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.