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Why I Am Not A Buddhist
A philosopher's struggle.
This interview probes some of the thinking that compelled philosopher Evan Thompson to leave the faith tradition he was raised in. It is in no way meant to disparage that tradition. In fact, as can be seen in the discussion, he has great respect and admiration for Buddhism as one of the world’s great sources of wisdom. To disagree, in this case, is not to denigrate.
I hope you enjoy this enlightening discussion.
Adam Jacobs: Hi, Evan. Thank you so much for being with me today on Beyond Belief. It's really a pleasure to have you here.
Evan Thompson: Thanks very much for inviting me.
Adam Jacobs: It’s my pleasure. And I have really enjoyed going through this book of yours called Why I Am Not a Buddhist, and it has prompted so many questions, and I think a lot of people think that they understand Buddhism, and they've heard a lot of famous concepts from Karma to Zen, but I think there's maybe an Americanized or a westernized version of it that we got it sort of filtered through some kind of filter, and I suspect that we don't really understand the full picture. And so, therefore, you're uniquely placed, and you've actually written a whole book about it about what the true maybe essence of Buddhism is, although I admit off the bat that I'm a little confused as to what it is, but I'm really looking forward to hearing some of your ideas about it.
So let's start off with your permission. There's a concept called Right Belief in Buddhism, and I found a quote from a book I like called Our Religions a thinker named Masao Abe; if I'm pronouncing his name correctly, he's a Japanese Buddhist who wrote that “in Buddhism belief is only provisional to be subsequently abandoned like a raft once the river has been crossed, therefore celebrating its own disposability.”
So I found that so fascinating because it seems so antithetical to so many other traditions that I know where there's a very dogmatic set of principles. What is this disposability all about A, and B, based on that, what is Buddhism?
Evan Thompson: Yeah. Okay. So, first of all, I would want to contextualize that statement in light of who Masao Abe is. So he's a 20th-century modern Japanese philosopher who's trained both in Western philosophy and then heavily influenced by his own tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism and of Buddhism in general. And he's writing in a context where he is really trying to articulate a form of Buddhism for the modern world, and in his case, that really is centered in Japan, which is a sort of unique modern country. So he's writing to try to articulate a form of modern Buddhism in relationship to European thought and European religion. So he's emphasizing what he takes to be a particularly central aspect of Zen, which has always been part of the Zen, you might say, rhetoric, which is that Zen is about experience. It's not about belief; it's not about scripture, even though, in point of fact, the Zen tradition has oodles and oodles of scriptures.
They present themselves as the teaching without words, the teaching without scripture. And anything that's said is understood to be provisional in the sense of a raft that would take you to the other shore. And once you get to this is a traditional Buddhist image; once you get to the other shore, it's a mistake to keep carrying the raft around with you. The raft has done its job so that you could say he's picking up on a traditional image in Buddhism, the image of the raft, but he's articulating a particular way of approaching or thinking about Buddhism that's supposed to meet the demands of the modern world. And this connects to something I would say that you said right at the beginning about, well, you don't know what the essence of Buddhism is, and I would be cautious about saying there is an essence. And when we find out what that essence is, then we can say something is either Buddhist, or it isn't. Because Buddhism is an evolving tradition over many, many centuries, millennia, different geographical contexts, different languages, different cultures. Now, of course, as a worldwide phenomenon. And it's a characteristic of religion to change, to evolve, to transform itself as it moves from one place to another. So what I would say is that it to say that, oh, Buddhism essentially is about not believing and dropping belief.
No, the essential claim is a kind of strong statement that I think is distorting. So this is what in my book I call Buddhist Essentialism, the idea that Buddhism is essentially different from other religions in not being about belief and being about experience in not being dogmatic. Those are things that modern Buddhists emphasize, and they do so because they're in the modern world and we favor those things, and they do so in relation to a history of interaction with, say, Protestant Christianity, which downplays belief or at least certain types of belief and emphasizes a kind of personal relationship to transcendence or to divine to the divine. So when Buddhism is taking form in the modern world and encountering modernity and encountering the West, it's itself in a way that emphasizes those things that are perceived to be attractive about modern movements and religion that emphasize experience and downplay belief.
