A cognitive revolution?:

The Buddha according to Brooks

posted by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

On Sunday May 25, 2008, the New York Times published an article entitled “Superhighway to Bliss” about Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who suffered a stroke in 1996. After she regained the ability to speak, she described the experience as “nirvana.” Neuropathology as religious experience is nothing new, yet the next day, the piece was number one on the Times list of most e-mailed articles. In the Science Times section of the paper the following Tuesday, there was an article entitled “Lotus Therapy,” on the growing use of the meditation cushion to treat problems previously consigned to the analyst’s couch. The next day, “Lotus Therapy” had taken over the top spot as the most e-mailed article. Clearly, something is going on. But that had become clear two weeks earlier when, on May 13th, the paper published an op-ed piece by conservative commentator David Brooks called “The Neural Buddhists.”

Brooks’ essay is not really about Buddhism; the term only appears twice: first, when he argues that advances in neurobiology will not lead to militant atheism but to “what you might call neural Buddhism,” and second, when he says that the new work will come from “scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.” That Brooks does not define what he means by Buddhism is itself interesting. He may assume that it is common knowledge, and he is probably right.

Although it is always risky to speculate about authorial intention, one might imagine that by Buddhism, Brooks means an ancient Asian tradition that is largely free of beliefs, dogmas, and rituals; whose central form of practice is meditation; which focuses on the here and now rather than the past or the future; which has no personal deity; which is fully compatible with Jewish and Christian mysticism and, especially, with science. Each of these characteristics is historically dubious when one surveys the various forms of Buddhism that emerged across Asia over the past 2,500 years. Those characteristics, however, are all central tenets of something called Buddhist Modernism, which emerged as a result of the colonial encounter.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Methodist missionaries in Sri Lanka, Chinese revolutionaries in Shanghai, and Japanese reformers in Tokyo were all dismissing Buddhism as superstition and (in the case of the former) dismissing its followers as idolaters. A group of Buddhist elites, several of whom would visit the West, responded to these charges by claiming that Buddhism was not primitive, but instead was modern. Indeed, with its lack of a creator God and its mechanistic universe (driven by the engine of karma), it was the religion most suitable for the modern world. Some went so far as to say that Buddhism was not a religion at all, but rather a philosophy, even a science. In this way, viewed in light of the academic model of the day, which saw a movement from superstition to religion to science, Buddhism was able to leap from the beginning of the evolutionary chain to its end.

But the formation of Buddhist Modernism cannot be credited entirely to Asian Buddhists. Central to the process was the work of nineteenth-century European Orientalists. Although there were Buddhists almost everywhere else in Asia they found no Buddhists in India, the land of the Buddha’s birth; Buddhism had disappeared there by the fourteenth century. Instead, they found monuments (often in ruins), cave temples (overgrown by jungle), and statues (often broken). There were stone inscriptions to be deciphered, and there were Sanskrit manuscripts preserved in Nepal to the north and Pali manuscripts in Sri Lanka to the south. These were the materials from which European scholars would build their Buddhism.

What would come to be called “original Buddhism” or “primitive Buddhism,” became the domain of European and, later, American and then Japanese scholars. They would create a Buddha and a Buddhism unknown in Asia, one that may never have existed there before the late nineteenth century. Just as there was a quest for the historical Jesus, there was a quest for the historical Buddha, and European Orientalists felt they found him. Like Jesus, the Buddha wrote nothing and, unlike Jesus, nothing that he said was written down until four centuries (rather than four decades) after his death. This Buddhism then became a model against which the various contemporary Buddhisms of Asia were measured, and were generally found to be lacking, not only by Europeans, but eventually by Buddhist elites in Asia as well.

The Buddha was transformed from a stone idol into a man of flesh and blood, a man very much of modern times. Described by some as “the Luther of Asia,” he became famous for having spoken out against the corrupt priestcraft and the crippling caste system of “Brahmanism.” He also became something of a Romantic hero. In 1879, Edwin Arnold published a poem on the life of the Buddha, entitled The Light of Asia, that would become one of the most popular books of the Victorian period, and a favorite of Queen Victoria herself; Arnold was knighted for his work. The Buddha became an alternative Jesus, a Jesus who was not a Jew, but an Aryan. In a Europe obsessed with questions of race and questions of humanity, the Buddha was both racially superior and a savior for all humanity, an ancient kinsman, a modern hero. This Buddha was the product of a different Enlightenment.

