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Owen Flanagan

The Bodhisattva's Brain

Buddhism Naturalized

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
In 2003 Flanagan wrote an article for New Scientist with the title "The Colour of Happiness", about preliminary research using brain imaging (PET and fMRI) to study the brains of Buddhists to see if there was evidence that they were unusually happy. They turned out to have a marked degree of activation in an area of the brain (the left prefrontal cortex) that had earlier been identified as related to positive emotions (negative emotions activate the right prefrontal cortex).

At the time only one subject, a Buddhist monk named Mathieu Ricard, who had been a molecular geneticist previously, had been studied while actually meditating. He proved to have a quite exceptional degree of left-sided activation and this prompted press reports that the research had identified the happiest man in the world; Buddhism, of course, was the explanation. (See The Monk and the Philosopher, by J-F. Revel and Mathieu Ricard.)

Since then there has been a good deal of public and scientific acceptance of the value of (one kind of) Buddhist meditation, namely mindfulness, which is currently being recommended for its claimed health benefits as an alternative to tranquillisers and antidepressants—this is in a secular context with no reference to Buddhism.

Two decades on from his New Scientist article Flanagan has written a full-length critical analysis of Buddhism as a recipe for happiness, based in part on personal experience. He has mainly encountered it in its Tibetan form, including discussions with the Dalai Lama, but he has also visited a number of countries in which other forms of Buddhism are practised. He has evidently read pretty widely in the Buddhist texts and, in an interview with John Horgan, he has said that he has practised Buddhist meditation for many years. He therefore writes with a good deal of knowledge of the subject, both practical and theoretical. Nevertheless he says he is not a Buddhist.

Early on in his discussion he points out that happiness is not precisely what Buddhism is usually supposed to offer. Still, it figures largely in contemporary Western enthusiasm for meditation, so that is where he begins.

Being a philosopher, he spends a good deal of time analysing what we mean by happiness. He starts by distinguishing this state from Aristotle's eudaimonia, "an active life of reason and virtue". Such a life may or may not entail what we ordinarily think of as happiness, a word which has many different meanings. To differentiate these he introduces terms such as eudaimoniaAristotle and happinessAristotle, which he compares with eudomoniaBuddha and happinessBuddha. Other kinds of happiness are identified later as well.

Flanagan describes his book as being in two parts. The first three chapters are on neuroscientific evidence for the claim that Buddhism makes you happy; the remainder is a consideration of whether Buddhism works as a natural philosophy. I would say that the structure of the book is essentially spiral rather than bipartite; you keep coming back to the same ideas as you read although in different contexts.

As regards neuroscience, unless we specify which of many possible mental states we are talking about there is no point in asking whether there are measurable brain changes corresponding to any of them, but this has not been done up to now. So is it sensible to use neuroscience to study Buddhism? After a pretty extensive discussion Flanagan remains uncertain. "I have offered several reasons for a somewhat cautious, even indirect approach, to the study of happiness at the present time."

One problem we have is the widespread assumption that meditation is the central phenomenon to be studied. Most Westerners exaggerate the importance of meditation in Buddhism. To the astonishment of almost all Americans to whom Flanagan has given the news, most people in Buddhist countries don't meditate in the formal sense and this applies even to monks. Even for those who do meditate, it's only one part of their spiritual discipline. (I've heard a well-known Theravada monk ending a retreat by saying that unless you follow the Buddhist ethical precepts you may as well forget about meditating.)

As Flanagan explains, the Buddhist path comprises three elements: virtue, wisdom and mindfulness. Virtue means obeying certain moral precepts—which are similar to those of other major religions—as well as cultivating the distinctive Buddhist virtues of compassion to living beings and loving-kindness. Wisdom consists in the recognition that everything is impermanent, including oneself. Mindfulness is certainly the aim of some kinds of Buddhist meditation (not all), but it is not essential to practise it in a formal setting; it can be simply a part of how one lives.

Buddhism is a complex and highly sophisticated ethical and philosophical system. Flanagan endorses much of what it teaches but he identifies himself as a Western analytic philosopher who wants to evaluate Buddhism from a naturalistic standpoint. So he doesn't accept rebirth and says little about enlightenment (nirvana); naturally, there is no mention of the Bardo Thodol (the Tibetan Book of the Dead). This is Buddhism without mysticism, which is not how it actually exists in modern Buddhist societies, especially Tibetan Buddhism.

Flanagan is generally impressed by the Dalai Lama's openness to science but parts company with him in some respects, such as his view that at least some kinds of consciousness may not be dependent on the brain.

Another problem Flanagan finds is understanding why the Buddhist denial of a permanent self (which he agrees with) entails the pursuit of virtue. Why not simple hedonism? He doesn't find a necessary connection between the two ideas, which he says would worry him if he were a Buddhist.

In spite of such reservations, Flanagan's opinion of Buddhism is generally positive.

Buddhism presents a vision of human flourishing, eudaimoniaBuddha, as involving an active life of wisdom, virtue, and mindfulness. The life of a eudaimonBuddha reliably, but not necessarily, yields happinessBuddha.
He concludes on a characteristically ironic note.
Is [Buddhism] the answer? Of course not. Nothing is the answer. This is something that Buddhism teaches.
I found this an insightful book that discusses questions that have often occurred to me. I have myself had contacts with Buddhism, though in its Theravada rather than Tibetan form, and, like Flanagan, I have thought about it naturalistically. No doubt this is why I like his book. Readers who are attracted by the non-naturalistic elements of Buddhism, such as rebirth and the quest for nirvana as mystical enlightenment, will probably think it to be lacking what they seek for in Buddhism and therefore will say that it largely misses the point.


%T The Bodhisattva's Brain
%S Buddhism Naturalized
%A Flanagan, Owen
s %I MIT Press
%C Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England
%D 2011
%G ISBN 978-262-29723-3 (retail e-book)
%P 264pp
%K religion, philosophy
%O kindle version, downloaded from Amazon 2019
%O bibliography, index
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