But if you were to take that way of thinking about Buddhism and then try to read it back into the history of Buddhism in other cultures and context, it would be completely inaccurate because Buddhism in India, or China, or South Asia has in many different ways very strongly emphasized what's called view, that you need a proper, correct understanding of the Buddhist teaching. And that involves things like a recognition and belief in the marks of existence as suffering and the cycle of life and death and rebirth and death, and the possibility of a transcendent awakening that frees you from that cycle. And those are very much matters of belief in the sense of conviction that if you don't accept them, then you're not recognizably a Buddhist. So that would be necessary to characterize many forms of Buddhism, whereas the particular way that Abe is presenting Buddhism is a uniquely modern way, which is not to say it's inauthentic; it's just to say that he's now articulating it in the modern world for certain purposes. So it's not disagreeing with his statement; I'm just saying that it would need to be contextualized. We need to understand really what it means in its proper context.
Adam Jacobs: That makes sense. But you seem to take issue with that kind of contextualization, like the modernizing of Buddhist thought to make it compatible with current thinking. So, for instance, you asked the question, is it uniquely compatible with modern science? And actually wrote down a quote that I liked from page 41 where you say, “Buddhist theories of the mind and based on textual traditions that purport to record the remembered word of the Buddha on religious and philosophical interpretation of those texts. And on Buddhist practices of mental cultivation, the theories aren't formulated as scientific hypotheses, and they aren't scientifically testable. The claims these people make from having these experiences aren't subject to peer review; they're subject to assessments with the agreed-upon and unquestioned framework of the Buddhist soteriological path” (that being a fancy word for salvation). So you seem not to like the idea that there's something exceptional about Buddhism or this connection that some of the thinkers are trying to put together with modern science. So what is it that bothers you about that so much that you wanted to write a book about it?
Evan Thompson: Right. Yeah. So I don't object to Buddhism modernizing itself at all. What I object to is Buddhism presenting itself as special in being inherently suitable to modernization, and then taking that special modernized version of Buddhism and reading it back historically as if it were what the Buddha really meant all along or what the Buddhist said. That's, in a way, it's a kind of fundamentalism because it thinks there is a sort of literal truth to be recovered historically of what the Buddha said. And moreover, it's a truth that's uniquely scientific. So the idea that we would modernize religion to make it compatible with other aspects of the modern world that we find in science or that we find in politics or political theory, or that we find in art, I have no issue with that whatsoever, but it's something that all religions do. There's liberal Judaism, there's liberal Christianity, there's liberal Islam.
Modernism is something that has now happened to the world as a whole, and every religious tradition has had to grapple with it and articulate different forms, including fundamentalist forms, of course, because fundamentalism is essentially a reaction to modernity. So Buddhism is not special in that regard. It's the presentation of Buddhism as special and uniquely suited to being modernized that I object to. Because in order to do that, you have to downplay all of the inherently salvation and ethical aspects of the Buddhist tradition, and you have to, in a way, recast them and domesticate them to make them be scientific.
And when you do that, you lose sight of the fact that certain kinds of concepts are just not scientific concepts. So the concept of suffering in the way that it's used in Buddhism, that existence is inevitably or inherently suffering and unsatisfactory. That's not a scientific description; that's an ethical description that comes out of a certain value perspective. And so the idea that seeing the world as suffering in that way and then trying to attain liberation or awakening from it, that that's not a scientific narrative; that's an ethical or religious narrative. So what I object to is a kind of distorting of what Buddhism is about, not in terms of necessarily specific doctrines, but in terms of the whole overarching framework of whether Buddhism is to be understood as an ethical, religious tradition as opposed to some kind of psychology. It's the rendering of it as psychology that I object to.
Adam Jacobs: So then it's only the modern reading of it really that is bothering you. Like if 200 years ago, presumably, you wouldn't have this issue.
Evan Thompson: Well, 200 years ago actually is when this, in a way, started <laugh>
Adam Jacobs: 300.
Evan Thompson: And so it's not that I think the version of Buddhism 300 years ago was better. It's that when the version 300 years ago came into an encounter with the rise of science and the rise of European enlightenment thinking, what happened is that the Buddhist, many, many Buddhists then thought the strategy, which is entirely understandable in their historical situation, thought that the strategy for countering the dominance of Christianity would be to say Buddhism is more scientific than Christianity because Christianity presented itself as the superior religion, the religion that had arisen in a European scientific culture.