This is the Buddhism of Brooks and the Buddhism of the burgeoning business of Buddhism and neuroscience. Here, researchers who often identify themselves as Buddhists measure the effects of meditation techniques that are not unique to Buddhism. Their Buddhism bears the mystique of the infinitely morphable, the ever modern, the perfect alternative; we can be confident that whatever these neuroscientists discover will somehow be “Buddhist.” This neural Buddhism may indeed lead to big cultural effects, as Brooks claims. But if it does, it will be important to remember how we got there, and what might have gotten lost along the way.

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13 Responses to “The Buddha according to Brooks”

  1. avatar Kevin Hamilton says:

    The Buddhism Brooks wrote about also reminded me of the Western Buddhism described by Zizek in his essay for Cabinet Magazine. Check out “From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism” here: http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/2/western.php.

  2. avatar James Ashley says:


    A really great piece. I’ve often run into “practicing” converts to Buddhism whose practices and beliefs don’t at all resemble those of my mother, who was born into it. The converts insist that what my mother practices isn’t technically real Buddhism. I’ve never asked my mother what she thinks of the converts.

  3. Buddhism has taken different forms according the cultures is has entered and passed through—taking very different forms in India, Sri Lanka, Tibet, China and Japan and being understood through the culture and world-view it was in. Why should western culture be any different?

    The Buddhism that the majority of lay Buddhists in Asia practice is a sort of folk-religion—usually a blend of ancestor worship, animism, perhaps Hindu influences and Buddhist thought. This is just one more form of Buddhism, sometimes a heavily distorted one. It is an error to assume that this is ‘real Buddhism’ and that western Buddhism is ‘invented Buddhism’. You see them this way because you do not understand what Buddhism is about, recognizing only superficialities. Yet there is a strong monastic tradition running through most forms which preserves the original meaning well. And of course this meaning is preserved in the sutras (with variation in interpretation of course).

    The various strands of Buddhism existed in relative isolation from one another for centuries. In the 19th and 20th centuries the world entered a global age which allowed the West to draw from all of them as well as Western thought and culture, producing new forms. The West was also in a position of having sophisticated techniques of scholarship which have allowed us to trace the origins and evolution of all forms of Buddhism in a way that were impossible previously.

    ‘Original Buddhism’ is not a revisionist invention in modern people, but is simply that which is found in the original Buddhist texts—the Pali Canon. And the authentic second wave of Buddhist thought is found in the Mahayana sutras. The principles of Buddhism are about the way out of suffering to inner freedom and are not about the existence or not of ancestor spirits, gods, God and so on. There may be fewer in the West who take concepts like rebirth literally, but the principles of Buddhism still work and, according to the Pali Canon, the teachings are for such people too. Some Eastern and Western reactionaries would prefer if such people were not allowed to call themselves ‘Buddhists.’

    It is precisely because Buddhist teachings have universal applicability and resonance in every culture that they have this cultural adaptability. Buddhism can be understood in terms of philosophy, psychotherapy, pantheistic religion, even Christianity – as long as certain core principles are understood and practiced.

    Zizek’s critique of western Buddhism (which to me seems to be a critique of his own misunderstandings) is critiqued here (cross-posted here).

  4. avatar Joe Clement says:

    I agree with Hamilton about the connection to Zizek’s notion of Western Buddhism, though in making that connection you should realize how sloppy Zizek can be about it. On the one hand, it is clear that he’s engaging an actual phenomena, but I don’t think his analysis is sophisticated enough to account for how “original Buddhism” comes onto the scene. I’m interested in what Lopez offers to this end, but I don’t think it can be reduced to some sort of academic epiphenomenon. To do so avoids the material conditions, the practices and on-the-ground teachings (what people say) that accompany the apotheosis of Buddha into the modern figure Lopez tracks in Arnold and others.

    The Buddha is already unnecessary for Buddhism in his own words at the end of the Maha-parinibbana Sutta. The Heart Sutra is given by Bodhisattva Avelokiteshvara and not the Buddha or for the Buddha by one of his disciples. Dogen is a reference in himself too, though his authority is zazen practice and not a person or scripture.

