Nov 08, 2017

Gopnik on Buddhism

Adam Gopnik's review (a) of Robert Wright's Why Buddhism Is True is pretentious and bad. I smoldered over it for a while, considering how thoroughly to engage. Gopnik got my goat, but I'd rather focus on higher quality work.

So never mind the unnecessary Donald Trump reference, the pompous French turn of phrase, and the annoyingly frequent scare quotes. Instead, let's just spend a moment considering this passage:

Sometime around 400 B.C.E. – the arguments over what’s historically authentic and what isn’t make the corresponding arguments in Jesus studies look transparent – a wealthy Indian princeling named Gotama (as the Pali version of his name is rendered) came to realize, after a long and moving spiritual struggle, that people suffer because the things we cherish inevitably change and rot, and desires are inevitably disappointed. But he also realized that, simply by sitting and breathing, people can begin to disengage from the normal run of desires and disappointments, and come to grasp that the self whom the sitter has been serving so frantically, and who is suffering from all these needs, is an illusion.

Wright himself does an adequate job defending against Gopnik's other points in this Times editorial (a).

I'm not sure this is right, but Gopnik seems to think the point of meditative practice is "sitting and breathing." I don't know of any contemplative tradition that holds this view. Instead, the point of meditative practice is to pay attention ("practice" is used very literally, as in "practicing how to pay attention"). It is through consistently paying close attention to one's present experience that a clearer view of things is achieved. The breath serves merely as a pragmatic focal point on which to anchor one's attention (your breath travels with you, and you're always doing it).

Gopnik spends most of his review discussing the historical and metaphysical baggage that surrounds Buddhism. He gives minimal consideration to the actual practices and worldview advocated for by Gautama Buddha (the word "attention" never appears, and the word "moment" only appears in a strange thought-experiment discussion of Newton considering "apple-moments" rather than building a model of why apples fall).

The historical context and metaphysical claims are interesting enough, but they aren't really the point. The Buddhist claim is that paying attention to what's going on in the present moment will lead to a clearer mind and a more compassionate outlook. It's sad to see an opportunity for skeptical evaluation of that claim shelved in favor of a showy, circumstantial takedown.

[rereads: 1, edits: 0]