So the Buddhists were very clever that in Asia, they turned this around and said, and they said, no, Buddhism is actually more scientific. So I think it's understandable historically why that happened, but I think that that entrenches misconceptions about both science and religion, that we need to get beyond a bit like saying the best kind of art is the art that's compatible with science. Well, that's just not what art is about. And similarly, to say the best kind of religion is the kind of religion that's compatible with science. No, religion is about other things that don't stand or fall in terms of whether you can scientize them; that's really where my quarrel is. So modern Buddhists have, not all, of course, I'm generalizing, but many modern Buddhists have tried to legitimize Buddhism by scientizing it. And my argument was with that,
Adam Jacobs: That's fascinating for several reasons, but one of them is because I think that one of the unique features of Buddhism in, at least in people's minds, is it's willingness to accept reality for what it is. And so it's sort of surprising that there's, there would be a competition if Christianity was uniquely compatible with science. I would think that the Buddhist response to that would be like, okay, so it doesn't bother us, and we're just doing our thing, and we're trying to attain enlightenment. And I would think that would just brush right off of them. It's surprising to me that bothered anybody.
Evan Thompson: Yeah, I think Buddhism does say we need to understand things as they are. We need to clearly see them and clearly discriminate and discern how they are. But that statement is really made within the ethical and salvation frame within Buddhism. And what it means is we need to understand that things are impermanent and that impermanence means they're inherently unsatisfactory and that they're fundamentally then constituted by suffering. And our effort should be to liberate ourselves or all beings from that situation. So we need to perceive those characteristics clearly, seeing how things are, of course, in Buddhist philosophy now. So now we're talking intellectual scholastic Buddhism. There are many arguments about discerning the nature of reality and disputes, say in India, between Hindus and Buddhists about whether there really is a self or whether there isn't a self. So there are, of course, philosophical arguments that you can render as arguments about what there is or the theory of knowledge, what philosophers call metaphysics and epistemology. Of course, there are arguments about that.
So you could say that's an effort to recognize how things are, but it's always within this salvation, ethical frame, whereas science presents itself, you might question whether this is true on the ground, but science presents itself as trying to investigate reality independent of those kinds of ethical framings. Of course, science does have an ethical agenda itself. I mean, it arises as an attempt to value knowledge of how things are for their own sake and to make the world materially a better place for human existence and gain control over things. And that has led to all sorts of successes and all sorts of disasters. So it's not as if science is separate from an ethical framework, but the specific idea that you would see how things are, say in quantum physics, that's not articulated in a way that has to do with salvation or how to live a good life. Whereas in Buddhism, it's fundamentally about that.
Adam Jacobs: There's a certain salvation aspect of some science, I would say, even though they didn't intend it that way. But it is presented that if you don't follow the science, if you're a science denier, there are certain religious phrases that seem to get associated with it, that there is a group of thinkers who are in possession of a great wisdom and a great technique for understanding the world. And if you're not in alignment with them, you're an apostate too, and I'm not saying most of the scientists that I've ever spoken to are not like that at all, but there are some, and there do seem to be certain correlations between religiosity and science to me. But your point is well taken that, in general, it's not supposed to function that way. And I think you're making a very excellent and important point.
Evan Thompson: Maybe yes…
Adam Jacobs: You want to say something else?
Evan Thompson: Yeah, maybe I should just say that with regard to religion and science, of course, there are scientists who are deeply religious, and there are deeply religious people who value science. And, of course, and I think that's perfectly fine that then, and they're entirely consistent or coherent in being that way. So I wouldn't say that in and of itself is an issue, but many of the scientists are Christian or Muslim or Jewish, some of them are Buddhist. So it's not as if you need to be Buddhist to uniquely value science or that Buddhism somehow makes you more scientific that's more my point.
Adam Jacobs: So, help me to understand a few classical concepts within the Buddhist tradition and some of their effects on other cultures. So everybody at this point knows and uses freely the term Karma that's penetrated western consciousness. And it's to me, I’m an outsider, and I'm only slowly learning about this tradition which I find fascinating and full of important wisdom, and I think that needs to be considered carefully. Where would a Buddhist say that the Karmic system comes from? How does it know to differentiate between and wrong? Where is that? Where are those laws written? Yeah, I guess that's my question is like; oh, yeah, where does it come from? How do we know about it? And how does it make this distinction between right action and wrong action?
