Is Buddhism True? Slouching toward a review, 1: Subtraction & Bad Faith

Started this batch of notes just when Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment (Simon and Schuster, 2017) arrived in the mail—and now suddenly it’s more than halfway through 2018. Other stuff, like Language in the Buddhist Tantra of Japan, got in the way, but I’m now continuing to make notes…. Wright’s work seems to be an almost archetypal instance of secular Buddhism, and therefore reflecting on it seems to be a useful exercise.

Let me first therefore say that I am sympathetic when the author expresses the goal of his argument, saying “Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important” (xii). It is the urgent importance of Buddhist thought as a potential solvent that also makes critiquing Wright’s formulations a useful exercise.

Subtraction as bad faith

Even before describing his goal, however, he provides a brief summary of his “subtractive” method:

I’m not talking about the “supernatural” or more exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism–reincarnation, for example–but rather about the naturalistic parts: ideas that fall squarely within modern psychology and philosophy (xi).

This demonstrates a substractive strategy something like:

Buddhism as a whole – superstition/cultural accretions/exotic metaphysics = core/true/essential/denatured/original/pure Buddhism

Such a strategy is all too often convincing because the remainder matches so neatly the understandings of the audience. However, it is an act of bad faith for two reasons:

first, the pristine appearance of the remainder conceals the fact that it is just as much a cultural construct as any other version of Buddhism, despite now claiming the authority of being what the Buddha really meant—this is the deferral of authority that is central to bad faith, turning what the author thinks into what the Buddha says

second, it is a decision as to what is superstition, exotic metaphysics, or merely cultural accretion–these are not neutral categories, but rather ones that have their own cultural history and content, often unconsciously imperial and informed by white privilege (what we believe is religion, what they believe is superstition); naturalizing those contents as unproblematically superstition or mere cultural accretion obscures the role of the author in determining what should be deleted

thus these categories allow the author to take what he wants, and leave behind what he doesn’t, and the formula should therefore be written as:

Buddhism as a whole – what I don’t like = Buddhism I do like.

But the rhetoric cloaking the decisions involved give the authority of true/original/pure/authentic to what remains after the subtraction.

We should note that the process is no different from those subtractive practices of those who claim that the remainder has the status of being “the direct expression of an awakened being.”

So much bad faith, so little time.

Note: the idea of a subtractive method is borrowed/adapted from Charles Taylor who uses it in his A Secular Age.


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