9 min read

Reflections on... Why I Am Not a Buddhist

Disclaimer: The 'reflections on' series is better appreciated if you've read the source material, though it isn't necessary. In this case I don't recommend you read the book unless you are particularly interested in technical Buddhist philosophy. If so, you can find the book here or here. Instead, this video interview between the author Evan Thompson and Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism is True may prove more accessible and enlightening.

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

I should not have committed to reflecting on this book until I had starting reading it. Far from Wright's highly accessible Why Buddhism is True, this is a dense, challenging, and inaccessible essay on technical philosophy. It is concerned more with definitions than it is pragmatic recommendations. This can be seen in the quote above and another example: "Nothing is inherently or intrinsically chess apart from this conceptual system". Yes, it discusses the nature of chess. He makes a valid point, and it's a helpful analogy...for a largely unhelpful concept. You won't be surprised to hear that it isn't a bestseller and is seen as quite divisive even within the highly academic audience the book is - or rather, should be - pitched to. That said, it continued sufficient trains of thought on Buddhism to make this a valuable reflection. I take Thompson's recommendation to be cosmopolitan - to learn everything we can from a discussion between all viewpoints - to see what we left out in our last discussion of Buddhism. I find an exciting goal that could be the optimum point between enlightened detachment and fulfilled attachment.

Critiquing Buddhist Exceptionalism

Thompson was motivated to write the essay primarily to challenge the notion of Buddhist Exceptionalism that he believes was touted in Why Buddhism is True. This is 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 and Neural Buddhism to define the denominations that Wright analyses and identifies with, and the subset that only deals with what can be 'proven' by neuroscience, respectively. 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."

Time for a collective sigh of relief - I'm not going to debate Thompson point for point, primarily because 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 Buddhist 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, and a slight 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 can also say that the focus on 'helpful' concepts of Buddhist Modernism is the same prioritisation I would have done in assessing Buddhism as a whole if it weren't done for us. Which gets to the heart of the disagreement. It may be technically true that the concepts are normative based on the belief that Nirvana is a good thing, but almost everyone would say that fulfilment and freedom from suffering are indeed good things, even if nirvana as an objective are questionable. I suggest that fighting over definitions of philosophy terms will do less to progress us to an ideal future than figuring out how that ideal future should look.

I should mention that Thompson directly challenges some of the evidence Wright uses to make his case, but presents a sufficiently weak argument that 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 three years ago further these benefits. 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, and that's what Wright gives us. If anything, I think Thompson's critique of McMindfulness is worth a brief reflection.


This is the term used the criticise the western fad of mindfulness centres and other forms 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 that questionably improves the world for others. 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". This I think 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.

Thompson also makes positive contribution that I believe is worth reflecting on: Cosmopolitanism.


Cosmopolitanism is the idea that all human beings are members of a single community, and that we should therefore respect everyone's religious and cultural backgrounds and engage in discussion so that we might learn from one another. The thrust of Thompson's argument is applying this concept solely to Buddhism; he 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. As we saw in The Dispossessed, one of the most common ways eutopian visions fail is by getting stuck in their ways and decaying. By maintaining a principle value of cosmopolitanism we help to ensure we avoid this trap. 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 (li) 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 - especially since we have explicitly discussed what we should be solving for!


Nirvana, also known as enlightenment or awakening, is the state 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'. It is described by those that have achieved the state as the ultimate feeling - certainly nobody has ever regretted it! - despite the detachment from the 'real world' that it implies. 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, authoer 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 imagining 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 currently 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.If there are clear benefits of mindfulness and a meditation practice, and yet the end goal of Nirvana is seen as extreme, it suggests an optimal point of mindfulness between liberation from cravings while maintaining fulfilling connection and relationships. Can we say anything about where that optimal point lies, and even about 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 it has a particular meaning and associated practice in the context of the Eightfold Path. The meaning is 'Right Concentration', which also describes the meditation practice of fixing concentration on a single 'meditation object'. This differs from the typical practice recommended by 'Buddhist Modernists' of losing concentration by focusing on the breath, for example. The Jhana 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. While the labels certainly make them sound appealing, it is the reports of those that have experienced them that provide the greatest appeal. It's frequently described as feeling better than sex/orgasm, and heightening the senses, often for a period of time after reaching Jhana, 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' as I described previously.

This seems an exciting prospect to me - an objective that provides 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 this mindful attitude. As solely an extension of the practice we've identified as providing innumerable benefits, there seem to be no additional risks or downsides to consider in recommending it. Thompson would worry 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 seems as good an objective to set while we seek to refine it.

Ultimately we don't really mind why Thompson is not a Buddhist, as we don't believe everyone should be in our ideal future world. Instead we take his cosmopolitan approach, welcoming all perspectives and learning as much from them as we can. Beyond what we already know, here we also learned that reaching Jhana in our mindfulness practice might be 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.