Evan Thompson: Yeah. So we should start with the concept of Karma. So Karma literally means action in the Sanskrit context, and it's an idea that predates the Buddha in Hindu scriptures that predate the Buddha where it means action, and it has a sense of ritual action, what the Buddha basically does, or at least the Buddha as presented in the texts that we have, because in point of historical fact, we don't really know anything concretely about the individual who was the Buddha. But in terms of the Buddha’s teachings, as they're remembered in the Sutras, the idea of action becomes understood as distinctly mental action. The idea being that action, in the sense of, say, intentional action, arises out of some motivation or intention on the part of the mind. So if I perform the action of going to the store to buy milk, I have an intention, a mental action of intention that's generative of the physical action of walking to the store and getting milk. So the Buddha makes this idea of action distinctly linked to the mind, and he emphasizes it as…
Adam Jacobs: Opposed to the brain. I should just ask.
Evan Thompson: Well, nobody really knew about the brain in the time of the Buddha, but yes, as opposed to the physical body or the material body in not necessarily in a contrastive dualist sense, but just in the sense that action becomes understood psychologically, let's put it that way. Action is about psychological processes and states. So mental states and processes that are related to the body but aren't just a bodily process like digestion. It involves some kind of mental context of desire, of intention, of motivation, of attention, perception, understanding. All of those psychological factors are part of how the Buddha understands karma in the sense of action. And then he emphasizes it in the sense that he says there are good actions, or you could say there are wholesome actions and there are bad actions, wholesome ones, and they're rooted in the mental state. The mental state is either wholesome or unwholesome.
It's either a mental state of wanting to do something beneficial or helpful or motivated by kindness or compassion or friendship versus a mental state that's negative, harmful, motivated by hatred or wickedness or a desire to cause harm. And then he says that good actions bring about good results and bad actions bring about bad results, not just in this life, but in the continuum of all the lives that make up the wheel of existence. So previous lives and former lives, the engine on which the sort of cycle of life and death runs is Karma or action motivated fundamentally and deeply by a kind of craving or attachment in the unawakened mind. Even when you're doing good actions, maybe you do a good action because you desire to be good and to be recognized as good. And that's a kind of actually selfish egocentric desire, egocentric cleaning.
So if you then ask the question, okay, well, why is it that good actions bring about good results and bad actions bring about bad results? There is no answer to that question in the sense of, well, God created the cosmos and set it up that way. In a way, an unanswerable question or a question in a way not actually worth asking because as far back as you go in trying to trace the workings of the system, you'll never find an origin point. So the Buddhists argue in contrast to the Hindus who think actually, well, no, you can find an origin point in a creator God or in a kind of universal consciousness that generates a kind of delusional dream about reality. The Buddhist generally say, no, you can't find a sort of deeper for the workings of this system. So it's, in effect, it's a kind of regularity of the cosmos that is just how things are that doesn't have a ground in, say, God or some written law.
Adam Jacobs: So that's very interesting, of course. And the contrasting it with Hinduism is also fascinating since those cultures are so closely linked, those philosophical systems like one growing out from the other; it's just interesting to know how they diverged. But in philosophy, we have this concept of the impossibility of an infinite regress—that you can't have an unlimited number of causes, which is more popular amongst the Scholastics, and I happen to be partial to it. I believe it. It's a generally accepted part of philosophy as a whole. You can correct me if I'm wrong, but why wouldn't that end come into play here? That there must be some kind of termination of this causality, and maybe we should think about that because maybe it has implications for this system. In other words, if I believe that there was a Karmic system, the first thought that I would have is, well, hang on, how did this get here? And what does it mean that it's here? Not just, well, we stumbled across this thing, which I'm not even totally sure how they know about it, and it is what it is, so we'll just use it as best we can. Why didn't that come up, or why doesn't that come up?
Evan Thompson: Yeah. So that's a complicated and very interesting and rich question that is central to a lot of philosophical debates within Buddhism and between Buddhists and other religious traditions in say, south Asia, Buddhists and Hindus and Jains, and materialists too for that matter. There is an argument that the Hindu philosophers make that's basically very similar to arguments we see in Judaism and Christianity, in Islam. The Hindu philosophers argue, look, you need a kind of ground first principle source of creativity to stop a kind of regress of contingencies back and back and back. You can't have an endless regress of contingencies. You need some kind of necessity to ground these things that could have been other. That's what contingent means. It could have been otherwise. And so if something could have been otherwise, it depends on something else for the fact that it is, and you just carry that back forward, and you need to arrive at something that's not contingent, that has to be the way that it is, that's necessary.
