita and for the dedicated pursuit of enlightenment by non-lay Buddhists. Some degree of meditation is crucial, if one is to go beyond the study of Buddhism as a scholarly discipline.
The foregoing criticism of Flanagan's treatment of Buddhism should not lead the reader to think that his work is fatally flawed. On the contrary, it is a brilliant work of comparative philosophy. Flanagan shows a remarkably deep understanding of Buddhism for someone who has only given it serious study for a decade or so. A classic story about the Buddha describes the Buddha as tailoring his teachings to the abilities and understanding of his students, and so his teachings about the path to enlightenment were different and at times contradictory. What is important is to find ways to advance the student along the path. Flanagan's work, whether he intends this or not, is an excellent expression of the insights of Buddhism geared for the skeptical, naturalistic, Western mind. All that might be needed to achieve a deeper understanding of Buddhist philosophy is a commitment to the path -- a commitment to reach beyond Flanagan's naturalistic Buddhism.