    Lopez does hit on a very relevant point, and that is that for its title Buddhism is mentioned only twice in Brooks’ article, and uninformatively at that. It is mentioned as if we all know what he means, and I think our responses to him indicate he means something, but I’m not sure we recognize it by simply referring to its supposed antecedents.

  5. avatar Erick White says:


    Historiographically, a huge problem with the story you tell (which by the way maps almost perfectly what modernist Buddhists – Asian and Western – have been saying for a century) is that if “original Buddhism” is found in the Pali Canon, then it is almost inevitably far distant from whatever the historical Buddha taught. The Pali scriptures weren’t written down in any form until around the final century of BCE and the canonical form of the Pali scriptures wasn’t secured until the 5th century AD. So historically speaking, the Pali Canon as a textual form didn’t exist until at least 800 years after the historical Buddha is believed to have lived. To claim that it preserves “original Buddhism” is therefore highly dubious from a historical perspective. The Pali Canon, in fact, represents a culturally specific and geographically adapted form of South Asian Buddhism, one of those forms that risks the “distortion” you regret. You will need to look for the source(s) of your “original Buddhism” somewhere else, I’m afraid.

  6. Erick,

    I’m afraid now your own cultural judgments have led you astray. You speak of the “historical Buddha” as an authority on Buddhism, as though he were of equal importance as Jesus Christ. While this may be true for some followers, his role is in fact NOT analogous; where Jesus reportedly sought out disciples, saying “no man cometh to the Father but by Me”, Gautama Buddha took them only reluctantly, insisting that the path to enlightenment can only be followed by a seeker alone. Regardless of the characteristics or teachings of the historical personage of Gautama Buddha, one should not look to him as the ultimate authority on the practice, but rather to the various distinct yet surprisingly often mutually congruous cultural practices of Buddhism, all culturally modified trappings of an underlying worldview that is not, to my poor eyes, adulterated by the multiplicity of practices adorning it. There is no single authoritative practice of Buddhism.

  7. avatar Joe Clement says:

    “To claim that it preserves ‘original Buddhism’ is therefore highly dubious from a historical perspective.”

    Even more dubious, though, is equating any scripture with what the Buddha taught. I think this is repeated more often by Mahayana Buddhists, but it’s in the pari-nibbana sutta itself, too. Clearly, that does not mean we ignore issues of historicity in the scripture, but I think it changes what effect they have on our reception of them.

    Take the Raft Analogy as a way to consider the issue. What of what the Buddha said gives us the impression that his original words, which is to say what he uttered whether they’ve been faithfully recorded in the Pali Canon or not, constitutes the true (i.e., only) Dharma-raft? Clinging to them, to the thought of them, in this way seems to be beside the point. The Buddha was supposed to be only one who turns the Dharma wheel; he did not create it. The Dharma is what he left, but why are we to suppose that this is reducible to a historical text, to something he made? If historical texts like the Pali Canon relates us to what he taught, it can only be by way of pointing.

  8. avatar Joe Clement says:


    “You speak of the “historical Buddha” as an authority on Buddhism, as though he were of equal importance as Jesus Christ. While this may be true for some followers, his role is in fact NOT analogous; where Jesus reportedly sought out disciples, saying “no man cometh to the Father but by Me,” Gautama Buddha took them only reluctantly, insisting that the path to enlightenment can only be followed by a seeker alone.”

    I appreciate the point, insofar as it has to do with how a majority of people look at Jesus, but I think it’s arguable that Jesus’ own human finitude and life is that through which believers were suppose to seek God. This is something of Hegel’s view and likewise certain dialectical and existential theologians after him. The Buddha makes his historical personage more explicitly beside the point than Jesus, as is clear in the parinibbana sutta and his insistence on his just being another human being (albeit with the 32 marks of perfection). By the same token, he still seems to want people to look at him as an example of *their own* perfection, or in the parlance of the Mahayanist, their Buddha-nature.

  9. avatar Michael Grossman says:

    A great synopsis to be sure. For anyone interested in going deeper into this topic, please read the section covering Buddhism in Tomoko Masuzawa’s intensely engaging and well-researched work, The Invention of World Religions.

    While it may be tempting to go on about how Buddhism is a transcendent, amorphous phenomenon that is infinitely adaptable while never losing its inherent purity, it is the duty of scholars to map what is actually happening during periods of translation, that is, what is kept, what is left out, and what is reinterpreted and how. The translation of Buddhism from East to West can certainly be seen as a highly contextual phenomenon whose understanding is significantly limited by its reduction to “just another adaptation amongst many.” I believe Dr. Lopez’s advice here is to do just that, to understand this phenomenon contextually, which is really to understand it in any real sense at all.