And then that would be God. So Hindu philosophers make a version of this argument, and Buddhists don't like this argument. Buddhists tried to argue that the very idea of a first cause or a first ground that wasn't itself dependent on something else is incoherent. So they attack the sort of logical coherence of the idea. And this gets extremely technical. I mean, now we're in the realm of Scholastic philosophy now. So that's sort of one way to come at it is just to say, okay, here we enter these very complicated philosophical debates. But another way maybe to think about it is that a certain style of Buddhism or Buddhist thinking basically says, look what really matters. So this is the traditional analogy of the person who shot with the poisoned arrow. So he's shot with the poisoned arrow, and the Buddhist teaching is how to get rid of the arrow and how to cure yourself.
And if the person shot with the poisoned arrow says, I want to know who shot the arrow, where it came from, the physics by which the arrow moves, the identity of the person, the social cast or class of the person who shot it, the Buddhist answer is basically, this is just not relevant to what you primarily should be concerned with. So this is where the ethical salvation kind of injunction or impulse comes into play. Again, it's that what really matters is you're suffering. You're shot with a poisoned arrow, and if you don't do something about it, your situation, your situation is dire, and what are you going to do about it? Well, you're fundamentally going to have to understand how the mind works in terms of karma and desire and discipline your mind and your social relations to others, to purify yourself so that you can attain awakening, which is basically equivalent to pulling out the arrow. So from that perspective, the question about where does karma come from is just really seen as not a pertinent question, I suppose.
Adam Jacobs: I totally, I get it, but if we think about it, the cops arrive on the scene, and someone is shot. They call the medics, they do what they have to do, and then they launch an investigation into exactly what happened, hopefully to prevent things like this from happening again. And just interesting. It's just all I can say is it's culturally interesting or philosophically interesting that people don't find that compelling to want to know, to trace it all the way back. But whatever, I can respect it, and…
Evan Thompson: I should say I'm not defending it. I'm giving their position. And indeed, many Indian thinkers, religious thinkers, philosophers we're not satisfied with that answer at all. And among Hindu philosophers in particular, theist Hindu philosophers and even you might say mystical is a tricky word, but you might say less Hindu thinkers, that this particular line of thought is not satisfying for precisely the kind of reasons that you're articulating, is that there needs to be a bigger cosmological story to really satisfy the human impulse to know how things they work and how we should live.
Adam Jacobs: Fair enough, and very good answer. So as you know, and as you mentioned in the book, there does seem to be a unique, maybe it's, tell me if it's not unique from my perspective, there's a unique fascination that Jewish people have with Buddhism. We even have a term for it. We have something called, it's called a Jubu, right? And they're all kinds of famous teachers of Buddhism who have Jewish origins. And the two systems. There certainly is overlap, but there's a lot of differences as well. Why would you say that there's, as far as I know, there's no such thing as a Mubu or a Crubu, they're Muslim Buddhists or Christian Buddhist. What is it about Jews that they so readily connect to this system in your estimation?
Evan Thompson: Yeah. Well, I know exactly what you're talking about, and I know many of these people, and I grew up around many of these people, so I'm completely familiar with this. But I would say that it's, again, I would maybe want to take a bit of a bigger picture here, which is that this is certainly a very strong phenomenon in the United States, in North America but in other cultures, there's a unique form of Catholic Catholicism and Zen Buddhism, both in Japan and the West, going back to Thomas Merton. I mean, that's been a very sort of powerful element in the Christian Buddhist dialogue and in modern Buddhism. So it's not as if there is a particular Jewish Buddhism connection, of course, but it's not as if, I would say it's unique, but it's not exceptional in that we see similar kinds of things in other settings. I mean, I'm not a historian of, say, religion in the 20th century, and a historian could give you a much better answer about how the sort of baby boomer generation of American Jews were, many of them craving a certain kind of spirituality that they felt was absent from their own upbringing and their own tradition, and found it in Buddhism. Although actually, in point of fact, the first wave might have been more finding it in Hinduism. So you could say they found it in Asian spirituality, which in the latter part,
Adam Jacobs: People like Ram Dass.
