Saturday, 14 June 2008

The Immanent Frame: The Buddha According to Brooks

It's been a while! I had an email today from Nathan Schneider the author of an interesting-looking blog called
The Rowboat, drawing our attention to a post on The Immanent Frame and inviting comments either here or on that blog. Here is his message:

I am writing to inform you about an ongoing conversation at The Immanent Frame—a blog on secularism, religion, and the public sphere, produced by the Social Science Research Council.

On May 13, The New York Times published a column by David Brooks entitled "The Neural Buddhists," in which Brooks speculated about the impact of cognitive neuroscience on the future of religion. Soon after, we invited a series of posts on The Immanent Frame by thinkers from various fields, encouraging them to discuss the Brooks column and the questions and claims raised within it. The latest of these is called "The Buddha According to Brooks," and was written by the eminent scholar of Buddhism, Donald S. Lopez, Jr. In it, he offers a critical historical perspective on the idea of "Buddhism" that Brooks employs. "This neural Buddhism may indeed lead to big cultural effects," writes Lopez. "But if it does, it will be important to remember how we got there, and what might have gotten lost along the way."

We hope that you will take some time to look at Lopez's post, the series of which it is a part, and The Immanent Frame in general. More posts in the series are on the way in the weeks ahead. We'd welcome your comments, both on our site and at Progressive Buddhism.

Lopez's post:
The "A cognitive revolution?" series:

Nathan Schneider

Please have a look and share your thoughts. Brooks' original article is here



  1. Brooks should have read Zizek eight years ago when he not only already anticipated the union of cognitive science and Buddhism, but saw past Brooks' quasi-mystical interpretation of it all. There's a rather lengthy section in his essay, "Lacan Between Cultural Studies and Cognitivism," that he devotes to "Cognitive Buddhism," first published in 2000 in a SUNY Buffalo journal, (U)mbra, and then again in 2005 in a book of essays called "Interrogating the Real." It is a really positive and intriguing, if slightly misinformed assessment, but without the Brooks' gooeyness. I think that for all I realize I have to say about it, though, I should write a post rather than comment on it here.

  2. Hey Joe,

    There were already scientists commenting on the usefulness of Buddhist thought more than 8 years ago.

    I know a lot less about Zizek and Lacan than I know about Buddhism. What Zizek I have read I've not enjoyed much.

    From a quick scan, it seems pretty easy to criticise, but most of my comments are in response to your own article about this.

    Western Buddhism is not a single homogenous entity - there is a huge range of attitudes and depth of understanding - just as with eastern Buddhism. But Zizek clearly doesn't like George Lucas' ideas wherever they come from.

    The Buddhist idea that ideological zeal and fanatasism is a source of violence and suffering is not a western invention. And historically there is plenty of evidence that it's true - the Crusades, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Al Qaeda, Salem witch trials, Spanish Inquisition. It is rare in fact that any sort of well-organised source of suffering is not strongly conviced of its own righteousness.

    There seems to me an implicit Marxism in Zizek, as if the evilness of capitalism was a given and as if our responsibility to overthrow it was a categorical imperative. At this point in the early 21st century it's very easy to see the damage that revolutionary Marxism has done - both in terms of short term violence and long term cultural damage and oppression. Democratic socialist societies in Northern Europe seem on the other hand to have been largely very successful - as have most capitalist democracies.

    I also find the Salon's argument that Star Wars does not contain powerfully rendered mythic elements unconvincing even if these are sometimes pompously over-blown.

    Whether or not Buddhism is mystical (or quasi-mystical) or not depends how you define 'mystical' (of course). I don't think it's invalid.

    I enjoyed Brook's article. I think he makes many salient points.

  3. Great post, Justin. The Brooks piece is good, but I think his empirical data is better discussed in the works of folks like Richard Davidson and B. Alan Wallace, and his speculations about the emergence of "neural Buddhism" is intriguing, but needs further theological or sociological research.

    As an academic I was also especially interested in Professor Lopez's comments on the topic. It is great of him to point out the distinction between the various traditional practices of Buddhism and "Buddhist Modernism" - something all readers (and contributors especially) should be familiar with. However, as a student of ancient ('original'), medieval, and modern Buddhist trends, I also see that there is room for the questioning and change within Buddhism.

    Again, great post and great discussion thus far :) Justin 2