How many times have you heard people claim that Buddhism isn’t really a religion, that it’s a philosophy, a way of life, that its spiritual but not religious, or even that it’s a “science of mind”? These familiar tropes are a legacy of Buddhist Modernism, what Evan Thompson aptly has coined “Buddhist exceptionalism.” In this episode we explore these common claims, especially how they have been taken up by Secular Buddhists, mindfulness teachers and even scientists. We explore in this interview the historical reasons for why Buddhism has received special treatment, with its modernist claim that it is fundamentally different than Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism. We dive into the confused understandings of mindfulness meditation which has been portrayed as a privatized “inner telescope” to objectively view our interior minds (brains), along with the misguided attempt to map meditative experiences onto brain states and neural correlates (Neural Buddhism). Evan challenges the popular view that Buddhism is compatible with science, and that science can validate Buddhist insights. Drawing on his intimate friendship and collaboration with the late Francisco Varela (a key founder of the Mind & Life Institute) he takes aim at how the so-called Buddhism – Science “dialogue” has been one-sided and stifling of mutual learning.
Evan Thompson is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He writes about the mind, life, consciousness, and the self, from the perspectives of cognitive science, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, and cross-cultural philosophy (especially Buddhism and other Indian philosophical traditions). As a teenager, Evan was home-schooled in Southampton, NY and Manhattan at the Lindisfarne Association, an educational and contemplative community founded by his parents, William Irwin Thompson and Gail Thompson. He received his A.B. in Asian Studies from Amherst College (1983) studying with Robert Thurman, and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Toronto (1990). Evan has been actively involved as one of the leading researchers and advisers for the Mind & Life Institute.
We spoke today with Evan about his new book, Why I Am Not A Buddhist, published by Yale University Press in 2020. He is the author of Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy (Columbia University Press, 2015); He is also the co-author with Francisco J. Varela and Eleanor Rosch, of The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (MIT Press, 1991, revised edition 2016).