Evan Thompson: Yeah, exactly. People like Ram Dass. So in the latter part of the 20th century, it became predominantly Buddhism, but really the first wave was Hinduism and yoga. And there we actually saw a kind of unique mixture as well of Protestant Christianity and yoga, a kind of liberal Protestant Christianity and modern Vita Hinduism with early figures like Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda. These teachers, who in the late 19th century, and early 20th century, first brought yoga to the west. I don't mean yoga in the sense of physical yoga practice; I mean yoga in the sense of meditation and Hindu philosophy and religion. So I'm not a historian. I couldn't give you a really good answer the way a historian would, but I would say that it has to do with unique features of mid to late-20th century America, hunger for spirituality, a perceived lack of it, and then the sense that in certain kinds of meditation, whether it's Theravada, insight meditation or Zen meditation, that there was a way of recovering a kind of personal spirituality that they felt was compatible with, in their case, a very kind of liberal sense of Jewish identity rather than a more conservative one.
Adam Jacobs: I think that sounds accurate. So I don't know if we need the historian. I think that's right. I think that a lot of Jews found what they were brought up with to be very particularly unsatisfying and looked elsewhere, not realizing that they have their own mystical tradition, and of course and a lot to look into it. But I have a couple more questions for my own edification, and hopefully, the audience will find it edifying as well, which I, I'm sure they will. But the idea of moral conduct in Buddhism, to me, it's related to the concept of Karma, and there's a concept called the five [inaudible]. Am I pronouncing that correctly? Sila, which is, how do you say it?
Evan Thompson: Sila? Yeah.
Adam Jacobs: Sila. Okay. So that is abstention from killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, (although I couldn't find exactly what that's referring to) and not using intoxicants.
So in the Abe book that I was referring to before, he tells a fascinating story of, and maybe it's his classic Buddhist story, just not sure, but he tells a story of a hungry tigress, and it has just given birth and is very weak. It's almost; it's going to die. And Bodhisattva is in the area and in a sense, comes to the rescue, but he does it in such a counterintuitive way, and I wrote it down, it says, “as a merciful man, he had taken no sword with him. He, therefore, cut his own throat with a sharp piece of bamboo and fell down near the tigress. She noticed the Bodhisattva's body all covered with blood, and in no time, ate up, all the flesh and blood leaving only the bones.”
Okay, so my first thought was to go back to the abstention from killing. Does that not apply to the abstention from killing yourself? The idea of giving yourself up for an animal? Is that a classical Buddhist way of conducting yourself? I found the whole of it to be fascinating, but I found it to be very mysterious. Yeah. So is there a grounding for these moral principles, and are they enumerated, articulated anywhere so that you could know how to conduct yourself? In many scenarios, this one seems very unusual.
Evan Thompson: Yeah. So that's a story that you could say gives us the ideal of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is a term used in Buddhism. So this is the form of Buddhism that a arises starts to arise maybe 150 years after the Buddha’s death; develops in India, travels to China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet later. So it's a form of Buddhism that emphasizes strongly that awakening needs to happen for all sentient beings. And that's in a sense, the ultimate end, if you will, not personal liberation the Bodhi, so forsakes their own personal liberation to stay in the world of the unenlightened beings until all beings are able to be enlightened. And the fundamental, you could say ethical imperative, if you will, of the Bodhisattva, is compassion for the suffering of other beings. So this is a story in which you have a Bodhisattva who is able to offer their own life selflessly for the sake of other beings.
So it wouldn't be a case of killing yourself, which traditionally is considered to be extremely negative in Buddhism, because if you commit suicide, it's usually because you are not always, but usually, because your situation of one is depression, despair hatred towards yourself or revulsion from the world. And that's a very, very negative mental state. And from the perspective of Karma and rebirth the mental state you inhabit at the moment of your death is extremely important because it very much affects the future rebirth. So being in a very, very negative mental state is not good. And suicide is a case of causing harm. It's causing harm for yourself. It's not a rising out, not typically arising out of compassion. Now, the book story is where there's this selfless act basically of compassion and generosity, and it's the ultimate offering is to offer yourself for as a sacrifice really.
So in a religious context, you could say it's a kind of offering or sacrifice for the sake of these other beings. And that is very much tied up with the idea of Karma, of action that is selfless or really at the limit in a way, in the case of the Bohi Safa, the very highly attained Bodhisattva who is in effect a kind of Buddha almost the action is performed almost you could say, automatically and spontaneously in a way where it's not motivated by any kind of impulse having to do with self or desire having to do with self. But that's the ideal. You could say it's a religious ideal.
