I liked the meta-discussion that kicked off the second PEL naturalized Buddhism episode, specifically on what knowledge we gain by assessing the supernatural “rules” contained within “religious” Buddhism. Even after rejecting a supernaturalist stance, there’s value in reviewing the form of life revealed within Buddhism’s supernatural tenets. In that spirit, I enjoyed Boddhisatva’s Brain most for its comparison of different philosophical worldviews. Reading the book, I asked myself how Owen Flanagan’s purely philosophical Buddhism meaningfully differed from, say, the Roman Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius. But Flanagan might respond that juxtaposing a “naturalized” Buddhism against Roman Stoicism is inherently interesting for its own sake. Flanagan says that comparing Eastern and Western traditions…
might disabuse us of several related blind spots: ethnic chauvinism, the view that non-Western traditions are esoteric in a bad way, for reasons beyond their unfamiliarity; the idea that Religion (with a big “R”) is inevitable for psychological reasons; and that it is required, true or false, to shore up meaning and morals.
But if comparison is good, maybe meta-comparison is even better! For an alternative to Flanagan’s vision of a naturalized Buddhism, check out this 1960 episode of the public television series Eastern Wisdom & Modern Life, presented by a clean-shaven, Eisenhower-era Alan Watts. (I’m agnostic on the kitschy stage set, but mostly approve.)
In this episode, Watts takes a distinctly Jungian approach to compare Buddhist and Christian mythologies. Watts was an earlier proponent of a kind of naturalized Buddhism,and before that, a kind of naturalized Christianity.He performs here a mythography of these two supernatural narratives, not to assess their truth value, but rather to determine what socio-psychological inferences can be drawn from their symbologies. For example, Watts concludes that Western Christianity’s message encourages adherents to change the world, whereas Eastern Buddhism’s message encourages adherents to change themselves. But he made other insights that helped inform my assessment of Flanagan’s thesis.