8 min read

Beyond Buddhist Exceptionalism

To be a person is to take one’s perceptions, desires, actions, and memories as being unified or integrated from within, both at a given time and over time. But how can there be such apparent unity or integration if all that exists are impersonal mental and physical elements related as cause and effect?
- Evan Thompson, Why I Am Not a Buddhist

Posting an early essay titled What Buddhism Gets Right could raise fears that I will add all of Buddhist thinking to our ideal future vision without sufficient scrutiny. I want, therefore, to provide a chaser that is a direct critique, to keep us honest. This is the pickle juice to last week's scotch.

I chose Evan Thompson's Why I Am Not a Buddhist as my main source for this critique and, much like a shot of pickle juice, I almost immediately regretted my decision. Far from Wright's highly accessible Why Buddhism is True, this is a dense, challenging, and inaccessible essay on technical philosophy, as you may have gathered from the opening quote. Even better, then, that I've swallowed it on your behalf.

Thompson offers a helpful critique of what he calls Buddhist Exceptionalism and instead recommends we be cosmopolitan - to learn everything we can from a discussion between all viewpoints. I'll then reflect on his discussion of Nirvana to find an exciting goal that could be the optimum point between enlightened detachment and fulfilled attachment.

Critiquing Buddhist Exceptionalism

Thompson believes that Wright's Why Buddhism is True pushes a notion of Buddhist Exceptionalism - the idea that Buddhism is superior to other religions often due to its scientific validity. Through his lifelong experience of Buddhism, Philosophy, and Science, Thompson is sceptical of this view, and uses the terms 'Buddhist Modernism' to define the denominations that Wright, and 'Neural Buddhism' for the subset that only deals with what can be 'proven' by neuroscience. Thompson summarises his perspective as follows:

From a cognitive science perspective, the problem with neural Buddhism is that it’s “brainbound” or “neurocentric.” It rests on the assumption that cognition happens inside the brain instead of being a performance of the whole embodied being embedded in the world. The proper scientific framework for conceptualizing meditation isn’t human brain imaging; it’s embodied cognitive science, the study of how cognition directly depends on the culturally configured body acting in the world. From a philosophical perspective, the problem with Buddhist exceptionalism is that it presents Buddhist theories of the mind as if they’re value-neutral descriptions, when they’re based on value judgments about how to cultivate or shape the mind to realize the supreme Buddhist goal of nirvana. In philosophical terms, the theories are normative—they’re based on ethical value judgments—and soteriological—they’re concerned with salvation or liberation. Buddhist theories of the mind lose their point if they’re extracted from the Buddhist normative and soteriological frameworks.

I don't think anything he has to say undermines any of our takeaways from Why Buddhism is True. We didn't read that book to claim Buddhism is 'better' than Christianity, Islam, Jainism, or any other religion. We don't care. We appreciate they are all attempts to seek truth limited by the knowledge and resources available to them. A particular appreciation that Buddhism captured some important concepts absent in other religions doesn't detract from that.

I appreciate that Thompson wants people to understand that there is much greater depth in Buddhism and that the are problems and contradictions within Buddhist Modernism. But we are being pragmatic. And at this early stage in the What Future World? project, we're not looking for such depth.

I should mention that Thompson directly challenges some of the evidence Wright uses to make his case, but I wasn't convinced to change my perspective on, for example, the benefits of mindfulness meditation. There has also been further research since the publication of his essay four years ago that further undermines his critique. He's strongly against evolutionary psychology, and suggests our present desires and delusions owe more to capitalism and neoliberalism than to natural selection. Again, this is fine. It also makes intuitive sense. It is almost irrelevant to us what caused our brains to work as they do, all that matters are the remedies and actions we can take to live a happier, more fulfilled life.

If only to humour him, I think Thompson's critique of McMindfulness is worth a brief reflection.


This is the term used the criticise the western fad of individualistic meditation practice that people can dip into for a time while having no impact on their greater lives. For example, a Wall St banker might dip into MNDFL, a vogue NYC meditation centre, for a thirty minute session before returning to work. Thompson writes that "Buddhists who object to “McMindfulness” argue that selfish individualism and commodification run counter to the whole point of the Buddhist tradition. It’s argued that being mindful in any full or rich sense involves societal and environmental change and can’t be effected simply at the level of the individual mind or brain." An important tenet of Buddhism is the concept of 'Right Mindfulness', which "requires self-restraint and concern for the welfare of others. It’s incompatible with greed and shouldn’t be marketed as a commodity for personal or corporate enhancement and one that reinforces the status quo".

I think this is fair. I don't think any harm is done by reducing the practice solely to the mind-clearing effects of an individual session but I think mindfulness teachers should feel some obligation to educate their students on the broader definition of mindfulness. Until the Wall St banker changes job or donates a lot of their income to charity, they are far from being truly mindful.

Rather than touting the exceptionalism of Buddhism and losing a lot of its depth in its repackaging for an individualistic western world, Thompson promotes a culture of Cosmopolitanism.


Cosmopolitanism is the idea that all human beings are members of a single community and that we should therefore respect learn from each other's religious and cultural beliefs. Thompson writes that "we need a nonsectarian and cosmopolitan philosophical perspective to appreciate the Buddhist intellectual tradition" and more broadly that "we need to be respectful of the particularity of human lives, and this requires respecting and valuing our differences, including our felt attachments to different communities and traditions". I appreciate the broader perspective and believe the value of cosmopolitanism reflects our approach to multi-disciplinary learning to arrive at an ideal future vision.