Adam Jacobs: It is fascinating. As much of this is from the perspective of my own tradition, I think that that would get labeled in Hebrew. We would say that that person is a Chosid Shoteh, which means he's a foolish saint. That in principle, the motivation is good. You're trying to be compassionate to another creature, and that's wonderful. At the same time, how many humans could he have helped in the course of his life if he didn't end it early and for the sake of a tiger? It's very hard to process on some level. Maybe that's just the western way of thinking.
Evan Thompson: Well, here's a wrinkle for wrinkle on that for you. So within a Buddhist context, if it's really a Bodhisattva that is a kind of emanation or manifestation of the Buddha, it would be understood that this Bodhisattva can actually see the workings of Karma in a way that no ordinary being can. So this Bodhisattva could see, for example, that this act of compassion towards the tiger means that the tiger cubs are going to be good tigers and live a good tiger life, be reborn as a human being that will be of tremendous benefit to others in future times. So they have this whole vast vista of an understanding of the Karmic intricacies that are closed to us. So from that perspective and only Bodhisattva have that, it would be delusional for me to act motivated by something like that because I don't have that understanding, but a [inaudible] principle does.
So the whole framework of their action is different. And indeed, in the traditional story of what constitutes the Buddhist awakening, when the Buddhist sits under the tree and resolves not to get up until he attains awakening, which is the realization that liberates him from suffering, he attains certain knowledge during the night, and one of them is how Karma works, which involves seeing his own previous lives back infinitely or innumerably, and how they've culminated now in the moment of released and liberation. And he sees the work of Karma for all other sentient beings. So this is kind of grand cosmic vision constitutes traditionally part of what it is for the Buddha to be the Buddha, to be the awakened one
Adam Jacobs: That does make it much more, that makes it much broader and much more interesting for sure. So that's good to throw in and worthy of contemplation, I think. But I'm a little bummed because I only have four and a half minutes left, and I have not gotten to all my questions, and some of them are so fundamental that I feel like, and I'm enjoying this conversation, so I'm going to lose out. But I'm going to pick one more and then just ask you a final question. But I don't think a conversation about Buddhism can be complete without talking about suffering, which you've mentioned several times. There is a concept called, again, from the Abe book. It says that “birth is sorrow, age is sorrow, disease is sorrow, contact with the unpleasant is sorrow. Every wish unfulfilled is sorrow.”
And I understand that there's an impulse to either accept or sidestep all the suffering and release yourself from this wheel of rebirth. So that, and to whatever state Nirvana ultimately is, to me, it's not necessarily a state that I would want to be in. I don't think I would want the blissful part, but not like the loss of my personal identity. But why can't we label the suffering as good? And speaking of Ram Dass, he, and I wish I wrote down the quote, but he has a very beautiful, and the documentary about his discussion about his stroke.
And he was discussing it, and he basically said that he wouldn't wish the stroke on anybody, but he would never trade, as he put it, the grace that came from it and the lessons. So why not grow through the suffering? Why not look at it as an opportunity as a teacher? There's so many books out there, so many traditions that say that suffering is your best friend and your best teacher. And many people look back on their lives and said, if that didn't happen to me, all these great things would never have happened. And it was terrible at the time, but looking back, it was the best thing ever. Why does that attitude not factor in here? Why the huge desire of some Buddhist thinkers or maybe all, I don't know, to rid themselves of suffering? What happened in the history of Buddhism that made this suffering so ominous?
Evan Thompson: So I would say that the idea that suffering is a teacher and that it is generative of understanding and love and compassion. I mean, I think this is deeply recognized within Buddhism. So I don't think it's the case that although Buddhism is ultimately, you could say, a religion or philosophy that addresses, you might say that the existential predicament of being human, that is, of being born without choosing to be born, living in a way where things are very out of your control, where you're inevitably going to get ill, you're going to suffer, you're going to die. That although that's the sort of frame for much of Buddhist thinking that goes along with a recognition that, of course, suffering is a great teacher and is a great creator or generator of love and compassion. So I don't think those two things are inconsistent okay at all.
