A scholarly response to mainstream Western Buddhism.
Following in the tradition of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, Thompson (Waking, Dreaming, Being, 2014, etc.) delivers a timely rebuttal to what he calls Buddhist modernism, the idea, loosely, that Buddhism is not a religion but a science of the mind. Thompson confronts Buddhist modernism as it has been popularized by writers such as Robert Wright, Sam Harris, Stephen Batchelor, and Joseph Goldstein by returning Buddhist teachings and practices to their cultural contexts. Mindfulness meditation, for example, is commonly understood today to reveal the nature of the mind, but as Thompson points out, it “is a practice that shapes the mind according to certain goals and norms, such as making the mind calmer and less impulsive.” He makes similar arguments about other central positions of Buddhist modernism, such as the illusory nature of the self, the meaning of enlightenment, and the scientific evidence for the truth of Buddhism. Thompson shows all of these to be far more complex and contested within Buddhism than is widely claimed by modernists. Alongside his criticisms, Thompson offers a positive vision of Buddhism’s place in a larger cosmopolitanism. He wishes, finally, “to be a good friend to Buddhism.” If he is a friend, though, he is an awfully stern one. As vigorous and informed as Thompson’s approach is, it is ultimately more impressive than engaging. One advantage Wright, Harris, and Batchelor have over Thompson is that each is a more elegant stylist. But the precision and technicality of the book are central to Thompson’s project. He can’t very well get into the weeds as he needs to without getting muddy. While this reality may preclude him from the wide readership his antagonists know, it is a price he pays voluntarily in an effort to keep his readers honest.
The forceful, if labored, argument Western Buddhists need to hear.