This idea ensures we stay dynamic and don't get stuck in a way of thinking. One of the most common ways eutopian visions fail is by getting stuck on a set of ideas and gradually decaying. We can avoid this trap by maintaining a principle value of cosmopolitanism. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a leading thinker on cosmopolitan ethics, says that “because there are so many human possibilities worth exploring, we [cosmopolitans] neither expect nor desire that every person or every society should converge on a single mode of life.”

It also aligns with our orientation to always be seeking truth. Here I appreciate Thompson's description of Philosopher Philip J. Ivanhoe:

[He] uses the Confucian idea of ritual or proper conduct to suggest that “a cosmopolitan is not a citizen of nowhere but an interested guest or visitor.” The ideal guest or visitor performs “the ritual of inquiry,” observing and asking about local practices and their meaning: “As good guests, we defer judgment, at least in most cases, about the things we are seeking to understand until we are confident that we can see their true significance within the larger frame of this particular form of life.

Taking such a cosmopolitan perspective, we ought to ask what else we might learn from Buddhism to apply to our ideal future vision. It's clear that our largest omission to date is discussion of Nirvana, the concept that some might characterise as the 'objective' or 'final goal' of Buddhism.


Nirvana, also known as enlightenment or awakening, is the state reportedly achieved by the Buddha in which one experiences no suffering, craving, nor sense of self. It is described equally as 'a perfect place of happiness' and 'emptiness'. Despite the detachment from the 'real world' that it implies, it is described by those that have achieved it as the "ultimate feeling". Should we trust the enlightened few and strive for Nirvana or seek fulfilment in our attachments, particularly our human relationships?

Here I align with Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis when he says that full detachment feels inherently inhuman. Not only does a personal existence of complete detachment from the world strike me as unfulfilling but a future society where everybody seeks enlightenment and detachment from the 'real' world does not strike me as eutopian. This belief comes almost entirely from intuition rather than evidence. Haidt does present compelling arguments as to why humans need love and connection - both forms of 'craving' in the strict Buddhist sense - but it could also be true that I simply cannot imagine the feeling of enlightenment and without it cannot justify it as an ultimate goal.

This raises interesting questions about the role of faith in our ideal future vision. While there are descriptions of the state of Nirvana that some may find more appealing than the fulfilment they get from 'human' life, most Buddhists who seek enlightenment do so out of faith in the teachings of the Buddha rather than on what may be considered a rational basis. I will explore this in detail another time but for now it is fair to say that our ideal future vision is based in rationality.

The benefits of a mindfulness meditation practice combined with Nirvana being too extreme suggests an optimal point of mindfulness that provides liberation from cravings while maintaining fulfilling connection and relationships. Can we say anything about where that optimal point lies? And, if so, the best strategy for achieving it?


One possibility would be reaching the step before Nirvana. I mean that literally - Buddhism teaches the Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment and while the components are more commonly characterised as spokes in a wheel rather than ordered steps on a path, many describe the eighth component - Jhana (Dhyana in the original Sanskrit) - as the least accessible and therefore often the "step before enlightenment".

Dhyana translates simply to 'meditation' yet in the context of the Eightfold Path it means 'Right Concentration' and the practice of fixing concentration on a single 'meditation object'. This practice is the method for practitioners to achieve the four states of Jhana - known simply as the four Jhanas - 'delightful sensations', 'joy', 'contentment', and 'utter peacefulness'. There are a further five states (tantalisingly called the 'formless realms') which are probably best characterised as the sub-steps before reaching Nirvana. When practitioners speak of 'experiencing Jhana' they might be talking about any of these nine states. They all sound within our definition of fulfilment.

While the labels make such states sound appealing, those that have experienced them describe them as feeling better than sex/orgasm, and heightening the senses such that touching soft material can be, once again, orgasmic. Rather than enlightenment which is a permanent state of mind, Jhana is temporary, leaving practitioners to return to 'the real world' after their practice, albeit it with an even heightened level of 'mindfulness'.

This is an exciting prospect. It offers arguably the strongest possible feeling of pleasure whenever we choose to access it, an altered mind that is conducive to accessing our highest innate state of fulfilment, and a practice that fosters a mindful attitude. It seems without risk or downside to add it as a goal of the mindfulness meditation practice I've previously recommended. Thompson would worry that we are still reducing Buddhism but would appreciate our cosmopolitan approach. Haidt would be ecstatic. Jhana meditation and experience could certainly use more validation but for now it is a good objective to set while we seek to refine it.

Our ideal future vision will never be so prescriptive as to say everyone should be a Buddhist. Evan Thompson need not worry. Instead we take his cosmopolitan approach, welcoming all perspectives and learning as much from them as we can. In refining our perspective of What Buddhism Gets Right we can add the objective of Jhana to our mindfulness practice - likely the optimal point to reach on the path to enlightenment.

Please share your thoughts if you have any feedback on this article, or leave a comment below.

P.S. If you're curious to explore these topics further, this video interview is an accessible and enlightening exchange between Evan Thompson and Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism is True.