I do think, nevertheless though, that if one thinks about again, there are different forms of Buddhism, but simplifying for the moment, if we think about the basic frame of Buddhist philosophy in terms of the Buddhist teachings, the four truths for the for the noble, the first truth is that existence is suffering, and that truth is to be recognized. It is said. So, it's that there is old age disease, death, the loss of loved ones that needs to be recognized, and the recognition of it is necessary for compassion among other things. And then it said that is that this is like a disease and there is a cure for it. So it isn't the case within Buddhism that this is something you should resign yourself to or that it's inevitable, inevitable for unawakened beings who are basically fundamentally selfish, but for beings who see beyond and uproot that kind of selfish clinging and desire, that is awakening now, then you can ask, okay, well what exactly is awakening?
What is Nirvana? Is it a state where of complete cessation, a stopping of existence? Is it something blissful? Is it really no different from this world, but being in this world a different way? Those are arguments that span the thousand years, several thousand years of Buddhism, but it's really that this truth of suffering is to be recognized. I think that's the key idea. And you can't really, I think mean about being a doctor, or a social worker or a parent for that matter or a good partner can't be a good partner, a good parent, a good doctor if you don't recognize when other people are suffering and when you yourself are suffering for that matter. Sure. So that's how I would render that.
Adam Jacobs: Okay. Last word is the book. First of all, people should go get this. This is really excellently written, it's accessible, and it's fascinating. Great book. So, in the end, why are you not a Buddhist? Yeah, and if you don't mind me asking you, where are you at the moment in your journey?
Evan Thompson: Right. So there's sort of two levels on which I could answer the question why I'm not a Buddhist. The main level that I explore in the book is that I grew up around Buddhism. I was exposed to many different kinds of Buddhist teachers, went on different Buddhist meditation retreats, and tried in many ways to be a Buddhist at different points in my life. But what I always came up against was since I'm not an Asian person, raised in a kind of traditional Asian setting of Buddhism, and I have no quarrel with that in the book whatsoever the kinds of Buddhism that were available to me and that I was exposed to were these forms of what historians call Buddhist modernism, which is this idea that Buddhism is special, it's unique, it's uniquely suited to science. And I was trained academically as a philosopher to think critically.
My undergraduate degree was in Asian studies, so I studied Asian languages and civilization and civilizations. And so I just knew that this was an inaccurate, distorted way of representing and presenting Buddhism. So I basically couldn't stomach that and felt that it was kind of inauthentic in a way to participate in that. And that became an obstacle. I could also tell a personal story about actual Buddhist, Western Buddhist communities on the ground and how they function, but that's a different kind of story. I was raised in a commune in the 1970s, so I sort of had enough of group dynamics of that sort and wasn't particularly attracted to it. So that's one level. And then I would say on a philosophical level, closer to the discussion we were just having is that Buddhism, the deep engines of its workings is about an understanding of the world as fundamentally unsatisfactory and fundamentally conditioned by suffering.
And the ultimate goal, in a way, is a liberation from that, either personal or collective. And that's not really, at the end of the day, how I find myself looking at the world or relating to it. I think that that's a kind of narrative of, I mean, escape is a little too simplistic to say it's escapist, but it's a narrative about, it's a get off the highway narrative. You're on the highway, and what you're given is the exit ramp, even if it puts you back on the highway to help others. There's a sense in which it's the kind of exit transcendence strategy, and philosophically, I find it very hard to accept that personally. And that's not meant to say what anybody else should think or accept. This is just a personal statement now. So that's right. That's really the reason as to where I am in my own journey.
I mean, I think of myself, well, my college roommate called me a non-aligned mystic. In the 1980s, he was kind of like your undergraduate Marxist, and this was in the era of the Soviet block in China and the third world. And he said, well, you're just a non-aligned mystic. Because I was raised in a very syncretic, eclectic context, and I love mystical traditions and mystical philosophies. And so my sensibility is always drawn in that direction, my father was raised Irish Catholic but left the church when he was young. My mother's Jewish, but she wasn't really raised particularly religiously. So I was just raised around a lot of different kinds of things, and I've always felt very eclectic and syncretic in that way. And when I was young, I was dissatisfied with that. And as I've gotten older, I've just realized that's my life. That's who I am.
Adam Jacobs: Very good. That was really a great conversation, which I really found very satisfying. So thank you. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here today. My pleasure. I once again recommend that people check out your work and visit your website and buy your books. And for everyone else, please take a moment to visit our website, which is beyondbelief.blog, and take a moment to subscribe. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Thank you so much, everyone, for being here, and we look forward to being back again with more fascinating individuals on Beyond Belief. Thank you very much.
Evan Thompson: Thank you.