I've written a little bit about this before here. Specifically, I've talked about its metaphysical aspects and their religious overtones, in a way that shows what I think is a comfortable Western non-Buddhist's familiarity with it. I've discussed briefly the paradox involved at the core of making claims about ineffability. Related to that, I've written about how some of the Buddha's own observations lead to logical snares.
But, with a new post by Massimo Pigliucci bringing out all the first-generation converts who claim "Buddhism is just a philosophy" or even "Buddhism is just a psychology," I thought I'd jump into this in a bit more depth here. (Many of the same types of apparent first-generation converts to "secular Buddhism" as made statements on those blog posts above.)
First, for those trying to claim otherwise, or hold up Stephen Batchelor or the likes of him as having a direct illuminative pipeline back to 2,500 years ago? Wrong!
The idea of "Buddhism is just a philosophy" (along with similar claims about Hinduism) was cooked up by Victorian-era Europeans and Americans, in some degree of cahoots with "Westernizing" Indians.
The reality is that Buddhism deals with two matters of "ultimate concern," even "ultimate metaphysical concern," namely karma and reincarnation.
Second, a sociology of religion observation, and a snarky one, too.
I think that most of the "just a philosophy" claimants come from one of two previous backgrounds. They're either old Reform Jews who like being able to paste meditation and Zen-type inscrutable phrases that sound like updated, Easternized versions of comments by medieval rabbis, all from folks in saffron robes with a hipster angle, on top of their denatured Reform Judaism, or else they're liberal Unitarian Christians or post-Unitarian New Agers who wish they had been born as Reform Jews, etc.
And, yes, that's a snarky comment. But, isn't snark itself an updated word for the psychology in which Zen masters often presented their observations?
And therefore, it's the best style of answer available to give to the "just a philosophy" folks.
Third, in line with Massimo and contra his Buddhist friend who inspired his post, even if you trot out modal logic, multivalent logic or similar post-Aristotelean thought, Buddhism, if you try to sell it as a philosophy, is more illogical than anything that's come out of the West.
If you don't like that? Mu!
Yes, I know what the word means. I've used it here to "unask the question" or "unask the issue" of "free will versus determinism" to many people, including Massimo. That comes from my primary blog, where I've written with a bit more depth.
Today, though, I use it in Zen-snark mode to "unanswer the protests" by first-generation Buddhist converts. And, per one commenter on Massimo's post, and my observations above, that's exactly who you are. Aaron Shure observes:
The joke from the late ’60’s about the old Jewish lady who travels to the Buddhist monastery asking to speak the the Lama: after a long journey on donkey, finally talking her way into the inner sanctuary, she approaches the Lama, smacks him with her purse, and says, “Sheldon, come home.” Graham needs to Kimmen heim.I agree with the joke. I also agree that Flanagan (correct) does a better job than Batchelor, at least in some ways, in trying to intellectually craft the idea of secular Buddhism, Buddhism is just a philosophy, etc. At least Flanagan, in the subtitle of his latest book, by saying "Buddhism Naturalized," seems to admit this is a conscious effort on his part. However, whether that's due to combatting what he sees as misinterpretations, or whether he's rewriting what he sees as the normal, historically-rooted understanding of Buddhism, I don't know.
I don’t think it’s an accident that there are so many first generation Buddhists in America claiming it’s a philosophy and not a religion. Only if your parents aren’t Buddhists can you claim that Buddhism will do, unlike other religions, all that it promises. The first gen acolytes do all sorts of backbends to get around the obvious malarky of the dogma. Whether it’s the three card monty move of saying “there are many Buddhisms” so that any BS version of the doctrine you point out can be quickly pushed onto the wrong sect, or whether it’s the annoying “ineffable” dodge, or whether it’s the putting off until other lives the need for any sort of freaking evidence.
Owan Flannagan did his best to come up with a naturalized Buddhism, and I find it unsatisfactory. Nagarjuna is no more a logician than Democritus and Leucippus were Physicists, which, with Massimo’s blessing, they were not. Still I’m going to read the book for the history of logic.
And, also, I found this quote from him:
What they make of the hocus pocus about karma and rebirth is another matter.In light of that quote, how many Buddhist arhats, etc., would accept him as a legitimate expostulator of Buddhism? I know it's primarily directed at Americans (many of them commenting on Massimo's blog?) who largely equate meditation with Buddhism, and putting thoughts into their heads, but what does he think of Buddhism's core doctrines — yes, doctrines — himself?
Anyway, folks, per Aaron and myself, I can make the same claim about Judaism. If I make the right readings of scriptures I choose versus ones I neglect and other things, hell, I can make the same claim about Christianity.
Which, after all, is what many Unitarians essentially do.
And, "back in the day"? First-generation Christian apologist Justin Martyr tried to sell Roman emperor Antoninus Pius and members of the Senate on the idea that Christianity was just a philosophy, after all!
So, to the degree anyone claims Buddhism is "just a philosophy," it's true, but not unique, and it is essentially trivial.
Back to the philosophy angle. If, as did someone on Massimo's blog, you make claims that because David Hume came up with observations about human psychology that parallel those of the Buddha, this is "proof" that either Buddhism is just a philosophy, or worse, that metaphysical doctrines and all, Buddhism is still just a philosophy, you just kneecapped yourself in my court.
And, if prose for philosophical statements doesn't totally float your boat, well, this short poem of mine, and this other one, point out some of Buddhism's conundrums in verse.