    For a historical analysis of how Zen Buddhism came to the West, via D.T. Suzuki and his “New Buddhism” (Shin Bukkyo) cohorts, Robert Sharf’s article, “Zen and the Art of Japanese Nationalism,” is another priceless piece. Any of Dr. Prebish’s recent anthologies on Western Buddhism are also highly recommended.

  10. avatar Erick White says:


    I’m afraid your cultural presumptions have led you astray. In all the Asian traditions of Buddhism, the authority of practice often rests quite strongly upon lineage, which is always conceived as a continuous, non-broken succession of teaching and transmission, passed on from teacher to student. For some, that leads back to the historical Buddha; for others, that lineage leads back to other Buddhas. But all are anchored ultimately in an individual who discovered the truth of the Dharma and passed it on to those after him. And yes, it was almost inevitably a “him.”

    Only a Western Buddhist would think to look to the underlying unity of cultural practices beneath living persons and social institutions. So very post-Enlightenment.

  11. avatar Steven Deeon says:

    Sadly, Brooks’ piece is part of a debate among a very small number of scientists, a pop journalist and others whose own religious education never got past third grade and are still ranting that there’s no fat man coming down the chimney. Utterly absent from Brooks’ (and Wolfe’s) essay is any mention of the thinking of Whitehead, Hartshorne, Cobb, Haught, Barbour, Peacocke, Polkinghorne, Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, forty years of the journal “Zygon,” and the more recent journal, “Theology and Science” (not to mention the historico-scientific methods of modern biblical scholarship).

    So, no surprise to find a tectonic slippage between historical Buddhism and the “lineage” of colonial pseudo-Buddhism on which Brooks’ notion of “neural Buddhists” is based. Perhaps similar to Jefferson and the 19th Century Quest(ers) of the Historical Jesus (not the New and Third Quests), Brooks has found a “buddha” in his own image.

  12. avatar Jonathan Bradley says:

    Thank you for raising this dialog.

    The whole idea of “Original Buddhism” seems to be nothing more than an academic exercise, and an ethnocentric one at that. Although the Buddha and many of his historical followers have had some very pointed and relevant things to say about reality, many of which do correlate with some recent scientific research, its a huge disservice to separate Buddhism’s scriptural/philosophical tradition from its meditative lineages and whitewash its unique character by calling it ‘adaptable.’ There is a great deal of misunderstanding and elitist hubris contributing to the current rhetorical notions of what Buddhism is and was. Without taking the oral/living traditions that have propagated, practiced, and passed on Buddhist teachings into account; we make the fundamental mistake of projecting our own cultural/religious values/perspectives onto undigested concepts. It practice, it has always been the meditative lineage that illuminates Buddha’s scriptural tradition, not the other way around. The only way one has access to this stream of knowing is to come into contact with these lineages and share in their oral transmission.

  13. avatar Earle H. Landry says:

    Linguistic, historical, and archeological methods have been used to distinguish earlier and later layers in the works attributed to Plato, Aristotle, and (with greater cultural impact) the Hebrew scriptures. Those same tools have been now exercised on the Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan writings said to be derived from Gautama the Buddha. While the task is ongoing, it is already producing results. Perhaps the best we can hope for by way of “original Buddhism” will be the earliest layer of the surviving texts.

    Much of the Sanskrit Buddhist literature survives only in Chinese or Tibetan translation. The only complete collection of the earliest traditions (they were oral, so “texts” is a metaphor) is the Pali Tipitaka of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. The north Indian Sanskrit forms of the stories of the Buddha teaching – the Suttas or Sutras – differ in only in minor ways from the Pali. Amazing, considering the cultural, geographical, and temporal distance between them. That forms a field of research, if not a quest, for the oldest form of “Buddhism.”

    The picture of pre-Asokan Buddhism that emerges is an artifact of Western scholarship. But it is the best picture we have. Using it as a Procrustean bed on which to trim the existing Asian Buddhist religions is a bad idea. But as a Western Buddhist myself, I find it a good standard to apply to them in my selection of what shall constitute Buddhism for myself.

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